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Current Events in November 2011

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    Subaru Unveils Its BRZ Sports Car

    Low center of gravity creates a real road-hugger

    Subaru has unveiled its new BRZ sports car and observers at the Tokyo Auto Show say that, like the Toyota Scion FR-S, this is a sports car that really is a sports car, not an overpowered barge.

    This is a car that may turn the heads of many driving enthusiasts who've made do with big, heavy cars with big, heavy engines and big, heavy price tags.  

    Like the much-loved Mazda Miata, these new models are throwbacks to the days when a sports car was something that was lightweight, low to the ground, tightly sprung and lacking in all but the most essential accessories.

    The BRZ develops about 200 horsepower from its 2.0-liter, four-cylinder, naturally-aspirated boxer engine, the same engine you'll find in the Scion FR-S.  

    The "boxer" engine design is just what its name implies -- a low-profile flat four, sort of stuffed into a box shape, the same general design as the engine in the Porsche Boxster, although that blocky powerhouse comes with six cylinders and in some models can churn out around 300 hp.

    Part of what makes the Boxster such a popular and enduring model is that its mid-engine design gives it an almost perfect 50-50 front-to-rear weight distribution.  Subaru hasn't gone quite that far with the BRZ but it has put the engine lower and farther back than in any other Subaru.

    All of this should combine to make the BRZ a real driver's car -- fast enough and low enough to flatten out corners and keep the shiny side up.  Subaru is calling the design an “ultra-low center of gravity package.”

    The car comes with a short-throw manual or an automatic transmission.  Either way, you get six speeds.

    Major Specifications

    Subaru has unveiled its new BRZ sports car and observers at the Tokyo Auto Show say that, like the Toyota Scion FR-S, this is a sports car that really...
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    Are Android Phones More Vulnerable To Hackers?

    Researchers say EVO 4G may be especially so

    There's a lot of discussion about which smartphone is the coolest and has the most features. What is less often discussed is which devices are more vulnerable to hackers and other cyber attacks.

    Researchers at North Carolina State University have been examining smartphone security and say some smartphones specifically designed to support the Android mobile platform have incorporated additional features that can be used by hackers to bypass Android’s security features, making them more vulnerable to attack.

    That's of concern, they say, because Android has the largest share of the smartphone market in the U.S.

    “Some of these pre-loaded applications, or features, are designed to make the smartphones more user-friendly, such as features that notify you of missed calls or text messages,” said Dr. Xuxian Jiang, an assistant professor of computer science at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the research. “The problem is that these pre-loaded apps are built on top of the existing Android architecture in such a way as to create potential ‘backdoors’ that can be used to give third-parties direct access to personal information or other phone features.”

    Tricking the apps

    How does it work? Jiang and colleagues say hackers can trick the pre-loaded apps. They can exploit these backdoors to record your phone calls, send text messages to premium numbers that will charge your account or even completely wipe out all of your settings.

    To test their theory the researchers tested eight different smartphone models, including two “reference implementations” that were loaded only with Google’s baseline Android software.

    “Google’s reference implementations and the Motorola Droid were basically clean,” Jiang said. “No real problems there.”

    Vulnerable phones

    However, five other models did not fare as well. HTC’s Legend, EVO 4G and Wildfire S, Motorola’s Droid X and Samsung’s Epic 4G all had significant vulnerabilities – with the EVO 4G displaying the most vulnerabilities.

    The researchers said they notified manufacturers of the vulnerabilities as soon as they were discovered, earlier this year.

    “If you have one of these phones, your best bet to protect yourself moving forward is to make sure you accept security updates from your vendor,” Jiang said. “And avoid installing any apps that you don’t trust completely.”

    Researchers warn some Android phones are vulnerable to hackers...
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    Lawsuit Argues Dentists Can't Muzzle Patients

    Dentists forcing patients to give up right to comment, criticize

    A New York dentist’s requirement that patients sign a contract agreeing not to criticize her is unconscionable, and the dentist should be prohibited from forcing patients to make such a promise in the future, Public Citizen said in a lawsuit filed late Tuesday.

    The suit highlights a growing trend: doctors and dentists conditioning medical care on patients promising not to post negative comments about them online. The pledges are contained in paperwork that patients must sign before the doctor or dentist will see them. Public Citizen represents Robert Allen Lee, a Huntingtown, Md., resident and former patient of the New York dentist, Dr. Stacy Makhnevich.

    A North Carolina company called “Medical Justice” sells forms containing these conditions to medical providers, marketing the forms as an effective way to prevent negative comments that may have an adverse effect on their practices. Medical Justice has been quoted as claiming that about 3,000 doctors and dentists use its products, including these forms. This lawsuit is believed to be the first over the provision restricting criticism. 

    Copyright claim

    Moreover, the provision the dentist required the patient to sign in the case purported to give the dentist ownership of the criticism through a copyright clause. And Makhnevich has claimed that by posting criticism online, Lee was violating the copyright clause and so owes Makhnevich $100 a day.

    “What began as a case of a sore tooth is now showcasing an unconscionable practice in which doctors and dentists force patients to leave their constitutional rights at the office door,” said Paul Alan Levy, the Public Citizen attorney representing Lee. “If people are upset about their care, they have a First Amendment right to tell people about it – by going online and posting their thoughts on Yelp, Facebook, Twitter and the like.”

    The case began in October 2010, when Lee developed a severely sore tooth. The next month, he went to Makhnevich, whom he selected because the practice was covered by his insurance. Before he could be treated, he was handed forms to sign. One of them required Lee to agree not to publish any commentary about the dentist, not to disparage the dentist and to assign copyright to the dentist for any commentary that Lee wrote.

