Browse by year
 | 

Does the iPhone 4S Have a Battery-Life Problem?

Software bug may be to blame but so far Apple's not talking

The new Apple iPhone 4S has been getting rave reviews but there are undercurrents of dissatisfaction from early users who say the battery life is subpar....

PhotoThe new Apple iPhone 4S has been getting rave reviews but there are undercurrents of dissatisfaction from early users who say the battery life is subpar.

It's not clear how serious or how widespread the problem is but a ConsumerAffairs.com analysis of more than 1.1 million consumer comments on Twitter, Facebook and other social media and blogs finds numerous complaints about battery life.

Of the negative comments analyzed, fully 23% were about poor battery performance, more than any other single topic.

Photo

PhotoUsers report situations like finding 20% less power after leaving the phone unused overnight, 10% loss of power in 15 minutes of iMessage usage over WiFi, and 50% power loss in three hours without use, according to Information Week.

It's not unusual to have problems in new versions of the iPhone.  We all remember the complaints about the iPhone 4's antenna, which actually turned out to be a software glitch.

Most of geekdom seems to feel that the battery problem is most likely a software glitch as well and, thus, easily fixable once the exact error is nailed down.

The Guardian  reported that  Apple engineers have been contacting some iPhone 4S customers and asking them to install performance profiling software.

One owner said Apple contacted him directly and asked him to install a monitoring program on the phone to try to diagnose the problem.

---

Sentiment analysis by NetBase

More

Super-Sized Candy Bars Are Super Sellers

Convenience stores report brisk sales of big bars

It had to come to this.  First it was super-sized burgers and fries, then Starbucks' Trenta, now it's the kinig-sized candy bar that's flying off the ...

PhotoIt had to come to this.  First it was super-sized burgers and fries, then Starbucks' Trenta. Now it's the king-sized candy bar that's flying off the shelves (and onto customers' hips but that's another story).

Yep.  Hot from Hershey, Pa., comes news that sales of king-sized Hershey bars are up about 18%.  Not only that, but Hershey says it is the kind-size leader with a 54%  share of the market for bigger bars.

"King-size conversion has progressed nicely due to merchandising, continued distribution gains, innovation and consumer recognition that this is a good price/value proposition," said Hershey Chief Executive John Bilbrey.

Yes, and also because they're really big candy bars.

It's not just candy bars that are making the cash register ring, though.  Bilbrey is also smiling over sales of Reese's Minis king-size.  It's hard to see how Minis can be king-size but Bilbrey must know.  After all, he's the candy man.

If you lie awake nights wondering what's in the candy pipeline, Bilbrey told market analysts that he expects to "launch some close-end line extensions that will bring variety and excitement to some existing brands including Hershey's Drops, Cookies 'n' Cream at a king-size pack price, Hershey's Pieces Milk Chocolate with Almonds, and Jolly Rancher Crunch 'N Chew," according to trade papers.

Besides helping build Hershey's bottom line, the new king-sized bars should also help build consumers' bottoms, as they rationalize that it is, after all, just a single candy bar. 

More

Reducing the Threat of Strokes

CDC suggests ways to deal with the risk of "brain attacks"

Every 6 seconds, someone in the world dies from stroke. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there are ways to reduce the risk and to recogn...

Every 6 seconds, someone in the world dies from stroke. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there are ways to reduce the risk and to recognize the signs of a stroke.

A stroke, sometimes called a brain attack, occurs when a clot blocks the blood supply to the brain or when a blood vessel in the brain bursts. You can greatly reduce your risk for stroke through lifestyle changes and, in some cases, medication.

“Someone in the United States has a stroke every 40 seconds and while that is a statistic to some, it’s a life abruptly changed for the person who suffered the stroke and the person’s family,” said CDC Director Thomas Frieden, M.D., M.P.H.  “We can do so much more to prevent strokes and the new Million Hearts initiative offers opportunities for individuals, providers, communities, and businesses to apply tools we have readily available today to reduce strokes and heart attacks.”

The CDC recommends Americans follows their ABCS:

  • Aspirin for people at risk
  • Blood pressure control
  • Cholesterol management
  • Smoking cessation

Less than half of Americans who should be taking an aspirin a day are taking one; less than half of Americans with high blood pressure have it under control. Only 1 in 3 Americans with high cholesterol is effectively treated, and less than a quarter of Americans who smoke get help to quit when they see their doctor.

The risk for stroke varies

PhotoAnyone could have a stroke, but some populations are at higher risk than others. Compared to whites, African-Americans are at nearly twice the risk of having a first stroke. Hispanic Americans' risk falls between the two. 

Moreover, African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely to die following a stroke than are whites.

High blood pressure, a risk factor for stroke, affects 68 million adults in the United States and about half of adults with high blood pressure do not have their condition under control.

Sudden symptoms of stroke

Stroke can cause death or significant disability, such as paralysis, speech difficulties, and emotional problems. Some new treatments can reduce stroke damage if patients get medical care soon after symptoms begin. When a stroke happens, it is important to recognize the symptoms, call 9-1-1 right away, and get to a hospital quickly.

The sudden onset of any of the following symptoms require immediate medical attention:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden, severe headache with no known cause

More than 2 million heart attacks and strokes occur every year and treatment for these conditions and other vascular diseases account for approximately $1 of every $6 healthcare dollars.

More

Google Poses New Threat to Groupon

Search giant "bundles" daily deals from smaller sites

Google has done what might be called a roll-up in the daily deals business. The search giant says that more than a dozen sites, including zozi, kgbdeals an...

PhotoGoogle has done what might be called a roll-up in the daily deals business. The search giant says that more than a dozen sites, including zozi, kgbdeals and Gilt City, will distribute their deals through Google Offers.

It's the latest headache for Groupon, which along with Living Social quickly grew to dominate the daily deals space but has been stymied in its efforts to go public by the wobbly stock market.

The deal with Google means the smaller competitors can stop fighting each other and use Google's massive reach and superior targeting technology to aim deals at the most attractive targets.

Google will also be using something called  "Offer Ads," a service that places deals against search results, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Google's attempt to make a splash in the daily deals business, Google Offers, has been little more than lukewarm, capturing only about 1% of the market in its first year.

Today's roll-up may change that, but however it turns out for the players, it should be helpful to consumers by putting more deals at their fingergtips.

The same can't be said for Groupon.  Google's move may scare off potential investors in Groupon's IPO, set for this Thursday.  The widely-read Barron's trashed the IPO this week, saying Groupon has an unproven earnigns record and slowing growth.

More

Should You Cook For Your Dog Or Cat?

Not without a veterinarian's advice

Discuss any home cooked pet meals with your vet first...

PhotoWe often get reports from very upset pet owners who believe the commercial food products they fed their dog or cat caused them to get sick and, in some cases, die.

These reports prompted one ConsumerAffairs.com reader to to write that as her dog was recovering from surgery, she switched him from the commercial dog food she had been feeding him.

“I did a lot of research and now he loves and eats Royal Canine Urinary,” Tonya, of Port Orchard, Wash., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I am very happy with this prescription dog food. Also my vet sent me some paperwork on what I can do to feed him other foods. The list says plain cooked chicken, plain cooked turkey, eggs, rice, peas, pasta, white potatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, bananas, and melon. I am so happy and my pup pup is too! Hope this helps.”

Get a vet's advice

Tonya did the right thing in only feeding her dog prepared food that her vet recommended. But what is good for Tonya's dog might not be healthy for yours. A vet's advice is needed.

In fact, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) warns that some human foods can be deadly.

"Table scraps should definitely not be a part of your pet's diet," said AVMA President Roger Mahr, DVM. "Gravies, meat fats and poultry skin can readily cause stomach and intestinal upsets, and even lead to a life-threatening condition called pancreatitis in dogs.”

Despite popular myths, giving dogs bones is also a no-no. Bones will splinter when chewed and cannot be digested by the animal's system.

No chocolate

Just like their masters, most dogs crave chocolate, but it can be poisonous. Not only should it not be given to them, it should be stored in places where they can't get to it.

As for cooking for your pet, the experts say it should not be undertaken lightly. The AVMA does not recommend that people attempt to prepare home-cooked meals for their pets because pet nutrition is very complicated and unique to species and individual animals.

If you are sure you want to cook for your pet, or you feel a medical condition requires it, the AVMA recommends you first consult with your veterinarian and do some research on appropriate diets for your pet. A pet owner should only consider recipes for pet food that are developed for dogs or cats by veterinarians or trained professionals in animal nutrition.

And, as in Tonya's case, a prescription pet food, available from your vet, might be a better alternative.

More

'Bank Transfer Day' Declared For Nov. 5

Grassroots effort urges consumers to bail on big banks

In the wake of Bank America's decision to add a fee for using a debit card for purchases, many other consumers appear ready to join her. Others expressed a...

PhotoKristin Christian, a Los Angeles businesswoman, is credited with the idea. On November 5, consumers all across the country are being urged to move their accounts from a large, “mega-bank” to a credit union or small community bank.

Christian launched the "Bank Transfer Day" movement after getting fed up with her bank. She's moving, and is urging others to join her. In the wake of Bank America's decision to add a fee for using a debit card for purchases, many other consumers appear ready to join her. Others have expressed a wide variety of grievances.

Consumers may be receptive

“Bank of America is the most greedy, insidious bank in America,” Helene, of Lakewood, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I went to cash a check drawn on BofA directly at their teller counter. I was told it would cost me $5 to cash their check at their bank. This check was for under $30 and they expected me to pay them $5 to cash it. They are the reason Occupy (Wall Street) is in existence!

Emily, of Tacoma, Wash., was attracted to Chase by their “free” checking account. But she says after the account was opened, she learned it wasn't exactly free.

“I found that I had to maintain a $1,500 balance for it to be free or do direct deposit, but it only applies to direct deposits from government checks or company payrolls,” Emily said, “I am a small business owner looking to have a direct deposit account for sales through a merchant account, and that doesn't apply. When I chose to cancel my account with 24 hours of opening it, they informed me that because I didn't wait 90 days, I would be charged $25 for each account - checking and savings! If I wait the 90 days, I will still get a $30 charge.”

Donna, of Cupertino, Calif., recounts what she remembers an an unpleasant incident with Wells Fargo a few years ago.

“I had five small transactions pending on a Friday, then I checked my account on Saturday and three cleared with two still pending,” Donna said. “I checked my account on Sunday, there's no action. I checked my account on Monday, and a $100 check I wrote that same weekend that I didn't think would hit before the five smaller transactions, not only hit, but the bank reversed the three transactions it had already cleared and bounced all five of the smaller transactions.”

Credit Unions taking advantage

For these and other consumers who might want to switch their banking, credit unions are trying to make it easier. The Credit Union National Association announced that is more than 7,000 member credit unions have already seen a surge in new members since Bank of America announced in September its $5 monthly debit fee.

The Credit Union Association of New York has assembled a special page on its website containing tools for members to take advantage of Bank Transfer day, including media talking points and model press release. Three Long Island credit unions have collaborated on a special website, BetterBankingForLongIsland.com, promoting “checking that's really free, lower rates on loans,” and “friendly, professional service.”

Will consumers make the switch on Nov. 5? After years of resentment at mounting fees, it might not take a lot of encouragement.

More

Consumer Champion Virginia Knauer Dies

Consumer advisor to three presidents, she proclaimed good business was good consumerism

Virginia Knauer with Elizabeth DoleI was surprised this weekend to read an obituary for Virginia Knauer, 96, consumer affairs advisor t...

Photo
Virginia Knauer with Elizabeth Dole

I was surprised this weekend to read an obituary for Virginia Knauer, 96, consumer affairs advisor to three presidents and an early advocate of unit pricing, nutrition labeling and automobile safety and fuel efficiency.

It was Mrs. Knauer who lured me into the field of consumer advocacy and indirectly led me to found ConsumerAffairs.com nearly 12 years ago.  

We had worked together at a public affairs firm in Washington in the 1980s and, although I had since lost touch with her, a former colleague told me a few years ago that Mrs. Knauer had died, so I had already assigned her to the side of the ledger marked "deceased," putting me in the company of many others who wrote her off prematurely.

Misgivings

Ralph Nader was among those who expressed misgivings about Mrs. Knauer, charging that she did not have enough authority as President Richard Nixon's consumer affairs advisor to bring about significant changes. But when Republican business leaders began complaining that she was pushing too hard, consumer advocates soft-pedaled their criticism.

An energetic, cheerful and well-coiffed Philadelphia matron, Mrs. Knauer minced no words in telling corporate executives that they could not overlook the interests of the people who bought their products.  To advance her arguments, she commissioned a study that demonstrated good customer relations were more important in  retaining customers than big advertising budgets.

She was an early and energetic advocate for toll-free numbers and insisted businesses should have call centers staffed by well-trained employees who could answer consumers' questions and solve their warranty and product repair issues.

Early feminist

An early feminist, Mrs. Knauer always had time to seek out promising young women and urge them to embark on business and political careers.  One of her assistants in the Nixon Administration was a young lawyer named Elizabeth Hanford, who later married Sen. Bob Dole, became U.S. Transportation Secretary, U.S. Secretary of Labor and a U.S. Senator from North Carolina.

Photo
Mrs. Knauer with President Nixon Photo: Nixon Library

Mrs. Knauer -- no one dared call her Virginia -- was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. She served on the Philadelphia City Council and headed the Pennsylvania Bureau of Consumer Protection before coming to Washington.

Besides President Nixon, she served as consumer affairs advisor to Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.  

While in public life, she insisted that being pro-consumer didn't mean being anti-business.  And when working in the private sector, she quickly informed her colleagues that being pro-business didn't mean being anti-consumer.

When she was invited to join our small public affairs firm, the Strategic Alliance Group, she quickly made it clear that there would be nothing "honorary" about her appointment and that she would personally review and approve any and all projects that bore her name.

Not anti-business

Mrs. Knauer was delighted with the ConsumerAffairs.com concept of a for-profit, advertising-supported Web site that empowered consumers and businesses to interact directly and publicly and volunteered to serve on our board of advisors which, sadly, we never got around to forming. 

In what little spare time she had, Mrs. Knauer raised Doberman Pinschers and later Maine Coon Cats.  Even in her later years, she was a spirited and vocal motorist who was not easily intimidated by even the most aggressive cab driver.  She was also a sterling traveling companion.  The best part of any out-of-town trip was dinner with Mrs. Knauer.  

Unfailingly polite, energetic, incorruptible and thoroughly convinced that good consumerism was good business, Virginia Knauer was an outstanding public servant, a generous mentor and a wonderful friend.   

 

 

More

What's On Your Mind? US Search, Dish Network, Avis

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: US Search, Dish Network, Avis, Adjustment needed and How long does it take to discover damage to a rental car?...

PhotoWhen you see an advertisement on the web for a product sample or trial offer that only requires a payment of a dollar or two, it pays to be very, very wary. JoAnn, of Rochester, Minn., said she agreed to a one-time debit from her bank account of $9.95, only to discover US Search had made two additional withdrawls of $19.95.

“I cancelled their service last night within hours of receiving my report, which, in fact, was not the information I requested,” JoAnn told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I have tried to call them but no answer. I have sent them three emails, my account has been closed, but I have not heard back from them re the two bogus $19.95 charges.”

Advice for JoAnn comes from another of our readers, Jeff, of Henderson, Colo., who says he encountered a similar problem with US Search.

“I called the 800 number again and a gentleman answered the phone and transferred me to another person. I told him my dilemma and after he spoke with his supervisor, he came back to tell me that they had no record of my first call to cancel my membership and all of their information for the background checks is acquired from free government sites that are available to all. When I told him that I would dispute the fraudulent charges with my credit card, he changed his story and all of a sudden, he saw the first time I called and cancelled my membership and told me that he would reverse the charge. I went to these free sites in the meantime and found the information I was looking for but this time, it was correct plus it was complete.

And consumers should also remember that when you agree to allow a company to charge your credit card for a small amount, they have the ability to take larger amounts and require you to jump through the necessary hoops to dispute the extra charges. Companies that use trial offers to promote a more expensive service are required to clearly state the terms to consumers. Consumers need to read all the fine print before they take advantage of these offers.

Adjustment needed

Carey, of Newton, Mass., sent us a copy of a complaint he directed to the Attorney General of Massachusetts regarding Dish Network.

“Apparently, they are incapable of delivering a signal when it rains or snows,” Carey said. “However, this bit of information was never communicated to me or any customer of theirs that I have talked to. Given the weather here in Massachusetts and other states where it rains and snows it seems unreasonable for them not to alert customers prior to signing a 2 year contract with a $400 early termination fee.”

Satellite reception is subject to interruption by snow and rain drops, especially as one gets farther from the equator.  It's not that the signal is not being sent but rather that it's being blocked by the snow flakes or rain drops.  This is simply a fact of life, sorry to say.

How long does it take to discover damage to a rental car?

Cathy, of Redwood City, Calif., is another rental car customer who has been informed she is liable for damage to her car, informed of this only after turning it in.

“I rent from Avis all the time,”Cathy told ConsumerAffairs.com. “However, after returning from a trip, I have mail from them stating the car I rented, while I rented it, was in an accident. I assure you, I never had an accident."

Cathy says she spends about $1,000 a month with Avis, and that fact might well give her some leverage as she tries to contest the accusation that she damaged the vehicle. However, she will need to escalate the matter to a higher level within Avis.

Meanwhile, one way to eliminate this growing consumer complaint is to require rental companies to inspect all returned vehicles in the presence of the returning customer. If there is damage, the customer could be assessed a fee on the spot. If not, the consumer wouldn't get a nasty surprise weeks later, and have the feeling they are being conned.

More

Redbox Raising Prices; Blames Debit-Card Fees

But didn't the feds order lower fees on debit-card transactions?

Netflix took it on the chin when it tried to raise its subscription fees to cover the cost of streaming more recent movies.  Bank of America was villi...

PhotoNetflix took it on the chin when it tried to raise its subscription fees to cover the cost of streaming more recent movies.  Bank of America was villified when it imposed a $5 monthly charge on debit cards.

So what will happen now that Coinstar is raising the price of DVD rentals at its Redbox kiosks from $1 a day to $1.20 a day, effective on Halloween, Oct. 31?

Good question.  It's only 20 cents but somehow $1.20 sounds a lot higher than $1.  Even so, it doesn't seem likely that protesters will be picketing their local Redbox dispenser.

In its defense, Coinstar says it's the first time in eight years that Redbox has raised its daily DVD rental price.  Blu-ray discs and video games will stay at their current daily rental rates of $1.50 per day for Blu-ray and $2 a day for games.

PhotoAnd what's to blame for this price increase?  Well, it's certainly not streaming fees, since you have to lug the DVD home yourself and bring it back the next day.

Coinstar blames the price hike on higher debit card fees, among other things. 

But didn't Congress force banks to lower the transaction fees merchants pay on debit cards?

The answer, as is so often the case with anything involving Congress, is yes and no.

The card swipe fee "reform" pushed through Congress by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) does indeed put a cap on the fees banks charge to process most debit card transactions.  But it substantially raises fees on small transactions -- and $1 is pretty small by any measure.  

Consumer sentiment

So how are consumers feeling about Redbox these days?  We analyzed about 350,000 consumer comments on Twitter, Facebook and other social media and found that, by and large, folks are feeling kind of grumpy.

Photo

Although Redbox business appears to be booming, the fact that folks pony up $1 doesn't necessarily mean they're happy.  Fully 24% are peeved that the big red box didn't have the movie they wanted.  Of course, this is what Netflix was trying to fix when it rejiggered its fees, only to be villified by its customers.

Another 16% don't like the movie they rented, which is hardly Redbox's fault. Interestingly, about 16% are peeved because they blame Redbox for killing off Blockbuster and other video stores.  

In terms of overall consumer sentiment, Redbox is about where it ws a year ago -- with a net positive sentiment of about 49%, not bad compared to Netflix, which was hovering around 25% positive last time we checked.  That's way down from its year-ago 60% positive rating.

Photo

Redbox enjoyed a brief spurt of positive sentiment in March, when it new suite of online and mobile tools that make it easier to find specific games and movies.  

Each fully-automated redbox kiosk holds 630 discs, representing up to 200 titles. Consumers simply use a touch screen to select their favorite movies, swipe a valid credit or debit card and go. To find the nearest redbox location, consumers can visit www.redbox.com or text 'redbox' to 50101 from a mobile phone, the company said back in February.

---

Sentiment analysis powered by Netbase 


More

Feds Fine South African, LAN, Caribbean Airlines

Carriers violated price advertising rules, delayed baggage reimbursements

The U.S. Department of Transportation has fined South African Airways and LAN Airlines for violating its price advertising rules.  Caribbean Airlines...

PhotoThe U.S. Department of Transportation has fined South African Airways and LAN Airlines for violating its price advertising rules.  Caribbean Airlines was fined for improperly limiting reimbursements for delayed baggage.

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

South African

The South African Airways case also included Destination Southern Africa.  The companies were fined for violating federal aviation laws and the Department’s rules prohibiting deceptive price advertising in air travel.  South African Airways was fined $55,000 while Destination Southern Africa, which promotes air travel packages for South African Airways as well as its own tours, was fined $20,000.  

An investigation by the Department’s Aviation Enforcement Office found that ads on both companies’ websites failed to adequately disclose government taxes and fees that were in addition to the advertised fare.  The ads also did not properly disclose that the air and hotel tour prices were available only with double occupancy.

When consumers clicked on a link next to the fare listed on the homepage, they were taken to a second page where they could select a specific vacation package.  Only after making a selection were they taken to a third page where they could see the taxes and fees and the requirement for double occupancy.
The websites 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.  

Today’s penalties follow a $20,000 fine in September 2010 against Lion World Travel, another ticket agent marketing tours for South African Airways, for violating the Department’s full-fare advertising rule.

LAN

Chile-based LAN Airlines was fined $50,000, also for violating federal aviation laws and the Department’s rules prohibiting deceptive price advertising in air travel. 

For a period of time in 2011, LAN used a program on its website that allowed consumers to search for flights by exact dates or by flexible dates.  When passengers made searches, LAN provided air fare quotes along with a note that the fares did not include taxes or fees. 

However, the page containing the quotes did not indicate either the type or amount of the fees, and there was no link that took consumers to information about the additional charges.  

Caribbean

Caribbean Airlines, a carrier based in Trinidad and Tobago, was fined $60,000 for limiting reimbursements for lost, damaged and delayed baggage to less than consumers were entitled under an international treaty.

“Both domestic and international travelers have a right to be fairly compensated for lost, delayed and damaged baggage,” LaHood said.  “Consumers have the right to be treated fairly when they fly, and we will continue to take enforcement action when their rights are violated.”

Under the Montreal Convention, an international agreement that sets liability limits for international air transportation, airlines are liable for damages caused by delayed baggage up to a limit that is the equivalent of just under $1,800 in U.S. currency, unless the carrier has takenall reasonable measures to prevent the damage or it was impossible to take these measures. 

The Convention requires carriers to compensate passengers for loss, damage or delay of baggage on international flights in most cases. It also forbids carriers from setting a lower baggage compensation limit for international flights or from refusing to accept liability for the loss of any types of baggage, such as jewelry, electronics, or other high-value items.

A review of Caribbean’s website last spring by the Department’s Aviation Enforcement Office led to an investigation of the carrier’s baggage liability policies, revealing numerous violations of the Convention between March 1, 2010 and April 30, 2011.

Caribbean routinely told passengers that it was not liable for the loss of irreplaceable or high-value items such as electronics, jewelry, cameras or cash, and the carrier’s website also stated that it would not compensate passengers for the loss of these items. In a number of cases, passengers found that some of these expensive items had been removed from carry-on bags they were required to check after boarding because of cabin space limitations.

In addition, Caribbean violated the Convention by regularly refusing to pay claims for damaged baggage and by limiting payments for buying necessities due to delayed bags to $25-$75 per day. Caribbean also frequently required passengers to file a report on their missing property before leaving the airport terminal, which unreasonably limited the time they had to discover that items were missing from their baggage.

More

Consumers Complain Of Slow Service At PlanetRX

But they note there is no delay in charging their credit cards

Consumers Complain Of Slow Service At PlanetRX...

PhotoPlanetRX is on online marketer of popular health products. Like any other online merchant, the transaction is fairly straightforward. The consumer supplies their credit card information and the company ships the order.

But this month a number of consumers complained that PlanetRX was very quick to charge their credit cards but has been just the opposite when it comes to shipping their order. Wendy, of Fresno, Calif., said she used PlanetRX back in June and was pleased with the service.

“This time, I placed an order with PlanetRX.com on Aug 31 for $68.15,” Wendy told ConsumerAffairs.com. “After about a month, I waited because I've ordered things before from other sites that have been back-ordered and they've always come through eventually. I inquired using their system. Someone responded within a couple of days stating that my items were on back-order, coming directly from the warehouse. It could arrive in two or three weeks, but I could cancel my order at any time.”

No response

Wendy says she decided to wait it out, but inquired three more times. All three times, she says, she received no response.

“I also called a few days ago, spoke to a live person and told her my issue, Wendy said. “She told me to call back during business hours, dial extension 300, and they would be able to cancel my order. I have tried that, and gotten the same result as everyone else - automated message that never goes anywhere. When I dialed extension 300, it kept looping me back to the same useless recorded message, instructing me to the website, which now appears to have been downgraded to the bare minimum.”

Carpenter, of Indinapolis, Ind., also reports a frustrating delay on his order placed on Oct. 4.

“On October 17, I emailed the Help Desk about a shipping date, and received a reply that "someone should respond to your request within three to seven business days, posted on my online account and emailed to me,” Carpenter said. “On October 26, I emailed the Help Desk again after receiving no reply to my first two requests for information. This is also the very first time I've ever had a problem with an online order.”

A bad feeling

Jennifer, of Bloomington, Ill., said she had a bad feeling when she placed an order on September 21 and her credit card was immediately charged, but days went by with no delivery, or even a confirmation of her order.

“It's now October 23 and nothing,” she told ConsumerAffairs.com. I have sent three emails asking about my order and have gotten no response whatsoever. I have tried to cancel, but nothing. I used my debit card, so the money is just gone. It's not just me having this problem, it's everyone! How are they legally operating?”

According to PlanetRX's website, Jennifer should have received a confirmation of her order. When the confirmation did not arrive, the site says Jennifer should have logged in to the Order Status Wizard where she should have been able to check the status of her order.

Can you charge before you ship?

But for many consumers writing to ConsumerAffairs.com, it's the speedy charging of their credit cards and the weeks that have passed with no delivery that is the issue. Some want to know if it is legal for a merchant to charge their cards before shipping their product.

Ordinarily, the answer is no. But the CreditInfo.com website quotes a spokesman for Mastercard as saying they can if you specifically agree to let them. The site quotes Visa as saying "a merchant is not permitted to bill ahead of time" except in case of a deposit or down payment that the customer agrees to.

American Express said the merchant can charge your card as soon as you give your account number; but if you receive the bill before the merchandise, call American Express customer service and you don't have to pay while they investigate.

For consumers who have received no response in weeks and have been unable to cancel their orders, it might be a good idea to contact your credit card company and dispute the charge.

On the other hand ...

Well, that's all fine and good but we're not certain any of those supposed exceptions would pass muster with the Federal Trade Commission, which regulates mail order and online commerce.

The FTC's guide for merchants is pretty clear.  It says:  

When you advertise merchandise, you must have a reasonable basis for stating or implying that you can ship within a certain time. If you make no shipment statement, you must have a reasonable basis for believing that you can ship within 30 days. That is why direct marketers sometimes call this the "30-day Rule."

If, after taking the customer’s order, you learn that you cannot ship within the time you stated or within 30 days, you must seek the customer’s consent to the delayed shipment. If you cannot obtain the customer’s consent to the delay -- either because it is not a situation in which you are permitted to treat the customer’s silence as consent and the customer has not expressly consented to the delay, or because the customer has expressly refused to consent -- you must, without being asked, promptly refund all the money the customer paid you for the unshipped merchandise.

That's it in black and white.  Unless customers have expressly given their permission for the company to take their money and fail to fill their order, anyone having this problem should immediately inform PlanetRX that they will complain to the FTC if the charge is not rescinded.

More

Trek Bicycles Recalled

The seat can fall off

Trek is recalling about 27,000 Trek 2012 FX and District bicycles. The bolt that secures the seat saddle clamp to the seat post can break posing ...

Trek is recalling about 27,000 Trek 2012 FX and District bicycles. The bolt that secures the seat saddle clamp to the seat post can break posing a fall hazard.

Trek has received four reports of incidents with one injury involving a broken tooth and lip injury.

The bicycles affected by this recall include the following models:

Model Year 2012: Trek 7.2 FX, 7.3 FX, 7.4 FX, AND 7.5 FX; District, and 9th District bicycle models: WSD, Livestrong and Disc models.
The model name is found on the bicycle's frame.

Consumers can determine the model year by looking at the SKU number stamped on the bottom bracket, which is found near the pedals. If the last two digits of the SKU are 12, the bicycle is a Model Year 2012 bicycle.

Specialty bicycle retailers sold the bikes nationwide between May 2011 and September 2011 for between $550 and $1,100. They were made in China.

Consumers should stop riding the bicycles immediately and contact an authorized Trek dealer for a free replacement bolt.

For additional information, contact Trek at 800-373-4594 between 8:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. CT Monday through Friday or visit the company's website at www.trekbikes.com



Picture of recalled 7.2 FX WSD bicycle

7.2 FX WSD



Picture of recalled 7.2 FX bicycle

7.2 FX



Picture of recalled 7.3 FX Disc WSD bicycle

7.3 FX Disc WSD



Picture of recalled 7.3 FX WSD bicycle

7.3 FX WSD



Picture of recalled 7.3 FX Disc bicycle

7.3 FX Disc



Picture of recalled 7.3 FX bicycle

7.3 FX



Picture of recalled 7.4 FX WSD bicycle

7.4 FX WSD



Picture of recalled 7.4 FX bicycle

7.4 FX



Picture of recalled 7.3 FX Disc bicycle

7.5 FX Disc



Picture of recalled 7.5 FX WSD bicycle

7.5 FX WSD



Picture of recalled 7.5 FX bicycle

7.5 FX



Picture of recalled Livestrong FX bicycle

Livestrong FX



Picture of recalled Livestrong FX WSD bicycle

Livestrong FX WSD



Picture of recalled 9th District bicycle

9th District



Picture of recalled Livestrong District bicycle

Livestrong District



Picture of recalled District bicycle

District



Detail of affected and good bolts
More

Birmingham Financial Federal Credit Union Seized by Regulators

Normal services will continue in a new location, regulators say

The National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) today took control of Birmingham Financial Federal Credit Union of Birmingham, Ala. While continuing normal...

PhotoThe National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) today took control of Birmingham Financial Federal Credit Union of Birmingham, Ala. While continuing normal member services in a new location, NCUA said it will work to resolve issues affecting the institution.

Deposits at Birmingham Financial FCU remain federally protected. Administered by NCUA, the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund (NCUSIF) continues to insure individual accounts at Birmingham Financial FCU up to $250,000. The NCUSIF, like the FDIC’s Deposit Insurance Fund, has the backing of the full faith and credit of the U.S. Government.
 
Under conservatorship, the credit union moved to a new location. Members of Birmingham Financial FCU can access their accounts Monday–Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at America’s First FCU, 1200 4th Ave. North, Birmingham. The credit union’s new phone number is: (205) 731-3527.
 
Service to Birmingham Financial FCU’s 429 members will continue uninterrupted, NCUA said. Members can continue to conduct normal financial transactions—deposit and access funds, make loan payments, and use shares.
 
Birmingham Financial FCU serves the employees of Birmingham Housing Authority and Birmingham Health Care who work in Birmingham. The credit union reported assets at $1.3 million as of June 30.
 
Birmingham Financial FCU is the eleventh federally insured credit union placed into conservatorship during 2011. 
More

Viewing the Carnage, Big Banks Pass on Debit Card Fees

Bank of America finds itself abandoned on the field of battle

Like motorists viewing a grisly car wreck, big banks are slamming on the brakes and rethinking any plans they may have had to start charging customers for ...

PhotoLike motorists viewing a grisly car wreck, big banks are slamming on the brakes and rethinking any plans they may have had to start charging customers for using debit cards to make purchases.

J.P. Morgan Chase is the latest to say it has decided to take a pass on the fees, according to The Wall Street Journal.  

Don't, though, jump to the conclusion that Chase never charges for debit cards. Brad of Denver will set you straight on that.

"I lost my direct deposit when I lost my job. Now I have to make 6 purchases on my debit card to prevent a $6 charge to my bill," he told ConsumerAffairs.com recently.

"'So I have to spend money to prevent you from charging me,' I asked the Chase representative on the phone. She laughed and said, 'They can be small purchases, like a candy bar or a pack of gum,'" Brad said

"So Chase is making me spend money so I don't lose money to Chase," Brad asked.  Yes, said Chase. Brad calls this a "slap in the face."

On the sidelines

Chase joins US Bank, Citigroup, PNC, Key Bank and other large banks on the sidelines, watching with quiet fascination as Bank of America is tarred and feathered by customers enraged over its $5 per month debit fee.

Bank of America, meanwhile, may be getting that weak-kneed feeling.  It has not yet implemented the fee and now says it hasn't worked out the details and asserts that the new fee won't affect everyone -- sort of a "fee, what fee?" defense.

Wells Fargo, Regions Bank and SunTrust have all been testing various types of fees in selected markets.  No one is yet discussing the results publicly.

Where's the money?

The banks say they need to regain billions of dollars in revenue that's been lost because of new restrictions on overdraft charges, credit card fees and interest rates and debit card transaction fees that are charged to merchants. 

Free checking is already a thing of the past except for those who have enough money in their account that they couldn't care less about a $15 or $25 monthly fee. Banks still like customers who have lots of money, after all.

The banks may be feeling like Netflix these days.  Netflix has been hammered for trying to raise prices to enable it to buy the streaming rights to more movies.  Bankers tend to think they provide a valuable service and don't begrudge themselves a hefty fee or two in return.

More

Is Consumer Debt At The Root Of Our Economic Woes?

1970s credit standards might have prevented our problems

A Wall Street money manager for Pharo Capital Management, says our current economic problems are not caused by too much regulation or by Obama Administrati...

PhotoMark Dow, a Wall Street money manager for Pharo Capital Management, says our current economic problems are not caused by too much regulation or by Obama Administration policy, but by one simple thing – too much household debt.

In a webcast interview this week with the Daily Ticker, Dow said consumers took on too much debt, creating an overhang that only time can cure.

“The government can kind of prop you up until you are sober enough to walk on your own, but ultimately you have to walk on your own,” Dow said.

Only by getting out of debt, Dow says, can Americans resume a spending level that will support economic growth.

Academics agree

Hundreds of miles from Wall Street, researchers at the University of Iowa have concluded much the same thing after studying how consumers got into so much debt. They conclude that it happened over more than three decades of easy money.

In the 1970s, it was hard to run up debt and few families ever got to the point of bankruptcy. Bankruptcy filings have grown overall from about 110,000 in 1960, to over 1.6 million in 2003, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Filings dipped to 480,000 in 2007, then jumped back up to nearly 1.1 million in 2010.

What's so different between now and then? For one thing, the researchers say, there were tighter credit standards for all types of credit.

1970s credit standards 

University of Iowa Sociology Professor Kevin Leicht analyzed data from a 2007 survey of 2,400 bankrupt Americans. He applied credit limits of the 1970s – a mortgage no greater than 30 percent of income, a car payment no more than 10 percent of income, and a single credit card with a $1,000 limit.

Leicht's study suggests that one-quarter of households that filed for bankruptcy in 2007 would not have been in that situation if the credit regulations of the 1970s had remained in place.

$667 per month less

If the tighter restrictions still existed, the average person in bankruptcy in 2007 would have spent $667 per month less on debt payments. That's substantial, Leicht says, considering the median income of the bankrupt households was just $23,000.

"Families in bankruptcy today struggle with hundreds of dollars more in monthly payments than the prior generation could have ever borrowed," said Leicht. "They are stressed by debt burdens that would have been unthinkable, not to mention illegal, under regulations that existed just three decades ago."

Why did families run up so much debt, and more importantly, why were they allowed to? The reason is simple, says Leicht. People's wages began to stagnate. Without credit, they could not maintain a rising standard of living, spending money to grow the economy.

Not earning enough money

To cope with it all, workers put in more hours, reduced savings and increased debt. A married couple's average number of paid hours of work rose from 53 per week in 1970 to 63 in 1997. The percentage of families where both spouses work rose from 36 percent to 60 percent. And average credit card debt per household more than doubled, from $3,000 in 1989 to $7,300 in 2007.

"The expansion of credit made possible by deregulation enabled families to maintain the image of middle-class respectability even as they struggled to stay afloat," says Leicht, who co-authored a book on the subject, Postindustrial Peasants: The Illusion of Middle-Class Prosperity. "We loan people money for consumption, which means they'll keep buying products even if employers don't pay them well."

Getting paid more, says Leight, is the way out of the debt morass. Consumers determined to get out of debt and stay that way can't spend more to boost the economy unless they earn more.  

More

What's On Your Mind? United American Insurance, craigslist, Cipro, Capital One

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: United American Insurance, craigslist, Cipro, Capital One, Scam Alert, Side effects and Defending against abusive...

Kim, of Spanaway, Wash., says she has been receiving some unwelcome telemarketing calls lately from a robo-caller.

“My complaint is that for some reason we have been getting calls from United American Insurance at our home,” Kim told ConsumerAffairs.com. “We are on the do not call list and I had never even heard of them so I have no idea how they got our number. Its a pre-recorded message that's getting left on our answering machine.”

Calling someone on the Do Not Call List is against the law, unless the company has received a request for information from you or had a prior business relationship within the last 18 months. The fact that it's a robo-caller making the calls sound a bit like it's a rogue operation. Kim should file a complaint with Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna

Scam Alert

Marian, of Alisso Viejo, Calif., writes to warn folks about rental scams on craigslist. While these scams are nothing new, and craigslist posts warnings on its site, it's not a bad idea to remind everyone they have to be careful.

“Looking for an apartment in the West LA area and have come across several 'landlords' who supposedly live out of town therefore can not show the place,” Marian said. “Pictures only. False address given and they want a money order before they give a key.”

Not only that, Marian says they want the rent wired via Mone-gram, meaning you can't trace it or get it back. Marian said one address given as an apartment for rent turned out to be a local post office. The moral of the story, of course, is to never rent an apartment you haven't inspected with the landlord or rental agent.

Side effects

We continue to get reports from consumers taking the antibiotic Cipro that it causes some scary side effects in them. S., of Taber, Alberta says all was fine at first.

“Near the end of taking Cipro, I started having palpitations/heart jumping to catch up on missed beats,” S. told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Sometimes every 3rd or 4th beat is messed up, for hours or days at a time. Occasional heart pains. This has gone on now for almost a month. Very disturbing. Now I'm experiencing a flurry of tests on my heart.”

According to medical authorities, possible side effects include tightness in the chest and difficulty breathing.  S. may be having an unrelated problem that may need quick attention. If you have any severe side effects from any medication, see your physician immediately.

