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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...

PhotoSubaru 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

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Are Android Phones More Vulnerable To Hackers?

Researchers say EVO 4G may be especially so

Researchers warn some Android phones are vulnerable to hackers...

PhotoThere'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.”

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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 f...

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.”

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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

Study of credit card knowledge and behavior...

PhotoWhen 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.  

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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....

PhotoLipitor, 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.

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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."Today Americ...

PhotoAmerican 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 Miler program 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.

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What's On Your Mind? Samsung, Credit One Bank, Hertz

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Samsung, Credit One Bank, Hertz, Expensive credit, High cost of renting and televisions....

PhotoIt'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.

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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

A comparison of the basic and top Kindle models...

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.

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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 ...

PhotoCritics 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. 

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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 m...

PhotoThe 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:

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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...

PhotoFederal 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."


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Malls Drop Plans To Track Shoppers' Cell Phones

Consumers and a U.S. Senator objected

Malls suspend plan to track shoppers' cell phones...

PhotoForest 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.”

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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 going after the lowly stink bug, hoping t...

PhotoFrustrated 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.

 

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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 ...

PhotoLots 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.

PhotoAnalysts 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.

Photo

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

Photo

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.

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Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase

 

 

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What's On Your Mind? Verizon Wireless, Memory Lane, Kohl's

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Verizon Wireless, Memory Lane, Kohl's, It's automatic and Missing gift....

PhotoIt 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.   

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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...

PhotoA 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.

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DNA Barcode Could Soon Reduce 'Seafood Fraud'

Technology would positively identify fish species

Technology is being developed to help end seafood fraud...

PhotoHow 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.  

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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 veh...

PhotoA 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.

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Consumers Continue To Pay Down Debt

Fed figures show mortgage balances falling

Consumers are paying off mortgage debt...

PhotoThe 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.

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Gasoline Prices May Seem Low, But They're Not

Thanksgiving week prices highest on record

Gas prices may be falling but they're still high...

PhotoIf gasoline prices seem kind of low to you, consider this; they are still 45 cents a gallon more than they were at this time last year.

Nationwide, the average price of self-serve regular is $3.30 a gallon, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. Where you live it might be more or it might be less. Prices might seem low because they are going down. A month ago, the average price was $3.44 a gallon.

While gasoline prices traditionally are lower at this time of year, the price of oil has been rising, which should make gasoline cost more. West Texas crude is trading around $97 a barrel, despite fears the global economy is slowing.

Yet back in July, when oil cost less, gasoline cost more. The average price of self-serve regular in mid July was $3.59 a gallon. Even though gas prices are lower now they have been in recent weeks, the Energy Information Administration reported last week that gasoline prices were the highest ever recorded for a Thanksgiving week.

Last year at this time, gas prices were on the rise. Starting in the early fall prices for both crude oil and gasoline began to rise. Gasoline hit $3 a gallon just before Christmas and kept rising throughout the winter.

Energy analysts say one big reason for November's decline in gasoline prices is weak demand – the weakest in more than a decade. The good news is forecasts call for this gradual decline to continue through the end of the year. The bad news is prices will probably start climbing again in the spring -- so don't buy that V-8 Hupmobile SUV just yet.

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Time to Crack Down on Conditional Car Loans, FTC Is Told

"Yo-yo" loans are prevalent enough to warrant new consumer protection rules

It's time for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to crack down on abuses of conditional car loans, consumer advocates testified at a recent Washington hear...

PhotoIt's time for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to crack down on abuses of conditional car loans, consumer advocates testified at a recent Washington hearing.

"In no other area of our commerce can someone sign on the dotted line, deliver the product, and then cancel the transaction and insist on the product being returned because the final credit transaction did not produce the hoped-for income," said Ian Lyngklip, a Southfield, Mich., attorney.

"It's like I walked into a supermarket, purchased an apple, walked outside and took a bite only to have a clerk run into the parking lot and insist the apple be returned," Lyngklip said. 

The practice of issuing conditional loans, known as spot delivery or yo-yo loans in the car industry, is prevalent enough and harmful enough to warrant FTC protective regulations and enforcement action, Lyngklip said.

Unconscionable

"It is unconscionable that a dealer would sell a car and then, because the final credit terms are unfavorable, send the repo man out to repossess the car and refuse to give back the down payment or reimburse for payments made," added Lyngklip. 

A spot delivery, or yo-yo sale, happens when the car dealer sells the consumer a vehicle and completes all the steps necessary to sell the car including executing a contract of sale, signing title, taking a down payment and turning over the keys. 

After the transaction is finished, the dealer calls the consumer back claiming the deal has fallen through. In some instances the dealer uses fraudulent means or forcible repossession to take the car back. 

The FTC Roundtable was entitled "The Road Ahead: Selling, Financing & Leasing Motor Vehicles." Lyngklip was one of five experts participating in a panelwhich discussed "Which Practices, If Any, Cause Significant Harm to Consumers, And What Are Potential Solutions." 

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Toyota Rolls Out New Sports Car

Company hopes to spice up its image with 200-hp Scion FT-S

Look out, Mustang, that's a Toyota coming up behind you.  No, not a Corolla or a Camry, it's a Scion FR-S, a totally new model that Toyota hopes will ...

PhotoLook out, Mustang, that's a Toyota coming up behind you.  No, not a Corolla or a Camry, it's a Scion FR-S, a totally new model that Toyota hopes will lend a little excitement to its rather battered image.

The Scion FR-S churns out 200 horsepower in a rear-wheel-drive platform.  With a top speed of 142 mph, it can do 0-62 in six seconds, which is respectable but not quite awesome.

Toyota President Akio Toyoda unveiled the new model, which will be called the Toyota 86 in Japan, at a Tokyo race track Sunday before a gaggle of automotive press in town for the Tokyo Auto Show.

So far, the company hasn't disclosed a price or gas-mileage estimates, but executives say Toyota wants to price the car so that it's affordable to recent college graduates -- perhaps something around $26,000.

Automakers want to snag consumers when they're young in hopes of turning them into lifelong customers, something that's gotten harder to do as brands and automotive fashions come and go faster than a Ferrari working its way around the track.

Fun to drive

Toyota's chief engineer, Tetsuya Tada, says the goal was to build a car for car-lovers, one that's affordable and fun to drive, with good handling and a low center of gravity.

In a nod to the Beach Boys era when cars were something guys tinkered with the way they now fiddle with their silly iPhones, the new Scion does away with computer chips, turbochargers and other gimmickry that make it hard for hobbyists to take their cars apart and get them back together.

The suspension is also set up so it can be easily customized and tuned by car buffs.

If any of this sounds like something Subaru would do, you're right.  It should be no surprise that the Scion/86 was developed jointly with Subaru, which will be rolling out its version -- the BRZ -- later this week.

Toyota contributed the styling and sheet metal.  Subaru is building the four-cylinder horizontally-opposed boxer engine (yes, that's boxer as in Porsche Boxster, although the Porsche boxer engine is six cylinders and, depending on the model, develops closer to 300 horsepower). 

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Second Death in Craigslist 'Farm Hand' Ad

Victims answered job ad and were shot to death

The death toll in the Craigslist Farm Hand case has risen to two, with the discovery of a body identified as Timothy Kern, 47, of Massilon, Ohio.Kern dis...

The death toll in the Craigslist Farm Hand case has risen to two, with the discovery of a body identified as Timothy Kern, 47, of Massilon, Ohio.

Kern disappeared Nov. 13 after telling his family he was headed to Akron after seeing an online job ad for a farm hand. It was apparently the same ad answered by David Pauley, 51, of Norfolk, Va. His body was found earlier in a rural area south of Akron.

Kern's body was found near the Rolling Acres shopping mall in Akron and Noble County officials said another body had been found in a shallow grave nearby, but had not yet been identified.

Earlier, a South Carolina man said he answered the ad on Nov. 6 but escaped after being shot. 

Father of three

Timothy Kern, a divorced father of three sons, worked most recently cleaning gas station driveways, according to his family.  His father said Kern answered the Craigslist ad Oct. 30 and met a man at an Akron restaurant for an interview.

On Nov. 13, a friend drove him to the supposed job site.

Timothy Kern’s son, Zachary, posted on a personal blog Sunday, the Akron Beacon-Journal reported.

“Today when I woke up, I was told that my father was one of the three people killed by the latest Craigslist killer. My father answered to an ad on Craigslist about a job opportunity involving a 688 acre farm and housing in a 2 bedroom trailer," the younger Kern said.

Two people from the Akron area are in custody: a high school student who has been charged with attempted murder and 52-year-old Richard Beasley, who is in jail on unrelated charges.

Police so far are saying nothing about the probable motive in the killings.  

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What's On Your Mind? Sony, Pyrex, Walmart

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Sony, Pyrex, Walmart, Thanksgiving kitchen disasters and Black Friday disappointment....

PhotoMost likely a lot of consumers bought a big screen TV at a Black Friday sale last weekend. We hope they have better luck than Kevin, of Poway, California.

"I purchased a 52" Sony Bravia model KDL-52XBR9 exactly two years ago and screen is now defective with lines across it," Kevin told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Unit is out of warranty and no recourse with either Best Buy or Sony.

Kevin said he's shocked at the number of similar complaints about Sony TVs. Sadly, these problems are not confined to one brand. Before spending hundreds on one of these sets better read this and this.

Thanksgiving kitchen disasters

Lots of chefs were in the kitchen last week whipping up Thanksgiving feasts. Unfortunately a few reported a common mishap.

"I was baking cornbread for our Thanksgiving meal in my 8 x 8 inch Pyrex dish - one that I had received in a set for Christmas of '10," said Mike, of Green Bay, Wisc. "I removed the finished bread from the oven -set it down on a glass top JennAire range and it exploded into thousands of pieces within seconds. I had used this pan literally every week for the entire past year without an issue. Had I not placed it to the left of me I would have been sprayed with glass shrapnel. I knew exactly what had happened as I had read about the problem a few weeks prior in an online article. I cannot believe that this company is not held responsible for products that are SO dangerous to the public."

Unfortunately, Mike was not the only Thanksgiving chef we heard from about this experience. If Mike believes the product is dangerous, he should file a report of the incident with the Consumer Product Safety Commission. As a courtesy, he should also report it to World Kitchens, Inc., the maker of Pyrex baking dishes.

Black Friday disappointment

When stores advertise Black Friday specials, they usually have a limited quantity available at that price. They sell out quickly. Toy, of Ooltewah, Tenn., was lucky enough to get a low-priced Emerson HD TV after standing in line for three hours at Walmart, but not lucky enough to get one that worked.

"My husband took the TV out of the box and we plugged it in only half the screen shows," Toy said. "We called Emerson they said it was a defect and take it back to Walmart to get our money back."

But Toy didn't want her money back. She wanted a TV.

"We called Walmart and they said they don't have any other TVs for that price and they will give us our money back," Toy said. "I was upset because that is not really fixing the issue."

Toy said she ended up purchasing a different brand of TV, and of course, for more than the Black Friday sale price.

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Pepper Spray, Price Disputes, Sold-Out Items? Must Be Black Friday

Walmart takes heat for not having advertised items

Maybe it's indigestion from all those big Thanksgiving dinners, but whatever the reason, Black Friday seems to bring out the worst in shoppers, retailers a...

PhotoMaybe it's indigestion from all those big Thanksgiving dinners, but whatever the reason, Black Friday seems to bring out the worst in shoppers, retailers and just about everybody else.  This year was certainly no exception.

In Los Angeles, 20 people were injured at Walmart store when a woman opened up on her fellow shoppers with pepper spray.  Police called it a "competitive shopping incident."

In Northern California, police say a Black Friday shopper was shot and critically wounded during a robbery outside a Walmart in San Leandro.

As always, there were disappointments when featured items sold out sooner than expected -- or, according to some, didn't exist to begin with.

Sarah of Santa Ana, Calif., went to Walmart Thursday night and picked up one of the tickets for a PS3 bundle that was on sale for $199.

Photo"I got my ticket, waited in line for 2 1/2 hours for 10:00 p.m. to come," she told ConsumerAffairs.com.  "When it came out turn to get the PS3, they say, 'Sorry we have no more PS3s. All we have left are PS350' that were an extra $150."

"You would think that they would count the merchandise they have and hang out that many tickets until waiting til the end and giving us that 'We're sorry' crap," Sarah said.

Then there's Beth of Levittown, Pa.  "I went to buy the PlayStation 3 Starter Bundle on Walmart which was $229 at 3pm on 11/26, I had to go out and by the time I came back at 6:30 the price had gone up to $263 for the item. ...  Now mind you, it was a lot cheaper on Black Friday and so I was going to pay more buying after that day, but for the price to change again in less than 4 hours. I could see if it changed at midnight, but during the day! That shouldn't be allowed."

Kristina of Gettysburg, Pa., had a similar experience.

"The Gettysburg Walmart employees and flyers had stated that Black Friday sales for everything but electronics would start at 10:00pm and electronics would start at 12:01am. We got in line around 9pm and entered the store about 10:15pm and had made our way to the electronics -- we had gone for got to the xbox 360 kinect bundle for $199.99 and at 10:25pm all they were all sold out along with every other electronic," she said.

"I am very upset and mad that Walmart had lied in the flyer and employees that they had sold out of every electronic before they were even stated they were suppose to start handing them out! ... There should be a raincheck or discount gift cards given out due to the false advertisement!"

As did Kassandra of Marshall, Texas:

"The Walmart flyer states at 8am on Friday morning the PSP will be $99.00...I was number 6 in line only to find out the store did not get the shipment. I went to the Walmart facebook page and this same problem happened in other stores all across the US."

A sorry sight

PhotoJosh of Blackwell, Okla., rushed over to Walmart and bought an Emerson 40-inch TV for $248.

"I was thinking what a steal. Waited four hours in line and felt lucky that I had gotten one. Little did I know what big pieces of s*** they were.  Mine lasted a whopping 16 hours before it quit working," Josh said. "These TVs are junk and screw Walmart for knowingly selling them.  When I returned it to Walmart they were not even surprised."

Toy of Ooltewah, Tenn., only stood in line for three hours to get an Emerson 32-inch TV but, like Josh, isn't delighted with her purchase.

"My husband took the TV out of the box and we plugged it in -- only half the screen shows. We called Emerson, they said it was a defect and to take it back to Walmart to get our money back," Toy said.

"We called Walmart [and] they said they don't have any other TVs for that price and they will give us our money back. I was upset because that is not really fixing the issue."

"I will never buy electronics from Walmart again."

Kohls

"I went especially for an item listed in their sale bill," said Toni of Norman, Okla. "The item was a Bella brand Belgian rotating waffle maker for 9.99.  When I went to pay for it they told me that this was 62.99."

Toni said she showed the sale bill to the cashier "advertising this exact product word for word" but got nowhere.

"The cashier said that several people have complained about this and she didn't know why the didn't specify the two machines they had why one was higher even though the ad clearly stated the same kind and brand of the one I took up to buy at the register," Toni said. "They basically said 'too bad'" and I let them know that ... it really upset me to go all the way there and fight the traffic and lines to get there and not be able to leave with what I especially went there for."

Conn's

Conn's made an enemy of Gwen of Lafayette, La.

"Conn's would not price match an item I bought there. They stated the price match item was for 'Black Friday' and they will not honor the sale price. I showed them their price match policy that doesn't say any exceptions like 'Black Friday'."

Online not always better

PhotoJohn of Wilmington, N.C. wanted to avoid the crowds so he went to OfficeMax.com and tried to order an office chair.

"I made two attempts and received errors both times. I never received order confirmation, however my bank account has been debited. I emailed customer service and was told that my order did in fact go through and was given an order number.

"Unfortunately, when I try to track my order I get a message stating that order number cannot be found. I've made several attempts to contact customer service again and have received no further assistance," John said.

Dell

At least Denise of Littleton, Colo., didn't go trudging through the night in search of savings.  She stayed home where it was warm and toasty and called Dell's 800 number. But she was disappointed anyway.

"Tried to purchase a Black Friday deal desktop for the advertised price of $211. I was on hold for 50 minutes and finally got thru to Rich. Apparently it was a misprint, an advertised price that happened to be a misprint in a catalog sent exclusively to preferred customers," she said.

"They refused to offer us any kind of deal or incentive, certainly not the advertised price. Will not be buying another Dell... that's just bad business," Denise said.

No room at the inn

John of Chino, Calif., wanted nothing to do with any of it.  Instead of shopping, he and some friends decided to spend a few nights at the Hard Rock Hotel in San Diego.

"Booked under a special promo code for Black Friday," he said. "Only first 10 people to book under that promo were gonna get a room for $25.00 and $50.00 room credit. I booked two rooms, and my wife booked two rooms. Got the confirmations same night."

But John said the next day he got an email saying there was a glitch in the reservations system system and the offer was shown as being available longer than it should have been.

"They are not going to honor the promotion I booked under but would give me a different promotions at 4 times the price and no room credit," he said. "I have to call by 11/28 or my reservation will be cancelled automatically. Can they do this?"

Short answer: It's a Black Friday grey area.  John should call the San Diego County District Attorney's office.  

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Is the Chevy Volt Fire-Prone? Feds Open an Inquiry

Damaged batteries may ignite long after an accident occurs

Connecticut garage firePhoto: WTNH-TVMonths after a Chevy Volt burst into flames following a test crash at a federal test site, the&nbs...

Photo
Connecticut garage fire
Photo: WTNH-TV

Months after a Chevy Volt burst into flames following a crash at a federal test site, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is opening a formal safety defect investigation that could result in recalls and design changes in future models.

NHTSA issued an unusually lengthy, even apologetic, statement saying electric vehicles have "incredible potential" to reduce gasoline consumption but said it was necessary to determine whether the batteries in electric cars are safe.

"Chevy Volt owners whose vehicles have not been in a serious crash do not have reason for concern," NHTSA said, a statement that could apply to just about any vehicle.

In May, a Volt that had been subjected to crash tests at a NHTSA test site burst into flames three weeks later while it was stored in a garage. Just a few days ago, a battery that had been damaged in another test two weeks earlier burst into flames.

NHTSA says it knows of no highway accidents that caused Volts to catch fire, but there have been two reports of Volt fires involving Volts parked in garages:

  • In April Autoblog reported that two plug-in vehicles were destroyed in a fire in a home in Barkhamsted, Conn., April 14. The cars were a brand-new 2011 Chevrolet Volt with just 2,000 miles on the odometer and a converted all-electric Suzuki Samurai that the homeowner, Storm Connors, had converted himself years ago.  
  • In October, fire broke out at a home near Mooresville, N.C., causing an estimated $800,000 of damage to both the home and the garage where the 2011 Chevrolet Volt was parked. Investigators said it appeared the fire did not start in the Volt.

General Motors, meanwhile, says it is working with NHTSA and monitoring not only the situation but also all of the Volts that are on the road.  GM said that with its OnStar safety communications system, it "knows real time about any crash significant enough to potentially compromise battery integrity."

"Since July, GM has implemented a post-crash protocol that includes the depowering of the battery after a severe crash, returning the battery to a safe and low-powered state," the automaker said in a statement.

Electric cars are an essential element in President Obama's goal of putting 1 million EVs on the road by 2015, and the Energy Department has provided about $2.5 billion in funding to battery companies, automakers and related firms, a circumstance that perhaps contributes to NHTSA's unusual circumspect language in announcing the investigation.

What to do

NHTSA says its current guidance for responding to electric vehicles that have been in a crash remains the same. It urges consumers, emergency responders, and the operators of tow trucks and storage facilities to take the following precautions in the event of a crash involving any electric vehicle:

  • Consumers are advised to take the same actions they would in a crash involving a gasoline-powered vehicle — exit the vehicle safely or await the assistance of an emergency responder if they are unable to get out on their own, move a safe distance away from the vehicle, and notify the authorities of the crash.
  • Emergency responders should check a vehicle for markings or other indications that it is electric-powered. If it is, they should exercise caution, per published guidelines, to avoid any possible electrical shock and should disconnect the battery from the vehicle circuits if possible.
  • Emergency responders should also use copious amounts of water if fire is present or suspected and, keeping in mind that fire can occur for a considerable period after a crash, should proceed accordingly.
  • Operators of tow trucks and vehicle storage facilities should ensure the damaged vehicle is kept in an open area instead of inside a garage or other enclosed building.
  • Rather than attempt to discharge a propulsion battery, an emergency responder, tow truck operator, or storage facility manager should contact experts at the vehicle's manufacturer on that subject.
  • Vehicle owners should not store a severely damaged vehicle in a garage or near other vehicles.

Initial spark

The enveloping controversy grows out of last May's incident in which NHTSA crashed a Chevy Volt in a test designed to measure the vehicle's ability to protect occupants from injury in a side collision.

During that test, the car's battery was damaged and the coolant line was ruptured. When a fire involving the test vehicle occurred more than three weeks after it was crashed, the agency concluded that the damage to the vehicle's lithium-ion battery during the crash test led to the fire.

The agency called in experts from General Motors, battery maker LG, the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense to conduct further tests.

NHTSA said that in an effort to recreate the May test, it conducted three tests on the Volt's lithium-ion battery packs that intentionally damaged the battery compartment and ruptured the vehicle's coolant line.  In each test, the Volt's battery was impacted and rotated to simulate a real-world, side-impact collision into a narrow object such as a tree or a pole followed by a rollover.

Following a test on November 16 that did not result in a fire, a "temporary increase in temperature" was recorded in a test on November 17, NHTSA said. During the test conducted on November 18, the battery pack was rotated within hours after it was impacted and began to smoke and emit sparks.

Last week, the battery pack that was tested on November 17 and that had been continually monitored since the test caught fire at the testing facility -- two weeks after it had been damaged.

NHTSA said it is "concerned that damage to the Volt's batteries as part of three tests that are explicitly designed to replicate real-world crash scenarios have resulted in fire."

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Feds Seek to Ban 400+ Dietary Supplement Products from Marketplace

FDA charged manufacturer altered ingredients without changing labels

More than 400 dietary supplement products would be banned from the marketplace under an injunction being sought by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (F...

PhotoMore than 400 dietary supplement products would be banned from the marketplace under an injunction being sought by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

Named in the action are ATF Fitness Products Inc. (ATF), Manufacturing ATF Dedicated Excellence, Inc. (MADE), and James G. Vercellotti of Oakmont, Pa., owner and operator of both companies.

The companies make more than 400 dietary supplements, including vitamins and minerals, under the brands “Sci-Fit,” “Nature’s Science” and “For Store Only.” ATF purchases dietary supplements exclusively from Vercellootti's companies and distributes them throughout the United States.

It's the first time FDA has taken legal action against a supplement manufacturer of this size. 

PhotoThe agency said the companies substituted ingredients and products without noting the changes on the final product labels. That would be a violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

“Dietary supplements have a significant role in the public’s health,” said Dara Corrigan, associate commissioner for regulatory affairs.  “Today’s injunction reinforces our commitment to ensuring that these supplements meet the ... requirements the law establishes.”

The government's complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, alleges that in addition to “adulterating” and “misbranding” their final products, the manufacturer and its owner failed to report serious adverse events associated with their products. 

In one case an individual who consumed one of the products reported experiencing a spike in blood pressure, hospitalization and a subsequent mild heart attack.

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LG Opens Its First 'Laundry Lounge' in NYC

Appliance maker hopes to clean up laundromats' shabby image

Remember what getting an oil change used to be like?  You had your choice of standing around outside the service station breathing gas fumes and being...

PhotoRemember what getting an oil change used to be like?  You had your choice of standing around outside the service station breathing gas fumes and being panhandled.  Or you could sit inside the cramped cashier's office next to the Payday bars and energy drinks while the grease monkeys worked on your car.

Then, along came JiffyLube and its competitors.  Now you can sit in a little waiting room watching TV and smelling stale coffee while the grease monkeys work on your car.  It's better, right?  

LG, the Korean appliance-maker, is hoping to do the same thing for laundromats, not exactly everyone's idea of a great place to spend time.

LG says it will be a different experience at its "Laundry Lounge by LG."  The pinkish new centers will feature high-def TV, free Internet, bright lighting and stylish seating.  So we're told anyway.

"With this new concept, we're offering patrons a fresh experience by integrating key components of the home in public laundry venues, confirming the notion that life doesn't have to stop because you have to do laundry," Sam Kim, Appliance President for LG Electronics USA, said as part of the announcement.

LG described its first Laundry Lounge as being on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  In fact, it's at  at 139th and Amsterdam, which anybody will tell you is West Harlem.  Maybe LG thinks Harlem isn't a upscale neighborhood?  We don't know but gaffes like this don't go down well with the locals.  (We're reminded of Apple claiming its Tysons Corner store was in Washington, D.C.  Uh, it's in Virginia.)
 
Despite its neighborhood being dissed by LG, the popular blog HarlemBespoke.com spoke kindly of the concept, opining that  "it probably would be safe to say that most uptowners would gladly welcome one of these Laundry Lounges opening on their block."
 
HuffingtonPost's Jason Gilbert was less impressed.  The TVs are small and there aren't many chairs, he wrote:  "There is no seating in front of these televisions, which means that this laundromat isn't so much a 'lounge' as it is a 'bar without chairs or booze."
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Seniors at Greater Risk of Complications from Key Medications

Promoting safe use of blood thinners and diabetes medications can protect patients

Each year, there are nearly 100,000 emergency hospitalizations for adverse drug events in U.S. adults aged 65 years or older, according to a Cent...

Each year, there are nearly 100,000 emergency hospitalizations for adverse drug events in U.S. adults aged 65 years or older, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Of the thousands of medications available to patients, a small group of blood thinners and diabetes medications caused two-thirds of the emergency hospitalizations, the report said.  

“These data suggest that focusing safety initiatives on a few medicines that commonly cause serious, measurable harms can improve care for many older Americans,” said Dan Budnitz, M.D., M.P.H., director of CDC′s Medication Safety Program.

“Blood thinners and diabetes medicines often require blood testing and dosing changes, but these are critical medicines for older adults with certain medical conditions.  Doctors and patients should continue to use these medications but remember to work together to safely manage them,” Budnitz said.

The study used data collected between 2007 and 2009 from a nationally representative sample of 58 hospitals. Almost half (48.1 percent) of these hospitalizations occur among adults aged 80 years or older, and two–thirds (65.7 percent) of the hospitalizations were due to overdoses, or to situations in which patients may have taken the prescribed amount of medication but the drug had more than the intended effect on the patient′s body. 

Four medications, used alone or together, accounted for two–thirds of the emergency hospitalizations:

    • 33 percent, or 33,171 emergency hospitalizations, involved warfarin, a medication used to prevent blood clots.
    • 14 percent involved insulins.  Insulin injections are used to control blood sugar in people who have diabetes.
    • 13 percent involved antiplatelet drugs, such as aspirin or clopidogrel, which prevent platelets, or pieces of blood cells from clumping together to start a clot.
    • 11 percent involved diabetes medications that are taken by mouth, called oral hypoglycemic agents.

 

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Cell Phones And iPads Not Kids' Toys

Experts suggest they don't belong in kids' stockings

Parents should be careful about giving kids cell phones and tablets...

PhotoOnce upon a time, if you asked a child what they wanted for Christmas, they were likely to mention a popular toy or game. Now, they are mostly likely to ask for the latest smartphone or tablet computer.

When SodaHead.com, a discussion community with more than 10 million visitors a month, polled youngsters about their holiday desires, 65 percent placed cell phones and iPads at the top of their wish lists.

“What harm could it do to youngsters to have such a cool, hot gadget—especially one with which they can learn to read, see movies, or just play Angry Birds? The answer is: plenty,” advises Dr. Devra Davis of the Environmental Health Trust.

Read the fine print

Davis says few people appreciate that all of these wireless devices come with manufacturers’ fine print warnings not to hold them next to an adult body, or that controlled studies show that microwave radiation from cell phones weaken the brain’s protective barrier and produce fewer and more damaged offspring and sperm.

And parents should consider this: all safety warnings for cell phones (e.g., “keep 0.98 inches from the body”) were designed to protect a less-than-typical user: namely, a large fellow with a big head who talks on his phone for less than half an hour a day.

According to a recently published scientific report from EHT, children’s heads absorb twice as much microwave radiation from cell phones as adults. Radiation from cell phones carried in shirts or pants pockets of adults is four to seven times higher than the guidelines set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the U.S. For the smaller bodies of children, of course, levels would be even much greater.

Safety standards modeled on a big guy

The reason for the discrepancy, EHT says, is that the process to determine radiation from cell phones is modeled on a 6-foot 2-inch tall, 220-pound man, with an eleven-pound head. Because this large skull represents only about three percent of the population, the test cannot accurately predict the radiation exposure of the other 97 percent, including children, nor does it even try to estimate exposures from pocket use.

“The standard for cell phones has been developed based on old science, old models and old assumptions about how we use cell phones, and that’s why they need to change and protect our children and grandchildren,” said Davis said.

iPad drawbacks

What about an iPad or other tablet? That seems harmless enough. After all, it's a computer.

Yes, but it too is a device that connects using radio waves. And Davis points to another iPad fine print warning that states, “a small percentage of people may be susceptible to blackouts or seizures (even if they have never had one before) when exposed to flashing lights or light patterns such as when playing games or watching videos... Discontinue use of iPad and consult a physician if you experience headaches, blackouts, seizures, convulsion, eye or muscle twitching, loss of awareness, involuntary movement, or disorientation. To reduce risk of headaches, blackouts, seizures and eyestrain, avoid prolonged use, hold iPad some distance from your eyes, use iPad in a well-lit room, and take frequent breaks.”

"There's no denying these gadgets are fun; my kids love them too," said Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff, Executive Director and CEO of Healthy Child Healthy World. "But these technologies are developing faster than our ability to understand potential health impacts. We're not asking parents to not buy or use them, we're simply asking them to take precautions. It's better to be safe rather than sorry when it comes to our children's health."

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When Shopping Online, It's BuyerBeware.com

Computer expert says online shoppers should exercise extra care

“Online shopping has become so popular that it now accounts for nearly half of all holiday shopping,” said Forman, an expert in online security....

PhotoRetailers got an early start on their Black Friday sales, hoping to make the most of the kick-off to the holiday shopping season. But if this year is like last, even more shoppers will do more of their shopping online.

In fact, Cyber Monday, the first Monday following Black Friday, has become just as important to both shoppers and retailers, and is considered the “official” start of the online holiday shopping season, says Abbe E. Forman, assistant professor of Computer and Information Science at Temple University.

“Online shopping has become so popular that it now accounts for nearly half of all holiday shopping,” said Forman, an expert in online security. “While online shopping is easy, convenient, and fun, security concerns still keep many folks away. Even savvy online shoppers should take a few extra moments to ensure their online safety so that their shopping experience is the best that it can be.”

Take precautions

Forman recommends a few steps that shoppers take to protect themselves while shopping online this holiday season.

“Keep an eye out for scams; everyone loves a good sale, but if something looks too good to be true, it probably is,” she said.

When considering a purchase from a retailer that you are not familiar with, Forman suggests doing some homework before “clicking” your purchase.

“Google them and see what other folks have said about their shopping experience with that company,” she said. “Try lots of different keywords to get to the info you want or need to see. There are many sites that offer good customer reviews.”

Also, Forman warns not to give out any personal information prior to your decision to make a purchase. “You should be able to peruse a website without giving any information. If an online retailer wants info prior to a transaction, it’s a red flag.

Check order carefully before hitting 'submit'

Even reputable retailers can have policies and procedures that take consumers by surprise, especially if they don't read all the disclaimers.

Kim, of Wilmington, Mass., placed an order from Target.com in part, she says, because the site said there would be no charge for shipping on orders over $50.

"My order was a $400 order, and only after I placed the order, did it jump to over $600," Kim told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I was charged for shipping, which cost more than the most expensive item in my cart. I was able to cancel the order within my 30 minutes."

As part of its Black Friday sale, Target is, indeed offering free shipping on "eligible" toys. Shoppers must look closely to see which items are eligible and which are not.

Once you’ve decided to make a purchase, Forman says there are a few tips to keep in mind to safeguard your personal information.

“Always be sure that you are transacting across a secure connection by looking for both https in the address bar and the little padlock icon toward the bottom of the computer screen,” she said. “Also, don’t give out more information than what is required. When filling out online forms, at either checkout or other times, only give the absolute minimum required info.”

Forman also suggest signing up for a free email address such as Hotmail, Yahoo! or Gmail.

“Use it for online transactions,” she said. “That way if the online retailer sells your email address to a spammer, it won’t come to your primary email address.”

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Black Friday Gets Underway with Shooting, Pepper-Spray Incidents

"Competitive shopping" incident injures 20 Walmart shoppers

Black Friday got off to an early and violent start this year.  Police said 20 people were injured at a Los Angeles Walmart store when a woman sprayed ...

PhotoBlack Friday got off to an early and violent start this year.  Police said 20 people were injured at a Los Angeles Walmart store when a woman sprayed her fellow shoppers with pepper spray.

The Los Angeles Times said the incident followed a scuffle that broke out among customers waiting to buy Xbox and Wii video games.  Police called it a "competitive shopping incident."

In Northern California, police say a Black Friday shopper was shot and critically wounded during a robbery outside a Walmart in San Leandro.

Police said the victim and several other shoppers were walking to their cars after making their purchases when they were confronted by multiple suspects who demanded the merchandise.

A fight broke out and shots were fired, critically injuring one person.  Police did not immediately know if the injured person was a suspect or a shopper.

But aside from those incidents, retailers said crowds were generally large and enthusiastic.  Early returns found pre-midnight store openings a hit, drawing larger and younger crowds than normal.

For younger shoppers, the idea of hitting the stores late at night seemed to be a winner, compared to the notion of dragging out of bed early the next day.

Disappointments

As always, there were disappointments when featured items sold out sooner than expected.

Sarah of Santa Ana, Calif., went to Walmart last night and picked up one of the tickets for a PS3 bundle that was on sale for $199.

"I got my ticket, waited in line for 2 1/2 hours for 10:00 p.m. to come," she told ConsumerAffairs.com.  "When it came out turn to get the PS3, they say, 'Sorry we have no more PS3s. All we have left are PS350' that were an extra $150."

"You would think that they would count the merchandise they have and hang out that many tickets until waiting til the end and giving us that 'We're sorry' crap," Sarah said.

Kristina of Gettysburg, Pa., had a similar experience.

"The Gettysburg Walmart employees and flyers had stated that Black Friday sales for everything but electronics would start at 10:00pm and electronics would start at 12:01am. We got in line around 9pm and entered the store about 10:15pm and had made our way to the electronics -- we had gone for got to the xbox 360 kinect bundle for $199.99 and at 10:25pm all they were all sold out along with every other electronic," she said.

"I am very upset and mad that Walmart had lied in the flyer and employees that they had sold out of every electronic before they were even stated they were suppose to start handing them out! ... There should be a raincheck or discount gift cards given out due to the false advertisement!"

As did Kassandra of Marshall, Texas:

"The Walmart flyer states at 8am on Friday morning the PSP will be $99.00...I was number 6 in line only to find out the store did not get the shipment. I went to the Walmart facebook page and this same problem happened in other stores all across the US."

Online not always better

At least Denise of Littleton, Colo., didn't go trudging through the night in search of savings.  She stayed home where it was warm and toasty and called Dell's 800 number. But she was disappointed anyway.

"Tried to purchase a Black Friday deal desktop for the advertised price of $211. I was on hold for 50 minutes and finally got thru to Rich. Apparently it was a misprint, an advertised price that happened to be a misprint in a catalog sent exclusively to preferred customers," she said.

"They refused to offer us any kind of deal or incentive, certainly not the advertised price. Will not be buying another Dell... that's just bad business," Denise said.

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New Insomnia Drug Helps You Get Back to Sleep

FDA approves Intermezzo, the first middle-of-the-night insomnia drug

Everyone's had the experience of waking up in the middle of the night and being unable to get back to sleep. Now there's a drug that may help. ...

Everyone's had the experience of waking up in the middle of the night and being unable to get back to sleep. Now there's a drug that may help. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved Intermezzo for use as needed to treat insomnia characterized by middle-of-the-night waking followed by difficulty returning to sleep. 

This is the first time the FDA has approved a drug for this condition. Intermezzo should only be used when a person has at least four hours of bedtime remaining. It should not be taken if alcohol has been consumed or with any other sleep aid.

Insomnia is a common condition in which a person has trouble falling or staying asleep. It can range from mild to severe, depending on how often it occurs and for how long. Insomnia can cause excessive daytime sleepiness and lack of energy. It also can make a person feel anxious, depressed, or irritable. People with insomnia may have trouble focusing on tasks, paying attention, learning, and remembering.

Zolpidem tartrate was first approved in the United States in 1992 as the drug Ambien.  Intermezzo is a lower dose formulation of zolpidem.

The recommended and maximum dose of Intermezzo is 1.75 milligrams for women and 3.5 mg for men, taken once per night. The recommended dose for women is lower because women clear zolpidem from the body at a lower rate than men.

A safer option

“For people whose insomnia causes them to wake in middle of the night with difficulty returning to sleep, this new medication offers a safer choice than taking a higher dose of zolpidem upon waking,” said Robert Temple, M.D., deputy center director for clinical science in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “With this lower dose there is less risk of a person having too much drug in the body upon waking, which can cause dangerous drowsiness and impair driving.”

Intermezzo was studied in two clinical trials involving more than 370 patients. In the studies, patients taking the drug had a shorter time to fall back asleep after waking compared to people taking an inactive pill (placebo). The most commonly reported adverse reactions in the clinical trials were headache, nausea and fatigue.

Like other sleep medicines, Intermezzo may cause serious side effects, including getting out of bed while not fully awake and doing an activity that you do not know you are doing or do not remember having done.

Reported activities while under the influence of sleep medicines include driving a car, making and eating food, having sex, talking on the phone, and sleep walking—without knowing at the time or remembering later. Chances of such activity increase if a person has consumed alcohol or taken other medicines that make them sleepy. 

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Malls Tracking Shoppers With Cell Phones

Mall officials say data will remain anonymous

Virginia mall tracking shoppers with cell phones...

PhotoAs shoppers browse through stores in the Short Pump Town Center in Richmond, Va., and Promenade Temecula in Temecula, Calif., this holiday season, someone will be looking over their shoulders, and it's not Santa Claus.

The malls are using a new system to track the movement of shoppers through the malls by following a signal given off by their cell phones.

The malls say it's perfectly harmless. It's just a way to gather data on shopping habits. The technology will record when a customer enters a store, how long they stay, and where they go next.

"I understand from a marketing standpoint, but I rather not have them watching me," shopper Ethel Mezger told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

But mall officials say shoppers have nothing to worry about. In a statement, the owners of the Richmond mall, Forest City Commercial Management, said all shoppers will be anonymous and have nothing to worry about in terms of privacy.

Footpath

The system is known as Footpath Technology. It tracks the unique identification numbers assigned to mobile devices and will show shoppers as dots, never listing them by name. The company says it will use the data to "improve the shopping experience" for consumers.

The malls have posted statements on  directory kiosks explaining the tracking system. Shoppers who do not want to be tracked can opt out by turning off their cell phones while in the mall.

The British company that manufactures the system, Path Intelligence, insists it does not invade shoppers' privacy. 