    Lee was reluctant to give up his right to publish commentary, but he was in severe pain and so signed the form.

    Payment issues 

    Makhnevich billed Lee $4,766 for the dental work performed. Lee paid and asked the dentist to send the necessary paperwork to his insurance company, but the dentist sent the information to the wrong insurance provider. Lee then asked for his records so he could submit the claim himself; Makhnevich refused and instead referred Lee to a third party that demanded five percent of the total bill for copying the records.

    In August 2011, Lee criticized Makhnevich on Yelp, DoctorBase and other online sites. The dentist then sent Lee a letter warning that Lee had violated the agreement and threatened to sue Lee for breach of contract and copyright infringement.

    The next month, Makhnevich contacted Yelp and DoctorBase and demanded Lee’s comments be removed. The review sites refused to remove the comments, because they regard purported copyright assignments as legally unenforceable. Makhnevich then sent invoices to Lee for $100 a day for copyright infringement in September and October, and sent another letter threatening to sue Lee.

    This suit, which seeks class-action status, contends that the agreement Lee was required to sign is unconscionable and should be declared null and void. Further, requiring patients to surrender the right to publish truthful criticism violates medical practitioners’ duty to patients because they are placing their own interests above those of their patients. In addition, the agreement misuses copyright law to suppress expression.

    “It is outrageous that a patient would have to sign away his constitutionally protected right to get treatment for a toothache,” Lee said. “I have to wonder what this dentist’s other patients have said to make her feel it was necessary to go to this extreme.”

    A New York dentist’s requirement that patients sign a contract agreeing not to criticize her is unconscionable, and the dentist should be prohibited from f...
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      Do You Know As Much As You Think About Credit Cards?

      Having knowledge, and knowing it, keeps you out of trouble

      When the financial crisis of 2008 hit, many consumers found themselves over-extended on their credit cards. Since then, a painful deleveraging process has been taking place.

      Two economists at the University of Nebraska – Sam Allgood and William Walstad – wanted to know how a consumer's knowledge about credit cards affected their credit situation. They found that it's not just what you know, but what you think you know, that can make a difference.

      For their study, they surveyed roughly 27,500 people nationwide and measured five credit-card behaviors: Paying credit card bills in full; carrying a credit card balance; paying just the minimum payment; paying late fees; and exceeding the card’s limit.

      In all cases, respondents who believed they knew and understood credit cards and finances had better credit-card behavior than those who saw their knowledge as low.

      Having knowledge and knowing it

      For example, the study found, Americans who are actually smart about finance and know it are 15.5 percent more likely to pay their credit card bills in full compared with people with the same level of financial knowledge, but who perceive themselves as not having a high financial expertise.

      The low self-perceivers also are 15 percent more likely to carry a monthly balance, 12 percent more likely to merely pay the minimum payment each month, 11 percent more likely to be charged a late fee and six percent more likely to exceed their card’s spending limits.

      “Before beginning, we hypothesized two possibilities: people would be over-confident and this would lead them to make bad decisions or that people need confidence to act on the knowledge they possess,” Allgood said. “Our study suggests that it is the latter.

      Lack of confidence?

      The economists say you must have actual knowledge to make good personal financial decisions, but people don't seem to be willing to act on that knowledge unless they also perceive themselves to be knowledgeable.

      The study found that 41 percent of consumers surveyed had both low actual and self-perceived financial knowledge. Twenty-five percent had low actual financial knowledge but thought their knowledge was high; 16 percent had high actual knowledge but perceived their understanding as low; and 18 percent had high actual knowledge and perceived themselves the same way.

      Forty-two percent of respondents said they paid their credit card balances in full each month, while 58 percent carried a balance forward.

      According to the Federal Reserve, the average consumer has more than three credit cards and carries a balance of more than $15,000.  

      Study of credit card knowledge and behavior...
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      Lipitor Goes Generic Today

      Patent expires on world's most popular drug

      Lipitor, one of the most successful drugs in pharmaceutical history went generic today, meaning other manufacturers can begin making and selling the drug.

      When Pfizer introduced the cholesterol-lowering drug in 1996, Zocor and Pravachol were already firmly entrenched as a treatment for high cholesterol. But Lipitor quickly gained market share and went on to earn billions for Pfizer.

      Starting today, U.S.-based Watson Pharmaceuticals began shipping its generic version of Lipitor, a statin whose generic description is atorvastatin calcium tablets. Under the terms of the exclusive supply and distribution agreement, Pfizer manufactures and supplies Watson with all dosage strengths of the authorized generic product.

      Watson said it will market and distribute the product in the United States, with Pfizer receiving a share of the net sales from Watson's sales of the product. The agreement runs until November 30, 2016. Other terms of the agreement have not been disclosed.

      Pfizer will continue to market Lipitor as a brand name drug, but will probably seen declining sales as more consumers switch to the generic.

      For the most recent twelve months ending September 30, 2011, Lipitor had sales of approximately $7.8 billion, according to IMS Health data.

      Some complaints

      Despite Lipitor's popularity, it has produced a few consumer complaints over the years. Cheryl, of Fostoria, Ohio, said she experienced severe pain in her legs a week after beginning the drug.

      “One week after starting on Lipitor I was hospitalized with a stroke,” Barbara, of Pagosa Springs, Colo., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Strange coincidence? Not on your life.”

      A 2007 study found that stroke survivors who took a high dosage of Lipitor had an increased risk of stroke from bleeding in the brain, also known as hemorrhagic stroke. But most medical experts concluded that the benefits of the drug outweighed the risks.

      All statins carry some risk of causing muscle pain and possible liver damage, which is why doctors are supposed to carefully monitor patients' response to the drugs with periodic blood tests and other evaluations.