Defending against abusive debt collectors

Companies have every right to take appropriate action to collect debts owed to them. Almost no one will dispute that. However, there are rules and they have to be followed.

I received a call from Capital One on a past due balance,” Jon, of Alanson, Mich, said. “I told him I have been laid off and don't have a date. He stared name calling so I hung up. He called me back 12 times in 20 minutes harassing me. I have all the calls in my call log. He violated 15 USC 1692d) 806(5)&806(2).

Jon knows his consumer law. 15 USC 1692d covers harassment or abuse and reads, in part, “A debt collector may not engage in any conduct the natural consequence of which is to harass, oppress, or abuse any person in connection with the collection of a debt. Without limiting the general application of the foregoing, the following conduct is a violation of this section...The use of obscene or profane language or language the natural consequence of which is to abuse the hearer or reader. Causing a telephone to ring or engaging any person in telephone conversation repeatedly or continuously with intent to annoy, abuse, or harass any person at the called number. If Jon wants to file a formal complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, he can do so here.

More

Airbnb Visit Goes Well, Despite Pesky Street Person

We try out an Airbnb rental in NYC and save big bucks

Airbnb got a big sour dose of bad publicity earlier this year when a couple of Northern Californians complained that their apartments had been trashed by m...

Photo
A room with a view

Airbnb got a big sour dose of bad publicity earlier this year when a couple of Northern Californians complained that their apartments had been trashed by miscreants they'd rented to via Airbnb.

AirBNB was quick to institute new protection policies and claims the problems have been solved.  And maybe they have, since no similar complaints have come to light lately.  Add to that a notable lack of complaints from renters and things start to look a little too good.  

"There's nothing consumers don't complain about," our editor barked, smoke and ash billowing from his cigar.  "Get out there and find some dirt."

PhotoFortuitously, I had already scheduled a visit to New York City to visit my family, so I began poking around hotel Web sites and the Airbnb site and quickly determined that I'd save almost $200/night in an Airbnb as compared to regular hotels. 

I was a little nervous about logistics, such as how would I get the apartment keys, so I only looked at buildings with a doorman. 

I found Airbnb.com to be more usable than many of the big hotel comparison sites I was used to. This made me more willing to try it out. I was pleasantly surprised that many of the Airbnb units I considered already had user reviews; this also made me more willing to take a chance.

I was confused about whether you're supposed to contact the Airbnb host first before booking to confirm availability. I ended up booking first and it worked out. The host emailed me right away and confirmed my stay.

The host emailed me the address of the apartment, Upper East Side, a block away from a Starbucks, and in a nice 25-story building. All I had to do was show up and the doorman would have my keys. Seemed pretty simple.

Photo

A dark night

However, I arrived in New York in the evening, and it was too dark for the cab driver and I to see the address numbers on the buildings, so he ended up dropping me half a block away and I had a short walk through evening streets.

Photo
Matt Lazar
I was wheeling my luggage in the right direction of a 2 minute walk to the apartment, when a street person started bothering me. He was nice at first, but then he became aggressive and invaded my personal space. Luckily, I arrived at the apartment building before things escalated further. Where is Rudy Giuliani when you need him?

In the future, I'd recommend using Google maps to find the exact location of the apartment/Airbnb rather than just getting out of the cab at the right cross streets.

Anyway, having escaped the street person, I got my keys, and arrived in the apartment. It was clean, larger than a hotel suite, had a nice view of the East River, and had a more comfortable bed than any hotel I've stayed in.

I was nervous that there would be issues with the wireless internet, but when I arrived I found that the host had left me a clear note with the password and it worked fine.

Overall, I had a very positive experience with Airbnb and have been recommending it to my friends and family

Many of the Airbnb's, including the one I stayed in, require a material security deposit, which is presumably part of their new consumer protection policy. Airbnb pre-authorized my credit card for $150, and cancelled the  reauthorization 48 hours after I checked out of the Airbnb as the host hadn't  charged me for damage. I think it is probably rare that a host will ding a guest for his or her security deposit, but it's something to keep in mind, I suppose.

More

FTC: Debt Collectors Posed as Attorneys, Process Servers

Judge freezes Rincon Debt Management's assets

At the request of the Federal Trade Commission, a U.S. district court has halted a debt collection operation that allegedly deceived and abused consumers &...

At the request of the Federal Trade Commission, a U.S. district court has halted a debt collection operation that allegedly deceived and abused consumers – making bogus threats that consumers had been sued or could be arrested over debts they often did not owe. 

The FTC charged two individuals and seven companies in a Corona, California-based debt-collection operation doing business as Rincon Debt Management.  The court order stops the illegal conduct, freezes the operation's assets, and appoints a temporary receiver to take over the defendants’ business while the FTC moves forward with the case.

Operating since March 2009, the defendants have been unjustly enriched by at least $9.4 million, according to documents the FTC filed with the court.

“Consumers have a right to expect that debt collectors will be truthful and abide by the law,” said FTC Commissioner Edith Ramirez.  “We allege that, instead, the victims in this case were subject to abusive and illegal debt-collection practices, and that cannot stand.”

The FTC complaint alleges that the defendants targeted both English- and Spanish-speaking consumers.  The defendants called consumers and their employers, family, friends, and neighbors, posing as process servers seeking to deliver legal papers that purportedly related to a lawsuit.  In some instances, the defendants threatened that consumers would be arrested if they did not respond to the calls. 

The defendants also allegedly posed as attorneys or employees of a law office,and demanded that consumers pay “court costs” and “legal fees.”  However, according to the FTC, the debt collectors making calls to consumers were not actually process servers, attorneys, or their employees, and the defendants did not file lawsuits against consumers. 

In many instances, consumers did not even owe the debt the defendants were trying to collect, the FTC charged.

The FTC charged that the defendants’ false and misleading claims that they were process servers or attorneys who had filed – or were about to file – a lawsuit against a consumer violated the FTC Act.  In addition, the FTC alleged that the defendants violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act by:

  • improperly contacting third parties about consumers’ debts;
  • failing to disclose the name of the company they represented, or the fact that they were attempting to collect on a debt, during telephone calls to consumers;
  • misrepresenting the existence of a debt, the amount, and other facts about the debt; and
  • failing to notify consumers of their right to dispute and obtain verification of their debts.
More

New Email Scam Purports To Be From Gaddafi Partner

A remake of the old African prince scam

Email scam using the death of Gaddafi to fleece the unsuspecting...

PhotoBy now, even inexperienced computer users are familiar with the “419 email scams,” which try to convince the recipient that the sender is an African prince, under siege and trying desperately to get his vast fortune out of the country.

With last week's violent death of long-time Libyan ruler Moammar Gaddafi, scammers are using the circumstances of his death and the wide publicity it has received to tweak the scam a bit. As a result, in-boxes around the world are now receiving a email that claims to be from one of Gaddafi's former associates who – you guess it – needs your help in moving a vast fortune outside the now rebel-controlled country.

The message purports to be from Muhammad Ali (no, not THAT Muhammad Ali) and bears the subject line “TOP SECRET MY FRIEND – Regarding late leader Moammar al-Gaddafi.

Losing the war but winning the money

“From your heart, accept this offer, as we have lost the battle,” the message begins.

In the message, the writer claims to have been Gaddafi's “chief defender officer” who fled the country when his boss was killed and is now hiding in an undisclosed European country. He has with him, he says, a small fortune given to him by Gaddafi to use to buy weapons to carry one the resistance. Now that the war is lost, he says, he must do something with the three million euros entrusted to him. That's where you come in.

“As the battle is over, I want to give you the secret deposit key of this fund to make this claim, and use 70 percent of the fund to establish good investment that can benefit both of us in the country of your choice,” the message reads.

Pulling on heartstrings

The remaining 30 percent is to be used, the message says, to set up an orphanage, since the former security chief says he has found God and lost his family in the war. It instructs the recipient to contact “a lawyer” in Spain, who will explain how to proceed – presumably with paying a significant fee or providing access to your bank account.

“You may think it's crazy that anyone would ever fall for such an email, but remember there are people who are vulnerable or elderly who might be tricked into believing that the offer is real - and end up losing a lot of money as a result,” said Graham Cluley, Senior Technology Consultant at Sophos security software.

More

Thai Flooding Drowns Out Toyota Production, VW Surges

Toyota plants suffering a shortage of parts because of flooding in Thailand

Toyota just can't seem to catch a break lately.  First it was the charges of unintended acceleration, then the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.  ...

PhotoToyota just can't seem to catch a break lately.  First it was the charges of unintended acceleration, then the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.  Now it's flooding in Thailand.

The company says it will suspend production at all of its North American plants this Saturday because of a shortage of parts made by suppliers in Thailand.

The closures affect plants in Indiana, Kentucky and Ontario, Canada, as well as an engine factory in West Virginia.

"We will continue to monitor the supply situation in Thailand," the company said in a statement.

Earlier, Toyota cut production in Japan by a total of 6,000 vehicles, trying to get parts and production back in sync.  

Other Asian automakers are also being stymied by the Thai flooding, frustrating their efforts to get production and sales back on track.

VW moving up

PhotoAll of this is good news for Volkswagen, which is coming up fast behind Toyota, seeking to dislodge Toyota as the world's biggest carmakers.  VW hopes to deliver 8 million units this year, which would be an 11% increase.

VW's profits surged 46 percent on demand for the revamped Audi A6 sedan and the VW Tiguan SUV, according to yesterday's quarterly earnings report.

VW plans to hire more than 50,000 workers by 2018 as it drives towards its target of more than 10 million cars per year.  

More

Credit Scores Go Behavioral

New scores seek to predict your behavior

Will you take your medicine tomorrow?  You may not know but Fair Isaac thinks it does.The company that invented the FICO credit score is now branchi...

PhotoWill you take your medicine tomorrow?  You may not know but Fair Isaac thinks it does.

The company that invented the FICO credit score is now branching out and adopting some of the behavior-prediction methodologies used by Web advertisers, but with potentially more far-reaching effect.

After all, if you don't like a behaviorally-targeted ad, you can just skip it.  But Fair Isaac will be selling its new behavior scores to insurance companies, lenders and others whose decisions can have a big effect on your finances, your employment prospects and even your health.

The Medication Adherence Score is Fair Isaac's latest product.  It tries to measure the likelihood that you'll take your prescriptions on time.  How can it know that?  Good question. 

The company is understandably not very forthcoming about its methods but says it draws conclusions based on massive amounts of data it gathers about each of us, including such seemingly benign data as how long we've lived at the same address, whether we own a car, our marital status, employment, and so forth.

Can this be legal?

You might think this can't possibly be legal.  Well, so far it is.  In fact, some of the new scores don't even fall under existing laws that require credit-rating companies to disclose what they know about us.

That's not likely to last long though, as politicians and regulators are even now beginning to paw the ground and snort loudly as they get a whiff of what's afoot out in the wild world of data-gathering.

In fact, much of the data that Fair Isaac, Experian and other companies are gathering isn't even about us personally.  It's based on massive aggregations of data that, in theory anyway, tell us how people like us are likely to act.

For example, one new Experian score seeks to measure disposable income.  It doesn't go line by line through each household's income and outflow but bases its predictions on an analysis of large numbers of people whose situation is roughly equivalent.

Privacy advocates don't like any of this very much.  They say it's invasive and may not even be accurate.

But the credit companies say it actually "empowers" consumers by making it easier for lenders, employers and others to snoop around in our affairs.

That may be a tough sell if Congress ever gets around to putting on one of its show trials but for now, the business of nosing around in your affairs is booming.

More

What's On Your Mind? State Farm, Dish Network, TurboTax, PlanetRX

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: State Farm, Dish Network, TurboTax, PlanetRX, Oops, Seasonal, Missing drugs and automatic billing....

PhotoLast spring's outbreak of tornadoes caused widespread destruction over a wide area of the south Midwest. Now, some people whose homes were damaged by tornadoes think they are being victimized again by their insurance companies.

“My home was hit with a tornado in April,” Tamara, of Granite City, Ill., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I am still making repairs to the property. I am beginning to submit receipts. I am being told that I have already been overpaid on my claim! Seriously? I submitted copies of bids for the damage to my kitchen that they are now saying they will not pay for. And, I get a letter that my policy will NOT be renewed in November. I have had State Farm for my homeowners for 30 years and also various autos.”

Tamara believes her policy calls for restoring her home to pre-tornado condition. Obviously, her insurance company has another view. That's why it's important for homeowners to review their policies from time to time to make sure they have the coverage they think they do.

Oops

There are hazards, as well as convenience, when you allow a company to automatically debit your bank account. Mistakes can happen.

Dish Network took a $91 payment twice for my service on the same day; now they tell me it will take 10-12 days for them to reimburse me,” said Denise, of Rancho Cordovo, Calif. “In this day of technology, this in unacceptable. It took only one day for them to make their mistake. No one is able to tell you why it takes them so long to reimburse even though it is showing on their system as a mistake.”

The simple answer is that businesses go through internal red tape any time they make a refund, even for a payment taken by mistake. Also, they don't mind holding onto your money as long as possible, That's one reason why it's much better to use your bank's online bill payment system to pay your bills and not allow businesses access to your bank account.

Seasonal

Troy, of Dallas, Tex., wonders why Turbo Tax's online tax filing system is taking a few months off.

“I submitted an extension for my 2010 1040 return in April, got approved and wasted time and procrastinated and left life get in the way of me filing before the October 17 deadline,” Troy told ConsumerAffairs.com. Now that being said, I find it extremely disconcerting that the entire website, with the exception of the ability to download a PDF copy of prior year returns, is now unavailable until mid-December! I can understand shutting down E-FILE services, but no access whatsoever to the software for those of us that forgot about our returns?”

It appears to be true. There is a message on the website that reads “Turbo Tax online for tax year 2010 is no longer available.” Another message reads “in December 2011, come back and sign in to a new, more powerful Turbo Tax Online for your 2011 taxes.

Missing drugs

PlanetRX.com seems to be having a problem filling orders in a timely manner. At that's the report from some consumers we've heard from lately.

“I am in the same boat as are many many others,” said William, of Rochester Hills, Mich. “I submitted an order and on the same day they drew the money from my credit card account. It's almost been a month now and I have contacted them over and over to no avail.”

Another consumer said he cancelled his order after being told the medication was back ordered, but never received a refund.

More

California Files 'Greenwashing' Lawsuit Against Water Bottlers

Companies falsely claim bottles are "100% biodegradable," suit charges

The cheapest, safest and "greenest" way to drink water is, of course, to get it out of the nearest faucet but Americans have somehow decided that water in ...

PhotoThe cheapest, safest and "greenest" way to drink water is, of course, to get it out of the nearest faucet but Americans have somehow decided that water in little plastic bottles is not only cooler (go figure) but also more environmentally pure.

California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris takes issue with this. Harris today filed a first-of-its-kind "greenwashing" lawsuit against three companies that allegedly made false and misleading claims by marketing plastic water bottles as "100 percent biodegradable and recyclable." 

Under California law, it is illegal to label a plastic food or beverage container as biodegradable. Plastic takes thousands of years to biodegrade and may never do so in a landfill. Today's lawsuit is the first government action to enforce the state's landmark environmental marketing law. 

"These companies' actions violate state law and mislead consumers," Harris said. "Californians are committed to recycling and protecting the environment, but these efforts are undermined by the false and misleading claims these companies make when they wrongly advertise their products as 'biodegradable.'" 

There is a slowly growing recognition among consumers that bottled water is one of the most expensive purchases they can make -- much more expensive per gallon than gasoline, milk or liquor -- but there is still scant awareness of how ecologically harmful it is, as shown in a ConsumerAffairs.com analysis of about 2,070 recent consumer comments on Twitter, Facebook and other social media and blogs.

Photo

Microbial additive

PhotoBalance and AquaMantra sell their products in plastic water bottles marketed by ENSO Plastics LLC; according to the label, ENSO claims that a microbial additive created the "first truly biodegradable and recyclable" plastic bottle.

The bottles' labeling states that the bottles will break down in less than five years in a typical landfill or compost environment, but that claim is false because the additive does not speed up the centuries-long process required to break down plastic, Harris said.

The claim of recycling is also deceptive, she added. The microbial additive put into the bottle is considered by the Association of Post Consumer Plastic Recyclers to be a "destructive contaminant" that can compromise the strength of the products they make. 

Consumers may buy these defendants' bottles and either dispose of them incorrectly, on the assumption that they will biodegrade quickly, when in fact they will simply take up space in landfills, or they will try to recycle them, creating problems and costs for recyclers. 

Photo

Greener than thou

A recent Gallup poll found that 76 percent of Americans buy products specifically because of their perception the product is better for the environment. 

In 2008, the California Legislature banned the use of words like "biodegradable," "degradable," or "decomposable" in the labeling of plastic food or beverage containers. Senate Bill 567, signed into law by the Governor this year, will expand that law to all plastic products beginning in 2013. 

---

Sentiment analysis powered by Netbase

More

Six Charged in Alleged Sports Memorabilia Scams

Fans paid big bucks for phone "game used" jerseys, feds charge

Six men have been charged in fraud schemes involving the sports memorabilia business and the purchase and sale of equipment and uniforms used by profession...

PhotoSix men have been charged in fraud schemes involving the sports memorabilia business and the purchase and sale of equipment and uniforms used by professional and collegiate athletes.

In U.S. District Court in Rockford, Ill., yesterday, four defendants were charged in criminal informations and two defendants were charged in indictments.

According to court documents, each case involved the sale, consignment, or auction of jerseys, in which each defendant falsely and fraudulently represented to buyers that the jerseys were “game used,” when they were not.

Jerseys worn by professional and collegiate athletes during a game are usually known as “game used” or “game worn,” and are commonly bought and sold by collectors and others. The value of game used jerseys varies based on the popularity of the player that used the jersey and how long it had been since the player had actively played the sport. The value of a jersey was greater if it was game used.

Trading cards

The fraud charges also involved the use of game used jerseys by sports trading card companies. As stated in the charges, to increase the value and price of packages of sports trading cards, manufacturers frequently purchase game used jerseys, cut the jerseys into small pieces, and insert the pieces into card packages.

When game used jerseys were purchased for this purpose, the manufacturers often required that the seller provide a “certificate of authenticity” that the jerseys were authentic game used jerseys.

As charged, the defendants obtained hundreds of jerseys from a variety of sources, including retail sellers, then frequently changed the jerseys’ appearance by roughening, scuffing, washing, or dirtying the jerseys so that they appeared to have actual “wear and tear.”

The same jerseys were then re-sold, consigned, and auctioned for hundreds of thousands of dollars to sports trading card companies and other buyers as game used jerseys.

As part of the scheme the defendants provided the buyers with fraudulent certificates of authenticity. Each defendant was allegedly involved in a business engaged in the purchase and sale of sports memorabilia, and the schemes are alleged to have taken place in Rockford and several other states.

Two men are charged by indictment with mail fraud:

  • Eric Inselberg, a resident of New Jersey, involved in the business operations of Taylor Huff, Inc. and Pasadena Trading Corp, from late 2001 through late 2009, in two counts of mail fraud.
  • Bradley Wells, a resident of Florida, involved in the business of Authentic Sports, Inc., and Historic Auctions, LLC, both Florida businesses, from late 2005 through the middle of 2009, in two counts of mail fraud.

Four men are charged by information with mail fraud:

  • Bernard Gernay, a resident of New Jersey, involved in the business operations of Pro Sports Investments, Inc., a New Jersey business;
  • Bradley Horne, a South Carolina resident, involved in the business operations of Authentic Sports Memorabilia, Inc., a South Carolina business;
  • Jarrod Oldridge, a resident of Nevada, involved in business operations of JO Sports, Inc., a Nevada business; and
  • Mitchell Schumacher, a resident of Wisconsin, using the trade name MS Sports.

Each mail fraud charge in these cases carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, and a $250,000 maximum fine, or an alternate fine totaling twice the loss or twice the gain, whichever is greater. If convicted, the court must impose a reasonable sentence under the advisory United States Sentencing Guidelines.

More

Study Links Soda To Teen Violence

Researchers find correlation between number of sodas and violent acts

Study Links Soda To Teen Violence: Harvard researchers looking into causal relationships associated with teen violence have found what they call a shocking...

PhotoHarvard researchers looking into causal relationships associated with teen violence have found what they call a shocking link: teens who drink more sugary soft drinks are more likely to be associated with violent activity.

The study focused on high school students in inner-city Boston. Researchers found that teens who consumed more than five non-diet sodas per week were between 9 and 15 percent more likely to behave in a violent manner than their peers who drank less.

Statistical association

The researchers make clear they have identified nothing in the carbonated beverages that could cause people to become aggressive. It's simply a statistical association, they say.

The study was based on teens' answers to a questionnaire. More than 1,800 students between the ages of 14 and 18 provided answers. Most of those filling out the questionnaire were Hispanic or African-American, with Asian and whites much less represented. All were from inner-city neighborhoods, where crime rates tend to be higher than in wealthy suburbs.

One of the questions involved how many non-diet carbonated beverages the teens consumed in an average week. Another question asked whether they regular carried a weapon of some type. Another asked whether they had been involved in violent acts, either with a friend, family member or date.

Lining up the answers

When the answers were overlaid, it shows that of teens who drank one or no cans of soft drinks per week, 23 percent carried a weapon and 35 percent had been violent toward a peer. Among those who consumed 14 or more can per week, 43 percent carried a weapon and 58 percent had been violent toward a peer.

Previous studies have also found a statistical correlation between violence and tobacco use and alcohol consumption. The researchers say they don't know why that is, but says it's an area that deserves more study.

More

Feds To Help Students Make Better Student Loan Decisions

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to offer financial aid shopping sheet

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to offer financial aid shopping sheet...

PhotoThe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), created by the Dodd Frank Financial Reform Act, has set its sights on student loans as one of its first major areas of consumer protection.

The new agency is teaming with the Department of Education to launch a new a program called Know Before You Owe, aimed at creating a ”financial aid shopping sheet,” which colleges and universities could use to help students better understand the type and amount of aid they qualify for and easily compare aid packages offered by different institutions.

The draft shopping sheet – a model financial aid disclosure form – makes the costs and risks of student loans clear upfront, before students have enrolled, outlining their total estimated student loan debt and monthly loan payments after graduation.

Better informed decisions

The objective is to reduce the number of students who emerge from colleges and universities saddled with massive debt. Also, to reduce the number of students like recent University of Phoenix graduate Theresa, of Irvine, Calif., who has a case of graduate's remorse.

“I received a Bachelors Degree in Business Administration,” Theresa told ConsumerAffairs.com. “The potential employers do not view University of Phoenix a scholastic institution. My degree is worthless in the business world. The college credits will not transfer to other institutions. And I have a student loan debt of over $30,000.00. The time and money spent to obtain what I considered one of the biggest achievements were all wasted.”

“Student loans are one of the best examples of how credit can make lives better and help people achieve the American dream,” said Raj Date, Special Advisor to the Secretary of the Treasury for the CFPB. “But in these tough economic times, the stakes have never been higher for students and their families to clearly understand the costs and risks of student loans. Having a simple, one-page financial aid shopping sheet would help students compare offers and choose the one that’s right for them.”

Surpassing credit cards

Student loans have now surpassed credit cards as the No. 1 source of U.S. household debt outside of mortgages. In part, this is because more students are accessing higher education. But it’s also because tuition is increasing.

At public colleges, tuition and fees are increasing by an average of 5.6 percent per year beyond the rate of general inflation. While federal funding for Pell Grants and education tax credits has kept net prices – what students ultimately pay after grants and scholarships – relatively steady, many students are covering these rising tuition costs by taking on more debt.

The complex and confusing financial aid process can make it difficult for students to understand college costs, evaluate loan options, and figure out how much debt to take on. Currently, prospective students too often receive jargon-laden financial aid award letters using inconsistent terms and calculations, making it hard to compare them side by side.

Information about the total debt, interest, and monthly payments of student loans may not be clear or may not be included at all. This may be an important reason why many students are choosing higher-priced private loans before exhausting subsidized federal loan options. Or students and their families may resort to credit cards and other debt products when better options are available.

To ensure that the financial aid shopping sheet is helpful to students and their families, the CFPB is putting it online and will provide the public with an opportunity to rank items in order of usefulness. The CFPB and Department of Education will use the feedback on this draft version to improve the shopping sheet. The Department of Education plans to publish a model form that schools could use to provide clear student loan and financial aid information to prospective students.

More

Whats On Your Mind? Alamo Rent A Car, Pergo, SlimFast, Chase Mortgage

Our daily look at consumer reviews

The real cost of renting a car? It probably isn't just the daily rate that rental companies advertise. You almost have to figure taking the company's expen...

PhotoWhat's the real cost of renting a car these days? It probably isn't just the daily rate that rental companies advertise. Now, you almost have to figure on taking the company's expensive insurance coverage. Why? Because you could end up with a big repair bill if you don't.

“I rented a car from Alamo at Baltimore Washington International Airport in May,” Thomas told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I was directed to my car by the rental agent and drove off. I did not inspect the car beforehand. Upon arriving at my hotel, I did notice minor damage to the front passenger's side of the car. The damage was absolutely pre-existing and I had no responsibility for it. Upon returning the car, I received a receipt. The return agent made no mention of the damage. Shortly afterwards I began to receive a variety of letters and phone calls from something called the "Damage Recovery Unit" demanding approximately $1700.00 in damages.”

You would think that rental car companies would have insurance that covers incidental, “wear and tear” damage to fleet vehicles that are in almost constant use but in fact the companies self-insure, meaning that if they can't shift the repair burden to the customer, they must pay it themselves.

Keep in mind that many credit cards provide you with a limited damage waiver if you charge your rental to the card.  This can save a great deal of money and aggravation, but be sure you understand the terms before you rely on it.

Bubble, bubble toil and trouble...

Tammie, of Cotari, Calif., had new Pergo laminate flooring installed in her home back in March. She writes to say she is not happy with the results.

“Two weeks after installation flooring began to bubble or tent in multiple areas,” Tammie said. “The contractor was contacted, came back in May to make stress cuts which relieved some areas but not all. Since installation contractor came back a total of three times, but flooring continues to bubble in one large area.”

This sounds like it could be a common installation problem with laminate flooring and not the product itself. Laminate “floats” on the floor and is not nailed down. It's normal for the product to expand and contract with moisture in the air, so installation requires there to be a gap between the edge of the molding and the wall. If there isn't a gap, or if the gap is too small, the flooring will buckle. In short, the problem may be with the installer.

Too much for too little?

Food prices are going up. Apparently, even diet food prices.

"Slim-Fast has increased their prices by 33 percent,” Andrew, of Jamestown, N.Y., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “They originally came in 6 packs of 11 oz. cans for somewhere around $5.00-$5.50 per pack. They have now repackaged and have reduced the size from 11 oz. to 10 oz. and most importantly they now come in 4 packs at around $5.75 for the 4-pack.”

Businesses, of course, respond to consumer behavior. If Andrew finds the price hike too much, he should try some high-fiber, home-prepared meals as an alternative. If he prefers liquid nourishment, making smoothies at home can provide delicious, healthful treats.  Nearly anything you prepare at home from fresh ingredients will be more nutritious and healthful than packaged products -- and cheaper to boot.

Can't win

We've written extensively of the pitfalls of trying to negotiate a mortgage modification. But Robin, of Oconomowoc, Wis., was fortunate enough to negotiate her way through the modification maze, only to run into a new frustration.

“My Chase loan was modified in April 2010 due to being out of work for two years,” Robin said.”My first payment was due that month. As of today I keep getting foreclosure letters because they say I'm two months behind on my mortgage. I have copies of payments made every month since Oct 2010. I have called them and asked them several times to explain where/when I became late. After being put on hold several time, they seem dumbfounded, they came back to say I owed Aug/Sept 2011. I have proof of payment for the last year, and I told her that. She did not offer any assistance but told me I can make arrangements to pay or see if I qualify for another loan mod! My only question is when did it fall behind, and they cannot seem to answer that.”

It sounds like sloppy bookkeeping on Chase's part if they can't tell Robin, who says she has proof that she made every payment since the modification, where she fell behind. Robin should not treat this matter lightly. It may pay her to seek legal advice now before this escalates.

More

Do You Qualify For the Government's New Refinancing Plan?

Plan is limited in scope; fewer than 1 million may qualify

The government has announced a new plan to boost the housing market...

PhotoThe Obama Administration has announced a new government program to help underwater homeowners – those who owe more than their homes are worth.

The plan is narrow in scope and will only benefit about 1 million homeowners. Whether you are one of them depends on whether you fall into a number of set categories.

First, this is not a mortgage modification program. The government's efforts to help struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure have been less than a resounding success. Rather, this is a refinancing program.

There are many consumers, for example, who purchased homes at the height of the bubble at the prevailing interest rates of the time, between 6 and 7 percent. They may have good jobs and sterling credit, but they have not been able to refinance their 6.5 percent mortgage to the current 4.5 percent rate because the house they purchased for $500,000 is now worth $350,000.

Criteria

But not everyone in this category can take part in the new program. To qualify, you must meet all of the following criteria:

  • Your loan must be included in the portfolios held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac
  • Fannie and Freddie must have acquired your loan before May 31, 2009
  • Your current loan must be for more than 80 percent of your home's present value
  • You must have made six consecutive monthly mortgage payments (in other words you can't be delinquent)

If you meet these criteria, chances are you can qualify, no matter how far underwater you are. Why would lenders agree to refinance for significantly more than a home is worth? If they do, the government will eliminate their responsibility for problems with the original loan, a significant incentive.

The administration sees the payoff as more homeowners with lower monthly payments, allowing them to spend the money on other things, thus helping the economy. If you think you might qualify, start by discussing it with your loan servicers. Just keep in mind that it may take several months for the program to be launched.

More

FAA Warns of Corrosion on Boeing 757 Tails

Pilots could lose control of the aircraft if maintenance is inadequate

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) wants airlines to take a very carerful look at the horizontal stabilizers on the tail sections of Boeing 757 jets...

PhotoThe Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) wants airlines to take a very carerful look at the horizontal stabilizers on the tail sections of Boeing 757 jets.

The agency says that corrosion on the stabilizers could cause pilots to lose control of the aircraft.

It might sound far-fetched but 11 years ago, a a similar mishap befell an Alaska Airlines McDonnell Douglas MD-83 off the Southern California coast.  The airplane became uncontrollable and crashed into the sea, killing all 88 on board.

Investigators looking into that crash blamed poor maintenance, faulty design and slipshod federal oversight.

The FAA is proposing what's called a mandatory safety directive that would require all U.S. carriers to check the stabilizers on more than 700 757s.  Overseas airlines would eventually do the same, it's hoped.

Boeing said it supports the proposal and noted that it already recommends carriers "regularly inspect and lubricate" moving parts.

More

Virgin America Flight Attendants May Unionize

Transport Workers Union seeks representation election

It's hard to find a more luxurious airline than Virgin America -- spiffy cabins, mood lighting, elaborate entertainment systems, on-demand snacks and food,...

PhotoIt's hard to find a more luxurious airline than Virgin America -- spiffy cabins, mood lighting, elaborate entertainment systems, on-demand snacks and food, friendly flight attendants.

But while those friendly flight attendants appear to enjoy their work much more than their seemingly embittered colleagues on legacy carriers, the Transport Workers Union (TWU) says an "overwhelming majority" of them have signed a petition seeking a representation election.

The union is expected to ask the National Mediation Board (NMB), which oversees labor relations in the airline and railroad industries, to schedule an election.

"Flying Virgin can be enjoyable for passengers but flight attendants have a very different experience,” TWU Organizing Director Frank MacCann said. “Work rules are inconsistently enforced, promises regarding rest, vacation and benefits are often broken, and discipline for minor violations can be unnecessarily harsh and inconsistently applied.”

“It’s become difficult for flight attendants, who helped build this company, to believe what management tells them. Flight attendants realize that the only way they can improve their working conditions is to form a union,” MacCann said.

Entirely nonunion

Virgin America is currently entirely nonunion.  The fast-growing discount carrier flies to about a dozen cities in the U.S. and three in Mexico.  It operates a fleet of 46 Airbus A320 airplanes and is partly owned by Richard Branson's Virgin Group of the U.K.

Flight attendants at Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Airlines and subsidiary Virgin Australia have voted to form unions with British and Australian labor unions, TWU noted.

The NMB recently adopted new rules that, in theory, make it easier to unionize.  The new rules require a "yes" vote by only a majority of those voting.  Previous rules required a "yes" vote by a majority of the entire work group.

The change didn't help the Air Line Pilots Association organize JetBlue pilots though.  ALPA lost a recent representation election at JetBlue.

The TWU already represents the flight attendants at Southwest and Allegiant Airlines.  

More

Seafood Fraud Found in Boston

DNA tests confirms 1 in 5 fish samples were mislabeled

Talk about identity theft.  A conservancy group says its tests found that one in five seafood samples from Boston supermarkets were mislabeled.&ldqu...

PhotoTalk about identity theft.  A conservancy group says its tests found that one in five seafood samples from Boston supermarkets were mislabeled.

“We went looking for seafood fraud in Boston and we found it,” said Gib Brogan, Northeast representative for Oceana, an advocacy and conservation organization. “The results are troubling. Consumers are frequently getting something other than what they paid for. Seafood mislabeling is ripping off consumers, while potentially endangering their health and harming our oceans.”  

Brogan said that early this spring, Oceana targeted 15 supermarkets in and around Boston that are owned by three popular grocery store chains. Oceana attempted to purchase two (frozen or fresh) fish fillets of three commonly mislabeled species – red snapper, wild salmon and Atlantic cod – from each supermarket.

When these species were not available, other fish species were selected such as grey sole and vermilion snapper.

In total, Oceana collected 92 samples, of which 88 yielded results for species identification through DNA testing. The results found that 16 of the 88 samples were mislabeled and that the rate of mislabeling ranged from 14 to 23 percent for any given grocery store chain.

“It is a shame that one in five Boston shoppers who are trying to make informed choices at seafood counters are being swindled,” said Dr. Kimberly Warner, senior scientist at Oceana. “The U.S. government should be doing more testing to ensure that consumers are not being deceived.”

Oceana’s findings also concluded that Atlantic cod was the most commonly mislabeled fish species and overfished red snapper was often sold as vermilion snapper.

About seafood fraud

Oceana recently launched its new campaign to stop seafood fraud, which can come in many different forms – from mislabeling fish and falsifying documents to adding too much ice to packaging.

In a new report, Oceana found that while 84 percent of the seafood eaten in the United States is imported, only two percent is currently inspected and less than 0.001 percent specifically for fraud. In fact, recent studies have found that seafood may be mislabeled as often as 25 to 70 percent of the time for fish like red snapper, wild salmon and Atlantic cod, disguising species that are less desirable, cheaper or more readily available.

Despite growing concern about where our food comes from, consumers are frequently served the wrong fish – a completely different species than the one they paid for, Oceana said.

With about 1,700 different species of seafood from all over the world now available in the U.S., it is unrealistic to expect consumers to be able to independently and accurately determine what fish is really being served.

Oceana wants the federal government to make combating seafood fraud a priority, including implementing existing laws, increasing inspections, and improving coordination and information sharing among federal agencies. 

More

Ancient Cold Remedy Makes a Comeback

This cold season, save money on cold treatments

Ancient cold remedy regains favor...

PhotoA cold or sinus infection may send you to the pharmacy for a popular over-the-counter cold remedy. But could it be a waste of money?

Doctors at The Methodist Hospital in Houston, Tex., say an ancient cold remedy that's essentially free is making a comeback in medical circles.

Nasal irrigation, or nasal lavage, is the ancient Hindu practice of using warm salt water (saline) to flush out the gunk that builds up in nasal passages and can cause irritation or infection. Dr. Donald Donovan, an otolaryngologist at The Methodist Hospital in Houston, says the practice is safe and beneficial if done correctly.

“Saline is nature’s biological medium … it helps clean out the body,” Donovan explains. “Nasal irrigation is very effective in washing out foreign substances from the nasal passages and helping to alleviate congestion.”

Close to one in seven people suffer from rhinitis, which is a fancy way to say stuffy nose. And, 36 million Americans have chronic sinus troubles. Those are the people who could benefit from simple and easy symptom relief, says Donovan.

It works

“This is one home remedy that works,” he said. “We have seen it work well in people with stuffiness, sinus pain and other chronic conditions. If you do it right, it can be very soothing and effective.”

The saline solution is simple to make: to about 8 ounces of water, add one-quarter teaspoon of kosher salt and one teaspoon of baking soda. Use kosher salt because it does not have iodine or additives which can irritate the nose; the baking soda also helps prevent irritation.

Many people use a neti pot, which looks like a teapot with a long snout, to pour saline into a nostril. Others buy plastic squeeze bottles that squirt saline into the nose; most drugstores carry both types.

Nasal passages act as the body’s air filter, trapping foreign particles and allergens before they enter the lungs. Donovan says nasal irrigation washes out those substances, as well as some bacteria which might cause infection.

Irrigation can also help those who live in areas plagued by wildfires, because smoke contains tiny particles that may affect those with asthma or other respiratory conditions.

What it won't do

If all you have is a cold, nasal irrigation can make you feel a lot better, Donovan says. But if you're suffering from an allergy or sinus infection, other treatments may be required.

“You can use irrigation to clear out thick secretions caused by a cold but it won’t get rid of the infection,” he said. “You either have to use medication to reduce inflammation or let the infection run its course.”

Likewise with allergies – irrigation may help alleviate some symptoms in the short term, but Donovan says more traditional treatments are usually needed.

“Nasal irrigation is inexpensive enough to just stop if you find it’s not for you,” he adds. “Many people swear by it, because it’s safe and natural. And it is very easy.”

More

Consumers Don't Read Food Labels As Much As They Think

Label's position on package may influence how many people read it

Consumers don't read food labels as much as they say...

PhotoLook on any food package and you'll find a Nutrition Facts label. It tells you how many calories per serving the food contains, along with various nutrient content. The label provides helpful information – but only if you read it.

Researchers writing in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association asked consumers if they read the food labels and recorded the results. Then, they watched as the participants were asked to shop for food and recorded those results. They found that the consumers didn't read the labels nearly as much as they said they did.

"The results of this study suggest that consumers have a finite attention span for Nutrition Facts labels: although most consumers did view labels, very few consumers viewed every component on any label," according to investigators Dan J. Graham, PhD, and Robert W. Jeffrey, PhD, Division of Epidemiology and Community Health, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. "These results differed from the self-reported survey responses describing typical grocery shopping and health behaviors submitted by the participants."

Does position matter?

Currently most Nutrition Facts labels are positioned peripherally, not centrally, on food packages and, as such, may be less likely than they could be to catch and hold the eye of a potential consumer, according to the study.

In a simulated grocery shopping exercise, 203 participants observed 64 different grocery products displayed on a computer monitor. Each screen contained three elements, the well-known Nutrition Facts label, a picture and list of ingredients, and a description of the product with price and quantity information.

These three elements were presented so that one third of the participants each saw the Nutrition Facts label on the left, right, and center. Each subject was asked whether they would consider buying the product. Participants were aware that their eye movements would be tracked, but unaware that the study focus was nutrition information.