"Our FootPath system detects transmissions from mobile phones and locates those mobile phones in 3D space. At no time do we intercept any personal information and that includes mobile phone numbers. At all times shoppers remain anonymous to us," the company says on its Web site. 

"Path Intelligence does not collect or store information about customers that allows for the identification of individuals."

What to do

Don't want to be shadowed?  There's a simple solution -- turn off your phone.  

Privacy experts point out, however, that this kind of tracking is far less personal than the online tracking that many of us submit to everyday -- cookies that record our browsing history, mail programs that serve ads based on the content of our emails and online merchants who store and often share information about us.

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What's On Your Mind? Capital One, Thermador

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Capital One, Thermador, Bad timing and the payment protection plan....

PhotoAmong the features available on some credit cards is a "payment protection plan," which makes payments in case you lose your income. Teresa, an auto worker in Portage, Mich., said she was glad she had the plan on her Capital One Card when she was laid off from her job.

"When I returned to work I called Capitol One to get the balance owed and was surprised that there was a huge amount that was left," Teresa told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I was at a zero percent when I was laid off, had not used the card and the payment protection was in place. I called and spoke with Capitol One as to why the amount was so high but they did not know why."

Teresa said she spent nearly two weeks working with Capital One tracking down what the payment protection plan had paid on her account and what her balance actually should be. Given the total, she wrote a check and thought the matter was settled.

"Four months after the payment I received a bill by email with triple the amount that was ever owed, and after calling and talking with the reps, I was told they are not allowed to go back to see what happened, not allowed to take ownership of their actions on accounts and the amount that was paid in full is not accepted."

As a result, Teresa said she is being sued for collection with a balance 10 times what it should be. A feature like payment protection is an expensive add on to your monthly bill. Make sure you completely understand how it works because it's clear in Teresa's case it didn't give her the "protection" she thought it did.

Teresa should also consult an attorney.  If she shops around, she can find an experienced litigator who will give her an initial consultation at a reduced rate.

Bad timing

If there's anytime you need your oven to be in tip-top shape, it's the day before Thanksgiving. Alice, of Fairfax, Calif., had a nasty surprise Wednesday evening.

"It's the night before Thanksgiving and my Thermador oven has decided once again not to work," Alice said. "I cannot read an error code for it because that has not worked in over a year. When I tried to have that fixed the technician said Thermador no longer makes that part. This product is 15 years old. The oven my mother used when I was growing up is still working and she has been dead for more than 15 years."

Needless to say, there aren't many repairmen available the night before Thanksgiving.  

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Feds Conduct Undercover Probe of For-Profit Colleges

Investigators created 12 phony "students" to measure schools' performance

The Government Accountability Office went undercover to take a look at what really goes on at privately-owned, for-profit colleges.  What it...

PhotoThe Government Accountability Office went undercover to take a look at what really goes on at privately-owned, for-profit colleges.  What it found wasn't so good.

The agency selected 15 schools and successfully infiltrated 12 of them, using bogus high school records to gain admission. The 12 "students" enrolled in 31 courses at an average cost of $1,287 each, and 10 of them managed to collect federal student financial aid.

The "students" purposefully submitted substandard work; one received a passing grade by submitting photos of celebrities and political figures in lieu of responses to essay questions. Three students were expelled for poor work or nonattendance.

Eight of the nine students withdrew without incident at the end of the investigation.  At the ninth school, GAO's request to withdraw was never acknowledged and the student was eventually expelled for nonattendance.

No exit counseling

Three students did not receive federally mandated exit counseling, where students are supposed to be advised of loan repayment options and the consequences of default.

That's what happened to Rosa of St. Augustine, Fla. 

"I was going to the University of Phoenix online. I had to withdraw due to going through a divorce ... I did not know at the time that unlike the community college, when I withdrew that even though I paid with financial aid, I'd have to repay that and my transcripts would be held," she told ConsumerAffairs.com in a complaint earlier today. "No one warned me of this when I told them I was thinking of withdrawing."

Congress and consumer organizations have been casting a wary eye at for-profit schools recently, noting that enrollment in such schools has grown far faster than in traditional higher-education institutions.  

GAO conducted its investigation at the request of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, who has been highly critical of for-profit schools, noting that -- among their other drawbacks -- for-profit schools are far more expensive than comparable programs at community colleges or public universities. The average tuition for a for-profit school is about six times higher than a community college and twice as high as a 4-year public school.

Taxpayer dollars

Students enrolling in subpar for-profit schools are not only putting their own time and money at risk, they are also burning through huge amounts of taxpayer dollars.  During the 2009-2010 school year, for-profit colleges got almost $32 billion in grants and loans provided to students under federal student aid programs.

Close to one in four students who attends a for-profit school defaults on his or her federal student loans within 3 years of leaving school, Harkin's office said. This high rate of default combined with the fact that nearly all students at for-profit schools must borrow money to pay the cost of tuition, has resulted in a sector that enrolls approximately 10 percent of American higher education students but accounts for nearly 50 percent of all student loan defaults.

In many cases, students -- like Shelly of Helena, Mont. -- say they were not properly advised before taking out student loans to attend for-profit schools. 

"I attended Mountain State University online first, with FASFA loans and had no problem, actually got money back from them a couple of times. I then went to Kaplan online for one term," Shell said. "I have only been using FASFA to finance as I have no money that is why I had loans. Kaplan says I owe them money but will not explain why."

"I repeatedly told them that I had the loans and they had always covered it. I have asked them to explain why but got no response. Now I am back at Mountain State and have had no problems," Shelly said. "However, Kaplan will now not let the FASFA money go the Mountain State. It's because they will not let me register for the next term due to a 'balance' owing."

Not worth much

Even students who successfully complete their studies often find their degree or certificate doesn't do them much to help their job search.

"Got my degree from Phoenix University; I have a Masters on Business Administration focus on HR," said Claudia of Houston. "I have a student loan that is about $45,000."

But Claudia said her degree isn't accepted by many potential employers.

"They see this school as a for-profit and they do not want to deal with students from this place; resumes are set aside. Is there anything that I could do? I am having to pay for something that did not embrace any rewards to my career."

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If Nothing Else, Consumers Still Sold on Technology

Overall consumer sentiment is down but confidence in technology is up

Consumer confidence in technology reached its highest level of the year in November as confidence in the economy sunk to an all-time low, according to Cons...

Consumer confidence in technology reached its highest level of the year in November as confidence in the economy sunk to an all-time low, according to Consumer Electronics Association (CEA).

"Tech continues to grow and remains well above year-over-year levels on the heels of the strongest monthly gains for electronics and appliance retail sales since November 2009," said Shawn DuBravac, CEA's chief economist and director of research. "Strong retail sales in October, coupled with growing consumer intentions to purchase innovative new technologies, is well timed as we move fully into the holiday shopping season this week."

Consumer sentiment around technology increased nearly two points this month. The CEA Index of Consumer Technology Expectations (ICTE) rose to 91.2, its highest level since December 2010. The ICTE, which measures consumer expectations for technology spending, is also up nearly 12 points from this time last year.

While consumer confidence in technology is at its highest point in 11 months, consumer confidence in the overall economy dropped to an all-time low. The CEA Index of Consumer Expectations (ICE) fell to 156.6 in November, down three points from last month and the lowest level since the CEA Index began in 2007. The ICE, which measures consumer expectations about the broader economy, is down more than 10 points from this time last year.

"The Super Committee's inability to come to a debt reduction compromise in Washington is clearly impacting sentiment across the country," said DuBravac. "Consumers remain uncertain about the near term and long term viability of the U.S. economy."

The CEA Indexes comprise the ICE and ICTE, both of which are updated on a monthly basis through consumer surveys. New data is released on the fourth Tuesday of each month. CEA has been tracking index data since January 2007.

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Healthy Thanksgiving Sets Pattern For Holidays

But over-indulging can escalate through the holidays

Nutritionists offers advice for healthy Thanksgiving...

PhotoHow you spend the Thanksgiving holiday could set the tone for the entire holiday season, and determine whether you remain healthy or escalate unhealthy habits.

Donna Mehrle, a registered dietitian at the the University of Missouri (MU) says it's important for families to maintain healthy diet and exercise habits during the holiday season because a pound put on during the holidays may be a pound you never lose. And it all begins with Thanksgiving.

“People can continue their healthy habits by being aware of their food choices at the Thanksgiving table and identifying time commitments that may interrupt their regular exercise schedules,” Mehrle said. “Choosing different ways to socialize can be a great strategy. Playing a game of flag football or participating in a 5K race as a family, rather than having another big dinner or TV marathon, are enjoyable ways to incorporate physical activity on Thanksgiving Day.”

Motivation

But how do you motivate yourself, especially when there are so many food temptations around? Mehrle says people should remember how they feel when they eat healthy foods and are physically active, so they’re more likely to continue those behaviors when holiday stress and cold weather offer convenient excuses. Feeling better is a great motivator, she says.

MU nutrition experts offer additional tips for a healthier Thanksgiving:

  • Eat healthily throughout the day and have a small, high-protein snack such as an apple with peanut butter, a hardboiled egg or yogurt, so you’re not overly hungry when you arrive for dinner.
  • Make simple swaps such as whole-wheat bread rather than white, brown or wild rice rather than white, or a yogurt parfait instead of another piece of pie.
  • Enjoy some of your favorite seasonal treats, but use a small plate to control portion sizes.

If you do overindulge, try to maintain perspective. One day of overeating won’t make you gain weight, so plan to get back on track with healthy eating and regular exercise the next day.

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Shopping Advice: Be Careful Out There

Attorneys General weigh in with holiday shopping tips

Staying safe this holiday shopping season...

PhotoWith the start of the holiday shopping season, consumer authorities across the country are urging consumers to stay safe, both physically and fiscally.

Besides the obvious pushing and shoving that can mark Black Friday, consumers can also get blindsided by unsafe products. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan says you should be on the lookout for recalled products that are still on the shelf.

“Unfortunately, when a recall is issued, these products don’t just vanish,” Madigan said. “They wind up in people’s homes, at second-hand shops or posted online at sites like eBay or Craigslist.

Madigan has published a Safe Shopping Guide, detailing products that have been recalled over the past year and pose a significant danger to children. In 2011, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued 91 children’s product recalls, covering more than 8 million individual items that include toys, jewelry, cribs, furniture, baby gear and clothing.

Counterfeit goods

In Mississippi, Attorney General Jim Hood is warning consumers to beware of unscrupulous people selling counterfeit or pirated goods, either in person or online. Many times, they sell these items on websites that look legitimate, accepting credit cards and decorating their site with corporate advertisements.

However, the “amazing” deals may not be legitimate, Hood says. These scam artists often set up temporary retail shops as well, where they are poised to defraud consumers with the same inferior goods.

“The Internet has become the crime scene of our generation,” Hood said. “In addition to shady shop owners that are prepared to scam you in person, the phenomenon of online piracy is increasing every day. Consumers must remember to be just as diligent online as they are in person.”

The danger of counterfeit goods is that they may actually be dangerous. Hood says the best way to tell if an article is counterfeit is its price – if it seems like the deal is too good to be true, it probably is.

Rainchecks & refunds

Meanwhile, the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs has reminded shoppers to know their rights about rainchecks, gift cards, and item refunds. Also, they should look closely at layaway plans, that are cropping up at many stores.

“We’re seeing a resurgence in layaway plans offered by stores this year,” said Thomas R. Calcagni, Director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs. “As with any offer, consumers should learn all the details, know the associated costs, and judge whether it is a good deal for them.”

Calcagni urged consumers to know their rights in the marketplace and offered the following advice and information:

  • Store Layaway: Know the terms of the store’s layaway plan. Do not assume layaway is free.
  • Rainchecks: A retailer may, but is not required to, offer a raincheck for advertised merchandise that is not available for purchase. When a raincheck is issued: The retailer has 60 days to honor the raincheck, unless the consumer holding the raincheck agrees to an extension; If the item costs more than $15, the retailer must give written or telephonic notice to the consumer when the item becomes available; and After such notice is given, the item must be held for the consumer for at least 10 days or the end of the 60-day raincheck period (whichever is greater).
  • Refunds: Refund policies at some retailers may include a restocking or reshipping fee. Whatever the refund policies, retailers must conspicuously post them for all merchandise in one of the following locations: Attached to the item itself; Affixed to each cash register or at point of sale; Situated as to be clearly visible to the buyer from the cash register; or Posted at each store entrance used by the public.
  • Gift Cards: No gift card or gift certificate can expire for five years after purchase; No dormancy fee can be imposed within the first 24 months following purchase or within the 24 month period following last use of the gift card; After 24 months of non-activity, the issuer may charge a maximum dormancy fee of $2 per month; and the gift card must include a telephone number to call for information about its expiration date or dormancy fees.
  • Online Purchases: Be certain the website is secure or uses encryption before entering personal and credit card information – look for “https” in the website address; Verify that the business operates from a real location and be wary of businesses that only list a Post Office Box as an address; Find out how the business resolves consumer disputes, by reading the posted “terms and conditions”;
  • Print out a transaction record for each purchase and keep it to resolve any issues regarding the item being purchased; and Do not click on links contained in unsolicited emails from supposed shopping websites.
  • Be a Savvy Shopper: Make a budget and know what you can afford before you start shopping; Compare prices for the same item in store flyers or on the internet before making your purchase; and Avoid identity theft by protecting your credit card receipts and sales slips that contain personal information.
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Black Friday Flat Screen TVs Draw Complaints

You might want to take a pass on these bargains

Flat Screen TVs purchased on Black Friday draw complaints...

PhotoWhen you are elbowing your way through the big box stores on Black Friday, you might want to take a pass on the deals offered on flat screen TVs.

When we reviewed the ConsumerAffairs.com database of consumer reviews and complaints, using the search term "Black Friday," we found lots of complaints about TV sets. In fact, of the 40 most recent complaints that mention Black Friday, 32 - 80 percent - were complaints about flat screen TVs.

"I purchased an Emerson 32" TV from Walmart on Black Friday 2010," Hugh, of Dacono, Colo., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Now, almost a year later, the TV stopped working."

"My Polaroid HDTV was purchased on Black Friday as well," said Corey, of Romeo, Mich. "It was a gift, but TVs should last more than three years. Yesterday I noticed the TV was left on for a few hours while we were gone. I turned if off then back on again only to watch the screen fade to black. So now there is no picture, but there is sound. It appears I have the same problem as most I've read here."

No conspiracy

No one is suggesting that chain stores load up on defective TV sets and dump them on unsuspecting consumers who crowd into stores on the day after Thanksgiving. But it is interesting there are few reports of defective toaster ovens and coffee makers that were Black Friday purchases.

It may be that consumers more often mention they bought their problem TVs on Black Friday because, at the time, they thought they were getting a great deal.

Most of these Black Friday TV complaints are for low-end models that have produced many other complaints from consumers, who didn't necessarily purchase them on Black Friday. The fact that they were purchased on Black Friday is probably less relevant than the fact they were among the least expensive TVs to start with.

So the take-home lesson may be to shop wisely when it comes to buying a TV and not be swayed by the lowest Black Friday sale price.

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Five Things To Remember About Gift Cards

This year, gift cards come with both pros and cons

Tips on selecting gift cards...

PhotoLast holiday season was the first in which there were new rules in effect for gift cards, making them a bit more consumer-friendly.

The biggest rule change was the end of the “use it or lose it” quality of most gift cards, which would expired if not used in a short period of time. Now, the CARD Act prohibits gift cards from expiring sooner than five years from the date they were issued or money was last loaded.

Since gift cards are likely to be the most sought-after holiday gift, according to the National Retail Federation, there are some things to keep in mind when doing your shopping.

1. Avoid unnecessary fees

While the CARD act did away with some gift card fees, others remain. Generally, the cards with the most fees tend to be the ones issued by credit card companies. These are known as “general purpose” cards and can be used wherever the credit card is accepted.

While that's convenient, stores that sell gift cards are usually a better deal. The deals get better if you search for gift cards that offer free shipping or digital gift cards.

2. Discounts are available

Yes, you can get discounts on gift cards, which is sort of like buying money at a discount. You can save up to 30 percent but the person receiving the gift will just assume you paid full price. You can find more information about discounted cards here.

3. Gift card sellers have to provide more information

The 2011 holiday season is the first in which gift card issuers are required to have transparent disclosures on their cards. This is the second part of the CARD Act rules affecting gift cards. The added information means consumers can feel confident that what they see is what they get.

4. Buy Gift Cards with Credit Card Rewards

Lots of us have credit card rewards that pile up unused. A gift card is a great way to use them. Twenty-eight percent of consumers plan on using credit card rewards to buy presents this holiday season, according to American Express.

This is a particularly useful strategy when it comes to buying gift cards because most credit card companies offer more value with gift card redemption than with cash back. For example, Citi ThankYou Points are 37 percent more valuable when redeemed for gift cards as opposed to cash.

5. Unused gift cards can be cashed in for cash

You probably don't want to give the recipient cash as a present, but if they truly would rather have the greenbacks, it is easily arranged. They can sell unused cards for cash via online gift card exchanges. Even expired cards can be the source of some cash through state programs.

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Merck Pays $950 Million To Settle Vioxx Charges

Popular drug was marketed for unapproved uses

Merck agrees to settle Vioxx charges with states...

PhotoPharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. has agreed to a massive $950 million settlement with the U.S. government and 43 states over the way it marketed the painkiller Vioxx.

The popular arthritis drug was withdrawn from the market in 2004 after it was linked to increased risk of heart attack and stroke among those who took it.

The U.S. Department of Justice said Merck will also plead guilty to misdemeanor charges that it marketed Vioxx as a treatment for arthritis before it gained approval to do so from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The criminal component of the agreement centers on the illegal marketing and promotion of Vioxx for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.

The FDA estimated in 2004 that Vioxx was responsible for more than 27,000 deaths.

Vioxx was introduced into the market in 1999 but was not approved by the FDA as an indication for rheumatoid arthritis until 2002. While it is not illegal for a physician to prescribe a drug for an unapproved use, federal law prohibits a manufacturer from promoting a drug for uses not approved by the FDA.

Vioxx pulled

On September 30, 2004, Merck voluntarily withdrew Vioxx from the market worldwide, citing an increase in the incidence of adverse cardiovascular events in patients taking Vioxx. An investigation followed which focused on allegations that Merck marketed Vioxx for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis before the FDA approved the drug for that usage, and that Merck promoted the cardiovascular safety of Vioxx by means of certain statements and writings that were inaccurate, misleading and inconsistent. These allegations form the basis of the civil and criminal resolutions.

Merck faced thousands of personal injury lawsuits over Vioxx but initially defended each one individually before deciding, in 2007, to reach a class settlement of $4.85 billion. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court gave the green light to a securities fraud suit alleging that Merck made misleading statements about the safety of Vioxx, causing financial harm to the company's shareholders.

The states participating in the settlement say Merck made false and misleading statements to their Medicaid programs.

In agreeing to the settlement, Merck said it is not an admission of guilt and that there is no basis to conclude members of upper level management were involved in the violations.

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FCC Finds AT&T/T-Mobile Merger Anti-Competitive

Justice Department lawsuit challenging the merger is also pending

Just in time for Thanksgiving, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Julius Genachowski has declared the proposed AT&T/T-Mobile merger ...

PhotoJust in time for Thanksgiving, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Julius Genachowski has declared the proposed AT&T/T-Mobile merger a turkey.

The full FCC must still vote, but Genachowski said that after reviewing 200,000 pages of documents and holding more than 100 stakeholder meetings, he has concluded the deal is not in the public interest. The FCC also reviewed 50 petitions to reject the deal from companies including Cablevision, C Spire, DISH, EarthLink, and Sprint.

Technically, the FCC cannot block the deal and it's likely the affair will wind up in court, but Genachowski's finding pretty effectively sticks a fork in it and finds it over-cooked.

The FCC has the power to approve the deal but if it finds it unacceptable, it can only refer it to an administrative law judge, who is obligated to consider all of the evidence gathered during the FCC's review.

And the conclusion of the FCC's review, as Genachowski reads it, is that a combined AT&T and T-Mobile would result in unprecedented concentration and massive layoffs despite AT&T's claim that it would save jobs and speed the deployment of high-speed broadband to rural and underserved areas.

DOJ Suit

The U.S. Justice Department has reached similar conclusions and has already sued to block the merger.  That case is expected to go to trial in February, and the FCC is likely to hold off until the outcome of that case is clear. If the DOJ prevails, no further FCC action would be needed.

Just a few weeks ago, Attorney General Eric Holder made it known the Justice Department's opposition is not a token gesture.  He said litigators are "ready and eager" to go to trial.

AT&T issued a statement calling the FCC's move disappointing.

"It is yet another example of a government agency acting to prevent billions in new investment and the creation of many thousands of new jobs at a time when the US economy desperately needs both," Larry Solomon, senior vice president of corporate communications for AT&T, said. "At this time, we are reviewing all options."

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Feds Toughen Rules on Work-At-Home Schemes

Promoters must provide more information to help consumers evaluate their programs

Working from home sounds great but it's not as easy as paying a few hundred dollars for a kit that supposedly provides everything you need to set up a thri...

Working from home sounds great but it's not as easy as paying a few hundred dollars for a kit that supposedly provides everything you need to set up a thriving business that you can operate while comfortably seated in your pajamas.

Tens of thousands of consumers are defrauded every year by schemes that promise an easy road to riches, or at least prosperity, through work-at-home schemes and "business opportunities."

Hoping to at least even the odds a bit, the Federal Trade Commission has approved changes to its Business Opportunity Rule that will ensure that consumers have the information they need when considering buying a work-at-home program or any other business opportunity.

The changes simplify the disclosures that business opportunity sellers must provide to prospective buyers. The simplified disclosures will help prospective purchasers assess the risks of buying a business opportunity, while minimizing compliance burdens on businesses.

In addition, the rule, which will be effective on March 1, 2012, applies to business opportunities previously covered as well as work-at-home offers such as envelope stuffing and craft assembly opportunities.

The final rule requires business opportunity sellers to give consumers specific information to help them evaluate a business opportunity. Sellers must disclose five key items of information in a simple, one-page document:

  • the seller's identifying information;
  • whether the seller makes a claim about the purchaser's likely earnings (and, if the seller checks the "yes" box, the seller must provide information supporting any such claims);
  • whether the seller, its affiliates or key personnel have been involved in certain legal actions (and, if yes, a separate list of those actions);
  • whether the seller has a cancellation or refund policy (and, if yes, a separate document stating the material terms of such policies); and
  • a list of persons who bought the business opportunity within the previous three years.

Misrepresentations and omissions are prohibited, and for sales conducted in languages other than English, all disclosures must be provided in the language in which the sale is conducted.

Consumers should use the disclosure document and supplementary information to fact-check sellers' sales pitches.

This information will be helpful to consumers like Teresa Yeast, a stay-at-home mother who purchased a craft-assembly work-at-home program from a company called Darling Angel Pin Creations.

The FTC filed a law enforcement action against that company in February 2010 for allegedly claiming that consumers could make hundreds of dollars assembling angel pins at home.

"It's important to be skeptical and to be cautionary when you're approached with ... a business opportunity," Mrs. Yeast said. "I saw an opportunity that looked great, and took it. They took my money."

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Feds Send Refunds to Defrauded Consumers

Counterfeit check and prize scam victimized 200

The Federal Trade Commission is mailing hundreds of refund checks to consumers who were defrauded by an operation that allegedly sent them counte...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission is mailing hundreds of refund checks to consumers who were defrauded by an operation that allegedly sent them counterfeit cashier's checks and made false promises of large cash prizes.

Canadian companies Cash Corner Services, Inc., Family Choice Store, Inc., and their principals -- mailed letters congratulating consumers on winning up to $750,000 in a lottery or sweepstakes, and enclosed a fake check.

They told consumers the check would cover taxes or fees that had to be paid before the "winnings" were paid out. Consumers were instructed to deposit the check and wire back a portion of the proceeds.

More than 200 consumers will receive refund checks. The average amount of payment will be approximately $370, and the total amount to be distributed will be about $83,000.

Those who receive the checks from the FTC's redress administrator should cash them within 60 days of the date they were issued. The FTC never requires consumers to pay money or provide information before redress checks can be cashed.

Those with questions should call the redress administrator, Rust Consulting, Inc., 1-855-793-1369, or visit www.FTC.gov/refunds.

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Business Recovery Services Held in Contempt

BRS "helps" individuals scammed by business opportunity schemes

A federal judge in Arizona has held Mesa, Ariz.-based Business Recovery Services (BRS) and its owner, Brian Hessler, in civil contempt of court for vio...

Photo
Brian Hessler

A federal judge in Arizona has held Mesa, Ariz.-based Business Recovery Services (BRS) and its owner, Brian Hessler, in civil contempt of court for violating the terms of a preliminary injunction.

BRS sells kits that the company purports help individuals who purchased so-called “ill-fated” business opportunities recover their money.   The injunction required the defendants to stop charging consumers for recovery goods and services without waiting until seven business days after the customer successfully recovered money lost in a previous transaction.

U.S. District Court Judge James A. Teiborg found that the defendants, and their affiliate, Home-Based Business Consulting LLC, violated the preliminary injunction.   

The court ordered BRS and Hessler to refund money paid by consumers who were shown to have been sold recovery kits in violation of the order, ordered defendants to pay the government’s attorneys’ fees, and gave the defendants 30 days to change their business practices to follow the preliminary injunction before fines and coercive sanctions would be assessed.  

“This is a case of adding insult to injury,” said Tony West, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division of the Department of Justice.   “These defendants preyed on consumers who had already lost money in scams and collected fees regardless of whether they were successful in getting back a single dime for these victims.”

DIY Kits

The action was filed by the Justice Department’s Consumer Protection Branch on March 1, 2011, at the request of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).   

In its complaint, the government alleged that BRS and Hessler telemarketed products and services they claimed would help consumers recover money they had lost to business opportunity and work-at-home operations, and sold hundreds of variations of do-it-yourself kits tailored to particular schemes and priced up to $499.   

The complaint asserted that the defendants violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule by misrepresenting the nature and effectiveness of their services, and by accepting payments from consumers for recovery goods and services without waiting until seven business days after the consumers received recovered money, as required by the Telemarketing Sales Rule.

At the time the suit was filed, the Department of Justice sought, and the court issued, a preliminary injunction requiring the defendants to stop charging customers for recovery goods and services in violation of the Telemarketing Sales Rule.   

At the hearing on the preliminary injunction, the United States established that the defendants collected money from their customers immediately upon sale of the recovery kits, without regard to when or whether the customer ever recovered any funds lost earlier.  The court later held the defendants in contempt for continuing their practices in violation of the preliminary injunction.  

What to do 

Consumers who have been victims of telemarketing fraud should attempt to get their money back, and alert law enforcement about the violation.   Steps to take that may be helpful include the following:

  1. Write your credit card company and dispute the amount paid that was based on fraud, if you paid with a credit card, whether or not you already paid the bill;
  2. Write a letter to your state’s attorney general and to your local Better Business Bureau complaining about the scam, and send a copy to the person who obtained your money;
  3. Write a letter or complain online to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which supervises banks, credit unions, and other financial companies.   Complaints may be filed online at:https://help.consumerfinance.gov/app/ask_cc_complaint ;
  4. File a complaint with the FTC.   This can be done online at: www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov/ .  
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Report: Telecoms Among Top Corporate Tax Dodgers

AT&T, Verizon enjoyed $27 billion tax break, study finds

Many of the Occupy Wall Street protesters are a little vague on what they're mad about, but tax breaks for big corporations are usually high on their list....

PhotoMany of the Occupy Wall Street protesters are a little vague on what they're mad about, but tax breaks for big corporations are usually high on their list.

Now a new report, “Corporate Taxpayers & Corporate Tax Dodgers,” is likely to add more fuel to the fire. Produced by Citizens for Tax Justice and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the study examines the income taxes paid (or not paid) by 280 companies in the Fortune 500. The study’s authors note that:

“Seventy-eight of the 280 companies paid zero or less in federal income taxes in at least one year from 2008 to 2010. Twenty-five of these companies enjoyed multiple no-tax years, bringing the total number of no-tax years to 108. In the years they paid no income tax, these companies earned $156 billion in pretax U.S. profits. But instead of paying $55 billion in income taxes as the 35 percent corporate tax rate seems to require, these companies generated so many excess tax breaks that they reported negative taxes.”

In other words, thanks to tax loopholes, some of these companies paid nothing to the IRS.

Photo
Source: Freepress.org

Among the worst offenders were the big telecommunications companies:

  • Between 2008 and 2010, Verizon received $12.3 billion in tax subsidies from the federal government and had an effective tax rate of –2.9 percent.
  • In the same period, AT&T received nearly $14.5 billion in federal tax breaks, second only to Wells Fargo, which received nearly $18 billion. It had an effective tax rate of 8 percent.
  • Comcast received $2 billion in tax breaks and had an effective tax rate of 20.6 percent.
  • The telecom industry as a whole paid an effective tax rate of 8.2 percent during the 2008–2010 period — far below the standard 35 percent corporate tax rate.
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Study: Food Fraud Is On The Rise

Not all food is what you think it is

Researchers find growing instances for food fraud...

PhotoSome food is good for you. Some food is bad for you. Then, some food isn't what you think it is. The latter can fall into the category of “food fraud.”

Researchers at Michigan State University say there are increasing cases of food being marketed to consumers as possessing some benefit it doesn't have. Or, in some cases, where potential harmful effects are obscured. It's almost always done for economic gain.

The Michigan State Study, published in the Journal of Food Science, said food fraud differs from a food safety incident involving unintentional act with unintentional harm, and a food defense incident characterized as a deliberate focus on intentional harm.

Intentional substitution

In an act of food fraud, the manufacturer or marketer engages in deliberate and intentional substitution, addition, tampering, or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients, or food packaging, or makes false or misleading statements made about a product for economic gain.

The study says examples that are potentially dangerous, including melamine added to milk to boost the apparent protein content,  salvaging dropped fruit that is bruised and subsequently contaminated with E. coli, and substituting less costly species of fish and misrepresenting them as more expensive species which may be toxic or cause allergic reactions.

“These types of food fraud ultimately pose risks to the consuming public,” the study authors write.

Increasing potential

As food products become more exotic and niche-oriented, the potential for food fraud increases. For example, how do you know that expensive sheep's milk cheese wasn't really made with cow's milk?

The Washington Post reports a Virginia man was convicted last year of selling 10 million pounds of cheap, frozen catfish fillets from Vietnam as much more expensive grouper, red snapper and flounder. He sold the fish to national chain retailers, wholesalers and food service companies, who passed it on to unsuspecting consumers.

The authors also write that food fraud could potentially be more dangerous than traditional food safety risks, since adulterants are typically unconventional and the current intervention and response systems are not looking for these contaminants.

The authors call for additional research on the risk associated with food fraud while also citing the need to support a continued public-private partnership approach to countering food fraud.

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Newspaper Finally Abandons Effort to Block Publishing of Excerpts

Las Vegas paper tried to keep its readers from quoting its articles online

It's a good thing the Las Vegas Review-Journal is a newspaper and not a popular singer or it would probably have tried to block its fans from whistling i...

PhotoIt's a good thing the Las Vegas Review-Journal is a newspaper and not a popular singer or it would probably have tried to block its fans from whistling its most popular songs.

For months the newspaper has been running up legal bills trying to block the online political forum Democratic Underground from publishing short excerpts of its stories.

The newspaper's publisher, Stephens Media, has finally thrown in the towel, filing court papers conceding that quoting a new article is not copyright infringement.

The case began when the online political forum Democratic Underground -- represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Fenwick & West LLP, and attorney Chad Bowers -- was sued by Righthaven, an apparent advocacy group of some sort, for a five-sentence excerpt of a Review-Journal news story that a user posted on the forum with a link back to the newspaper's website.

Democratic Underground countersued, asking the court to rule that the excerpt did not infringe copyright and is a fair use of the material, and brought Righthaven-backer Stephens Media into the case.

Dismissed

The court dismissed Righthaven's infringement case because it did not own the article, but Democratic Underground's counterclaim against Stephens Media continued. After initially attempting to defend the bogus assertion of copyright infringement, Stephens Media has now conceded it was incorrect.

"I knew the lawsuit was wrong from the start, and any self-respecting news publisher should have, too," said Democratic Underground founder David Allen. "I'm glad that they have finally admitted it."

"This concession comes after more than a year of needless litigation," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl. "Stephens Media never should have authorized Righthaven to file this suit in the first place, and should never have wasted our client's and the court's time with its attempts to keep Righthaven's frivolous claim alive for the last year."

No standing

The original lawsuit against Democratic Underground was dismissed earlier this year, when Judge Hunt found that Righthaven did not have the legal authorization to bring a copyright lawsuit because it had never owned the copyright in the first place.

Righthaven claimed that Stephens Media had transferred copyright to Righthaven before it filed the suit, but a document unearthed in this litigation -- the Strategic Alliance Agreement between Righthaven and Stephens Media -- showed that the copyright assignment was a sham, and that Righthaven was merely agreeing to undertake the newspaper's case at its own expense in exchange for a cut of the recovery.

In addition to dismissing Righthaven's claim, Judge Hunt sanctioned Righthaven with fines and obligations to report to other judges its actual relationship with Stevens Media.

Righthaven has filed hundreds of copyright cases based on its  copyright ownership claims. Despite several attempts by Righthaven and Stephens Media to re-write their Strategic Alliance Agreement, half a dozen judges have ruled against the scheme to turn copyright litigation into a business.

"This is a hard fought and important victory for free speech rights on the Internet," said Laurence Pulgram, the partner who led the team at Fenwick & West, LLP in San Francisco. "Unless we respond to such efforts to intimidate, we'll end up with an Internet that is far less fertile for the cultivation and discussion of the important issues that affect us all."

 
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What to Watch Out For This Holiday Shopping Season

Hidden fees, high shipping charges, return policies are all potential trouble spots

We hope you're not among those who'll be headed out Thanksgiving night to stock up on supposed bargains.  But no matter when you begin your holiday sh...

PhotoWe hope you're not among those who'll be headed out Thanksgiving night to stock up on supposed bargains.  But no matter when you begin your holiday shopping, there are plenty of potential traps to watch out for.

“Retailers are allowed to set their own rules on shipping and handling fees, but in some cases those rules lack clear disclosure and add unanticipated costs to consumers,” said Barbara Anthony, the Undersecretary of the Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation. “When holiday shopping, consumers need to do their homework and be aware of the rules. If a consumer does not like the shipping and handling terms, he or she should consider shopping elsewhere.”

The Office of Consumer Affairs checked 50 retailers in the Bay State, mixing traditional department stores, online-only retailers, and television infomercial-style items. In reviewing the shipping and handling rules, the investigators identified six issues consumers should be aware of before making a purchase.

One box, two items, one larger shipping and handling fee

PhotoTraditionally, if you buy multiple items at one time through a retailer, your shipment should be subject to one charge. But not all companies work that way, and even if you order two of the exact same items, and they come in one box, the shipping and handling fee can be charged to both items.

If you order two pairs of Pajama Jeans, they will come in one box, but you will be charged the $7.95 shipping and handling fee twice, for each pair of pants you buy.

When “free” doesn’t mean free


Many television advertisements include buy-one-get-one-free offers on the items being sold. But “free” isn’t always free. In the case of Aluma Wallets, the “free” wallet is subject to a $4.99 shipping and handling fee.

The Perfect Meatloaf pan charges $7.95 for shipping the additional “free” item. Comfortisse Bra sells its items in a set of three, and consumers can order two more sets for free, but it charges $9.95 for shipping and handling on each of the three sets (nine bras in total).

In making such purchases, consumers should be aware that multiple shipping and handling fees can wipe out any perceived savings by buying the product in the first place.

Extra parts mean extra costs.

Photo
The NuWave Oven comes with a hefty $29.95 shipping and handling fee. The website offers additional parts to the oven, like a “Nuwave twister” and “party mixer” for free, but with additional shipping and handling fees.

The Ronco Six-Star Knife Set offers a lifetime guarantee on all its items and free replacements – with a $2.95 shipping and handling fee on each replacement.

How much is too much for shipping and handling?

In some cases, consumers cannot answer that question until it is too late, or the shipping and handling fee does not pop up until the last confirmation window on the website and is missed by the consumer.

Many online websites do not detail shipping and handling fees until after shipping or billing information is entered into the website, including Ninja Kitchen System 1100, a food processor. Know all the costs and fees associated with a product before providing your payment information.

Sometimes paying a little more will save. Sometimes paying a little less will save.

PhotoSome retailers, like Staples and REI, charge shipping and handling for smaller dollar-amount purchases. Staples charges $9.95 for purchases under $45 and REI charges $5.99 for purchases under $50. If you plan on buying $43 worth of products at Staples, buy a pack of pens for $2 to reach the $45 threshold and save on the shipping fees.

On the flip side, some retailers charge more as the purchase price increases. Crane and Co., and Bed, Bath and Beyond use those systems. Know what price levels trigger higher fees at those and similar retailers.

Returns might cost more than postage.

In some cases, retailers will charge a shipping and handling fee for accepting a return via mail, even if you are paying the postage. The North Face, for example, deducts $7 for a return through the mail. So, if you expect $50 back for a return, you will only get $43.

To avoid these fees, the Office of Consumer Affairs recommends consumers follow these tips:

  • Research shipping and handling fees online, or call the retailer to get the details;
  • Add up shipping and handling before completing a purchase;
  • Do not give payment information until you know what the fees are and you are certain you will buy the item;
  • Ask if there is shipping and handling on returns;
  • If you must make a return, and the retailer has a local location, take it back to the store, do not mail it back;
  • If possible, shop at brick-and-mortar stores, where there are no shipping and handling fees, or consider shopping at retailers that will ship an item to a local store with no shipping and handling fees.

 

 

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Why High Gas Prices Haven't Caused Inflation

Economists find big difference between now and the 1970s

Economists explain why rising gas prices haven't set off inflation...

PhotoThis time last year gasoline prices were rising, but were well under $3 a gallon. Over the following months, they kept rising, hitting an average of $3.98 a gallon in early May.

So why haven't high gas prices ignited inflation like they did 40 years ago? Those old enough to remember the 1970s might also remember the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979.

Those two large oil price increases caused inflation in the prices of core goods. The 1990s brought even larger oil shocks, yet the prices of core goods didn't go up. Then, when gas prices rose $1 a gallon in the space of a few months this year, researchers wanted to understand why high energy prices led to inflation then, but not now.

"Many economists would say that the difference in inflation for these two decades was caused solely by monetary policy," said Lance Bachmeier, a Kansas State University economist. "But when we looked at the data for core goods, we found that is not the case."

Some prices actually falling

More than that, the prices of many goods -- such as clothing or vacations -- are actually deflating instead of inflating because of improved technology and reduced energy costs.

Bachmeier and colleague Inkyung Cha used inflation data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to look at more than 100 core goods. Core goods do not include groceries, but rather include goods such as cars, household appliances, clothing, cosmetics, toys and vacations. These kinds of goods are not affected as much by oil shocks, Bachmeier said, but have actually experienced some minor deflation from rising oil prices. The reason is simple; consumers have less money to spend.

"If you used to spend $10 to fill your tank, and now you are spending $20, that gives you $10 less to spend on cosmetics or clothing," Bachmeier said. "So that causes the demand of those goods to fall, and then the price falls."