      While patients currently taking Lipitor can save some money by switching to the generic, it remains to be seen how much the savings will be, since Pfizer will continue to receive a share of the profits for another four years.

      Lipitor, one of the most successful drugs in pharmaceutical history went generic today, meaning other manufacturers can begin making and selling the drug....
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      American Airlines Bankruptcy Worries Feds, Workers, Travelers

      Pension guarantee fund already has a $26 billion deficit

      American Airlines stock fell to 26 cents after it filed for bankruptcy yesterday, while AA employees' and retirees' morale fell even further. But fear not -- your frequent flier miles are safe, the airline hastened to assure its customers.

      "Today American Airlines' parent company filed for bankruptcy. When this happens employees and retirees worry — and they should," said Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) Director Josh Gotbaum.

      "In past bankruptcies, workers and retirees have lost their healthcare and seen their pensions cut. Based on our estimates American Airlines employees could lose a billion dollars in pension benefits if American terminates their plans," Gotbaum said.

      Taxpayers at risk

      Such a termination would be a financial hardship not only for AA workers but also for taxpayers. The PBGC currently has a record $26 billion deficit, thanks to previous corporate bankruptcies.

      Workers are often big losers in bankruptcies, even when PBGC steps in to take over their pensions.

      "This is true even if PBGC becomes responsible for those plans, because Congress has limited the size of the pensions we can pay. Unfortunately, when the agency assumed airline plans in the past, many people's pensions were cut, in some cases dramatically," Gotbaum said. "That's why PBGC always tries first to preserve plans, even after companies enter bankruptcy. As we did with Visteon, and with some plans at Delta and Northwest Airlines, we will encourage American to fix its financial problems and still keep its pension plans."

      American Airlines sponsors four traditional pension plans that cover almost 130,000 participants. As of today, the plans collectively had about $8.3 billion in assets to cover about $18.5 billion in benefits. If American Airlines were to end their plans, the agency would be responsible for paying about $17 billion in benefits; about $1 billion in benefits would be lost.

      In cases where plans cannot be saved, PBGC steps in and pays benefits. Currently, the agency is responsible for about 1.5 million people in more than 4,300 failed plans. Each month, on average, PBGC pays about $460 million to more than 870,000 retirees and is responsible for future payments to 628,000 people who haven't retired.

      AAdvantage miles

      Now you might think that American employees would be glum and grouchy given the news that their pay, benefits and pensions were in for another round of drastic surgery.

      But no, AA assured its customers in a perkily upbeat email. "More than 80,000 people at American appreciate your loyalty and look forward to continuing to serve you," the email enthused breathlessly. 

      "We want to assure you that your AAdvantage miles are secure. The AAdvantage miles that you've earned are yours and will stay yours, subject to usual policies, until you choose to redeem them for a great award with us. Likewise, your elite qualifying miles and your elite status, including lifetime status granted under the Million Milerprogram is secure and remains intact," it continued.

      However, cheery greetings aside, in other airline bankruptcies, consumers have found it more difficult to redeem miles as the carriers slash routes and substitute smaller aircraft, and as more fliers try to redeem their miles, fearing that the airline may not survive.

      "Perfect storm"

      Capt. Dave Bates, the president of the Allied Pilots Association, which represents AA pilots, called it "disappointing that we find ourselves working for an airline that has lost its way" and said the pilots have tried to accommodate the company's needs.  

      "In 2003 American Airlines’ pilots provided management with significant cost savings that were characterized as essential to avoiding bankruptcy at that time. We agreed to sacrifice based on the expectation that our airline would regain its leadership position. What has transpired since has been nothing short of a 'perfect storm,' Bates said in a voicemail to union members.

      Many AA employees, not just pilots, remain bitter about giving up $1.8 billion in concessions in 2003 to help the airline avoid bankruptcy then, only to see executives award themselves big bonuses later in the year.

      Another message from the union noted that it's too late for pilots to bail out with their benefits.

      "Please be aware that [the] Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing by AMR will block the A Plan lump sum option for pilots retiring today or thereafter," the message said.

      Golden parachute?

      And what about CEO Gerard Arpey, who announced his retirement as the bankruptcy action was filed.  

      The company insists that Arpey, who had long tried to avoid a bankruptcy filing, isn't leaving the company with a "golden parachute." AMR said he will not receive a severance or an exit bonus since he voluntarily decided to retire.

      Arpey, 53, has accrued $4.7 million in pension benefits which, the company noted, will be vulnerable during the bankruptcy process. He will be eligible to begin drawing whatever remains of that pension when he reaches age 55, the company said. 

      Succeeding Arpey is Thomas Horton, a 22-year AA employee. Horton said he had no plans for a wholesale slashing of jobs and routes.

      American Airlines stock fell to 26 cents after it filed for bankruptcy yesterday, while AA employees and retirees' morale fell even further."Today Americ...
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      What's On Your Mind? Samsung, Credit One Bank, Hertz

      Our daily look at consumer reviews

      It's very annoying when a product lasts only two years, but it's even worse if it happens to be something you paid hundreds, maybe even thousands of dollars to purchase. Debi, of Delray Beach, Fla., is one of those annoyed consumers.

      “People need to know if they purchase a Samsung LCD HD TV it will likely only last two years,” Debi told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I have an extended warranty from Brandsmart on mine and they of course they refuse to repair it, insisting it was customer induced. Although Samsung themselves say they do not have any idea why this happens or which part to replace. I have reached out to both via several avenues to no avail. They just refuse to acknowledge their TV's are under built to fail after two years and will not do anything to help their customers even with extended warranties.”