The top comes out on top

Using a computer equipped with an eye-tracking device, investigators observed that most consumers view label components at the top more than those at the bottom. Further data suggest that the average consumer reads only the top five lines on a Nutrition Facts label.

Self-reported viewing of Nutrition Facts label components was higher than objectively measured viewing. 33 percent of participants self-reported that they almost always look at calorie content on Nutrition Facts labels, 31 percent reported that they almost always look at the total fat content, 20 percent said the same for trans-fat content, 24 percent for sugar content, and 26 percent for serving size. However, only 9 percent of participants actually looked at calorie count for almost all of the products in this study, and about one percent of participants looked at each of these other components (total fat, trans fat, sugar, and serving size) on almost all labels.

Results

When the Nutrition Facts label was presented in the center column, subjects read one or more sections of 61 percent of the labels compared with 37 percent and 34 percent of labels among participants randomly assigned to view labels on the left- and right hand sides of the screen, respectively. In addition, labels in the center column received more than 30% more view time than the same labels when located in a side column.

The researchers say consumers are more likely to view centrally located labels and nutrients nearer the label's top. Because knowing the amounts of key nutrients that foods contain can influence consumers to make healthier purchases, prominently positioning key nutrients, and labels themselves, could substantially impact public health, they say.

More

Apple's Next Frontier: A Single Remote

Steve Jobs' legacy may still be waiting to be introduced

Solving the puzzle of high-definition video, Internet packet protocols and other esoterica comes down to a single question for most consumers: how many rem...

PhotoSolving the puzzle of high-definition video, Internet packet protocols and other esoterica comes down to a single question for most consumers: how many remotes will I need?

All of the technology that's needed to watch sparkling high-def video on demand, from cable, DVDs, off-the-air and from DVRs and other storage devices already exists.  What doesn't exist is an appliance that ties it together for consumers who don't, can't or won't do it themselves.

If the rumors sweeping the tech and financial worlds are true, it may that Steve Jobs' legacy won't be the iPhone, the iPad, iPod or even the iMac but rather the iTV, or whatever it will be called.

With the release of Jobs' authorized biography today, we learn that he hinted to biographer Walter Isaacson that the Apple design team was hard at work on a "connected" television -- one that would do for TV what Apple once did for the computer, cell phone and portable music player.

"Finally cracked it"

PhotoAnd just what would that be, exactly?  Well, we don't know because we're consumers.  And as no less an authority than Jobs himself once put it: "Consumers don't know what they want."  He went on to say that the designer's job was to anticipate consumer needs and fill them in as elegant and simple a way as possible.

"I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use. ... It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud," Jobs is quoted as saying.  "It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.”

Apple, of course, already makes a pretty nifty set-top box that does quite a bit of seamless syncing, as do quite a few others. But no one has yet built an entire TV set -- a video appliance, if you will -- that combines all of the technology into a single box, a very elegant box no doubt -- with a slippery little remote that even a Baby Boomer can understand.

Various financial analysts are saying today that the beta version is already moving through the assembly process in China and that some of the software is already in consumers' hands, in the form of iCloud, iTunes and Siri.

Siri?  That's the software that enables the new iPhone 4S to talk with you, as opposed as just talking to you.  

OMG, do you think maybe there won't even be a remote?  Maybe we'll just ask the iTV what's on tonight?  Or whether there's a new series or movie that resembles Deadwood?  Maybe iTV will pipe up and remind us we wanted to watch Bill Maher tonight?

Jobs' last act

Much has been written and said about Steve Jobs since his untimely death but often lost in the shuffle was recognition of what was perhaps his greatest gift -- showmanship.

Except for its adherents and practitioners, geekdom is actually pretty boring.  Do you really want to learn about sampling rates? Jobs and his team had the ability to take a box of components and turn it into a thing of beauty, much the way Detroit was able to bend sheet metal into the stuff of dreams back in the 1960s.

People once bought computers and related gadgets because they needed a device to perform certain functions. Now they buy them because they love them.  This is no small accomplishment.

The ability to meld engineering, design and marketing with art is a gift given to few.  It is often transitory and always subject to the limitations mortality imposes.  Witness Mozart (a poor marketer but you get the point).

If Jobs really did manage to reinvent the lowly TV set and bequeath an elegant new version to a world of consumers who don't yet know they want it, it will be a posthumous feat of marketing and design genius pretty much unmatched in modern times.  

Can't wait to see it.

More

Washington State Study Shows Declining Living Standard

More people find themselves falling behind

Study shows it takes more money to maintain minimal standard of living...

PhotoEconomists tell us that the cost of living hasn't gone up that much, in the form of inflation, over the last three years. So why, for millions of consumers, does it feel like they are constantly falling behind?

A study that examined living standards in Washington state provides some interesting clues. It shows that two areas in particular, healthcare and housing, are putting consumers in the hole.

A University of Washington (UW) research group examined the bare-bones expenses for a single parent with one preschooler and one school-age child living in Seattle and found it needs an annual income of $56,904 – up 13 percent from $50,268 two years ago – to meet the family’s most basic requirements.

A similar family living in Spokane County needs $41,750, up 8 percent from $38,562 two years ago.

Families are getting squeezed

“Even as wages have stagnated and unemployment doubled during the Great Recession, the cost of meeting basic needs has continued to rise, putting an economic squeeze on families who are struggling to survive in this difficult economy,” said Diana Pearce, author of the report and director of the Center for Women’s Welfare at the UW School of Social Work.

Pearce says that the increase in costs were not due to inflation and occurred even as wages stagnated.

“Even though many people are working hard, they still can’t make ends meet, and these cost increases make it even harder,” she said.

Of all costs, health care increased the most since 2009, with a 12 percent average increase across the state. Housing costs showed the second-highest percentage increase, up an average of 10 percent from 2009 to 2011. However, some urban counties had substantially greater housing cost increases.

Why is housing going up?

But wait, how could housing costs be going up when home prices in most parts of the country are still falling, or at best holding their own? True, but when home sales down nearly everywhere, more people are renting, and rents are not going down.

“Falling house values has not translated into falling rents for most households,” Pearce said. “Of course, for families subsisting at this basic needs level, buying a house is rarely an option, and indeed some families may have experienced bank foreclosure on their homes, resulting in their coming into a rental market where rents are rising.”

In many markets now, the cost of a monthly mortgage, including tax and insurance, is significantly lower than the cost to recent the same home. But with tighter lending standards, fewer people can qualify for mortgages.

Self-sufficiency standard

The self-sufficiency standard, created by Pearce and used in 37 states and the cities of New York and Washington, D.C., differs from the federal poverty level because the standard factors in geography as well as family composition. The federal poverty level – the most commonly used income benchmark for determining public assistance – considers three-person families poor if they make $18,530 or less each year, whether they live in New York City or rural Mississippi.

“The federal poverty level is outdated, inadequate and vastly underestimates what it actually costs for American families to get by,” Pearce said. “It was designed almost a half century ago, when food was a bigger portion of the family budget and child care was rarely a cost,” she said.

More

Danish Study Finds No Increased Cancer Risk in Cellphone Users

Risks could go up with longer-term usage, however

A Danish study said to be the largest of its kind finds no association between long-term cellphone use and tumors of the brain and central nervous system ....

PhotoA Danish study said to be the largest of its kind finds no association between long-term cellphone use and tumors of the brain and central nervous system.

Researchers from the Danish Cancer Society and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reported in the BMJ (British Medical Journal) that they studied more than 358,000 people over 18 years. 

The study was funded by the Danish government and did not receive any financial report from the cellphone industry, the researchers said.

With more than 5 billion cellphone subscriptions globally, there has been increasing concern about the longterm health effects of exposure to radiofrequency emissions from the phones.

The Danish study focused on Danes aged at least 30 years who were born in Denmark after 1925. They divided them into two groups, those who had been subscribers since 1995 and people who had a cellphone before 1995. 

Among the findings were these:

  • 10,729 nervous system tumors were reported from 1990 to 2007.
  • Brain and nervous system tumor rates among long-term cellphone users (at least 13 years usage) were nearly the same as for those with no cellphone.
  • There was no overall increase of any type of tumor risk for long-term cellphone users, compared to those with no cellphones

The authors cautioned that, while they did not find any higher risks of cancer in the study group, that does not rule out the possbility of greater risk in those exposed to cellphone radiation for even longer periods of time.

More

New Legislation Forces Longtime Student Lender Out of Business

Access Group will service existing loans but won't write new ones

Thinking of going to law school?  Don't look to Access Group for a loan.The nonprofit company has been the largest single provider of loans to law s...

PhotoThinking of going to law school?  Don't look to Access Group for a loan.

The nonprofit company has been the largest single provider of loans to law students since 1983 but a change in federal policy has forced it to stop lending and shed most of its staff, the company said.

"We are out of the lending business," said Access Group President and Chief Executive Officer Christopher Chapman, the National Law Journal reported. "We've been legislated out of the federal loan program." 

Students with existing loans and graduates still repaying loans should notice no difference, he said.  Access is reducing its staff from 260 to about 40 and will hire a third party to service about $8.5 billion in existing loans

Access Group is one of many private student lenders affected by changes made under the federal Health Education Reconciliation Act of 2010. That law made the U.S. Department of Education the sole provider of federally-guaranteed student loans, eliminating outside loan services like Access Group. 

The changes should not hamper new students' ability to get loans, said New York Law School Dean Rick Matasar, chairman of Access Group's board.

More

Clipped Spinach Sold in Los Angeles Recalled

Salmonella found in sample bad tested by USDA

Church Brothers, LLC is recalling 560 bags of clipped spinach as a precautionary measure after one bag tested positive for Salmonella during a random USDA ...

Church Brothers, LLC is recalling 560 bags of clipped spinach as a precautionary measure after one bag tested positive for Salmonella during a random USDA Microbiological Data Program sampling.

The recalled product was processed on October 6, 2011 and shipped in 2.5 pound bags to Super King Markets in Los Angeles, California. The bagged spinach affected by this recall was available for sale beginning October 7, 2011 and has a “best if used by” date of 10/23/11.

Salmonella is an organism which can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. Healthy persons infected with Salmonella often experience fever, diarrhea (which may be bloody), nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.

“We are cooperating closely with the US Food and Drug Administration and California Department of Public Health to ensure prompt removal of product associated with the recall,” said Steve Church, Church Brothers, and LLC. “While we are not aware of any illnesses associated with this product, it is important that we act quickly based on the random sample results in order to reduce any risk to public health.”

Anyone who has in their possession any of the recalled bagged spinach as described above should not consume it, and should destroy it or return it to Church Brothers, LLC.

Consumers with questions or who need information may call 1-800-799-9475.

 

More

More Anti-Foreclosure Help May Be On The Way

But is it too little, too late?

Obama Administration set to offer more homeowner assistance...

PhotoThe Obama Administration this week is reportedly set to announce a new plan to help struggling homeowners modify their mortgages. Sound familiar?

It should. The administration launched the Making Home Affordable (HAMP) program soon after taking office, but it never got close to meeting expectations. The repackaged programs that have followed it haven't done that much better.

According to Amherst Securities Group, nearly one in five U.S. homeowners could eventually default on their mortgage unless Congress adopts new policies to prevent it. Amherst senior marketing director Laurie Goodman testified before Congress recently that approximately 10.4 million homeowners out of 55 million who currently have mortgages are likely to default and lose their homes in the next few years. The number is more than double the current number of home loans in default, 4.5 million.

Foreclosures have more causes now

While early foreclosures were caused by subprime mortgages – on homes the buyers really couldn't afford in the first place - resetting to sharply higher rates, with completely unaffordable payments. Next came a 9.1 percent unemployment rate, with the newly unemployed unable to make mortgage payments.

Mortgage modification programs were designed to help qualified homeowners negotiate lower payments, but from the beginning, homeowners complained that loan servicers dragged their feet, lost paperwork and provided wrong information. The result that many homes that might have been saved went to foreclosure.

Then, there are the cases like Micheal's, of Society Hill, S.C., that sounds like it should never have fallen into the foreclosure category. Micheal says that eight years ago he and his wife purchased a mobile home for $1200 down and $325 a month and made payments on a 12 year note.

Losing home over insurance policy

He said Vanderbilt Mortgage purchased his mortgage and sent him a letter informing him he must have insurance on his mobile home and offering a policy. But Michael said he and his wife already had an insurance policy on their home.

“We never, and I mean never, ever let our mobile home insurance lapse,” Michael told ConsumerAffairs.com. “The company we bought insurance from was local and charged us about $600 for the entire year. We called Vanderbilt and explained that we had insurance and we never let it lapse. The Vanderbilt customer service department did not respond and added the payments to our $325 which was well over $400.”

Michael said his local insurance agent faxed a copy of his current policy to Vanderbilt, but the fax was never acknowledged. Michael said Vanderbilt told him he must but their more expensive insurance policy or lose their home.

“We only had four more years left and our home that we worked so hard for would have been paid off,” Michael said. “Long story short Vanderbilt came and took the home and sold to a buyer at the beach. We are now homeless, even after paying over $31,000 on a trailer that was six years old when we bought it.”

Especially tragic

While all foreclosures are tragic, this one appears especially so. With some support, and maybe some legal advice, Michael and his wife should have been able to hold onto the home for which they were making regular, on-time payments. There may have been no place in his community to turn for help, and by the time Michael contacted ConsumerAffairs.com, he had already lost his house.

All of this makes at least one member of Congress very, very angry. As he announced his retirement from Congress earlier this month, Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-CA) issued a scathing indictment of the Obama Administration's efforts to address the foreclosure crisis.

"Home foreclosures are destroying communities and crushing our economy, and the Administration's inaction is infuriating," Cardoza said.

The Administration is said to be ready to address this criticism with a new plan to assist distressed homeowners. But Bloomberg News quotes lawmakers and analysts briefed on the plan that the new effort is only expected to reach fewer than one million mortgage holders.

More

Is 'Super-Sizing' A Search For Status?

Researcher sees the psychology behind large portions

Study says people who want large food portions are seeking greater status...

PhotoAs health experts worry about American's ever-expanding waistlines, fingers of blame are sometimes pointed at huge restaurant portions. If only restaurants would scale back the amount of food they serve consumers, the reasoning goes, people would be healthier.

But there's got to be a reason that consumers want these giant-sized servings, and researchers say it might not be just because they're hungry. The study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, suggests consumers who feel powerless in their daily lives will choose larger size food portions in an attempt to gain status.

Eating more and enjoying it less

"An ongoing trend in food consumption is consumers' tendency to eat more and more," write authors David Dubois, if HEC Paris, Derek D. Rucker, and Adam D. Galinsky, both of Northwestern University. "Even more worrisome, the increase in food consumption is particularly prevalent among vulnerable populations such as lower socioeconomic status consumers."

Many cultural norms associate larger products with greater status. For instance, the size of a vehicle, house, or TV. The authors tested whether or not consumers used the size of food products to express their status.

"Because vulnerable consumers are prone to express their status in order to compensate for their undesirable position and respond to daily threats, this research further proposes that the tendency to use the size of food options within an assortment will be particularly strong among those consumers who feel powerless," the authors write.

Experiment

In one of the authors' experiments, they confirmed that consumers equate larger sizes of food options with greater status. For example, participants perceived that consumers who chose a large coffee had more status than someone who chose medium or small, even when the price was the same.

In other experiments, powerless consumers chose larger pieces of bagels than baseline participants. And the authors found that participants chose larger smoothies when they were at a social event than when they were alone.

But there is hope for our expanding waistlines, according to the authors. When powerless participants in one study were told that smaller hors d'oeuvres were served at prestigious events, they chose smaller items that had fewer calories.

"Understanding and monitoring the size-to-status relationship of food options within an assortment is an important tool at the disposal of policy makers to effectively fight against overconsumption," the authors conclude.

More

Lifestyle Changes May Be Key To Fountain Of Youth

More important than drugs and other health products

Noted cardiologist says live healthy and live longer...

Think of all the consumer products that promise to make you look younger, as well as those that promise to restore and maintain health.

But a noted cardiologist says the key to feeling young and healthy and adding years to your life las less to do with drugs and other products and more to do with how you live.

Live a decade longer

In fact, his research suggests that implementing healthy lifestyle strategies could help people add a decade or more of healthy years to the average lifespan and save the economy billions of dollars as a result of reduced cardiovascular disease.

In a speech at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress in Vancouver over the weekend, Dr. Clyde Yancy said people who follow seven simple steps to a healthy life can expect to live an additional 40 to 50 years after the age of 50.

Seven simple lifestyle factors

"Achieving these seven simple lifestyle factors gives people a 90 per cent chance of living to the age of 90 or 100, free of not only heart disease and stroke but from a number of other chronic illnesses including cancer," said Yancey, a professor of medicine and chief of cardiology at the Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. He is also the past-president of the American Heart Association.

Yancey said people who follow these steps can compress life-threatening disease into the final stages of life and maintain quality of life for the longest possible time. He predicts that, if we act now, we can reverse the tide by 2020.

2200 deaths per day

According to 2007 data, some 2200 people in the U.S. die each day from cardiovascular disease. According to Canada's Heart and Stroke Foundation, every year in Canada about 250,000 potential years of life are lost due to heart disease and stroke, which are two of the three leading causes of death in Canada.

According to Yancy, the seven secrets to a longer, healthy life are as follows:

  • GET ACTIVE: Inactivity can shave almost four years off a person's expected lifespan. People who are physically inactive are twice as likely to be at risk for heart disease or stroke.
  • KNOW AND CONTROL CHOLESTEROL LEVELS: Almost 40 per cent of Canadian adults have high blood cholesterol, which can lead to the build up of fatty deposits in your arteries, increasing your risk for heart disease and stroke.
  • FOLLOW A HEALTHY DIET: Healthy eating is one of the most important things you can do to improve your health – yet about half of Canadians don't meet the healthy eating recommendations.
  • KNOW AND CONTROL BLOOD PRESSURE: High blood pressure - often called a 'silent killer' because it has no warning signs or symptoms - affects one in five Canadians. By knowing and controlling your blood pressure, you can cut your risk of stroke by up to 40 per cent and the risk of heart attack by up to 25 per cent.
  • ACHIEVE AND MAINTAIN A HEALTHY WEIGHT: About one-third of American adults are classified as obese. Almost 60 per cent of Canadian adults are either overweight or obese, major risk factors for heart disease and stroke. Being obese can reduce your life span by almost four years.
  • MANAGE DIABETES: Diabetes increases the risk of high blood pressure, atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries), coronary artery disease, and stroke, particularly if your blood sugar levels are poorly controlled.
  • BE TOBACCO FREE: Thousands die prematurely each year due to tobacco use, and thousands of non-smokers die each year from exposure to second-hand smoke. As soon as you become smoke-free, your risk of heart disease and stroke begins to decrease. After 15 years ,your risk will be nearly that of a non-smoker.
More

What's On Your Mind? Winners International Sweepstakes, TravelNow.com, Kirby Vacuums

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Winners International Sweepstakes, TravelNow.com, Kirby Vacuums, Unnecessary detour and ...

PhotoFor years we have tried to caution consumers about phony international sweepstakes that try to make you believe you have won a fortune, just before hitting you up for a “processing fee.” Over the weekend we heard from Richard, a police officer in Catskill, N.Y., who is investigating Winners International Sweepstakes.

“I received a complaint from a subject who stated she received a phone call from a 'James Rose' from Winners International Sweepstakes.,” Richard told ConsumerAffairs.com.

The call came from a 718 area code.

“The male with a heavy accent advised her she had won $1.5 million dollars and needed to send a check in the amount of $255 as a processing fee,” Richard said. “I called the subject back and he provided me with a mailing address to send the check:

William Boyle
36 Washington Pk
Carver, MA 73801

Richard said the Zip code is for Oklahoma and the phone number goes to New York City.

“Please contact your local police agency and provide them with information if you receive a phone call,” Richard advises.  Thanks, Richard, but it's unlikely local police will be able to get to the bottom of this.  

Unnecessary detour

Sylvia, of Tyler, Tex., is a good example of why it's always important to be very careful when you are conducting an online search for a hotel. It's easy to encounter a case of mistaken identity.

“When I thought I was calling the Hampton Inn in Manheim, Penn., I actually was calling Travelnow.com,” Sylvia said. “They told me that there were no rooms available and set me up in another hotel, 40 minutes away on a dark country road. My co-workers all checked into the Hampton Inn and were told that there were 20 rooms available. When I tried to transfer my reservation with the help of the Hampton Inn's Front Desk Manager, Travelnow refused to accommodate my transfer and charged me $286.04.”

Sylvia was correct to try and book her hotel directly and not use a third-party booking site. Unfortunately, she probably clicked on a sponsored link rather than the link for the hotel in which she wanted to stay. That's why it's important to check the URL very carefully.

Not mincing words

Dave, of Laurel, Mont., reminds us of one of those “man's man” type characters you sometimes see on commercials for inexpensive beer or power tools. Slow to get angry, but at some point he's not going to put up with a nuisance, such as someone trying to push a Kirby vacuum cleaner on his wife.

“After an hour the salesman was asked to leave and he acted like he hadn't heard me,” Dave told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I again asked him to leave and he ignored me and continued to talk to the wife. I ordered him out of my house and he ignored me again. The ***** just didn't get the message. After I said some physical harm may come to him, he started packing his wares, the whole time saying what a shame it was we were using an inferior vacuum and living in filth. As he was heading out the door he got on a cell phone and talked to somebody and said that I could have the machine for $799.00 and that was his discount for us. I said if the machine was a dollar I would not buy it.”

And that's how you handle an unwelcome vacuum cleaner salesman.

More

Google Weighing a Bid for Yahoo?

Report says Google may try to snatch Yahoo out of the arms of Microsoft

So, if you ran a phenomenally successful company that completely dominated your niche, would you tempt fate (and the antitrust regulators) by buying one of...

More

Utah Credit Union Drops Payday Loans After Press Reports

But big banks and Indian tribes are still edging into the market

A Utah credit union has stopped selling payday loans after being featured prominently in news reports.  Mountain America Credit Union had been offerin...

PhotoA Utah credit union has stopped selling payday loans after being featured prominently in news reports.  Mountain America Credit Union had been offering its members a "MyInstaCash" loan that topped out at an 876 percent annual interest rate for a $100, five-day loan.

The unsavory practice was revealed in an investigation by the nonprofit online investigative reporting site iWatch News. 

Payday loans are basically short-term, unsecured loans which are usually due when the borrower receives his or her next paycheck. Consumer groups call them predatory and say lenders charge exorbitant interest, often trapping borrowers in a cycle of debt that they can’t escape.

Mountain America's new "Helping Hands” loan complies with rules set by the National Credit Union Administration that permit federal credit unions to lend at a maximum 28 percent annual rate provided they follow certain guidelines, such as giving customers more time.

One of several

Mountain America, a large credit union with $2.8 billion in assets, is one of several that skirted the interest-rate-cap rule by partnering with third-party lenders that financed the loans. Customers were directed to these lenders through a link on the credit unions’ websites.

Those lenders would then turn over a finder’s fee, or a cut of the profits, to a separate business, set up by the credit union.

The third-party lender that backed Mountain America’s payday loans was Capital Finance, LLC, located just a few miles from Mountain America’s headquarters in a Salt Lake City suburb, iWatch News reported.

An NCUA spokesman said credit unions are permitted to direct customers to payday lenders from their websites in exchange for a commission fee.

Not just CUs

Credit unions aren't the only institutions that are finding it hard to resist the allure of the sky-high interest rates payday loans generated. Banks and even Indian tribes are getting into the act.

Big banks began muscling their way into the business last year, charging an average 365 percent APR, a study found. The report from the Center for Responsible Lending finds that, on average, a bank payday loan is repaid within 10 days, eats up 44 percent of a borrower’s next deposit, and often creates the need for a subsequent loan.

As a result, borrowers stay in debt an average of 175 days, paying over $900 in interest to borrow $500 for less than 6 months.

The entry of American Indian tribes into the business is an even bigger frustration to regulators' efforts to curtail payday lending. 

Because they are sovereign nations under their treaties with the U.S., Indian tribes are immune to state interest-rate caps and regulations imposed on the payday loan industry. They can even operate in the 12 states that have banned payday lenders outright.

It's not, of course, the Indian tribes themselves who are opening storefront and Internet loan operations. Instead, existing lenders “move” their headquarters to an Indian reservation,usually in name only,and share their revenue with tribal leaders.

More

Barbie Sports A Tattoo And Some Parents Aren't Happy

But doll is a collectors' edition, not designed for mass sales

We all know that Barbie, Mattel's iconic doll, has always been on the cutting edge of fashion and trends. So, should anyone be surprised when the new Barbi...


PhotoWe all know that Barbie, Mattel's iconic doll, has always been on the cutting edge of fashion and trends. So, should anyone be surprised when the new Barbie sports a tattoo?

“Tokidoki Barbie” has the familiar hair style and face, but the body ink is definitely a new feature. She has exotic tattoos in several places, including her neck, shoulder and arms. WCBS-TV in New York interviewed a number of parents who definitely don't like the doll's edgy new look.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for little girls to be having Barbies with tattoos all over,” one parent, Reye Griffith, told the station's reporter.

But parents are probably over-worrying the issue, since it's unlikely their child will see one in advertisements. The Tokidoki Barbie is a collectible doll, which means you won't find it in the toy aisle at Toys R Us. It will sell for around $50, almost exclusively online, making it a lot more expensive than a regular Barbie.

Even so, a check of the Barbie collectors' site barbiecollector.com shows the doll is sold out. The site's description of Tokidoki Barbie says she is “always ready for cutting edge fashion.”

“She pops on a pink miniskirt, logo leggings and black top with signature skull heart and bones, carries a large bag from the brand, then adds bracelets, a belt, and sky-high sparkly silvery shoes,” the site says. “This funky fashionista features trendy tattoos and a pink bob. With cactus friend, Bastardino, by her side, she’s ready for fun in fashion-forward form!”

The original Barbie made her American debut in 1959 and was the brainchild of Ruth Handler, who was married to one of Mattel's co-founders. Ironically, neither her husband nor the Mattel board was interested at first. Only her persistence led to the creation of what became one of the most successful products in the company's history.

More

Electric Motion Recalls Lithium-poly Bicycle Batteries

The battery can overheat and catch fire

Electric Motion Systems  is recalling about 70 rechargeable lithium-poly batteries. The battery can overheat and catch fire.The company is awar...

PhotoElectric Motion Systems  is recalling about 70 rechargeable lithium-poly batteries. The battery can overheat and catch fire.

The company is aware of three reports of the battery catching fire. One incident resulted in a consumer receiving minor burns.

The recalled product is a black lithium-poly 37 volt, 10Ah battery used in electric bicycles and propulsion systems. The battery is 8.75 inches x 5.75 inches x 3.25 inches. “E+” appears on a label on the side of the battery. Recalled batteries have “EMS# 11819-101” at the top right of the label with a serial number between 10001 and 10200. The batteries were sold on their own and as part of the E+ Flex Kits. The kits are complete propulsion systems.

The batteries were sold by bike shops nationwide and the company’s website, from October 2009 through November 2010. Batteries sold for between $900 and $1,000 and the E+ Flex Kits were sold for between $2,325 and $2,675. They were made in China.

Consumers should immediately stop using the battery packs and contact Electric Motion Systems, LLC. If you own a flex kit, you will receive a free battery pack installed on a new front wheel for your electric bike. If you purchased just the battery, Electric Motion Systems, LLC will provide you one of several choices including a new, free frame to fit with your existing electric propulsion system.

For additional information, contact Electric Motion Systems, LLC toll-free at (877) 824-5339 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, visit their website at www.epluselectricbike.com or e-mail the company at info@epluselectricbike.com. The company is contacting its customers directly

More

FDA Chemist Pleads Guilty in Insider Trading Scheme

Defendant misused FDA data on new drug applications

A Food and Drug Administration (FDA) chemist has pleaded guilty in an insider trading scheme that relied on confidential FDA data.Cheng Yi Liang, 57, of ...

PhotoA Food and Drug Administration (FDA) chemist has pleaded guilty in an insider trading scheme that relied on confidential FDA data.

Cheng Yi Liang, 57, of Gaithersburg, Md., entered a guilty plea to one count of securities fraud and one count of making false statements, related to a $3.7 million insider trading scheme that spanned nearly five years. Liang appeared before U.S. District Court Judge Deborah K. Chasanow in the District of Maryland.

According to court documents and testimony Liang has been employed as a chemist since 1996 at the FDA’s Office of New Drug Quality Assessment (NDQA).

Through his work at NDQA, Liang had access to the FDA’s password-protected internal tracking system for new drug applications, known as the Document Archiving, Reporting and Regulatory Tracking System (DARRTS), which is used to manage, track, receive and report on new drug applications.

Liang reviewed DARRTS for information relating to the progression of experimental drugs through the FDA approval process. Much of the information accessible on the DARRTS system constituted material, non-public information regarding pharmaceutical companies that had submitted their experimental drugs to the FDA for review.

“Mr. Liang used inside information about pharmaceutical companies—information he had access to solely because of his position at the FDA—to pocket millions in illicit profits,” said Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer. “In a shocking abuse of trust, Mr. Liang exploited his position as a chemist in the FDA’s Office of New Drug Quality Assessment to cash in, using the accounts of relatives and acquaintances to hide his illegal trading. Now, like many others on Wall Street and elsewhere, he is facing the significant consequences of trading stocks on inside information.”

Liang admitted that from approximately July 2006 through March 2011, he used the inside information he learned from DARRTS and other sources to trade in the securities of pharmaceutical companies. Liang used accounts of relatives, including his son, and acquaintances to execute the trades (referred to as the controlled accounts).

When the inside information was positive about a company’s product, Liang used the controlled accounts to purchase securities. When the inside information was negative, Liang would make trades in anticipation of the stocks’ downward movement.

Liang admitted that he used these controlled accounts to execute trades to profit from the change in the company’s share price after the FDA’s action was made public, resulting in total profits and losses avoided of more than $3.7 million.

For example, on May 21, 2010, the FDA accepted Clinical Data Inc.’s application for Viibryd, an anti-depressant. According to court documents, on Jan. 6, 2011, HHS-OIG installed software on Liang’s work computer, allowing it to collect screen shots from that computer, which revealed Liang regularly accessed the DARRTS system and reviewed information regarding Clinical Data’s drug Viibryd.

Between Jan. 6, 2011, and Jan. 20, 2011, Liang purchased a total of 46,875 shares of Clinical Data stock using the controlled accounts. After the markets closed on Friday, Jan. 21, 2011, news of the FDA’s approval of Viibryd was reported. Clinical Data’s stock, which had closed that day at approximately $15.03 per share opened the following Monday, Jan. 24, 2011, at approximately $24.76 per share. Liang then sold all 46,875 shares of Clinical Data stock in the controlled accounts, netting a total profit of approximately $384,300.

More

What's On Your Mind? CheapTickets.com, Priceline, Chase Mortgage

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: CheapTickets.com, Priceline, Chase Mortgage, No changes and Slow response....

PhotoMysterious unauthorized charges on your credit card bill can be infuriating, and they usually require some effort to get them removed. Don, of Denver, recently avoided one, but just barely.

“I got an email from my credit card company indicating that CheapTickets.com tried to charge my card $6.99,” Don told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I never authorized such a charge, and when I called Cheaptickets for an explanation, and how they got my card number, they refused to answer my questions, and evenutally they hung up on me. I never made a purchase on their site, nor even attempted to do so.”

This is how a situation like this could have happened: Cheaptickets.com most likely had a third-party marketing arrangement with another company, allowing them to market to that company's customers at the end of a transaction. While the law makes clear that these offers must carrying “clear and conspicuous terms,” many don't. And consumers would likely overlook them if they did.

In Don's case, he probably had just finished a transaction with Company A, in which he had used his credit card. When a pop-up “free” offer from a company like CheapTickets.com came along, he had no reason to believe that company could charge his credit card. What he didn't know is that third party marketing agreement gives CheapTickets access to Don's credit card information that he gave to Company A. Don didn't mention who his credit card company is but they deserve a shout-out for catching this before it happened.

No changes

Online travel booking sites have been around for more than ten years but some consumers still don't understand how they work. For example, RB, of Salt Lake City, Utah., was confused and angry when she couldn't change a reservation

“I rented a car through Priceline for a trip to Tennessee,” RB said. “My work schedule changed and I could not travel on the original dates, so I called to see if the car rental company could change the reservation. They told me I would have to contact Priceline. I called Priceline and supposedly spoke with a supervisor. They refused to help as well. They said there is no way to change or delete a reservation.”

Sorry, RB.  This is pretty much standard operating procedure. In exchange for a discount, you give up the right to cancel or modify your reservation. Thats why, if you think your plans are subject to change, you should always book directly with the hotel, airline or rental car company.

Slow response

Mogli, of Glennwood Springs, Colo., has a somewhat unusual problem. He paid off the first lien on his Washington Mutual mortgage in 2002 but in the almost decade since, has not been able to obtain a release.

“The title company that paid off the mortgage has been trying to obtain a release for a first lien DOT since January 28, 2002, almost ten years,” Mogli told ConsumerAffairs.com. “To date we have not received a release from Chase, even though they submitted plenty of proof of payment in full on January 28, 2002. Back then it was Washington Mutual. What to do?”

This sounds like a tough one because a lot of years have passed and the original company has been sold. But if Mogli still has his loan account number, he should try contacting Chase Mortgage, which acquired Washington Mutual, and request a copy of his last loan statement. That document should show a zero balance, which might convince someone at Chase to send out the release. Mogli needs to clear this up before he can refinance his property.

More

How To Break the Expensive Big-Screen TV Habit

Be cheap, think small and improvise, say our resident tinkerers

The Craig 15-inch HDTV is a $79 alternative to big screens that costs hundreds...

PhotoIt's clear from complaints to ConsumerAffairs.com that flat-screen TV manufacturers have a few quality issues yet to be ironed out ... and also that consumers are investing way too much money in home entertainment systems.

“We contacted Samsung because our 40-inch Samsung flat screen, purchased on June 23, 2008, would not power on,” Gayle, of Ivroyton, Conn., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “We paid $1,000 for this TV, a little more than 3 years ago, and it is no good to us unless we spend more money on it. That, I believe, is throwing good money after bad."

And it's not just one brand of TVs that are causing consumers heartburn.

“I purchased a Sony in September 2009,” Kevin, of East Setauket, N.Y., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Within 15 months, lines started to appear on the bottom of the screen. After a few minutes of warm time, the issue would resolve itself. The warmup time has been getting longer every day until it is now a persistent problem, interfering in viewing the screen.”

Capacitor plague

Then, there is the issue of capacitors going bad after two or three years of use, a condition known in the repair industry as “capacitor plague.” While the replacement of capacitors is not a hugely expensive repair, consumers are understandably irked that the TV set they purchased for more than $1,000 needs a repair after a few months of use.

As long as consumers continue to purchase these expensive, large screen TVs manufacturers have little incentive to improve them. But what if consumers decided it just isn't worth trying up that kind of money in a device that could become useless after a few months? Can you say no to a giant TV that takes up half the wall in the den?

Here are a couple of inexpensive options.

1.  Small is beautiful

While it won't provide a “theater” experience or impress your friends, a small HD set can at least allow you to watch your favorite shows, sports and movies at a fraction of the cost.

Craig produces a 15 inch 720p HD set, for example, that sells for just $79. You can get them at CVS, Best Buy, and a number of other chain stores.

While Craig is not known as a top-end manufacturer, the 15-inch CLC501 produces a remarkable high-definition image and very good audio. We have tested one over the last few months with surprisingly good results.

Best feature

The best feature about the TV, however, is its price. At $79, there is no investment in a set that could require a future repair costing hundreds of dollars. If and when the Craig blows a capacitor, you simply dispose of it and buy another one.

As for its small size, it all depends on how far you are from the screen. After all, people are now watching movies on their smartphones and tablets these days.

Yes, it's nice to watch a game or a movie on a theater-sized screen, but at what cost? Until manufacturers are able to reliably produce sets that give eight to ten years of trouble-free use, maybe consumers should sit a little closer to the screen and pocket the savings.

2. Use a monitor

Here's an alternative suggestion from our Truman Lewis: use an LCD computer monitor.  It's basically a TV without the tuner and usually with only a marginal sound system. We don't hear about capacitor plague in monitors, and have never experienced it, perhaps because their internal electronics are simpler -- not as many heat-generating parts crammed into a small space.

Assuming you have a cable or satellite TV box, you don't need a tuner, since the channel selection is taken care of by the cable box.  Most decent monitors come with HDMI and component video inputs and many will deliver 1080p resolution, which is "true" high-def. 

You can find a 24" or 25" monitor for less than $150 at sites like Geeks.com and Amazon.com. Remember to search for "computer monitor," not TV.  Be sure to check shipping charges; some sites charge much more than others for shipping.

This photo shows Truman's video set-up at his Burbank, Calif., apartment.

Photo

 

A notorious cheapskate, Truman uses an ASUS computer monitor that he bought for less than $200, a compact Denon stereo system (about $200) and an LG DVD player which also receives Netflix and other streaming video sources (less than $100).  A Charter Cable DVR  and an IKEA cabinet (less than $100) round out the package, which does  everything Truman wants it to do. 

Truman likes to say he assembles most of his work-related and entertainment packages out of the junk box.  In this case, the ASUS computer monitor was used in Truman's office for a year or so before being conscripted into providing evening entertainment.  The stereo system is a few years old and the DVD player was picked up cheaply during a going-out-of-business sale at a local retailer.

The advantage of building a system this way is that if one component fails, you can simply pitch it and buy another one for a few hundred dollars.  You don't have to throw out the audio system because the LCD screen dies, in other words.

This does require a little tinkering and, until you figure out which cable does what, you may find yourself trudging back and forth to Home Depot to buy the right cable but it's basically pretty foolproof.

You may have to manually switch between your cable and DVD feeds using the switch on the monitor instead of a handheld remote but this is a small price to pay for the cost savings.

Three final hints from Truman:

  • Skimp on everything else but buy a good battery back-up/surge protector (not shown in the photo).  Electronic equipment is delicate.
  • Keep it cool.  Don't stack components on top of each other and don't put the system in direct sunlight.  Heat kills circuit boards and components.
  • Buy cheap cables.  The pretend geeks at Radio Shack will tell you you need an $80 HDMI cable.  Hogwash.  Amazon has HDMI cables for less than $5 and so do stores like Home Depot, Best Buy and PC Richard.  
Truman admits his screen is a little smaller than some of his neighbors'.  The consolation, he says, is that his bank account is quite a bit bigger, thanks to his thrifty ways, enabling him to comfortably furnish his rooftop balcony, which provides big-screen views of the nighttime sky over Los Angeles.  Hey, it beats the Jersey Shore. 
More

Clearer Food Labeling Proposed

Institute of Medicine thinks food packages could be a lot more informative

There's a lot of information on the front of food packages, but who useful is it? The Institute of Medicine (IOM) thinks it could be a lot more useful...

PhotoThere's a lot of information on the front of food packages, but how  useful is it? The Institute of Medicine (IOM) thinks it could be a lot more useful -- and concludes in a study that a lot of what's now out there leads more often to confusion than to enlightenment.  