Bachmeier and Cha credit improvements in energy efficiency for helping keep production costs in check. The biggest cost for some manufacturers is energy, so even small advances in technology have helped reduce production costs. For instance, newer technology has helped diesel trucks get 7 miles per gallon, when they used to get 4.8 miles per gallon in 1977. Other technologies have created more energy-efficient methods of producing paper and steel, among other developments.

Lack of credit

At the same time, consumers don't have the access to credit they once did before the collapse of the housing market. With fewer dollars available in the rest of the economy, demand falls and sometimes, so do prices.

In the last few weeks, consumers have noticed gasoline prices are going down a bit.

Bachmeier attributes the lower prices to uncertainty about the global economy. Without this uncertainly, he says, gas prices might reach $5 a gallon.

In other words, when the economy recovers, consumers had better to pay sharply higher prices for fuel. Will $5 a gallon gas finally produce inflation? It might at the beginning, but Bachmeier predicts consumers will adapt, lessening the impact of another oil shock.

"United States consumers will realize that gas prices are not likely to go much below where they are right now," Bachmeier said. "Some college students and others with low incomes will walk or ride bicycles when possible. Consumers will put more emphasis on gas mileage when they buy a new vehicle. Even at $3 per gallon, an average middle-age male driver will save about $200 per month on gas by driving a Hyundai Elantra rather than an SUV."

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Chrysler Ousts Head of Fiat 500 Program

Laura Soave takes the fall for disappointing sales

Maybe Jennifer Lopez will be next to get the axe?  Laura Soave, who headed up the return of Fiat to U.S. shores since March 2010,  ”ha...

PhotoMaybe Jennifer Lopez will be next to get the axe?  Laura Soave, who headed up the return of Fiat to U.S. shores since March 2010,  ”has left the company and will pursue other interests,” as Chrysler put it today.

JenLo, you may recall, has become the celebrity face of the Fiat 500, doing commercials and personal appearances for the minuscule car but suffered an embarrassing moment at the Los Angeles Auto Show when she was unable to open the door of one of the cars.

It seems the handle was stuck for unknown reasons.  

As far as we know, Ms. Soave was unable to find a similar scapegoat for the dismal sales performance of the 500.  Or maybe she is the scapegoat?

Sergio Marchionne, Chrysler CEO and chairman, had confidently predicted the company would sell 50,000 of the cars annually but fewer than 16,000 had been sold as of the end of October.

The current party line is that sales are slow because it has taken longer than expected to get dealerships open.  Chrysler says it now has 130 dealerships in the U.S. but admits that in October, 29 of them did not sell a single car, FiatOwner.org reported.

Chrysler Group named Timothy Kuniskis, 44, to replace Soave.

“Tim brings broad expertise and leadership in dealer operations and marketing where he has been already working with the team to shape the direction of the Fiat Brand,” Marchionne said.

Customer grousing

One advantage of not selling many cars, of course, is that you don't get many complaints that way. But the early returns are starting to come in anyway, like one we recently received from Dave of Manitoba.

"Upon purchasing the car I was told it was manufactured in Europe [but] it is in fact built in Mexico and has very poor build quality, so far both front seats have broken, trim falls off, some new trim already been replaced once has come off again," Dave said, but added that fuel economy is his major concern.

"The car is sold as being able to do 55 mpg (Canadian) on the hwy ... [but] to date which is 4 months and 18,000km we have not got above 43 mpg. [They] have no answers as to why the fuel ecomony is so bad, and are not prepared to find out why," he said.

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Feds Shut Down Mortgage Modification Scams on Yahoo and Bing

Similar ads were yanked from Google last week

Last week it was Google that, prodded by the feds, cut loose hundreds of mortgage modification scheme advertisers.  This week, Bing and Yahoo are doin...

PhotoLast week it was Google that, prodded by the feds, cut loose hundreds of mortgage modification scheme advertisers.  This week, Bing and Yahoo are doing the same, after years of profiting from the ads, which prey on desperate homeowners trying to avoid foreclosure.

A little known agency, the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP), says it has now shut down 125 alleged scams that had been widely advertised on Google, Yahoo and Bing.

SIGTARP investigates, among other things, mortgage modification schemes in which companies charge struggling homeowners a fee in exchange for false promises of lowering the homeowner’s mortgage through TARP’s housing program known as the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP).

Microsoft, which founded Bing and whose technology powers Yahoo Search, said it has suspended its relationship with more than 400 advertisers and has blocked all future advertising associated with the 125 scams identified by SIGTARP. Google suspended 500 advertisers last week.

“Many homeowners who have fallen prey to these scams were enticed by Web banner ads and online search advertisements that promised, for a fee, to help lower mortgage payments,” said Christy Romero, Deputy Special Inspector General for SIGTARP.

Upfront fee

That's what happened to Rebecca of Murfreesboro, Tenn., who was told she could lower her house payment through a mortgage modification.

"I had to pay them $2,198.00 and was told ... that if I didn't get the results I needed that I could get a full refund of my money. I did not get the results I needed and have asked for my money to be refunded and keep getting the runaround," Rebecca told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I am about to lose my house because of this."

The latest action won't help Rebecca but may keep other consumers from falling into the same trap, Romero said:

“SIGTARP's work in cutting off these Internet advertisements will immediately and dramatically decrease the scope and scale of these scams by limiting their ability to seek out and victimize struggling homeowners. SIGTARP will investigate and hold accountable criminals who defraud homeowners in connection with HAMP, while doing everything we can to stop homeowners from becoming victims in the first place.”

The most common schemes included asking homeowners for an up-front fee and telling homeowners to stop paying their mortgage and to cease all contact with their lender. The schemes included diverting mortgage payments to the scammers, transferring property deeds, and/or releasing sensitive personal financial information. In some instances, the Web sites claimed to be affiliated with the U.S. government through the use of a government seal or name similar to a government agency.

"They send us an application to file, we did, and their fee was $2700.00 upfront, and we paid it," said Elia of Antioch, Calif., in a recent complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com. "On Sat 11-12-2011, we received a letter from Guaranty Bank stating that they are unable to fully process our regular payment since we owe $5710.26. There is no way!! We do not have this kind of money."

What to do

Homeowners can protect themselves from becoming a victim of these scams by seeking a HAMP mortgage modification directly through their lender or mortgage servicer or through HUD-approved housing counselors who are available at 1-888-995-HOPE (4673) or www.makinghomeaffordable.gov.

HAMP is a free program that does not require a fee to be paid to your lender or a HUD-approved counselor.

Homeowners should continue to pay their mortgage directly to their lender and should not send those payments through anyone other than their lender. Homeowners should be wary of anyone who tells them to stop paying their mortgage or to cease all contact with their lender, as these are hallmarks of a mortgage modification scam.

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Pool Products Distributor Settles Charges of Anticompetitive Tactics

Pool Corp. agrees not to use threats and coercion to stifle competition

Pool Corporation, the largest distributor of swimming pool products in the United States, has agreed to stop anticompetitive tactics that it allegedly has ...

Pool Corporation, the largest distributor of swimming pool products in the United States, has agreed to stop anticompetitive tactics that it allegedly has been using to keep out new competitors in local markets around the nation, as part of a settlement that resolves charges by the Federal Trade Commission.

PoolCorp distributes products used in the construction, renovation, repair, service, and maintenance of residential and commercial swimming pools.

PhotoThe FTC charged that for the past eight years, PoolCorp, based in Covington, Louisiana, used its monopoly power to thwart entry by new competitors by blocking them from buying pool products directly from manufacturers. The strategy significantly raised the costs incurred by its rivals, thereby lowering sales, increasing prices, and reducing the number of choices available to consumers, the agency alleged.

Specifically, the FTC contends that PoolCorp threatened manufacturers of pool products that PoolCorp would not sell their products at any of its 200 distribution centers if manufacturers also sold their products to new distributor rivals. According to the complaint, PoolCorp's threats were significant because the loss of PoolCorp sales could be catastrophic to even the largest pool products manufacturer.

As a result, the agency alleged, these threats were effective, and manufacturers representing more than 70 percent of all pool products sales refused to sell to new distributors. In order for a distributor to succeed, the FTC alleged, it must be able to buy pool products directly from manufacturers because there are no cost-effective alternatives.

The FTC alleges that PoolCorp's conduct impeded new distributors from entering the market, raised the costs of new distributors, and likely resulted in higher prices. The FTC alleged that the company's tactics constituted illegal exclusionary acts and practices. There allegedly was no pro-competitive rationale for PoolCorp's exclusionary conduct.

The proposed order settling the charges is intended to remedy PoolCorp's alleged anticompetitive conduct. It prohibits PoolCorp from:

  • Conditioning the purchase or sale of pool products, or membership in PoolCorp's preferred vendor program, on the intended or actual sale of pool products by a manufacturer to any other distributor;
  • Pressuring, urging, or otherwise coercing manufacturers to stop selling, or to limit their sales, to any other distributor; and
  • Discriminating or retaliating against a manufacturer for selling, or intending to sell, pool products to any other distributor.

The settlement order also requires PoolCorp to put in place an antitrust compliance program to ensure it does not violate the terms of the order in the future.

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DOT Fines Spirit Airlines for Violating Price Advertising Rules

Billboards, posters didn't include all information about taxes and fees

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) today fined Spirit Airlines $50,000 for violating federal aviation laws and the Department’s rules prohib...

PhotoThe U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) today fined Spirit Airlines $50,000 for violating federal aviation laws and the Department’s rules prohibiting deceptive price advertising in air travel. 

“Consumers have a right to know the full price they will be paying when they buy an airline ticket,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.  “We expect airlines to treat their passengers fairly, and we will take enforcement action when they violate our price advertising rules.”

DOT rules require any advertising that includes a price for air transportation to state the full price to be paid by the consumer, including all carrier-imposed surcharges.  The only exceptions currently allowed are government-imposed taxes and fees that are assessed on a per-passenger basis, such as passenger facility charges, which may be stated separately from the advertised fare but must be clearly disclosed in the advertisement so that passengers can easily determine the full price they must pay. 

Internet fare listings may disclose these separate taxes and fees through a prominent link next to the fare stating that government taxes and fees are extra, and the link must take the viewer directly to information where the type and amount of taxes and fees are displayed.  In print advertisements, including billboards and posters, an asterisk or other symbol placed next to the advertised fare may refer the reader to the bottom of the advertisement where the type and amount of the fees may be stated separately, in type large enough so that passing consumers can read the information. 

In addition, if carriers advertise an each-way fare that is available only if the consumer purchases a roundtrip ticket, the advertisements must clearly and conspicuously state the roundtrip purchase requirement.

For a period of time in June 2011, Spirit used billboards and hand-held posters to advertise new service from Los Angeles that contained an asterisk next to the advertised fare.  On the billboards, the asterisk led to small print which stated that additional taxes, fees and conditions would apply, but did not disclose the amount of those taxes and fees.  The posters did not include any information about the taxes and fees or their amounts. 

In addition, Spirit sent Twitter feeds announcing $9 each-way fares.  A consumer who clicked on the link that was provided was taken to a page on Spirit’s website where the carrier disclosed for the first time that these fares did not include all taxes and fees, and that they were subject to a roundtrip purchase requirement. 

Only after clicking on a second link, which took readers to the bottom of the page, was the amount of additional taxes and fees disclosed. 

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

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Smartphone Battery Drain a Common Problem

But a new 'super battery' may be on the way

the iPhone 4S isn't the only smartphone with battery life problems...

PhotoSoon after Apple rolled out its new iPhone 4S, complaints began to appear about battery life. Consumers who bought the device reported the battery ran down quickly, requiring charging more than once a day, in some cases.

Apple suggested the problem would be fixed in an upgrade of the operating software, but some users complained the upgrade just made the problem worse.

It turns out that the iPhone 4S isn't the only smartphone producing battery life complaints. A number of other phones, from other manufacturers and running on other platforms, display similar behavior.

Take the Motorola's new Droid Razr, using Google's Android operating system. The phone is viewed as a challenger to the iPhone 4S but also seems to have the 4S' battery life problem.

A negative

PhotoIn the over 100 reviews of the phone posted on VerizonWireless' website, many of consumers list battery life as a “con,” despite finding many “pros” with the device.

“My battery seems to die just from me staring at the screen,” a reviewer going by the screen name “Mobeda” said.

“Battery life is less than a working day with apps killed,” another reviewer named Eezak said.


In addition to having lots of energy-eating features, the Razr runs on Verizon's faster 4G network, which the iPhone 4S does not. Another Android phone, the HTC Rezound, earned a four-star ratting from a reviewer named Wilsoncraft, who labeled his review “Fast and Beautiful,” giving the device five stars for every feature except one.

“Very short battery life even with 4g off and brightness turned down,” Wilsoncraft wrote.

'Doesn't last'

The HTC Evo, which operates on Sprint's 4G network, is a very popular phone but, like many other 4G devices, produces complaints about the battery.


Photo“The only bad thing is the battery, it doesn't last too long,” wrote a reviewer going by Shenam80.

The problem, experts say, is that today's crop of sophisticated smartphones do more than their batteries can support – or drain our batteries faster than our older phones that didn't do as much. Speed and features require energy and the batteries that power the phones just haven't kept up.

A super battery?


If battery life is a major concern, it might pay to stick with your old phone for a while longer. Researchers at Northwestern University say they have figured out how to dramatically expand the life of a smartphone battery.

A team of engineers has created an electrode for lithium-ion batteries -- rechargeable batteries such as those found in cellphones and iPods -- that allows the batteries to hold a charge up to 10 times greater than current technology. Batteries with the new electrode also can charge 10 times faster than current batteries.

PhotoThat means you could charge your battery in about 15 minutes and have it last all week.

“We have found a way to extend a new lithium-ion battery’s charge life by 10 times,” said Harold H. Kung, lead author of the paper. “Even after 150 charges, which would be one year or more of operation, the battery is still five times more effective than lithium-ion batteries on the market today.”

When can consumers expect to see such a battery? The technology could be in the marketplace in the next three to five years, they say.  Please hold.

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Congress Slashes Legal Aid Budget

Cuts will make it harder for low-income consumers to get help when they need it

Congress took another bite out of lower-income consumers last week, approving a spending package that includes significant cuts to the Legal Services Corpo...

PhotoCongress took another bite out of lower-income consumers last week, approving a spending package that includes significant cuts to the Legal Services Corporation, a move that will make it significantly harder for low-income people to access legal aid.

"Legal  aid grantees help low-income people with legal issues regarding foreclosures and evictions,  consumer problems including predatory lending, restraining orders in domestic violence cases, child custody, child support,  bankruptcy and more," said Alan W. Houseman, executive director of CLASP, the Center for Law and Social Policy.

"With the lingering effects of the recession, low-income people's need for legal assistance is growing," Houseman said.

The cuts to LSC are part of a broader appropriations bill or "minibus" that bundles FY 2012 funding for Commerce, Science & Justice, Agriculture, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.  The bill reduces funding for LSC in FY 2012 to $348 million from $404.19 million this fiscal year. The last time LSC was funded at $348 million was in 2007.

"Funding provided through the Legal Services Corporation is the only way millions of Americans can bring their civil cases — child support and custody decisions, foreclosures and veterans’ benefit disputes, for example — to court,” said American Bar Association President Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III.

“The ABA will work diligently with Congress to seek restoration of the $56 million in lost — and desperately needed — funding in a future budget year,” Robinson said.

The entire cut is designated to come from basic field programs, which means LSC grantees providing legal assistance to low-income clients would see a cut to their grants amounting to 14.8 percent. 

"Reducing funding for LSC curtails people's access to resources to secure equal justice," Houseman said. "The reduced funding for LSC is part and parcel of a larger issue with the direction of our policies. Domestic programs that aid low- and moderate-income people remain a target of deep cuts, yet we continue to punt the question of how to make sure we generate enough revenue to meet the nation's needs. "

LSC is the largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income people.

Already, legal services providers are being forced to lay off staff, make critical programmatic decisions, and even shut their doors.  A cut on the scale included in the minibus would force even more offices to close and many in need of legal help to be turned away.

 
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Consumer Groups Want Stronger Protection for Prepaid Card Users

Urges rules similar to those covering debit cards used with traditional bank account

Consumer groups urged the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) today to require prepaid card issuers to provide consumers with the same kinds of pro...

PhotoConsumer groups urged the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) today to require prepaid card issuers to provide consumers with the same kinds of protections they get when using a traditional debit card linked to a bank account.

“As the cost of bank accounts continue to rise, more and more consumers are turning to prepaid cards as an alternative,” said Michelle Jun, senior attorney for Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. “But prepaid cards offer weaker protections than bank accounts and can be loaded with hidden fees that make them costly to use.

"Prepaid card issuers should be required to provide consumers with the same mandatory protections that come with traditional debit cards and to clearly disclose all fees so consumers know these costs up front,” Jun said.

Many consumers are relying on general purpose, reloadable prepaid cards to manage their finances and make purchases. However, consumers who rely on prepaid cards are only entitled to voluntary protections provided by card issuers when cards are lost or stolen and used to make unauthorized charges.

Loopholes

Those voluntary protections come with loopholes and could be subject to change at any time. Prepaid card fees often are poorly disclosed and can make the cost of using these cards much higher than anticipated by consumers.

The letter submitted to the CFPB was signed by Consumers Union, Center for Public Policy Priorities, Center for Responsible Lending, Coalition of Religious Communities, National Consumer Law Center, SC Appleseed Legal Justice Center, and U.S. PIRG.

The groups called on the CFPB to enact a number of mandatory protections for consumers using prepaid cards, including:

• a cap on how much money consumers can lose if their card is lost or stolen or when unauthorized charges are made;

• a guarantee that missing money will be recredited promptly and no later than 10 business days after the consumer reports it;

• clear and conspicuous disclosures of all fees before the consumer signs up to use the card;

• the right to receive a statement or other forms of transaction information; and

• a prohibition on overdraft fees for all prepaid cards.

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How Not To Blow Your Diet At Thanksgiving

Researchers say environmental cues influence our eating habits

You've been doing a great job sticking to your diet and the pounds are starting to come off. But now comes the Thanksgiving holiday, with its huge meals an...

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What's On Your Mind? Boost Mobile, Bank of America, Hertz

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Boost Mobile, Bank of America, Hertz, Bought insurance without his knowledge and Make close inspection....

PhotoIt's one thing when consumers complain about a product or service. It's quite another when someone who sells it agrees with them. That's the case of "J," (we're not going to use his name, we'd like him to keep his job) who says he works at a Radio Shack in New York, and has had it with Boost Mobile.

"After selling phones for the better part of three years, I have come to the conclusion that Boost Mobile, although a good price, it a complete waste of money," J told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Mainly because if you need help with your phone, expect to be on the phone trying to figure out their IVR. It will take you over a half of an hour to try to reach support. There is no button to hit for customer service. The options they give you are limited. They make you sit on the phone listening to how to program your phone, but at the end, they say sorry, cannot do it through the system, and to call back and request to speak to a live operator. How am I supposed to do that if they wont give me the option. It is a serious waste of my time as an associate, and a waste of my customers time for having to wait that long to speak to somebody."

For the sake of his customers, J says he refuses to sell another Boost phone.

Bought insurance without his knowledge

Kerri, of Alexander, Ark., says she was reviewing her husband's bank statement and noticed that Bank of America had been debiting $19 a month for the past two years for an accidental death insurance company.

"Last week my husband called them and demanded they stop debiting the account," Kerri said. "He was told he had 'signed up' for this insurance and they could not just cancel it. They agreed to send him a copy of the policy which was to include start date and a list of coverage."

Kerri says a week later he received a piece of paper in the mail from Bank of America that was not an insurance policy, but what appeared to be a sales pitch for Accidental Hospital Insurance, with a list of coverages.

"It's an enrollment form," Kerri said, "We did not ask for this. It also states that the coverage would begin once we signed the form and sent it back in. I held onto it, with absolutely no intentions of signing anything. One week later we received an 'activation form' from Bank of America reminding us that we had not signed the form, please return etc. I have no intention of signing this."

Meanwhile, Kerri says no one has been willing to help her have the debit removed. It sounds like her husband was enrolled in an insurance program without every applying. It may be time for her husband to contact the Arkansas Insurance Commission and let that office get to the bottom on it.

Make close inspection

Vince, of Oren, Utah, is another rental car customer who thinks he was wrongly charged for damage to a vehicle that someone else caused.

"Hertz wrongly charged my bank account $280.00 for something I did not do," Vince told ConsumerAffairs.com. "They claimed that I brought the rental car back with a tiny chip on the windshield. Yes,I did take the car back with the chip on the windshield; however the chip was already there on the windshield. My two boys pointed out to me when I brought the car home for our trip. When the agent and I inspected the exterior of the car before I took it home neither he nor I really inspected the front windshield the focus was mostly on the body of the car."

With all due respect to Vince, the whole purpose of an inspection is to find any damage. Consumers shouldn't expect the rental agent to point it out to them. And don't take a vehicle or drop it off without having an agent conduct a thorough inspection with you.  

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Under Pressure From Feds, Google Shuts Down Bogus Mortgage Ads

Google says it has suspended deals with more than 500 advertisers

Sometimes Google's "Do no evil" mantra seems to really be shorthand for, "Don't get caught helping others do evil."For years, Google looked the other way...

PhotoSometimes Google's "Do no evil" mantra seems to really be shorthand for, "Don't get caught helping others do evil."

For years, Google looked the other way as online pharmacies used its AdWords progam to illegally sell prescription drugs online, often without a prescription or across borders. It recently paid $500 million, one of the largest forfeitures in U.S. history, to settle federal allegations related to the drug ads.

Now that a federal agency is opening a criminal investigation of at least 85 companies that use Google AdWords to sell mortgage modifiction services, Google has seen the light and announced that it is suspending more than 500 advertisers who claim to provide services for troubled homeowners.

Consumer groups have complained for years of the proliferation of ads for scams and outright frauds on Google -- and at least one organization is demanding Google donate its proceeds from the tainted ads to consumers who have lost their homes. 

Consumer Watchdog claims Google processed more than 74,000 monthly searches on the phrase 'stop foreclosure', with ads alongside costing an average of $8.29 per click, for a monthly total of $613,460.00, a figure one knowledgeable Internet executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity said was far too low.  

"Turned a blind eye"

Photo"Google should never have published these ads, but its executives turned a blind eye to these fraudsters for far too long because of the substantial revenue such advertising generates," said John Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project.

"The company cannot be allowed to benefit from these ill-gotten gains. Google must donate the money to aid homeowners who were victimized because of its callous quest for profits."

"Google is highly motivated to turn a blind eye to all sorts of dubious advertising on its search engine because AdWords is such a cash cow," Simpson said.

The feds have now taken up that cry.

“The first place many homeowners turn for help in lowering their mortgage is the Internet through online search engines, and that’s precisely where they are being taken advantage of and targeted,” said Christy Romero, Deputy Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP). “Web ads that offer a false sense of hope may not be legitimate and can end up costing homeowners their home."

85 scams

Romero said SIGTARP has initially shut down 85 alleged online mortgage modification scams that prey on vulnerable homeowners through Web banners and other Web advertisements.

SIGTARP, a little-known entity, is charged with investigating mortgage modification schemes in which companies charge struggling homeowners a fee in exchange for false promises of lowering the homeowner’s mortgage through TARP’s housing program known as the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP).

Romero said the agency is "diligently working on every level to stop these frauds, to protect homeowners from being victimized, and to hold accountable criminals who defraud homeowners in connection with HAMP and other TARP programs.”

SIGTARP said it notified Google of a list of Web sites alleged to be fraudulently claiming to assist homeowners with the HAMP mortgage modification process but who were instead scamming distressed homeowners.

The most common schemes included asking homeowners for an up-front fee and telling homeowners to stop paying their mortgage and to cease all contact with their lender. The schemes included diverting mortgage payments to the scammers, transferring property deeds, and releasing sensitive personal financial information.

In some instances, the Web sites claimed to be affiliated with the U.S. government through the use of a government seal or name similar to a government agency.

"Dramatic impact"

Google’s suspension of these advertising relationships will have a "dramatic and immediate impact" on the ability of scam artists to seek out and victimize unwitting homeowners, Romero said.  

Of course, those already victimized by the scams might say the impact would have been a lot more dramatic if the ads had never been allowed to appear in the first place.

Unlike newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets, Google imposes few restrictions on advertisers, relying on guidelines that are often more technical than substantive.

The automated AdWords system tries to block certain types of objectionable ads, Google has said, but in most cases there is no actual human review of an advertisement.  

Photo

Google and other online ad outlets argue that it would be too expensive for them to manually review ads or vet would-be clients. But not doing so leaves consumers ripe for fleecing, consumer groups have long charged.

Knew as early as 2003

After the pharmacy settlement, Consumer Watchdog said Google was aware as early as 2003 that generally, it was illegal for pharmacies to ship controlled and non-controlled prescription drugs into the United States from Canada -- and federal agencies vowed anew to take a more aggressive stance towards fraudulent and predatory advertising online.

“The Department of Justice will continue to hold accountable companies who in their bid for profits violate federal law and put at risk the health and safety of American consumers,” said Deputy U.S. Attorney General James M. Cole said in August. 

“This investigation is about the patently unsafe, unlawful, importation of prescription drugs by Canadian on-line pharmacies, with Google’s knowledge and assistance, into the United States, directly to U.S. consumers,” said

Peter F. Neronha, U.S. Attorney for the District of Rhode Island, noted that the illegal drug sales and importations were conducted "with Google’s knowledge and assistance," a phrase likely to be heard again in connection with the mortgate modification investigation.

 

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FDA Removes Breast Cancer Treatment Approval From Avastin

Drug can still be used to treat colon cancer

FDA has removed approval for Avastin to treat breast cancer...

PhotoIn what was probably a foregone conclusion, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has ruled the the cancer drug Avastin should not be used to treat breast cancer because there is no evidence that it is effective.

The drug remains on the market, since it is used primarily to treat colon cancer. It is still approved for that use.

Many breast cancer parients will likely be disappointed with the ruling, but FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said the decision, though difficult, was necessary because patients have to have confidence the medication they are taking is effective.

Move not unexpected

As expected, the FDA took the advice of its panel of experts that studied the drug and its use to treat breast cancer. In June the panel recommended that Avastin not be used for breast cancer.

The ruling came in spite of strong pleas from breast cancer patients and Genentech, the pharmaceutical company that makes the drug. However, panel members said at the time that clinical trials simply failed to bear out the early promise for the drug.

Though Avastin will remain on the market, Genentech will no longer be allowed to market it as a breast cancer treatment. More importantly, insurance companies will no longer pay for it to treat breast cancer. The drug costs about $88,000 a year to treat one patient.

Last December FDA recommended removal of the breast cancer indication from the label for Avastin because it said the drug has not been shown to be safe and effective for that use.

The recommendation followed a review of the results of four clinical studies of Avastin in women with breast cancer and a determination that the data indicate that the drug does not prolong overall survival in breast cancer patients or provide a sufficient benefit in slowing disease progression to outweigh the significant risk to patients.

These risks include severe high blood pressure; bleeding and hemorrhage; the development of perforations (or "holes") in the body, including in the nose, stomach, and intestines; and heart attack or heart failure.

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Housing Market May Be Showing Signs Of Life

Fed official says sector needs more help

There were some encouraging signs for housing this week...

PhotoThe Commerce Department reports housing starts fell 0.3 percent in October, but it was a much better showing than most analysts expected. Building permits, an indicator of future activity, surged 10.9 percent during the month.

That news comes in the same week that the Mortgage Bankers Association reported that delinquencies on mortgage payments fell to just under eight percent in the third quarter, indicating homeowners are having a slightly easier time handling their mortgages.

People who want to buy homes, however, are still having a hard time qualifying for a mortgage, and therein lies the rub. Until more buyers move into the market, sales will remain soft and so will prices.

Fed to the rescue?

William C. Dudley, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, thinks addressing problems in the housing market is the best way to stimulate the economic recovery. In a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. this week, Dudley said there are things the Fed can do to help.

“One significant problem is the trajectory of home prices,” Dudley said. “Homeowners have lost more than $6,000 billion in home equity since the housing market turned. For homeowners with mortgage debt, about one-quarter of these homeowners have mortgage debt that exceeds the value of their homes. The loss of home equity is a serious problem in itself of course, but it has been exacerbated by the fact that many households have found it very difficult to refinance to take advantage of lower mortgage rates.”

Without an improvement in the ability to refinance, Dudley says the outlook for real estate prices is not promising.

When it cut interest rates effectively to zero in late 2008, the Fed helped the nations banks get back on their feet. But that help to the banks has not been passed on to home buyers and sellers.

Dudley said he believes the Fed could help the real estate market by announcing its commitment to keep interest rates low and by purchasing mortgage backed securities.

“This would have a greater direct impact on the housing market and would be less likely to disrupt market functioning compared with further purchases in the Treasury market,” Dudley said.

Interest rates don't seem to be the problem

But mortgage rates are already near historic lows. The problem, says National Association of Realtors chief economist Lawrence Yun, is homeowners can't meet lender new higher standards.

While “less awful” housing statistic are some reason for optimism, perhaps the most encouraging thing for the housing market is a growing sense among policymakers that it remains the key to economic recovery.

At the 2011 Realtors Conference & Expo last weekend, political leaders agreed that the struggling housing market needs to be a priority on the nation’s public policy agenda. The message appeared to be a bipartisan one.

“A healthy housing industry helps everyone in the country,: said Rep. Gary Miller (R-CA). “The housing market has led this nation out of every downturn we’ve had in the past.”

The sentiment was echoed by California's Democratic governor, Jerry Brown. He told attendees that while it’s important for consumers to live within their means it also critical that they invest in their futures, and one important way is through homeownership. He also said there needs to be more help for underwater homeowners through refinancing their mortgages or reducing their debt burden.

“The nation needs to have restored confidence in the housing market and economy,” Brown said.

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VW Fuming Over Obama's Preference for Hybrids, Electrics

German automaker's turbodiesels already come close to 50 mpg

2012 VW Passat TDIVolkswagen is fuming over the Obama Administration's proposal to double auto fuel efficiency, saying the plan unfairl...

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2012 VW Passat TDI

Volkswagen is fuming over the Obama Administration's proposal to double auto fuel efficiency, saying the plan unfairly values hybrid and all-electric cars over clean diesel, a technology VW has pioneered.

VW, Europe's largest automaker and the fastest-growing automaker in the United States, already offers turbodiesel cars, station wagons and SUVs that routinely get nearly 50 miles per gallon on the highway.

"A lot of good work has been done, but there is room and a need for some improvements to keep a level playing field for all automakers to attain the challenging new goals," said Jonathan Browning, chief executive of Volkswagen Group of America.

VW saw its sales grow 40 percent in October and has estimated that about 22 percent of its U.S. sales are turbodiesels.  The German automaker's recent restyling and resizing of its cars to meet American tastes, has catapulted its standing with U.S. consumers.

A ConsumerAffairs.com analysis of more than 93,000 postings on Twitter, Facebook and other blogs and social media finds net consumer sentiment for VW staying firmly in positive territory for the last 12 months and vaulting to roughly 80 percent in the last month.

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Blue line shows net sentiment

Eco cars 

No less an authority than non-profit Consumer Reports recently tested all of the mass-produced “Eco Cars” and named the Volkswagen Jetta TDI the winner.  The turbodiesel Jetta Sportwagen got 49 mpg on the highway and 36 overall ini CR's tests.  Other cars tested included the Ford Fiesta, Mazda2 and the Honda CR-Z, which performed so poorly that CR said it could not recommend it.

Consumer "likes" during the year don't single out turbodiesel's mpg performance but do take note of efficiency, performance and positive findings by reviews like those quoted above. 

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Volkswagen is one of the few major automakers that did not sign onto an agreement that underpinned the Obama proposal to boost efficiency targets to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, a target VW already approaches today with its clean-burning turbodiesel engines.

Big pickups

Besides overlooking the benefits of diesel, VW said the Obama plan unfairly favors the biggest pickups -- a staple of U.S. automakers General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.

Japanese manufacturers currently dominate the hybrid market.  GM makes the Chevy Volt, which so far is not setting the world on fire.  

European manufacturers have long favored diesel engines, which deliver superior mileage and relatively low emissions. 

Volkswagen's mid-size Passat TDI, which gets 43 mpg on the highway and is one of the brand's top sellers in the U.S., is built in Chattanooga, Tenn., the automaker noted.

Couldn't be better

Traditional consumer groups generally fell over themselves to praise the plan.

“The new standards could not be coming at a better time for consumers. This year, consumers are on track to spend a record $2,900 on gasoline per household. The average American family simply cannot afford to keep throwing good money after bad fueling up gas-guzzlers,” said Dr. Mark Cooper, Director of Research for the Consumer Federation of America.

“Once fully implemented, the new 54.5 MPG standard will save households $6,000 per car over the vehicle’s lifetime, while spurring automotive innovation that will create better choices for consumers. Americans love their cars, and they’ll love them even more when they go farther on a tank of gas,” Cooper added.

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Stanford Develops New Model to Detect Early Cancer

Many tumors now grow for 10 years or more before they're detected

A lot of attention is paid to early detection of cancer but Stanford University researchers have developed a new mathematical model that shows tumors can&n...

PhotoA lot of attention is paid to early detection of cancer but Stanford University researchers have developed a new mathematical model that shows tumors can grow for 10 years or longer before currently available blood tests will detect them.

“The study’s results can be viewed as both bad and good news,” said Sanjiv “Sam” Gambhir, MD, PhD, professor and chair of radiology and the study’s senior author. 

The bad news, Gambhir said, is that by the time a tumor reaches a detectable size using today’s available blood tests, it is likely to have metastasized to other areas of the body, making it much more deadly than if it had been caught early on.

“The good news is that we have, potentially, 10 or even 20 years to find the tumor before it reaches this size, if only we can improve our blood-based methods of detecting tumors,” he said. “We think our mathematical model will help guide attempts to do that.”

The study advances previous research about the limits of current detection methods. For instance, it is strikingly consistent with a finding reported two years ago by Stanford biochemistry professor Patrick Brown, MD, PhD, that current ovarian cancer tests could not detect tumors early enough to make a significant dent in the mortality rate.

There is a push to develop more-sensitive diagnostic tests and find better biomarkers, and Gambhir’s new model could be an essential tool in this effort. It for the first time connects the size of a tumor with blood biomarker levels being shed by that tumor.

The analysis, which was restricted to ovarian tumors but is broadly applicable across all solid tumor types, published online Nov. 16 in Science Translational Medicine.

Mathematical model

To create their model, Gambhir and Hori used mathematical models originally developed to predict the concentration of drugs injected into the blood as they move in and out of the bloodstream. The investigators linked these to additional models of tumor cell growth.

Tumors don’t secrete drugs, but they can shed telltale molecules into surrounding tissue, from which those substances, known as biomarkers, diffuse into the blood. Some biomarkers may be made predominantly by tumor cells, while others exclusively by them. Either way, these substances can be measured in the blood as proxies for a tumor.

The new mathematical model employs separate equations, each governing the movement of a biomarker from one compartment into the next. Into these equations, one can plug known values — such as how fast a particular type of tumor grows, how much of the biomarker a tumor cell of this type sheds per hour and the minimum levels of the biomarker that must be present in the blood for a currently available assay to detect it.

In the last decade, many potential new biomarkers for different cancers have been identified. There’s no shortage of promising candidates — six for lung cancer alone, for example. But validating a biomarker in large clinical trials is a long, expensive process. So it is imperative to determine as efficiently as possible which, among many potential tumor biomarkers, is the best prospective candidate.

“This model could take some of the guesswork out of it,” Gambhir said. “It can be applied to all kinds of solid cancers and prospective biomarkers as long as we have enough data on, for instance, how much of it a tumor cell secretes per hour, how long the biomarker can circulate before it’s degraded and how quickly tumor cells divide."

 
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Gas Prices Sink As Oil Prices Rise

Pump prices fall nearly five cents a gallon in last week

Gas prices take an unexpected fall...

PhotoRarely do you see a week in which oil prices jump and gasoline prices drop, but this has been just such a week.

While the price of West Texas oil traded above $100 a barrel at times this week, the prices of gasoline dropped in nearly every state.

The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.384 per gallon, down from $3.438 last Friday, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. That's nine cents a gallon less than what motorists were paying a month ago.

The price of diesel fuel, however, continues to go up. The average price of diesel fuel today is $3.996 per gallon, up from $3.932 a week ago.

Gas prices had been creeping higher in the previous weeks as crude oil prices began to regain strength. But this week prices at the pump began moving in the opposite direction. One reason may be that consumers continue to buy less gasoline.

“Since the beginning of October crude oil prices have risen from $75.67 to 98.99 per barrel — an increase of more than 30 percent,” said Avery Ash, AAA's manager of Federal Relations. “During this same period, as gasoline demand has remained sluggish due to high prices and a weak economy, the price at the pump has been relatively unchanged albeit at a price more than 50 cents higher than this time last year.”

However, with refiners paying more for crude oil, motorists can expect to be paying more for gasoline by the end of the year.

The states with the most expensive gas this week are:

  • Hawaii ($4.147)
  • Alaska ($4.030)
  • California ($3.791)
  • Washington ($3.726)
  • Oregon ($3.678)
  • Connecticut ($3.672)
  • New York ($3.665)
  • Nevada ($3.569)
  • Montana ($3.540)
  • Illinois ($3.504)

 

The states with the least expensive gas this week are:

  • Missouri ($3.129)
  • New Mexico ($3.151)
  • South Carolina ($3.177)
  • Texas ($3.210)
  • Mississippi ($3.210)
  • Tennessee ($3.213)
  • Oklahoma ($3.218)
  • Alabama ($3.224)
  • Arkansas ($3.224)
  • Louisiana ($3.226)
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Working In Smoke-Free Environment May Prolong Life

Mayo Clinic researchers find fewer heart attacks where smoking is banned

Smoke free workplaces save lives...

PhotoPeople who work in smoke-free workplaces may end up living longer, according to researchers at the Mayo Clinic.

Their research, presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions this week in Orlando, Fla., shows that the incidence of heart attacks and sudden cardiac deaths was cut in half among Olmsted County, Minn., residents after a smoke-free ordinance took effect.

Adult smoking dropped 23 percent during the same time frame, as the rates of other risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and obesity remained stable or increased.

“This study adds to the observation that smoke-free workplace laws help reduce the chances of having a heart attack, but for the first time we report these laws also reduce the chances of sudden cardiac death,” said Richard Hurt, M.D., director of Mayo Clinic’s Nicotine Dependence Center. “The study shows that everyone, especially people with known coronary artery disease, should avoid contact with secondhand smoke. They should have no -- literally no -- exposure to secondhand smoke because it is too dangerous to their health.”

Hurt played an instrumental role in the passage of smoke-free ordinances in Olmsted County and the state of Minnesota. He says evidence from this new study will strengthen efforts by the Global Smoke-Free Worksite Challenge, a recently formed tobacco control advocacy collaboration that debuted at a Clinton Global Initiative event. The Challenge will encourage other countries and employers to expand the number of employees able to work in smoke-free environments.

“We are going to use this information to help us convince corporations -- convince countries -- that this is the right thing to do to protect the health of their workers and their citizens,” Hurt said.