      It's not just Samsung TVs that are prone to early failure but seems to be the way these flat screen TVs are made, cramming a lot of heat-producing parts into a tight space. The failure rate is very high, based on complaints and reports from TV repairmen. The only way to get manufacturers to improve the design of these big screen TVs is for consumers to stop buying them.

      Also, consumers can keep the TVs cool.  Don't put them in a cabinet or other enclosure.  And be sure to use a surge suppressor.

      Expensive credit

      Juanita, of Little Rock, Ark., says she received an offer in the mail from Credit One Bank and was about to apply for the credit card when she read there was an annual fee of $75 in the first year.

      “After the first year it is $99.00, billed to your card at 8.25 a month,” Juanita said. “Aren't your fees supposed to go down? And another thing, at first glance their logo looks suspiciously like Capital One. I mean really look at it! I had no intention of applying for a card, but I wanted to check them out, and guess what? When you go too their website, it's not even secure!”

      Credit One cards do come with an annual fee and, in many cases, very limited credit lines. Before applying for a card from the first offer that comes in the mail, it's smart to do a little research to find the best deal.

      High cost of renting

      Jody, of Portland, Ore., is another rental car customer who complains about extra charges. In Jody's case, she says every time she drops off a car at Hertz after just having filled the gas tank, she is charged for a full tank of gas.

      “Then they require me to fax the gas receipt,” Jody said. “How many millions of dollars are they fleecing people who refuel, then the people don't notice the extra charge on their final bill? This is crazy. That is $40-$50 dollars of bogus charges on every express return rental.”

      If this is the case, maybe it's best to return the car with an empty tank. Yes, you'll be charged through the nose for gas, but at least you won't pay for it twice. It sounds like rental agencies are doing everything they can to maximize the revenue generated from each vehicles.

      Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Samsung, Credit One Bank, Hertz, Expensive credit, High cost of renting and televisions....
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      Video: Kindle Fire Is Leap Forward For Amazon's E-Readers

      But those expecting a full-fledged tablet might be disappointed

      Consumers who want an Amazon Kindle now have several models to choose from, with a basic model, a color tablet-like model, and a couple in between. Which one is the best value for you? ConsumerAffairs.com's Mark Huffman reports it all depends on what you want from an e-reader.

      A comparison of the basic and top Kindle models...
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      Facebook Settles Federal Charges It Violated Users' Privacy

      Promises it won't do it again, pays not one red cent in penalties

      Critics might call it a slap on the wrist.  Facebook has settled federal charges that it deceived consumers by divulging their private information by promising not to do it again.

      In a proposed settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, Facebook promised that from now on, it will give consumers clear and prominent notice and obtain consumers' express consent before their information is shared beyond the privacy settings they have established.

      "I'm the first to admit that we've made a bunch of mistakes," said Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a post on the company's blog. "In particular, I think that a small number of high profile mistakes ... and poor execution as we transitioned our privacy model two years ago, have often overshadowed much of the good work we've done."

      Facebook, which is planning an IPO likely to exceed $10 billion next year, did not pay a fine or penalty of any kind and consumers whose privacy rights were violated will not receive any form of compensation.

      "Anyone who has the privilege of collecting this type of sensitive information should live by these fair rules of the road," said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who has been pushing legislation to tighten privacy restrictions. "This settlement will help ensure that companies keep their promises to consumers and give those consumers a real voice in how their information is used, distributed, and managed."

      "Facebook is obligated to keep the promises about privacy that it makes to its hundreds of millions of users," said Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the FTC. "Facebook's innovation does not have to come at the expense of consumer privacy. The FTC action will ensure it will not."

      Unkept promises

      The FTC complaint lists a number of instances in which Facebook allegedly made promises that it did not keep:

      • In December 2009, Facebook changed its website so certain information that users may have designated as private – such as their Friends List – was made public. They didn't warn users that this change was coming, or get their approval in advance.
      • Facebook represented that third-party apps that users' installed would have access only to user information that they needed to operate. In fact, the apps could access nearly all of users' personal data – data the apps didn't need.
      • Facebook told users they could restrict sharing of data to limited audiences – for example with "Friends Only." In fact, selecting "Friends Only" did not prevent their information from being shared with third-party applications their friends used.
      • Facebook had a "Verified Apps" program & claimed it certified the security of participating apps. It didn't.
      • Facebook promised users that it would not share their personal information with advertisers. It did.
      • Facebook claimed that when users deactivated or deleted their accounts, their photos and videos would be inaccessible. But Facebook allowed access to the content, even after users had deactivated or deleted their accounts.
      • Facebook claimed that it complied with the U.S.- EU Safe Harbor Framework that governs data transfer between the U.S. and the European Union. It didn't.

      While admitting past errors, Zuckerberg insists that Facebook now puts great emphasis on ensuring users' privacy. 

      "Facebook has always been committed to being transparent about the information you have stored with us – and we have led the internet in building tools to give people the ability to see and control what they share," he said.

      New tools

      In his blog post, Zuckergerg listed what he said were "new tools and resources" to empower users to guard their privacy, including:

      • An easier way to select your audience when making a new post
      • Inline privacy controls on all your existing posts
      • The ability to review tags made by others before they appear on your profile
      • Friend lists that are easier to create and that maintain themselves automatically
      • A new groups product for sharing with smaller sets of people
      • A tool to view your profile as someone else would see it
      • Tools to ensure your information stays secure like double login approval
      • Mobile versions of your privacy controls
      • An easy way to download all your Facebook data
      • A new apps dashboard to control what your apps can access
      • A new app permission dialog that gives you clear control over what an app can do anytime you add one
      • Many more privacy education resources

        The proposed settlement bars Facebook from making any further deceptive privacy claims, requires that the company get consumers' approval before it changes the way it shares their data, and requires that it obtain periodic assessments of its privacy practices by independent, third-party auditors for the next 20 years.