In fact, the Institute says it's time to move away from front-of-package systems that mostly provide nutrition information on foods or beverages but don’t give clear guidance about their healthfulness, and toward one that "encourages healthier choices through simplicity, visual clarity, and the ability to convey meaning without written information."

What would make it clearer?  Maybe some pictures.  

The report recommends that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) develop, test, and implement a single, standard symbol system to appear on all food and beverage products, in place of other systems already in use.

The IOM says a symbol system should show calories in household servings on all products. Foods and beverages should be evaluated using a point system for saturated and trans fats and sodium, and added sugars. The more points a food or beverage has, the healthier it is.

Eminently sensible

"This system would encourage food and beverage producers to develop healthier fare and consumers to quickly and easily find healthier products when they shop," the Institute said.

This sounds pretty good to healthy food crusader Michael F. Jacobson, who heads the Center for Science in the Public Interest.  He calls it "eminently sensible" but predicts it will be roundly condemned by food manufacturers.

"A simple icon with 3, 2, 1, or zero check marks would give shoppers at-a-glance information about nutritional booby traps lurking inside packaged foods," Jacobson said.

"The IOM’s proposal is far preferable to the voluntary 'Facts Up Front' labeling program that the grocery industry is rushing to market," Jacobson said. "The industry hopes to preempt more consumer-friendly requirements by the FDA. The industry’s complex scheme requires consumers to consider the amounts of calories and four to six nutrients, without any numerical score or useful symbols to convey a food’s nutritional value."

Jacobson said the IOM’s approach still has holes that the FDA would have to address. For instance, he said, it gives no consideration to foods’ vitamin, mineral, fiber, or protein content. Also, white bread, whole wheat bread, broccoli, artificially sweetened soft drinks, and artificially colored and flavored diet Jell-O would all have top scores of 3.

"Still, the FDA should promptly assign a task force to develop a mandatory front-of-package labeling regulation based on the IOM’s advice," Jacobson said.

More

Facial Recognition Technology Raising Privacy Concerns

Sen. Rockefeller Wants FTC to recommend legislation

Senator John D. Rockefeller (D-WV) sent a letter requesting that the Federal Trade Commission assess the use of facial recognition technology and...

Photo
Sen. Rockefeller

Facial recognition technology is starting to spook out privacy activists as it is increasingly being used in ways no one dreamed of just a few years ago. Think Facebook tags.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) thinks it's time for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to study the issue and recommend legislation to protect privacy.  Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, notes the technology is being used by private firms as well as police agencies.

In a letter to the FTC, he cites mobile applications such as SceneTap, which "tracks the male/female ratio and age mix of the crowd [in bars]" and digital advertising at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas that tailors ads to the person standing in front of the display based on recognition of that person’s age and gender.

“I ask that the commission provide a report to the [committee] following the workshop, and that this report include potential legislative approaches to protect consumer privacy as this technology proliferates,” Rockefeller wrote to the FTC.

The FTC is already working on updating its Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), proposing a new rule that would broaden protections to ensure parental notification and parental approval of uploaded pictures of children.

“Given the prevalence and popularity of posting photos, videos and audio files online, the commission has reevaluated the privacy and safety implications of such practices as they pertain to children,” the draft said.

Law enforcement

Meanwhile, the FBI is working to activate a nationwide facial recognition service that will be available to law enforcement  authorities in select states by January 2012.

Officials will be able to upload a picture of an unknown person and receive a list of mug shots ranked in order of similarity to the features of the subject in the photo. The tool will search among the 10 million images stored in the FBI's biometric identification system for suggestions, but will not provide a direct match.

The FTC has scheduled a workshop on facial recognition technology on December 8, 2011, and said irt will report back to Rockefeller after the workshop.

More

Student Debt To Hit $1 Trillion By Year's End

Students strapped before they start a career

Student loan debt continues to rise...

PhotoThere has probably never been a greater need for education and retraining, but the cost of obtaining it is soaring. The cost is especially high if you have to borrow the money.

A new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York says U.S. students are borrowing a startlingly large amount of money to pay for an education, strapping themselves with a huge debt as they begin careers when jobs are hard to come by.

Students and workers seeking retraining are borrowing extraordinary amounts of money through federal loan programs, potentially putting a huge burden on the backs of young people looking for jobs and trying to start careers. The Fed reports new student loans totaled more than $100 billion in 2010, and by the end of this year the amount of all outstanding student loan debt will reach $1 trillion.

Doubled in five years

While consumers have cut credit card and mortgage debt lately, total outstanding student debt has doubled in the last five years.

The debt, and the problems is causes, is a common theme in complaints to ConsumerAffairs.com. Tiffany, of Cumberland, Md., said her mother's parent loan through Sallie Mae to pay for her education started out at $9,000 and was placed on a “deferment.”

“Today we got another statement in the mail saying we owe a total of almost $20,000,” Tiffany told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I don't understand how this company can add interest during a deferment that lasts until May of 2012! It'll take me about ten years to pay off the 20 grand and I will never be able to own a car or move out of my mother's house, at least not until I'm 32 years old anyway.”

The cost of private education has skyrocketed in recent years as schools have spent money to attract the most gifted students. Costs at public colleges and university have also risen, in part because state funding hasn't kept pace with the spending.

For-profit colleges

The growth of for-profit colleges has also helped run up the loan totals. Theresa took out student loans to attend the for-profit University of Phoenix, but now has buyer's remorse.

“I received a bachelors degree in business administration from UOP,” Theresa told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Potential employers do not view University of Phoenix as a scholastic institution. My degree is worthless in the business world. It is a joke. The college credits will not transfer to other institutions. And I have a student loan debt of over $30,000.00. The time and money spent to obtain what I considered one of the biggest achievements were all wasted.”

Students who leave school with crushing debt will not easily be able to default. Congress has written the law so that the debt must eventually be paid. It doesn't even go away in bankruptcy. That means millions of people will be working a good portion of their adult lives to pay back their loans.

High default rates

The government says the highest default rates are on loans for for-profit institutions, which tend to serve a low-income student body. Recent immigrants who are trying to enhance their workplace skills also often turn to these institutions.

Financial advisors, meanwhile, urge prospective students to consider a community college, which is acknowledged as one of the best values in education. The cost of two-years at a community college is often a fraction of what it costs a traditional four-year or for-profit colleges.

More

Report: Doctors Prescribe Too Many Stomach Drugs For Infants

Researcher says doctors are treating 'normal condition'

Researcher warns against over-prescribing stomach drugs for infants...

If your pediatrician has prescribed medication to counter stomach acid in your infant, you might want to ask him or her to reconsider.

A researcher writing in the Journal of Pediatrics warns that prescribing acid-supressing drugs for spitting up, irritability and unexplained crying may be doing more harm than good.

Dr. Eric Hassall, Staff Gastroenterologist at Sutter Pacific Medical Foundation in San Francisco, Calif., is also an advisor to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Although the FDA has only approved the use of acid-suppressing drugs, such as proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), in children over the age of one year, the use of PPIs in infants less than 12 months old has greatly increased in the last decade, he says.

Reflux not the same as in adults

Hassall contends that most "reflux" in infants is not acidic because stomach contents have been buffered by frequent feedings.

"However, in the absence of better information and physician guidance and fed by advertising and misinformation on the Internet, distressed parents take their concerns to doctors, who very frequently comply and prescribe acid-suppressing medications for symptoms and signs that, in most cases, are not GERD," he writes.

In fact, Hassall says studies have shown that PPIs are no better than placebo for most infants with symptoms of spitting up, irritability, or unexplained crying, which may be because the medications are frequently prescribed for symptoms that are not gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), the presumed ailment.

According to Hassall, babies cry and spit up. It's normal, and parents shouldn't overreact.

Medicalizing normality

"We are medicalizing normality," Hassall said. "In most infants, these symptoms are 'life,' not a disease, and do not warrant treatment with drugs, which can have significant adverse effects."

In fact, gastric acid is an early line of defense against infection and is important for nutrition; by prescribing acid-suppressing medications to infants without GERD, pediatricians are putting their patients at a higher risk for infections like pneumonia and gastroenteritis, Hassall said.

The use of PPIs in infants can also lead to abnormalities in the levels of essential minerals and vitamins, such as magnesium, calcium, and vitamin B12.

More

What's On Your Mind? Sony, Facebook, Fifth Third Bank, Wild Blue

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Sony, Facebook, Fifth Third Bank, Wild Blue, Crashing browser, New fee and Needs an alternative....

PhotoSony is recalling 1.6 million Bravia flat-panel TVs sold worldwide since 2007 because they may melt or catch fire. Kieth, of Montague, Mich., has a different problem with his set.

“I bought a Sony Bravia KDL-46W3000 a couple of years ago and am experiencing the same problem that many others are complaining about,” Kieth told ConsumerAffairs.com. “When you turn the television on there are horizontal lines and half of the screen is dark and color is distorted. It takes approximately 30 minutes for it to warm up enough to be watchable. This was supposed to be the top of the line television at the time. Spent a couple thousand dollars for this television. Sony knows there is an issue and is doing nothing to correct it. Last time I buy anything Sony.”

We have written extensively about quality issues with many brands of flat screen TVs. Until consumers stop buying them it's unlikely manufacturers will do much to improve them.

Crashing browser

Michelle, of Chicago, Ill., is another consumer who has a beef with Facebook.

“How come every time I try to log off of my Facebook application on my cell phone, it disrupts my web browser and now force closes?,” Michelle asks. "I can't open it now. It keeps wanting to force close. I have turned off my phone, taken out the battery, restarted my phone, and it still force closes. I need my web browser on my phone because I use it to find doctor's offices for my job. This has become an extreme nuisance. Please help fix this. Also, with all of the new updates and what not, Facebook has ultimately caused more problems with keeping up communications with people.”

Facebook seems determined to drive everyone around the bend.  It's a little hard to understand how it can be so tone-deaf.

New fee

We all know that banks are searching for new sources of revenue and Tom, of Aurora, Colo., says his bank – Fifth Third Bank – has found one. When reviewing his checking account statement, he says he found a $2 charge designated as “image/snapshot statement fee.”

“I immediately placed a phone call to Fifth Third and the customer service and the representative I spoke with advised me that this charge was instituted recently for receipt of image copies of checks which would accompany my monthly statement,” Tom said. “I patiently explained to ‘Alexis’ that I do not write check on this account nor do I wish to have a image copy of any checks sent to me as an accompaniment to my monthly statement. Alexis’ attitude was less than conducive to fostering good customer relations and after putting me on hold for 7 minutes came back on and advised me that a written notice had been mailed to me advising me of the option to ‘opt out’ of this charge sometime back. I explained to Alexis that I am a CPA and I do attend to all written communications from financial institutions and certainly did not receive any written advisement(s) from Fifth-Third in regard to the ability to ‘opt-out’ of any proposed charges for image copies.”

But Tom said the customer service rep refused to waive the fee, insisting that all customers had received the letter. Our advice? Tom should pay the $2 but find out as quickly as possible how to opt out of the “image/snapshot” program.

Needs an alternative

Brandy, of Applegate, Calif., lives in a rural area where satellite Internet service appears to be the only option. She is none too happy with Wild Blue and would like an alternative.

“Usage is ridiculously slow, the connection is often disrupted, and as others have stated, I pay for 100 percent usage (7500mb), but when I reach 70 percent, they slow my Internet down so much I can't use it,” Brandy said. “I feel like they are stealing from me.”

Unfortunately, there are not many options for rural Internet users if major providers decide it isn't cost effective to provide DSL service. One possible option is using the mobile broadband services provided by AT&T and Verizon. If Brandy lives near a 3G cell tower, it might be an option. It's not a great option, since you only give five gigabytes of data per billing cycle and it's 3G speed – but it beats satellite.  

More

Feds Mandate Independent Safety Testing of Toys

Long overdue, consumer and parent groups say

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has voted to implement rules that will require independent safety testing of toys and other children's produc...

PhotoThe Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has voted to implement rules that will require independent safety testing of toys and other children's products.

The Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, and Kids in Danger hailed the vote as a critical victory in helping families protect their children, as well as helping to prevent expensive and disruptive recalls.

Third-party testing was a key provision of the law passed with strong bipartisan support by Congress and signed by President Bush in 2008 to crack down on unsafe children’s products.

The law – the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act – was prompted by a wave of recalls of lead-tainted toys and other dangerous items.

Formal rules

Today’s CPSC vote puts formal rules in place to require products designed for children ages 12 and under to undergo third-party safety testing before they are sold.

The requirements include provisions such as testing for lead or lead paint in product materials, identifying hazards that could cause injuries or choking, and making sure that nursery products, including cribs and strollers, meet the strict standards required by the law.

A February 2011 poll by Consumer Reports found that around 8 in 10 consumers strongly agree that the federal government should require testing by manufacturers of children’s products to ensure they do not contain any harmful substances.

"People might assume independent safety tests were already required for toys. But the reality is, too often, dangerous toys aren’t discovered until there’s a tragedy," said Ami Gadhia, Senior Policy Counsel for Consumers Union. “These rules will go a long way toward preventing unnecessary harm to our children, as well as avoiding costly recalls."

Rachel Weintraub, Director of Product Safety and Senior Counsel at Consumer Federation of America, also applauded the CPSC's action.

"Independent third party testing for children's products is a cornerstone of the CPSIA," she said. "To ensure that products meet strict safety standards, testing them to those standards, before they end up in our homes and in our children's hands, is necessary."

More

New Recommendations to Guard Against Sudden Infant Death Syndrome

Pediatricians, federal agencies urge parents to stay up to date on safety procedures

Pediatricians, federal agencies urge parents to stay up to date on safety procedures...

PhotoFederal agencies are expressing support for the new infant safe sleep recommendations issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

The AAP announced the expansion of its recommendations for reducing the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) to include recommendations for a safe sleep environment for all infants.

Many of the sleep environment risk factors for SIDS — bed sharing and soft bedding materials, for example — have accounted for the accidental suffocation observed in many cases of sudden unexpected infant death (SUID), which describes any sudden and unexpected death of a child under 1 year of age, whether explained or unexplained.

The new recommendations were developed to reduce the risk of infant death from SIDS as well as death from known sleep-related causes, such as suffocation from soft bedding materials and entrapment from inappropriate sleep situations, such as becoming lodged between a mattress and headboard. Providing a safe sleep environment has the potential to reduce SIDS risk as well as reduce the risk for SUID.

International studies

In 1992, after several international studies showed that SIDS rates were lower in societies in which infants were place for sleep on their backs, the AAP recommended that all healthy U.S. infants be placed to sleep on their backs.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also expressed support for the new recommendations -- and cautioned parents to be aware that there are no federally approved or recommended products that have been shown to reduce the risk of SIDS.

"Parents and caregivers should beware of products that make SIDS prevention claims because the FDA has never cleared or approved a device to prevent SIDS or reduce the risk of SIDS," said Susan Cummins, M.D., M.P.H., chief pediatric medical officer at FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health.

More

FBI Tries to Identify Items Possibly Involved in Kidnappings

David Parker Ray died in prison, may have kidnapped, tortured missing women

The Albuquerque FBI has released hundreds of images of items that were collected during the investigation of David Parker Ray. The New Mexico man died in s...

The Albuquerque FBI has released hundreds of images of items that were collected during the investigation of David Parker Ray. The New Mexico man died in state prison in 2002 while serving a sentence of more than 223 years in connection with kidnapping and other charges involving two women who said he sexually tortured them at his residence near Elephant Butte Lake.

Numerous searches have been conducted over the years based on suspicions Ray may have killed several unidentified victims. Ray claimed to have abducted about 40 victims from several states. No bodies have been found.

The FBI believes some of the items, which include jewelry and clothes, may have been taken from victims and is asking the public to see if they recognize any of the items.

Photo"The FBI, along with its law enforcement partners in New Mexico, is aggressively pursuing several leads in the search for remains of any possible victims of David Parker Ray," said Frank Fisher of the Albuquerque Field Office. "We are asking family and friends of missing people to look over these photographs and contact us if they recognize any of these items."

Anyone with any information in the case is asked to contact Albuquerque Police Detective Richard Lewis at rlewis@cabq.gov.

View the items

More

Poll: Customers Ready To Switch Banks Over Debit Card Fees

Researcher find lower income customers more accepting of the fee

Researchers have confirmed bank customers are upset about new debit card fees...

PhotoAfter Bank of America announced it would impose a $5 monthly charge on customers who used debit cards to make purchases, it touched off a widespread consumer backlash. Many consumers vowed to switch banks.

But how many actually will? No one knows, but a research firm, Research Intelligence Group, of Ft. Washington, Pa., says it conducted a survey and found that about 30 percent of U.S. bank customers say they will switch banks if their present bank adopts the debit card fee.

According to the survey, some 43 percent said they would start paying for purchases with cash or credit cards rather than pay the fee. About 13 percent said they would pay the fee if it were “reasonable.”

Making up the difference

Bank of America announced the fee as a response to new rules that reduce the fee they can charge merchants each time a consumer uses their debit card to make a purchase. Bank of America's fee, which goes into effect early next year, is designed to make up virtually all the money the bank stands to lose under the lower “swipe” fee.

Kathleen, of Pineville, N.C., is a Bank of America customer who says she plans to find an alternative because of the new fee.

“I will be protesting and withdrawing my cash and putting it in a jar at home,” Kathleen told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Sounds like the panic of 1929. Sounds like another recession. They are nickeling and dimeing my account more every month. I urge every BofA account holder to do the same.”

Lavanda, of Mineola, Tex., wrote to Bank of America expressing her anger at the new fee, and sent ConsumerAffairs.com the response she said she received from the bank, which says in part “We certainly understand your concerns regarding debit card monthly fee of $5.00. Please note that from time to time, all banks, including Bank of America, review their pricing for products and services across the franchise. Factors considered include market forces, as well as the value of the products and services, to help ensure that the pricing reflects both the value and the costs associated with providing these products and services.”

Learning from Bank of America?

Other banks are, in fact, studying a possible debit card fee. Among them is Wells Fargo, which has tested a $3 debit card fee in some markets.

During a conference call this week to discuss the banks third quarter earnings, executives said they would try to recoup about half the reduced swipe fees through a debit card charge to consumers, not try to reclaim it all, as Bank of America is doing.

“The way we think about that is, our focus is on building lifelong relationships with our consumers, CEO John Stumpf told reporters and analysts on the call.

Stumpf said the bank would listen to its customers to learn how they want to pay for what Wells Fargo says is value and convenience.

Interestingly, the Research Intelligence Group survey finds that any new debit card fees implemented by banks will likely be paid by those with the least amount of money.

The survey found that 22 percent of respondents in households earning between $35,000 and $49,000, are willing to pay the new fee, while only 14 percent of those in households earning more than $100,000 are willing to pay. The rest, the survey suggests will be among those looking for a new bank. 

More

Social Security To Pay 3.6 Percent More In 2012

First increase in two years

Social security benefits will go up next year...

American seniors who receive Social Security payments will receive a cost of living adjustment (COLA) of 3.6 percent in 2012, according to the U.S. Social Security Administration.

It will be the first increase in monthly payments since 2009. Payments did not rise the last two years because inflation, as measured by the government, remained low.

The 3.6 percent COLA will begin with benefits that nearly 55 million Social Security beneficiaries receive in January 2012. Increased payments to more than 8 million SSI beneficiaries will begin on December 30, 2011.

Some other changes that take effect in January of each year are based on the increase in average wages. Based on that increase, the maximum amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax (taxable maximum) will increase to $110,100 from $106,800.

Of the estimated 161 million workers who will pay Social Security taxes in 2012, about 10 million will pay higher taxes as a result of the increase in the taxable maximum.

Information about Medicare changes for 2012, when announced, will be available at www.Medicare.gov. For some beneficiaries, their Social Security increase may be partially or completely offset by increases in Medicare premiums.

More

Starbucks Goes 'Blonde' In Pursuit of 'Lite' Crowd

Don't want too much coffee in your coffee? Here's the answer

Starbucks originally modeled itself on the coffee houses of Europe, trying to conjure a world where patrons linger for hours sipping espresso and debating ...

PhotoStarbucks originally modeled itself on the coffee houses of Europe, trying to conjure a world where patrons linger for hours sipping espresso and debating the finer points of politics.

But in an America where political discussion consists of shouting slogans back and forth and coffee has become the base for foamy, sugar-filled concoctions that more closely resemble a chocolate shake than espresso, is it really surprising that even regular coffee must be lightened up to retain its appeal?  

And so, taking a page from competitors McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts, Starbucks is launching a new blonde roast.  It will launch in both Starbucks outlets and supermarket aisles in January and will be promoted through what Starbucks is calling a "360-degree" approach, meaning that Facebook, Twitter, etc., will be flooded with supposed coffee lovers gushing about the new blend.

Starbucks already does about as well with consumers as any sane person could reasonably expect.  A ConsumerAffairs.com computerized sentiment analysis of about 4.7 million consumer comments on Facebook, Twitter and other social media and blogs finds an approval rating hovering around 80% over the last year.  

Photo
Blue line indicates net sentiment

 

Speaking at a Chicago press conference, Annie Young-Scrivner, Starbucks Chief Marketing Officer, said 40% of the 130 million coffee drinkers in the U.S. prefer a lighter-roast coffee.  The new blend is aimed at them, as well as at the millions of onetime customers who had their first cup of Starbucks and announced it tasted like mud, or worse.

PhotoAnd just to build even more excitement, Ms. Young-Scrivner said the launch will be an even bigger investment than the launch of Via, Starbucks' instant-coffee, which dripped onto the scene in 2009. 

Blonde will come in two varieties: Veranda and Willow. Really.

So with all this fiddling around with the product line-up, is Starbucks responding to a huge groundswell of discontent?  We peered into our sentiment analysis matrix to find top likes and dislikes.

Photo

What we found may be what Ms. Young-Scrivner found: a solid 27% don't like the coffee.  Of course, 29% do like it but even so -- if you were running a coffee house and more than a quarter of your customers didn't like the coffee, wouldn't you think maybe you had a problem?

PhotoInterestingly, the Starbucks gift card (38% like it) is even more popular than the coffee, which might also be a little worrisome. 

So maybe the new blonde blend will do the trick but, then again, maybe American tastes are moving away from coffee.  We suspect Starbucks has thought of this and planned accordingly. 

You might recall that, as part of its 40th anniversary celebration, Starbucks unveiled a new logo, removing the "Starbucks Coffee" text and more prominently displaying its iconic siren (the kind that lures sailors to their fate, not the kind that clears traffic for fire engines). 

You have to wonder if someday you won't be able to get a cup of coffee at Starbucks. 

---

Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase

More

What's On Your Mind? BMG Music Club, Government Grant Scam, Whirlpool, Samsung

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: BMG Music Club, Government Grant Scam, Whirlpool, Samsung, Glad we could be of help and No TV tonight....

Toranada, of Raytown, Mo., suddenly found she was the subject of collections on behalf of BMG Music Club. She says the whole thing came as a surprise as she had never even heard of the company.

“I just did a random credit check on myself and I am in collections with this company and never received anything,” Toranado told ConsumerAffairs.com. I can't find a real number to call for an explanation.”

It sounds like Toranada got signed up in one of BMG's negative option marketing campaigns.  That's a little hard to confirm because BMG Music Service went out of business in 2009.

Toradada should write to the collection agency disuting the debt.

Glad we could be of help

Even though the government grant scam has been around forever, people still fall for it. But at least Adam, of Cincinnati, Ohio, didn't.

“I received a call on my cell phone from a man with a very thick accent saying he was calling on behalf of the U.S. government and that I had been randomly selected to received a $7,000 grant due to my paying taxes on time and my good standing with law enforcement,” Adam said. “As he was talking I was Googling '$7,000 government grant.' I came upon this website and saw the list of complaints. I then politely declined the offer and hung up.

Adam said he was fortunate to find ConsumerAffairs.com but would like to think he would have eventually caught onto the scheme without our help.

We thought this problem was solved

Several years ago consumers seemed to be having a lot of problems with Whirlpool's FlameLock gas water heater. Tracie, of Chesapeake, Va., still is.

"We've still been having issues keeping the pilot light lit,” Tracie told ConsumerAffairs.com. “We purchased the bottom unit piece that Whirlpool said would fix the problem but we've still been having problems with the pilot light going out. The water heater isn't under warranty anymore so last night was the last straw and we finally decided to get another water heater that wasn't a Whirlpool. I've done a search on the Internet and found out that a lot of consumers are still having this problem to this day.”

In 2008, Whirlpool settled a class-action lawsuit filed by consumers who purchased its Flame Lock or Flame Guard water heaters at Lowes. At the time, more than 1,000 consumers had filed complaints with ConsumerAffairs.Com saying the thermocouple in their Flame Lock or Flame Guard Whirlpool water heaters continuously breaks down leaving them without hot water -- sometimes for days.

And even now, we still get complaints about Whirlpool Water Heaters, with Tracie's being the most recent example.

No TV tonight

Lisa, of Cumberland, Md., won't be watching “must-see TV,” or any other kind for a while. The 46 inch Samsung LCD TV she purchased in April 2008 isn't working.

“I turned the TV on but instead of a picture all I got was no power and a constant clicking sound,” Lisa said. “The only way the clicking stops is if I unplug it. I did some quick research to find out the clicking is caused by 'faulty capacitors on the power supply board.” After hearing that Samsung was paying for some capacitor replacements, she called the company for help, but to no avail.

“I spoke to a couple different people at Samsung and was told repeatedly that they couldn't offer this because it was past warranty,” she said.

Yes, a $2,000 TV should not need repairs after three years but if the problem is limited the capacitor replacement, Lisa should count herself lucky. That's a relatively easy, inexpensive repair. Display problems, which are also common in these sets, are much more expensive to address.

More

Car Rental Companies Becoming More Aggressive in Pursuing Damage Claims

Consumers need to be proactive in documenting the condition of their car at turn-in time

Many rental car customers have lately complained the company charged them for alleged damage to the vehicle long after it was turned in. The case recounted...

PhotoMany rental car customers have lately complained the company charged them for alleged damage to the vehicle long after it was turned in. The case recounted by Graciela, of Winter Haven, Fla., is one of the stranger episodes.

Graciela says her son rented a small car from Budget in Roanoke, Va., back in August, returning it on August 8. He used a credit card that was in his name but on which his mother was a co-signer. His parents' name did not appear anywhere on the rental agreement.

“When the car was returned to Budget, I was told by my son that the car was checked by company's personnel and nothing wrong was found after the inspection,” Graciela told ConsumerAffairs.com. “During their three days rental my son and his girlfriend sat in the front seats and never used the rear seats.”

Seat belts

But just last week, Graciela says she received a threatening letter from a claims company, Khoury Alternative Claims, representing Budget Rent A Car. She said the letter included a bill for damage to the rear seat belts, totalling $1,114.73.

“The bill reads: Physical Damage 534.77 -- Anticipated loss of use (4 days @ 119.99) 479.96 and administrative fees of 100.00 total 1,114.73,” she said. “The total amount of the rental was less than $80.00 for a three-day rental but they charged on their bill $479.96 for anticipated loss of use of 4 days or 119.99 per day.”

Increasingly, consumers are vulnerable to these discovered-after-the-fact damage claims if they do not accept the rental car companies' expensive insurance coverage. Even if their own insurance policy covers them, the fine print on the rental agreements now say they will be liable, not only for the damage to the car but for the loss of its use while it is being repaired and the loss of its value because of the damage.

What to do

Graciela and others who run into this situation should dispute the charge if they are convinced it's unjustified. Graciela should send a letter, perferably via certified mail, to Khoury at this address:

Randy Harris, President
Khoury Alternative Claims
140 Heimer #740
San Antonio, TX 78232

 

In the letter, Graciela should explain that her son did not use the back seat and could not have damaged the seatbelts (assuming this is true) and, further, that absent any evidence to the contrary, she disputes the charge and will take necessary action if Khoury continues to pursue its collection efforts.

Graciela should be certain to keep a copy of the letter and she should refuse to discuss the situation by telephone.  If these efforts are unsuccessful she may need to consult an attorney.

Graciela's case is far from unusual.  We receive complaints similar to this almost every day.  The lesson to consumers is to never use an after-hours drop-off and to turn in rental cars only when the rental office is open.  

If time permits, ask the check-in attendant to walk around the car with you and take note of any visible damage.  If there is none, make a note to that effect on the receipt, initial and date it and note the attendant's name or employee number.  Be nice about it; politeness pays.  Chances are the attendant won't agree to sign it but you will still have your notation that can be used as evidence in disputes of this kind.  

About Khoury

Khoury Alternative Claims is just what its name implies -- an alternative way for car rental companies to pursue claims.  It is basically a collection agency that specializes in hounding customers for damage that allegedly occurred while a rental car was in their possession.

Like most collection agency, Khoury works on contingency, meaning that it gets a percentage of every successful collection.  If it doesn't collect, it doesn't get paid.  

Consumers should vigorously protest any incorrect or excessive claim but should also remember that, legally, they are responsible for all damage to a rental car while it is in their possession.  If a rental car gets dinged while parked and unattended, it's the renter's responsibility. 

---

Truman Lewis assisted in reporting this story.

More

What's On Your Mind? Wyndham Vacation Plus, Burlington Coat Factory, JK Harris, Capital One

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Wyndham Vacation Plus, Burlington Coat Factory, JK Harris, Capital One, Two left feet, No help and Haunted by cre...

PhotoWith real estate being in a prolonged slump, you wouldn't think that many people would be buying timeshares. Jeanne, of New York, N.Y., says she wouldn't have bought one expect for the strong sales pitch that, she says, didn't turn out to be completely accurate.

“I was suckered in to purchasing a Wyndham Vacation Plus plan,” Jeanne told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I was incorrectly told that the average number of points I'd need for a week's vacation was 75,000. I told them repeatedly that it wasn't for me, but they kept pressuring me until I said yes. I also told them that I get a week or two off in August. They repeated that for only 75,000 points I could spend a week away. They showed me photos of resorts in Australia, Orlando, and many other locations around the world, always repeating the lie that an average of 75,000 points I could take a week's dream trip each year. When I finally got home and looked more carefully at their materials I noticed that there were next to no vacations for 75,000 points and definitely not in August.”

Timeshare salesmen use pressure because, lets face it, without it they'd sell far fewer timeshares. If you ever find yourself in a high-pressure sales situation, simply say you need 24 hours to think about it. If someone isn't willing to give you 24 hours to make a decision, look out.

Two left feet

Que, of Indianapolis, reports a different kind of problem with Burlington Coat Factory, where he bought a pair of boots. It's not that he doesn't like the boots.

“I bought some boots at the store last year,” Que said. “I just went to put them on a few days ago to realize that they are two left shoes. I no longer have the receipt and there was no tag on the shoes, however i do still have the box “

Que is upset because the store won't take back the boots without a receipt. And he admits it has been a year since he made the purchase. That's why its always a good idea to try on a pair of shoes before you leave the store.

No help

The airwaves are full of commercials for companies that claim to be able to help you settle your debt to credit card companies or the IRS. Usually these companies can't help, but they will cash your check.

“I paid JK Harris more than $3,000 to help me with a debt to the IRS,” Alton, of Lancaster, Tex., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “After waiting for 10 months on an answer I got a letter October 16 saying that I did not qualify for them to help me.

As a result, Alton says his debt to the IRS has risen by $2,000, meaning he's another $5,000 in the hole.

Haunted by credit card ghost

Cari, of Detroit Lakes, Minn., says she closed her Capital One credit card about seven years ago, paying off the balance in full.

“Around six months ago, I got a letter from a bill collector for this card, to the tune of over $900,” Cari said. “They could not tell me why I owed this. I called Capital One, and they said they could not help me because it had been turned over to a debt collector. I have talked to another person from the collection agency, and it is over $1,000 now. They are still tacking on interest on an account that I paid off, closed, and heard nothing further on for over 6 years. I'm at a loss as to what to do about this, but I will not pay it. I have no credit cards now, nor will I ever again.”

If Cari is one of those people who never throws a credit card statement away and still has a statement showing her account closed with a zero balance, she might be able to settle this. If not, it could be tough. It sounds like there was a very small balance – maybe less than a dollar – remaining when she closed the account. If the total were still under $1000 Cari could sue in small claims court and probably win.

More

Wall Street Protesters May Be Onto Something

Snicker all you want but the protests are drawing wide public support

For reasons that are a little hard to understand, it's been fashionable for TV's talking heads and the dead-tree columnists to denigrate the Occupy Wall St...

PhotoFor reasons that are a little hard to understand, it's been fashionable for TV's talking heads and the dead-tree columnists to denigrate the Occupy Wall Street protests, jeering at the protesters for not having a hierarchical top-down structure like, oh, say, CNN and lacking a knowledgeable staff of lobbyists, log-rollers and influence peddlers.

Politicians of all stripes have generally run the other way, giving the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is rapidly spreading worldwide, about as much face time as they initially gave the Tea Party, which some would say is the Occupy Wall Street movement seen from a different socio-economic perspective.

There's really only one thing you can say about the Occupy Wall Street movement: it is striking a chord with consumers (i.e., voters and taxpayers).  

PhotoThe latest evidence is a Quinnipiac University poll that found New Yorkers back the movement by a ratio of nearly 3-to-1.

Agreeing with the protesters views are Democrats 81-11 percent and independent voters 58-30 percent, while Republicans disagree 58-35 percent, the pollsters found.

A free country

"It's a free country. Let them keep on protesting as long as they obey the law, New Yorkers say overwhelmingly," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "Critics complain that no one can figure out what the protesters are protesting. But seven out of 10 New Yorkers say they understand and most agree with the anti-Wall Street views of the protesters. 

Not wanting to take the Quinnipiac poll's word for it, ConsumerAffairs.com conducted a computerized sentiment analysis of about 3.5 million comments about Wall Street on Twitter, Facebook and other social media and blogs over the last year.

We found public sentiment lukewarm, at best, hovering in the 20% positive range for most of the year before plunging to zero in August, where it remains today.

Both positive and negative comments erupted in September, going from about 8,000 comments monthly to more than 50,000 as the protests got underway. Though the volume of comments exploded, the ratio of positive-to-negative remained about evenly divided, as seen on this timeline:

Photo

How does this square with protesters' claims that they represent "the 99 percent,"  a reference to economist Joseph Stiglitz’s study showing the richest 1 percent of Americans control 40 percent of U.S. wealth?

Keeping in mind that a zero percent approval rating represents an even, 50-50 division of opinion, it may be that some of the 99 percent still have at least some sympathy for the wealth-burdened 1 percent, although Quinnipiac's Carroll said his polling found much stronger support for the protesters. 

“Critics complain that no one can figure out what the protesters are protesting,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Hamden, Connecticut-based poll. “But 7 out of 10 New Yorkers say they understand and most agree with the anti-Wall Street views of the protesters.”

Back to the world of social media for a minute.  We scoured the last year looking for positive comments about Wall Street and came up with this:

Photo

While some of the comments are a little opaque, it's clear that at least a few consumers were discussing the movie "Wall Street," which they apparently liked a lot more than the industry that was its subject matter.

And what about dislikes?  Here are the top 10 for the year:

Photo 

Obviously, by a huge margin, many of those holding negative views blame Wall Street for crashing, destroying, ruining and crippling the economy.  This is causing something of an identity crisis on the Street iself, whose denizens see themselves as being the grease that makes the economy go.

Quinnipiac surveyed 1,068 registered voters by phone Oct. 12-16. The results had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

More

Wireless Providers To Provide 'Bill Shock' Warnings

Voluntary agreement between government and wireless providers

Wireless customers will get a heads up when they approach plan caps...

PhotoAlison, of Fayetteville, Ark., says she was shocked when she opened her December 2010 AT&T Wireless bill to find it totaled more than $900.

“Upon inspection, it appears I was charged for 14 hours of cellphone service beyond my contractual minutes allotted,” Alison told ConsumerAffairs.com. “This wasn't 14 hours here and there. Allegedly, this was 14 hours of continuous cellphone usage they claimed I had used.”

Many consumers have complained of so-called “bill shock,” receiving their wireless bill and discovering it is substantially more than they expected. Many say it would be nice to get a heads up from their wireless carrier when they are in danger of incurring extra charges. From now on, they will.

An alert

In an agreement between the wireless industry and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), major wireless carriers will warn customers who are in danger of going over pre-set budget limits.

Some have already adopted this practice. For example, Verizon Wireless sends customers a text message when they have used 50 percent of their minutes or data budgets during a billing cycle. It's then up to the consumer to alter their usage in order to get through the remainder of the cycle without incurring extra charges.

These extra charges can occur when a customer exceeds established plan caps for voice, data or texting. They can also occur when U.S. consumers travel overseas, unaware that their plans don't cover international roaming charges, which are extremely high.

Voluntary agreement

The FCC was on a course toward drafting rules requiring “bill shock” notices when major wireless players offered to work with the agency. The result is not an actual rulemaking process, but rather a voluntary agreement. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said the agency would susped the rulemaking pollicy as long as wireless companies implement the alert system.

“This solution will give consumers the information they need to save money on their monthly wireless bills,” Genachowski said. “Consistent with the FCC's ongoing efforts, these actions harness technology to empower consumers, and ensure consumers get a fair shake, not bill shock.”

Under the agreement, wireless providers will:

  • Send voice or text alerts to notify consumers when they approach and when they reach monthly plan limits for voice, data, and text that would result in overage charges.
  • Send alerts when consumers are about to incur international roaming charges that are not covered by their monthly plans; and
  • Clearly disclose any tools that mobile providers offer to let consumers set their own usage limits and monitor their usage balances.

Obama's blessing

Even President Obama got in on the act, issuing a statement giving the agreement his blessing.

“Far too many Americans know what it’s like to open up their cell-phone bill and be shocked by hundreds or even thousands of dollars in unexpected fees and charges," President Obama said in a statement. "So I appreciate the mobile phone companies’ willingness to work with my Administration and join us in our overall and ongoing efforts to protect American consumers by making sure financial transactions are fair, honest and transparent.”

More

Lowes Closing 20 Stores, Cutting Nearly 2,000 Jobs

Sagging housing market takes its toll on home center chain

Lowes is closing 20 stores and cutting plans for new stores...

Lowes Companies, Inc., which operates home center stores nationwide, says it is closing 20 underperforming stores in 15 states. The closings will result in the loss of nearly 2,000 jobs.

Half of the 20 stores closed at the end of business Sunday. The other ten will close over the next month, the company said.

“Closing stores is never easy, given the impact on hard-working employees and local communities,” said Robert A. Niblock, chairman, president and CEO. “However, we have an obligation to make tough decisions when necessary to improve profitability and strengthen our financial position.”

Lowes has been a victim of the three-year and counting housing recession. Home center stores like Lowes and rival Home Depot thrive when the real estate market is doing well because more consumers are purchasing homes and making improvements.