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KEDS Recalls 'Know It All' Girls' Shoe

Ornamental stars pose a laceration hazard

KEDS is recalling about 45,000 "Know It All" Girls' Shoes.  Ornamental stars on the heel of the shoe may loosen, posing a laceration hazard.The firm...

PhotoKEDS is recalling about 45,000 "Know It All" Girls' Shoes.  Ornamental stars on the heel of the shoe may loosen, posing a laceration hazard.

The firm has received 27 reports of cuts and scratches resulting from metal stars that loosened from the heel of the shoe.

This recall involves KEDS girls' rubber soled shoes. The shoes are black and pink with white trim and a pink loop on the heel. "KEDS" appears on the tongue and heel of the shoe. The style number KY40098A is printed on the underside of the tongue. The shoes were sold in girls' sizes 12 to 5.

Various department stores and online retailers sold the shows from June through October 2011 for about $23. They were made in China.

Consumers should take these shoes away from children immediately and contact Collective Brands to receive a gift card for $30 redeemable at Stride Rite stores or striderite.com.

For additional information, contact Collective Brands at (800) 365-4933 between 8:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. ET Monday through Friday and between 9:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. ET Saturday and Sunday, Email kedskidsrecall@collectivebrands.com, or visit the firm's website www.collectivebrands.com

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Ready Pac, Raley's, Trader Joe's, Safeway Bagged Salads Recalled

Salads containing Romaine lettuce may be contaminated with E. coli

Ready Pac Foods, Inc. of Irwindale, CA is recalling a total of 5,379 cases of  bagged salad products containing Romaine lettuce, as listed below, with...

PhotoReady Pac Foods, Inc. of Irwindale, CA is recalling a total of 5,379 cases of  bagged salad products containing Romaine lettuce, as listed below, with the Use-by Date of November 18, 2011 because they may be contaminated with E. coli (E.coli O157:H7).  

E.coli O157:H7 is an organism that may cause diarrheal illness often with bloody stools. Although most healthy adults can recover completely within a week, some people can develop a form of kidney failure called Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS). HUS is most likely to occur in young children and the elderly. The condition can lead to serious kidney damage and even death.

The recall extends only to the listed products with this Use-by Date and sold in the following states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Oregon, Texas, and Washington.  No other Ready Pac Foods, Inc. products are included in the recall.

PRODUCT DESCRIPTIONUPC #BEST IF USED BY
10oz. Ready Pac Caesar Romaine0-77745-00202-6NOV 18
9.25oz Ready Pac Santa Fe Caesar Complete Salad0-77745-21404-7NOV 18
10oz. Ready Pac Classic Caesar Complete Salad0-77745-20566-3NOV 18
10oz. Ready Pac Bella Romaine0-77745-21407-8NOV 18
10oz. Dining In Classic Caesar Salad Kit0-11225-02530-3NOV 18
10oz. Raley’s Caesar Romaine0-46567-71642-8NOV 18
10oz. Trader Joe’s Romaine Salad0013-2145NOV 18
16oz. Trader Joe’s Very American Salad0020-7225NOV 18
10oz. Safeway Farms Caesar Romaine0-21130-98350-6NOV 18
9oz. Safeway Farms Hearts of Romaine0-21130-98358-2NOV 18
10oz. Safeway Farms Complete Caesar Supreme0-21130-33677-7NOV 18
10.25oz Safeway Farms Complete Southwestern Ranch0-21130-33679-1NOV 18

The voluntary recall was initiated based on a single positive random sample result for E.coli O157:H7 reported to Ready Pac by the FDA. Ready Pac is fully cooperating with the FDA on the recall. Because it is still possible that products bearing the Use-by Date of November 18, 2011 could be on store shelves, this recall extends to retailers as well as consumers. Ready Pac believes that it is important to alert consumers and retailers who might still possess one of the potentially affected salads to dispose of it immediately. Instructions for Consumers: Check your refrigerator for the above listed products with the Use-by Date of November 18, 2011. The Use-by Date can be found in the upper left hand corner of the package with the UPC numbers located on the back side of the bag. Consumers who may have purchased the affected product are asked to record the Use-by Date and UPC number, immediately dispose of the product, and contact the Ready Pac Consumer Affairs representative, toll-free at (800) 800-7822, Monday – Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Pacific Time) to obtain a full refund. Ready Pac Foods, Inc. has earned an outstanding safety record for over 40 years and has taken immediate precautionary measures to protect public health by issuing this voluntary recall and removing product from the market. We have notified all of our retail customers who have received the product in question and directed them to remove it from their shelves.

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Multivitamin Use May Increase Unhealthy Behavior, Researchers Say

Users may assume benefits that aren't really there

Researchers say multivitamins may promote unhealthy behavior...

PhotoThough multivitamins have gained popularity year after year, many health professionals have discounted their benefits.

In 2008 Harvard Men's Health Watch, which once endorsed daily dietary supplements, changed its position, saying multivitamins might have some harmful health effects. The following year a study by the Women's Health Initiative suggested money spent on multivitamins was a waste.

False sense of security

Now, researchers in Taiwan say people who take a daily vitamin pill may be more likely to engage in unhealthy behavior. The study was conducted by researchers working for the Dole Nutrition Institute, which advocates a plant-based diet.

In the study, subjects were given placebos. Half of this group was led to believe that the placebo they were taking was a multivitamin.

After one week, all participants took surveys regarding their inclinations towards various healthy vs. less healthy behaviors. Researchers say the results were astounding.

More hedonistic behavior

The people told they were taking multivitamins registered a 44 percent higher tendency to engage in hedonistic activities, such as casual sex, sunbathing, partying, and binge drinking. When it came to dietary issues, 61 percent showed an increased preference for all-you-can-eat buffets over healthy meals.

Compared to the placebo group, the "multivitamin" group not only reported exercising 14 percent less, they were 66 percent more likely to walk the shortest distance to their goal over a given time.

The authors of the study conclude that people relying on a multivitamin pay a hidden price, believing they have greater invulnerability and so adopt lazy, riskier behaviors that may actually lead to the exact opposite health outcomes they desire. Then there's the financial price; consumers spend about $27 billion a year on multivitamins.

Lack of evidence

With regard to direct health impact, a "state-of-the-science" National Institutes of Health (NIH) panel found insufficient evidence to recommend multivitamin usage, while the National Cancer Institute actually found that men who take more than seven multivitamins a week are a third more likely to experience advanced prostate cancer.

The American Heart Association, in recent years, has backed away from vitamins and now urges people to forgo antioxidant supplements in favor of fruit and vegetables to minimize cardiovascular disease risk.

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Student Loan Problems? Feds Want to Hear From You

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau opens inquiry into student loan market

If you've had problems getting or paying back a student loan, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) wants to hear from you.“The pr...

PhotoIf you've had problems getting or paying back a student loan, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) wants to hear from you.

“The private student loan market is one of the least understood consumer credit markets. It has been operating in the shadows for too long,” said Raj Date, Special Advisor to the Secretary of the Treasury on the CFPB. “Shedding light on this industry will benefit students, lenders, and the market as a whole.”

Private student loans are financial products used for higher education that are not originated through the federal student loan program.

Many students, especially those attending private institutions, use these loans to finance tuition and other educational expenses. But CFPB said in a statement that too little is known about student loans, which millions of Americans have used and which have resulted in billions of dollars of unpaid debt.

Those active in the private student loan market include banks, credit unions, state agencies, nonprofit organizations, marketers, servicers, and schools themselves. Unlike federal student loans, private student loans may not include certain consumer protection features for borrowers facing hardship.

The CFPB is asking the public, students, families, the higher education community, and the student loan industry – both lenders and servicers – to provide information voluntarily.  Complete information on submitting your experiences is available at http://go.usa.gov/IQP (PDF).

Big picture 

The CFPB is interested in a complete picture of private student lending, so it is seeking a broad swath of information, including:

  • Information available to shop for private student loans
  • The role of schools in the marketplace
  • Underwriting criteria
  • Repayment terms and behavior
  • Impact on choice of field of study and career choice
  • Servicing and loan modification
  • Financial education and default avoidance

The CFPB will use the collected input to assist with preparation of a report to Congress on private student lending. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act requires the CFPB and the Department of Education to produce this report by July 21, 2012. The CFPB will also use the information it gathers to prioritize its own regulatory and education work.

The notice, along with information on how to electronically submit comments, is located on the CFPB’s website. The public has 60 days to submit comments after the notice has been submitted to the Federal Register.

 

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Google Music Takes Aim at iTunes

New service is latest move in competition with Apple

Google launches music store at Android Market...

PhotoThe competition between Google and Apple, two behemoths of the consumer technology world, continues to ratchet upward with the introduction of Google Music.

Google Music allows users to buy music through the Android Market, taking direct aim at Apple's music service, iTunes. Google says the idea is to allow consumers to access their music collections easily from any device.

However, while Apple and Google portray themselves as dueling innovators out to save you time and money, it's streaming services like Spotify that may actually offer the best deal -- meaning the most music with the least restrictions at the lowest cost.

Spotify offers millions of titles that you can stream through your computer, smartphone, iPod or other device.  Prices range from free to $9.99 per month for unlimited listening with extended audio fidelity. 

Google says its new store offers more than 13 million tracks from artists on Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, EMI, and the global independent rights agency Merlin as well as over 1,000 prominent independent labels including Merge Records, Warp Records, Matador Records, XL Recordings and Naxos.

At the store, consumers will purchase individual songs or entire albums using their computers or mobile Android devices. The music will be added to the user's Google Music library, where it can be accessed from other devices.

In addition, Google said users who buy music will have the ability to share a free full play of a purchased song with thour friends on Google+, the company's social networking site. Critics might say that Google has now completed the transition to full-scale corporatespeak by inviting you to promote its other products while claiming that as a consumer benefit.

Free music downloads

PhotoTo celebrate the launch, Google said it is providing some music for free. The downloads include: song from a never-before-released live concert album from the Rolling Stones, recorded in 1973 

  • A live recording of "Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall," by Coldplay
  • Busta Rhymes’s first single from his upcoming album, "Why Stop Now"
  • Shakira’s live EP from her recent concert in Paris and her new studio single, “Je L’Aime à Mourir”
  • Pearl Jam's live album of its 9/11/11 concert in Toronto
  • Two live albums from the Dave Matthews Band
  • Tiesto's new mix "What Can We Do"


Google says any artist who has all the necessary rights can distribute his or her own music on its platform, and use the artist hub interface to build an artist page, upload original tracks, set prices and sell content directly to fans—essentially becoming the manager of their own far-reaching music store.  

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Settlement May Be Near In Walmart-Netflix Class Action Suit

Walmart said to be ready to start writing checks

Walmart agrees to settlement in Netflix class action suit...

PhotoIf you are a current or former Netflix subscriber, be on the lookout for an email that says you could receive compensation from a class action suit. This is one email that's not a scam.

The compensation is coming from Walmart. But it's not a lot of compensation. According to some estimates the average Netflix subscriber will get about $1.

The suit, which gained class status last January, claims Netflix and Walmart conspired to monopolize the DVD rental market. The suit, filed in 2009, claims Netflix and Walmart entered into an “unlawful market allocation agreement” in 2005, designed to neutralize Blockbuster's entry into the online DVD rental market the previous year.

The catalyst was Walmart's decision in 2005 to get out of the DVD-rental-by-mail business and refer customers to Netflix.

According to the plaintiffs, the agreement provided that Walmart would stop offering rental DVDs online, and Netflix would stop selling them. This arrangement was intended to reduce downward pricing pressure in the marketplace, prosecutors charged.

An expensive dinner

The scheme allegedly began in January 2005, when the companies' respective CEOs met for dinner to ponder ways to reduce competition in the online DVD market. Walmart has agreed to a $40 million settlement, which still must win approval from the courts, which will rule by March 2012.

After attorney's fees, consumers stand to share just $19 million. Consumers are free to opt out of the settlement, but must notify the court of their intentions by February 14, 2012. The number of consumers in the settlement will determine the amount each person receives.

Netflix, meanwhile, says it will not settle and contends it did nothing wrong.

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Study: 20 Percent of Americans Have Hearing Loss

Researchers say problem more widespread than they thought

About 20 percent of Americans are affected by hearing loss...

PhotoAging Baby Boomers have noticed it. As you get older, your hearing isn't what it once was. Turns out they aren't alone.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins have concluded that nearly a fifth of all Americans 12 years or older have hearing loss so severe that it may make it hard to communicate.

Study leader Frank Lin, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins, says that several previous estimates of hearing loss focused on various cities or populations, such as children or elderly patients. However, no estimate successfully encompassed the entire U.S.

“I couldn’t find a simple number of how common hearing loss is in the U.S.,” Lin said. “So, we decided to develop our own.”

Lin and his colleagues used data from the National Health and Nutritional Examination Surveys (NHANES), a research program that has periodically gathered health data from thousands of Americans since 1971. The researchers analyzed data from all participants age 12 and over whose hearing was tested during NHANES examinations from 2001 to 2008. Unlike previous estimates, NHANES includes men and women of all races and ages, from cities scattered across the country, so it’s thought to statistically mimic the population of the U.S.

Hearing threshold

The study used the World Health Organization’s definition for hearing loss - not being able to hear sounds of 25 decibels or less in the speech frequencies. The researchers found that overall, about 30 million Americans, or 12.7 percent of the population, had hearing loss in both ears.

That number jumps to about 48 million, or 20.3 percent, for people who have hearing loss in at least one ear. These numbers far surpass previous estimates of 21 to 29 million.

Hearing loss prevalence nearly doubled with every age decade, with women and blacks being significantly less likely to have hearing loss at any age. Lin and his colleagues aren’t sure why these groups appear to be protected. However, he notes that the female hormone estrogen, as well as the melanin pigment in darker skin, could have a protective effect on the inner ear—topics they plan to research in future studies.

In the meantime, Lin says, the new numbers greatly inform the work he and other researchers are doing on hearing loss and its consequences, which, according to previous studies, include cognitive decline, dementia, and poor physical functioning.

“This gives us the real scope of the problem for the first time and shows us how big of a problem hearing loss really is,” Lin said.

The study appears in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

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Smucker Recalling Peanut Butter Over Possible Salmonella

No illnesses reported from product, company says

Smucker says some of its peanut butter may be tainted with salmonella...

PhotoFood manufacturer JM Smucker has announced a recall of 16-ounce jars of Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter Chunky because the product may be tained with salmonella. Only 3,000 of the nearly 20,000 jars have been distributed, the company said.

The recalled jars were distributed in Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, Washington, DC and Wisconsin.

The jars have not been on the shelf very long. Smucker says they were distributed only in the last two weeks. They are marked with "Best if used by" dates of August 3, 2012 and August 4, 2012. The production codes are 1307004 and 1208004.

It was not disclosed why the company thinks the products may be contaminated. Smucker says it has not received any reports of illnesses.

Salmonella-tainted peanut butter is not something to be taken likely. In February 2007 ConAgra recalled Peter Pan and Great Value brand peanut butter because of salmonella contamination.

Hundreds were sickened by the tainted product over a seven week period. Though the Centers for Disease Control never confirmed a death from the product, a number of consumers reported their loved ones died after getting peanut butter-related salmonella.

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What's On Your Mind? Sirius XM, AAA, Spirit Airlines, ILD Teleservices

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Sirius XM, AAA, Spirit Airlines, ILD Teleservices, Hands off, A fee for everything and Crammed....

PhotoWe've heard repeatedly from Sirius XM customers who say they have a difficult, if not impossible time cancelling the service when they no longer want to subscribe.

"I called to cancel the renewal of my service," Richard, of Poughquag, N.Y., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "However, customer care personnel said they could not handle the request. They transferred my call, or so they said, to the proper agent. After waiting 30 minutes I received no response. I tried the same procedure several times and the same situation occurred - that is, no response."

Richard says he called back another time and relayed the message and told the agent that they were responsible for cancelling his service, as he was not gong to try again.

"That evening I received three calls from customer care personnel informing me that that my service was not cancelled," Richard said. "When I again told them to cancel the renewal service they hung up on me."

It's hard to believe Sirius XM customer service people are so busy they don't have time to process a cancellation. Chances are they would really rather not give up a customer. We've been told by more than one consumer that, when dealing with customer service representatives, threatening to file a complaint with their state attorney general appears to be a magic phrase. We suggest Richard do that, and actually follow through with a complaint to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

Hands off

When a company takes more money than it is supposed to from your bank account, it is very hard to get a refund. Companies don't like to give money back and many, in recent years, have established internal safeguards against employee fraud that can make it a difficult and complex process.

"My debit card was charged two times for my AAA membership and they won't refund me my money," said Roseller, of Las Vegas, Nev. "I've called several times and they said that they will give me a refund but it has been nine days. My husband is on his Army duty for two weeks in California and I told AAA that he needs money for gas and food and my checks are going to bounce if I don't get my refund and they keep telling me they will refund me my money but until now I haven't seen a single cent put back into my bank account."

If you can possibly avoid it, you should never give a company the ability to deduct monthly payments directly from your bank account. It is better to set up an auto bill pay through your bank, or if the company insists on a direct charge, give them a credit card instead of a debit card. A credit card charge can be disputed.

A fee for everything

Spirit Airlines makes no apologies for its fees - the highest of almost any other airline. The company points out that people who don't want to pay a lot to fly can avoid doing things that carry fees. But for travelers, like Leanna, of Delta, Colo., the first time flying Spirit can be something of a shock.

"At the time of booking I was not informed of any unusual charges," Leanna told ConsumerAffairs.com. "However when I went to check in I was shocked to be hit with the following unexpected and ridiculous charges which are not a part of any other airline that I know of; $40 for first check-in - more than double that of most airlines; Additional $33 for my carry-on! A $14 seat charge! Am I supposed to ride on the wing? Sit on the floor?"

Leanne says airlines need to make fees more transparent at the time of booking. Department of Transportation rules to do just that are in the works.

Crammed

Margaret, of Rockville, Md., said she opened her Verizon bill to discover she had been"crammed" by ILD Teleservices, which billed her $12.95 for a service called Compufix.

"I called the 800 number provided to demand the service be cancelled and the charge reversed," Margaret said. "The woman who answered tried to sell me on the service, saying that my husband had signed me up. He did not. I got a 'confirmation number' for the cancellation, but was told it would take three billing cycles for the charge to be reversed. Immediately after hanging up I called Verizon to report the issue, gave them the cancellation confirmation number and asked them to remove the charge and block all third-party billing on the account. I was told by the Verizon rep that my balance due on the account now reflected correctly, but I guess I will have to see."

In May of this year consumers filed a class-action suit against ILD, accusing the Florida-based company submitted fraudulent affidavits to the local telephone companies claiming that it had the required proper information for each transaction. The suit charged the actions violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly known as RICO.

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Feds Propose Tough New Fuel Standards, Automakers Gasp

54.5 mpg by 2025 will add $2,000 to the average price of a car, feds estimate

The Obama Administration today unveiled a proposed rule that would require automakers to double the average fuel economy of their vehicles to 54.5 miles pe...

PhotoThe Obama Administration today unveiled a proposed rule that would require automakers to double the average fuel economy of their vehicles to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, estimating that the change would add $2,000 to the average price of a car.

The proposal brought howls of protest from automakers who warned the changes would price millions of Americans out of the new-car market, keeping older, less fuel-efficient cars on the road longer. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimated the changes would cost $157 billion while returning benefits of up to $515 billion. 

In a joint statement, the EPA and NHTSA said the Obama Administration is acting “to strengthen the economy and move the country forward because we can't wait for Congressional Republicans to act.”

Big costs, bigger savings?

The agencies said that, combined with other steps the Administration has taken to increase energy efficiency, the proposal will save Americans over $1.7 trillion at the pump, more than $8,000 per vehicle by 2025.

“These combined actions also will reduce America's dependence on oil by an estimated 12 billion barrels, and, by 2025, reduce oil consumption by 2.2 million barrels per day – enough to offset almost a quarter of the current level of our foreign oil imports. Taken together, these actions will also slash 6 billion metric tons in greenhouse gas emissions over the life of the programs,” the statement continued.

Representative Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and 107 other U.S. House members yesterday sent a letter to Obama supporting the rule.

"We believe that these standards to reduce petroleum use in cars and light trucks represent an opportunity to increase our national and economic security in an unprecedented way by dramatically decreasing our dependence on foreign sources of petroleum," they wrote.

Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican, opened an investigation into how it was written, saying it was rushed and may jeopardize safety by reducing the weight of vehicles on the road.

A proposed rule had been due Sept. 30 before regulators said they needed more time. The final rule is scheduled to be published next year.

"Steady improvements"

Photo"By setting a course for steady improvements in fuel economy over the long term, the Obama administration is ensuring that American car buyers have their choice of the most efficient vehicles ever produced in our country. That will save them money, reduce our nation's oil consumption and cut harmful emissions in the air we breathe," said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. "This is an important addition to the landmark clean cars program that President Obama initiated to establish fuel economy standards more than two years ago.”

The Obama Administration had earlier reached agreement with Ford, Honda, Toyota and General Motors to achieve annual fuel-economy increases of 5 percent for cars. Volkswagen and Daimler AG were among automakers that didn't sign on to that agreement.

Dealers object

Today's proposal landed with a thud at the offices of the National Automobile Dealers Association.

"America's auto dealers support continuous improvement in the fuel economy of the fleet of vehicles that drive on the nation's roads," the association said in a statement. "To this end, we are concerned that adding about $3,000 to the average cost of a car will price millions of Americans out of the market, which could reduce fleet turnover and delay environmental gains."

EPA and NHTSA insisted the new standards will “rely on innovative technologies that are expected to spur economic growth and create high-quality jobs across the country.”

“The standards should also spur manufacturers to increasingly explore electric technologies such as start/stop, hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and electric vehicles. The MY 2017-2025 proposal includes a number of incentive programs to encourage early adoption and introduction of 'game changing' advanced technologies, such as hybridization for pickup trucks.

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Chase Ordered to Pay $1.9 Million for Recommending Unsuitable Investments

Chase also ordered to pay $1.7 million fine

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) has ordered Chase Investment Services Corporation to reimburse customers more than $1.9 million for los...

PhotoThe Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) has ordered Chase Investment Services Corporation to reimburse customers more than $1.9 million for losses incurred from recommending unsuitable sales of unit investment trusts (UITs) and floating rate loan funds.

FINRA also fined Chase $1.7 million.

FINRA's investigation found that Chase brokers recommended the purchase of UITs and floating rate loan funds to unsophisticated customers with little or no investment experience and conservative risk tolerances, without having reasonable grounds to believe that those products were suitable for the customers.

FINRA also found that Chase failed to properly supervise its sales of UITs and floating rate loan funds.

A UIT is an investment product that consists of a diversified basket of securities, which can include risky, speculative investments such as high-yield/below investment-grade or "junk" bonds. Floating-rate loan funds are mutual funds that generally invest in a portfolio of secured senior loans made to entities whose credit quality is rated below investment-grade, or "junk."

Proper training

"With the growing number of complex products in the market today, it is incumbent upon firms to properly train and provide guidance to their brokers about the products that they sell and supervise the sales practices of their brokers," Brad Bennett, FINRA Executive Vice President and Chief of Enforcement, said. "Chase allowed its brokers to sell risky UITs and floating-rate loan funds without providing them with the training, guidance and supervision necessary to determine whether these products were suitable for their customers, which resulted in losses for Chase's customers."

FINRA found that Chase did not provide its brokers with sufficient training and guidance regarding the risks and suitability of UITs and floating-rate loan funds. Two of the UITs on Chase's list of approved products held a large percentage of assets in closed-end funds that contained a significant percentage of high-yield or junk bonds.

Due to their composition, these particular UITs were not suitable investments for customers who had little or no investment experience and a conservative risk tolerance. Chase brokers made almost 260 unsuitable recommendations to purchase these UITs to customers with little or no investment experience and a conservative risk tolerance. The customers suffered losses of approximately $1.4 million as a result of investing in these unsuitable transactions.

Similarly, the floating-rate loan funds sold by Chase were subject to significant credit risks and certain of the funds could also be illiquid. Accordingly, concentrated positions in the funds were not suitable for certain investors with conservative risk tolerances or those seeking preservation of principal.

Despite this, Chase brokers recommended the purchase of floating-rate loan funds to customers who had conservative risk tolerances, were seeking preservation of principal or were seeking a highly liquid investment. These customers suffered unreimbursed losses of nearly $500,000 as a result of these unsuitable recommendations.

WAMU Investments

FINRA's findings also include that WaMu Investments, Inc., which merged with Chase in July 2009, made recommendations to customers to purchase floating-rate loan funds that were not suitable for them, and that WaMu failed to provide adequate training and failed to reasonably supervise the sale of floating-rate loan funds to customers.

In concluding this settlement, Chase neither admitted nor denied the charges, but consented to the entry of FINRA's findings.

Investors can obtain more information about, and the disciplinary record of, any FINRA-registered broker or brokerage firm by using FINRA's BrokerCheck. FINRA makes BrokerCheck available at no charge. In 2010, members of the public used this service to conduct 17.2 million reviews of broker or firm records. Investors can access BrokerCheck at www.finra.org/brokercheck or by calling (800) 289-9999. Investors may find copies of this disciplinary action as well as other disciplinary documents in FINRA's Disciplinary Actions Online database.

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Millions Will Dine Out This Thanksgiving

14 million plan to dine out as they prepare for Black Friday

Even without Herman Cain at the helm, the National Restaurant Association is preparing for another big Thanksgiving.  The trade group estimates t...

PhotoEven without Herman Cain at the helm, the National Restaurant Association is preparing for another big Thanksgiving.  The trade group estimates that 14 million Americans will visit a restaurant for a Thanksgiving meal this year, and an additional 16 million will use restaurant takeout to supplement a meal at their own or someone else’s home.

In addition, 32 million Americans are expected to dine out while shopping on Black Friday, according to new research by the Association.

Whjy no groaning board at home?  In a word: convenience, according to Hudson Riehle, who is senior vice president of something called the "Research and Knowledge Group" at the restaurant association.

“In today’s activity-rich, time-poor society, restaurants play an important role in bringing friends and family together to share a holiday meal for Thanksgiving,” Riehle said. “Our research clearly shows that the convenience of restaurant meals – not having to shop, cook and clean up – drives consumer behavior and will lead millions of Americans to patronize restaurants this Thanksgiving.”

The cost of convenience 

Unfortunately, convenience can also drive the expansion of our waistlines, according to a study published by Penn State last year, before Joe Paterno had been sent to the sidelines.

The researchers surveyed chefs, restaurant owners, and culinary executives from across the country to assess their perceptions of serving healthy foods in restaurants.

In the survey, 72% of the 432 respondents said they could trim off 10% of the calories in meals without customers noticing differences in taste, and 21% said they could trim off at least 25% of the calories. This small change could lead to a major impact on the obesity epidemic.

"Reducing intake by as little as 100 calories per day can amount to a significant weight loss over a year," says Liane Roe, research nutritionist in Penn State's Department of Nutritional Sciences and co-author on the team's findings, which appeared in Obesity.

Roe and co-author Barbara Rolls, holder of the Helen A. Guthrie Chair in Nutrition, found that many chefs were not familiar with the calorie content of the meals they served. 49% were only somewhat familiar with how many calories their meals contained and stunningly, 7% had no idea at all.

"If a large number of chefs don't know the calorie content of their food, they will be limited in their ability to modify what they serve to guests," said Roe.

On the road again

Besides convenience, consumers who plan to dine out for a Thanksgiving meal this year say they will do so because they are traveling and don’t have the ability to cook (22 percent), they prefer to go to restaurants on special occasions (15 percent), somebody else is hosting and they prefer to dine out (15 percent), and they don’t have enough space to host a Thanksgiving event (12 percent). 

For those planning to order full or partial Thanksgiving meals for takeout, those who didn’t cite convenience as the main reason said they will turn to restaurants because they aren’t good cooks (15 percent), they don’t have time to prepare food (10 percent), and the taste and quality of restaurant food is better (3 percent). 

Overall, 55 percent of American adults say they plan to eat a meal at their own home this Thanksgiving, 46 percent say they plan to eat a meal at someone else’s home, 6 percent plan to dine at a restaurant, and 3 percent don’t plan to have a special meal. One in 10 plans to have more than one Thanksgiving meal this year. 

The National Restaurant Association surveyed 1,011 American adults on November 10-14 about their dining plans for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Projections for the number of Americans who will visit restaurants or order takeout are based on economic analysis and research conducted over the last two decades by the National Restaurant Association. 

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Facebook Scams Snare Victims With 'Freebies'

Scams offer free coffee and airline tickets

Southwest isn't giving away free tickets. If you were to fall for the scam and click on the link, you would be taken to a site that appears to be the offic...

It's a good rule of thumb that whenever any of your Facebook “friends” tell you about a great free offer, it's probably a scam. The latest hot freebie scam making the Facebook founds is the free Southwest Airlines tickets scam.

The messages are being left on victims' walls, as though they are from Facebook friends.

“Aweet! i just got 2 free flight vouchers from Southwest Air to fly to any destination i can think of lmao!,” one message says. “i didnt believe it would work but it was, got it here..[LINK] try for yourself i just figured i would share with everyone.”

For the record, Southwest isn't giving away free tickets. If you were to fall for the scam and click on the link, you would be taken to a site that appears to be the official Southwest site, but is actually a rogue site set up by the scammer.

At that point, you'll be asked to allow installation of third-party software to allow you to register for the tickets. If you agree, you will download rogue software that can access your profile and post messages from your account.

Last month the hot Facebook scam was the promise of free giftcards from Starbucks. That scam has now migrated from Facebook and is being distributed through spam emails.

An email received at ConsumerAffairs.com today reads:

“Facebook Users!, Starbucks is gifting away new giftcards! Rush, Dont waste any time. Here is webpage (link) There just 332 left!!!

The rest of the scam is pretty much the same. Users are enticed into downloading an application that gives the scammer access to your Facebook account.

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How To Lose Weight and Keep It Off

Johns Hopkins researchers say they have the answer

Researchers say they have developed a weight loss program that works...

PhotoThe airwaves are filled with commercials for diets that promise results. Since those promises come from companies trying to sell a diet product, you tend to take those claims with a grain of salt.

But when the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine publishes an article on a successful method to lose weight and keep it off, you tend to pay attention. Just such an article is in the latest issue.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins say they found that obese patients enrolled in a weight-loss program delivered over the phone by health coaches and with website and physician support lost weight and kept it off for two years. The program was just as effective as another weight-loss program that involved in-person coaching sessions.

A 40 percent success rate

Roughly 40 percent of obese patients enrolled in each of the two weight-loss programs lost at least five percent of their body weight, an amount associated with real health benefits such as lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol and better diabetes control, the researchers say.

“Until now, doctors had no proven strategy to help their patients lose weight and keep it off. Now, we have two programs that work,” said study leader Lawrence J. Appel, M.D., M.P.H., a professor of medicine and director of the Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology and Clinical Research at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

You won't find such a weight loss program in the frozen food section of your local supermarket, however. And when it does become commercially available, it probably won't be cheap, since it requires hands-on participation of health professionals.

Why it works

The may be several reasons it's effective, says Appel. Frequent counseling (by phone or in person), physician support and an interactive website with tools to track weight and provide regular feedback by email are the main factors.

Patients were encouraged to sign in at least weekly to the program’s website to track their weight and to learn how to reduce it. If patients didn’t log in for more than a week, they got automated reminders. If they were out of touch for too long, patients got phone calls from their coaches and letters from their doctors.

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What's On Your Mind? Budget Blinds, Regions Bank, ADT, Speedy Cash

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Budget Blinds, Regions Bank, ADT, Speedy Cash, Banking advice, What does the contract say and Why car title loans...

PhotoBill, of Fort Collins, Colo., wants to remind consumers that there is a difference between a chain store and a franchise. As a Budget Blinds franchise owner, he responded to a number of recent complaints about service at various Budget Blinds locations.

“I think it is very important to understand that each Budget Blinds franchise is independently owned and operated,” Bill told ConsumerAffairs.com. “It appears to me that these complaints encompass around 10 franchisees out of nearly 1,000. Our local business has grown and flourished as a result of word of mouth, and we have never once had a major complaint and every non-major issue has been resolved to our customer’s satisfaction.”

Bill asks that readers be specific when complaining about a store, always noting its location. Even if it's a chain store, a highly specific complaint could help the company isolate management problems at certain stores.

“I personally apologize if you have been mistreated by a Budget Blinds owner but if you move to my city I would love the opportunity to prove to you that the vast majority of us will exceed your expectations,” Bill said.

That's fine, Bill, but one of the reasons consumers patronize franchises is that they expect the quality to be consistent from one outlet to another, just as a Big Mac at the McDonald's in Kileen is the same as the one in Swampscott.  It's not the consumer's responsibility to keep track of which franchise outlet is which -- it's the franchisor who's responsible for enforcing conformity. 

Banking advice

Dorothy, of Kingston Springs, Tenn., sounds like someone who has worked in the financial industry, but says she is just a Regions Bank customer who wants to set some other customers straight. She's responding to several consumers who complained Regions Bank hit them with overdraft fees, even though the charge that put them over was marked “pending.”

“Understand 'pending' means the bank knows about it,” Dorothy said. “If the bank knows about it and it isn't funds covered, that's hardly the banks fault. If you chose overdraft protection or not, at the time the bank knows about it they are either going to charge overdraft protection fee or NSF fee.”

Fair enough, but for many struggling consumers living close to the margin, it's a challenging balancing act to pay bills on time and not get caught short.

“Being put into position to juggle funds is sad but a fact of today's life for many and yes, if you can't pay the bank fees you generate then maybe going cash only with no banking might even be the best option,” Dorothy said. “I too have a problem with banks paying the largest first then bouncing the small items. But if the charge is 'pending,' the bank knows about it and you will be held responsible. It doesn't matter if it is Regions or any other bank.”

What does the contract say?

Eric, of Shertz, Tex., said he recently moved into a new home and contracted with ADT to provide a security system.

“Mort is the sales rep that had me sign a contract to put in the security system,” Eric told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I informed him that the system is for doors and windows. They installed the doors but not the windows. I was told they would come back but never did. I have been moved in for three weeks now and have attempted to call Mort but he would never return my calls. I have now called his boss Friday, who states I am legallly bound to my contract and they have billed me and stated I will need to give more money to continue the window installation. Mort had lied to his boss when I called and said he never informed me that the window installation was included.”

Well, there seems to be a simple way to resolve this. Eric should look at what his contract states. Does it include window installation? If not, then he may be out of luck. Keep in mind, in case of a dispute it will be the contract that ultimately prevails. That's why consumers, before signing, should make sure it contains everything the salesman has promised.

Why car title loans are a bad idea

A cousin of the payday loan is the car title loan. That's where the lender holds the title to your vehicle for collateral on your loan. Latrisa, of Albany, Ga., reminds us of why car title loans are a bad idea.

“I had to pawn my car and before I could make the payment on my car, they came and picked my car up from my job,” Latrisa said. “I had been in contact with them letting them know that I had the money to get my car. When I called to let them know I was coming to pick my car up, they informed me over the phone my car was sold.”

Keep in mind, your car may be worth $2000 or more and you are only borrowing $500. The lender has every reason to hope you default and you shouldn't expect them to cut you any slack.

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On-the-Job Chemical Exposure May Be Linked to Parkinson's

Implicated chemicals are widely used and persist for long periods of time

A study involving twins shows new evidence that on-the-job exposure to chemical solvents raises the risk of Parkinson's disease.Researchers analyzed the ...

PhotoA study involving twins shows new evidence that on-the-job exposure to chemical solvents raises the risk of Parkinson's disease.

Researchers analyzed the occupational histories of twins in which one twin developed the neurodegenerative disorder, and assessed that twin's likelihood of exposure to six chemicals previously linked to Parkinson's.

Of the six chemicals investigated, researchers concluded that two common chemical solvents, trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PERC), are significantly linked to development of this disease.

Parkinson's disease is a movement disorder caused by the loss of brain cells that produce a molecule called dopamine. The primary symptoms of Parkinson's are tremor, stiffness, slowed movement and impaired balance, and as these symptoms progress, patients may also develop difficulty walking, speaking or completing other activities of daily living.

"The potential importance is great, since both solvents persist in the environment and are commonly used," said Samuel Goldman, M.D., M.P.H., at the Parkinson's Institute in Sunnyvale, Calif. "Parkinson's was sixfold more common in twins exposed to TCE, and ninefold more common in twins exposed to TCE or PERC."

Tenfold increase

There was also a trend toward a tenfold increase in Parkinson’s disease in twins exposed to PERC alone.

Genes play a role in Parkinson’s disease, but fewer than 10 percent of cases are due to a single gene mutation, and not all people with these mutations develop Parkinson’s, suggesting that environmental factors also contribute to the likelihood of developing the disease.

The latest study, supported in part by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), a part of the National Institutes of Health, appears in the Nov. 14, 2011 issue of Annals of Neurology.

The researchers collected the histories of 99 pairs of twins in which one of the pair developed Parkinson’s and the other twin did not. Since twins are so genetically similar, twin studies are especially useful in identifying environmental influences in disease. Of the 99 pairs, half were genetically identical twins, and half were fraternal twins.

The study team assessed the twins' lifetime work and hobby activities, specifically inquiring about occupational tasks such as electrical work, industrial machinery repair, and dry cleaning, which would potentially expose people to chemicals previously linked to Parkinson's.

The researchers also collected information on head injuries, which are suspected to increase Parkinson’s risk, and smoking history, which is reported to decrease Parkinson’s risk.

Expert evaluators, unaware of which study subjects had Parkinson's, reviewed this information and calculated lifelong exposure to six chemicals: TCE, PERC, carbon tetrachloride, n-hexane, xylene and toluene. Of these, TCE and PERC posed a notable risk for developing Parkinson's.

In this study researchers looked only at occupational chemical exposure, and the association with job categories tended toward significance only for the industrial machinery repairer and industrial worker categories. However, the chemicals evaluated here are found outside industrial settings as well.

PERC is the leading chemical used in garment dry cleaning. TCE is the most frequently reported organic groundwater contaminant, was once used as general anesthetic and coffee decaffeinating agent, and is still used widely as a metal degreasing agent.

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USDA Funding Broadband Deployment in 15 States

Program is meant to bring high-speed Internet to rural areas

You normally think of the U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) as paying subsidies to corn farmers or inspecting chickens.  But the department is fundin...

PhotoYou normally think of the U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) as paying subsidies to corn farmers or inspecting chickens.  But the department is funding something many consider even more basic -- broadband access for rural areas.

USDA is releasing funding for telephone utilities to build, expand and improve broadband in their rural service territories across 15 states. The announcement was made by USDA Rural Utilities Service Deputy Administrator Jessica Zufolo during an address at the annual meeting of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners in St. Louis.

"Today's funding will provide residents of these rural communities with high speed internet connections to improve healthcare and educational opportunities and connect to global markets," Vilsack said. "In addition to providing much needed services to rural businesses and residents, these investments will increase jobs, not just in the near term, but through expanded opportunities in rural areas."

For example, in Minnesota, Rural Development Broadband Loan Program funds will be used to extend Paul Bunyan Rural Telephone Cooperative's existing Fiber-To-The-Home (FTTH) network to serve rural communities in North Central Minnesota.