        Facebook's privacy practices were the subject of complaints filed with the FTC by the Electronic Privacy Information Center and a coalition of consumer groups. 

      Critics might call it a slap on the wrist.  Facebook has settled federal charges that it deceived consumers by divulging their private information by ...
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      Feds Seize Website Names Linked to Scams

      Agencies celebrate Cyber Monday by shutting down 150 sites

      The FBI and other federal agencies marked the kick-off the holiday shopping season by seizing 150 Website domain names allegedly used to sell counterfeit merchandise.  

      "For most, the holidays represent a season of good will and giving, but for these criminals, it's the season to lure in unsuspecting holiday shoppers," said Immigration and Customers Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton. "More and more Americans are doing their holiday shopping online, and they may not realize that purchasing counterfeit goods results in American jobs lost, American business profits stolen and American consumers receiving substandard products."

      Money gained through the scams is often used to finance other criminal activities, Morton said.

      "Through this operation we are aggressively targeting those who are selling counterfeit goods for their own personal gain while costing our economy much-needed revenue and jobs," said Attorney General Eric Holder. "Intellectual property crimes harm businesses and consumers, alike, threatening economic opportunity and financial stability, and today we have sent a clear message that the Department will remain ever vigilant in protecting the public's economic welfare and public safety through robust intellectual property enforcement."

      The 150 domain name seizures represent a more than 80 percent increase over the 82 websites that were seized during last year's Cyber Monday-related operation.

      The 150 seized domains are in the custody of the federal government. Visitors to these websites will now find a seizure banner that notifies them that the domain name has been seized by federal authorities and warns them that willful copyright infringement is a federal crime.

      During the operation, federal law enforcement agents made undercover purchases of a host of products, including professional sports jerseys, golf equipment, DVD sets, footwear, handbags and sunglasses, representing a variety of trademarks from online retailers who were suspected of selling counterfeit products.

      In most cases, the goods were shipped directly into the United States from suppliers in other countries. If the trademark holders confirmed that the purchased products were counterfeit or otherwise illegal, seizure orders for the domain names of the websites that sold the goods were obtained from federal magistrate judges.

      Since the operation's June 2010 launch, officials have seized a total of 350 domain names, and the seizure banner has received more than 77 million individual views.

      Of the 350 domain names seized, 116 have now been forfeited to the U.S. government. The federal forfeiture process affords individuals who have an interest in the seized domain names a period of time after the "Notice of Seizure" to file a petition with a federal court and additional time after the "Notice of Forfeiture" to contest the forfeiture. If no petitions or claims are filed, the domain names become property of the U.S. government.

      Additionally, a public service announcement (PSA), launched in April 2011, appears on each of the 114 forfeited domain names. This video educates the public about the economic impact of trademark counterfeiting and copyright infringement.

      Previous website seizures include:

      The FBI and other federal agencies marked the kick-off the holiday shopping season by seizing 150 Website domain names allegedly used to sell counterfeit m...
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      Bad Weather Absolutely, Positively Slows Down FedEx

      Icy conditions at the carrier's Memphis hub causing delays

      Federal Express absolutely, positively guarantees delivery on time.  Except when it doesn't.

      Today is one of those days when it doesn't.  Reason? Icy and snowy weather at FedEx' Memphis hub caused flight disruptions, slowing down package deliveries across the U.S.

      Does that mean everybody gets a credit? Nope.

      "Consistent with the provisions of the FedEx Service Guide, the money-back guarantee is suspended for U.S. packages and shipments inbound into the U.S. from international locations with a delivery commitment of Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011," FedEx said in an email to its customers.

      "FedEx is committed to provide service to the best of our ability," the company said and advised customers to "check fedex.com for service updates as well as track the status of your shipment."

      Federal Express absolutely, positively guarantees delivery on time.  Except when it doesn't.Today is one of those days when it doesn't.  Reason...
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      Malls Drop Plans To Track Shoppers' Cell Phones

      Consumers and a U.S. Senator objected

      Forest City Commercial Management, which operates shopping malls in Richmond, Va., and Temecula, Calif., has shelved a controversial plan to track shoppers' movements by following their cell phone signals.

      The company reversed itself after Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) expressed concerns about the system, developed by a British firm called Path Intelligence. It also appeared to create a backlash among consumers who objected to being tracked.

      "How about this? We're having our privacy invaded by shopping malls that take our money," said Joseph, who posted his comments on ConsumerAffairs.com's story Friday about the tracking system.

      “A shopper’s personal cell phone should not be used by a third party as a tracking device by retailers who are seeking to determine holiday shopping patterns,” said Schumer. “Personal cell phones are just that – personal. If retailers want to tap into your phone to see what your shopping patterns are, they can ask you for your permission to do so. It shouldn’t be up to the consumer to turn their cell phone off when they walk into the mall to ensure they aren’t being virtually tailed.”

      Used in Europe and Australia

      FootPath technology, manufactured by Path Intelligence, allows retailers and malls to set up antennas to track cell phones through an identification number that is unique to that phone. While the technology is already in place in malls in Europe and Australia, it has never before been used in the United States.

      Path Intelligence insists that shoppers’ information is kept anonymous and that consumers who don’t want to be tracked can turn off their personal cell phones when they enter the mall or a retailer.

      Schumer argued that if the tracking system and the phone company were hacked it could compromise personal information on shoppers’ cell phones and that requiring someone to shut off their phones in order not to be tracked is an unacceptable option, particularly when a Christmas shopping trip to the mall can lasts hours.