The closed stores are in the following markets:

  • Los Banos, CA;
  • Westminster, CA;
  • Denver, CO;
  • Biddeford, ME;
  • Old Bridge, NJ;
  • Ellsworth, ME;
  • Batavia, NY;
  • Ionia, MI;
  • N. Kingstown, RI;
  • Aurora, IL;
  • Rogers, MN; 
  • Emporia, VA;
  • Oswego, IL;
  • Claremont, NH;
  • S. Tacoma, WA;
  • Chalmette, LA;
  • Hooksett, NH; 
  • Brown Deer, WI;
  • Haverhill, MA; and
  • Manchester, NH.

In addition, Lowes is scaling back the number of new stores is plans to open in the future. The company announced it has discontinued a number of planned new store projects and now expects to open 10 to 15 stores per year in North America from 2012 forward, compared to a prior assumption of approximately 30 stores per year. The company is on track to open approximately 25 stores in 2011, as planned.

More

Looking For Job Killers? Look at Gas Prices, Study Suggests

"Needlessly high" gas prices draining $200 billion out of economy

The oil price spike of the past year, which saw gasoline prices increase by over $1 from the summer of 2010 to the summer of 2011, will drive household exp...

PhotoThe oil price spike of the past year, which saw gasoline prices increase by over $1 from the summer of 2010 to the summer of 2011, will drive household expenditures on gasoline to a record average of $2,900 this year, according to a study by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA).

Crude oil is about $30 higher than costs or historic trends justify, CFA found, generating needlessly high prices for petroleum products that will drain about $200 billion out of the economy.

This $200 billion drain is over one percent of gross domestic product and almost 2 percent of consumer spending.

“Since consumer spending is the main driver of the U.S. economy, when speculators, oil companies and OPEC rob consumers of that much spending power, the inevitable result is a dramatic reduction of economic activity and employment,” said Mark Cooper, CFA’s Research Director and author of the report.

The report notes that every oil price spike since World War II has caused an economic recession and the spike of 2010-2011 has been worse, on a sustained basis, than even the price spike of 2007-2008, which contributed to the worst recession since the great depression.

A 2% reduction in consumer spending on goods and services translates into the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Demand down

The spike in oil prices has not been caused by natural market supply and demand, the study found. In fact, U.S. demand for oil has declined since 2005, while global demand has grown less than 4 percent. In addition, global oil reserves have been growing faster than consumption and the reserve-toconsumption now stands at a higher level than it has been in a quarter of a century.

Today, OPEC spare capacity is almost three times as great as it was in 2008.

At the end of 2003 the price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil (the “benchmark” for U.S. oil) was a about $30/bbl and the value of outstanding futures contracts (called “open interests”) for WTI was less than less than $20 billion.

Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley and hundreds of hedge funds led the charge into the oil markets, creating products that “financialized” commodities. Index funds and pension funds soon followed. In July of 2008, when WTI hit its peak price above $140/bbl, the average value of open positions at the peak in 2008 was over $150 billion, the study found.

Eight times as much money chasing the same amount of oil is a prescription for price escalation, CFA said.

CFTC lumbers into action

In the third quarter of 2008, as pressure from Congress and the public outcry over oil prices forced the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to begin investigating excessive speculation, speculative money fled the market.

By mid-September, before Lehman Brothers went bankrupt precipitating the financial meltdown, the value of open interests had declined by about 50% and the price of oil had fallen over 50%. By the end of the year, oil prices were below $40/barrel, a decline of 75%.

“That is a classic bubble,” Cooper said, “but Federal regulators moved slowly to make permanent changes in the rules governing oil trading, so the bubble began to reflate in late 2010. The value of open positions has doubled in the past two years, while U.S. demand has continued to decline and global demand remains flat. Speculation has pumped the price of oil up again, putting the brakes on economic growth.”

Job killers

“We have been hearing a lot of over-heated rhetoric recently about job-killing regulations,” Barb Roper, CFA’s Director of Investor Protection, said. “This report provides a timely reminder that it was weak regulation that landed us in our current economic mess, and it will take a strong policy response to restore the economy to health. Restraints on excessive speculation are just one component of that policy response, but they are a necessary component.”

The complete report is available at www.consumerfed.org/pdfs/SpeculationReportOct

More

Not Much New With Broccoli, Study Finds

Researchers say things are about the same as always in the broccoli patch

Sometimes broccoli is just broccoli, which isn't necessarily bad news.  It means basically that your mother's advice to eat your broccoli is still wor...

PhotoSometimes broccoli is just broccoli, which isn't necessarily bad news.  It means basically that your mother's advice to eat your broccoli is still worth following, scientists report.

A study performed by scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and published recently in the journal Crop Science has demonstrated that mineral levels in new varieties of broccoli have not declined since 1975, and that the broccoli contains the same levels of calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, potassium and other minerals that have made the vegetable a healthy staple of American diets for decades.

"This research provides data on the nutritional content of broccoli for breeders to consider as they further improve this important vegetable," said Edward B. Knipling, administrator of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), USDA's principal research agency.

About the same

"Our studies show that not much has changed in terms of mineral content in the last 35 years in a crop that has undergone significant improvement from a quality standpoint and that was not widely consumed in the United States before the 1960s," said ARS geneticist and research leader Mark Farnham.

Broccoli florets in the study were tested for levels of calcium, copper, iron, potassium, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, sodium, phosphorous, sulfur and zinc.

Results indicated significant differences among different varieties -- called cultivars -- in floret concentrations of calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, sodium, phosphorous and zinc, but not of potassium, manganese, molybdenum or sulfur. There was no clear relationship between mineral concentration and release year.

"For broccoli cultivars grown during the past 35 years, when hybrids became the standard cultivar, evidence indicates that mineral concentrations remain unchanged," said Farnham. "As broccoli breeders continue to improve this crop in the future, data from this study can serve as a very useful guide in helping breeders understand the variation in mineral concentrations they should expect among their breeding stocks and also provide a realistic baseline that should be maintained as other characteristics are manipulated in the future."

 

 

More

Study: Cell Phones Exceed Exposure Limits For Children

Current standards for radiation set for large adults

Study says cell phones emit twice as much radiation as allowed for children...

PhotoWhile policymakers besieged by industry lobbyists move slowly in their study of the health effects of cell phone radiation, a new study finds that cell phones carried in the shirt or pants pockets exceed Federal Communications Commission (FCC) exposure guidelines and that children absorb twice as much microwave radiation from phones as do adults.

The study is published in the journal Electromagnetic Biology and Medicine.

The paper notes that the industry-designed process for evaluating microwave radiation from phones results in children absorbing twice the cellphone radiation to their heads, up to triple in their brain’s hippocampus and hypothalamus, greater absorption in their eyes, and as much as 10 times more in their bone marrow when compared to adults.

Based on 'large man'

The existing process for measuring mobile phone radiation's effects on the human body is based on a large man whose 40 brain tissues are assumed to be exactly the same.

The researchers, who include three team members Environmental Health Trust, say a far better system relies on anatomically based models of people of various ages, including pregnant women, that can determine the absorbed radiation in all tissue types, and can account for the increased absorption in children.

It allows for cell phones to be certified with the most vulnerable users in mind—children—consistent with the “As Low As Reasonably Achievable” (ALARA) approach taken in setting standards for using radiological devices.

FCC sets standards

In the United States, the FCC determines maximum allowed exposures. Many countries, especially European Union members, use the “guidelines” of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), a non-governmental agency.

A number of recent studies have raised questions about cell phone radiation's effect on humans, but the studies have mostly focused on adults. Earlier this year the Environmental Health Trust convened a meeting of researchers in Turkey who reported what they called “stunning proof” that pulsed digital signals from cell phones disrupt DNA, impair brain function and lower sperm count.

More

Recession Fears Fading, So Oil Prices Are Rising (Again)

A classic good news, bad news scenario

A recession is looking less likely, so gas prices are going up again...

PhotoMotorists have probably noticed in the last week or so that the break at the gas pump they were enjoying has begun to disappear.

Gasoline prices, which dipped nationwide to an average price of $3.39 a gallon, are climbing again. The average price is now over $3.45 a gallon, up about six cents in the last week.

What happened? The financial markets have decided in recent days that maybe we aren't headed for another recession after all. As a result, crude oil prices, which dipped below $75 a barrel two weeks ago, are now back up over $87.

Prices fell because, if there was going to be a recession, the future demand for oil would be significantly less. But now with a recession nearly off the table, traders have concluded that energy demand may be greater that what was perceived just a couple of weeks ago.

Changing circumstances

What's happened to change people's minds? It started with the September employment report. It wasn't great, but it showed that the economy added 103,000 jobs during the month. If the economy was heading toward recession, it wouldn't be adding jobs.

The latest piece of clarifying news came late last week in the form of stronger than expected retail sales. Yes, consumers were spending again, and not just on necessities. Car sales were up nicely.

Businesses adding jobs and consumers spending money seems to indicate, in the minds of traders, that the economy may still be week, but it's not headed for recession.

Jobs going begging

While the unemployment rate is too high, a number of business executives have complained they have openings they can't fill because they can't find qualified applicants. Some estimates put the total of unfilled jobs as high as three million.

All of this suggests that recent worries about a double dip recession have more to do with economic problems in Europe and less about what's happening in the U.S. economy.

While a stronger-than-expected economy is good news, for consumers it's likely to mean that gasoline prices have stopped their slid toward the $3 a gallon mark and will probably start heading up again.

More

Are All Flat Screen TVs Fire Hazards?

There may not always be fire where there's smoke

TV repairman says smokey set doesn't always mean fire...

PhotoLast week Sony said it would recall 1.6 million Bravia flat-panel TVs sold worldwide since 2007 because they may melt or catch fire. 

Sony said it instituted the recall after a September incident in which a customer in Japan noticed a small fire and smoke. It was one of 11 such incidents in Japan since 2008.

"Sony has sold nearly 400,000 of these TVs in the U.S. and no incidents have been reported to date," Elizabeth Boukis, a Sony spokewoman, told ConsumerAffairs.com.

Other brands

But ConsumerAffairs.com has received numerous complaints of potential fire hazards in many other brands of flat screen TVs. For example, Shirley, of Emerald Hills, Calif., recently reported her 47 inch Philips flat screen, barely three years old, started turning itself on and off by itself.

“This went on for about a week or so and on Sept 30th smoke spewed out from behind the TV that filled the whole room while emitting a plastic burning smell,” Shirley told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I quickly turned off and unplugged the TV. I was totally shaken as I've never heard nor encountered such a scary thing realizing this could have easily caught fire.”

Sarah, of Temple, Tex., reported a similar incident.

“I was watching my Samsung DLP television and a large amount of foul smelling smoke came out of the back of it,” Sarah said. “This television is a fire hazard.”

Possible explanation

While puffs of smoke billowing from the back of your expensive TV set is cause for alarm, a TV repair technician says it may not be caused by an actual fire. It has to do with the well-known, and increasingly common occurrence of these sets blowing capacitors.

“It's fairly common for TVs to smoke when components go bad, but I have never heard of anyone's LCD or Plasma TVs actually catching fire as a result,” Dave Maltz, owner of Dave's TV Repair, in Grants Pass, Ore., told ConsumerAffairs.com.

Maltz says most modern TVs are designed to shut down or blow a fuse if a short is detected, long before anything catches on fire. But he understands how consumers could think their set was about to burst into flames.

“Capacitors can emit quite a bit of smoke without there necessarily being a fire hazard,” Maltz said, “I would be curious as to how many TVs actually did catch on fire versus the people who referred to the smoke as being a fire.”

Intrigued by the reports, Maltz, who'se been in the business for 17 years, said he planned to investigate further. As for the fact that expensive TVs seem to blow capacitors after two or three years of use, that's another issue.

More

What's On Your Mind? Experian, Netflix

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Experian, Netflix, AnnualCreditReport.com, freecreditreport.com and Unplayable....

Consumers often mistake the government's truly free annualcreditreport.com with freecreditreport.com and other sites that enroll you in a credit monitoring service in exchange for a copy of your credit report. Ken, of Chippewa Lake, Ohio, insists he was on AnnualCreditReport.com when he encounted a strange problem with the Experian report.

“After answering identity verification questions the next page that came up was an unable to honor request page, which included dollar amounts to purchase the report and/or receive credit report overnight,” Ken said. "Seemed like an attempt to get money out of someone for supposedly free credit report. Maybe I answered their vague security questions incorrect, but had no trouble with other two credit reports. Anyhow, went ahead and called the phone number given on AnnualCreditReport.com site and order my "free" credit report from Experian via that method. We will see.”

This is, indeed, odd. It doesn't seem like Ken should have been asked to purchase anything when dealing with this site. If anyone else experiences something similar, let us know.

Unplayable

Netflix unleashed a number of consumer complaints recently when it separated its streaming video service from its DVD rentals, charging a fee for both services instead of providing both for one fee. Louise, of Erieville, N.Y, has a different complaint.

“Over and over again I receive unplayable, scratched DVD's,” Louise told ConsumerAffairs.com. “You call to complain they are a little sympathetic and send you a freebie but that's not what I want. I want a DVD that will play flawlessly. They tell me that it's up to the customer to tell them the DVD is damaged. As part of customer satisfaction they should check the DVD before they send it out to the customer.”

Quality control is a big part of any successful business. DVDs offer something of a challenge, however, since they are easily damaged. Probably the only way to ensure that the DVD being sent out is flawless is to burn a new copy each time, something that likely doesn't fit the business model.

More

Consumers Frustrated With Travel Booking Sites

Are there now better ways to plan trips?

Consumers are increasingly frustrated with online travel booking sites...

PhotoIn the 1990s, when the Internet was only beginning to be part of the mainstream media, online travel booking sites began springing up with the promise of making travel booking easier, less frustrating and cheaper.

So, how has it worked out over the years? For many consumers, it appears to have made travel more frustrating and in come cases, more expensive.

Denise of Doylestown, Pa., recently used Hotels.com to book a hotel in New York City. After making her reservation, Denise said she discovered the hotel was offering the same room at a much lower rate than she paid Hotels.com.

“I called Hotels.com to cancel so I could book directly with the hotel,” Denise told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I was put on hold several times for 20-30 minutes. In the end, I was told that since I booked it online, I would have to cancel it online. I hung up and immediately went to their website to cancel. After entering all information and pressing submit, I received the response that my request cannot be processed, call customer service."

Paying twice

Denise said she was given various reasons why her reservation could not be cancelled but finally spoke to a Hotels.com rep she says told her the reservation was cancelled. She then booked her hotel room directly. After her stay, which she paid for directly, she opened her American Express bill and discovered Hotels.com had, in fact, charged her for the room. So, instead of saving money, she paid for the same room twice.

Nicole of Toronto, Ont., used Expedia to book a room in Chicago but quickly realized her trip had to be moved up by a day. She said she called Expedia and agreed to an extra charge of $331.73 to make the change in her itinerary. Upon arriving in Chicago, she made her way to her hotel, looking forward to resting after a 10 hour trip.

“I tried to check in and the the person at the front desk told me that there was a booking under my name, but that it wasn't until the following day, September 3,” Nicole told ConsumerAffairs.com. “She recommended that I call Expedia to have the issue corrected.”

Change not in the system

Nicole says when she called Expedia, the representative she spoke to said the system did not show that she had updated her itinerary by a day, that she was still scheduled to arrive the following day. That might be an understandable lapse, except that Nicole says when her Mastercard bill arrived, it had the $331.73 charge for the change in itinerary that somehow never made it into the system.

Consumers often think of booking first with an online travel site thinking they will save money, and perhaps in the early days of the Internet, these sites were the most efficient way to do that. But these days hotels have their own, very sophisticated websites and sometimes offer good values to travelers who book online. When you deal directly with the hotel, there are fewer opportunities for mistakes.

Also, many consumers may still not understand how these travel sites work. They book unused rooms in blocks, well in advance, and must sell them or lose money. Once booked, a reservation can almost never be cancelled. If schedules are subject to change, it's usually not a good idea to use an online travel site.

Conducting searches on Google and other search engines for hotels can usually provide a wide choice of places to stay, at a wide range of rates -- as long as you are certain your actually on the hotel chain's site, not the site operated by someone who pays Google a truckload of money each month for ads aimed at unwary travelers.

Remember travel agents?

Time-pressed travelers might consider going “old school” and calling a travel agent. Yes, travel agents are still around, and according to industry statistics, are thriving in the Internet age.

A website operated by Rand McNally, Tripology.com, says travel agents still sell 51 percent of all airline tickets, 87 percent of all cruises, 81 percent of all tours and packages, 45 percent of all car rentals and about 47 percent of all hotels.

Don't travel agents cost more? Some do, but Tripology describes the average fee as “marginal.” And sometimes it might be worth paying a little more to have a human being you can reach out to when travel snafus occur. Travel agents can also call a place directly to see if they can work out other kinds of special deals for you, something an online site can’t do.

Just something to think about the next time you need to travel.  

More

Where's the Fruit? Class Action Lawsuit Asks

Fruit Roll-Ups, other General Mills snacks are mostly sugar, the suit alleges

A class action lawsuit says there's something missing from General Mills' Fruit Roll-Ups, Fruit by the Foot and Fruit Gushers. What do you think it is?Th...

PhotoA class action lawsuit says there's something missing from General Mills' Fruit Roll-Ups, Fruit by the Foot and Fruit Gushers. What do you think it is?

That's right.  It's fruit.  There basically isn't any, the suit charges.

The lawsuit says the so-called fruit snacks are mostly sugars (some from fruit concentrate and some from corn syrup), artificial additives, and potentially harmful artificial dyes.

While labels state that the snacks are “fruit flavored,” “naturally flavored,” a “good source of vitamin C,” and low in calories, fat, and gluten, they're really little more than sugar, according to the lawsuit filed on behalf of a California mother by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest and the law firm Reese Richman LLP. 

“General Mills is basically dressing up a very cheap candy as if it were fruit and charging a premium for it,” said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner. “General Mills is giving consumers the false impression that these products are somehow more wholesome, and charging more. It’s an elaborate hoax on parents who are trying to do right by their kids.”

Citing an example, the suit charges that Strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups are made from pears from concentrate, corn syrup, dried corn syrup, sugar, partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, citric acid, acetylated monoglycerides, fruit pectin, dextrose, malic acid, Vitamin C (ascorbic acid), unspecified “natural flavor,” and Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, and Blue 1.

No fiber

Even with the pear ingredient, the product provides little of the beneficial fiber or nutrients associated with real strawberries, the suit alleges. While labels tout the naturalness of the added flavorings, CSPI says that many of the ingredients are artificial by anyone’s definition, including the partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil and the acetylated monoglycerides.

The side panels on some General Mills "fruit" candies read "Made With Real Fruit." At least one variety of Fruit Roll-Ups has pictures of strawberries and oranges on the box. But despite the names of the products, there are no strawberries in Strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups, nor watermelon in Fruit Gushers Watermelon Blast, according to the suit.

The bright colors of those products come from synthetic, petroleum-based dyes that can impair some children’s behavior, CSPI said.

“Defendant is conveying an overall message of a healthful snack product to parents when, in fact, the Products contain dangerous, non-nutritious, unhealthy partially hydrogenated oil, large amounts of sugar, and potentially harmful artificial dyes,” the complaint states.

More

More Restaurant-Style Foods Offered For Home

Marketers push dining out taste on eat at home budget

Food marketers are emphasizing restaurant-style taste...

PhotoYou love the kind of food you get at restaurants, but with the economy the way it is, your food budget has seriously curtailed your dining out.

This dilemma for a growing number of consumers has created opportunities for food producers, who have shifted gears in recent years to produce restaurant-style food products consumers can prepare at home.

Pop-up toaster hamburgers, microwaveable cans, sauces and spreads that turn everyday sandwiches into gourmet restaurant-style meals are currently just some of the trends that are sweeping the food marketing arena. Elizabeth Sloan, writing in Food Technology magazine, says the craving for restaurant-style food is driving the newest products and, despite a lagging economy, sales of food and beverage products are projected to reach $1.74 trillion by 2015.

Ready-made meals

It's not just taste that is driving this trend. With more than half of woman in developed countries feeling squeezed for time while holding a job and caring for their families, food products that make meal preparation easier and faster continue to grow in demand.

Burgers that you can heat in a toaster along with spaghetti Bolognese that can be microwaved in its own can are just two common examples of foods that are becoming popular in the UK and Europe.

Dried spice blends that double as measuring cups, marinades/stocks sold in six-pack tubes and cooking sauce pouches are designed to make cooking easy without the mess and keep food and seasoning fresh longer.

Some products allow home cooks to make easy additions such as pastry toppings for a pie or noodle base to create a meal that is their own. In addition to regular home-style cooking, the fresh and organic options are also becoming more popular when it comes to ready-made options. Sandwich fillers, sauces and spreads also turn ordinary sandwiches into gourmet, restaurant-style meals.

The main course

Whereas chicken used to be the top choice for a dinner or lunch protein in the low-fat and calorie category, fish is gaining popularity fast from the US to China. Fish from specific regions such as the Tasmanian Salmon and less-know individual species such as the Blue-Eyed Cod are also getting more attention. A new twist for breaded fish (and chicken too) is to include a layer of vegetables under the crust. Toppings crusts of herbs, spices, and different size crumbs are also becoming popular for fish, chicken and beef dishes.

In addition to proteins served at meals, carbohydrates are also getting an upgrade. Traditional sauces for pasta such as carbonara and Bolognese are being ousted by more sophisticated and worldly sauces like arrabiata, boscaiola, and puttanesca.

New pasta styles are also making an appearance like orechiette and panzerotto, upstaging classics like penne and spaghetti. Sides like potatoes are going healthy with cholesterol-free fried potato sides like Israel' Bisball Crispy Mashed Potato Balls with Vegetables. Gluten, lactose, and cholesterol-free waffle fries in Finland are among the exciting international potato trends.

Favorites

Italian, closely followed by Indian were the two most popular ethnic flavors among global products in 2010. Indian flavors like tikka, jalfrezi, masala and korma variations are appearing in snack, soup and ready-made products worldwide. In addition, ethnic flavor descriptors are becoming more specific.

Instead of a product touting the Indian food flavor description of "curry", it's now becoming more specific to the different kinds of curry available, like masala or korma, (one spicier than the other).

More tropical flavors and "super fruits" are also becoming more popular among today's consumers. Coconut, mango, and mandarin and veggie/fruit combo flavors are gaining recognition along with less known berries like gooseberry, cloudberry and loganberry. Colorful and edible flower petals are also being added to bagged salad mixes to add aromatic components to foods. Extreme seasonings like McCormick's Screamer Buffalo Wings Seasoning Mix along with fusion sauces that join two or more cuisines are also appearing more on shelves.

Healthful helpings

When it comes to snacking, healthier snack bars are on the rise. Especially if they incorporate ingredients like super fruit fusions, yogurt, dark chocolate, real fruit pieces, and multiple nuts, seeds and grains to add flavor and function.

Among consumers top 10 global health issues, avoiding cancer, maintaining mental sharpness and heart health are all influencing what kind of products they buy. Fortifying kids food are also becoming a trend. Samyang's in South Korea has created a product called Our Kid Wellbeing Cookie Mix which is fortified with nine vitamins and calcium.

Sugar-free diet coffees, special energizing breakfast coffees and coffees flavored with Asian ginger, mocha or chocolate are also up and coming trends. Green tea with more than the normal number of antioxidants and Lassi, a traditional Indian dairy drink is gaining popularity.

More

Walmart Shutters Its Marketside Stores

Massive chain's first experiment with smaller stores judged a flop

Marketside locationsWalmart has reportedly given up on Marketside, its experimental small grocery stores featuring prepared meals and f...

Photo
Marketside locations

Walmart has reportedly given up on Marketside, its experimental small grocery stores featuring prepared meals and fresh food.

The company launched the format in 2008 with stores in Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert and Tempe, Arizona, hoping to recreate the "bodega" feeling that characterizes many small mom-and-pop stores in urban areas.

Just what went wrong isn't known but Mouth by Southwest, a regional publication, reports that the Arizona stores will close next Friday, Oct. 21.

Walmart continues to operate a handful of Walmart Express stores in test markets in North Carolina, Arkansas and Chicago.

It is also experimenting with a concept called the Walmart Neighborhood, about twice the size of Marketside stores and emphasizing low-cost groceries, prescriptions and household products.  It opened its newest Neighborhood store in Orlando earlier this week.

“With our smaller format, our store is perfect for those on the go. Whether they’re stocking up or need to pick up just a few items, our customers will be able to find what they need quickly and easily,” said Orlando store manager Paula Heath. “Our customers will be able to find familiar brands and local products at great values, right in their own neighborhood.”

Sour economy

 
 

PhotoThe Marketside stores perhaps fell victim to a sour economy that is making consumers less prone to spend a few more dollars on convenience and time-saving products and services.

As far back as June 2009, Walmart was cautioning that it was proceeding cautiously with the concept.

“We’re pleased with it, but at this point in time given the current condition in the marketplace … we are not accelerating that effort until we have better data to make a decision,” Walmart Vice-Chairman Eduardo Castro-Wright told reporters after the retailer’s annual meeting, Reuters reported.

Britain's Tesco has been experimenting with a similar concept in the U.S.  Called Fresh & Easy, the stores are similar to Walmart's Marketside, emphasizing fresh produce and prepared foods.  Tesco said last month that it would open six stores in the Sacramento area next year, in addition to 13 stores already operating in California.

More

Gap Closing 200 North American Stores

Continues to shift emphasis overseas

Gap, Inc. is closing about 200 stores in North America mostly the U.S. - as it focuses more attention in building its brands internationally....

PhotoWith increased competition and a tougher sales environment, Gap, Inc. is closing about 200 stores in North America – mostly the U.S. - as it focuses more attention in building its brands internationally.

“The company is making progress on its goal of reducing square footage in North America and is on track to achieve a 10 percent reduction in overall store square footage by fiscal year 2012, when compared to 2007,” the company said in a statement to analysts.”

That means Gap plans to reduce the number of its stores to about 700 Gap specialty stores and about 250 Gap Outlet stores by year end 2013. That would represent a 34 percent decrease in the Gap specialty store fleet when compared to the end of 2007.

Gap, Inc. operates the various Gap brand stores, as well as Old Navy, Piperlime, Athleta and Banana Republic. Its products include wardrobe basics, such as denim, khakis, and T-shirts; fashion apparel; casual apparel and accessories; maternity apparel; women?s underwear, sleepwear, lounge wear, and sports and active apparel; and shoes and accessories.

At Old Navy, the brand’s strategy is to have roughly the same number of stores in North America with a smaller footprint. The brand plans to continue downsizing its fleet in North America, and expects to potentially remove another 1 million square feet by fiscal year end 2013.

Shifting overseas

While downsizing in the U.S. and North America, Gap is setting its sights on expanding overseas. There are about 3,100 company-operated stores and about 200 franchise stores in 36 countries and online orders are shipped to over 90 countries. The company hopes to achieve 30 percent of its sales outside North America and online by the end of fiscal 2013.

“The combination of our global strategy and formidable growth platform puts us in a strong position to expand our reach into the top 10 apparel markets worldwide,” said Glenn Murphy, chairman and chief executive officer of Gap Inc. “In North America, we’re taking a number of steps to improve sales in the near-term, and I’m confident that with a strong management team in place, we’re well positioned for sustained growth across the business.”

On Wall Street, Gap shares moved lower Friday despite a Commerce Department report showing unexpectedly strong retail sales in September, especially for apparel. Apparel sales were up 1.3 percent, the largest increase in seven months.

More

Penny Auction Deals May Not Be So Sweet

Consumer Reports find many bidders spend big bucks, leave empty-handed

Encouraged by TV and Web ads promising as much as 95 percent off of retail, swarms of people are signing up for the piece of auction action at sites like B...

PhotoEncouraged by TV and Web ads promising as much as 95 percent off of retail, swarms of people are signing up for the piece of auction action at sites like Bidcactus, Bid Rivals, HappyBidDay and QuiBids. These sites hawk items like an $1,800 high-definition television for $73 or a $15 store gift card for 28 cents.

But Consumer Reports magazine warns that actually winning a big-ticket item for pennies on the dollar from one of these sites can take an extraordinary amount of effort and is hardly a given.

“You could get a bargain, but generally, you stand a very small chance of winning the amazing deal they advertised,” said Tony Giorgianni, associate editor, Consumer Reports. “For everyone who gets an amazing deal, many others spend a lot of money only to be disappointed.

There are scores of penny-auction websites. The ones Consumer Reports investigated work and look pretty much the same, although the rules and costs differ. The sites typically run dozens of auctions at the same time, with items of different value, such as gifts, electronics, and appliances, all of which are offered by the site itself.

Like traditional auctions, participants bid on items, with each bid increasing the price. To bid, you click a bid button. Auctions are timed so when the clock runs out, the last and highest bidder wins the item at final price. Often that price is ridiculously low.

That’s because bidding starts at or near $0, and each bid raises by a fixed increment, usually just a penny or two. So an item that gets 1,000 bids in one-penny increments sells for $10, even if it would cost you hundreds or thousands at retail.

Bidding isn't free

But unlike with traditional auctions, bidding isn’t free. You must buy bids up front—typically for 50 cents to $1 each. To get bids, you register a credit or debit card or use PayPal. Bids are sold in packs, with the minimum pack costing around $25 to $60, depending on the site. Unused bids are refundable on some sites though sometimes within only 30 days of when you buy them.

One key difference between traditional and penny auctions is that any bids you make are gone, whether or not you win. So if you’ve made, for example, 100 60-cent bids on a $2,000 computer but you aren’t the winner, you’re out $60. If you wind up the winning bidder, you and only you would have the right to buy the computer for the winning price.

So if the bidding ends at $14, the computer would cost you $74: the $14 plus the $60 you bid. If you lose, some sites give you the option of buying the item at a higher retail price, minus all or part of the amount you’ve bid. Not every site has this option.

Whether you’re buying a product at the winning price or at retail, you also have to pay for product shipping and handling, which varies by product and by site. Return policies also differ from site to site. BidCactus.com has only a seven-day return policy. And ArrowOutlet imposes a 15 percent restocking fee on some returns.

Learn more at  www.ConsumerReports.org/cro/pennyauctions

More

Gas Prices Stop Falling, Head Higher

Price decline ends even though economic worries don't

Gas prices have begun to rise again...

PhotoThe welcome decline in gasoline prices at the pump appears to have ended, at least for now. Despite global economic worries, gas prices are now rising again.

The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.443 per gallon, down from $3.390 last Friday, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. That's about 18 cents a gallon less than consumers were paying a month ago.

The average price of diesel fuel today is $3.801 per gallon, up a fraction of a cent from $3.800 a week ago.

As far as supply and demand goes, U.S. stockpiles of crude oil rose by 1.3 million barrels the previous week, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But gasoline supplies fell by 4.1 million barrels. Gasoline demand over the last four weeks was down almost a full percentage point from the same period last year.

The price of oil has risen sharply off its lows of two weeks ago, which may be responsible for some of the sharp increase in retail gasoline prices. The biggest price spike occurred in states that have been enjoying the nation's lowest gas prices.

According to the AAA survey, the average gas price in the last seven days is up 12 cents a gallon in Missouri, while rising nine cents in South Carolina and eight cents in Tennessee.

The states with the most expensive gas this week are:

  • Hawaii ($4.217)
  • Alaska ($4.030)
  • California ($3.840)
  • Washington ($3.803)
  • Oregon ($3.762)
  • New York ($3.708)
  • Connecticut ($3.701)
  • Idaho ($3.669)
  • Nevada ($3.619)
  • Montana ($3.582)

 

The states with the least expensive gas this week are:

  • South Carolina ($3.220)
  • Missouri ($3.226)
  • Texas ($3.259)
  • Tennessee ($3.269)
  • Mississippi ($3.290)
  • Oklahoma ($3.293)
  • Virginia ($3.294)
  • Louisiana ($3.316)
  • Alabama ($3.329)
  • Georgia ($3.333)
More

Consumers Fried Over Fizzled TVs

Flat-screen TVs' longevity leaves a lot to be desired

Is the flat screen TV a disposable product? More and more consumers have come to the conclusion that it is.“I bought a plasma LG TV from...

Is the flat-screen TV a disposable product? More and more consumers have come to the conclusion that it is.

“I bought a plasma LG TV from Best Buy for $1300 in 2007,” John, from Sheffield Lake, Ohio, told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Also bought an extended service plan for four years at a cost of $250. Less than two years later, Best Buy replaced the TV after the picture tube went out. Said it was cheaper than fixing it. Imagine my surprise when the new TV would not turn on or show any signs of life today, nine months after the extended warranty ran out.

John said he complained to the manager at the Best Buy store and got an amazingly candid response.

“He explained that the TVs are made on a foreign assembly line and put together with cheap parts, so I should not expect longevity from my purchase,” John said.

Well, it's one thing to toss a $40 toaster oven after three years, but a $1,000 to $2,000 TV is a different story. Consumers just expect them to last a little longer than three years. After all, the old tube-type TVs could last decades.

One technician told us last month that flat screen TVs are “designed” to last forever but are not manufactured that way.  Dave Maltz, who owns Dave's TV Repair in Grants Pass, Ore., hears many of the same complaints and is very familiar with the problem.

For starters, Maltz, who has been repairing TV sets for 17 years, isn't a big fan of how most of these sets are designed.

“If you took apart one of these things, you would be amazed at how many components they're trying to compress into a six inch space,” he said.

And because they are so many, they are extremely small, making it hard – and expensive – to work on these sets. Maltz has produced a number of YouTube videos about repairing flat screen TVs, including the one below in which he conducted a poll on how long flat-screen TVs last. Six years was as long as anyone owned a trouble-free set.

Up in smoke 

Not only can flat-screen TVs burn through a lot of money, they can burn your house down.  Just this week, Sony recalled 1.6 million Bravia TVs because they're a fire hazard. Samsung TVs are also noted for their propensity to go up in smoke, as Sarah of Temple, Texas, told us earlier this year:

"I was watching on my Samsung DLP television and a large amount of foul smelling smoke came out of its back. This television is a fire hazard," she said.

Read more ...

 

How about you?  What's your experience been?  Speak up!

More

Sony Recalls Flat-Screen TVs Because of Fire Risk

Recall of 1.6 million Bravia LCD TVs is latest in a long line of Sony blunders

Sony is recalling 1.6 million Bravia flat-panel TVs sold worldwide since 2007 because they may melt or catch fire.Sony said it instituted the recall afte...

More

Halloween Is a Scary Time for Allergy, Asthma Sufferers

Costumes, candy, decorations can all cause serious, unexpected problems

Halloween is supposed to be pretend scary -- but it's really scary for millions of children with asthma and allergies.  It's not just the candy and tr...

PhotoHalloween is supposed to be pretend scary -- but it's really scary for millions of children with asthma and allergies.  It's not just the candy and treats that can cause problems but lots of other culprits you might not think of.

Masks, costumes and accessories can bring on dangerous allergy and asthma symptoms, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology. But a little planning can help your little ghost or goblin stay wheeze and sneeze-free on Halloween night, the editors of Consumer Reports advise.

Here's their list of what to watch out for: 

1)         Treats: Peanuts, tree nuts, milk and eggs are common ingredients in chocolate and other confections. For kids with food allergies, eating these Halloween treats can bring on a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis. But candies containing gelatin, such as gummy bears are potential triggers, too.

For children prone to food allergies, have some non-candy treats on hand, such as stickers, pencils and small toys, be wary of “fun size” candy which may contain different ingredients than regular size packages, and teach your child to politely say no to food that may not be safe.

Verify that adults or friends accompanying your child understand his or her food allergies and what to do in an emergency.  And always make sure your food-allergic child carries their EpiPen with them.

2)         Costumes: Thinking of re-using last year’s Halloween costume or taking a hand-me-down? Here’s something to consider: Halloween costumes packed away in a box for months can be laden with dust mites, which could trigger an allergic or asthmatic response.

Be sure to wash the dusty and hand-me-down costumes in hot water. Or spring for a new costume. And, whenever possible, watch out for nickel in costume accessories, from cowboy belts and pirate swords to tiaras and magic wands. Nickel can cause allergic contact dermatitis, making for an itchy, bumpy, uncomfortable kid. 

3)         Makeup: Cheap Halloween makeup may include preservatives that can cause allergic reactions, such as a rash or swelling. Opt for higher quality theater makeup, and test the makeup on a small area of your child’s skin well in advance of Halloween.

4)         Pumpkins: Pumpkin allergies, while rare, can cause itching, chest tightness, and other symptoms, and they can appear suddenly, even if you haven’t had a problem before. If you think you might be allergic, beware of pumpkin carving and pumpkin. And keep in mind that pumpkin patches are often moldy and dusty, allergy and asthma triggers for some.

5)         Decorative contact lenses: If your Twilight fan is asking for colorful, vampire-inspired contact lenses, consider this warning from the Food and Drug Administration before saying “yes”. An eye doctor must measure each eye to properly fit the lenses and evaluate how the eye responds to contact lens wear. A poor fit can cause serious eye damage, including cornea scratches and infection, conjunctivitis (pink eye), decreased vision, and even blindness.

Never buy the lenses from places that sell them without a prescription, such as street vendors, salons, novelty stores, and the Internet.

6)         Fog: If you’re planning on using a fog machine at your Halloween party, keep in mind that fog can trigger asthma in some sufferers.

 

More

Beware The Fake Netflix Android App

Backdoor malware steals users' log-in information

A fake Netflix app for Android is causing problems...

PhotoMobile security experts are warning that hackers have created a fake Netflix app for Android smartphones and tablets.

The device passes itself off as the real Netflix Android app but doesn't give you access to Netflix content. Instead, it steals your Netflix log-in information.

Security firm Symantec was among the first to sound the warning, saying existing confusion about Netflix access on the Android platform makes for a ripe situation for hackers. Symantec says Netflix has released the official Android app in bits in pieces, so that users aren't quite sure whether it works on their phones.

Good disguise

The fake app looks very much like the real one, making it even more dangerous. It asks users to log-in to their Netflix account with their user name and password. When they do, they get a message that says their device is not supported by Netflix at this time.

But as they typed in their user name and password, the fake app captured the data and transmitted it to the hacker, who can then sell it. The real app, which was initially released in the early part of the year, was only recently published to the Android Market with support for multiple devices.

Perfect cover

"A gap in availability, combined with the large interest of users attempting to get the popular service running on their Android device, created the perfect cover for Andoid.Fakeneflic to exploit," Symantec said in a blog posting.

Divided into two main parts, the fake app is mainly a splash screen followed by a log-in screen where the user information is captured and posted to a server. Symatec says at last check, it appears that the server where the data was being posted is offline.

Once a user has clicked on the “sign in” button, they are presented with a screen indicating incompatibility with the current hardware and a recommendation to install another version of the app in order to resolve the issue. There is no attempt to automatically download the recommended solution.

Upon hitting the “cancel” button, the app attempts to uninstall itself. Any attempt to prevent the uninstall process results in the user being returned to the previous screen with the incompatibility message.  

More

Best Place to Buy an iPhone 4S?

Best Apple service doesn't fall far from the tree, mystery shoppers find

Looking to buy an iPhone 4S?  So are lots of other people and it's tempting to avoid the lines at Apple stores by buying online.  But just where ...

PhotoLooking to buy an iPhone 4S?  So are lots of other people and it's tempting to avoid the lines at Apple stores by buying online.  But just where online?