This project will offer advanced telecommunications services to over 45,710 households and businesses. Paul Bunyan has been operating since 1952 and has been a telecommunications borrower with the Rural Utilities Service since 1953.

In North Dakota, Rural Development funds will be used to expand Polar Communications Mutual Aid Corporation's Fiber-to-the-Premises (FTTP) broadband system throughout eighteen exchanges. The upgraded system will help meet current and future requirements for delivery of voice, video and high speed data to subscribers. 

In Indiana, Perry-Spencer Rural Telephone Cooperative Inc., (PSC) provides telecommunications services to 5,711 subscribers over approximately 1,148 square miles. This loan will enable PSC to start the process of designing and building FTTP broadband services across its service area. 

The following list of awardees will receive $410.7 million in funding, contingent upon the recipient meeting the terms of the agreement with USDA.

Colorado

  • Eastern Slope Rural Telephone Association, Inc.--$18,725,000 will be used to upgrade the existing fiber-to-the-node (FTTN) network, capable of providing modern broadband services to subscribers in 10 exchanges.

Idaho and Utah

  • Albion Telephone Company--$17,075,000 in loan funds will be used to install 453 miles of buried fiber optic cables throughout the proposed FTTP system, providing nearly 60 percent of subscribers with FTTP.

Illinois

  • McNabb Telephone Company--$3,700,000 in loan funds will be used to make system improvements, including constructing new FTTP facilities. A total of 115 miles of buried fiber optic cable will be deployed to improve service to subscribers.
  • Shawnee Telephone Company--$30,286,000 in loan funds will be used to construct FTTP facilities, allowing Shawnee to provide voice and data services at speeds of up to 100 Mbps to both residences and businesses.
  • McDonough Telephone Cooperative, Inc.--$15,728,000 in funds will be used to upgrade the rural areas with FTTH technology. Approximately 766 miles of buried fiber cable will be deployed to provide over half of the subscribers with access to improved broadband service. McDonough has been serving its rural subscribers for over 60 years.

Indiana

  • Perry-Spencer Rural Telephone Cooperative, Inc.--$29,139,000 in loan funds have been awarded to Perry-Spencer Rural Telephone Cooperative Inc., (PSC) which provides telecommunications services to nearly 6,000 subscribers over approximately 1,150 square miles in southern Indiana. This loan will enable PSC to start the process of designing and building FTTP to enhance broadband services across the service area.

Iowa

  • Mediapolis Telephone Company--$13,401,000 in loan funds will be used to make system upgrades to the transport system and the network architecture from the existing copper Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL) to FTTP broadband systems.
  • Griswold Cooperative Telephone Company--$12,747,000 in loan funds will be used to complete a system-wide FTTP network, enhancing broadband service to all subscribers.
  • La Porte City Telephone Company--$9,867,000 in loan funds will be used to make system improvements, including installation of a FTTP broadband network that will serve all of the borrower's subscribers. A total of 297 miles of buried fiber optic cable will be deployed, enabling downstream data rates of up to 20 Mbps.

Kansas

  • The S & T Telephone Cooperative Association--$29,814,000 will be used to implement a full FTTH design to allow the migration to 10-20 Mbps broadband speeds to all subscribers and to provide IPTV in the near future.

Minnesota

  • Paul Bunyan Rural Telephone Cooperative--$19,749,000 in Rural Development Broadband Loan Program funds will be used to extend Paul Bunyan's existing FTTH network to serve the exchanges of Park Rapids Rural and Trout Lake in North Central Minnesota. With this extension of their network, Paul Bunyan will be able to provide advanced telecommunications services to over 45,710 establishments (households and businesses) across all service areas. Paul Bunyan has been operating since 1952 and has been a telecommunications borrower with the Rural Utilities Service since 1953.

New Mexico

  • Roosevelt County Telephone Cooperative, Inc.--$12,358,000 will be used to deploy new equipment and install FTTP equipment to enhance the broadband network.

North Dakota

  • BEK Communications Cooperative--$26,746,000 in loan funds will be used to expand a FTTH broadband system. Upon completion of this RUS-funded project, 100 percent of BEK's subscribers will be served by fiber.
  • SRT Communications, Inc.--$24,832,000 in loan funds will be used to install 2,143 miles of buried fiber optic cable and related equipment throughout the proposed FTTP system. The FTTP system will be constructed in areas outside of towns in twelve of the borrower's twenty-six exchanges. The service areas in the towns will continue to be offered DSL at speeds of at least 55 Mbps with its relatively new copper plant.
  • Polar Communications Mutual Aid Corporation--$32,939,000 in loan funds will be used to expand the Borrower's FTTP broadband system throughout the borrower's eighteen exchanges. The upgraded system will help meet current and future requirements for delivery of voice, video and high speed data to subscribers. Upon completion of this RUS-funded project, 100 percent of Polar's subscribers will be served with broadband via various technologies.

Oklahoma

  • Terral Telephone Company--$4,855,000 in loan funds will be used to convert the existing copper network to a FTTH system, and connect new subscribers. The proposed FTTH deployment includes construction of over 62 miles of fiber plant in and around Terral, and the replacement of the existing softswitch and power plant. This FTTH deployment will create nine jobs and save seven jobs.

South Carolina

  • Sandhill Telephone Cooperative, Inc.--$5,930,000 will be used to provide for system improvements, including purchase of a new switch.

Tennessee

  • North Central Telephone Cooperative Corporation--$27,069,000 will be used to upgrade portions of North Central's outside plant and network infrastructure by deploying a FTTP network.

Washington

  • Inland Telephone Company--$24,823,000 in loan funds will be used to expand Inland's FTTP broadband system and connect new subscribers.
  • The Toledo Telephone Co., Inc.--$18,091,000 in loan funds will be used to install 292 miles of buried fiber optic cables and related equipment throughout the proposed FTTP system, offering enhanced service to all Toledo subscribers.

Wisconsin

  • Union Telephone Company--$13,308,000 in loan funds will enable Union to deploy approximately 336 miles of fiber, which will provide approximately 60 percent of Union's subscribers with access to improved broadband services.
  • Marquette-Adams Telephone Cooperative, Inc.--$19,781,000 Marquette-Adams will use loan funds to complete a system-wide FTTP network, including over 370 miles of new or modified buried fiber, providing enhanced broadband service to all subscribers.
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ACE Rent-A-Car Tops 2011 J.D. Power Survey

Despite complaints, satisfaction with rental car companies said to be rising

J.D. Power and Associates has named the best rental car companies of 2011...

PhotoComplaints to ConsumerAffairs.com about rental car companies appear to be on the rise. Customers complain of hidden fees and charges for damage to vehicles discovered long after they were turned in.

Despite that, J.D. Power and Associates reports customer satisfaction with rental cars has increased for a second straight year. They obviously didn't talk with Dianne, of Paradise, Calif.

“I rented a jeep from the Cancun Airport,” Dianne told ConsumerAffairs.com. “The car was returned within 10 days and I was charged for 30 days. When I asked Hertz for the copy of the final contract with the signed return date, they lost the copy. I was asked to sign a black bank slip when I rented the car. And the amount was filled in later with forged amount of the final bill. I have received no recourse.”

ACE is No. 1

To be fair, Hetz did not top the J.D. Power rankings for rental car customer satisfaction. ACE Rent-A-Car did. A check of our files show that ACE, indeed, draws very few consumer complaints – five in the last two years.

ACE Rent A Car ranked highest in J.D. Power's customer satisfaction among rental car companies for the first time with a score of 793, performing particularly well in the shuttle bus/van and costs and fees factors. This is also the first time the Indiana-based independent rental car company appears in the study rankings.

Enterprise was second in the rankings with 787, performing particularly well in the leisure/personal customer segment. National ranks third with 768.

"Rental car companies continue to build upon the improvements made in 2010 and are bouncing back from the lower satisfaction levels reported in 2008 and 2009," said Stuart Greif, vice president of the travel practice at J.D. Power and Associates. "As positive as this increase in satisfaction is, there remains ample opportunity for rental car companies to further delight their customers in the future, particularly in leveraging technology."

Room for improvement

According to Greif, there are opportunities for rental car companies to enhance the rental car experience, save customers time, better inform and set customer expectations and create efficiencies for rental car company operations. These include integrating customers' mobile devices within rental cars for hands-free communication, music or navigation; digitally measuring gas tank levels for more accurate charges; communicating mileage and gas information digitally from the vehicle as customers return cars; and providing real-time estimates of shuttle van or bus arrival times to customers.

Another area apparently not explored by J.D. Power is what rental car companies tell their customers the charge will be and what it actually ends up being. ConsumerAffairs.com has heard from many consumers who say they dropped off vehicles after filling the gas tank, only to later find their credit cards have been charged for a “refueling fee.”

Others, who say they declined the rental company's expensive insurance, report they were assessed steep charges to repair damage found after they turned in the vehicle. Still others complain of getting misinformation about costs from company personnel behind the counter.

Advice for consumers

J.D. Power gently suggests customers could do a better job of understanding how the system works. It offers these tips for improving the car rental experience:

  • If a kiosk is available, use it instead of waiting in line at the counter. While very few customers currently use kiosks, those who do tend to be more satisfied with the experience overall.
  • Understand the different options offered—such as insurance and fuel—before reserving or picking up a vehicle.
  • Reserve a navigation system in advance if necessary and leverage smartphones if you are traveling with someone who can help you navigate.
  • Bring a Bluetooth or other wireless hands-free device so you can use your phone safely while driving.
  • If a problem with the rental car experience occurs, be sure to report it to the company. Many customers never report their problems, so the company doesn't have the opportunity to resolve them.
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$30 Million Judgment in Bogus Government Grant Case

"Grant Connect" used Obama photos to peddle its services

With their photos of President Obama and the American flag, Grant Connect's ads were convincing in their claim that everyday Americans could reap millions ...

PhotoWith their photos of President Obama and the American flag, Grant Connect's ads were convincing in their claim that everyday Americans could reap millions of dollars in free government grants.

All it took was a small charge to the consumer's credit card and the invaluable, can't-miss, sure-thing information would be on its way.

The Federal Trade Commission yesterday won a $29.8 million judgment against the remaining defendants behind the deceptive scheme.  An earlier order slapped a similar settlement on other defendants. 

The court's order also permanently bans the defendants from promoting a variety of products and services similar to those they deceptively pitched to consumers around the country.

The FTC charged the defendants with deceiving consumers by making misleading and unsubstantiated claims about bogus products and services, including one that supposedly would help them get free government grants.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada found that the defendants marketed their grant products, including Grant Connect, using pictures of President Obama and the American flag to bolster the impression that billions of dollars in free government grants were available quickly and easily for personal needs.

Other fine products

The court also found that the defendants:

1) deceptively marketed dietary supplements using claims unsupported by scientific research;

2) failed to adequately disclose that their credit offers were merely memberships to a shopping club;

3) made unsupported claims that consumers could earn thousands of dollars per month with a work-from-home business opportunity;

4) failed to adequately disclose that consumers who bought their products or services would be enrolled in continuity plans with significant monthly fees, often for a variety of unrelated products;

5) used fake testimonials to promote their products; and

6) debited consumers' bank accounts on a recurring basis without obtaining consumers' permission.

The latest court order announced today bans the remaining defendants from marketing or selling:

  • grant-related products and services;
  • credit-related products;
  • work-from-home and business opportunities; and
  • dietary supplements and nutraceuticals.

It also bans the defendants from using:

  • continuity programs and negative option marketing, in which consumers have to opt out of receiving products to prevent being charged on a recurring basis;
  • testimonials in connection with any product or service; and
  • preauthorized electronic fund transfers that charge consumers' debit accounts.

The court order announced today grants the FTC's motion for summary judgment against defendants Kyle Kimoto; Michael Henriksen; Steven R. Henriksen; Tasha Jn Paul; Rachel A. Cook; James J. Gray; Randy D. O'Connell; Acai, Inc.; Allclear Communications, Inc.; Consolidated Merchant Solutions, LLC; Dragon Group, Inc.; Elite Benefits, Inc.; Global Fulfillment, Inc.; Global Gold, Inc.; Global Gold Limited; Grant Connect, LLC; Healthy Allure, Inc.; Horizon Holdings, LLC; MSC Online, Inc.; O'Connell Gray, LLC; OS Marketing Group, LLC; Paid To Process, Inc.; Premier Plus Member, Inc.; Total Health, Inc.; and Vcomm, Inc.

Earlier this year, the FTC settled similar charges against several other defendants in the case. Under those settlements, Juliette Kimoto, Johnnie Smith, and four companies Kimoto owned were barred from marketing certain products and services similar to those that they allegedly offered to consumers. The settlements also imposed a $29.8 million judgment against them that was partially suspended. 

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Engine Plant Layoffs Hint at Fiat 500 Sales Slump

Slow sales ramp-up creating backlog of the sporty little cars

The Fiat 500 is certainly an odd-looking little car, but that's OK.  Lots of other cars are kind of weird-looking today.  But just how well Fiat'...

PhotoThe Fiat 500 is certainly an odd-looking little car, but that's OK.  Lots of other cars are kind of weird-looking today.  But just how well Fiat's return to the U.S. after a 30-year absence is going ... well, that's a little hard to judge just now. 

Fiat continues to insist that things are just purring along but reports from auto industry insiders might make one wonder about that.  The United auto Workers Union says Chrysler has suspended production of the 1.4-liter engine that powers the U.S. version of the 500.

Automotive News reported that Fiat has a 184-day supply of the Fiat 500 coupes and cabrios but the trade paper said a Chrysler spokesman disputed that and said the company had a 140-day supply at the end of October and was “very pleased” with sales progress to date.

Reports say some dealers have sold as few as 49 cars since opening in March while others have sold as many as 370.  Sales are said to be strongest in California and the Southeast, and weakest in the Midwest.

CEO Sergio Marchionne had initially predicted annual sales of the Fiat 500 in North America of 50,000 units but through October, Fiat sold just 15,826 units of the 500 in the United States, Automotive News said.

Abarth debut

Fiat is hoping that this week’s unveiling of the Fiat 500 Abarth at the Los Angeles auto show will arouse new passions in potential Fiat owners.  The Abarth features a turbocharged 160-hp version of the 1.4-liter.

Southern Californians can get the first look at the Abarth at the 2011 Los Angeles Auto Show  November 18-27.

The 500 Abarth will be powered by a turbocharged 1.4-liter engine and will, as you’d expect, feature a stiffened suspension and upgraded brakes, FiatOwner.org reported. Exact U.S. specs aren’t yet known but the European version churns out 135 horsepower with 221 pound-feet or torque — a massive amount of torque for such a small car.

 

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Super-Super-Fast Network Now Links Energy Labs

New network is for crunching climate data, astrophysics visualizations

Still waiting for your Facebook page to open?  You must be on one of those old slow networks -- you know, like the Internet.The U.S. Department of E...

PhotoStill waiting for your Facebook page to open?  You must be on one of those old slow networks -- you know, like the Internet.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) today takes the wraps off a new data network that is to the existing Internet as plain old Elmer's glue is to the Super Super Glue immortalized by Danny DeVito in "Matilda."

The new network is at least ten times faster than commercial Internet providers. It connects thousands of researchers using three of the world’s top supercomputing centers in California, Illinois and Tennessee. 

The new network is being officially turned on today in Seattle at the  opening of SC11, the premier international conference on high performance computing, networking, storage and analysis.

“With the establishment of this high speed network, the United States is once again blazing a path for the future of Internet innovations,” said Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. “Initially, this breakthrough will make sharing information between our labs much more efficient and pave the way for new discoveries, but it also holds the potential to change and improve our lives much like the original commercialization of the Internet did in the mid-90s.”

The project, known as the Advanced Networking Initiative (ANI), was funded with $62 million from the 2009 economic stimulus law and is intended for research use, but could lead to widespread commercial use of similar technology.

100 Gbps

The network now delivers data at 100 Gigabits per second (Gbps), making it one of the fastest systems in the world. It is the first step in the nationwide upgrade to the DOE’s existing Energy Sciences Network (ESnet) and will serve as a pilot for future deployment of 100 Gbps Ethernet in research and commercial networks.

The initiative plans to accelerate by several years the commercialization of 100 Gbps networking technologies and uses new optical technology to reduce the number of routers used, as well as the associated equipment and maintenance costs.

The World Wide Web has its origins with high-energy physicists at CERN who needed a better, faster way to share their data. Physicists in the United States, including Energy Department laboratories like Fermilab and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, were also among the earliest pioneers.

If this network drives innovation that finds its way into widespread commercial use, it will be an example of history repeating itself.  The need to share scientific data and linking computer networks together will likely drive the next generation of high speed Internet connection technology.

What's 100 Gbps?

While the technology is advancing rapidly, the fastest commercial Internet providers use fiberoptic cables that enable a network to deliver about 10 gigabits per second. But that capacity must be split up among many consumers in the area, so a residential consumer might actually experience high speed Internet service in the range of 10 megabits per second.

A megabit is one thousandth of a gigabit, so that's .01 gbps.

In some areas, consumers on a more expensive service plan might get roughly .05 gbps. A 3G cell phone provides roughly 2Mbps for downloading data.  A 100 Gbps network connection is therefore able to receive data about 50,000 times faster than your iPhone.

Here's another way to look at it: In the roughly one hour it takes a typical home Internet connection to download an HD movie, the Department's network could download, for example, 20 years of data from the Hubble space telescope.

At that speed, even Facebook pages might actually render in just a few seconds.

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Reconsidering Black Friday: Is It Really Worth It?

As Black Friday gets longer, demands on consumers - and employees - increase

Is shopping on Black Friday really worthwhile...

PhotoAs you may have heard, some retailers are pushing the boundaries of “Black Friday,” the kick-off to the holiday shopping season, back into Thanksgiving Day itself.

Traditionally, stores opened their doors at 5 a.m. or so Friday morning to the crowds of consumers lined up for advertised “door buster” specials. But in recent years many big box retailers have opened their doors earlier than their advertised opening times, causing consumers to begin arriving even earlier, often spending the night in the parking lot.

Is all of this getting out of hand? Apparently some Target employees think so. Target, along with Best Buy, Macy's, and Kohls will be opening at midnight on Friday morning.

Target employees revolt

Anthony Hardwick, an Omaha, Neb. Target employee, has started an online petition against the early opening and has collected nearly 37,000 signatures, he says. Hardwick told reporters he is scheduled for a 10-hour shift that day.

Retail employees might be forgiven for dreading an early start to Black Friday, when it can be said they could literally be risking their lives. On Black Friday 2008, a 34-year old part-time clerk at a Long Island, N.Y., Walmart was trampeled to death by a crowd he was trying to contain as they ripped doors off their hinges and rushed into the store. Walmart was later fined $7,000 for the death.

While Black Friday shopping is a tradition for many consumers, are there really that many savings? While big box retailers routinely advertise low prices on laptop computers, flat screen TVs, and other expensive items, stores usually only have a few of these items in stock. They go to the customers willing to stand the longest outside the door and then fight their way to the counter in the opening minutes.

Consumer complaints

Last year, Vicki, of Gallup, N.M., said she and her husband went to Walmart at 6:30 a.m. on Black Friday to buy a new flat screen TV.

“Forty-eight hours earlier I called and talked to the electronics department and was told that we would be given a voucher,” Vicki reported last year. “When we got there the TVs were sold out and the vouchers were never given out.”

That elicited this response from another Black Friday shopper, Anthony, of Pembrook Pines, Fla.

“That is what the spectacle of Black Friday is about,” Anthony told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Everyone lines up for doorbusters, and the ads themselves say there are extremely limited quantities! I have been 'BF'ing' for over seven years, and everyone I've run into always knows the deal: first come, first served, and if you want to guarantee a purchase, be among the first five in line.”

Adrenaline rush

In Anthony's view, Black Friday is an adventurous adrenaline rush in which you may or may not capture the object of your desire. The thrill of the pursuit is as important as any bargain. Less adventurous consumers should probably take that into consideration.

After all, Black Friday is followed by “Cyber Monday,” when online retailers offer bargains to those who shop online. While consumers aren't guaranteed of getting every low-priced item they want, they can at least shop in the comfort of their home, and not risk life and limb in the aisles of a store in the middle of the night.

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Fundraiser Claiming To Aid Veterans Banned In Oregon

State says group gave no money to charity

Oregon bans a bogus fundraiser from the state...

Oregon businesses and organizations got telemarketing calls from The Publishing Group claiming it was raising money for military veterans, first responders and drug abuse prevention programs. Oregon Attorney General John Kroger says the company actually provided no benefit to those groups.

The company tried to sell advertising in its publications, telling businesses that if they bought an ad, they would be helping veterans or supporting police and firefighter organizations. It turns out, Kroger says, the company has no publications but does operate a number of websites.

"Raising money by falsely claiming to help veterans is unconscionable," Kroger said.

The Publishing Group, Inc., based in North Carolina, agreed to pay $6,000 and faces significantly higher fines if it violates the agreement filed in Multnomah County, Ore., Circuit Court.

Calls and inquiries about the fundraiser triggered an investigation by the Oregon Department of Justice's Charitable Activities Section. Kroger said the probe determined that The Publishing Group falsely claimed that advertising purchases would benefit local volunteer fire departments, a children's safety "stop drop and roll" program, drug abuse prevention programs, law enforcement, fire, and emergency services.

The company also sold online ads based on the false representation one of its websites is "an information exchange for professional law enforcement agencies" and "disseminates useful and educational information pertaining to all phases of police protection."

In fact, says Kroger, the company has no affiliation with any public safety groups or similar charitable organizations.

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What's On Your Mind? Sears, LA Weight Loss Centers, Kitchenaid

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Sears, LA Weight Loss Centers, Kitchenaid, Here today, gone tomorrow and Not who you think it is....

PhotoPurchasing bedding sounds like a simple task. You pick out the mattress you want and either take it with you or have it delivered. But Rose, of Petaluma, Calif., finds it a bit more frustrating.

“I ordered a firm mattress from Sears,” Rose told ConsumerAffairs.com. “They delivered a plush mattress. I called and after two hours of being transferred, put on hold, and disconnected they said they would exchange it for a firm one. About a week later, they again tried to deliver the same incorrect mattress. I refused the delivery and called back.

It was then Rose said she learned the mattress she wanted was out of stock. She was offered a more expensive one at at 20 percent discount and free delivery.

“I grudgingly accepted their offer,” Rose said. “A few days later, when reviewing my credit card statements, I saw that they are charging me the full price of the more expensive mattress. When I called to complain, they told me that they could not offer me free delivery, so that would cost an extra $90. I cancelled the order, and will find a mattress somewhere else.”

It's not just mattress purchases that draw these kinds of complaints. Often consumers purchasing other types of furniture, at a variety of stores, run into similar problems.

Here today, gone tomorrow

Leslie, of Lake Charles, La., says she was enrolled in an LA Weight Loss Center program that entitled her to meals in the form of energy bars. She says her husband usually picked up her food for her.

“Then one day he went to pick some up and the office had closed and reopened to a Medifast clinic, with all the same workers, Leslie said. “No notice, no nothing. He was given a number to call regarding the boxes of bars still owed to me. In total I am owed 67 boxes of bars at $23 per box valued at $1541.00. I've called the number and spoken with a receptionist numerous times. Always being promised a call back but never receiving one. My local office, now Medifast, states that they are completely out of the equation and that I am at the mercy of whomever took over the files. Any help anyone can give me would be greatly appreciated.”

LA Weight Loss Centers are individually franchised businesses, so it sounds like Leslie's LA Weight Loss Center sold out to a company that changed it to Medifast Clinic. If that's the case, it's a real question who owes Leslie some food or a refund. To sort it all out we suggest she contact her state attorney general's office. In the past, some states have taken action against health clubs that suddenly closed their doors after members had already paid in advance. This sounds like a similar situation.

Not who you think it is

Robert, of Roseville, Minn., was upset when he received a mailing telling him “The manufacturer's warranty for your KitchenAid Dishwasher has expired. Act now to get an incredible price on a KitchenAid Extended Service Plan!"

“They stated that this was sent in error but refused to send anything in writing verifying the this mailing was incorrect. If the unit fails will they make a mistake again and say I have no warranty,” Robert asked?

It's very likely Robert was not dealing with KitchenAid, but a third party outfit that markets extended service plans. Whatever reason they declined to sell him an extended contract on his dishwasher, he's probably better off.

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Banks Pay $165 Million to Cover Credit Union Losses

Citigroup, Deutsche Bank first two banks to reach settlement agreement

Two major banks have agreed to pay millions of dollars to the National Credit Union Association (NCUA) to help cover the losses of five failed wholesale cr...

PhotoTwo major banks have agreed to pay millions of dollars to the National Credit Union Association (NCUA) to help cover the losses of five failed wholesale credit unions. Citigroup has agreed to pay NCUA $20.5 million and Deutsche Bank Securities agreed to pay $145 million. Neither bank admitted guilt.

NCUA is the first regulatory agency to recover losses on behalf of failed financial institutions that resulted from investments in these securities. NCUA will use the net proceeds from this settlement to reduce assessments being charged to credit unions to pay for the losses

“Citigroup is among the first major underwriters to come forward with a settlement proposal, and we appreciate their efforts to resolve potential claims so that we can avoid the expense and delay of litigation,” said NCUA Board Chairman Debbie Matz. “NCUA to date has received a total of $165.5 million in settlement proceeds. ... NCUA will continue to fulfill our statutory responsibility to secure maximum recoveries for credit unions and ensure that consumers remain protected.”

Losses from wholesale credit union failures are paid from the Temporary Corporate Credit Union Stabilization Fund. Expenditures from this fund must be repaid through assessments against all federally insured credit unions. Thus, recoveries such as this settlement reduce the amount of future assessments on credit unions.

$3.3 billion in losses

Since 2009, NCUA has assessed credit unions $3.3 billion to pay for losses associated with the five corporate credit union failures. Given the current settlement proceeds, projections for remaining assessments range between $1.8 billion and $6.1 billion that must be paid by 2021.

Corporate credit unions are wholesale credit unions that provide services to retail credit unions, which in turn serve consumers. Consumer credit unions rely on corporate credit unions for services such as check clearing, electronic payments and investments.

In addition to this settlement, NCUA has taken other actions to mitigate losses to credit unions from the five corporate failures. Among the actions taken:

  • After placing those five corporate credit unions into liquidation, NCUA re-securitized the problematic mortgage-backed securities and sold them in the marketplace with a government-backed guarantee. This action garnered approximately $28.3 billion in proceeds.

  • NCUA filed four lawsuits against other securities firms alleging violations of federal and state securities laws and misrepresentations in the sale of hundreds of securities.

  • NCUA established a temporary share guarantee for deposits at corporate credit unions.

  • NCUA established bridge corporate credit unions in conservatorship to ensure the services provided to consumer credit unions continued during the resolution and transition period.

  • NCUA successfully worked with members of the bridges to transition critical corporate credit union services to new entities.

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First Fine Levied for Lengthy Tarmac Delays

American Eagle ordered to pay $900,000 for Chicago delays

The U. S. Department of Transportation (DOT) today fined American Eagle Airlines $900,000 for lengthy tarmac delays that took place at Chicago O’Hare Inter...

PhotoThe U. S. Department of Transportation (DOT) today fined American Eagle Airlines $900,000 for lengthy tarmac delays that took place at Chicago O’Hare International Airport on May 29, 2011. 

This is the first fine for a violation of the department’s rule, which took effect in April 2010, setting a three-hour limit for tarmac delays on domestic flights.  It also represents the largest penalty to be paid by an airline in a consumer protection case not involving civil rights violations.

“We put the tarmac rule in place to protect passengers, and we take any violation very seriously,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.  “We will work to ensure that airlines and airports coordinate their resources and plans to avoid keeping passengers delayed on the tarmac.” 

Under DOT rules, U.S. airlines operating aircraft with 30 or more passenger seats are prohibited from allowing their domestic flights to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours at large-, medium-, small- and non-hub U.S. airports without giving passengers an opportunity to deplane. 

Exceptions to the time limits are allowed only for safety, security or air traffic control-related reasons.   The rules require carriers to include the three-hour provision in their tarmac delay contingency plan commitments to passengers.

15 flights

On May 29, 2011, American Eagle had tarmac delays of more than three hours on 15 flights arriving at O’Hare.  Those 15 flights had tarmac delays of up to 225 minutes, which was 45 minutes beyond the limit. 

A total of 608 passengers were aboard the affected flights.  An investigation by DOT’s Aviation Enforcement Office concluded that while the airline had a procedure in place to bring passengers subject to a tarmac delay back to the gate, the carrier was late in implementing its procedure, resulting in violations of the rule.

Under the consent order, which reflects a settlement by DOT’s Aviation Enforcement Office with the carrier, American Eagle is ordered to cease and desist from future violations of the tarmac delay rule and is assessed a $900,000 civil penalty. 

A total of $650,000 must be paid within 30 days, and up to $250,000 can be credited for refunds, vouchers, and frequent flyer mile awards provided to the passengers on the 15 flights on May 29, as well as to passengers on future flights that experience lengthy tarmac delays of less than three hours.

Big improvement

Between May 2010 and April 2011,  the first 12 months after the three-hour limit was in effect, the larger U.S. airlines required to file tarmac delays reported 20 tarmac delays of more than three hours, none of which was more than four hours long.  In contrast, during the 12 months before the rule took effect, these carriers had 693 tarmac delays of more than three hours, and 105 of the delays were longer than four hours.

Under an expansion of the tarmac delay rule that took effect Aug. 23, 2011, international flights at covered U.S. airports are now prohibited from remaining on the tarmac for more than four hours without permitting passengers the opportunity to deplane, subject to the same safety, security and air traffic control-related exceptions as the rule for domestic flights.

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Auction Opens for New York, DC Airport Slots

Delta, US Airways trading some of their slots at LGA, DCA

Bidding by airlines for the authority to take off and land at New York LaGuardia and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport begins today, under the term...

PhotoBidding by airlines for the authority to take off and land at New York LaGuardia and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport begins today, under the terms of a decision by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) that will allow Delta Air Lines, Inc. and US Airways, Inc. to exchange some of their operating authorities at the two airports.

On Oct. 7, DOT approved a request by the carriers under which Delta would trade 42 daily slot pairs at Reagan National for 132 US Airways daily slot pairs at LaGuardia. 

The Department placed a number of conditions on the trade designed to promote competition and protect consumers, including a requirement that the carriers divest themselves of eight pairs of daily slots at Reagan National and 16 pairs at LaGuardia. A “slot” refers to a carrier’s authority to take off or land at an airport where flight operations are limited by the Federal Aviation Administration.  A slot pair, or two slots, is required for a takeoff and landing.

“The conditions we placed on the slot transfer, including the auction, will help airlines with little or no service at LaGuardia and Reagan National gain a competitive foothold at these airports,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said. 

Only carriers operating less than five percent of the slots at LaGuardia or Reagan National, either with their own aircraft or through a code-sharing agreement, will be eligible to bid for the divested slots at that airport.  In order to ensure that a purchaser will be able to provide meaningful new competition, all eight slot pairs at Reagan National will be sold in a single bundle, and the 16 pairs at LaGuardia will be sold in two bundles of eight slot pairs each.

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Schumer: Layaway Fees Rival Even the Highest Credit Card Rates

NY Senator wants retailers to prominently disclose "sky-high" fees

You think retailers are doing you a favor be reinstating layaway programs?  Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) doesn't think so.Schumer says fees ass...

PhotoYou think retailers are doing you a favor be reinstating layaway programs?  Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) doesn't think so.

Schumer says fees associated with holiday shopping layaway programs  can exceed even the highest interest rates charged by credit card companies.

Citing the prospect of layaway fees that are the equivalent of an 81% credit card APR for a $100 purchase, Schumer called on the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) and the National Retail Federation (NRF) to work with member stores to clearly and prominently display the sky-high interest rate equivalent of the fees these programs charge so that consumers are better informed about the total price they’re paying.

“These layaway programs are nothing more than hideaways for sky-high interest rates that consumers would never tolerate with a credit card,” said Schumer. “The holiday season is supposed to be about giving and not taking, but these layaway programs are taking advantage of people and charging them outrageous interest rates, under the guise of making it easier and more affordable to shop.”

Christmas layaway programs allow shoppers to enter into a payment plan with stores in order to make holiday purchases by making an initial down payment and paying a service fee, then paying the rest of the bill over a period of time, picking up the item when the bill is paid in full.

These programs, however, charge fees that when calculated as an interest rate, would far exceed even the highest rates charged by credit card companies – and in many cases would violate state usury laws, Schumer said.

At Toys ‘R’ Us for example, consumers will pay the equivalent of at least an 81% annual percentage rate (APR) for a $100 purchase they put on layaway today, the New York Democrat charged. Because stores refer to these charges as ‘fees’ instead of interest rates, it is difficult for consumers to compare the effective cost of layaway programs to the cost of using a credit card.

The national average APR for a credit card in the United States is currently 14.99%, according to Creditcards.com. The highest average APR for those with bad credit is 24.96%. Layaway programs almost always end up costing consumers far more than that, Schumer charged.

To add insult to injury, when a customer wants to cancel a layaway purchase, retailers often do not refund service fees and also charge additional cancellation fees of $10 or more, Schumer said.

FTC action possible

Schumer said that these "sky-high fees" should be prominently disclosed in their APR equivalent so consumers can easily determine the most cost-effective method of making large purchases.

Schumer also made clear if retailers fail to act, he would ask the Federal Trade Commission to look into whether the programs are deceptive and misleading.

Schumer provided a breakdown of the layaway programs being introduced at three major retailers in the United States and what the equivalent APR would be for three popular gift purchases this year:

Walmart: The layaway program offered by Walmart requires a $5 service fee for a payment plan, a 10% down payment, and requires final payment and pickup by December 16. Walmart also has a layaway cancellation fee of $10.

·      A shopper who purchases a $69 Let’s Rock Elmo doll today will pay fees equivalent to interest payments for a credit card with a 105% APR

·      A shopper who purchases a $99 Leapfrog Leap Pad today will pay fees equivalent to interest payments for a credit card with a 71% APR

·      A shopper who purchases a $199 NOOK Color today will pay fees equivalent to interest payments for a credit card with a 34% APR

Sears: The layaway program offered by Sears requires a $5 service fee, 20% or $20 down payment (whichever is higher), and requires final payment by Christmas. Sears also has a cancellation fee of $15.

·      A shopper who purchases a $69 Let’s Rock Elmo doll today at Sears will pay fees equivalent to interest payments for a credit card with a 136% APR

·      A shopper who purchases a $99 Leapfrog Leap Pad today at Sears will pay fees equivalent to interest payments for a credit card with a 81% APR

·      A shopper who purchases a $199 NOOK Color today at Sears will pay fees equivalent to interest payments for a credit card with a 39% APR

Toys ‘R’ Us: The layaway program offered by Toys ‘R’ Us requires a $5 service fee, a 20% down payment, and requires final payment/pickup by Christmas. Toys ‘R’ Us also has a cancellation fee of $10.

·      A shopper who purchases a $69 Let’s Rock Elmo doll today at Toys ‘R’ Us will pay fees equivalent to interest payments for a credit card with a 120% APR

·      A shopper who purchases a $99 Leapfrog Leap Pad today at Toys ‘R’ Us will pay fees equivalent to interest payments for a credit card with a 81% APR

·      A shopper who purchases a $199 NOOK Color at Toys ‘R’ Us will pay fees equivalent to interest payments for a credit card with a 39% APR

"A responsibility" 

“Retailers have a responsibility to be forthright about the fees associated with layaway and should prominently display them in terms the consumer understands, so they can make informed decisions about the best way to pay for holiday shopping this year,” Schumer said.

In his letter to retailers, Schumer called on the major retail associations to work with their member stores to ensure that they prominently display the APR equivalent of the fees at the point of sale and provide consumers with comparisons.

Schumer noted if they don’t voluntarily implement such a program, he would ask the FTC to open an investigation into whether the fee structure is deceptive and misleading.  Schumer said that these layaway programs often deceive consumers by referring to the program in terms of fees instead of interest rates, making it difficult to compare to interest rates consumers are familiar with on their credit card.

 

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Massachusetts Fines Starbucks For Undisclosed Fee On Coffee

Consumers paid fee when they bought less than one-pound

Starbucks to stop assessing fee when consumers buy less than one-pound of coffee...

PhotoIf you've purchased bags of coffee from Starbucks in less than one-pound quantities, you've probably been charged more than you thought.

The Massachusetts Department of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation found that Starbucks stores in the Bay State routinely tacked on a $1.50 fee to the price of the coffee when customers bought less than one pound.

The fee only affected customers who bought Starbucks coffee in packages to take home. It was not assessed on coffee served by the cup.

The fee is not the issue, state officials say. It's the fact that the fee is not disclosed. It doesn't even appear on the customer's receipt. Barbara Anthony, who heads up Massachusetts' Consumer Affairs division, says any store can charge an additional fee, as long as it's disclosed to the consumer.

Officials said an estimated 75,000 consumers paid the fee, and that it appeared to be a Starbucks policy nationwide. Starbucks agreed to stop charging the fee and is paying a $1,575 fine to the state of Massachusetts.

The $1.50 fee was uncovered when agents of the Massachusetts Division of Standards conducted a routine price survey. They found the fee being charged in Starbucks stores in Auburn, Andover, Bedford, Boston, Brookline, Chestnut Hill, Chicopee, Concord, Dedham, Framingham, Holyoke and Reading.  

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Gift Cards Safer Than They Once Were, But Not Completely Safe

New rules cut down on excessive fees

Gift cards are better gifts than they once were...

PhotoEach holiday season more people seem to purchase gift cards. They're easy, come in a variety of prices, and let's face it, they're just a bit less tacky than wrapping up a $50 bill.

But gift cards have always produced their share of post-holiday complaints. Sometimes they don't work. Very often fees eat away at their value if not used right away.

“I received a $100 American Express gift card for my birthday,” Marion, of Tuscon, Ariz., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Although we have repeatedly verified that the balance is correct, three attempts to use the card to make a purchase have all failed. We have called customer service numerous times. Eventually we were told that Amex would mail a new card. Now days have passed with no new card and no resolution.”

Still glitches

While there are still glitches with some cards, the government recently adopted new rules for bank gift cards address the issue of fees. Now, these cards that are issued by American Express, Visa, Mastercard and Discover can't expire for five years after purchase. If you add money to a bank gift card, the new money can't expire for an additional five years.

The new rules also do away with inactivity or dormancy fees on bank cards until at least 12 months after the card was activated.

The new rules, which were part of the CARD Act that took effect in 2010, generally cover retail gift cards, which can be used to buy goods or services at a single merchant or affiliated group of merchants, and network-branded gift cards, which are redeemable at any merchant that accepts the card brand.

When giving a gift card, make sure to include the store or bank-issued activation receipt. This receipt will become very useful should there be a problem with the gift card. Make sure the recipient holds on to the receipt until all of the money on the card has been used.

Scam magnet

Gift cards, almost from the beginning, have been subject to theft and fraud. In the early days, retailers often displayed gift cards in racks out in the store.

Scammers were able to write down the account numbers and use the cards before they were sold. Once a recipient tried to use that particular gift card, they would find that it was worthless.