      Working on 'enhancements'

      Forest City issued a statement saying it conducted a test of the system on Black Friday and will analyze the data. However, in deference to Schumer's concerns, the company said it has temporarily turned the system off at Richmond's Short Pump Town Center and Temacula's Promenade Temacula. It said it would work with the technology developer on “possible enhancements.”

      Schumer said the system should not be used unless shoppers have another way of opting out, other than turning off their cell phones. In a letter to Path Intelligence CEO Sharon Biggar, Schumer urged the company to obtain the explicit consent of shoppers’ through an opt-in policy in order to protect their privacy.

      In a separate letter, Schumer also called on FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz to examine how this new technology fits in with existing consumer privacy regulations.

      Schumer noted that requiring consumers to opt-out by turning off their phones would be unduly burdensome for shoppers who rely on cell phones to communicate with one another and with their family, and that shoppers should not be forced to make a choice between having personal cell phones tracked by a third party and staying in touch with family.

      “To add insult to injury, this company says the only way to opt-out is to turn off your phone,” Schumer said. “But shoppers shouldn’t have to turn off their phones just to protect their privacy, and asking parents or children to turn off their phones when they rely on them to stay connected is simply unacceptable.”

      Malls suspend plan to track shoppers' cell phones...
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      Congress Tackles a Real Problem: Stink Bugs

      Talk about an immigration problem, these bugs are the worst

      Frustrated by its inability to balance the budget or take even the slightest bite out of the deficit, Congress is trying to stomp out the lowly stink bug, which has been an even bigger pest than the ever-encroaching federal government along the East Coast the last few years.

      The little brown bugs, which slipped through border security checkpoints by hiding on incoming ships, are being compared by some to a plague of locusts. 

      When attacked, they -- the bugs, not Congress -- adopt the strategy used so successfully by skunks: they emit a foul and noxious odor.  Consumer tip: We have found that gently cradling a stink bug or two in a tissue lulls them into a false sense of security.  They can then be washed down the nearest drain or, even better, garbage grinder.

      The ugly ducklings of the insect kingdom seem to be everywhere.  They pop out when least expected and have an odd ability to magically conceal themselves in sealed envelopes, locked cabinets and airtight storage bins.

      But, although it hasn't had much luck dealing with other aspects of immigration, Congress is hot on the trail of the stink bugs.

      Language included in the package of annual spending bills recently approved in the House will make fighting the brown marmorated stink bug, to use its proper name, a greater priority for the Department of Agriculture (USDA), according to Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.).

      Wolf said the legislation signed into law on November 18, includes new directives for USDA’s four research agencies to identify and develop effective stink bug control methods. 

      Another key provision instructs the USDA to "work collaboratively with state partners" to identify and implement controls for the stink bug invasion. That right there should have the little brown buggers quaking in their shells.

      Dealing with stink bugs has been a priority for Wolf.  He held a forum in Purcellville, Va., in April at which scientists and experts shared ideas for control methods with local farmers and growers.  The meeting drew 200 people.

      “I’ve seen first-hand the damage that stink bugs are causing to local fruit and vegetable growers and we have to do something to mitigate the economic damage caused by these pests,” said Wolf.

      More information on stink bugs including best practices for mitigating their damage is available on Wolf’s Web site at wolf.house.gov/stinkbugs.

      Frustrated by its inability to balance the budget or take even the slightest bite out of the deficit, Congress is going after the lowly stink bug, hoping t...
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      Amazon's Kindle Fire Is a Hot Seller

      Others have tried but Amazon is taking a bite out of Apple's tablets

      Lots of big, smart, rich companies have tried to grab a piece of the tablet market dominated by Apple's iPad.  Most efforts have fizzled but Amazon's Fire is sizzling and its other Kindle products are adding fuel to the fire.

      Without releasing exact figures, Amazon said Monday that it sold four times as many Kindle products on Black Friday this year as on the same day last year.

      The $199 Fire, which features a color screen, has been its best-selling product for eight weeks, Amazon said.

      Analysts quoted by The Wall Street Journal say Amazon may sell as many as five million Fires by the end of January while about 13.5 million iPads -- which start at $499 -- are likely to be sold during the holiday period.

      Barnes & Noble's $249 Nook Tablet is also generating customer interest but no sales figures are available.

      While the Kindle Fire's lower price makes it attractive, consumers appear to be more impressed with the Fire's design and features than with its price, as ConsumerAffairs.com found when we conducted a computerized sentiment analysis of more than 330,000 comments on Twitter, Facebook and other social media.

      The only significant dislikes our analysis found were that the Fire does not have a camera or microphone, unlike the iPad.  

      These comments highlight a significant difference between the high-priced iPad and its more affordable counterparts: the iPad is, for all intents and purposes, a full-fledged computer, lacking only a keyboard, while the Kindle and Nook are more specialized products, intended primarily to be used to download and view existing content.  

      In other words, you could write your own book on an iPad if you wanted.  You can't really do that, at least not easily, on the Nook and Kindle.

      On the other hand, all three devices -- the iPad, Kindle and Nook -- share a single advantage: they are closely tied to their parent companies' huge inventories of books, magazines, newspapers, games and other content.  Other manufacturers, including Motorola, H-P, Samsung and Research In Motion, sell a tablet and basically leave the consumer to figure out what to buy and where to find it.

      Apple was the first to develop and, some would say, perfect, the end-to-end package but with Amazon and Barnes & Noble catching up, the tablet market is suddenly hotly competitive -- always good news for consumers.


      Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase

      Lots of big, smart, rich companies have tried to grab a piece of the tablet market dominated by Apple's iPad.  Most efforts have fizzled but Amazon's ...
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      What's On Your Mind? Verizon Wireless, Memory Lane, Kohl's

      Our daily look at consumer reviews

      It turns out the new iPhone 4S was a very popular item on Black Friday. There are reports of Apple stores selling out. Even consumers who successfully ordered the devices from Verizon Wireless are now not so sure when they'll receive them.