A report from a mystery-shopper service says that Apple.com is "hands down the best choice" and says the Apple site has superior customer service phone support and offers an "expansive" warranty program.

“Apple.com outperformed its reseller partners hands down when it comes to customer service, and we found no reason that consumers should look anywhere else,” said STELLAService co-founder and CEO Jordy Leiser. “With pricing for the
iPhone 4S uniform across all online sellers, the overall quality of customer service should be the deciding factor in choosing where to buy the iPhone 4S online.”

A STELLAService spokeswoman said the study was not funded by Apple. 

For the report, STELLAService said it looked at the five retailers and carriers offering the iPhone 4S online – Apple.com, BestBuy.com, VerizonWireless.com, ATT.com, and Sprint.com.
 
In addition to evaluating key policies and features, such as return and warranty policies, STELLAService rated the quality of customer service phone support  by placing ten phone calls to each retailer and asking ten questions -- from how to buy insurance to how to change a pass code lock.
 
STELLAService describes itself as "an independent company that leverages a nationwide network of full-time mystery shoppers to evaluate online retailers across more than 350 customer service metrics, including shipping, returns, and customer support."  It says it "does not accept payment from companies to rate them." 
 
Leiser said STELLAService conducted the study to provide consumers with clear guidance in light of unclear policies, misinformation, rumors, and scams relating to online retailers selling Apple products.

Leiser points out that Apple.com, which provides a list of authorized online resellers for its popular products, such as the iPod and iPad, does not provide a list of authorized online sellers for the iPhone.

Other findings

Other findings from the study include:
  • To evaluate the quality of customer service phone support, STELLAService rated each seller based on factors such as product knowledge, issue resolution, and overall tone and attitude of the customer support representatives. Apple.com’s representatives earned the highest score (4 out of 5), significantly outpacing others when it came to their ability to address questions (4.4 for Apple vs. 3.6 for AT&T and Verizon). STELLAService said the average customer service quality score for consumer electronics retailers was 3.7.
  • While BestBuy.com allows customers to purchase the iPhone 4S online, it does not offer shipping and delivery. As of the days leading up to the iPhone 4S release, customers could only pick up the product in stores.
  • Apple.com’s AppleCare+ warranty program is by far the most cost-effective.  Even though it does not cover loss and theft, the monthly fees and deductions for BestBuy’s Geek Squad and AT&T’s and Verizon’s Asurion warranties come close to the cost of buying a completely a new iPhone.
  • Apple.com and BestBuy.com offer the most generous return window for a refund (30 days) versus 14 days for AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon
  • Apple.com and BestBuy.com do not charge customers for returning an iPhone 4S, while AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon each have a $35 restocking fee.
  • AT&T is only online seller that does not allow customers to trade-in old phones by mail. AT&T customers can only trade-in phones in-store.
More

Some Praise For Bank Of America

Connecticut's Attorney General gives the bank some credit

Bank of America has earned some praise from an unlikely source...

PhotoBank of America has become a consumer punching bag of late. For many customers who have expressed an assortment of frustrations with the bank, the recent announcement of a new $5 monthly fee for using a debit card was the last straw.

So it might seem somewhat surprising that the bank is getting a pat on the back from an unexpected source, Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen, who has never hesitated to point out banks' shortcomings.

Jepsen said he was pleased by Bank of America's recent decision to open a customer assistance center in Southington, Conn., to help borrowers seeking loan modifications or other alternatives to foreclosure.

A positive step

“Bank of America has taken a positive step to help its customers,” Jepsen said. “The center will give homeowners an opportunity to have their pending applications and paperwork reviewed or to discuss their options with home retention specialists.”

Lack of attention has been a constant complaint by homeowners seeking mortgage modifications, not just about Bank of America but nearly every other lender as well. Homeowners have told remarkable consistent stories of multiple requests to fax the same documents, only to learn that their home had gone to foreclosure while continuing the modification application process.

A personal contact

“Having a personal contact will help to resolve many of the complaints Bank of America customers have brought to my office,” Jepsen said.

Customers can make an appointment at the Connecticut center to meet with a specialist by calling 860-385-9259. Appointments can be made at the center between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays.

In addition, Bank of America will be among the mortgage lenders participating in a free homeowners’ mortgage assistance event on Nov. 15 at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford, which is being sponsored by Gov. Dannel Malloy, the Attorney General and the state Department of Banking.

Bank of America, meanwhile, credited Jepsen with playing an important role in helping bring the customer assistance center to Southington when it announced the center’s opening.

Jepsen met with bank representatives and in May, wrote a letter to Brian T. Moynihan, president and chief executive of Bank of America, asking the bank to commit more resources to Connecticut. The Attorney General said he was concerned about the bank’s failure to address “numerous complaints” reported to his office, the Department of Banking and the non-profit Connecticut Fair Housing Center.

Jepsen is a member of the Executive Committee of the National Association of Attorneys General multistate task force which is seeking to hold major loan servicers, including Bank of America, accountable for the unfair and deceptive default servicing practices they have engaged in across the country.

More

What's On Your Mind? American Home Mortgage, TravelNow, Mitsubishi, Progressive Business Publications

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: American Home Mortgage, TravelNow, Mitsubishi, Progressive Business Publications and Case of mistaken identity....

PhotoWhat happens when a bank forecloses on a property that's in a homeowners association? The Eatons Ferry Estates Property Owners Association, in Littleton, N.C., is wrestling with that very issue.

“American Home Mortgage foreclosed on a property in our HOA that had a lien against it for 2011 dues and penalties,” an association officer told ConsumerAffairs.com. “They have ignored our request for payment of the lien and the penalties that continue to accumulate since they took possession of the property. We have contacted them and they requested we fax the documentation. This has been done three times and they continue not to act on the account. Current balance is $600.”

This is a growing problem in large condo developments, where many units are in foreclosures. Though legally obligated as owners to keep up the assessment payments, many lenders don't.

Case of mistaken identity

Increasingly we are hearing from travelers who say they no longer use third-party travel booking sites and now book directly with the hotel or airline. Or at least, they try to.

I thought that I was booking my rooms at the Washington Hotel in Washington D.C. directly on the Internet,” said Alice, of Alabaster, Ala. “But I found out that I booked through TravelNow, which is a subsidiary of Expedia. There is nothing that tells you that you are not booking through the hotel. While at the hotel I ask the front desk agent about my discount. She said that I booked through Expedia and there was nothing she could do about the discount I was promised.”

Alice, and other travelers like her, need to make sure they are clicking on the hotel's link when they do a Google search. Travel sites often purchase sponsored links, which appear at the top of the page. Make sure you read more than the first link that pops up.

Happy behind the wheel

We get lots of complaints from consumers who are unhappy with their automobile purchase. We're delighted when we hear from one who's happy – especially since he had misgivings about it to start with.

“A few months ago I bought a 2011 Misubishi Eclipse Spyder,” David, of South Daytona, Fla., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I was committed to purchase a Nissan 370Z when I first saw the Spyder. The styling was great, but I test drove it only because the Spyder was $8000 less than the 370Z and it came with an additional $2000 rebate. I agonized over the decision because I really wanted the Nissan and I didn't know anything about Mitsubishi cars. In the end, for the $10,000 price difference, I just couldn't pass on the Spyder. Overall, I'm very pleased with the Spyder. You need only to hit a bump in the road or cross a rail road track to feel how well built this car is. On the negative side, if I was asked to make improvements to this car I'd suggest higher quality leather seats and an improved turning radius. If I need to make a U-turn I look for a K-Mart parking lot.”

David said the car gets decent gas mileage and the monthly insurance premium is $60 less than the Nissan.

Expensive junk mail

Greg, of Colorado Springs, Colo., is getting some unwanted mail. What's new about that? Because he's being charged for it.

“We started receiving some silly newsletter from Progressive Business Publications not even related to my industry, then they wanted to charge exorbitant prices for their worthless publication,” Greg said. “I contacted them and told them to discontinue sending it, We do not like it, nor want it. We will not pay for it. They informed me I had to pay or they would ruin my company's credit rating. I agreed to pay and told them to stop sending the worthless paper to me.”

Greg may not realize it, but he's getting the newsletter because of a negative option marketing transaction. Likely, a telemarketer talked to someone in his company and used that conversation as an excuse to execute a “sale.” Greg should report it to Colorado Attorney General John Suthers.   

More

Consumer Anger Isn't Netflix' Only Problem

Company beefing up its Washington presence as challenges mount

When the going gets tough, the tough ... well, they get going and hire some more "governmental affairs" representatives.  Lobbyists, in other words....

PhotoWhen the going gets tough, the tough ... well, they get going and hire some more "governmental affairs" representatives.  Lobbyists, in other words.

Netflix is the latest rough and tough high-tech firm to realize it needs to lawyer up and get ready for the next rack of shoes to drop on its once-peaceful video-rental business.

Netflix customers haven't taken to the streets to protest the company's new rate structure but that may only be because so many of them are already out occuping Wall Street, Main Street and everything in between.

But consumers are still outraged at Netflix.  A ConsumerAffairs.com computerized analysis of about 4 million consumer comments on Facebook, Twitter and other blogs and social media finds the company's approval rating continuing to plunge -- falling from a 60% positive rating a year ago to a dismal 14% today.

Photo

Besides the consumer revolt, Netflix faces the usual raft of 21st Century problems -- broadband regulations, privacy rules, telecom and cable conniving and growing resistance from Hollywood rights holders -- and also a 19th Century headache that could be the hardest to solve, namely the sorry state of the Post Office.

New hires

Helping to pull the wagons into a circle will be two new hires --  Victoria Luxardo Jeffries, most recently of the Federal Trade Commission, and Colin Bortner, late of Monument Policy Group.

Jeffries will be a senior manager of government relations.  And Bortner?  Well, he'll be manager of goverment relations.  

Jeffries comes from the a division of the Federal Trade Commission’s bureau of competition that oversaw merger reviews in the high-tech industry and of video rental services. She will begin at Netflix later this month.

At Monument,  Bortner advised Netflix and other Web firms including Zillow, Travelocity and Microsoft.

“I’m pleased to welcome Victoria and Colin to Netflix’s Washington, D.C., office and look forward to working with them as we expand globally and address important consumer issues within a thriving digital economy,” said Michael Drobac, director of government relations for Netflix, according to Politico.

Riding roughshod

PhotoThe digital economy is all well and good but it was the U.S. Postal Service that originally brought Netflix to D.C.  It began lobbying in 2005 on just a single issue -- postal rate reform.  The price of a stamp is a big deal when you buy millions of them, after all.

Now that Netflix has all these directors, managers and senior managers of government relations, it is obviously hoping to do a lot more managing of a lot more issues.  

Netflix is still a small presence in Washington, perhaps spending less than $1 million per year on lobbying, although with all the new hires and all that senior government managing, that's likely to change quickly.

If you can believe it, the company didn't even have any lobbyists until late 2010.  Can you imagine?  No lobbyists!  

Drobac was the first hire.  He was formerly a Hill staffer for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas).  Drobac has also been a log-roller for Expedia, the IAC/InterActive Corp. and the Online Publishers Association.

Whether all these handlers will be able to help Netflix avoid any future blunders remains to be seen but if the company has any hope of becoming the globe-straddling video-streaming goliath of its founder's dreams, its likely to find the need for more lobbyists, government relations and public affairs operatives grows as fast as its bandwidth cravings, if not faster. 

---

Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase

More

Study: Majority Of Medical Advisors Have Industry Ties

Researchers find more conflicts of interest among people setting health care guidelines

Many people involved in setting health care guidelines have conflicts of interest...

Researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine say they have found that conflicts of interest are prevalent and potentially underreported among individuals participating in the development of clinical practice guidelines, which greatly influence standards of patient care.

In a study published online BMJ: The British Medical Journal. the researchers say their findings provide more evidence of the potential influence of industry on medical practice recommendations.

How, exactly, do you measure a potential conflict of interest? The Mount Sinai team reviewed the panel members involved in the development of clinical practice guidelines for two highly prevalent conditions— diabetes and high cholesterol—from major organizations in the United States and Canada, such as the American Diabetes Association (ADA), the American Heart Association (AHA), and government-sponsored organizations, such as the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF).

Conflicts? What conflicts?

Of the 288 total panel members evaluated, 150, or 52 percent, had what the researchers consider a conflict of interest. In addition, they found that panel members developing government-sponsored guidelines had significantly fewer conflicts than those from the non-government sponsored guideline panels. Lastly, they revealed that one out of nine panelists who formally declared no conflict did, in fact, have a conflict of interest.

“Guidelines inform evidence-based practice and ultimately protect patients, so safeguarding against potential sources of bias is important," said the study’s lead author Jennifer Neuman, MD, Instructor of Preventive Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “The majority of guideline panel members and half of guideline panel chairs in our study received some sort of compensation from industry, indicating a risk of industry influence on guideline recommendations. But, we found that government agencies were able to effectively staff their guideline panels with individuals with few conflicts of interest, therefore it is possible to convene panels with minimal conflict of interest.”

Many consumer advocates have warned that drug companies have, over the years, compromised the independent judgment of medical panel participants with cash and gifts, creating a conflict of interest between doctors and pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers.

In a 2009 report, the New Jersey Department of Consumer Affairs issued a set of recommendations to address the impact of potential conflicts on patient care, and set forth new policies to be considered by the state Board of Medical Examiners, the Board of Pharmacy, the Department of Health and Senior Services and academic medical centers.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has also promised more transparency in the drug approval process.

Greater transparency

The Mount Sinai authors said they support the efforts by the Institute of Medicine and other prominent medical organizations around the world to increase transparency and decrease potential industry bias on guideline development panels.

“Conflict-free guideline panels are feasible and would help to improve the quality of the guideline development process,” they concluded.

More

Overweight? Be Ready to Buy a Second Seat on AirTran

Low-fare carrier adopts the "customer of size" policy of its new parent

There's a paradox in air travel: the seats keep getting smaller and the passengers keep getting bigger.   This can make for some pretty uncomfortable...

PhotoThere's a paradox in air travel: the seats keep getting smaller and the passengers keep getting bigger.  

This can make for some pretty uncomfortable flights but most major airlines tend to look the other way, hoping passengers will somehow work it out.  Or just suck it up.

Southwest Airlines, however, has for some time required "customers of size" to buy a second seat.  And now, Atlanta-based AirTran -- recently acquired by Southwest -- is doing the same, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

PhotoAs of March 1, AirTran will require the purchase of more than one seat for a passenger who "in the carrier's sole discretion," can't fit into a single seat with the armrest lowered, said the newspaper, quoting AirTran's contract of carriage.

Until now, AirTran has not had a written policy about its passengers' girth although agents have sometimes suggested that unusually hefty travelers upgrade to business class.  Southwest doesn't have a business class on its planes, unless you regard two coach seats as amounting to business class.

Delicate subject

Assessing one's bulk can be a delicate subject but Southwest has managed to pin it down pretty well, saying that customers of size are "those who encroach upon any part of the neighboring seat[s], ,,, The armrest is considered to be the definitive boundary between seats."

AirTran doesn't serve Newark, N.J., so Gov. Chris Christie won't be affected.  Besides, he can just use his helicopter. 

Southwest says the policy affects fewer than one-half of 1 percent of its customers and notes that passengers who buy a second seat can request a refund if it turns out that the flight wasn't full.

While Southwest's policy may seem harsh, the carrier says it adopted its rule in response to complaints from passengers who objected to the intrusion of their traveling companions' adipose tissue into their airspace.

Big shoulders, on the other hand, aren't a problem since, as Southwest notes, "The upper body can be adjusted."

Southwest and AirTran policies are silent on the subject of sharp elbows.  

Good will

Other than the wide load issue, AirTran seems to have built up a relatively hefty reservoir of good will.  There are the usual complaints in our consumer review section but neither the number nor the ferocity matches those of larger airlines.

Likewise, a survey of online comments found little discussion of AirTran pro or con.  We found only 300 or so comments on Facebook, Twitter and other social media and blogs, most of thenm dealing with baggage, schedules and customer service.

Photo

 

Photo

 

 

More

Class Action Disputes Frontier Internet Fees

Suit claims Frontier defrauds Internet customers

A federal class action claims Frontier Communications defrauds its Internet customers by illegally collecting taxes and surcharges it falsely claims are go...

PhotoA federal class action claims Frontier Communications defrauds its Internet customers by illegally collecting taxes and surcharges it falsely claims are governmentally imposed, Courthouse News Service reported.

In the suit, the plantiffs claim that Frontier, which primarily serves customers in rural areas, has charged Internet customers local and state taxes and fees that are prohibited under the Internet Tax Freedom Act, the Federal Communications Act and state law.

The suit says Frontier has also imposed 911 fees on its Internet customers, even though customers are unable to call 911 from the Internet and has charged Internet customers Universal Service Fees, from which Internet service is exempt.

Frontier has also imposed a so-called "HSI surcharge" on its customers, claiming that it is governmentall required or specifically authorized.  In fact, says the suit, the HSI surcharge is neither.

"It is merely a junk fee that Frontier imposes on customers," the suit argues.  "The fee bears no relationship to any governmnetally-imposed fee or regulation, and is nothing other than an effort by Frontier to increase prices above advertising prices."

The named plaintiffs in the suit are Clint Rasschaert, of Minnetrista, Minn., Ed Risch of Farmington, Minn., Verna Schuna, of Scandia, Minn., and Pamela Schiller of Chester, N.Y.

Frontier, headquartered in Stamford, Conn., was formerly known as Citizens Telecommunications Company.  It changed its name in March 2003.  In July 2010, it took over local telephone and Internet service in many rural areas previously served by Verizon and now operates in 27 states, with 7.4 million customers.

The suit seeks refunds and damages for all consumers charged the disputed fees.  It was filed in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis by Nichols Kaster, PLLP.

 

More

Cybersecurity Threats To Increase In 2012

Georgia Tech researcher predict current threats will expand

Cybersecurity issues may be more important in 2012...

PhotoThe Internet continues to grow and offer new resources for enterprise and education, but the threats to the integrity of the network will only grow, warn researchers at Georgia Tech.

In the coming year, there will be increasingly sophisticated means to capture and exploit user data, as well as escalating battles over the control of online information that threatens to compromise content and erode public trust and privacy.

They are among the findings announced by the Georgia Tech Information Security Center (GTISC) and the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) in this week's release of the Georgia Tech Emerging Cyber Threats Report for 2012. 

Search poisoning

According to the report, we'll be hearing more about “search poisoning” in the coming year. Attackers will increasingly use SEO techniques to optimize malicious links among search results. Users will be more likely to click on the malicious URL because it ranks highly on Google or other search engines.

Mobile web-based attacks will also become more numerous, according to the researchers. We can expect increased attacks aimed specifically against mobile Web browsers as the tension between usability and security, along with device constraints (including small screen size), make it difficult to solve mobile Web browser security flaws.

There will also be growing interaction between cyber criminals and legitimate businesses, especially when it comes to stolen data that has marketing value. The report notes that the market for stolen cyber data will continue to evolve as botnets capture private user information shared by social media platforms and sell it directly to legitimate business channels such as lead-generation and marketing.

Unprecedented sophistication

“We continue to witness cyber attacks of unprecedented sophistication and reach, demonstrating that malicious actors have the ability to compromise and control millions of computers that belong to governments, private enterprises and ordinary citizens,” said Mustaque Ahamad, director of GTISC. “If we are going to prevent motivated adversaries from attacking our systems, stealing our data and harming our critical infrastructure, the broader community of security researchers—including academia, the private sector and government—must work together to understand emerging threats and to develop proactive security solutions to safeguard the Internet and physical infrastructure that relies on it.”

The take-home conclusion of the report is that businesses, governments and individuals can no longer assume their data is safe in perimeter-protected networks. Attacks penetrate these networks daily.

“Our best defense on the growing cyber warfront is found in cooperative education and awareness, best-of-breed tools and robust policy developed collaboratively by industry, academia and government,” Ahamad said.

More

Two Former Executives Of Bailed Out Bank Indicted

United Commerce took $300 million from taxpayers

Two Former Executives Of Bailed Out Bank Indicted: During the financial crises of 2008-09, many U.S. banks took government bailouts....

During the financial crises of 2008-09, many U.S. banks took government bailouts. One of them, United Commercial Bank of San Francisco, collapsed anyway after taking $300 million from the U.S. taxpayers.

Now, two former executives of United Commercial have been indicted on criminal and civil fraud charges over their alleged roles in trying to hide losses on loans. Former chief operating officer Ebrahim Shabudin and first vice-president Thomas Yu face four counts each.

The charges include conspiracy, securities fraud, falsifying corporate books and records, and making false statements to the accountants of a public company. The two men appeared in court this week and were released on bond.

United Commercial took close to $300 million in federal bailout money in November 2008 and eleven months later, was shut down by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). At the time, it was said to have more than $11 billion in assets, with branches in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has filed suit against the two former executives, along with former CEO Thomas Wu, charging they concealed more than $60 million in losses.

More

What's On Your Mind? Chase, Verizon Wireless, Your Baby Can Read

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Chase, Verizon Wireless, Your Baby Can Read, Cellular Shock and Another perspective....

PhotoIf banks are having a tough time in this economy, it stands to reason they wouldn't be turning away customers, right? After all, they produce advertisements trying to get new customers! So Amelia, of Laredo, Tex., was surprised when Chase Bank closed her checking and savings accounts with no explanation.

“There is a reason for everything and that's the least explanation I and every customer deserves,” Amelia told ConsumerAffairs.com. “What is their problem? They just can't leave you hanging there. I just use my account for little debit card expenses and have most of the time my balance over one hundred but less than one thousand. I really would for someone to tell me what's going on.”

If it makes Amelia feel any better, no one seems to know what's going on. Last month KING-TV in Seattle reported on a couple who had their Chase accounts closed in a situation almost exactly like Amelia's. The station reported it never did get an explanation. ConsumerAffairs.com has gotten reports from a few other consumers, who incidentally were former Washington Mutual customers acquired by Chase, who have had their accounts closed with no explanation. Two years ago, Chase also closed a large number of credit card accounts – almost all of them former Washington Mutual cardholders. Washington Mutual seems to be the common thread.

Cellular Shock

Oh my! Camille, a student from Portland, Ore., made her first trip abroad last month and had heard all about huge international cell phone roaming charges.

“I was not sure how my phone could be used so I contacted Verizon September 1, 2011 prior to leaving to learn what my options were,” Camille said. “The representative I spoke with asked me how my phone would be used and I explained I was traveling alone and may need the phone to search things on google, check email, and make a limited number of phone calls and text messages. I was told all that was needed for that type of usage was an additional $30 international data roaming and an upgrade to $4.99 for international calling so that my per minute rate would decrease. I accepted the plan.”

Camille said she arrived in Paris September 7. The following day, she said she received a text message from Verizon saying her data usage had exceeded $7,000! Seven-thousand dollars in one day.

“I immediately called Verizon Global customer service and was told how to shut off data roaming and that they did not understand what had happened and that there must be an error,” Camille said.

Pretty big error. Unfortunately, Camille says nothing has been done about the error. Hopefully, Camille can straighten this out because she purchased a roaming plan for the trip, accepting the plan suggested by the Verizon customer service rep. But getting someone at Verizon to own up to this may not be easy. She might try going the PR route, contacting Verizon Wireless corporate communications at 908-559-7512 and politely ask for help before she goes public with her problem.

Another perspective

We get a lot of complaints about the Your Baby Can Read package, most of them about the company, not the product. But to those who find the product doesn't work, Tiffany, of Atlanta, Ga., has tried it and has some advice.

“My mother-in law purchased the Your Baby Can Read package for my son last year, and at the time he was almost 12 months and he showed interest in the DVDs,” Tiffany told ConsumerAffairs.com. “He especially liked the sing along songs. We would all get excited when my son would say a word and when he would watch it by himself my husband I would peek in on him while he would say the words. I think it depends on the child and their attention span. Every child is different. What works for one child may not work for another. Make sure you are showing the video as well as reviewing the cards and books with your child and be patient with your child.”

Sounds like good advice.

More

Car Dealer Concealed GPS Devices in Cars, Florida Charges

GPS was then used to repossess cars, even when payments were current, state alleges

A Florida car dealer is accused of concealing GPS tracking devices to cars it sold to consumers, then using those devices to track the cars down and reposs...

PhotoA Florida car dealer is accused of concealing GPS tracking devices to cars it sold to consumers, then using those devices to track the cars down and repossess them.
 
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi filed a lawsuit against Beach Boulevard Automotive, Inc. for alleged violations of Florida’s consumer protection law. The lawsuit seeks restitution for harmed consumers, civil penalties of up to $15,000 per violation, attorneys fees and costs, and injunctive relief. 

“According to some complaints, this business tracked consumers down using GPS devices and then repossessed vehicles even though consumers were current on payments,” Bondi said. “Nearly 80 consumers filed complaints with our office, and our priority in this case is to return money to harmed consumers through restitution and to halt any fraudulent business practices.”

The complaint includes eight counts. One count alleges willfully using or threatening force or violence by using obscene and harassing language when dealing with customers

The remaining seven counts allege violations of Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act:

  • Requiring certain consumers to purchase credit life insurance, credit disability insurance and GAP insurance as a condition of sale;
  • Tracking vehicles via GPS tracking devices without consumer knowledge or authorization;
  • Adding to the price of the car a pre-printed, flat charge entitled “Pre-Delivery Inspection” fee using the pre-printed Used Vehicle Bill of Sale without disclosing the nature and purpose of the fee and without providing required disclosures;
  • Keeping consumers’ deposits without adequate disclosure;
  • Posting false reviews on the Internet;
  • Engaging in the business of selling motor vehicle retail installment contracts without a license through the Office of Financial Regulation; and
  • Wrongfully, unfairly and unconscionably repossessing consumers’ vehicles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

More

Broccoli's Health Benefits Require The Whole Food, Not Supplements

And don't overcook it, either

Getting health benefit from broccoli requires whole food...

PhotoThere may not be any shortcuts for people who want the health benefits of eating vegetables by taking a pill.

New research has found that a key phytochemical in broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables s poorly absorbed and of far less value if taken as a supplement.

The study, published by scientists in the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, is one of the first of its type to determine whether some of the healthy compounds found in cruciferous vegetables can be just as easily obtained through supplements.

The answer is no.

And not only do you need to eat the whole foods, you have to go easy on cooking them.

Not a simple question

"The issue of whether important nutrients can be obtained through whole foods or with supplements is never simple," said Emily Ho, an OSU associate professor in the OSU School of Biological and Population Health Sciences, and principal investigator with the Linus Pauling Institute.

Ho notes that some vitamins and nutrients, like the folic acid often recommended for pregnant women, are actually better-absorbed as a supplement than through food. Adequate levels of nutrients like vitamin D are often difficult to obtain in most diets.

“But the particular compounds that we believe give broccoli and related vegetables their health value need to come from the complete food," Ho said.

Missing enzyme

The reason, researchers concluded, is that a necessary enzyme called myrosinase is missing from most of the supplement forms of glucosinolates, a valuable phytochemical in cruciferous vegetables. Without this enzyme found in the whole food, the study found that the body actually absorbs five times less of one important compound and eight times less of another.

Intensive cooking does pretty much the same thing, Ho said. If broccoli is cooked until it's soft and mushy, its health value plummets. However, it can still be lightly cooked for two or three minutes, or steamed until it's still a little crunchy, and retain adequate levels of the necessary enzyme.

More

Survey: U.S. Has More Cell Phones Than People

And why consumers should prepare for higher bills

Survey shows there are more cell phones than people in the U.S....

PhotoIf it seems like everyone on the street is talking into a cell phone, it's because there are a lot of cell phones in use in the U.S.

CTIA – The Wireless Association, a trade group representing wireless providers, is out with its annual survey showing that there are actually more cell phones in use than there are people in the U.S.

The U.S., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands have a total population of 315.5 million. At last count, CTIA says there are 327.6 million cell phones.

In the last year, subscriber connections have grown nine percent. Wireless network data traffic has doubled and the number of active smartphones and wireless-enabled PDAs has risen from 61.2 million to 95.8 million, a 57 percent increase.

Bad sign for consumers? 

But other growth numbers aren't so good for wireless providers, meaning they may not be so good for consumers in the future.

Starting with the fact that there are now more cell phones than people, doesn't that suggest fewer new customers to be had? True, consumers will trade in their old phones for new ones, but usually on a two-year cycle.

Despite all the growth in the other wireless statistics, the average monthly wireless bill has actually gone down one percent in the last year, dropping from $47.47 to $47.23. There's also virtually no growth in minutes used. Minutes of use rose just one percent to 1.148 trillion minutes.

All this means Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and other providers may be looking at a maturing market in which just about everyone now has a cell phone. Customers are using about the same number of minutes each month and their bills aren't going up.

Texts are cash cow – for now

True, text messages are a lucrative source of revenue for wireless providers, and the CTIA survey shows consumers sent and received 1.138 trillion text messages in the last year – a 16 percent increase. But new apps that allow consumers to bypass those texting fees are sure to cut into future revenue.

What does all of this have to do with consumers? For wireless companies to achieve consistent growth, which their shareholders expect, there will be pressure to find new sources of revenue, which could come in the form of higher rates to consumers.

Billions for network expansion

To handle the growing voice and data traffic, providers will also have to spend money to improve their networks. From June 2010-June 2011, wireless capital investment increased by 28 percent to $27.5 billion, according to CTIA. Since 2001, wireless companies have reported a cumulative total investment of $223 billion.

It's one thing to spend that kind of money when your market is growing at a double-digit rate, but quite another when the market is reaching a saturation point.

CTIA sees none of these problems on the horizon, however. Steve Largent, CEO of CTIA says demand will increase by 50 percent over the next five years. The big problem, he says, is the need for additional spectrum.

“By making underutilized or unused spectrum available for auction, carriers will continue to invest billions of dollars in their infrastructure, generate hundreds of billions of dollars in benefit to our economy and create up to a half a million new jobs while ensuring the U.S. maintains its position as the world’s wireless leader,” Largent said.

More

Don't Fall For 'Smishing' Scams

Text-based scam shows up in Washington State

“Flip over your credit or ATM card and call the number on the back. If there’s a problem with your account, that’s the best way to find out.”...

PhotoYour friends text you. Maybe even your parents text you. But if you get a text from your bank, it pays to be more than a little suspicious.

In Washington State, Attorney General Rob McKenna has seen a pick-up in reports of text messages that appear to be from a bank or financial institution, but are really attempts by scammers to capture financial information and drain credit card and bank accounts.

Such text message scams are called “smishing.”

“If you don’t wish to be smished, ignore text messages that look like they’re coming from your bank or credit card,” McKenna said. “Flip over your credit or ATM card and call the number on the back. If there’s a problem with your account, that’s the best way to find out.”

Complaints

Consumers began contacting the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division last week complaining about calls to their cell phones from those posing as Wells Fargo employees. An automated voice suggested that the customer’s account has been breached and directed them to “press one” for assistance. They were then connected to a person who asks for sensitive account information.

Many of the calls came to those who don’t even have Wells Fargo accounts. As the week progressed, the scam morphed to text messages from those posing as representing Bank of America, Chase, Citibank and Capital One.

“Phishing” scams trick consumers into turning over account numbers, PINs, credit card security codes, usernames, passwords and other sensitive information. “Smishing” is a similar scam launched over SMS (Short Message Service) messages – better known as text messages.

Scammers have long phished by phone and email. The text scam is a somewhat new variation. Security experts recommend that consumers never respond to any message requesting account or personal information. Instead, contact the institution using a phone number from a statement or from your bank or credit card company’s official Web site.

More

What's On Your Mind? Verizon, Capital Accounts, Magic Chef, Allied Cash Advance

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Verizon, Capital Accounts, Magic Chef, Allied Cash Advance, Possible sign of identity theft, Mind of its own and ...

PhotoWhen Tropical Storm Lee soaked the Mid-Atlantic last month, Pennsylvania was particularly hard hit, with flood waters damaging homes and businesses. Russell, of West Pittston, Pa., said he lost his Verizon telephone and DSL service on September 8 and still hasn't gotten it back.

“Verizon wants to charge us from September 8 through early October even though they know there was no service at my home,” Russell told ConsumerAffairs.com. “The flooding caused by tropical storm Lee in West Pittston caused major damage to Verizon's equipment. A Verizon field worker confirmed it was taken out by the flooding and it was impossible to get service to my address.”

Russell's point is, why should he be billed for service he is not receiving? It's a legitimate question. Surely a big company like Verizon is insured against damage and loss of business income. If they are being compensated, is it fair to charge a customer who received no service? If might be a good question for Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly

Possible sign of identity theft

Charles, of Levitown, Pa., has been receiving calls lately from Capital Accounts, a bill collector, seeking to collect a debt that Charles insists is not his.

“This agency has posted an account on my credit report and I believe it is not me,” Charles said. “I spoke to one of their agent in charge of my account, explained to him I have been living in Pennsylvania, not New Jersey since January 25, 2007, the date on the bill. I offered to send my driver license and maybe my tax return to prove that I didn't live on the address used.”

First, Charles should act promptly to make sure the bill is not the result of identity theft. He can do that by pulling credit reports from all three credit agencies. He can get them free by going to www.annualcreditreport.com. Once he's assured that it is simply an isolated mistake, he should not try to resolve it through the bill collector, but by disputing it through the credit reporting agencies.

Mind of its own

Joseph, of Oak Park, Calif., has a safety issue with his Magic Chef microwave oven.

“It turns on by itself at random times during the day,” Joseph told ConsumerAffairs.com. “The keypad is unresponsive, the unit beeps to show 3.5g, then it beeps to show cooking for 1:40 min. The first time it happened under warranty and I replaced the whole unit. Now this second unit is doing the same thing, so I keep it turned off for safety.”

Good idea. Our advice to Joseph is to notify Magic Chef, in writing of the problem, and it also send a report to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

A lesson about payday loans

Lesa, of Silt, Colo., has learned about payday loans the hard way.

“I was in dire need of cash for a medical procedure so I went into Allied Cash Advance and found I qualified for a loan in the amount of $950.00,” Lesa said. “ The loan was very fast and easy to obtain. The person that helped me was pleasant enough, but very hurriedly went through all the terms and interest rates and charges. I should have listened more closely and read the fine print front to back! I am paying a fee of $135.00 every month and $12.00 in interest every month and that's not even paying on my loan! I can't believe I was so naive. Never again, Lesson learned!”

Lesa said she has paid $200 a month for six months and still owes $850.

More

Class Action RICO Complaint Seeks to Swat Flycell

Monthly charges for ringtones amount to cramming, suit alleges

A RICO class action accuses Sony Entertainment and ringtone provider Flycell of cramming unasked-for "services" onto cell phone bills. The lead plaintiff,...

PhotoA RICO class action accuses Sony Entertainment and ringtone provider Flycell of cramming unasked-for "services" onto cell phone bills.

The lead plaintiff, an Air Force pilot, says the facts show "the depth to which some of the most powerful combatants will go in order to steal billions of dollars from unwitting and relatively helpless consumers," Courthouse News Service reported.

Mark Smith, of South Carolina, says he learned of the charges when he went to an AT&T store to complain about dropped calls, poor reception and high charges.

As he and an AT&T employee pored over Smith's 68-page bill, they found charges totalling $19.99 from Flycell.

"Further investigation of prior billings disclosed that AT&T had billed on behalf of Flycell charges of $19.99 every month for over a year" even though Smith inisists he had never heard of Flycell and had not knowingly purchased any Flycell products.

"Media content"

"At no time did plaintiff agree to pay for media content from Flycell," Smith says in the suit.

And just what is this Flycell?

It describes itself as "an online hub for customers to download cell phone ringtones, graphics, games, entertainment, and sports programs." It is a wholly owned subsidiary of New York-based company Acotel, which is also named as a defendant in Smith's suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

Smith said it took him two solid months of complaining to get the charges reversed.  He seeks an injunction against further cramming and treble damages for fraud, RICO conspiracy and unjust enrichment.

Smith is hardly alone. ConsumerAffairs.com has been publishing consumers' complaints about Flycell since at least 2006, most of them remarkably similar to Smith's.

"This company randomly solicited their ring tone services to me, which I declined. I then responded STOP as instructed to deny services and charges, but they have been charging me anyway," said Lauric of El Segundo, Calif., in a recent complaint. "This company scams money from people and provides no contact information to cancel and/or question these fraudulent charges. Something needs to be done. I have been receiving $10 a month in fraudulent charges on my cell phone bill."

The Federal Communications Commission defines cramming as "the practice of placing unauthorized, misleading, or deceptive charges on your telephone bill," according to the complaint.

AT&T is not a defendant in Smith's suit.

 

 

More

Banks Awash in Cash, Which Isn't Good News

Investors flee stock market, park money in banks which have no use for it

A huge problem in the United States is that we don't save enough money.  This is, of course, an enormous understatement as proven by the housing colla...

More

Cheaper Ways To Text Are Coming

New apps allow consumers to bypass costly text charges

New apps mean it will cost little or nothing to send and receive texts...

PhotoSending text messages is old-fashioned, expensive and very, very popular. Those three ingredients are combining to produce cheaper – even free – ways to do it.

On Wednesday Apple plans to roll out iMessage, a cross between texting and instant messaging. There are several other apps that provide much the same service. TextPlus, for example, has offered a texting app since early 2010.

Texting uses a small sliver of a cell phone network's voice channel to transmit small amounts of data. It costs the cell phone provider almost nothing to transmit the data. Youthful cell phone users were quick to adopt the form of communication, spelling out words using a different function of their handset's keypad.

Still prefer texting

Despite the explosion in smartphones, which allow users to also send and receive email – which is included in their data plan – younger smartphone users still prefer to send and receive texts over email, even though they come in at exactly the same place email does on their devices.

One reason, perhaps, is not everyone has a smartphone. If someone with a smartphone wants to send a message to a friend with a regular voice-only device, they have to send a text.

And text messages are expensive. Carriers usually charge 10 to 20 cents to send a text and the same amount to receive one. Just an average text conversation can be costly, unless you have an unlimited text plan on your account. Even then, you pay a flat monthly fee for the privilege of sending and receiving the same data you could be sending and receiving for free with email.

How text apps work

Text apps will allow users with a data plan to send and receive text messages using their cell provider's data network instead of its voice network. For all practical purposes, they are emails – they'll just pop up as though they are text messages.

If these apps catch on – and there's no reason to believe they won't – what will that mean for cell phone companies that make huge mark-ups on providing text services? It will likely put a sizable dent in their profits.

It could result in cell phone companies finding themselves in exactly the same position as banks did recently, when legislation and rule changes eliminated a lot of the fee income that contributed to their profits.

To make up for it, banks are now instituting new fees rather than settle for lower profits. Consumers can expect cell phone companies to respond in similar ways.

More

Netflix Reverses Course, Drops 'Qwikster' Name

But the separate fees for streaming and DVDs remain

Netflix drops Qwikster idea...

PhotoNetflix has done it again. The recently-announced price hikes that infuriated consumers was followed by the announcement that video streaming was being separated from DVD rental, which infuriated customers some more.