After the holidays unwanted or unused gift cards will sometimes show up in online classifieds, like craigslist. Most sellers and buyers are legitimate, but some may be scammers.

If consumers buy a gift card in this fashion, they should go to the store where the card is redeemable with the gift card seller. This way both parties can verify the validity and amount of money on the card. It would be very easy for a scammer to ask for an upfront payment and then send you a worthless piece of plastic.

If consumers are selling a gift card, the seller should never send the buyer the gift card number and PIN to verify the balance. Once a buyer has the gift card number and PIN, he can spend money online without ever paying for it.

If you are doing the selling, accept cash only -- a check or money order could be fraudulent. And, never give out personally identifiable information such as your Social Security number, bank account information and credit card numbers.

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Feds Probe Fire in Wrecked Chevy Volt

Safety of lithium ion batteries questioned after car catches fire

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) wants to know why a Chevy Volt caught fire in its garage.The Volt had been purposely dama...

PhotoThe National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) wants to know why a Chevy Volt caught fire in its garage.

The Volt had been purposely damaged in a side-impact crash test as part of routine safety testing.  After the crash, it was stored in a NHTSA garage in Wisconsin, where it caught fire three weeks later.

The fire poses new qustions about the safety of the lithium ion batteries used in the Volt and other hybrids and electrically-powered cars.

NHTSA initally downplayed the incident, saying there was no evidence the Volt was any more dangerous than any other car.  And General Motors sought to pin at least some of the blame on NHTSA, saying the battery had not been properly de-activated following the crash.

GM said it tried to replicate the incident but was unable to do so, and a GM spokesman insisted the Volt is safe.

"NHTSA does not believe electric vehicles are at a greater risk of fire than other vehicles," the agency said in a statement. "It is common sense that the different designs of electric vehicles will require different safety standards and precautions."

But the agency said it would conduct further tests, just to be sure.

Meanwhile, in a North Carolina garage, fire broke out while a Volt was being charged. Investigators said they were looking at the charging station, not at the Volt, as the possible cause of the fire.

 

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Lawsuit Accuses Aaron's of Unfair Consumer Practices

Furniture leasing company misleads consumers, suit charges

An Atlanta law firm has filed a class action lawsuit against Aaron’s,  Inc., taking issue with the leasing practices at the rent-to-own company'...

PhotoAn Atlanta law firm has filed a class action lawsuit against Aaron’s,  Inc., taking issue with the leasing practices at the rent-to-own company's 1,900 stores.

Aaron’s leases furniture, appliances, and electronics to consumers usually with the promise that, after a certain number of payments have been successfully completed, the consumer will own the items.

But the lawsuit filed by Webb, Klase & Lemond, LLC  alleges that Aaron’s has breached its lease agreements by refusing to provide pay-off information to consumers and through other improper practices.

The suit charges that the company has used unfair business practices, false advertising, and misrepresentations to induce customers to enter lease agreements that are not as favorable for the consumer as represented. The claims also include unjust enrichment. 

Usury laws

According to the suit, Aaron’s rent-to-own business model is in reality the extension of credit through consumer loans disguised as leases for the purchase of goods.

The suit alleges that the difference between the market value of the goods and the total amount of payments made by a consumer constitutes interest. State usury laws, such as the civil and criminal usury statutes in Georgia, impose a cap on the amount of interest that may be charged by a lender. The suit alleges that Aaron’s repeatedly violates these laws.

Further, the suit alleges that Aaron’s deceptively markets its well-known offer of “120-days same as cash.”

According to the complaint, this offer purports to allow consumers to buy their furniture, appliances, or electronics from Aaron’s for their market value so long as the consumer pays in full within four months.

The deception, as alleged in the suit, is that Aaron’s regularly and proactively attempts to prevent consumers from taking advantage of the 120-day offer by failing to provide them with their outstanding balance or pay-off amount in a timely and appropriate manner.

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Understanding Bank Math Helps Avoid Overdraft Fees

Consumer claims one withdrawal results in two overdraft fees

Banks don't always count the same way consumers do...

PhotoBank customers often complain about bank overdraft fees, saying they don't understand why they were charged a fee when they should have had money in the account.

Colleen of Everett, Wash., says she ran into that very problem and, when she questioned US Bank about it, got a detailed explanation.

"I had $412.00 in my checking account," Colleen told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I went to a US Bank ATM on a Saturday and drew out $400.00, leaving $12 in my account."

The following Monday, Colleen says her husband asked her to make a $38 purchase for him, promising he would transfer $40 into her account that day to cover the charge.

"I made the purchase and when I got home my husband said he had forgot to do the transfer, so we logged onto our Internet banking and transferred the $40. It said the $38 was pending, so we thought we were in the clear."

Two fees, not one

But the next day, Colleen said she logged into her account and saw two overdraft fees, at $33 each. One fee was for the $400 withdrawal and one fee was for the $38 purchase.

"I could understand one fee but not two fees, as I did have $412.00 in my account," Colleen said.

So Colleen said she called the bank and got this explanation: the first fee was assessed as a result of Colleen's $400 withdrawal. Although it was listed as "pending," it reduced her available balance to $12. When she made the $38 purchase, it overdrew her account.

Colleen said she understands that fee and has no argument. But what about the second fee? She was told that when the $400 withdrawal went from pending to active, her account was already overdrawn, triggering a second overdraft fee.

Withdrawal counted twice

But Colleen argued that the $400 withdrawal is being counted twice; once as "pending," reducing her available balance to $12, and a second time, when she was already overdrawn. Despite her protests, she says the bank held firm.

Just last week a judge approved a $410 million settlement with Bank of America and depositors who claimed the bank processed debit card charges in a way to maximize fees. The bank insisted its process was proper, despite the settlement.

The obvious way to avoid this situation in the future is not to opt in to the bank's overdraft "protection." Under new rules consumers must choose to allow banks to cover their overdraft purchases and assess them a fee. It sounds like Colleen has opted in to US Bank's overdraft coverage.

If she had not, here's what would have happened: After Colleen withdrew the $400 from her account and then attempted to make the $38 purchase for her husband, her debit card would have been declined, because she only had $12 in her account. It might have been inconvenient but it would have saved her $66, since it would have prevented both overdraft fees.

Using checking as savings account

Another way to avoid this situation is to keep any savings in your checking account instead of a savings account. Savings accounts produce almost no interest, so keeping an extra $500 or $600 in your checking account will prevent overdraft fees.

You just have to be disciplined and not spend your savings. But it it saves you from $200 or more in overdraft fees each year, it's much better than earning $4 or $5 in interest.

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Review Your Credit Card Bill For Surprise Charges

Consumers chagrined by monthly charges they fail to notice

Consumers should closely review credit card bills each month...

PhotoHow closely do you review your credit card bills before paying them? If you don't look closely, you could be paying bogus charges month after month without realizing it.

"We didn't sign up for anything and have had monthly charges of $27.95 to $35.95 from MPQ Privacy Matters since September 2009, ever since we opened up our business credit card," Kim of Dallas told ConsumerAffairs.com. "We have no idea how it appeared. Since we do large amounts of business expenses on our credit card we didn't notice it until November 2011."

Suzy of Los Angeles, has been a big fan of Netflix since 2006 and two years ago, purchased a six-month subscription for her elderly parents.

"I only just found out yesterday that the six-month gift subscription that I thought ended after the time I agreed to pay for, has been charging my credit card every month for over two years," Suzy said.

Richard, of Castroville, Calif., gave his credit card information to set up an account on MyLife.com.

"I saw on their site that seven females were looking for me," Richard said. "Hope springing eternal, I took the bait and signed up for an account, which would be billed monthly if I did not cancel. I knew none of these females, who suspiciously were all in their 20's and attractive. I called and cancelled the service after taking a look. I just looked at my credit card statements and saw that they have been charging me $21.95/month ever since."

Why do so many consumers miss seeing these charges for months? If you have dozens of purchases each month, they might not jump out. Also, now that more people receive and pay their bills online, they don't always look closely.

The lesson that Kim, Suzy and Richard have all learned is that you have to read your credit card bill carefully each and every month.

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Apple iPhone Battery Fix Not Working, Some Users Say

Some, posting on message boards, say the problem is now worse

Apple may not have fixed its battery problem with the iPhone 4S...

PhotoAn update to the IOS 5 operating software was supposed to have fixed a problem with rapid battery drain on the new iPhone 4S. It might not have.

The release came out Thursday and there are already reports that the battery issue continues. A check of an Apple iPhone forum this afternoon produced these comments:

“I am suffering from servers battery drain. Worked great on 5.0 but infinitely worse after upgrade (iOS 4, 5.0.1),” said a poster going by Finchystryder.

“Yes, yes, I am seeing way worse performance on my iphone 4s with 5.0.1.,” responded a poster going by hori.

Super anal about battery life

Then, there was this detailed post from Cmoz:

“I'm super anal about my battery life on the 4s. I always close my background applications right away so there's never anything open in the background. My wi-fi is always off unless i need it, location services are off unless i need it, push notifications are all off, my brightness is as low as it can be, my e-mail does not automatically fetch new data, i turned off diagnostics and usage reports sent to apple, bluetooth is off, Facetime is off. I also let my phone completely drain the battery before I charge it and never charge unless its at 1-2% or shuts itself off.

“I've tried to optimize my phone for pro-longed usage by turning off features I don't really need on a daily basis. I've actually lasted between 3-4 days on one charge only using it when I seriously need it but typically get 1.5-2 days on one charge. It doesn't look like that will be the case with 5.0.1.

“I've dropped 27% from 100% since this morning at 8AM and all I've done is play a Hanging with Friends. I watched battery life drain 5% just when trying to create one word for a friend. I haven't made any calls, sent texts, used Safari, listened to music or anything and the brightness is always low.

“This is kind of discouraging since I'm so anal about prolonging battery life. I'm considering a system restore if I don't notice an improvement. But I can say that I haven't noticed any improvement with the new update and my battery is in fact draining faster than it did before I applied the update.”

The fix

Apple offered the IOS 5.0.1 update as a remedy to complaints of rapid battery drain. According to Apple Insider, the update is now available to all users through iTunes, and will also be made available for download as an over-the-air update. In addition to addressing battery life issues, it is also designed to add new multi-touch gestures for multitasking to the first-generation iPad.

The full list of fixes in iOS 5.0.1, according to Apple, are:

  • Fixes bugs affecting battery life
  • Adds multitasking gestures for original iPad
  • Resolves bugs with Documents in the Cloud
  • Improves voice recognition for Australian users using dictation
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Warning Label Urged for St. John's Wort

Supplement may interfere with other drugs, consumer advocates warn

The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) wants the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require a warning label on dietary supp...

PhotoThe nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) wants the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require a warning label on dietary supplements containing St. John’s wort.

It says the supplements may interfere with birth control, antidepressants, blood thinners, and other prescription and over-the-counter drugs. 

St. John’s wort is a flowering plant often promoted for its supposed antidepressant properties. But CSPI said that individuals who take it with prescription antidepressants may unwittingly be counteracting the very treatment they are seeking. Similarly, women taking St. John’s wort and oral contraceptives may have unplanned pregnancies.

"Companies have taken a minimalist approach designed to protect themselves from litigation, rather than actually protecting consumers' health," said CSPI litigation director Stephen Gardner. "FDA should mandate a standard warning label for St. John’s wort to protect consumers based on the research outlined in this petition."

According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, St. John’s wort may also interact with other potentially life-saving treatments, including heart medications, drugs used to control HIV infection, drugs used to treat cancer, and seizure-control drugs.

Writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, former FDA Commissioner Jane E. Henney warned that St. John’s wort “interacts with many drugs that are used to treat heart disease, depression, seizures, certain cancers, as well as drugs that prevent transplant rejection and pregnancy.”

Boilerplate warnings

“Consumers take St. John’s wort and other herbal supplements based on their belief that they will benefit in some way, and perhaps some will,” said CSPI senior nutritionist David Schardt. “But all consumers need to know that St. John’s wort and many commonly prescribed drugs simply don’t mix.”

The petition suggests the following warning label: “CAUTION: St. John’s wort interacts with some commonly used prescription and over-the-counter drugs. DO NOT USE this supplement if you are taking contraceptives, antidepressants, immunosuppressants (such as cyclosporine), anticoagulants, Digoxin, HIV medicine, blood thinners, seizure-control medicine, cancer medicine, or any other medications.” The petition also asks that this warning appear in a prominent black box on the package label.

According to CSPI, the current advice on labels is inconsistent and fails to adequately warn consumers of the risks associated with St. John’s wort.

  • Bluebonnet Herbals St. John’s Wort Extract does not have a warning label.
  • Labels for Nature’s Plus Herbal Active St. John’s Wort Extended Release say “If you are pregnant or nursing, consult your healthcare physician before using any herbal product.”
  • Vitamin Shoppe’s labels plainly state that “St John’s wort should not be used with antidepressants,” but does not address other drugs. Solaray labels merely advise consumers to “consult your physician.”

“From the information we have gathered, it appears that many manufacturers simply wish to protect themselves from product liability suits by placing boilerplate warnings on the label rather than actually alerting consumers to the known, material risks of drug interactions associated with the product,” CSPI says in its filing.

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Google TV II Will be Minus the Logitech Revue

Logitech CEO condemns the Revue as a gigantic mistake

There's a lot of buzz about Google TV's second edition, due out later this month, but whatever the new features may be, one of the venture's original partn...

PhotoThere's a lot of buzz about Google TV's second edition, due out later this month, but whatever the new features may be, one of the venture's original partners won't be along for the ride this time.

Logitech says its Revue product was "a mistake of implementation of a gigantic nature."  The company plans to let inventory run out and will not produce a follow-up product, Logitech's new CEO told an investor conference this week.

Guerrino De Luca called the Revue "a beta product" that should not have been rolled out the way it was and said it had "cost us dearly."

Yes, and it cost a lot of consumers dearly too.  Those who paid $300 for the set-top device trusted in the Google gods to deliver something completely different, even though no one seemed to know exactly what that might be.

De Luca seemed to find no irony in trashing the product to his investors while blithely assuring them the company would continue selling the Revue, unsatisfactory though it is, until the shelves were bare.  

Customer loyalty only goes one way, apparently.

De Luca has been on a tear about Google TV for quite awhile.  In July, he complained that customers were returning the Revue box faster than stores could sell them but blamed the problem on Google, saying Google TV had "not yet fully delivered.”

No one seems to know quite what to expect in the next generation of TVs, including the companies planning to manufacture them. Google and Microsoft have already stumbled badly while Apple and Sony, among others, are preparing their inaugural offerings.

There's speculation that Apple TV will exemplify the Steve Jobs model of wrapping numerous functions, modalities and so forth into one elegant package, all operated with a single remote.   So far, there's no firm release date.

 

 

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hhgregg Sets Thanksgiving Midnight Opening

Retailers moving Black Friday up to Thursday night

hhgregg is the latest retailer to move up the Black Friday clock, opening its stores at midnight Thanksgiving night."We are grateful to our dedicated emp...

Photohhgregg is the latest retailer to move up the Black Friday clock, opening its stores at midnight Thanksgiving night.

"We are grateful to our dedicated employees for supporting the decision to open early on Black Friday,” Dennis May, president and chief executive officer at hhgregg, said in a statement.

“We are a very family-focused company, and we understand that our extended store hours place a burden on employees. However, we are staffing our stores strategically on Black Friday, and throughout the holiday season, to ensure that all of our employees have adequate time with their families.”

hhgregg stores will be open from midnight to 9 p.m. Nov. 25 and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. the following day. 

Target, Macy's, Kohl's and Best Buy are all kicking off their Black Friday sales at midnight Thanksgiving night, Walmart says it will open its stores at 10 p.m.

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Metro Dream Homes Founder Convicted in Mortgage Fraud Scheme

Promised to pay off homeowners' mortgages but left them to fend for themselves

A federal jury has convicted Andrew Hamilton Williams, Jr., age 60, of Hollywood, Florida of fraud conspiracy, wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money la...

A federal jury has convicted Andrew Hamilton Williams, Jr., age 60, of Hollywood, Florida of fraud conspiracy, wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering in connection with a massive mortgage fraud scheme which promised to pay off homeowners’ mortgages on their “Dream Homes,” but left them to fend for themselves.

“Metro Dream Homes was an egregious fraud scheme, and an excellent example of the principle that financial schemes that sound too good to be true are usually scams,” said Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein.

“This case shows that the appearance of success can be a mask for a tangled financial web of lies,” said IRS Special Agent in Charge Jeannine Hammett. “Ponzi schemes can thrive for a time on false claims about how the money is being invested and where the returns are coming from. But that time is gone, and as this verdict shows, it's time for those responsible to face judgment.”

According to evidence presented at the two-week trial, beginning in 2005, Williams and his conspirators targeted homeowners and home purchasers to participate in a purported mortgage payment program called the “Dream Homes Program.”

In exchange for a minimum of $50,000 initial investment and an “administrative fee” of up to $5,000, the conspirators promised to make the homeowners’ future monthly mortgage payments, and pay off the homeowners’ mortgage within five to seven years.

Dream Homes Program representatives explained to investors that the homeowners’ initial investments would be used to fund investments in automated teller machines (ATMs), flat screen televisions that would show paid business advertisements, and electronic kiosks that sold goods and services.

To give investors the impression that the Dream Homes Program was very successful, Metro Dream Homes spent hundreds of thousands of dollars making presentations at luxury hotels such as the Washington Plaza Hotel in Washington, D.C., the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York, New York, and the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. Metro Dream Homes had offices in Maryland, the District of Columbia, Virginia, North Carolina, New York, Delaware, Florida, Georgia and California.

According to trial testimony, Williams and his co-conspirators failed to advise investors that the ATMs, flat-screen televisions and kiosks never generated any meaningful revenue. The defendants used the funds from later investors to pay the mortgages of earlier investors.

Evidence showed that MDH had not filed any federal income tax returns throughout its existence. The defendants also failed to advise investors that their investments were being used for the personal enrichment of select MDH employees, including Williams, to:

  • pay salaries of up to $200,000 a year as well as their mortgages;
  • employ a staff of chauffeurs and maintain a fleet of luxury cars; and
  • travel to and attend the 2007 National Basketball Association All-Star game and the 2007 National Football League Super Bowl, staying in luxury accommodations in both instances.

Nor were investors told that investor funds were used to:

  • pay off investors in a prior failed ATM investment venture called Bankcard Group;
  • make multiple donations of up to $50,000 each to charitable organizations to give MDH the appearance of being financially successful; and
  • transfer millions of dollars in investor funds to third-party businesses for purposes not disclosed to investors.

Trial testimony showed that Williams and his co-conspirators arranged for early Dream Homes Program investors, whose monthly mortgage payments had been paid by MDH using the funds of later Dream Homes Program investors, to attend recruitment meetings to assure potential investors that the Dream Homes Program was not a fraud.

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Foreclosure Activity Picks Up Again

One state tries to do something about it

Foreclosure activity jump in October...

PhotoAmericans are still losing their homes to foreclosure, and the pace increased last month, according to a report by the foreclosure marketing firm RealtyTrac.

The company counted 230,678 foreclosure activities in October – everything from notices of default to auctions or bank repossessions. It's a seven percent jump over the previous month and the largest number in seven months.

The only bright spot is the comparison with October 2010. A year ago, there were lots more foreclosure activities – 31 percent more to be exact.

While most of the early foreclosures were related to subprime mortgages, many of the newest relate to the economy, and homeowners losing their income. David, of Hamilton, Ala., is a prime example.

“I lost my job, fell behind on my payments, got another job and started making more than my usual mortgage payment,” David told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I did this for over half a year and all checks were cashed. In Oct. 2010 Bank of America notified me that I qualified for a modification. I signed and notarized all papers and was told to begin making the modified payment, which I did till June 2011 when my check was sent back and I was informed that I owed a large amount and I was in foreclosure.”

Connecticut steps in as mediator

This kind of disconnect between mortgage servicer and homeowner has been a constant in the modification process, pushed by the federal government in early 2009. Trying to eliminate this confusion and frustration, one state – Connecticut – is holding an event next week where distressed homeowners in the state can meet face to face with representatives of their mortgage companies.

“I encourage any homeowner who is struggling to keep up with their mortgage to take this opportunity to sit down with their lender and explore their options,” said Connecticut Governor Daniel Malloy. “Our hope is that anyone who is at risk of foreclosure will receive the information they need to get back on track.”

Connecticut Attorney General Jepsen said the Nov. 15 event is a response to the many Connecticut residents who have complained that they are frustrated with the lack of communication, lost paperwork and other customer service issues involved with their loans.

Ending the run-around

“We are working with the banks to make sure those issues are addressed,” Jepsen said.

Among the banks sending representatives are: Bank of America; Citibank, NA; GMAC Mortgage, LLC; HSBC National Bank USA; JPMorgan Chase & Co.; First Niagara Bank; McCue Mortgage; People's United Bank; Webster Bank, NA and Wells Fargo Bank, NA.

The mortgage assistance forum is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Connecticut Convention Center, 100 Columbus Boulevard in Hartford.

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Feds Approve First Cord Blood Product

HEMACORD is for use in stem cell transplant procedures

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration has announced its approval for the first product made from blood harvested from the umbilical cords of ne...

PhotoThe U.S. Food & Drug Administration has announced its approval for HEMACORD, the first product made from blood harvested from the umbilical cords of newborn infants.

The product is intended for use in stem cell transplantation procedures in patients with disorders affecting the blood-forming (hematopoietic) system.

For example, cord blood transplants have been used to treat patients with certain blood cancers and some inherited metabolic and immune system disorders.

“The use of cord blood hematopoietic progenitor cell therapy offers potentially life-saving treatment options for patients with these types of disorders,” said Karen Midthun, M.D., director, FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.

HEMACORD is produced by the New York Blood Center.

"We are thrilled to be the first public cord blood bank with an FDA-licensed product for transplantation," said Christopher D. Hillyer, MD, President and CEO of New York Blood Center (NYBC).  

Cord blood

After a baby is born and the umbilical cord is cut, some blood remains in the blood vessels of the placenta and the portion of the umbilical cord that remains attached to it. After birth, the baby no longer needs this extra blood. This blood is called placental blood or umbilical cord blood: "cord blood" for short, the NYBC explains on its Web site.

Cord blood contains all the normal elements of blood -- red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets and plasma. But it is also rich in blood-forming stem cells, similar to those found in bone marrow. This is why cord blood can be used for transplantation as an alternative to bone marrow.

More than 80 different diseases have been treated to date with unrelated cord blood transplants, including various forms of leukemia, lymphoma, Sickle cell disease and certain malignancies.

Since 1996, NYBC's National Cord Blood Program (NCBP) at the Howard P. Milstein National Cord Blood Center has provided cord blood units for transplantation under an Investigational New Drug (IND) exemption from the FDA.  The mission of the NCBP is to facilitate access to cord blood as a treatment option for patients, notably those from diverse ethnic backgrounds.  

HEMACORD contains hematopoietic progenitor cells (HPCs) from human cord blood. Cord blood is one of three sources of HPCs used in transplants; the other two are bone marrow and peripheral blood.

Once these HPCs are infused into patients, the cells migrate to the bone marrow where they divide and mature. When the mature cells move into the bloodstream they can partially or fully restore the number and function of many blood cells, including immune function.

HEMACORD has a boxed warning regarding the risks of Graft Versus Host Disease (GVHD), engraftment syndrome, graft failure, and infusion reactions, each of which may be fatal. Patients who receive Hemacord should be monitored carefully.

A risk-benefit assessment, unit selection and administration of Hemacord should be done under the direction of a physician experienced in hematopoietic stem cell transplantation.

To obtain FDA licensure of HEMACORD, all collection and manufacturing conditions of the cord blood units met FDA standards for product potency, purity and efficacy, and patient safety.  Its application included the safety data from the transplantation of more than 4,000 cord blood grafts.

In advance of the BLA submission, NCBP moved its entire manufacturing and storage resources to a state-of-the-art facility in Long Island City, New York.

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Gas Prices Rise Slightly During The Week

Higher oil prices stopped the price slide at the pump

Motorists are paying more for gasoline...

PhotoGasoline prices have stopped their slow decline and reversed course in the last week, as oil prices rose and supplies tightened.

The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.438 per gallon, up from $3.420 last Friday, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. That's still a penny a gallon less than what motorists were paying two weeks ago.

The price of diesel fuel is rising a bit faster. The average price of diesel fuel today is $3.932 per gallon, up from $3.896 a week ago.

Following crude prices higher

Gas prices began to turn this week as the price of crude oil posted strong gains, in spite of worries about Eurozone economic problems. Crude prices are trading close to the $100 a barrel mark again.

While the price of crude oil is rising, U.S. supplies of petroleum are being drawn down. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported this week that U.S. crude oil stockpiles fell by 1.4 million barrels in the last week. That's more than seven percent low U.S. supply levels a year ago.

With falling supplies, refiners may be forced to purchase more of the increasingly expensive oil in the weeks ahead, passing the increase along in the form of higher prices.

Prices rise despite lower demand

Not surprisingly, consumers are doing their best to cut back on gasoline purchases. The EIA reports U.S. demand for gasoline was down 5.6 percent compared to a year ago. Despite that, U.S. gasoline stockpiles fell by 2.1 millions barrels

The states with the most expensive gas this week are:

  • Hawaii ($4.158)
  • Alaska ($4.030)
  • California ($3.839)
  • Washington ($3.765)
  • Oregon ($3.724)
  • Connecticut ($3.699)
  • New York ($3.684)
  • Nevada ($3.605)
  • Montana ($3.552)
  • North Dakota ($3.527)

 

The states with the least expensive gas this week are:

  • New Mexico ($3.207)
  • Missouri ($3.208)
  • South Carolina ($3.220)
  • Texas ($3.261)
  • Tennessee ($3.262)
  • Mississippi ($3.248)
  • Alabama ($3.266)
  • Louisiana ($3.274)
  • Oklahoma ($3.286)
  • Virginia ($3.308)
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What's On Your Mind? eHarmony, Natural Health Network, Virgin America, Dollar Rent-A-Car

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: eHarmony, Natural Health Network, Virgin America, Dollar Rent-A-Car, Not so free and Frustrating....

PhotoAlysia, of Cedar Park, Tex., says she is separated from her husband and was interested in seeing other people. She says she logged onto eHarmony.com and started the application process.

“In the beginning of signing up they ask you if you are single, married, separated, etc., Alysia told ConsumerAffairs.com. “After picking separated I continued to fill out their hour-long questionaire about myself. After all the grueling reflecting I come to the end where they tell me I cannot be accepted due to not being single. Why didn't they end it before i went through all the questioning? When I am single, I will not use this site.”

While some dating sites aren't that picky about your status, those who are in the midst of separating should know that eHarmony wants you to wait until the divorce is final before you join.

Not so free

Jennifer, of Brooklyn, N.Y., says she's been burned by one of those free trial offers that suddenly turns into an expensive order for the product.

On November 9 I ordered a trial of Pura Silk from Natural Health Network,” Jennifer said. “They advertised that I'd only be paying $3.95 for shipping and handling. I called the bank to see if they processed my order and the bank advised me that they are also charging me $89.95. I did not agree to pay nor did they even advertise that price. So immediately called them and asked them to cancel my order. They said there was nothing they can do since the order has already shipped.”

Wow, that was fast. How could anyone expect Jennifer to receive, much less use her free trial in that amount of time. There was probably some fine print or check box which explained that Jennifer would be agreeing to a full order, but if she wasn't aware of it, that seems to be a problem. We suggest Jennifer lodge a complaint with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office.

Frustrating

Dean, of Los Angeles is booked on a Virgin America flight but needs to cancel it. Not an easy matter, he says.

“I have been trying to cancel my flight for the last five days,” Dean told ConsumerAffairs.com. “The on-line system will not let you cancel a flight or send them an email. The number they give to call only leaves me on hold until I have to hang up. During my last five tries I have stayed on hold from 35 minutes to 80 minutes and still have not received a representative to cancel my flight. My flight is in Saturday and I have no idea what to do.”

Dean needs to take a closer look at the Virgin America site.  The top navigation bar has a "Manage Travel" tab.  From there, he can click on "Cancel" and change or cancel his reservation.  Of course, if Dean bought a super-discounted non-refundable ticket, he may be out of luck.

Can't win

We've heard repeatedly in recent months from rental car customers who declined to purchase the company's expensive damage insurance, only to be hit with a costly repair bill long after they turned in the car. Then we hear from Simon, of Jersey City, N.J., who says he wanted to buy the insurance at Dollar Rent-A-Car but couldn't.

“I rented a Chevrolet Suburban SUV on in August at Dollar Rent-A-Car Laguardia Airport,” Simon said. At the time of rental, I clearly expressed my intention of buying damage waiver Insurance (CDW) for my car, but a Dollar staff from the front desk refused to sell me it. He told me it was New York State Law that when renting full size SUV you are not allowed to purchase CDW. He chose 'decline' on the rental form for me and made me sign below.”

Wouldn't you know that when Simon returned the car, he backed over a spike and punctured a tire, costing $350. When he checked the Internet, he found no state law saying you cannot buy CDW for a full-sized SUV.

“I called Dollar customer service and they told me they only see my signature on the contract and wouldn't listen to me,” Simon said. “However I think the contract was orally changed by one of their staff at the front desk, He added new terms to the contract which was fake. When someone wearing a Dollar T-shirt represents your company, you cannot say things like 'you shouldn't have believed him.'”

Not sure what recourse Simon's recourse is. It's a he said-he said situation. 

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Starbucks Juiced Up Over Its Latest Acquisition

Maybe there's a reason the word "coffee" was dropped from the logo?

There's a limit to how much caffeine we can absorb, but that's not stopping Starbucks in its search for ...

PhotoThere's a limit to how much caffeine we can absorb, but that's not stopping Starbucks in its search for more sales, more stores and, well, more money.  To move things along, Starbucks is paying $30 million for Evolution Fresh Inc., a premium juice brand.

"Starbucks has seen success with expanded healthier menu items to deliver the nutritious, on-the-go options consumers are seeking," the company said in a prepared statement. "With this acquisition, Starbucks will reinvent the $1.6 billion super-premium juice segment, its significant next step in entering the larger $50 billion Health and Wellness sector."

The company said Evolution Fresh will enable Starbucks to "bring a unique, premium juice product to the marketplace through the creation of a differentiated brand and experience, similar to what Starbucks pioneered 40 years ago for coffee consumers."

"Tthe company believes it will be able to take a currently undifferentiated, commoditized product segment and introduce a unique, high-quality product to redefine and grow the super-premium juice market," the Starbucks statement continued.

Trying to penetrate the marketing jargon in corporate statements isn't always easy, but Starbucks seems to be saying it plans to grab a big foothold in the supermarket juice business and maybe even open a line of juice bars.

Leverage scale

"Our intent is to build a national Health and Wellness brand leveraging our scale, resources and premium product expertise. Bringing Evolution Fresh into the Starbucks family marks an important step forward in this pursuit,” said Howard Schultz, Starbucks chairman, president and CEO. 

Evolution juices are already carried in Whole Foods, Safeway, Costco and many Trader Joe's stores, thus clearing a major obstacle in establishing a new or rebranded product line.

Evolution Fresh was started by the original founder of Naked Juice, Jimmy Rosenberg. He decided to get back into the premium juice business to found Evolution Fresh, which claims to be one of the only "true juiceries" left in the industry -- meaing one that still cracks, peels, presses, and squeezes its own raw fruits and vegetables.

Evolution's uses a process called High Pressure Pasteurization (HPP), producing “never heated” juices, which are said to be tastier and more nutritious than those that are pasteurized through traditional methods.

“Using High Pressure Pasteurization (HPP) to help ensure the inherent nutrients are kept intact during the juicing process is a key point of differentiation for a growing number of our juices,” said Jimmy Rosenberg, founder of Evolution Fresh, Inc. and the newly named chief juice officer (CJO?) of Evolution Fresh.

“Consumers trust the Starbucks brand to deliver on superior best-in-category quality and taste. On behalf of all of us at Evolution Fresh, we are proud to join the Starbucks organization,” he said.

 

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Walmart Moves Black Friday Up a Few Hours

Selected items will go on sale at 10 p.m. Thanksgiving night

Not willing to be outdone by Target, Macy's, Kohl's and Best Buy, who are kicking off their Black Friday sales at midnight Thanksgiving night, Walmart says...

PhotoNot willing to be outdone by Target, Macy's, Kohl's and Best Buy, who are kicking off their Black Friday sales at midnight Thanksgiving night, Walmart says it will open its stores at 10 p.m.

"Everything from the hottest TVs to gaming consoles and top toys will be available at great savings during three special-shopping events, while supplies last," Walmart said in a statement today.  It released this timetable for the just-can't-wait crowd:

  • 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 24) – Top Toys, Home and Apparel
  • Midnight on Black Friday (Nov. 25) – Electronics! Electronics! Electronics!
  • 8 a.m. Nov. 25 through the weekend – Gifts for the entire family; electronics and more.

"Our customers told us they would rather stay up late to shop than get up early, so we’re going to hold special events on Thanksgiving and Black Friday,” said Duncan Mac Naughton, chief merchandising officer, Walmart U.S. “[B]y sharing our Black Friday specials earlier than ever, we hope to make buying decisions easier for parents working hard to give their families the Christmas they deserve.”

Best Buy announced earlier this week that it would open at midnight Thursday night, joining Kohl's Macy's and Target.  

In this Walmart-supplied video, the retailer explains its reasoning:

 

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FBI Busts Estonian Malware Ring

Operation Ghost Click reportedly infected four million computers

FBI makes arrests in alleged malware ring...

The FBI says a two-year investigation has resulted in the arrest of six Estonian nationals who have been charged with running a sophisticated Internet fraud ring that infected millions of computers worldwide.

By spreading the computer virus, the suspects were reportedly able to manipulate the multi-billion-dollar Internet advertising industry. Users of infected machines were unaware that their computers had been compromised—or that the malicious software rendered their machines vulnerable to a host of other viruses.

It was, says Janice Fedarcyk, assistant director of the FBI's New York office, “an intricate international conspiracy conceived and carried out by sophisticated criminals.”

“The harm inflicted by the defendants was not merely a matter of reaping illegitimate income,” Fedarcyk said.

Began in 2007

The federal indictment, unsealed this week claims that beginning in 2007, the cyber ring used a class of malware called DNSChanger to infect approximately four million computers in more than 100 countries. There were about 500,000 infections in the U.S., including computers belonging to individuals, businesses, and government agencies such as NASA. The FBI's investigation was code named “Operation Ghost Click.”

The alleged thieves were able to manipulate Internet advertising to generate at least $14 million in illicit fees,” the indictment claims. In some cases, the malware had the additional effect of preventing users’ anti-virus software and operating systems from updating, thereby exposing infected machines to even more malicious software.

Critical Internet service

DNS—Domain Name System—is a critical Internet service that converts user-friendly domain names, such as www.fbi.gov, into numerical addresses that allow computers to talk to each other. Without DNS and the DNS servers operated by Internet service providers, computer users would not be able to browse websites or send e-mail.

“The correctness of your internet browsing experience is entirely dependent on the correctness of the DNS server you use,” said Paul Ducklin, head of technology, Asia-Pacific, for Sophos Security. “A dishonest DNS server can take you to fraudulent substitutes of any sites it likes.”

The FBI says the defendants were organized and operating as a traditional business but profiting illegally as the result of the malware, at “a level of complexity here that we haven’t seen before.”

The FBI says consumers who believe their computers may be infected should contact a computer professional. The FBI also released this fact sheet about DNSChanger and how it can affect your computer.

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Morgan Stanley Fined $1 Million for Excessive Markups

Firm ordered to pay $371,000 in restitution to customers

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) has fined Morgan Stanley & Co. Inc. and Morgan Stanley Smith Barney LLC $1 million and ordere...

PhotoThe Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) has fined Morgan Stanley & Co. Inc. and Morgan Stanley Smith Barney LLC $1 million and ordered $371,000 in restitution and interest to customers for excessive markups and markdowns charged to customers on corporate and municipal bond transactions, and related supervision violations.

FINRA found that Morgan Stanley charged markups and markdowns ranging from below 5 percent to 13.8 percent on corporate and municipal bond transactions, which were higher than warranted given factors including market conditions, the cost of executing the transactions and the value of the services rendered to the customers.

"Firms must ensure that customers who buy and sell securities, including corporate and municipal bonds, receive fair and reasonable prices regardless of whether a markup or markdown is above or below 5 percent," said  Thomas Gira, Executive Vice President, FINRA Market Regulation, said. "Morgan Stanley clearly violated fair pricing standards and FINRA will continue to require firms that violate such standards to make their customers whole."

Inadequate supervision

FINRA found that Morgan Stanley's supervisory system for corporate and municipal bond markups and markdowns was inadequate.

The firm's supervisory reports were not designed to include markups and markdowns that were below 5 percent but nonetheless may have been excessive. And before August 2009, Morgan Stanley's policies and procedures considered only one of two charges that the firm added to the price of a bond when it determined whether a markup or markdown was fair and reasonable.

Morgan Stanley was also ordered to revise its written supervisory procedures regarding supervisory review of markups and markdowns in fixed income transactions with its customers.

Investors can obtain more information about, and the disciplinary record of, any FINRA-registered broker or brokerage firm by using FINRA's BrokerCheck. FINRA makes BrokerCheck available at no charge. In 2010, members of the public used this service to conduct 17.2 million reviews of broker or firm records. Investors can access BrokerCheck at www.finra.org/brokercheck or by calling (800) 289-9999. 

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Study: Most Smokers Wish They Could Quit

More than half have tried to quit within the last year

Most American adults who smoke wish they could quit, and more than half have tried within the past year, according to a report by the Centers for Disease C...

PhotoMost American adults who smoke wish they could quit, and more than half have tried within the past year, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The report says 68.8 percent of current American adult smokers say they want to quit and 52.4 percent of adult smokers tried to quit within the past year.  The report says 48.3 percent of smokers who saw a health professional in the past year recalled getting advice to quit and 31.7 percent used counseling and/or medications in the past year.

The use of these effective treatments can almost double to triple rates of successfully quitting.

“More than two thirds of smokers want to quit smoking and more than half tried to quit last year,” said CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden, M.D., M.P.H.  “Smokers who try to quit can double or triple their chances by getting counseling, medicine, or both.  Other measures of increasing the likelihood that smokers will quit as they want to include hard–hitting media campaigns, 100 percent smoke–free policies, and higher tobacco prices.”

According to the report, making health care settings as well as all workplaces and public places smoke-free offers smokers additional encouragement to help them quit.  The report also notes the health care industry can increase successful quit attempts by providing comprehensive insurance coverage with no deductibles or co-payments for cessation treatments and services. 

Free help

Smokers can get free resources and help quitting by calling 1-800-QUIT-NOW (784-8669) or visiting www.smokefree.govExternal Web Site Icon.

“Quitting smoking is the best thing smokers can do for their health and the health of their families,” said Tim McAfee, M.D., M.P.H., director of CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health. “We know that quitting can be challenging, but more than half of Americans who ever smoked have quit and you can too.  Talk to your health care provider and call 1-800-QUIT-NOW for free help.” 