      “I ordered two iPhone 4s on November 25 and was told due to the holiday, the first one would arrive November 28 and the second would ship December 9,” Donna, of Washington, DC, told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I called November 28 to verify shipment, and now have been told that they have no idea when they will ship. They knew when to charge for them!! Right away! They just said I will get a email when shipped--no idea when that might be, due to the holiday.”

      Our most recent check of the Verizon Wireless website shows some iPhone models are still slated to ship by December 9.

      It's automatic

      Jean, of Bennington, Neb., was confused when, after reviewing two years of credit card statements found regular charges for Classmates.com, now known as Memory Lane.

      “I made a one time, three-month renewal two years ago, Jean said. “After several years of not using Classmates, when I went on line several questions were asked in order to get to the information I wanted. Apparently within these questions there was a loophole which made it possible for them to obtain permission to withdraw the membership every three months without my being fully aware that this was their intention. A phone call to them ended my membership with a refund of only one three-month payment.”

      For anyone who doesn't understand by now, memberships to Memory Lane – and many other subscription services – auto renew. You have to proactively cancel the membership by doing what Jean finally did. We just hope she got a confirmation number.

      Missing gift

      Mary Ann, of Burlingame, Calif., had an unhappy Cyber Monday shopping experience when she tried to buy the Baby Einstein Deluxe Read and Play Gift Set that she found on Kohl's website for $39.99.

      “I tried to order it for about half an hour, thinking it was Cyber Monday, things may have been slow, but still no progress,” Jean told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I then called the Kohl's Customer Service, after 15 minutes, including the customer service person calling the store in Millbrae, they said they don't have it and never had it. She suggested I call the store manager. I did. She stated they don't have it and she would try to locate it. I asked her does that mean your store never had it, she said without the sku number she could not tell me.”

      Mary Ann believes it was deceptive to advertise a product the store doesn't have, but she should keep in mind, many big chains sell merchandise on their websites they don't stock in stores.   

      Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Verizon Wireless, Memory Lane, Kohl's, It's automatic and Missing gift....
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      Researchers Find BPA Exposure From Eating Canned Soup

      Chemical shows up in high levels in canned soup eaters

      A can of soup may contain more than peas, carrots and noodles. Harvard researchers contend it has a generous helping of bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that may cause reproductive problems in humans.

      BPA is a widely used chemical in the food industry, to harden plastic used in many food and beverage containers.

      A study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) has found that a group of volunteers who consumed a serving of canned soup each day for five days had a more than 1,000 percent increase in urinary BPA concentrations compared with when the same individuals consumed fresh soup daily for five days.

      The study is one of the first to quantify BPA levels in humans after ingestion of canned foods. The findings were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

      “Previous studies have linked elevated BPA levels with adverse health effects. The next step was to figure out how people are getting exposed to BPA,” said Jenny Carwile, a doctoral student in the Department of Epidemiology at HSPH and lead author of the study. “We’ve known for a while that drinking beverages that have been stored in certain hard plastics can increase the amount of BPA in your body. This study suggests that canned foods may be an even greater concern, especially given their wide use.”

      Previous studies

      Earlier studies have suggested that exposure to BPA, used in the lining of metal food and beverage cans, has been shown to interfere with reproductive development in animals and has been linked with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity in humans.

      The food industry has vigorously defended BPA, saying the exposure in humans is not dangerous. At the moment, the Food and Drug Administration agrees, but is currently conducting research of its own.

      Even though regulators are still studying the issue, some businesses have already taken action of their own. Walmart and some other retailers have stopped selling infant bottles containing BPA and some water bottlers have begun using more plyable plastic bottles that are BPA-free.

      A can of soup may contain more than peas, carrots and noodles. Harvard researchers contend it has a generous helping of bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that...
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      DNA Barcode Could Soon Reduce 'Seafood Fraud'

      Technology would positively identify fish species

      How do you know that expensive red snapper you ordered in the restaurant isn't some other kind of fish? Right now you don't, but soon seafood buyers may use a DNA barcode to positively identify the species they are buying.

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved the use of DNA barcoding, which is a technological process that will instantly identify a fish, based on its genetic make-up. It will help eliminate much of what is known as 'food fraud' – selling a food product labeled as something it's not.

      The FDA says there are many potential health risks associated with misbranding seafood species. For example, in 2007 several serious illnesses resulted from the illegal importation of toxic pufferfish that had been mislabeled as monkfish to circumvent U.S. import restrictions for this product.

      Inspectors believe “seafood substitution” in the marketplace is fairly common, but it's hard to detect. Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA) and the Public Health Service (PHS) Act, the FDA facilitates programs that include inspection, sampling, analysis, research, and education on seafood issues. These programs assist the agency with its effort to oversee food safety and economic deception. The detection of species substitution is critical because it will assist in identifying and controlling species-specific hazards and reduce economic fraud.

      Barcode of Life

      "The Barcode of Life initiative represents an ambitious effort to develop an identification system for eukaryotic life based upon the analysis of sequence diversity in short, standardized gene regions,” the FDA said. “Work is furthest advanced for members of the animal kingdom.”

      The agency says the targeting of one particular gene has, in tests, proven effective in identifying species. The Fish Barcode of Life campaign will be a collaborative international research effort which seeks to establish a reference library of DNA barcodes for all fish species.

      The barcode would be employed throughout the food industry for buyers and regulators to spot check fish, to make sure they are the species advertised.

      Seafood fraud is part of the growing problem of food fraud, in which a food producer or marketer intentionally mislabels the product for economic gain.