Now, the company says it's changed it's mind about at least one of the changes. In other words, forget about it.

Qwikster's demise

Just last month Netflix announced it was spinning off DVD rentals to a separate company and website to be called Qwikster. At the time, Netflix explained that the two companies would have a better chance to flourish on their own. DVD's would be rented from a separate website, through a separate account for a separate fee.

Last month's announcement was accompanied by an online mea culpa from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings that prompted this Saturday Night Live parody, which almost seems real in light of the latest announcement.

Over the weekend Hastings took to the Internet again, in a brief blog posting announcing the company would not follow through on its recently announced changes.

Netflix for both streaming and DVDs

“It is clear that for many of our members two websites would make things more difficult, so we are going to keep Netflix as one place to go for streaming and DVDs,” Hastings said. “This means no change: one website, one account, one password… in other words, no Qwikster.”

The announcement of Qwikster was meant to explain Netflix's change to its membership structure. The consumer grumblings began in July when Netflix announced it was charging separate membership fees for streaming access and DVD rentals. At the time, consumers got both for the $8 a month fee. Despite dropping the Qwikster site, customers will have to still pay for both separately, in what amounts to a 60 percent price increase.

Missteps

The uncharacteristic public relations miscues have come at a bad time for Netflix, which finds itself under growing pressure from its higher priced competitors as well as the emergence of an increasing number on the low end.

Starz Entertainment recently rejected Netflix's $300 million contract renewal offer, stating it was bothered by the fact Netflix was offering access to the content for only $8 a month, while cable and satellite TV companies charged much more.

In the same blog posting announcing the end of Qwikster, Hastings also sought to reassure subscribers that they won't miss the Starz content.

“We’ve recently added hundreds of movies from Paramount, Sony, Universal, Fox, Warner Bros., Lionsgate, MGM and Miramax. Plus, in the last couple of weeks alone, we’ve added over 3,500 TV episodes from ABC, NBC, FOX, CBS, USA, E!, Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, ABC Family, Discovery Channel, TLC, SyFy, A&E, History, and PBS,” Hastings said.

More

Data Shows 'Consumer Recession' Continues

Consumers actually fared better during the recession

The recession may be over but not for consumers...

PhotoWhen economists speak of a recession, they define it as two consecutive quarters of negative growth in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the total of all goods and services in the economy. By that definition, the recession ended in June 2009, with quarterly growth – albeit anemic – ever since.

But for many consumers, it feels like the recession has never ended. Two former Census Bureau researchers say that may be because consumer incomes are shrinking.

The researchers have compiled a study showing that from June 2009 to June 2011 – the two years following the official end of the recession - inflation-adjusted household income fell 6.7 percent. During that time, consumers have had to deal with sharply higher food and gasoline costs, as well as a reduction in available credit.

During the actual recession, one could argue that consumers actually fared better. Gas prices plunged and their incomes declined just 3.2 percent.

Significant reduction in the standard of living

Taken together, the years since the beginning of the recession, December 2007, household income is down nearly 10 percent. Researchers Gordon Green and John Coder call that a significant reduction in the standard of living.

Green and Coder say the 9.1 percent unemployment rate has a lot to do with the drop in household income. But even people with jobs appear to be earning less, with some unemployed taking new jobs at substantial pay cuts.

The research also found that groups already earning less than the average suffered the biggest drop in income, along with those who owned their own businesses. The drop in income for the self-employed in the two years since the end of the recession is nearly three times those who work for a private sector company.

More

Oregon Sues Loan Modification Firm, Settles With Another

States stepping up pressure on abusive modification consultants

Oregon takes action against mortgage modification companies...

PhotoIn response to the foreclosure crisis, the federal government, non-profit organizations, mortgage lenders and private companies began offering loan modification services to financially distressed homeowners facing foreclosure.

But the system proved frustrating and complex for consumers who complained of incompetence and indifference from loan servicers. That led to a proliferation of predatory mortgage relief companies that charged excessive fees to perform services they lacked the knowledge and resources to perform.

While little has been done at the national level to offer relief, states have in recent months become active in prosecuting mortgage modification companies accused of deceiving homeowners. The state of Oregon, for example, has just sued one California-based modification and settled with another.

Collected $90 in fees

Oregon Attorney General John Kroger has sued NOD Consultants, LLC, charging it with illegally collecting about $90,000 in fees from nearly three dozen Oregon homeowners and then refusing to provide refunds after the company failed to obtain promised loan modifications.

Since November 1, 2009, Kroger says at least 34 Oregonians have become clients of NOD Consultants after company officials led them to believe they would successfully obtain loan modifications on their behalf.

The complaint alleges that the defendants collected advance fees ranging from $725 to $2,950 in violation of Oregon law, which caps advance fees at $50.

According to the complaint, although most of the defendants' Oregon clients were current on their mortgage payments, the defendants encouraged them to skip at least one payment, claiming it would encourage their lender to re-negotiate.

Notwithstanding promises to obtain loan modifications, NOD Consultants allegedly failed to obtain a loan modification for 33 of its 34 Oregon clients.

Settlement

Meanwhile, Kroger reports a previous lawsuit has yielded results. The agreement bans American Team Mortgage, Inc., dba American Mortgage Relief, and Steve Hufstedler from foreclosure counseling, credit/debt counseling, loan modification or mortgage origination in Oregon.

Under the agreement, 28 homeowners will receive $67,000 in restitution. Oregon will receive an additional $65,000 for its consumer protection efforts.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Consumer and Business Services (DCBS) conducted a joint investigation into allegations that the companies took illegal upfront fees to provide loan modifications. The investigation determined that 28 Oregon homeowners received neither the loan modification they paid for nor a refund.

"Distressed homeowners need help, not empty promises," Kroger said."I want to thank DCBS for its work on this case."

More

What's On Your Mind? American Express, Just Flowers, Green Dot, Sears Optical

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: American Express, Just Flowers, Green Dot, Sears Optical, Cut out the middleman and Manage your card....

PhotoEveryone loves rewards associated with credit cards, but lately some consumers are expressing disappointment with the rewards that come in the form of airline travel.

“In June 2011, I attempted to redeem my 'Free Travel Companion Certificate' from American Express for a flight in March 2012, nine months in advance of flying,” Gerald, or Anaheim, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I was advised no seats were available. I have only been able to use this 'Free Travel Companion Certificate' once out of three years. How far in advance of flying does one need to make reservations in order to use this 'benefit' of the costly Platinum Card?”

Not all rewards cards are created equal, and when it comes to air travel some have more blackout dates that others. Something to check into before committing to a card if the air travel rewards are important to you.

Cut out the middleman

Michelle, of Murfreesboro, Tenn., used Just Flowers to send flowers to her uncle on his 90th birthday. But the transaction didn't go without a snag.

“Just Flowers told me that my flowers were delivered but the floral company that was to deliver the flowers accidentally called me and said that the flowers were not delivered because they could not find the location,” Michelle said.

Michelle might have avoided the potential embarrassment by cutting out the middleman and dealing directly with a local florist.

Manage your card

With Bank of America adding a $5 monthly charge using a debit card, some consumers might be thinking of switching to a prepaid card like Green Dot. But keep in mind these cards also carry charges, and must be carefully managed.

“I have a green dot card I got last year,” Bill, of Ofallon, Mo., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Last year, I put on the card like $50, bought some stuff online, spent all the money and it was all good. So I had the card all these months with zero dollars on it, or so I thought. I went to put some money on it, and only 10 bucks made it onto my account. It seems that they charge $5 a month for the card even when its empty, meaning to put any money on the card I'd have to pay off like $40.

Bill thinks it's unfair, but almost all prepaid cards carry a monthly service charge, whether you use the card or not. But sure to read the terms and conditions carefully before you apply.

Frustrated

When you order a specially-made product but change your mind, can you get your money back? Kim, of Carl Junction, Mo., recounts the story of her husband's attempt to get new classes at Sears Optical. After an extended wait of several weeks, she said the glasses finally arrived.

“He goes to get them and the same girl adjusts them and they seem to be fitting fine and then she goes to clean them,” Kim said. “She asks after she cleans them if they're his lenses and he said you told me they were and she said they are smudged - the AR (anti-reflective) was coming off. She'd have to order him more lenses, they'd arrive in two to three weeks. He says forget it - he wants his money back. She said she can't do that without a managers permission.”

Kim's husband certainly is within his rights to request a refund as he had not yet taken possession of the glasses and the company had damaged them. The company might drag its feet – no one likes to refund money – but Kim's husband needs to stick to his guns.  

More

Free Debit Cards Aren't Extinct, Or Even Hard to Find

Banks large and small, as well as credit unions, are trying to win your business

With American consumers taking to the streets to protest the sluggish economy and moribund job market, it's not a good time for politicians, banks and big ...

Photo
Mounted police push back protesters in Lower Manhattan. Photo: OccupyWallStreet.org

With American consumers taking to the streets to protest the sluggish economy and moribund job market, it's not a good time for politicians, big banks and major corporations to try to stay about the fray.  Yet that seems to be exactly what they're doing.

Bank of America's decision to get even with Congress and its customers by slapping a $5 monthly fee on debit card users has done more damage to the bank's reputation in just a few short weeks than the agonzingly drawn-out Countrywide Mortgage fiasco.

Consumers have not sacked and burned BA branches, not yet anyway, but many thousands have said they will close their BA accounts and go elsewhere.

The question thus becomes: where can those disgruntled banking customers  go to find free or reasonably-priced checking accounts that include online banking and a debit card?

The options are literally too numerous to list but we rounded up  a few of the more obvious ones.  Keep in mind that all banks have multiple plans that depend in great part on how much money you're willing and able to keep in your account.

If you can keep $5,000 or more on deposit, most big banks will welcome you with free or inexpensive plans. If you can't or won't do that, prepare to be charged for just about everything -- or look for a smaller bank or credit union that's hungrier for business.  There are thousands of them out there, just waiting for you to come through the door.

And just to prove it, here is a tiny but representative sample of banks that offer free debit cards on at least some of their account plans.  Keep in mind, plans differ by state and you must read the terms carefully. Banks have numerous plans, so be sure you know which one you're getting.

Large Banks

  • Ally The former GMAC, Ally is an online bank offering free debit cards, free onling banking, and free checking accounts.  The Ally Perks plan pays a small bonus each time you use the debit card to make an online purchase or at participating retailers.   
  • Capital One  Once just a credit card issuer, Capital One has bought up several regional banks and is aggressively pursuing new customers.  It offers  at least one checking account that includes a free debit card, no monthly fee and free currency exchange services for overseas transactions.   
  • Chase You can get a free debit card and free online banking if you keep a minimum balance of $1,500 or have direct deposits of $500 or more made to the account.  Higher balances will get you more freebies.  
  • PNC Bank  PNC's Virtual Wallet Plus plan offers free debit cards as well as limited free checking, online banking, interest-bearing checking and a savings account.  Read the terms carefully; nothing in life is completely free.
  • Provident Bank A free debit card is available with several of its checking plans, which offer free checking with an monthly average balance of as little as $500. 

Local Banks

Just because we're all drowning in advertising from huge banks doesn't mean we shouldn't patronize -- or at least check out -- local banks.  They often offer much better terms than the big guys and tend to provide more personal service.

Here are just a few local banks we picked at random:

Credit Unions

Credit unions are non-profit organizations that originally offered memberships to very specific groups -- employees of a local municipality, federal workers, etc. But these days, many credit unions have much more liberal membership standards. They are often the best source of loans, checking, credit card and savings accounts.

To find a credit union near you, visit the National Credit Union Association site. Enter your state and Zip code in the Find a Credit Union form and, chances are, you'll find one near you.  You can then check eligibility requirements and look over what the CU offers.

In Burbank, California, for example, we found the UMe (you & me, get it?) Credit Union.  Originally chartered to serve local school teachers, it now has about 12,000 members who live, work or worship in Burbank or attend school or belong to an organization that's headquartered there.

UMe offers free checking if you sign up for paperless statements or are 60 years of age or older.  The personal checking account includes a free Visa debit card, unlimited check writing and pays interest on account balances over $2,500, as well as dog treats for your dog and bottled water for you whenever you visit a branch.

It's a big country ...

We like cable news and the Internet as much as anyone but one result of the so-called information explosion is that there is a lot more national news and chatter than there used to be and less attention to local and regional goings-on.

It's easy to sit at home in front of the tube and get riled up at Bank of America, but take a look out your back door and you'll probably find a couple of local banks and credit unions a few minutes away.  Go introduce yourself and see what they'll do to win your business.  You might be surprised.  

More

Chemical Industry Asks FDA to 'Clarify' BPA Stance

Controversial chemical no longer used in baby bottles, sippy cups, industry says

Yielding to pressure from parents, health advocates, and lawmakers, the chemical industry has conceded that the toxic plastics chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) s...

PhotoYielding to pressure from parents, health advocates, and lawmakers, the chemical industry has conceded that the toxic plastics chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) should not be used to make baby bottles and sippy cups.

The American Chemistry Council announced today that it has asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to revise its regulations to “clarify for consumers that BPA is no longer used to manufacture baby bottles and sippy cups and will not be used in these products in the future.”

The industry’s surprise move follows California’s enactment Tuesday of legislation backed by the Environmental Working Group to bar BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups.

“The chemical industry spent millions this year fighting efforts in California and other states to ban BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups, and now it supports protecting babies and toddlers from this toxic chemical," said Ken Cook, president and co-founder of Environmental Working Group. “This is a stunning reversal.”

The American Chemistry Council put a slightly more positive spin on it, but conceded that the issue had become a "distraction."

"Although governments around the world continue to support the safety of BPA in food contact materials, confusion about these products has become an unnecessary distraction to consumers, legislators and state regulators," said Steven G. Hentges, Ph.D., of the Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group of ACC.  "FDA action on this request will provide certainty that BPA is not used to make the baby bottles and sippy cups on store shelves, either today or in the future."

Hormone disrupter

“If BPA doesn’t pose a risk to human health, then why ask for these restrictions?” Cook said. “The answer is that this chemical, a synthetic estrogen, disrupts the hormone system and has been linked to a long list of serious medical conditions. The FDA should now push to remove BPA from baby formula and canned food, which expose children to even greater concentrations of the toxic chemical.”

The chemistry council said California's action had "contributed to confusion about whether baby bottles and sippy cups sold in the United States contain BPA."

"In fact, manufacturers of baby bottles and sippy cups announced several years ago that due to consumer preference they had stopped using BPA in these products," the group said in a press release.

"FDA has the scientific expertise and specific responsibility to make regulatory decisions about BPA and food-contact materials. For this reason, ACC has consistently opposed efforts by federal and state officials to impose legislative restrictions that conflict with FDA's authority and create a patchwork of inconsistent laws or regulations," the statement continued.

Bisphenol-A, a petrochemical derivative used to harden plastics, is a key ingredient in epoxy coatings used to line virtually all aluminum food cans worldwide. A few organic food canners in the U.S. are using non-BPA linings. The chemical is also an integral ingredient in polycarbonate plastics, the hard clear materials used until recently for many baby bottles, sippy cups, water bottles and other sturdy plastic foodware.

More

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Nominee Faces Senate Vote

Richard Cordray cleared by Banking Committee but now faces a vote in the full Senate

Except for some pesky environmental demonstrators outside the White House, Washington, D.C., has been relatively free of the Occupy Wall Street-style disru...

Photo
Photo: OccupyWallStreet.org

Except for some pesky environmental demonstrators outside the White House, Washington, D.C., has been relatively free of the Occupy Wall Street-style disruptions that are spreading around the country.

While it's popular in the daily press to deride the protestors for not being able to say specifically what they want, it's pretty clear they're upset about the economy and what they see as a predatory financial system.

None of this cuts much ice in the U.S. Senate, where Republicans are vowing to jettison the nomination of former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

Cordray was cleared by the Senate Banking Committee Thursday but Republicans have opposed the agency from the beginning and say they will block the Senate from voting on Cordray's nomination until the agency is watered down to their liking.

"Americans job creators are under siege," said  Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), ranking Republican on the committee.  "Regulators are about to subject those who had nothing to do with the financial crisis to hundreds of new rules and regulations without determining whether the benefits exceed the costs."

Democrats argue that the changes would weaken the new regulator, which opened its doors on July 21 and President Obama has gone on the offensive recently.

"Republicans have threatened not to confirm him, not because of anything he's done, but because they want to roll back the whole notion of having a consumer watchdog," Obama said at a news conference on Thursday.

Is it necessary?

Photo
Richard Cordray

But while Republicans and the financial institutions that have ponied up to finance opposition to Cordray's nomination say the CFPB isn't necessary, consumers have reacted with outrage to Bank of America's adding a $5 monthly fee for the use of debit cards. 

"My bank has not done this as of yet. But if it does that will be the day I cut up my debt card," said Joni Bonn of South Dakota. "They can try to charge all the fees they want. But we the people have to show them we are not going to pay ... we have to show them by not using the debt card or closing our accounts that we will not stand for all these fees."

While consumers were fuming, the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), a non-profit consumer advocacy organization, was drawing up a list of abusive financial practices that have become more widespread in recent months.

CFA released a list of the objectionable practices. They include:

Predatory Practices Targeted at Military Service Members: J.P. Morgan Chase disclosed that they have foreclosed on 14 active-duty military families and overcharged 4,000 others in wrongful fees or improper interest rates. Also, a growing number of banks make payday loans to their customers, called direct deposit advances that cost $10 per $100 borrowed or 365 percent APR based on a typical loan term of ten days. These bank payday loans carry the same high cost, short term, debt-trap features as non-bank payday loans. Military service members are also subject to pay high overdraft fees at on-base and off-base banks.

Mortgage Foreclosure and Servicing Abuses. In the wake of the housing crisis, some mortgage servicing companies have illegally sped up foreclosures and generated unjustifiable fees at homeowners’ expense. Default and foreclosure rates are higher than they have been since the Great Depression, while millions of consumers are currently subject to illegal actions by mortgage servicing companies, including misapplied payments, botched taxes, robo-signing and other fraudulent actions, CFA said.

Unfair Bank Overdraft Loans: Despite a new Federal Reserve requirement that banks get consumers to consent to paying for debit card overdrafts, only the FDIC has issued comprehensive guidelines for bank overdraft programs at the banks it supervises. Banks continue to charge steep and multiple fees for overdraft loans, require immediate repayment, and take payment first out of the account holder’s next pay deposit before other debits are paid, CFA alleged.

Plentiful Fees and Few Protections for Pre?paid Cards: As bank fees increase, prepaid debit cards are increasingly becoming substitutes for bank accounts. However, prepaid cards come with a dizzying array of fees and with fewer protections than consumers get with other forms of plastic. Consumers need simple and transparent fees. Prepaid cards must be covered by the same consumer protections that apply to bank account debit cards, CFA said. 

Internet Payday Lending: Internet payday lenders are marketing loans online at rates and terms that mire cash-strapped consumers in repeat borrowing at extremely high rates, CFA alleged. Finance charges to borrow $100 range from $15 (390% APR) to $30 (780% APR). Many of these loans have built in loan flipping, with finance charge-only payments withdrawn from borrowers’ accounts every payday without reducing the loan itself. 

Bank Payday Lending. A growing number of banks are offering “direct deposit advances” that have the same dangerous features as traditional payday loans that make them an unaffordable debt trap for many consumers. In addition, bank payday loans evade protections for Social Security, disabled and unemployment benefits and other laws designed to ensure that creditors do not take income needed for food, rent, medicine and other essential purchases.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More

Feds May Divert Subsidies To Pay For Rural Broadband

Universal Service Fund could be used to build broadband facilities

The FCC proposes using subsidy funds to expand rural broadband services...

PhotoThe Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has taken the first steps to fund an expansion of broadband Internet service to rural America, proposing an overhaul of the Universal Service Fund, set up decades ago to expand rural telephone service.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski outlined the proposal in a speech in Washington, suggesting that the $8 billion subsidy be directed to making broadband Internet as common as landline telephone service.

“Broadband has gone from being a luxury to a necessity for full participation in our economy and society,” Genachowski said. “If we want the United States to be the world's leading market” for innovation, “we need to embrace the essential goal of universal broadband, and reform outdated programs.”

New objectives

Prior to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the Universal Service Fund operated as a mechanism by which interstate long distance carriers were assessed to subsidize telephone service to low-income households and high-cost areas. The Communications Act of 1934 stated that all people in the United States shall have access to “rapid, efficient, nationwide … communications service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges.”

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 expanded the traditional definition of universal service - affordable, nationwide telephone service – to include among other things rural health care providers and eligible schools and libraries.

The revamped Universal Service Fund would be renamed the Connect America Fund. It would pay for expanded broadband infrastructure in under-served areas and improve wireless coverage.

Rural options are limited

Currently, rural areas are served by two principal satellite Internet providers – HughesNet and Wild Blue – both of which have issues with latency. Some consumers also use the mobile broadband services offered by Verizon Wireless and AT&T. However, these services are at 3G speed in most areas and the more affordable plans are limited to 5 gigabytes of data per month.

"If adopted by the Commission, the plan will spur broadband build-out to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses beginning in 2012,” Genachowski said. “It will help cut the number of Americans bypassed by broadband by up to one half over the following five years, and it will put us on the path to universal broadband by the end of the decade. By connecting millions of unserved Americans who are being left out of the broadband revolution, this plan will bring enormous benefits to individual consumers, our national economy, and our global competitiveness."

More

FDA Approves Cialis to Treat Prostate Enlargement

The drug was developed to treat erectile dysfunction

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Cialis to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), a condition in which the prostate gland become...

PhotoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Cialis to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), a condition in which the prostate gland becomes enlarged, and for the treatment of BPH and erectile dysfunction (ED), when the conditions occur simultaneously.

Cialis was originally approved in 2003 for the treatment of ED.

Common symptoms of BPH include difficulty in starting urination and a weak urine stream; a sudden urge to urinate; and more frequent urination including at night.

In two clinical trials, men with BPH who took 5 milligrams (mg) of Cialis once daily experienced a statistically significant improvement in their symptoms of BPH compared to men who were treated with placebo. 

In a third study, men who experienced both ED and BPH and who took 5 mg of Cialis once daily had improvement in both their symptoms of BPH and in their ED compared to men who were treated with placebo. 

 “BPH can have a big impact on a patient’s quality of life,” said Scott Monroe, director of the Division of Reproductive and Urologic Products in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “A large number of older men have symptoms of BPH. Cialis offers these men another treatment option, particularly those who also have ED, which is also common in older men.”

Cialis should not be used in patients taking nitrates, for example nitroglycerin, because the combination can cause an unsafe decrease in blood pressure. Also, the use of Cialis in combination with alpha blockers for the treatment of BPH is not recommended because the combination has not been adequately studied for the treatment of BPH, and there is a risk of lowering blood pressure.

The FDA has approved eight other drugs to treat symptoms of BPH: Proscar, (finasteride), Avodart (dutasteride), Jalyn (dutasteride plus tamsulosin), and the alpha blockers: Hytrin (terazosin), Cardura (doxazosin), Flomax (tamsulosin), Uroxatral (alfuzosin) and Rapaflo (silodosin).

More

What's On Your Mind? Bank of America, One Click Cash, US Fidelis, Avis

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Bank of America, One Click Cash, US Fidelis, Avis, Balance not budging, Less than full coverage and Bad news, goo...

PhotoIf you have a mortgage loan, you may have received a letter from your lender urging you to sign up to allow them to automatically withdraw your monthly payment. Sharon, of Playa del Rey, Calif., has one reason why you shouldn't do it.

“My mortgage was paid off on October 1, but Bank of America still took out my monthly payment out of my bank account on October 3,” Sharon told ConsumerAffairs.com.

And once they've taken the money, it's very hard to get it back. A better alternative, if your bank offers free online bill pay, is to set up a monthly payment from your bank account to the mortgage company. That way you keep control of your bank account.

Balance not budging

Stanley, of Huntsville, Ark., says he borrowed $400 from One Click Cash and, despite paying $135 every two weeks, still owes the entire $400!

“What I want to know is where is the money going besides their pockets if not towards the loan?” Stanley asked. “Because of this we will have to sell some of our stuff just to pay bills.

This makes the case of pay day loan industry critics, who say borrowers get sucked into an endless cycle of debt. If Stanley has something to sell, instead of paying his bills with it he should try to pay off the loan in its entirety.

Less than full coverage

Many consumers purchase service contracts for their vehicles because they're afraid of getting stuck with expensive repairs. Sandra, of Newnan, Ga., bought what she says she was told was a full coverage policy from the now-defunct US Fidelis.

“I took out the bumper to bumper paid coverage in 2009, paid $395.00 down and paid $143.33 a month until March 2011,” Sandra told ConsumerAffairs.com. “There was suppose to be no out of pocket money for repairs. Three weeks ago I needed a compressor on my car and they only paid $500.00 and I had to come up with $749.00. On October 4 my car went in the shop for a starter and they are paying $205.50, leaving me with a $241.06 balance.”

Sandra is understandably upset that she is not getting the full coverage that she thought she paid for, but let's look at the math behind her particular policy. From what she's told us this policy cost her about $3,800. Had she not purchased a service contract but put that money in the bank, she could have paid the entire $1.249 for the first repair and $446.06 for the second and still had more than $2,000 in her pocket – maybe for a down payment on a new car! So called “extended warranties” or service contracts rarely pan out.

Bad news, good news

B., of Ottawa, Canada, is miffed at Avis for the way the car rental company charged him for the repair of a chipped windshield, even though he bought the insurance.

“I sat and waited and the clerk finally told me that it was $136.00 and that they had taken it out of my Mastercard,” B. said. “I felt a little funny about them not telling me how much it was and getting my approval to put it on my Mastercard. But I didn't say anything because I thought it is over. Three to four weeks later, I get a invoice in the mail saying that I owed them $268.00.”

But while B. has little nice to say about Avis, he is very pleased with his credit card company. When he called to report the incident, he learned that one of the features of his card covered damage to rental cars.

More

Volkswagen Recalling VW, Audi Models to Fix Diesel Engines

Defect in fuel injection system could cause a fire

Volkswagen says that it will recall more than 168,000 VW and Audi models with diesel engines.There is a defect in the fuel injection system that could ca...

PhotoVolkswagen says that it will recall more than 168,000 VW and Audi models with diesel engines.

There is a defect in the fuel injection system that could cause fuel leaks, possibly creating fire hazards, the company said.

The recall affects certain 2009-12 Jetta mid-sized sedans and wagons, and some 2010-12 Golf compacts, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Some 2010-12 Audi A3 models also are affected, NHTSA said on its Web site.

Models subject to the recall have 2.0-liter diesel engines, NHTSA said.

VW, in documents filed with U.S. regulators, said cracks can develop in the fuel injection system and cause fuel to leak, possibly causing fires.

VW said it is unaware of any fires, accidents or injuries caused by the problem.

On certain VW diesel engines, a vibration caused by the fuel injectors can generate stress that eventually can lead to cracks in the injector fuel lines, VW said in documents filed with NHTSA.

VW will replace a fuel injector line in some models and install dampers to reduce vibration in all affected vehicles, NHTSA said. Both services will be provided free, VW said.

More

Beware of 'Google Team 2011' Scam

Email message asks you to update your payment information

Scam artists might want to scrub their email lists, to remove law enforcement officials.  Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine says he was tipped ...

PhotoScam artists might want to scrub their email lists, to remove law enforcement officials.  

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine says he was tipped off to one of the latest scams when he received a suspect email that claimed to be from "The Google Team 2011" asking him to update his payment information.

"We have been getting this message here at the Attorney General's Office," said DeWine. "I've even received it myself. This shows how important it is to be on the lookout for potential scams."

In a typical email "phishing" scam, con artists use the names of real organizations to trick people into giving out their personal information. Never click on any links provided in such scam emails, reply to the message, or call a number listed in the message.

The e-mail message Attorney General DeWine and many others in his office received, with variations on the subject line: Google AdWords: You have a new alert, says:

Dear Valued Customer,  

Please update your primary and backup payment information, even if you plan to use the same information. Please follow the steps below to update your payment information. 

Your credit card will only be used and stored as part of re-enabling your account.

We will not display or share it without your permission.

1. Log in to your account at http://www.googlmncn.com/Select/login
2. Enter your new or updated payment information.
3. Click 'Save Changes' when you are finished.

Sincerely,

The Google Team 2011


According to Google's AdWords support page: "Please remember that Google's AdWords team will never send an unsolicited message asking for you to provide your password or other sensitive information by email or through a link."

In the link from the message shown above, Google's name has been changed, indicating a scam. Other signs to watch for, according to Google, include ensuring that the "From" and "Return-path" refer to the same source and any page that asks for sensitive personal information should be secure with an address that begins with "https".

If you receive a phishing e-mail, contact the real organization using a number or website you know to be real.
More

Feds Embark on Study to Learn Why People Smoke

Study will follow 40,000 smokers to try to understand their behavior

What is it about smoking?  Everybody knows it's really bad for you but millions of people old and young, dumb and smart, rich and poor continue to smo...

PhotoWhat is it about smoking?  Everybody knows it's really bad for you but millions of people old and young, dumb and smart, rich and poor continue to smoke the evil weed, while others chew it or find other ways to get it into their system.

This is not the kind of question that can be left lying around, say public health officials.  It needs to be answered.  And so the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) today announced a joint, large-scale, national study of tobacco users to monitor and assess the behavioral and health impacts of new government tobacco regulations.

We thought we might be able to help out find a few answers, so we conducted a computerized sentiment analysis of about 4.2 million comments posted over the last year on Twitter, Facebook and other social media and blogs.  Looking at about 10,000 comments from people who liked cigarettes, this is what we found:

Photo

 

 

OK, so 63% said they get pleasure, taste and smell from smoking.  Oddly, a few seemed to think cigarettes are "good for you." 

Dislikes

We found about 33,000 people who voiced very strong dislikes for cigarettes, including the smell and taste that tobacco lovers found pleasurable.  Only 7% mentioned fear of cancer.

Photo

The initiative, called the Tobacco Control Act National Longitudinal Study of Tobacco Users, is the first large-scale NIH/FDA collaboration on tobacco regulatory research since Congress granted FDA the authority to regulate tobacco products in the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009.

Scientific experts at NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse and the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products will coordinate the effort.
 
“The launch of this study signals a major milestone in addressing one of the most significant public health burdens of the 21st century,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg. “The results will strengthen FDA’s ability to fulfill our mission to make tobacco-related death and disease part of America’s past and will further guide us in targeting the most effective actions to decrease the huge toll of tobacco use on our nation’s health.”

40,000 smokers

PhotoInvestigators will follow more than 40,000 users of tobacco-product and those at risk for tobacco use ages 12 and older. They will examine what makes people susceptible to tobacco use; evaluate use patterns and resulting health problems; study patterns of tobacco cessation and relapse in the era of tobacco regulation; evaluate the effects of regulatory changes on risk perceptions and other tobacco-related attitudes; and assess differences in attitudes, behaviors and key health outcomes in racial-ethnic, gender, and age subgroups.

“We are pleased to collaborate with the FDA on this study that may provide us with a better understanding of the impact of product regulation on tobacco prevention and cessation,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D.

Study findings will help the FDA assess the impact of the Tobacco Control Act and will inform the agency about how to best use its tobacco regulatory authorities, such as making decisions about marketing of products, setting product standards, and communicating the risks from tobacco use to protect the public health.

PhotoWhile smoking rates have dropped significantly since their peak in the 1960s, nearly 70 million Americans ages 12 and older were current users of tobacco products in 2010. As a result, death and disease caused by tobacco use is still a tremendous public health burden.

Tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of disease, disability, and death in the United States. Cigarette smoking results in more than 443,000 premature deaths in the United States each year – more than alcohol, illegal drug use, homicide, suicide, car accidents, and AIDS combined.

More

Texting While Driving More Dangerous Than Previously Believed

Texas study finds it doubles reaction times

texting behind the wheel is more dangerous that first thought...

PhotoSince cell phones became universal, drivers have had it drummed into them how dangerous it is to send and receive texts behinds the wheel. It turns out we didn't know the half of it.

Researchers at the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) have concluded that a driver’s reaction time is doubled when distracted by reading or sending a text message. The study reveals how the texting impairment is even greater than many experts believed, and demonstrates how texting drivers are less able to react to sudden roadway hazards.

First study

The study is the first U.S. study to examine texting while driving in an actual driving environment – consisted of three major steps. First, participants typed a story of their choice (usually a simple fairy tale) and also read and answered questions related to another story, both on their smart phone in a laboratory setting.

Each participant then navigated a test-track course involving both an open section and a section lined by construction barrels. Drivers first drove the course without texting, then repeated both lab tasks separately while driving through the course again. Throughout the test-track exercise, each participant’s reaction time to a periodic flashing light was recorded.

Eleven times more likely to miss flashing lights

Reaction times with no texting activity were typically between one and two seconds. Reaction times while texting, however, were at least three to four seconds. Worse yet, drivers were more than 11 times more likely to miss the flashing light altogether when they were texting.

The researchers say that the study findings extend to other driving distractions that involve reading or writing, such as checking e-mail or Facebook.

“Most research on texting and driving has been limited to driving simulators. This study involved participants driving an actual vehicle,” said ChristineYager, an associate transportation researcher in TTI’s Center for Transportation Safety. “So one of the more important things we know now that we didn’t know before is that response times are even slower than we previously thought.”

More

Mortgage Rate Falls Below Four Percent

But would-be buyers still can't qualify

Mortgage rates have hit an all time low...

PhotoFor the first time ever, the average 30-year fixed rate mortgage rate has fallen below four percent. The new all-time low is 3.94 percent, with an average 0.8 point, according to Freddie Mac.

At this time a year ago, the average 30-year mortgage rate was 4.27 percent.

Other rates are even lower. The 15-year fixed rate mortgage this week averaged 3.26 percent with an average 0.8 point, down from last week when it averaged 3.28 percent. A year ago at this time, the 15-year FRM averaged 3.72 percent. The five-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable rate mortgage averaged 2.96 percent this week, with an average 0.6 point, down from last week when it also averaged 3.02 percent. A year ago, the 5-year ARM averaged 3.47 percent.

Analysts said the falling interest rates reflect worries about the health of the global economy.

“Average 30-year conventional fixed mortgage rates fell below four percent for the first time in history this week following a sharp drop in 10-year Treasuries early in the week as concerns over a global recession grew.,” said Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist, Freddie Mac. “Average 15-year fixed rates fell to a record low in the PMMS as well. Interest rates for 1-year ARMs, however, rose, as the Fed began replacing $400 billion of its short-term Treasury securities, which serve as benchmarks for many ARMs. Also, in his testimony to Congress's Joint Economic Committee on Tuesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke said the recovery is close to 'faltering' and stressed the need for lawmakers to act.”

Where are the buyers?

While record low interest rates ordinarily would set off a buying binge in the real estate market, no one expects that to happen. While rates are rock bottom, buyers first have to be able to qualify for a mortgage. Often that means having a stellar credit rating and a 20 percent or more down payment.

“We continue to experience a pattern in which financially qualified home buyers, willing to stay well within their means, are being denied credit – a factor in elevated levels of contract failures,” said Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors (NAR). “Based on the improving fundamentals of population growth, some job additions, rent increases and higher stock market wealth, we should be seeing existing-home sales closer to 5.5 million, but are expecting just over 4.9 million this year. The unnecessarily restrictive mortgage underwriting standards are attenuating the housing recovery and are a risk factor for the overall economy.”

Yun maintains that there is actually pent-up demand in the housing market, but those who want and need homes can't obtain financing.  

More

Apple After Steve Jobs May Not Seem The Same

Tech titan's death casts shadow over latest product launch

How will Apple fare post Steve Jobs?...

PhotoTuesday's release of Apple's latest update of its iPhone has been overshadowed by the death the following day of its legendary founder, Steve Jobs.

Jobs, whose declining health was no secret, forcing him to limit his role at the company he co-founded, died Wednesday after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.

It may not have been a coincidence that the first recent product launch without Jobs at the helm – Tuesday's rollout of the iPhone 4S - fell a bit flat. Wall Street was obviously disappointed, with Apple stock selling off sharply in Tuesday's trading.

Expecting more

After weeks of rumors and hype, it was clear the technology world was expecting more than what it got this week. The technology site Fudzilla called it “an underwhelming launch.”

On the plus side, the iPhone 4S offers a more robust A5 processor, which should provide improvements in both processing speed and graphics capabilities. It also has improved optics, with an 8 megapixel camera and full HD video recording.

For sex appeal, the iPhone 4S the Siri “personal assistant,” a voice recognition app allowing users to call up information from their devices in normal conversational English, French and German. But not Spanish.

Where's the iPhone 5?

But many people were obviously also expecting the “iPhone 5,” with even more advances. For example, a phone that would run on the 4G LTE networks that providers are rolling out nationwide. A number of Android phones, for example, are already on the market with 4G capability.

The technology world, accustomed to being rocked back on it's heels with every Apple product launch, seemed oddly subdued after Tuesday's festivities in Cupertino, Calif. Maybe it was because, for the first time, the master showman in the black turtleneck wasn't on the stage, making the introduction.

Comeback kid

Jobs is being hailed around the world as the innovator of his generation. After co-founding Apple Computer in the 1970s, he was forced out in 1985 by the man he hired as CEO, John Sculley. With Apple on the ropes financially in 1997, Jobs returned to introduce one successful product after another – the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.

At the time of Job's death, Apple – which recently dropped “computer” from its name – was worth $359.4 billion, making it the world's most valuable company. It will be up to Job's successors to keep it at that lofty perch.

More

What's On Your Mind? Eharmony, Microsoft, Providian, Apple

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Eharmony, Microsoft, Providian, Apple, Maybe not a software issue and Blast from the past....

PhotoAutomatic renewal policies continue to draw consumer ire. Once you subscribe to something, and the company has your credit card on file, you should simply expect that the subscription will auto renew.

“While I understand that the terms and conditions do specify that one cannot receive a refund once one has paid, eHarmony.com's auto-renew system is completely dishonest,” Daniel, of Irving, Tex., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “They don't alert you that your subscription is going to expire, let alone that it's going to be automatically renewed. They only tell you after they have charged your credit card, and after you can no longer get a refund.”

To be fair, some subscription services do alert you that your subscription is about to auto renew, but most don't. It's easy to understand why, since the cancellation rate would be much higher if people had the opportunity to bail on a service they no longer wanted. Auto renewal policies might be the next area of commerce for consumer agencies, like the Federal Trade Commission, to examine.

Maybe not a software issue

Tina, of Huntington Beach, Calif., thinks there's something wrong with Microsoft Office.

“I purchased MS Office Professional 2010 Student edition, but did it not work,” Tina said. “I then purchased the regular Office Professional 2010 but it still does not work. It is bad enough that Office 2010 is extremely slow in opening. I have been hundreds of problems with this version, from freezing programs, not responding programs, and even losing my work, and not being able to retrieve it. Just now I was writing a lenghty email and was almost finished, and lost it because Outlook just shut down. I was online chatting with Microsoft and the chatting window cleared out and lost the chat, and had to sign in.”