Tobacco use remains the leading preventable cause of death and disease, including cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other lung diseases, in the United States.  Smoking and exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke kill an estimated 443,000 Americans each year.  For every 1 smoking-related death, another 20 people live with a smoking-related disease.  

The analysis is in CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The report is being published in conjunction with the annual Great American Smokeout, observed this year on Nov. 17. Sponsored by the American Cancer Society, the Smokeout encourages smokers to use the date to make a plan to quit, or to plan in advance and quit smoking that day.

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High-Powered Magnets a Deadly Danger to Children

Increasing reports of children swallowing magnets, with severe consequences

Faced with increasing reports of children swallowing high-powered magnets, federal safety regulators are reminding parents tdhat magnets and kids don't mix...

PhotoFaced with increasing reports of children swallowing high-powered magnets, federal safety regulators are reminding parents that magnets and kids don't mix.

Although the risk scenarios differ by age group, the danger is the same, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) said. When two or more magnets are swallowed, they can attract one another internally, resulting in serious injuries, such as small holes in the stomach and intestines, intestinal blockage, blood poisoning and even death.

Reports of incidents involving these high-powered ball-bearing magnets have increased since 2009. Specifically, CPSC received one incident report in 2009, seven in 2010 and 14 through October 2011. These 22 incidents have involved children ranging in age from 18 months to 15 years old.

Of the reported incidents, 17 involved magnet ingestion and 11 required surgical removal of the magnets. When a magnet has to be removed surgically, it often requires the repair of the child's damaged stomach and intestines.

"We want parents to be aware of the danger associated with these innocent looking magnets," said CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum. "The potential for serious injury and death if multiple magnets are swallowed demands that parents and medical professionals be aware of this hidden hazard and know how to treat a child in distress."

Age 14

High-powered magnets and magnet components that are of a size that can be swallowed are prohibited in toys for children younger than age 14.

The reported incidents involve magnets that are marketed as desk toys and stress relievers for adults who use the magnets to create patterns and build shapes. Often, they are sold in sets of 200 or more magnets in stationery, office supply and gift stores, and also on the Internet.

CPSC has received reports of toddlers finding loose pieces of magnets or magnets left within reach. It can be extremely difficult for a parent to tell if any of the tiny magnets are missing from a set. In some of the reported incidents, toddlers have accessed loose magnets left on a table, refrigerator, sofa or the floor.

With tweens and teenagers, how the product is being used has resulted in magnets being unintentionally inhaled and swallowed. CPSC is also aware of instances where the magnets were swallowed intentionally. To mimic body piercings, the older children are placing two or more magnets on opposite sides of their ear lobes, tongue and nose.

"We sell our magnetic desk toy product, Nanospheres, on Amazon.com for adults only. As the Amazon product description and warning labels on the product itself state, these products are hazardous if ingested and are not appropriate for young children," said Dan Taggert, CEO of Kringles Toys and Gifts, manufacturer of Nanospheres.

"High-powered magnets, such as Buckyballs, are products for adult use only and should be kept away from all children," said Craig Zucker, CEO of Maxfield and Oberton, the manufacturer of Buckyballs.

CPSC, Kringles Toys and Gifts and Maxfield and Oberton are urging consumers who have purchased magnet sets for children younger than 14 years of age (or households with children under 14 years of age) to remove access to the sets by children immediately and contact the firms for a refund.

Safety tips

CPSC offers the following tips to avoid magnet ingestion injuries and advice on what to do if you suspect that your child has swallowed magnets:

  • Keep small magnets away from young children who might swallow them.
  • Look out for loose magnet pieces - and regularly inspect toys and children's play areas for missing or dislodged magnets.
  • If you suspect that magnets have been swallowed, seek medical attention immediately.
  • Look for abdominal symptoms, such as abdominal pains, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
  • Note that in x-rays multiple magnetic pieces may appear as a single object.
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Survey Finds Widespread Online Bullying

88% of teens report witnessing bullying

Pew Internet and Family Life survey on bullying...

PhotoTeenagers live in two worlds these days. There's the real world that includes school, family and activities, and then there's the virtual world made up of Facebook and other social networking sites.

It turns out that bullies populate both worlds, according to a new study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

The study says 69 percent of the teenagers who use social networking sites say their peers are mostly kind to one another on such sites. Still, 88 percent of these teens say they have witnessed people being mean and cruel to another person on the sites, and 15 percent report that they have been the target of mean or cruel behavior on social network sites.

Adults less likely to report bullying

Adult social network users are less likely to say they witness or experience this type of behavior, but they still report that it is prevalent: 69 percent of the adults who use social networking sites say they have seen people be mean and cruel to others on those sites.

Occasionally cases of social network abuse make the headlines, such as the time a teen committed suicide after being bullied online. ConsumerAffairs.com routinely hears from readers who run into everything from slurs to outright threats.

“For two years I've been sent awful messages calling me fat cow amd other names from Kelly **,” Sunniwest, of Sechelt, British Columbia told ConsumerAffairs.com. “She uses lots of phony names, but I can tell it's her by her language. She also sent me 25 same kind of messages on my msn. She's upsetting my whole family by this and I'd like her thrown off Facebook for good and blocked from me, because I know she will make another account.”

Kerry, of Pittsburgh, says she has been the target of harassment on Facebook by several people using girl's names.

“I have copies of a Facebook group they created about me titled 'You know you got haters when?'” Kerry said. “I have 55 pages of slander and threats of bodily harm and harassment. They have posted pictures of me and my real name. They have reported my account repeatedly and despite my reports to Facebook and my friends' reports to Facebook, nothing was done.”

Who can you complain to?

Numerous consumers like Kerry express frustration that there doesn't seem to be a human being at Facebook who can respond to their problems. Part of that may have to do with the size of the site. With more than 750 million members, any company would be hard pressed to keep up with everyone.

The problems on Facebook and other sites may seem to be growing because so many people use them. The Pew study found that 95 percent of all teens ages 12-17 are now online and 80 percent of online teens are users of social media sites. Teens of all ages and backgrounds are witnessing these mean behaviors online and are reacting in a variety of ways:

  • 90 percent of teen social media users say they have ignored the mean behavior they have witnessed on a social network site.
  • 80 percent say they have personally defended a victim of meanness and cruelty.
  • 79 percent say they have told someone to stop their mean behavior on a social network site.
  • However, 21 percent of social media-using teens say they have personally joined in on the harassment of others on a social network site.

 

“Social networking sites have created new spaces for teens to interact and they witness a mixture of altruism and cruelty on those sites,” said Amanda Lenhart, lead author of the study. “For most teens, these are exciting and rewarding spaces. But the majority have also seen a darker side. And for a subset of teens, the world of social media isn’t a pretty place because it presents a climate of drama and mean behavior.”

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Polaroid Introduces Instant Camera For Digital Age

Camera uses digital technology to produce instant prints

The Polaroid instant camera comes full circle...

Photo
The new Polaroid camera

The year was 1948. Polaroid, teaming with inventor Edwin Land, introduced the Polaroid Land Camera. Unlike other cameras, where you shot a roll of film and then had to take it to be processed into prints, the Polaroid camera produced a print in about 60 seconds.

Through much of the 1980s Polaroid produced a series of models of the instant camera, but the basic concept remained the same. You could take a picture and have a print 60 seconds later.

Then along came digital cameras and the Polaroid instant camera was instantly obsolete. Or so you might think.

This week Polaroid introduced a new instant camera for the digital age, the Z340. It's the same concept as before, only updated. (Today's Polaroid Corp., by the way, is only distantly related to the "original" Polaroid, which filed for bankruptcy in 2001.) 

The Z340 is a 14-megapixel digital camera with a Zink printer inside. You take a picture and the digital file is stored in the camera's memory, as with any digital camera. But if you push the “print” button, the Zink printer spits out a four by three photograph in about 45 seconds.

Photo
The original Polaroid camera

Noting that generations of consumers had grown up with Polaroid instant cameras, company officials said the retro camera comes full circle.

"Polaroid photos connect people together in a way that is more personal than any photo tag, slideshow or comment box, yet digital images shape our stories," said Scott W. Hardy, President of Polaroid. "The Z340 brings these two worlds together in harmony by merging the excitement of the instant printing experience with the ease of digital photography and sharing. We're very excited to share the wonders of instant photography with a new generation."

The camera went on sale Tuesday for $300. Thirty sheets of Polaroid ZINK 3x4'' paper costs $20. Both camera and photo paper are being sold through Polaroid.com, B&H Photo, Adorama and Amazon.com.

Today, Polaroid is known for low-end TV sets more than cameras. Whether the Z340 captures the public imagination the way previous Polaroid cameras did remains to be seen. The camera if larger and bulkier that today's point and shoot models. Also, every smartphone is a digital camera.

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What's On Your Mind? Chase, Ramada Plaza, Ashley Furniture

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Chase, Ramada Plaza, Ashley Furniture, No refund, That sinking feeling and closing bank accounts....

PhotoA lot of people have closed bank accounts in the last few weeks. So many, perhaps, that banks are getting a little defensive?

I went into the Chase Bank branch located inside of the Dominik's food store in Mundelein,” Brian, of Hawthorn Woods, Ill., told ConsumerAffairs.com. I requested that my account be closed. After getting home and examining my receipt I noticed only a withdrawal. Upon calling customer service, I discovered that my account was never closed, leaving me open for monthly fees. I understand the banks are losing many customers these days, and for good reason.”

Brian says he suspects the bank is doing this on purpose in an attempt to counter lost accounts. Probably not, but it just drives home the point that you need to be clear in your communication with you bank about what you want and, when you close an account, get some document verifying that.

No refund

Mary Anne, of Orlando, Fla., booked a suite at a Ramada Plaza last month for an outing with extended family. When two family members became ill and were unable to travel, Mary Ann said she attempted to cancel the reservation.

“Three days before the reservation, we spoke to the hotel and they informed us that they would not refund the money nor credit it toward future stays,” Mary Anne said. “We were billed for $788 on Oct 31st. Ramada's corporate website states that by not cancelling or showing up, you will be billed for the first night ONLY. This was not the case and Ramada has been very difficult to deal with.”

Ordinarily, any hotel will allow you to cancel a reservation up to a few hours before check in time. But many hotels now offer special rates and packages if you pre-pay. While they provide nice discounts off the price of a room, they're usually non-refundable. The fact that Mary Anne says she was told her money “would not be refunded” suggests she had prepaid for one of these packages. When booking a room, make sure you fully understand the terms you are agreeing to.

That sinking feeling

Very often a consumer will run into frustration when trying to convince a store that there is a problem with the merchandise they purchased.

“I bought a couch and love seat at Ashley Furniture in May 2010,” Karla, of Mound, Minn., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “By November, I realized that when you sit on the love seat on either side, you roll into the middle. I have called numerous times.”

Karla says the store personnel didn't just brush off her complaint. They responded, twice, by giving her new cushions, even though she explained that wouldn't do any good.

“Their service guy has come out and taken pictures and explained the problem to them, but they insist there is nothing wrong,” Karla said. They finally, after approximately seven different tries at resolution, told me I could pick something different out. I went back to the showroom and either sat on almost every piece or looked at it and it is very apparent just by looking that they cave in in the center. I explained to a salesperson what I was doing and they tried to help me and went around the store sitting on all of them and were also very perplexed to find I was correct.”

Despite finding Karla was correct, she says the store declined her request for a refund. She says she's taking the matter up with her state attorney general's office.

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Feeling Ill? Head for the Nearest Walmart

Retail giant wants to provide primary healthcare services

You have to give Walmart credit.  It never stops innovating.  The retailing giant's latest goal is to become "the largest provider of primary hea...

PhotoYou have to give Walmart credit.  It never stops innovating.  The retailing giant's latest goal is to become "the largest provider of primary healthcare services in the nation," The Wall Street Journal reports.

The newspaper says Walmart has been inviting proposals from vendors and contractors to help it gear up to offer services like testing for asthma, sleep apnea and osteoporosis; diagnostic services such as allergy and blood testing; and preventive services such as vaccinations and physical exams, as well as health and wellness products.

Walmart may also set itself up to help consumers manage chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease, according to a confidential company document.

Never one for excessive modesty, Walmart said it wants to "dramatically ... lower the cost of healthcare ... by becoming the largest provider of primary healthcare services in the nation."

Maybe someday you'll be able to stop by the Walmart clinic, have some blood drawn, then do your shopping and pick up the diagnosis and prescription as you leave the store.  

Far-fetched?

It might sound far-fetched but with more than 3,800 U.S. stores, lots of positive cash flow and a very nimble inventory control system, there's not much Walmart can't do if it sets its mind to it.

One thing consumers don't think much about is the gargantuan data-processing system that enables Walmart to stock so much stuff in such an organized and cost-efficient manner.  The company was an early adopter of cutting-edge inventory-control systems, enabling it to achieve fast growth without becoming mired down in bureaucracy.

This behind-the-scenes wizardry is what enables Walmart to keep prices low and still turn a profit.  It's also, not coincidentally, the kind of efficient use of information technology that's largely missing  

Could Walmart really turn health care upside down?  It's possible. Think back just a few years and you'll recall that while others wrung their hands over prescription-drug costs, Walmart began offering generic prescriptions of popular drugs for $4.  Competitors followed and consumers saved untold millions of dollars.

In its request for proposals, Walmartreportedly told vendors it wanted to pick the best low-cost services by January and roll them out as quickly as possible.

After all, 2014 is just a few years off.  That's when the new federal health-care laws -- Obamacare to its critics -- fully take effect.  Millions more Americans will be covered by insurance, which is expected to drive up the demand for primary care.  Walmart obviously intends to be ready.   

Word of Walmat's plans was initially revealed by Kaiserhealthnews.org.

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'Scam Recovery Kit' Promoters Found in Contempt

Company owners face $1,000 per day fines

A federal judge has found a telemarketer and his company in contempt for violating a court order barring them from charging consumers in advance for a serv...

A federal judge has found a telemarketer and his company in contempt for violating a court order barring them from charging consumers in advance for a service that purportedly would help consumers recover money they lost in previous telemarketing scams.

The contempt order stems from an action the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)  initiated in March 2011 as part of a multi-agency law enforcement initiative against scammers who prey upon financially strapped consumers.

The contempt order found that Brian Scott Hessler and Business Recovery Services LLC violated a preliminary injunction issued against them in April by charging an up-front fee for do-it-yourself kits they claimed would help consumers recover money they lost in business opportunity and work-at-home scams. 

The contempt order requires the defendants to make refunds to some consumers and gives them 30 days to show that their business practices comply with the court's preliminary injunction. The court will assess a $1,000 per day fine for every day they fail to certify compliance. For every violation of the injunction that the FTC can prove after the contempt order, the court will assess a $1,000 fine and order refunds to customers.

In its original complaint, the FTC alleged that the defendants violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule by falsely claiming their kits, which cost up to $499, would help consumers recover money they lost to scams. They also accepted advance payments from consumers without waiting seven business days for the consumers to receive the recovered money.

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Union Defends AT&T/T-Mobile Merger

CWA says deal will help counter Sprint's 'outsourcing and anti-worker record'

The proposed merger of AT&T and T-Mobile is shaking up some traditional alliances.  Some consumer groups, most notably the Consumer Federation of...

PhotoThe proposed merger of AT&T and T-Mobile is shaking up some traditional alliances.  Some consumer groups, most notably the Consumer Federation of America, have supported the merger while others denounce it as anti-competitive.

Just yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder told a Senate committee the Justice Department was "ready and eager" to fight the merger in court.

But now an analysis by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) concludes that the AT&T/T-Mobile merger will bring back 5,000 net quality jobs from overseas and create as many as 96,000 additional quality jobs in the buildout of high speed wireless broadband to 97 percent of the population.

The report will be filed today with the Federal Communications Commission, the CWA said.

Opponents of the merger have used inaccurate and false comparisons in their jobs numbers, the report alleges. Opponents include Sprint, which made a failed bid to buy T-Mobile, Public Knowledge, and others.

The claim that the merger will eliminate jobs stems from a faulty and convoluted analysis of wireline and wireless employment characterized by “sloppy research and the inability to distinguish between the change in the number of wireline and wireless jobs” in a Sprint-commissioned study, CWA said.

Instead, the CWA report said, the merger will create up to 96,000 new jobs based on AT&T’s commitment to build out high speed wireless broadband to 97 percent of the population, and AT&T’s commitment to bring back a net 5,000 quality wireless jobs to the United States.

Major commitments

CWA said AT&T also has made additional specific commitments to protect non-management workers:

  • No call center worker employed at either AT&T Mobility or T-Mobile at the time of the merger will lose their jobs because of the merger.
  • Job offer guarantees will be provided for all T-Mobile non-management workers whose jobs are affected by the merger.

CWA has a long history of negotiating and enforcing such commitments with AT&T, including following the company’s acquisition of Centennial and Dobson, and with the Cingular-AT&T Wireless merger.

“The process used a combination of attrition and lateral transfers to nearby locations to secure jobs for current employees,” the report noted, adding that CWA has experience negotiating and enforcing such commitments with AT&T and that they have proven to be effective.

“The AT&T/T-Mobile merger will create, save or retain more U.S. jobs than a stand-alone T-Mobile which is already on a downward spiral…A Sprint/T-Mobile merger would have been a disaster in terms of technology and finances, and would led to a decline in U.S. jobs,” since Sprint outsources its network management and up to 70 percent of customer contact work, the report found.

Other benefits to the AT&T/T-Mobile merger cited by CWA:

  • It will accelerate the buildout of high-speed wireless broadband to 97 percent of the population, enabling an additional 55 million people, especially in rural and underserved areas, to share in the benefits of Internet technology.
  • AT&T will develop T-Mobile’s assets and offer T-Mobile customers the latest in technology.
  • AT&T and T-Mobile utilize compatible technologies.
  • AT&T has a demonstrated commitment to workers’ rights, supporting management neutrality that enables workers to make a free and fair choice about union representation and bargaining rights.
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Smoking Costs More Than Just Your Health

Average smoker can spend over $3000 a year

The economic costs of smoking...

PhotoMost of the time we hear the health reasons why you shouldn't smoke, or if do do, why you should quit. Heart disease, lung cancer, emphysema – the list goes on.

But Dr. Carlos Reynes of Loyola University Health System’s Gottlieb Memorial Hospital, says there's also a very strong economic incentive not to smoke cigarettes.

“At $7 to $9 each, a pack-a-day habit sets you back between $2,500 and $3,300 each year, “ Reynes said. “And improved health also will save you trips to the doctor.”

Sometimes, smokers who are trying to save money turn to illegal cigarette sites on the Internet. Demetrios, a ConsumerAffairs.com reader who has looked into these products after purchasing some, says the products are even more dangerous than regular cigarettes.

Cheap cigarettes may be more dangerous

These companies advertises as a 'duty free shop' offering authentic international cigarette brands at bottom dollar prices,” Demetrios said. “The cigarettes you will receive will be illegal counterfeits smuggled out of China. These fake cigarettes are illegal and extremely dangerous to your health. Scientists who have analyzed Chinese cigarette knockoffs have found elevated levels of toxic heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium and lead, as well as human feces, sawdust, mold, insect eggs and rat droppings.”

Reynes is board-certified in internal medicine and also integrative medicine. For those who want to quit, he says there are a number of aids that have proven effective.

“Hypnosis and acupuncture as well as nicotene patches and chewing gums are just a few of the successful tools out there to help smokers kick the habit,” he said. “The important step is to make the effort to quit and if you are unsuccessful, to keep trying different techniques.”

Reynes says the United States is winning the war against smoking. More than three million Americans quit smoking every year and fewer are adopting the unhealthy and expensive habit. That's producing, he says, a declining smoking rate in the U.S.

“From 1965 to 2006, smoking rates fell by half, falling from 42 percent to 20.8 percent of adults and we will continue to do even better through education and incentives,” he said.

Great American Smoke Out

The Great American Smoke Out, a day sponsored by the American Cancer Society to end smoking, is Thursday, Nov. 17 and thousands of smokers are expected to take a 24-hour break from cigarettes.

While saving money is nice, Reynes says the best reason to give up smoking is to save your health. Kicking the habit, he says, pays off almost immediately.

“Twenty minutes after quitting, your heart rate and blood pressure drop. Twelve hours after quitting the carbon monoxide level in your blood drops to normal,” Reynes said Dr. Reynes. “One year after quitting the excess risk of coronary heart disease is half that of a continuing smoker’s.

An estimated 46 million adults in the United States currently smoke, and approximately half will die prematurely from smoking, according to the American Cancer Society.

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Gas Prices Appear Poised To Rebound

Oil prices approaching $100 a barrel again

Gasoline prices appear ready to go up again...

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Remember when?

A tankful of gasoline to get you to grandma's house for Thanksgiving is likely going to cost more. Gas prices appear poised to jump again.

Motorists have gotten a break at the pump over the last few weeks as economic uncertainly pushed crude oil prices below $80 a barrel at one point. But despite those worries – and new concerns about Italy's solvency - oil prices have come roaring back.

Crude oil was trading around $97 a barrel at midday today on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Gasoline prices have begun rising this week.

The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.430 a gallon, up two cents from Tuesday, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Survey. If history is any guide, it will move higher over the next couple of weeks, assuming oil prices continue to hold their lofty positions.

Supplies are down

While the price of crude oil is rising, U.S. supplies of petroleum are being drawn down. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported today that U.S. crude oil stockpiles fell by 1.4 million barrels in the last week. That's more than seven percent low U.S. supply levels a year ago.

With falling supplies, refiners may be forced to purchase more of the increasingly expensive oil in the weeks ahead, passing the increase along in the form of higher prices.

Not surprisingly, consumers are doing their best to cut back on gasoline purchases. The EIA reports U.S. demand for gasoline was down 5.6 percent compared to a year ago. Despite that, U.S. gasoline stockpiles fell by 2.1 millions barrels.

If gasoline prices seem low at the moment, consider that one year ago motorists were paying what now seems like the bargain price of $2.85 per gallon. Prices peaked in early May at just under $4 a gallon.

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Toyota Recalls 420,000 Cars To Deal With Steering Issue

Third steering-related recall since 2006

Toyota is recalling vehicles to fix a steering flaw...

Toyota says it is recalling 420,000 vehicles solid in the U.S. because of potential problems in the steering.

The carmaker said the recall includes certain models of the 2004 Avalon; the 2004 and 2005 Camry, Highlander, Sienna, and Solar and the 2006 Highlander HV. Some Lexus models - the 2004 and 2005 ES330 and RX330 and the 2006 RX400h – are also included in the recall.

Toyota says the issue involves the misalignment of the outer and inner rings of the crankshaft pully. If not corrected, the driver could lose the use of power steering.

Toyota has ordered recalls in the past to deal with steering problems. In 2006 the company recalled 2003 to 2005 Prius models to repair a flaw that could cause drivers to lose control of steering. Then last year Toyota recalled approximately 373,000 2000-2004 Model Year Toyota Avalons sold in the United States because the vehicle's steering lock bar could break under certain conditions.

Despite the recalls, at least one Prius driver is still having problems.

“We own a 2005 Toyota Prius,” Ray, of Denver, Colo., told ConsumerAffairs.com in September. “Recently, the steering made a grinding sound and then broke completely, leaving the car utterly uncontrollable. Luckily, no one was hurt in the failure, this time. We checked and found that Toyota had issued a recall for this exact failure, but they claim they had already repaired this car in 2006. Obviously not.”

Ray reports the repair bill topped $2,300, as the air bag sensors were damaged when the steering sheared off in his wife's hands.

Toyota will not be sending out formal notifications in this latest recall until January, but the company said owners should make earlier appointments if the hear abnormal noises coming from their vehicles' steering columns.

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Feds Test Emergency Alert System Today

First time the system's been tested nationwide

The first nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) will occur today (Wednesday) on all broadcast media, including television and radio. The thir...

PhotoThe first nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) will occur today (Wednesday) on all broadcast media, including television and radio. The thirty-second message will appear to be real, but it is only a test of the EAS system.

The test will use a live national alert code to deliver a message that will alert viewers as if an actual emergency announcement is coming.  It will also include an audible notice that "this is a test."

The EAS system test is being conducted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to check the reliability of the EAS system, including equipment, operators and participants. 

For people with vision and hearing disabilities, the test will include an audio message announcing that the exercise is a “Test Only,” but there may or may not be a corresponding visual message alerting viewers that this is only a test of the EAS system.

If you have a family member or know of an individual or neighbor that has a visual or hearing disability, please let them know this is only a test.

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Toyota, Lexus Models Recalled to Fix Steering Problem

Power steering could fail, making it difficult to control the car

Toyota is recalling recalled 550,000 vehicles worldwide after discovering a potential flaw that may suddenly affect steering.The company said 283,200 Toy...

PhotoToyota is recalling 550,000 vehicles worldwide after discovering a potential flaw that may suddenly affect steering.

The company said 283,200 Toyota and 137,000 Lexus vehicles are being recalled to replace the crankshaft pulley on the V6 engine.

There is a possibility that the outer ring of the crankshaft pulley may become misaligned with the inner ring, causing noise and/or illumination of the discharge warning light. If this condition is not corrected, the belt for the power steering pump may become detached from the pulley and the driver may notice a sudden increase in steering effort.

There have been no reports of accidents or injuries.

The vehicles involved are certain:

  • 2004 Avalon
  • 2004 and 2005 Camry, Highlander, Sienna, and Solara
  • 2006 Highlander HV
  • 2004 and 2005 ES330 and RX330
  • And 2006 RX400h

No other Toyota or Lexus vehicles or these Toyota models with 4-cylinder engines are involved. 

Toyota is currently working on obtaining the necessary replacement parts. Once the replacement parts have been produced in sufficient quantities, Toyota will send an owner notification by first class mail advising owners to make an appointment with an authorized Toyota or Lexus dealer to have the crankshaft pulley inspected and if necessary, replaced at no charge. The owner notifications will be mailed by first class mail beginning in January, 2012. 

In the meantime, if an abnormal noise is heard coming from the engine compartment, the owner is asked to make an appointment with any Toyota or Lexus dealer to have the vehicle inspected for this condition. 

Detailed information and answers to questions are available to customers at www.toyota.com/recall and the Toyota Customer Experience Center (1 800-331-4331) or www.lexus.com/recall and Lexus Customer Satisfaction (1 800-255-3987). 


About 80 percent of the vehicles are in the U.S., Amiko Tomita, a spokeswoman for the automaker said today.

Toyota recalled the vehicles to replace the crankshaft pulley on the V6 engine, Tomita said. No accidents have been reported, she said.

"If this condition is not corrected, the belt for the power steering pump may become detached from the pulley and the driver may notice a sudden increase in steering effort," Toyota said in a statement.

The vehicles being recalled are the 2004 Avalon, the 2004 and 2005 Camry and 2006 Highlander HV. Within the Lexus brand, the 2004 and 2005 ES330, the RX330 and the 2006 RX400h are being recalled, according to the statement.

Toyota recalled millions of U.S. vehicles last year and in 2009, mostly for defects related to unintended acceleration, and paid a record $48.8 million in fines because of the way some of the recalls were conducted.

The recalls caused the company to briefly halt sales of some models in 2010 and contributed to its 0.4 percent U.S. sales decrease last year, the only such decline among large automakers.

The carmaker recalled 1.7 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles in January for defects in fuel pipes and pumps, pressure sensors and spare tire carriers. It called back 2.17 million in February for carpet and floor-mat flaws that could jam gas pedals.

 

 



Read more: http://www.autonews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20111109/COPY01/311099837/1292#ixzz1dDa0lCt3

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FTC: Kids' Site Collected Personal Information Without Parents' Permission

Skid-e-kids made deceptive claims in its privacy policy, agency alleges

The operator of www.skidekids.com, a website that advertises itself as the “Facebook and Myspace for Kids,” has agreed to settle Federal Trade ...

PhotoThe operator of www.skidekids.com, a website that advertises itself as the “Facebook and Myspace for Kids,” has agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that he collected personal information from approximately 5,600 children without obtaining prior parental consent, in violation of the Commission’s Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (“COPPA”) Rule.

The FTC’s complaint also charges the operator, Jones O. Godwin, with making deceptive claims in Skid-e-kids’ privacy policy about the site’s information collection practices. The proposed settlement will bar future violations of COPPA and misrepresentations about the collection, use and disclosure of children’s information.

COPPA Rule

The FTC’s COPPA Rule requires that website operators notify parents and obtain their consent before they collect, use or disclose personal information from children under 13. The Rule also requires that website operators post a privacy policy that is clear, understandable and complete. 

According to the FTC, Skid-e-kids is a social networking site targeted at children ages 7-14 that allows them to register, create and update profile information, create public posts, upload pictures and videos, and “friend” and send messages to other Skid-e-kids members. 

The FTC alleges that the Skid-e-kids’ online privacy policy claimed that the site “requires child users to provide a parent’s valid email address in order to register on the website. We use this information to send the parent a message that can be used to activate the Skid-e-kids account, to notify the parent about our privacy practices, to send the parent communications either about the parent’s and child’s Skid-e-kids accounts or about features of our Web site . . .” 

But the complaint alleges that the defendant registered children on the website without collecting a parent’s email address or obtaining permission for their children to participate.

Children who registered were able to provide personal information, including their date of birth, email address, first and last name, and city. In addition to violating the COPPA Rule by collecting kids’ personal information without parental permission, the FTC alleged that the Skid-e-kids’ false privacy policy claims violated the FTC Act.

In addition to barring future violations of COPPA and misrepresentations about the collection and use of children’s information, the settlement order also requires Godwin to destroy information he collected from children in violation of the Rule, and, for a period of time, link to online educational material and retain an online privacy professional or join a Commission-approved safe harbor program to oversee any COPPA-covered website he may run. 

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Justice Department 'Ready and Eager' to Go After AT&T

Attorney General Holder dashes talk of AT&T/T-Mobile settlement

Think the fix is in on the $39 billion AT&T/T-Mobile merger?  Think again. Attorney General Eric Holder says his antitrust litigators are "ready a...

PhotoThink the fix is in on the $39 billion AT&T/T-Mobile merger?  Think again. Attorney General Eric Holder says his antitrust litigators are "ready and eager" to fight the case in court.

The Justice Department filed suit to block the deal in August, claiming the proposed merger would be anticompetitive.  It would reduce the number of national cell phone companies from four to two and Holder says it would raise prices for consumers.

"The combination of AT&T and T-Mobile would result in tens of millions of consumers all across the United States facing higher prices, fewer choices and lower quality products for mobile wireless services,” said Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole said when the suit was filed.  

“Consumers across the country, including those in rural areas and those with lower incomes, benefit from competition among the nation’s wireless carriers, particularly the four remaining national carriers. This lawsuit seeks to ensure that everyone can continue to receive the benefits of that competition.”

Lobbying campaign

AT&T has claimed the deal would help consumers, saying it would speed the deployment of high-speed Internet access nationwide by making more spectrum space available to AT&T.

The company has unleashed a ferocious lobbying campaign aimed at persuading Congress and the Obama Administration that the deal is a win for consumers.

It has also recruited non-profits and even consumer groups to weigh in on its behalf.  Critics say it has done so through the skillful application of funds rather than a compelling argument.

But the effort has so far had no visible impact on the government's stance. Holder appeared at a Senate hearing today and said his department is  ready for action.  

"There is a trial team that is in place and they are ready and eager to go to court,'' he said.

Consumers' view

Besides its lobbying efforts, AT&T has launched an advertising barrage aimed at winning the hearts and minds of consumers but so far with little notable effect.

“Ask the T-Mobile users. We all know what saved AT&T. Apple did! That's how come they can throw all that money around. Less competition is not the American way,” a consumer named Dave said in a recent ConsumerAffairs.com posting.

“This could raise cell phone rates for everyone, not just T-Mobile users,” another poster, Daniel, said. “Less compition means higher prices, its basic economics. Let's band together and stop this, everyone speak out.”

Another poster, Craig, chimed in with “AT&T + T-Mobile = better reception? Oh, that's a good one.”

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Judge Blocks New Graphic Cigarette Warning Labels

Said tobacco companies will probably win their suit against the new labels

The proposed graphic smoking warnings will not appear on cigarette packs right away...

PhotoThose highly graphic images the government hoped to use as warning labels on cigarette packages will not appear – at least not anytime soon.

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon has granted a stay for tobacco companies, who have sued to block the use of the labels, arguing they violate the companies' First Amendment rights. Leon granted the stay, saying he believes the tobacco companies will win in their suit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Until that case is tried, Leon ruled the labels cannot be used.

HHS proposed the new warning labels almost exactly one year ago. They were designed to have more impact than the text warnings that have appeared on cigarette packages since the mid 1960s. The proposed new labels were to appear on the top half of the package and include graphic – some might same gruesome images – designed to deter smokers.

PhotoThe nine new labels included pictures of a diseased lung, a corpse, diseased gums and a man smoking through a hole in his throat.

Public response to the images was mixed.  A ConsumerAffairs.com analysis of about 6,100 postings on Twitter, Facebook and other social media found opinion roughly evenly divided, although the number of comments was too small to draw any conclusions.

Health advocates protest

“The ruling ignores the overwhelming, decades-long need for strong cigarette warning labels and allows Big Tobacco to proceed ’business as usual,’ continuing to promote its addictive and deadly products," said Christopher W. Hansen, President, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

“For decades, the tobacco industry has grown increasingly aggressive in preying upon America’s youth with misleading and fraudulent marketing practices, while the warning labels have not been changed in 25 years," Hansen added. "Larger, graphic warning labels have the potential to encourage adults to quit smoking cigarettes and deter children from starting in the first place."

"Judge Leon's ruling ignores the overwhelming scientific evidence about the need for the new cigarette warnings and their effectiveness. It also ignores decades of First Amendment precedent that support the right of the government to require strong warning labels to protect the public health," said Matthew L. Myers, President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Leading cause of death

In proposing the big change in warning labels, HHS pointed out that tobacco use is the leading cause of premature and preventable death in the United States -- responsible for 443,000 deaths each year. Thirty percent of all cancer deaths are due to tobacco. Each day 1,200 lives of current and former smokers are lost prematurely due to tobacco-related diseases.

The government strategy included a proposal issued by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) titled "Required Warnings for Cigarette Packages and Advertisements."

PhotoSpecifically, it detailed a requirement of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act that nine new larger and more noticeable textual warning statements and color graphic images depicting the negative health consequences of smoking appear on cigarette packages and in cigarette advertisements.

The final rule was to have gone into effect in September 2012, requiring all cigarettes sold in the U.S. to carry the enhanced warning.

Five cigarette companies filed suit in Washington last year, seeking to block the warnings. The industry's lawyer argued that the government can require the tobacco companies to print a straightforward and “essentially uncontroversial” warning on the package, but said “turning cigarette packs into mini billboards for anti-smoking messages” crosses the line constitutionally.

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Mortgage Delinquency Rate Rises For First Time Since 2009

Nearly six percent of borrowers 60 days or more past due

Homeowners appear to be having trouble making their mortgage payments...

PhotoThere was more evidence today the housing market is far from being out of the woods. The national mortgage delinquency rate - the rate of borrowers 60 or more days past due - increased for the first time since the end of 2009, edging upward to 5.88 percent at the end of the third quarter, according to TransUnion.

The credit reporting agency issues a series of reports on credit-active consumers that track how they are managing mortgages, credit cards and auto loans.

"Until this quarter, we had seen six straight quarters where progressively more people were able to make their mortgage payments on time. We expected that trend to continue given recent, relatively more conservative lending policies and the apparent stabilization of both home values and unemployment," said Tim Martin, group vice president of U.S. Housing in TransUnion's financial services business unit.

"However, in the third quarter, the consumer was hit with several unanticipated shocks, including the U.S. credit rating downgrade, stock price declines, European debt concerns, stubbornly high unemployment, more downward pressure on home values and low consumer confidence. All of this affects a borrower's net worth and desire, or ability, to continue making house payments -- especially if they are facing negative equity in their homes due to price depreciation."

Loss of income

An anemic economy, however, may be a bigger reason. As homeowners continue to lose jobs, they tend to fall behind on the credit obligations.

“I lost my job 2 years ago,” Melissa, of Statesboro, Ga., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Immediately after filing unemployment we contacted Bank of America to let them know and to see if there was any type of assistance. After several months of getting the run around, we were told that we did indeed qualify for loan modification and that the papers were in the mail. We never recieved the paperwork and by the time I started working again part time, they said I was making too much money and could not get assistance. We were already seven months behind at that point, then it moved into foreclosure process.”

A loss of income also caused Rich, of Oklahoma City, Okla., to fall behind on his mortgage last month.

“I called Vanderbilt (Mortgage) today about my payment that will be behind a month and 15 days on the 31st of October,” Rich said at the end of last month. “They told me that I either make a payment by that date or they will cancel all extensions and the full amount will be due.”

National trend

These stories have been repeated nationwide. According to TransUnion, between between the second and third quarters of 2011, all but 10 states and the District of Columbia experienced increases in their mortgage delinquency rates.

The nation's cities have been particularly hard hit. Sixty-four percent of metropolitan areas saw increases in their mortgage delinquency rates in the third quarter.

TransUnion says it's a significant difference compared to the second quarter of 2011 when only 21 percent of metropolitan statistical areas (MSA) experienced a rise. In the first quarter of 2011, 32 percent of MSAs experienced an increase.

This could be bad news for the real estate industry, which has begged the mortgage industry to loosen it's ever-tightening lending standards a bit. Statistics showing borrowers having a difficult time repaying loans isn't likely to inspire banker confidence.

TransUnion, meanwhile, believes the increase in delinquency is not a long-term trend. After a quarter or two, the company said it expects the delinquency rate to drift lower again in 2012.

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Bogus Health Discount Scheme Faces $15 Million Penalty

United States Benefits LLC claimed to offer health insurance coverage

Telemarketers who peddled medical “insurance” that was actually a bogus medical discount plan have agreed to settle charges by the FTC and Atto...

PhotoTelemarketers who peddled medical “insurance” that was actually a bogus medical discount plan have agreed to settle charges by the FTC and Attorney General of Tennessee that they violated federal and state laws.

The settlement bars the defendants from engaging in any health care or discount program business; misrepresenting elements of any business they engage in; collecting payment from any of their previous “customers”; and, violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule, including calling consumers on the Do Not Call Registry. It also imposes a judgment of $15.7 million, which is partially suspended.

In August 2010, the FTC and the Tennessee Attorney General charged that United States Benefits, LLC, and its principals deceptively claimed they were offering comprehensive health insurance coverage - even to those with pre-existing conditions - for a one-time enrollment fee and recurring monthly fees of up to $1,300.

They also claimed they were selling coverage from major insurance carriers and that the monthly “premiums” provided broad medical coverage, including prescription drug, dental and vision care. Consumers provided credit card or bank account information to sign up.

Benefits association

According to the FTC, instead of medical insurance, what the defendants provided was membership in a benefits association that purportedly offered access to various health care and non-health care-related discounts, but consumers were unable to realize any significant savings or medical discounts.

Unlike health insurance, the memberships did not pay for a significant share of consumers’ health care expenses. Consumers who tried to cancel their memberships were often ignored.

The FTC also alleged that the defendants called consumers on the Do-Not-Call Registry and used illegal robocalls.