      Fake Herbal remedies

      Scientists say the barcode technology may also be used to sniff out another consumer fraud – adulteration or substitution of herbal drugs.

      According to Malaysian researcher Muhammad Sharir Abdul Rahman, one fraudster in his country treated rubber tree wood with quinine to give it a bitter taste similar to Eurycoma longifolia -- a traditional medicine for malaria, diabetes and other ailments.

      A library of DNA barcodes for Malaysia’s 1,200 plant species with potential medicinal value is in development, eventually offering “a quick one step detection kit” to reduce fraud in the lucrative herbal medicine industry, is under development, Sharir said.

      The explosion of creative new uses of DNA barcoding will occupy center stage as 450 world experts convene at Australia’s the University of Adelaide Nov. 28 to Dec. 3.  

      Technology is being developed to help end seafood fraud...
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      A Car Seat That's Also Safer For Parents

      New handle can prevent injuries, researchers claim

      A car seat will keep a child safer while riding in the car. But how many parents strain muscles or ligaments trying to lift these seats in and out of a vehicle?

      Engineers at North Carolina State University say they have developed a new handle for infant car seats (ICSs) that makes it easier for parents to lift the seat out of a car – while retaining a firmer grip on the handle – making it less likely that the seat will be dropped.

      “Many products that are designed for parents don’t take ergonomics into account, and the instructions are usually not very helpful,” said Michael Clamann, a Ph.D. student at NC State and lead author of a paper describing the research. “We wanted to see whether, by changing the angle of the ICS handle, we could make it easier on parents and safer for the baby. Our idea was that it would be easier to hold on to the seat, minimizing the risk of dropping it.”

      The idea was inspired by Clamann’s experiences as a parent. His research led to a new handle design that details which angles reduce “ulnar deviation,” or how much your wrist bends, and associated pressure in the carpal tunnel. This is important in terms of lifting tasks, because the further you bend your wrist, the weaker your grip.

      The team used sensors to measure muscular activity at the forearm and biceps and the wrist angle of the study participants as they lifted the ICSs with different handle designs.

      Angled handle

      “Our angled handle lets people better position themselves over the car seat and allowed them to use their biceps more than their forearm muscles,” Clamann said. “That’s an improvement, because our biceps are stronger than our forearms, and so are better able to bear weight. This is particularly important for smaller females lifting ICSs.”

      The participants also told researchers that the angled handle design was easier to lift. The team also tested to see how foot placement – in the car or on the ground – affected the participants’ posture – and therefore their wrist angle. Such foot placement was previously recommended in the popular press literature regarding ICS handling.

      “We found that placing your foot in the car to help lift the ICS allowed participants to use their biceps more and reduced how much they bent their wrists – giving them a firmer grip on the ICS,” said Kinley Taylor, an NC State graduate student and co-author of the paper. “However,” adds Clamann, “putting your foot in the car also increased the likelihood of hitting your head on the doorframe.”

      The researchers plan to move forward with additional efforts to see how variations on the angled handle design affect ergonomics when used in different car designs, such as minivans, and for people who are significantly taller than the participants in this study.

      A car seat will keep a child safer while riding in the car. But how many parents strain muscles or ligaments trying to lift these seats in and out of a veh...
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      Consumers Continue To Pay Down Debt

      Fed figures show mortgage balances falling

      The federal government may be sinking deeper into debt, but not American households. In fact, the Federal Reserve reports consumers' debt fell 0.6 percent in the third quarter, mainly because of shrinking mortgage balances.

      The report, issued by the New York Fed, found that consumer debt fell approximately $60 billion to $11.66 trillion in the third quarter of 2011. Total consumer indebtedness decreased roughly 0.6 percent from revised second quarter findings of $11.72 trillion.

      The newly issued report also presents information on various aspects of consumer debt, including continuing and emerging trends for mortgage balances, delinquencies, foreclosures and other consumer credit activity.

      "The decline in outstanding consumer debt reveals that households continue to try and deleverage in the wake of a challenging economic environment and large declines in home values," said Andrew Haughwout, vice president in the Research and Statistics Group at the New York Fed. "However, our findings also provide evidence that consumer credit demand continues to increase, a positive sign for consumer sentiment."

      Mortgage balances fall

      Consumers continued to pay down mortgage balances, which fell by approximately $114 billion or 1.3 percent over the third quarter. Despite the fact that many mortgages remain “under water,” homeowners were able to tap home equity in lines of credit. Those balances increased by roughly $14 billion or 2.3 percent.

      If consumers charged less on their credit cards, it was probably because they had fewer credit cards and lower credit limits. Open credit card accounts declined by 6 million to 383 million in the third quarter and credit card borrowing limits fell again, partially offsetting some gains seen earlier in the year.

      Dramatic change since 2008

      To illustrate the extend that lenders have tightened consumer credit, the Fed reports open credit card accounts for third quarter were approximately 23 percent below the peak in second quarter 2008 and balances on those cards were nearly 20 percent below their highest levels in fourth quarter 2008.

      Aggregate credit card limits declined by about $25 billion slightly offsetting increases from earlier this year.

      Falling behind

      When it comes to paying debt, consumers still appear to struggle. The report shows the overall delinquency rates increased to 10 percent as of the end of September, compared with 9.8 percent at the end of June. Approximately $1.2 trillion of consumer debt is delinquent with $834 billion being seriously delinquent, which is defined as more than 90 days.

      About 2.5 percent of current mortgage balances transitioned into delinquency in the third quarter, reversing a recent trend of reductions in this measure. However, new foreclosures decreased seven percent quarter over quarter and bankruptcies declined 18.8 percent year over year.

      Consumers are paying off mortgage debt...
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