Since two different versions of the software had the same problem, and it also exhibited itself in an online chat, it sound's like Tina's problem is not with Office, but with her computer's system or hardware.

Blast from the past

Robert, of Bowie, Md., got an unexpected and unpleasant call recently. A debt collector had purchased a 10-year old account from Providian Bank. Robert says he remembers it well. He applied for a card but when he received it and read the terms, he didn't activate it and cut it up.

“The amount I qualified for was $400.00 and they wanted over $250.00 in fees right off the bat,” Robert said. I said there is no way I agree to those terms. I cancelled everything and didn't activate anything,”

Unfortunately, that might not have been enough to wipe out Robert's “debt.” When it opened the account, Providian socked Robert with that $250 fee. Unless the bank specifically waived it – very unlikely – it kept it on its books. That's just one of the problems with low-limit, subprime credit cards.

Trouble in Apple Land?

Apple has a great reputation for quality and Apple people, for the most part, love their devices. But lately, Rachael, of Long Beach, Calif., is having second thoughts about her iMac.

“I purchased my iMac in May, 2010,” Rachael told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I have loved using iMac programs such as iphoto, itunes, and others. I have never had a problem with the software. However, I am ultimately terribly disappointed with my iMac after having several major hardware issues. In the last six to 12 months our CD drive was replaced because it no longer worked. Three weeks ago our hard drive and mother board were replaced. Fortunately, we purchased the extended warranty and did not have to pay for replacements, but it was no small hassle. Had we not purchased the extended warranty, we would be out a couple of thousand dollars, essentially purchasing a new computer. Customer service at the Cerritos store was mediocre. I was treated as if the replacement wasn't a big deal and told how fortunate I am. To top it off, the camera on my NEW iPhone is not functioning.”

Apple is also dealing with some grumbling in its fan base about the new iPhone 4S, introduced on Tuesday. Apparently, Apple fans were expecting a bit more of an upgrade – a phone that runs on the 4G LTE network, at least.

More

Cantaloupe Listeria Death Toll Hits 18

Recalled cantaloupes should be off shelves by now

At least 18 persons have died from Listeria infections blamed on Jensen Farms cantaloupes.  Although the contaminated cantaloupes should be off store ...

More

Ford Kills Escape Hybrid Option

Three four-cylinder engines will be offered in 2013 models

Ford is eliminating the slow-selling Escape Hybrid for the 2013 model year.  It's also doing away with the V-6 engine option and will be offering the ...

PhotoFord is eliminating the slow-selling Escape Hybrid for the 2013 model year.  It's also doing away with the V-6 engine option and will be offering the crossover with three different four-cylinder engine packages.

The Escape's hybrid powertrain will move to the C-Max Hybrid, which launches next year.

The base engine will be a naturally-aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder package, with 1.6 and 2.0-liter direct-injection options available.  The 2.0-liter version comes with the turbocharged direct-injection EcoBoost package that's also available in the Edge and Explorer crossovers.

The 2.0-liter engine is offered in Ford's Edge and Explorer crossovers.

Automakers seem to be backing away from the "hybrid" label, which has acquired a reputation for high cost and low performance, substituting other labels and alternative fuel-saving methods.

The 1.6-liter engine in the Escape, for example, is called the EcoBoost and it's expected to deliver better highway fuel economy than the Escape Hybrid, rated at 31 miles per gallon.

The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine ix expected to at least match if not outperform the V-6 engines now offered in the Escape. 

Ford will be building the new Escape at its Louisville, Ky., plant instead of the Kansas City, Mo., plant where it's now assembled. 

More

New York Sues Bank Of New York Mellon

City and state claim pension funds were defrauded

New York claims Bank of New York Mellon defrauded pension funds...

PhotoThe city and state of New York have joined legal forces to file suit against the Bank of New York Mellon (BNY Mellon), charging it defrauded clients in foreign currency exchange transactions.

The action seeks to recover the profits BNY Mellon illegally earned by deceiving customers. The victims, according to the complaint, include both public and private pension funds, including those of the New York City Employee Retirement System (NYCERS) and the State University of New York.

The New York Attorney General's Office maintains that over a 10-year period, BNY Mellon consistently misrepresented to customers the rates it would give foreign currency transactions. Instead of providing the best interbank rates– as it promised – BNY Mellon gave the worst or nearly the worst rates of the trading day. The bank reportedly made nearly $2 billion from these trades, accounting for over 65 percent of its foreign exchange revenues.

Both private and government pension funds were victims

“This landmark case uncovered a fraud committed against both government and private pension funds, Executive Deputy Attorney General Karla G. Sanchez said. “This office will continue to commit its full resources to hold those responsible accountable, seek restitution for the victims, ensure that our markets are fair and transparent, and uphold one set of rules for all market participants.”

New York City pension funds were among the most impacted of BNY Mellon’s clients and lost tens of millions of dollars as a result of its allegedly fraudulent rates. In addition to NYCERS, those funds include the Teachers Retirement System of the City of New York, the New York City Police Pension Fund, Subchapter 2, and the New York City Fire Department Pension Fund, Subchapter 2.

City and state teamed up

The Attorney General’s Office worked with the New York City Corporation Counsel and the Office of the New York City Comptroller in preparing and filing the suit.

“As we've demonstrated many times, we will use litigation to ensure that our pension funds are not shortchanged, now or in the future,” New York City Assistant Corporation Counsel John Low-Beer said. “We have therefore brought this suit to recover the damages we are entitled to under the law.”

The lawsuit follows a lengthy investigation during which the Attorney General’s Office said it uncovered extensive evidence and sworn testimony that revealed BNY Mellon’s elaborate scheme to lure customers with promises it did not intend to keep.  

More

Beware Of Chimney Repair Scams

They usually appear with the first sign of cold weather

NJ Attorney General Dow sued chimney cleaning & repair company accused of using high-pressure, deceptive tactics to mislead consumers into paying thousands...

More

What's On Your Mind? Experian, Geek Squad, Hertz, CoverGirl

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Experian, Geek Squad, Hertz, CoverGirl, Computer problems, Demand an inspection and Shaky foundation....

PhotoMichael, of Oak Lawn, Ill., recently requested copies of his credit report from all three credit agencies. He said the reports supplied by TransUnion and Equifax were completely accurate but found numerous errors on the Experian report.

I tried to notify Experian using their web site but was directed to call a phone number instead,” Michael told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I received an interactive voice response (IVR) system that wouldn’t accept the information. I went on the Internet and found other Experian phone numbers to call but those kept connecting me to the same IVR. Is there a way to talk to a human being?

There is, but it will be a trans-Atlantic call. Experian's corporate headquarters are in Dublin, Ireland. The telephone number is 353 1 846 9100.

Computer problems

Computer problems can be frustrating and doubly frustrating when you can't seem to get them fixed. Travis, of Hartford, Conn., writes in to express frustration with Best Buy's Geek Squad.

“I brought my computer in the first time around May 11,” Travis said. “I got it back May 25 and spent $150 to back up my data with another hard drive. The reason for bringing it in was the screen not working.”

But months later, Travis said the screen was still not working. It was back to the Geek Squad on August 22, when the mother board was replaced.

“On Sept 24 I brought it in because the computer wouldn't go past the start up screen,” he said. “They installed the anti-virus and the Geek Squad protection for one year. After paying $199 I got it back on Sept 29. On October 1 and 3, I brought it in for the same problem.

Long story short, Michael's computer still isn't fixed and he's not happy with the Geek Squad. While it's very hard to second-guess a computer repair, we've often found that taking your computer to a small, independent computer repair shop usually results in the best service. If they can't fix it, they'll usually tell you.

Demand an inspection

Increasingly we hear from rental car customers who say they have been unfairly stuck with “damage” charges when they insist they turned the car in with no damage. What they all have in common is there was no inspection upon return. Elaine, of Highland Springs, Va., said she rented a car for three weeks from Hertz and, when picking up the car and asked if there were going to be an inspection, was told there would not.

“I drove the vehicle three weeks, filled the gas tank and returned the vehicle to the same location,” Elaine told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Upon giving the keys back and telling him where I parked the vehicle, I asked again if someone were going to inspect the vehicle with me. I was told no. I flew home and got a letter in the mail a day later saying I returned the vehicle damaged!! I got a letter a few days later from their claims company saying I owe $3,300.00 due to hail damage.”

Our advice? Never rent a car without having an employee sign the car out with an inspection, and inspect it upon return. Without that, it's your word against theirs.

Shaky foundation

Amanda, of Atlanta, Ga., says she has been using CoverGirl foundation for years and has always been pleased. But recently her face has broken out in hives.

“I never thought it was my makeup because I have never had a problem with CoverGirl,” Amanda said. “I stopped using all make-up for the past two weeks and my face has almost completely cleared up. I used my CoverGirl foundation on Saturday, October 1, and by the end of the night my face was covered in huge sores. After this experience and reading all of the reviews I will never use this makeup again! I am very disappointed- and I look terrible!”

Perhaps Amanda shouldn't completely blame the make-up. It's possible she's developed and allergy to some ingredient in the make-up. It would be a good idea for Amanda to consult a dermatologist and take along a sample of her make-up.

More

Apple Unveils Next Generation iPhone

iPhone 4S to be available on Sprint for the first time

Apple unveils its new iPhone...

To the surprise of no one in the technology world, Apple today announced the release of its next generation smartphone, the iPhone 4S.

Apple CEO Tim Cook, who officially took over earlier this year for the ailing Steve Jobs, took the stage for the event at the company's headquarters in Cupertino, California.

The new iPhone is called the iPhone 4S and perhaps one of the biggest improvements is in the processor, an A5 chip. Another is its voice recognition capabilities with a software called Siri. For example, by holding down the “home” button, you can ask your iPhone “what will the weather be like today?” The app responds “here is today's forecast.”

Siri will understand three languages to start but, oddly, Spanish isn't one of them. Apple says it will start with English, French and German.

Enhanced camera

Apple has also boosted the phone's optics. It comes with an eight magapixel camera and a video camera that can capture 1080p HD video with real time video image stabilization.

Pre-orders for the iPhone 4S start Friday, October 7 and will come in both black and white. Apple is maintaining its current price structure, selling the 16 GB model for $199, 32 GB for $300, $64 GB for $400, with a two year contract. The iPhone 3GS will now be available for free, and an 8 GB iPhone 4 will sell for $99.

It will be available on three U.S. carriers – AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint. By December it will be available in 70 countries.

Rolling

Cook says the future looks incredibly bright for the iPhone, noting that, while it has a significant profile in the smartphone universe, it currently only has five percent of the smartphone market. Apple's deal earlier this year with Verizon, ending its exclusivity agreement with AT&T, has opened up more potential iPhone customers.

Cook also took the time to provide updates on other Apple products. He said the iPod, which recently celebrating its 10th anniversary, has sold over 300 million worldwide.

He said the MacBook Pro and iMac are currently the No. 1 laptop and desktop in the country. Apple's computer market share is 23 percent, Cook said.

More

Report: Fannie Mae Looked The Other Way On Robo-Signing

Agency may have been warned eight years ago

Fannie Mae may have known about, but failed to stop, foreclosure rob0-signing...

PhotoA year ago, when it was revealed that some large mortgage companies were violating the law by employing “robo-signers” to process mortgage documents, it was a huge scandal. The attorneys general of the 50 states are currently trying to reach a settlement with the major players involved in the scheme.

But the Inspector General of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) has issued a report saying the abuses began a lot earlier than previously thought and that Fannie Mae knew about it but didn't act.

In February, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-MD) requested the Inspector General to examine “widespread allegations of abuse by ... law firms hired to process foreclosures as part of” the RAN, and Fannie Mae’s and FHFA’s efforts “to investigate these allegations and implement corrective action.”

The report found that FHFA did not schedule comprehensive examination coverage of foreclosure issues, including allegations of abuse by affiliated law firms until after news stories about alleged abuses surfaced in August 2010.

Indicators before 2010

The Inspector General said there were indicators prior to August 2010 that could have led FHFA to identify the heightened risk posed by foreclosure processing within Fannie Mae’s program to handle foreclosures. In fact, he said there is evidence a Fannie Mae knew as early as eight years ago that corners were being cut.

“In December of 2003, a Fannie Mae shareholder began alerting Fannie Mae to foreclosure abuse allegations, and in 2005 Fannie Mae hired an outside law firm to investigate a variety of allegations regarding purported foreclosure processing abuses,” the report states. “In May 2006, the law firm issued a report of investigation in which it found that:

“[F]oreclosure attorneys in Florida are routinely filing false pleadings and affidavits….The practice could be occurring elsewhere. It is axiomatic that the practice is improper and should be stopped. Fannie Mae has not authorized this unlawful conduct.”

Fannie failed to act

The report also said Fannie Mae did not take steps to ensure the quality of its foreclosure attorneys’ conduct, the legal positions taken in the attorneys’ pleadings, or the manner in which the attorneys processed foreclosures on the Enterprise’s behalf.

The robo-signing scandal broke when a foreclosure defense attorney in Florida obtained a deposition from a GMAC mortgage executive that he did not personally read and sign every foreclosure document, as was required under Florida law. Instead, it was later revealed that mortgage servicers hired people to sign thousands of documents they had not read.

More

Despite a Constant Demand, Parents Cut Back on Diaper Purchases

Why don't manufacturers cut prices to boost sales? Good question. Read on ...

You know that times are tough when parents cut back on diaper purchases.  There's really no substitute for a diaper, after all.  The need, as eco...

PhotoYou know that times are tough when parents cut back on diaper purchases.  There's really no substitute for a diaper, after all.  The need, as economists might say, remains constant.

Times must be tough then because, sure enough, diaper sales, like diapers themselves, are soft -- off by at least 1% in the four weeks ending Sept. 4  compared to a year earlier.  That might not sound like much but it follows a long series of declines.

Not only is there a decline in the number of diapers purchased, dollar volume is also down by 4% or so, which would indicate that parents are not only buying fewer diapers but also cheaper ones, although even sales of generic diapers are down, according to a study quoted by The Wall Street Journal

Now there are lots of variables here.  Counting diapers isn't rocket science, after all.  We don't know, for example, exactly how many babies there are at any given time.  Or what they're eating.  Or how fussy their parents are.  Or how many of them might be trying out cloth diapers (answer: not many, and not for long).

Price is certainly a factor, though, and a big one, according to a ConsumerAffairs.com analysis of about 110,000 comments on Facebook, Twitter and other blogs and social media.

Photo

 

Looking at a sample of 719 comments by diaper gripers, we found that fully 87% were peeved about the cost.  The others mostly complained about diaper rash; 2% didn't like the smell.

Price war

So if the price is an obstacle, why don't Kimberly-Clark and Proctor & Gamble simply drop the price of their Huggies, Pampers and Luvs?

Well, believe it or not, it's for the same reason the airlines have gotten so stingy with their peanuts.  Yep, diapers are made out of the stuff that make airplanes and cars go -- oil.

The reason diapers are so absorbent is that they're made of a super-absorbent polymer, which is a petroleum-based derivative.  Diapers also contain polypropylene and polyethylene -- also from oil.

Didn't know that oil was softer than a baby's bottom, did you?  

Major brands

There's not a startling difference in brand preference among the three big brands -- Kimberly-Clark's Huggies and Procter & Gamble's Pampers and Luvs.

Pampers

While some parents are still chafed at P&G's remarkably brutal handling of a still-unexplained outbreak of diaper rash among its Pampers-wearing clientele, the brand holds an enviable net positive sentiment that nears 80% in recent weeks, based on about 710,000 comments over the last year.

Photo

 

PhotoPampers got fairly high marks from the moms we found browsing on Amazon, although there were some negative comments about pricing.

And in our very own complaint department, we found numerous complaints from parents blaming Pampers for their child's diaper rash.  Although P&G has dismissed the complaints and decreed the controversy is over, it appears doomed to live on in at least some corners of consumerdom.

Luvs

Luvs does nearly as well as Pampers in net sentiment, displaying no notable negatives, though there were far fewer mentions -- only about 31,000.  

Photo

Interestingly, the ConsumerAffairs.com database contains a basketful of Luvs complaints that are strikingly similar to those lodged by Pampers users.   A North Carolina mom complained that her 10-month-old suffered from painful diaper rash similar to those described by Pampers parents.

"Lately he had been so irritable and cranky as the rash continued to worsen no matter how much I air dried him and creamed the area. I was changing his diaper every 1-2 hours trying to alleviate the irritation when I discovered that the diapers had begun to explode at the leg gatherings," she said.

Huggies

We found about 250,000 comments about Huggies, displaying a very steady approval rating of about 60%.

Photo 

PhotoAmong the comments we studied, Huggies Overnights seemed to ring a positive chord with parents hoping for a few more minutes of shut-eye.

Not only that, but Huggies is virtually absent from the ConsumerAffairs.com complaint database, always a positive (if rare) sign. 

Oh and by the way, if you think that Twitter lends itself to short bleeps by moms stuck at home with the baby, think again.  We found diaper discussions almost exclusively on specialized parenting sites and on sites like Amazon.com, where consumers post reviews of products they purchased earlier.

We're not saying babies' parents don't Tweet but ... well, if they do it's about something other than diapers. 

 

More

Study Links Aspirin To Sight Problems

Aspirin users twice as likely to develop late-stage macular degeneration

Possible link between daily aspirin and macular degeneration...

PhotoMillions of people take a daily aspirin tablet to help reduce their risk of having a heart attack or stroke. But are they setting themselves up for the loss of their eyesight later in life?

European researchers followed 4,000 elderly subject and found that those who took a daily aspirin tablet were twice as likely to later be diagnosed with macular degeneration, a gradual loss of eyesight.

The researchers are quick to point out their study found nothing in aspirin that could be thought to cause macular degeneration. It was only the statistic correlation between those taking aspirin and those who suffered from the eyesight condition.

Possible explanation

It's possible, researchers say, that there is a link between macular degeneration and heart disease. People who take daily aspirin have either had a heart attack or are worried about having one, which could, researchers say, explain the connection between aspirin and the eye condition.

There are two types of macular degeneration – wet and dry. Research continues into the condition and its causes, which are not fully known. Previous studies have suggested links to diet and lifestyle.

Dry macular degeneration is a chronic eye disease that causes vision loss in the center of your field of vision.

The other type — wet macular degeneration — is characterized by swelling caused by leaky blood vessels in the back of the eye.

Aspirin therapy not for everyone

Doctors at the Mayo Clinic say daily aspirin therapy may be helpful for some people, but not everyone. They say you consider daily aspirin therapy only if you've had a heart attack or stroke, or you have a high risk of either. And then, only take aspirin with your doctor's approval.

Although taking an occasional aspirin or two is safe for most adults to use for headaches, body aches or fever, daily use of aspirin can have serious side effects, including internal bleeding.  

More

Feds Require Changes to Four Loko Malt Beverage Packaging

Supersized, high-alcohol beverage will tone down its claims

The marketers of Four Loko have agreed to re-label and repackage the supersized, high-alcohol, fruit-flavored, carbonated malt beverage, to resol...

PhotoThe marketers of Four Loko have agreed to re-label and repackage the supersized, high-alcohol, fruit-flavored, carbonated malt beverage, to resolve Federal Trade Commission charges of deceptive advertising.

“Deception about alcohol content is dangerous to consumers, and it’s a serious concern for the FTC,” said David Vladeck, Director of the agency’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.  “Four Loko contains as much alcohol as four or five beers, but it is marketed as a single-serving beverage.”

The FTC alleges that Phusion Projects, LLC and its principals falsely claimed that a 23.5-ounce, 11 or 12 percent alcohol by volume can of Four Loko contains alcohol equivalent to one or two regular 12-ounce beers, and that a consumer could drink one can safely in its entirety on a single occasion.

In fact, according to the FTC, one can of Four Loko contains as much alcohol as four to five 12-ounce cans of regular beer and is not safe to drink on a single occasion.  Consuming a single can of Four Loko on a single occasion constitutes “binge drinking,” which is defined by health officials as men drinking five (and women drinking four) or more standard alcoholic drinks in about two hours.

Drinking from the can

The 23.5-ounce Four Loko cans are the size of about two regular beer cans and are non-resealable. The FTC complaint alleged that on one company website, consumers were encouraged to enter a “photo contest” in which they posted many photos of people drinking directly from the 23.5-ounce Four Loko cans. In stocking instructions, Phusion urged merchants to place the cans where other refrigerated, single-serve alcoholic beverages are displayed.

The administrative settlement requires Phusion Projects to include disclosures on containers of Four Loko, or any other flavored malt beverage containing more  alcohol than two and-a-half regular beers, stating how much alcohol – compared to the amount of alcohol found in regular beer – is in the drink.  The order also specifies the location and appearance of the disclosure.  For example, the disclosure for a 23.5 ounce can of Four Loko with 12 percent alcohol by volume would state:  “This can has as much alcohol as 4.5 regular (12 oz. 5% alc/vol) beers.”

Starting six months after the settlement takes effect, Phusion Projects is required to use only resealable containers for flavored malt beverages that have more alcohol than the equivalent of two and a half regular beers.

Also, the settlement bars Phusion Projects from misrepresenting the alcohol content of any beverage, and from depicting people drinking directly from the container of any product containing more alcohol than that found in two and a half regular beers.

More

California's Reader Privacy Act Signed Into Law

Bill will protect Californians' reading habits

California Gov. Jerry Brown has signed the Reader Privacy Act, updating reader privacy law to cover new technologies like electronic books and online book...

PhotoCalifornia Gov. Jerry Brown has signed the Reader Privacy Act, updating reader privacy law to cover new technologies like electronic books and online book services as well as local bookstores.

The Reader Privacy Act will become law on January 1, and will establish privacy protections for book purchases similar to long-established privacy laws for library records.

"This is great news for Californians, updating their privacy for the 21st Century," said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.  "The Reader Privacy Act will help Californians protect their personal information whether they use new digital book services or their corner bookstore."

Reading choices reveal intimate facts about our lives, from our political and religious beliefs to our health concerns. Digital books and book services can paint an even more detailed picture -- including books browsed but not read, particular pages viewed, how long spent on each page, and any electronic notes made by the reader.

Without strong privacy protections like the ones in the Reader Privacy Act, reading records can be too easily targeted by government scrutiny as well as exposed in legal proceedings like divorce cases and custody battles.

Downgraded privacy

"California should be a leader in ensuring that upgraded technology does not mean downgraded privacy," said Valerie Small Navarro, Legislative Advocate with the ACLU's California affiliates. "We should be able to read about anything from politics, to religion, to health without worrying that the government might be looking over our shoulder."

"California law was completely inadequate when it came to protecting one's privacy for book purchases, especially for online shopping and electronic books," said Yee. "Individuals should be free to buy books without fear of government intrusion and witch hunts. If law enforcement has reason to suspect wrongdoing, they should obtain a court order for such information."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) were sponsors of the bill, authored by California State Senator Leland Yee. It had support from Google, TechNet and the Consumer Federation of California, along with the Internet Archive, City Lights Bookstore, and award-winning authors Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. 

More

Michigan Court Narrows State's Medical Marijuana Law

Limit on number of plants that can be possessed upheld

The Michigan Court of Appeals has issued a decision that further limits the state's medical marijuana law.The justices ruled that a caregiver's decision ...

PhotoThe Michigan Court of Appeals has issued a decision that further limits the state's medical marijuana law.

The justices ruled that a caregiver's decision to supervise the growth of 88 medical marijuana plants in a single facility on behalf of other registered caregivers and patients, other than his own, violates the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act (MMMA).

The case arose from Kent County, Mich., prosecutor William Forsyth's filing of drug charges against caregiver Ryan Bylsma. The decision will stand as precedent for all other lower court cases, according to Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who praised the decision.

"This law is narrowly tailored to help those with serious debilitating illnesses, but criminals are exploiting it to construct massive grow operations," said Schuette. "I applaud the Court's decision in this case because it echoes the concerns of the public and law enforcement by protecting public safety. Limits on possession are not optional."

A three judge panel of the Michigan Court of Appeals held Bylsma can be charged with manufacturing marijuana because he possessed 88 plants in one growing facility, in violation of the 12 plant per patient limit enshrined in the MMMA.

The Court concluded that:

  • Caregivers may not possess plants grown for registered qualifying patients who are not officially connected to the caregiver through the State's registration process, or for other registered caregivers;
  • Caregivers who do not comply with the 12 plant per patient limit are not entitled to assert an affirmative defense in Court; and,
  • The State may file drug possession and manufacturing charges against registered patients and caregivers who do not adhere to the 12 plant per patient limit.

 

In June 2011, Schuette concluded in Attorney General Opinion 7259 that the MMMA does not permit the collective growing or sharing of marijuana plants between caregivers and unconnected patients or other caregivers. Schuette concluded the MMMA requires each patient's plants to be grown and maintained in a separate enclosed, locked facility that is only accessible to the registered patient or the patient's registered primary caregiver.

The law has been a source of concern to law enforcement since it was passed by the Michigan legislature. Schuett earlier this years announced plans to join with some members of the legislature to modify the statute.

More

What's On Your Mind? Dish Network, Quicken Loans, Frigidaire

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Dish Network, Quicken Loans, Frigidaire, Alone without a loan and Too much heat in the kitchen....

PhotoIf you sign up with Dish Network and the installation turns out to be a disaster, can you cancel without an early termination fee? Apparently not.

“The installation was botched and it was extremely unprofessional,” said Marc, of Murrells Inlet, S.C. “They damaged my home and left wiring and my entertainment center in unusable condition. The installer said he was going to Radio Shack for some parts and he would be right back. He never returned. Dish told me they were not responsible and charged me a $464.00 disconnect fee.

If Marc made photographs of the installation, he should be able to find someone at Dish Network that will address this issue. This also sounds like it could be an ideal case for small claims court

Alone without a loan

Edward, of Kennesaw, Ga., thinks Quicken Loans needs to get its story straight. He says he applied to refinance his first mortgage under the HARP program, which was developed to help underwater properties.

“I had already done my homework, so I knew my home's first mortgage was under the 125 percent LTV,” Edward told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Also, my wife and I have excellent credit.”

Edward says things started out okay in the beginning, but he had a harder and harder time reaching the person servicing his loans.

“Once, a representative from Quicken called me to ask how the process went, he thought I had closed on the loan,” Edward said. “When I informed him that I was still waiting on the person servicing my loan to give me a call regarding my options, he checked, and stated that he was surprised, because my loan was ready to go. When I contacted someone on their chat line to complain, the person servicing my loan called five minutes after I finished chatting and told me my loan was denied due to high LTV risk. This was definitely not the case, like I said earlier, I had already done my homework. I really hate to pull the 'race card' but I believe they detected that I was African American and blatantly discriminated against me.”

Or, it could be a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, as many others have complained about with a number of loan servicers. But if Edward believes he is a victim of racial discrimination, he needs to speak with someone at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Too much heat in the kitchen

Debbie, of Lowell, Ark., checked in this week to update us on the fire in her Frigidaire electric oven. She says Frigidaire has agreed to pay for parts, but not labor, since the unit was six months out of warranty.

“I have filed a complaint with Consumer Product Safety Commission and now two months later finally got the report to sign and send back,” Debbie told ConsumerAffairs.com.

Debbie also said she forgot to mention that her Frigidaire microwave glass exploded, cutting her severely enough to send her to the hospital. She says the two incidents happened a week apart.

More

Google Update Gives Nod to Big Brands, Google's Own Properties

Latest rejiggering of search results raises questions about Big G's objectivity

Big G takes on the content farms in this satiric video It was just a few weeks ago that we wrote a rather mild little story headlined, "...

Photo
Big G takes on the content farms in this satiric video

It was just a few weeks ago that we wrote a rather mild little story headlined, "Forget Congress, Google Has Big Public Perception Problems."

We noted that the search engine once applauded for helping consumers find just what they're looking for faces not only an antitrust investigation but a growing public perception that it is using its dominant position to push its own products and squash competitors.

Late last Wednesday, Google implemented the latest update to its search algorithm and by the weekend, we were No. 2 on the latest Big Losers list, having lost more traffic than anyone but Myspace.com, according to statistics from Searchmetrics, which chronicles the ups and down of what's known as search engine optimization (SEO), the techniques sites use to try to stay on top of the search results returned by Google, Bing and the other search engines.

Now, no one is suggesting the trip to the woodshed was intentional but the industry watchers who write about SEO issues are finding it worrisome that while Google-owned properties rose in the latest algorithm update, sites that might be seen as competing with Google fell.

Losers

Here are the top ten losers, as compiled by Searchmetics:

  
#DomainSEO Visibility 
09/25/2011
SEO Visibility 
10/02/2011
Losing
1
 
3,139,2782,717,908-421,370
 
2
 
447,586100,513-347,073
 
3
 
552,925213,059-339,866
 
4
 
8,774,4848,520,784-253,700
 
5
 
162,75911,379-151,380
 
6
 
197,93648,346-149,590
 
7
 
173,59654,262-119,334
 
8
 
130,87022,637-108,233
 
9
 
124,61819,202-105,416
 
10
 
340,330239,946-100,384
 
 

Winners  

 And here are the top ten winners:

#DomainSEO VisibilityEnhancement
1
 
5,787,520529,195
 
2
 
640,113314,859
 
3
 
916,350307,136
 
4
 
52,622,304223,378
 
5
 
215,320193,826
 
6
 
924,621186,591
 
7
 
232,835151,507
 
8
 
336,522147,688
 
9
 
344,416142,020
 
10
 
711,785124,830
 

The biggest winner was none other than Google's very own YouTube.  Other sites that moved way up in the ratings were big corporate video sites -- Hulu, MTV, NBC, CBS and HBO.

Could it be that the new algorithm gives more weight to heavy video content?  Or might it be that Google is giving higher rankings to big corporate sites that get more "direct" visitors -- meaning visitors who find the site themselves, without using a search engine?

Might it be that Google thinks its previous rankings gave too much credence to text-heavy sites?  Maybe it thinks its users can't read very well and would rather just look at videos?

The answer, of course, is no one knows and Google certainly isn't saying. About all it shares are the internal working names of its various updates (we are currently in the "Panda" era).

"We're continuing to iterate on our Panda algorithm as part of our commitment to returning high-quality sites to Google users," a Google spokesperson told WebProNews Friday. "This most recent update is one of the roughly 500 changes we make to our ranking algorithms each year."

Google has always maintained a heavy veil of secrecy about just what goes into its searches, making the reasonable claim that if it went public with the information, everyone would rejigger their sites to serve up whatever Google was looking for.

Self-determination

On the other hand, maybe if the specifications were public, users could make their own decisions about which sites best met their needs instead of letting Google make that determination in advance?

Google's claim that it knows best begins to sound a bit hollow if one asks how it sounds when governments make the same claim.  Do we admire China for blocking content its rulers don't find helpful?

Not long ago, one of ConsumerAffairs.com's founders started a small local news site, planning to draw on his 50 years in journalism to light up a little corner of the world.  But when he applied to be included in Google News, the search giant responded that his site didn't meet certain standards.

Which ones? he asked.  Sorry, can't tell you, replied Big G.  Google seems to find it worthwhile to list every newspaper that carries an identical AP or Reuters story but seemingly finds no value in a small local site that actually has content not duplicated elsewhere, even though it has always maintained that "original content" is high on its list of positive factors.  

Whether ceding prior approval of which news sites should be revealed to public view bodes well for vigorous journalism might be a suitable topic for debate in the groves of academe.  

Others think all of this is irrelevant since the Internet, in their opinion, is a marketplace for goods and services, not ideas.  Some of Google's harshest critics have adopted this viewpoint.

A widely-watched video uses satire to cast aspersions Google's way. 

More

Bankers' Association Blames Government For New Fees

Says banks now losing money on debit transactions

The banking industry blames the government and retailers for banks' new debit card fees...

Photo
Keating

The American Bankers Association (ABA) is blaming what it calls “government price fixing” for new bank fees, manifested most recently by Bank of America's $5 a month charge for customers who make debit card purchases.

In response to a significant consumer outcry over the Bank of America fee, ABA President Frank Keating says new government rules that forced banks to lower the fee collected from merchants for each debit card “swipe” has fundamentally altered the economics of offering a debit card.

"One prime culprit is the so-called 'Durbin Amendment,' which capped debit card fees below industry costs,” Keating said. “This provided big-box retailers with $7 billion in windfall profits while forcing banks to lose money on every debit card transaction.”

The Durbin Amendment bears the name of Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who authored the legislation. Durbin sees the issue a bit differently, and disputes the notion that banks are losing money on every debit card transaction. In fact, he called the old fee – 44 cents per transaction - “unreasonably high.”

Profit or loss?

Photo
Durbin

The Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) agrees, citing Federal Reserve data that it said showed the old fee, which was 44 cents but is now 24 cents, netted banks a profit of 1100 percent on every transaction. RILA says it's still a pretty hefty profit.

“Crying poverty and adding fees, all while collecting a 600 percent profit on every transaction is one heck of a public relations strategy,”said RILA spokeswoman Katherine Lugar.

Keating also blames retailers for the new bank fees, saying part of the cost of the system is being transferred from retailers to consumers. But he made clear he thinks most of the blame lies in Washington.

"The Durbin Amendment and its consequences are symptomatic of a broader problem,” Keating said. Massive amounts of new regulation, government constraints on earning revenue and a tough economy constrain banks from helping our economy get back on track. Policymakers need to take a hard look at the real cause of higher consumer costs.

Durbin, however, indicated he isn't backing off.

“Bank of America showed us this week that some big banks and credit card companies care less about providing customer service than they care about squeezing customers for more fees,” Durbin said. “The best defense for American consumers and businesses against unfair fees is a transparent and competitive financial marketplace overseen by reasonable regulation.”

More

Consumers Have Alternatives to Big Banks

Don't like big banks' fees? Take your business somewhere else

Consumers Have Alternatives To Big Banks' Fees Bank of America's decision to impose a $5 a month fee on customers who make debit card purchases st...

More

What's On Your Mind? Bank of America, Hotels.com, Emerson, Target

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Bank of America, Hotels.com, Emerson, Target, Not in the mood, Sparks and Too many coupons?...

PhotoIt may come as no surprise that after Bank of America's disclosure late last week that it will soon charge a $5 a month fee if you use a debit card to make purchases, a lot of consumers have Bank of America on their mind, and not in a good way. Elaine, of Conyers, Ga., contacted ConsumerAffairs.com over the weekend to say she was outraged.

“I went to the drive through window today to cash a check,” Elaine told ConsumerAffairs.com. “The teller has this happy voice telling me her name, sorry for the delay, etc. All I am doing is cashing a check. When she sends it back through the tube she uses my name, tells me that as a token of their appreciation for me being a customer they are giving me a gift. I open the container and it is a small brown plastic football with the BofA logo imprinted on it. Can they really be spending money on such garbage? What the heck am I suppose to do with this plastic football? How much money do you think they spent on the footballs?”

It sounds like Bank of America was prepared for a little consumer push-back on the new fee, hence the plastic footballs. But for millions of consumers sick to death of fees from banks and airlines, this may be one fee too many.

Not in the mood

Daniel, of Bradford Woods, Pa., had a serious beef with Hotels.com, booking a 10-night stay at a hotel he describes as very subpar. It was so bad, he says, that he checked out after one night, forfeiting the $500 he had already paid. He then fired off a lengthy and somewhat angry complaint to Hotels.com.

“Hotel.com sent me a reply to my complaint saying 'sorry, due to high volume we could not address your complaint, have a nice stay,' Daniel said. “It would be funny if I were in the mood.”

Daniel says, from now on he will use a search engine to book directly with hotels and not use third party travel sites. He may find that he can still find some pretty good deals that way, and have fewer nasty surprises.

Sparks

Frances, of Pembroke Pines, Fla., says heating up food and beverages in her Emerson microwave has been a challenge because the unit consistently powers down.

“I've had the MWG9115SL for sometime now and I thought there was just something wrong with the breaker, so I'd reset it and then use the microwave,” Frances told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Now not only the breaker is tripping but there are sparks coming from the microwave. I'm just thankful that it didn't catch on fire when my daughter was using it in the house alone.”

Frances, and other consumers who have experienced this problem, need to report it to the company and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Too many coupons?

Extreme couponing is more popular with consumers in this bad economy, but it's safe to say retail stores are not big fans. When consumers take advantage of every coupon offer they can find, it can cut into a store's profit margin. Anitra, of West Covina, Calif., says she does a major shopping trip to Target every six months, using coupons on many of those purchases. Anitra says on the last outing she was unaware that she was being followed as she moved about the store, filling her carts. At the checkout line, she said a store manager and two security guards refused to let her complete the purchases if she used coupons, limiting her to one item with one coupon per day.

“This was not only an embarrassing moment this was also degrading and humiliating,” Anitra said.

Normally, coupons come with an expiration date and a disclaimer, such as “not good with other offers.” If the coupons don't carry that kind of information, it's hard to see how a retailer can arbitrarily decline to accept them when a consumer uses what the retailer considers to be too many.

More

The Math Behind Bank Of America's New $5 Fee

Not a figure pulled out of thin air

Why Bank of America is charging $5 for debit card use...

PhotoBank of America set off howls of outrage with its announcement that it will begin charging customers who use debit cards to make purchases a $5 monthly fee.

The timing of the announcement, just before today's (Saturday)  implementation of new, lower “swipe fees” for banks, is probably not an accident. The $5 fee is designed to make up for Bank of America's loss of revenue, with consumers paying the full freight.

The charge isn't doing much to prop up Bank of America's standing with its customers.  A ConsumerAffairs.com analysis of 980,000 comments on Facebook, Twitter and other social media and blogs found net sentiment sinking from 45% positive to 20% negative over the last year.

Photo
Blue line shows net sentiment

It all adds up

Why $5 a month? Because that's a reasonable amount to assume the bank will lose per customer under the new fee structure. The old fee was 44 cents per transaction and the new maximum fee is 24 cents, making for a loss of 20 cents per transaction per customer.

Photo

Assuming the average customer makes 25 debit card transactions each month, that's $5 per customer that Bank of America is losing under the new swipe fee. Charging each customer who uses a debit card to make a purchase an extra $5 a month, the bank makes up for the lost revenue.

Interestingly, the $5 fee will not be charged to consumers who have a debit card and use it only at ATMs. ATMs have their own set of fees, not affected by the new swipe fee rule.

In the debate earlier this year over changes to the swipe fee rule, retailers argued paying 44 cents per transaction posed too heavy a financial burden. Banks countered that if the fees were lowered, the difference would have to come from somewhere.

Photo
Blue line shows net sentiment

Consumers have options

With Bank of America's new announced debit card fee, and with other major banks testing the concept, it's clear consumers will have to pay the difference. Of course, consumers are not powerless when it comes to avoiding the fee.

PhotoMany smaller banks provide more consumer-friendly service that don't charge fees. With direct deposit and online banking, the bank doesn't even have to operate a branch in the city where you live.

Credit unions are another alternative. Offering almost all the same services as a bank, these non-profit institutions have fewer, and lower fees and generally rank much higher in customer satisfaction.

ConsumerAffairs.com analyzed 460,000 consumer comments about credit unions over the last 12 months and found consumers positively aglow.  Net sentiment climbed from about 60% positive a year ago to about 80% positive today.

Photo

---

Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase

More