The settlement order bans the defendants from selling or promoting any health care-related benefits or discount programs or assisting others who do so. It bars them from misrepresenting the benefits, costs, performance, restrictions or cancellation policy of any good or service that they provide, and from misrepresenting that they are affiliated with, endorsed or approved by or affiliated with the federal government or a state government.

They also are prohibited from collecting money from their former customers and violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule. Finally, the order imposes a judgment of $15,738,941, which will be suspended upon their surrender of various assets worth approximately $1 million, including all corporate assets, a parcel of land, bank accounts, seat licenses for Tennessee Titans season tickets, a Harley Davidson motorcycle, and a wine collection. The defendants also must surrender a Hummer H2 and Lexus back to their lenders.

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Boomers Rush To and From the Altar

50+ crowd setting new record for marriage ... and divorce

Who says the boomers are a wild and crazy bunch?  Time was when our elders tsk-tsked at the baby boomers and their carryings-on, wondering if they wou...

PhotoWho says the boomers are a wild and crazy bunch?  Time was when our elders tsk-tsked at the baby boomers and their carryings-on, wondering if they would ever straighten up, tie the knot and settle down.

Well, they're done both ... numerous times.  A new study finds that boomers are setting new records for divorce.  The rate of divorce among the over-50 crowd has doubled in the past 20 years,  according to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University.

It's not just that more boomers are getting divorced. Rather, boomers are getting divorced over and over again.  Many are now on their third or fourth marriage and already thinking about moving on to the next one, the divorce information site Splitstown reports.  

The Bowling Green researchers say more than 300,000 couples over 50 divorced in 2008, and at the current rate that number is likely to jump to more than 400,000 in 2030.

There are all kinds of theories -- short attention span, too much TV in childhood, empty-nest syndrome -- but whatever the reason behind all this marrying and unmarrying, it's a financial disaster in the making for the couples and, for that matter, the national economy.

At a time when Congress and everyone else is trying to figure out how to lower the country's deficits, boomers are furiously divorcing each other, in most cases further depleting their already threadbare retirement accounts.

Just the act of divorcing is expensive.  You have to hire a lawyer, sell the house, split up the personal belongings and divide the savings and investments.  

With many middle-income families having virtually no net worth, a divorce or two can easily put boomers underwater financially, leaving them with no cushion for the 20 to 30 years they can expect to spend in retirement.

As Splitstown put it: Couples used to say they stayed together “for the children.”  Now, they might be well-advised to stay together “for the retirement portfolio” but that doesn’t have the same ring, apparently.  There are worse things than being in a somewhat dull marriage, however.  Being penniless, old and alone is one of them.

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Information On Bill May Affect Credit Card Payments

Listing minimum payment could cause consumers to pay less

Information On Bill May Affect Credit Card Payments...

PhotoHow much do you pay on your credit card bill each month? The entire balance, the minimum payment, or something in between?

Your payment probably has a lot to do with your financial circumstances and your money management philosophy, but a new study suggests there is another factor at work.

International researchers say they found credit card customers will pay less if the bill lists information about the minimum amount due. According to Boston College Professor of Marketing Kay Lemon and Assistant Professor Linda Salisbury, it can reduce the amount they pay each month by as much as 24 percent – about $120 less on a $2,000 balance.

Too much information

“The mere presence of minimum payment information acts like an anchor on borrowers’ repayments, pulling them downward,” said Salisbury. “This presents a tricky balancing act for lenders; removing the minimum required payment may increase repayments overall, but it would also put lenders at greater risk of increasing default levels.”

The findings are based on surveys of more than 500 U.S. consumers and an analysis of anonymous data for more than 100,000 British cardholders from 11 different lenders.

Average household credit card debt is around $10,000. Those who have a high interest rate and make only the minimum payment each month might never pay down the balance.

Counterproductive?

The U.S. government now requires lenders to include a range of debt and repayment information with monthly statements. The researchers wondered if providing that information actually motivates consumers to pay down their debt.

The study found that increasing the minimum required payment – typically from two percent to five percent of the loan balance – actually had a positive effect on repayment for most consumers. However, that alone wasn’t enough to overcome the negative effects of posting the minimum required payment, according to the researchers from Boston College and the University of Warwick, University of Essex and University College London, all in the United Kingdom.

In addition, displaying information like payment scenario timelines and potential long-term interest costs – as is now required on US credit card statements – did not encourage increased payments. In fact, disclosing future interest costs significantly increased the likelihood a cardholder would pay only the minimum required.

It may be that some borrowers pay the minimum each month because that's all they can afford to pay. Before the CARD act went into effect, some credit card companies jacked up interest rates on existing balances, causing minimum payments to rise and in some cases, balances to grow.

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What's On Your Mind? Firestone, American Airlines, Fast Cash, Carfax

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Firestone, American Airlines, Fast Cash, Carfax, Not in Kansas anymore, Strapped and Just the facts, please....

PhotoTires are increasingly expensive, so it is important to get as many miles out of them as possible. Joseph, of Lincoln, Neb., is disappointed with his Firestones.

“I got 13,332 miles on a 50,000-mile tire, the Destination A/T, 285/70/17, and not only is there unusually heavy tire wear for such low mileage, but driving on the highway yesterday I experienced a catastrophic failure of the right rear tire,” Joseph told ConsumerAffairs.com.

While there could indeed be a problem with the tires, other factors can influence tire wear, including alignment and issues with the wheel. Joseph should take his car and tires to a repair shop – not the place where he bought the tires – and get an independent assessment.

Not in Kansas anymore

Recently adopted airline rules regulate how long U.S. domestic airlines can keep passenger on the tarmac before facing fines. But that's only for their lights within U.S. borders.

“After five hours on the tarmac, our flight out of Quito, Ecuador was cancelled,” said Lisa, of Chapel Hill, N.C., and a passenger aboard an American Airlines flight. “We were then faced with a 2 1/2 hour wait in line to rebook our flight and get a lunch and dinner voucher as well as a hotel voucher. During this time, we were give approximately three ounces of water and a granola bar. It just gets more interesting in that we got in a taxi which was in front of the airport in order to take us to the hotel. As I was standing in line to check in the hotel, the taxi driver took off with all of my belongings.”

To their credit, American did provide Lisa a $200 travel voucher for her trouble.

Strapped

Adrienne, of Philadelphia, Pa., has learned the hard way about payday loans. She said she took out a loan from Fast Cash, then lost her job and told the company she couldn't pay.

I then received several phone calls to my ex-employer, home and cell number with nothing but threats and ignorance,” Adrienne told ConsumerAffairs.com. “It got to the point they were calling my ex-employee and telling co workers my personal business in reference to the loans, leaving messages and threats with my children and then leaving me harrassing, disrespectful and unneccessary messages.”

Two issues. First, just because Adrienne lost her income doesn't remove her debt obligation. Regardless of what you think about payday lenders, an agreement entered into with full knowledge of the terms and conditions is a legitimate debt. However, if Adrienne is correct about the nature of the collections calls, the company could be in violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which forbids harassing phone calls to employers and co-workers. She should contact someone in Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly

Just the facts, please

When buying a used car, you want as much information about the vehicle as possible. But it's wise to remember that there's no guarantee the information will be accurate.

“I purchased a car October 15 based on the information Carfax provided me, claiming this car had no reported accidents," said David, of Richardson, Tex. “Took the car to a dealership to possibly trade up toward another vehicle and now the Carfax shows 'frame damage' and one accident from 2009! I'm beyond upset.”

Understandably so. Whenever possible, you should take the car to an independent mechanic you trust before purchasing it. That's better than any report. A car salesman once told us that sometimes new cars are damaged when they are unloaded from trucks at the dealership. That damage, of course, never makes it into an accident report.

Also, Carfax reports are based on public records.  These days, with states and localities strapped for cash, those records aren't always up to date. Buyer beware!

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TSA Deploys 'Enhanced Privacy' Screening at 8 Airports

New imaging technology eliminates specific images, speeds process

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) today announced eight airports which are set to receive recently purchased millimeter wave Advanced Imagin...

PhotoThe Transportation Security Administration (TSA) today announced eight airports which are set to receive recently purchased millimeter wave Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) units.

The machines will be deployed with new automated target recognition (ATR) software designed to enhance privacy by eliminating passenger-specific images while improving throughput capabilities and streamlining the checkpoint screening process.

“This technology, combined with our many layers of security, gives our officers the best ability to detect and deter non-metallic threats,” said TSA Assistant Administrator for Security Technology Robin Kane. “In addition to improving security, advanced imaging technology continues to strengthen passenger privacy through the elimination of passenger-specific images.”

TSA plans to deploy units to the following airports in the coming weeks:

  • John Wayne Airport (SNA)
  • Sacramento International Airport (SMF)
  • Myrtle Beach International Airport (MYR)
  • Portland International Airport (PDX)
  • Fairbanks International Airport (FAI)
  • Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC)
  • A.B. Won Pat International Airport (GUA)
  • Burbank Bob Hope Airport (BUR)

TSA will make additional airport announcements as plans are finalized. Many factors are taken into consideration before AIT units are deployed including airport readiness and checkpoint infrastructure.

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Black Friday Becoming Black Midnight

Big retailers opening at midnight to get a jump on Black Friday

Holiday shopping madness is getting even madder -- and many retailer employees are pretty mad about it.It all has to do with time creep, the definition o...

PhotoHoliday shopping madness is getting even madder -- and many retail employees are pretty mad about it.

It all has to do with time creep, the definition of "Friday" and retailers' desperation to move as much merchandise as they can during the holiday season.

Best Buy is the latest to join the list of retailers planning to open at midnight Thanksgiving night (or Friday morning, depending on your preference).  Others include Target, Macy's and Kohl's.

The advantage for shoppers?  They don't have to get up early Friday. They can just stay up late and hit the stores in the wee hours. 

The disadvantage for the poor souls who work in the stores?  Well, it's obvious.  It puts a big crimp in your family holiday if, instead of sleeping off the traditional feast, you have to stay up and work all night, dealing with unruly and often tipsy crowds.

PhotoThis is basically the grueling ordeal that's routinely faced by police officers, firefighters, medical personnel and industrial workers.  Oh, and newspeople too, not that anyone wastes any sympathy on them.

Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn admits the decision won't be popular with his employees.

"I feel terrible," Mr. Dunn, who was once a store manager, said, according to The Wall Street Journal.  "It will change some Thanksgiving plans for our employees. It certainly changes mine."

So who has not yet joined the party?  The biggest retailer of all, that's who.  WalMart has not yet tipped its hand about iots plans for Black Friday.  Many Walmart stores are already open 24/7 but Black Friday sales don't usually start until 5 a.m. on Black Friday.  Whether that holds true this year is still unknown.

Who cares?

Photo
Shoppers like Black Friday -- real and virtual

More importantly, does any of this really matter?  With daily deals sites galore and giant retailer Amazon offering low prices, giant selections and fast delivery, who wants to stay up all night just to go shopping for the same stuff that's available 365 days a year.

It's not as though previously unknown magical products will magically appear at the stroke of midnight, after all.  It's the same stuff we see in ads and on stores shelves and Web sites all year 'round.

Nevertheless, it seems that -- like a little red-nosed reindeer -- Black Friday has wormed its way into consumers' hearts.  ConsumerAffairs.com conducted a computerized trend analysis of about 1.8 million consumer comments on Twitter, Facebook and other social media over the last year.

Photo
Who likes Black Friday? Shoppers!

We found consumers strongly positive, although many were directing their comments towards online Black Friday sales.

The message for retail workers, then, must be something along the lines of, get used to it.   

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Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase

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Nissan Leaf Leaves Buyers Suffering 'Range Anxiety'

Nissan insists the cars can go 100 miles on a charge ... but can they?

Rob Eshman couldn't wait to get his Nissan Leaf, the first mass-produced all-electric car.  He rushed out to put down a deposit as soon as Nissan bega...

PhotoRob Eshman couldn't wait to get his Nissan Leaf, the first mass-produced all-electric car.  He rushed out to put down a deposit as soon as Nissan began taking orders and waited eight months to take delivery.

He was so excited he wrote about his decision to buy a Leaf in the publication he edits, the Jewish Journal.  And how does Eshman feel about his Leaf today?

"It makes me feel like a jackass," he wrote in a recent column.  The car simply doesn't live up to its promises, Eshman said.

"According to every ad and brochure Nissan put out, the Leaf gets 100 miles per charge ... [but] after driving this car for five months, I can tell you I have yet to get 100 miles per charge. The last three times I measured, it was 55, 58 and 58," he said.

Range anxiety

"My life now revolves around a near-constant calculation of how far I can drive before I’ll have to walk. The Nissan Leaf, I can report, is perfect if you don’t have enough anxiety in your life," Eshman wrote.

Similar complaints are popping up around the Internet, with consumers reporting their cars go into "turtle" mode prematurely, meaning the car will creep along at slow speed before finally shutting down entirely.

Part of the problem is related to the meaning of "empty."  In gas-powered cars, the fuel gauge shows "empty" when the tank still contains a few gallons of fuel, creating a reserve capacity of 20 to 30 miles.  For an all-electric car to do the same thing, it would have to show "empty" when it had used up about 79% of its charge, according to Green Car Reports.

This would mean the car showed it was "empty" after between 60 and 80 miles of driving, assuming the Leaf in question was meeting the EPA estimated range of 73 miles.

Get a Volt

Which brings us back to Rob Eshman and his 100-mile-per-charge expectations.

Nissan likes to say that the Leaf will get up to 100 miles of driving on a full charge of its lithium-ion battery. But EPA testing has put the range at only 73 miles, still more than Eshman gets on his car.

Nissan's explanation is that the car is primarily intended for urban driving, basically creeping along crowded city and suburban streets. Driving at highway speed uses more juice, and aggressive driving uses more yet.

That explanation doesn't satisfy Eshman and he doesn't think it will satisfy many other consumers either.

His advice to consumers looking for an electric car?  "Buy a Volt," he tells them.  The Chevrolet Volt has a small gas engine that kicks in when needed. 

Some, but far from all, consumers have done just that.  GM sold 1,108 Volts in October, while Nissan moved only 849 Leafs.  It was the first time the Volt managed to overtake the Leaf, but it's a little too early to declare a trend and, in fact, sales of both models are well below manufacturers' estimates.

"Nissan must be feeling some backlash now, as well. Leafs — which the company had expected to sell out — are piling up on dealer lots like, well, fallen leaves," Eshman concludes ruefully. 

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Best Buy Buys Out Its Mobile Partner

Cell phones and tablets are the chain's growth leaders

Best Buy is expanding its Best Buy Mobile venture, buying out its European partner and shelving plans to open more big-box stores outside the U.S.Best Bu...

PhotoBest Buy is expanding its Best Buy Mobile venture, buying out its European partner and shelving plans to open more big-box stores outside the U.S.

Best Buy Mobile is built around an "impartial advice" concept, promoting its blue-shirted store personnel as experts who can help you find just the right cell phone and wireless plan.

It's been one of the few bright spots for Best Buy, which has outlasted Circuit City and other electonics retailers only to face a steady erosion of its core business to discounters and Amazon.

Best Buy may indeed be onto something.  ConsumerAffairs.com analyzed about 20,000 consumer comments posted on Twitter, Facebook and other social media over the last year and found net sentiment for Best Buy Mobile as high as 96% positive.

Photo

PhotoConsumerAffairs.com readers have submitted 21 negative reviews in the same time period compared to more than 172 for AT&T Wireless, more than 300 for Verizon Wireless and more than 200 for Sprint.

$1.3 billion 

Best Buy will be paying  $1.3 billion to buy out Carphone Warehouse Group Plc, enabling it to keep all future revenue from the fast-growing mobile business.

The Best Buy Mobile business has grown from a standing start to include mobile stores in 1,100 Big Box stores and almost 250 standalone Best Buy Mobile outlets in the U.S.

That contrasts with a 30% drop in Best Buy's quarterly sales of consumer electronics.

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Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase

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Bank's Debit Card Fee Fiasco May Be Sobering Lesson For Businesses

Can consumers build on their major victory?

The significance of Bank of America's retreat on the debit card fee...

PhotoWhile Occupy Wall Street protesters have railed against the excesses of “the Street” for weeks to little effect, it was consumers who quietly scored a rare but major victory over Wall Street last week.

Bank of America announced that $5 monthly debit card fee in late September, in large part, to keep Wall Street happy. New rules limiting interchange, or “swipe” fees, figured to severely cut into banks' revenue. Large, publicly-traded companies simply cannot eat large reductions in revenue without negatively affecting their stock price.  Banks must also meet federal liquidity requirements.

The $5 monthly fee for customers who used their debit cards to make purchases was designed to make up the lost revenue. Assuming the average customer made 25 debit card purchases per month, Bank of America customers would make up the revenue the bank previously collected from merchants.

One fee too many

The fee, however, proved to be just one too many for beleaguered consumers and an exodus to small community banks and credit unions began in earnest. At the end of last week, the Credit Union National Association reported credit unions had gained 650,000 new members since Bank of America announced the fee on September 29. That didn't count the consumers who waited until Saturday's grassroots National Bank Transfer Day to move their accounts.

After other major banks flinched and announced that, after careful consideration and study, they had decided not to institute a debit card fee, Bank of America announced it would not impose the fee after all. The bank said it made the decision after considering the opposition from its customers.

In an article entitled “Why Bank of America Really Killed Its Debit Card Fee,” Seth Fiegerman of the financial website TheStreet.com, said the bank was actually concerned the move was going to cost it too many of its customers.

Little fear of consumers

“After years of being able to increase fees with little fear that customers would jump ship, the big banks finally had a reason to cave to consumer demands, perhaps most of all for Bank of America,” Fiegerman wrote.

Fiegerman cites a survey released last week that found Bank of America could lose as many as 60 percent of its customers because of the debit card fee.

Going forward, what does all this mean for consumers and what does it mean for businesses? While there has always been a certain tension between consumers and businesses, old fashioned business practices have usually come down to trying to please the customer, so that they will remain a customer.

In recent years, however, it has seemed the prevailing philosophy, especially among large, publicly traded companies, is one focused solely on the bottom line. Consumers could be abused, when necessary, and while some would be lost, it was simply collateral damage.

Pure commerce

What happened last week was commerce in its purest form. A business announced a new set of terms and customers replied, “no thanks, we'll take our business elsewhere.” Small banks and credit unions responded with a strong marketing push, welcoming the disaffected consumers. Isn't that how capitalism is supposed to work?

It will be interesting to see if Bank of America and the consumer wrath it unleashed may finally serve as a wake-up call for both businesses and consumers. Businesses may rediscover the virtue of old-fashioned business practices as a model for success. Consumers may learn they have more power over Wall Street than they thought.

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Illinois Sues Marketers Of Pre-Paid Calling Cards

Consumers claim cards short change them on minutes

Believe it or not, not everyone has a cell phone. And when you need to make an international call, sometimes your cell phone just won't get it done....

PhotoBelieve it or not, not everyone has a cell phone. And when you need to make an international call, sometimes your cell phone just won't get it done.

That's one of the reasons consumers purchase prepaid calling cards, which admittedly were much more common in the days before cell phones became mainstream. But a lot of consumers who buy these cards report problems.

"The calling cards are ripping people off,” Akilah, of Camden, N.J., told ConsumerAffairs.com.

"As soon as your call connects, it disconnects and your balance is zero. When calling the customer service department, they tell you to allow two hours and your time will be put back on your card. That's a lie! I've been robbed for over $52 this month alone. I know other people that this has happened to.”

Fiona, of Livermore, Calif., says she has also experienced calling cards that don't work. She said she had problems with two different companies and neither, she said, was helpful.

“They are not willing to correct the error or refund my money or at least replace it to a better card,” Fiona said. “They both said to me that there's is nothing they can do or help me. This is very wrong, they took my money and gave me bad products.”

Illinois complaints

In Illinois, state Attorney General Lisa Madigan has heard similar complaints from her constituents. She has filed lawsuits against Chicago- and California-based companies for marketing prepaid calling cards to consumers, particularly to immigrant communities, that offer up to 50 percent fewer minutes than advertised and are riddled with hidden usage fees.

"Consumers need to read the fine print on prepaid calling cards," Attorney General Madigan said. "Their advertising is extremely misleading about the actual number of minutes offered, and they're loaded with hidden fees that make their value questionable at best."

The suits were filed against Nobel Tel LLC and NTI Inc., a Chicago company. Madigan said the companies targeted marketing at immigrant consumers seeking to make international calls.

In the suit against NTI, Madigan alleges the company's prepaid cards provided an average of 50 percent fewer actual minutes of talk time than the total time advertised. The company sells cards at neighborhood convenience and telecommunication stores in the Chicago area.

She also says the cards, marketed through Illinois retailers, are riddled with hidden fees – from hang-up fees to daily usage charges. Madigan's investigation revealed that some cards misrepresented the actual amount of call time available.

Units, rather than minutes

The cards' packaging referred to "units" of time as opposed to actual minutes, where one "unit" represented only a portion of a minute of international talk time.

Madigan is asking the court to prohibit the companies from selling, manufacturing, distributing or marketing prepaid calling cards in Illinois, obtain restitution for affected consumers and impose civil penalties on the defendants for the allegations laid out in each of the complaints.

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Bill Would Allow Robo-Calls To Cell Phones

Indiana Attorney General leads effort against it

Businesses want to be allowed to place informational calls to cell phones...

PhotoThere's a move afoot in Congress to amend the Communications Act  to allow businesses to make robo-calls to your cell phone for “informational purposes.”

Supporters of the bill, introduced in the House of Representatives in September, say it's not as sinister as it sounds. Businesses simply want to be able to call customers on their cell phones to remind them of a doctor's appointment or to pick up their order.

Why robo-calls? Because, they say, it's much more efficient to have machines place the calls. It's standard practice now for landlines and the legislation would simply allow them to expand the practice to cell phones, which a growing number of consumers now use exclusively.

Indiana against it

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller thinks it's a bad idea, since the legislation specifically states that the federal law would supersede any state law against the practice.

When the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology convened hearings on the bill, Zoeller showed up to testify against it.

"Indiana has spent more than 20 years protecting telephone privacy from the 1988 Auto Dialer law to the addition of cell phones to the Do Not Call law in 2011," Zoeller said. "The success of our statutes have made our citizens appreciate their privacy and made them sensitive to harassing phone calls. Consumer protection is traditionally an issue of state authority and we should take this opportunity strengthen the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and not weaken it."

Would overturn Indiana's Do Not Call Law

Zoeller says he's concerned the proposed legislation would strike down Indiana's Do Not Call law. If passed, states could not enforce their more strict laws against junk faxes, prerecorded calls or text messages.

The legislation is sponsored by Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE), who told Zoeller he is also concerned about this proposal overriding or preempting state laws. Terry asked Zoeller to help draft language that would protect states' powers.

While Zoeller agreed to do so, he said he remains cautious because assurances were also made during the drafting of the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) that federal law would not override or preempt state law - but a federal court recently struck down an Indiana statute on preemption grounds.

State laws at risk

"While preemption of such state laws has not been a problem up to this point, Indiana's recent litigation experience with Patriotic Veterans Inc., demonstrates that states and their residents cannot take their residential privacy protections for granted any longer," Zoeller said.

Patriotic Veterans Inc. challenged Indiana's Automatic Dialing Machine Statute in September. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana ruled the state's ban on robo-calls playing political messages cannot be enforced if the calls originate outside Indiana, because federal law allows for these types of calls. Zoeller is appealing the decision.

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What's On Your Mind? Gateway, US Bank, Fisher Price, DIRECTV

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Gateway, US Bank, Fisher Price, DIRECTV, Punished for using their own money and Expensive toys....

PhotoIf you keep files – especially treasured photographs – on your computer hard drive, you're running a risk of losing them. Computer hard drives fail all the time, meaning you can lose important data.

“I purchased a Gateway laptop on sale,” Paula, of East Lansing, Mich., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “About ten days after the warranty expired it died. I paid approximately $300 to have it repaired and also purchased a new replacement power cord. Almost a year to the day after it was resurrected from its previous death it was going fine then a zap and a billow of rancid smoke it died again! I lost my wedding pics all my files and almost my religion!”

Purchasing an inexpensive flash drive that plugs into your computer's USB port is a good way to protect your valuable data. Just be disciplined about always using it, and not storing data on the computer's internal hard drive. And of course, valuable data like wedding photos should also be copied to a CD or DVD for safe keeping.

You can also sign up for a service like Dropbox, which automatically keeps a copy of everything on your computer.  Besides protecting it from loss, this makes your data available wherever you happen to be, as long as you remember your user ID and password.

Punished for using their own money

Perhaps one of the reasons consumers have been so angry at big banks recently – in addition to the fees – is the way they sometimes do business. Anita, of Hillsboro, Ore., said she and her husband recently began withdrawing small amounts from their US Bank savings account and investing it into a retirement account.

“We got a letter in the mail stating that they will be closing our accounts with them with no explanation,” Anita said. “When visiting the branch to confront the situation, they told us it was a 'red flag' to them and they had every right to close us out! I The strange thing about this is the bank manager told us that if we would have drawn out $20,000 then we would have been fine. How does that work?”

It sounds like the bank, and perhaps other large institutions, are following a formula – devised by a consultant, no doubt – that tells them what action to take in reaction to a set of consumer actions. Maybe it's this inflexible, one-size-fits-all approach, that consumers are objecting to as much as the fees, leading to this past weekend's Bank Transfer Day.

Expensive toys

With the holiday season fast approaching, parents will soon be shopping for this season's hot toys. Darcel, of Streamwood, Ill., says he's shocked at the price for the Disney Little Einstein Pat Pat Rocket by Fisher Price.

“What are Disney and Fisher Price doing to the prices they are asking for a toy, are you kidding me,” Darcel asked Consumer Affairs.com. “I've seen it priced between $350.00 and $369.00. It's a rocket that makes sounds with four little plastic characters. Parents, stop buying these toys at such a rip off price and they will go down but if you keep buying them at those ridicules prices they will never stop!”

We've seen the toy advertised at Amazon.com for between $199 and $249. That's not as much as Darcel says, but it's still a lot for a toy.

Lost in the shuffle

Jeannine, of Lake Park, Minnesota, says she moved recently and set up service as a new customer with DIRECTV, paying a $40 installation fee by debit card to have a dish installed.

On the day of installation, the installer cancelled. I rescheduled, and he didn't show up,” Jeannine said. “I called customer service and cancelled everything. I was told that a check for the $40 installation fee would be sent to me immediately. After waiting two weeks for the check I called customer service again and was transferred numerous times to different people and departments. I was finally told that my account was 'lost' or 'not showing up' and I wouldn't be getting my money back.

DIRECTV may consider Jeannine a non-customer, but why did they take $40 from her bank account? Jeannine needs to call her bank immediately and dispute the charge. It would be easier if she had used a credit card, but maybe her bank can get some results.

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Food Recalls Jump In Third Quarter

Food allergens and Listeria the main reasons

Food recalls were up sharply in the the third quarter of 2011...

Food companies issued recalls for nearly six times the units in the third quarter of this year than they did during the preceding three month period, according to the ExpertRECALL Index.

The data also showed that there were more recalls for pharmaceutical and medical devices but fewer recalls for children's and infant's products. Surprisingly, recalls for consumer goods were the lowest in five quarters.

"Based on third-quarter recall activity, product safety remains a hot topic among consumers, manufacturers, retailers and regulators," said Mike Rozembajgier, Vice President of Recalls at Stericycle ExpertRECALL. "Now, as we enter the holiday season, everyone should be reminded of their role in supporting consumer safety to make sure that not only the products we use, but also the gifts we give, are safe for everyone."

Undeclared allergens

When food products were recalled in the last three months, undeclared allergens remained the leading reason. The data shows they accounted for 50 percent of all food recalls during the period.

Listeria-related recalls were the second-leading cause, accounting for 25 percent of all food recalls listed on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's website between July and September. In late October, for example, Landshire of St. Louis, MO expanded its recall of the Nike Sandwich as a precautionary measure to include the addition of the Nike Super Poor Boy Sandwich as well as increased production dates of the Nike All-American Sandwich. The products were suspected of being tainted with Listeria Monocytogenes

Need to pay attention

"Manufacturers and retailers must pay close attention to consumer safety and be more diligent when communicating with consumers, particularly as shoppers increase their purchases during the holiday season," said Rozembajgier. "And while regulators will need to pay close attention to product safety complaints, particularly about the hottest gifts of the season, consumers need to keep their eyes and ears open for recall announcements about not only the products they buy for themselves, but also about the gifts they are giving."

Among consumer products, burn hazards and structural-collapse risks were the main reasons for recalls. For example, in October General Electric General Electric recalled about 470 GE Monogram Pro Rangetops with grills. Burners on rangetops operating on liquefied petroleum ("LP" or propane) may fail to ignite or light if the gas control knob is left in a position between OFF and LITE, posing a risk of delayed ignition or explosion.

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Credit Union Membership Surges As Consumers Bail On Banks

Credit Unions get 650.000 new members in last month

Big banks may lose customers over the debit card fee but credit unions stand to gain...

PhotoAs consumers revolted against the idea of paying a fee for the privilege of using a debit card, big banks retreated and, it appears, the nation's credit unions have reaped the benefits.

The Credit Union National Association (CUNA), a trade group, says at least 650,000 consumers have joined credit unions in the past four weeks, since Bank of America announced it would impose a monthly $5 fee on customers who made purchases with their debit cards.

Reaction was so strongly negative that other big banks considering a similar move announced they would not impose the fee. Earlier this week, Bank of America also capitulated, announcing it would not impose the fee after all.

$4.5 billion in new savings accounts

CUNA estimates that credit unions have added $4.5 billion in new savings accounts in the last month. More than four in every five credit unions experiencing growth since Sept. 29 attributed the growth to consumer reaction to new fees imposed by banks, or a combination of consumer reactions to the new bank fees plus the social media-inspired Bank Transfer Day. Bank Transfer Day, which is tomorrow, urges consumers to switch from big banks to smaller credit unions and community banks.

Pete, of Elk Grove Village, Ill., has accounts at both Chase Bank and a credit union. Saying his Chase credit card lowers his credit limit on a regular basis, he says he sees no reason to keep two accounts.

“The Credit Union treats me the best,” Pete told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I recommend that eveyone move to a credit union for great service. I will be dropping Chase when the card is paid off.”

And it's not just the big banks that are drawing consumer anger. Noreese, of Lockport, Ill., says she has been a customer of TCF Bank for 15 years but is fed up with what she says are excessive overdraft fees.

“I will be closing my account and going with my local credit union,” Noreese said.

Savings promised

"The results indicate that consumers are clearly making a smarter choice by moving to credit unions where, on average, they will save about $70 a year in fewer or no fees, lower rates on loans and higher return on savings," said CUNA President/CEO Bill Cheney.

Cheney cited studies he says have shown people living paycheck to paycheck save even more at a credit union than the average financial institution customer, as they use more credit union services.

No stockholders

Why do credit unions have fewer and smaller fees than major banks? A lot has to do with the way they are organized. Banks are corporations that try to maximize profits from shareholders. That often means squeezing customers.

A credit union is a non-profit membership association. That means its “customers” are really “members.” While they have many of the same costs as banks, they don't pay out a profit to shareholders.

As consumer anger built around the debit card fees, credit unions were quick to market their services to the big banks' disaffected customers. According to Cheney, they have increased advertising, sent “switch kits” to existing members to share with family members or other prospective members, beefed up websites, extended hours and staffing for Bank Transfer Day, performed e-mail blasts to members, and maximized social media campaigns.

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Study: Prolonged Sitting Raises Cancer Risk

Short breaks every hour can reduce risk

From jobs that require hours of computer time to relaxing in front of the television set, we are spending a lot more time sitting down than we used to....

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The AlphaBetter Standing Desk

From jobs that require hours of computer time to relaxing in front of the television set, we are spending a lot more time sitting down than we used to.

While the link between a sedentary lifestyle and obesity is well established, a group of Canadian researchers now says a lack of physical activity can lead to cancer. Presenting at the American Institute for Cancer Research annual conference, the researchers says as many as 49,000 cases of breast cancer and 43,000 cases of colon cancer occurring in the U.S. every year are linked to a lack of physical activity.

Daily exercise may not help

Specifically, the researchers honed in on sitting for prolonged periods, finding that sitting for long periods of time can increase some of those same indicators of cancer risk, even among people who exercise daily.

"Taken together, this research suggests that every day, we're each given numerous opportunities to be active and protect ourselves from cancer, not one," said AICR spokesperson Alice Bender, MS RD. "We need to start thinking in terms of make time and break time."

According to the study, led by Christine Friedenreich, PhD, of Alberta Health Services-Cancer Care, getting a vigorous workout every day – while part of a healthy lifestyle – won't lessen what she sees as the cancer risk from prolonged sitting.

Advice

Her advice? Make time for physical activity and break every hour of sitting with one to two minutes of activity. These breaks can be as simple as walking to a colleague's office instead of sending an email or going to the kitchen to get a glass of water.

"Making time to get at least half an hour of moderate to vigorous activity every day is great, and more Americans need to do it, but those 30 minutes represent only a sliver of our day," Bender said. "This new research on break time suggests there are small things we can do in the other 15 hours and 30 minutes we spend awake that also make a big difference."

Friedenreich's research might be another reason to consider switching to a stand-up desk at work. Independent research has suggested there are health benefits to standing rather than sitting – everything from better posture to increased calorie burn.

Stand-up desks and work stations can cost less than $200. The Safco AlphaBetter desk pictured above costs about $189 and has been used by some ConsumerAffairs.com editors for more than two years.  It is adjustable and has a foot rest, which most authorities say is essential; being able to rest one foot at a time relieves back strain. 

More elaborate systems add a slow-moving treadmill, allowing workers to keep moving while at their desks. And if you don't buy the cancer risk research, there is plenty of other research to suggest that sitting is simply not as healthy as standing.

Earlier this year the American College of Cardiologists issued a study suggesting sitting for long periods of time was as harmful to the circulatory system as smoking cigarettes.The research showed that prolonged periods of sitting increases the risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer and early death.

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Defrauded Businesses, Non-Profits Get Refunds

Checks are in the mail to victims of telemarketing scam

The Federal Trade Commission is mailing 188 refund checks to small businesses and non-profits that were defrauded by two telemarketing operations that alle...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission is mailing 188 refund checks to small businesses and non-profits that were defrauded by two telemarketing operations that allegedly tricked them into paying for business directory listings they did not order.

The FTC alleged that Stephane LaChapelle and Integration Media Inc., doing business as GoAm Media; and Karl Garon, Claude Berthiaume, and 6253547 Canada Inc., doing business as The Official Yellow Pages and other entities, violated the FTC Act.

According to the complaints in the two cases, the defendants led the businesses and non-profits to believe they had a pre-existing relationship with the defendants, and falsely claimed that the organizations had agreed to buy, and owed money for, directory listing services.

Nearly $19,000 is being returned to small businesses and non-profits; the amount of payment will vary from $1.55 to $154.99, depending upon how much was paid.

Those who receive the checks from the FTC's redress administrator should cash them within 60 days of the date they were issued. The FTC never requires consumers to pay money or provide information before redress checks can be cashed.

Those with questions should call the redress administrator, Analytics Inc., 1-877-318-7591, or visit www.FTC.gov/refunds.

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Hoodia Promoters Agree to Shed Millions of Dollars

Claims for weight-loss supplement were deceptive, FTC charged

Hoodia Gordonii is a cactus grown in Africa's Kalahari and eaten by the San Bushmen there. It supposedly curbs your appetite and helps you lose weight. Whe...

PhotoHoodia Gordonii is a cactus grown in Africa's Kalahari and eaten by the San Bushmen there. It supposedly curbs your appetite and helps you lose weight. Whether it does is open to question, but it's sort of a moot point because it's illegal to export the plant from Africa.

That might make one wonder how companies like Nutraceuticals International LLC and Stella Labs LLC could market food, drugs and dietary supplements supposedly bursting with the prized cactus juice, denounced by our Dr. Henry J. Fishman as a waste of time way back in 2005.

The Federal Trade Commission got wind of the hoodia situation and has now  settled charges brought against three people and two companies for deceptive advertising.

The FTC said the marketers were part of a scheme that supplied manufacturers of weight-loss supplements with a substance they claimed was a derivative of hoodia.

Under the settlements:

  • David J. Romeo, and two companies he controlled, Nutraceuticals International LLC and Stella Labs LLC, are banned from making any weight-loss claims while marketing foods, drugs, and dietary supplements. The settlement imposes a $22.5 million judgment against Romeo and the two companies, which will be suspended when Romeo forfeits his vacation home in Vermont, and assigns to the FTC the right to collect on $635,000 in business loans owed to him. If it is later determined that the financial information Romeo gave the FTC was false, the full amount of the judgment will become due.
  • Nutraceuticals International principal Craig Payton is banned from marketing any foods, drugs, or dietary supplements. The order against Payton does not require him to forfeit any assets, as they were already seized in an unrelated federal drug case.
  • Nutraceuticals International marketing executive Deborah B. Vickery is required to pay a $4 million judgment, which has been suspended due to her inability to pay. If it is later determined that the financial information she gave the FTC was false, the full amount of the judgment will become due.
  • All five defendants are prohibited from making any false or unsupported claims about foods, drugs, or dietary supplements, and from helping others to make these claims. They also are barred from misrepresenting the results of any scientific study.

 

In its 2009 complaint, the FTC alleged that the defendants made false and deceptive claims about hoodia and its effectiveness as a treatment for obesity, and falsely claimed that their ingredient was hoodia when it was not.

The complaint also alleged that the defendants falsely and deceptively claimed their product would enable consumers to lose weight and suppress appetites; was scientifically proven to suppress appetite, resulting in weight loss; and was clinically proven to reduce caloric intake by 1,000 to 2,000 calories per day.

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What's On Your Mind? Ashley Furniture, Sirius, Debt Relief Network, Bunn

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Ashley Furniture, Sirius, Debt Relief Network, Bunn, Get it in writing, Pests and Happy ending....

PhotoSince credit is harder to come by, layaway plans have come back into vogue. A consumer makes periodic payments on a piece of merchandise until it is fully paid for. It's a tried and true method, but Teresa, of Chesterfield, Va., thinks something isn't right with her layaway purchase of a dining table at Ashley Furniture.

“My contract stated that the total price was $599,” Teresa told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I had to put the down payment of $126.51 on the date of purchase, I have since paid the same amount each month which totals $506.04. After making the November payment I asked what was my balance and was told $533. I asked how is this possible and the associate stated that a 'portion' goes to Ashley Furniture for their fees.”

Teresa is correct to be suspicious. This doesn't add up. She should carefully read the terms and conditions of the layaway, which should have been given to her at the time of the sale.  Depending on what she finds, she should take her sales contract/receipt to the store, along with cancelled checks from her payments, and ask the manager of the store to explain the math. 

Layaway plans sound great but they always involve extra charges and there's a chance that the consumer will wind up paying for merchandise that, for one reason or another, they don't ever receive.  It's much better to go to a discount store, or a used or factory outlet store and pay cash for something you can take home the same day.  

Get it in writing

Many consumers are confused about how to cancel a subscription service. Some companies seem to make the process harder than others.

“I just discovered that I have been charged for Sirius Satellite Radio service I tried to cancel and thought I had done so successfully over a year ago,” said Glenn, of Medina, Minn. “In speaking with Sirius personnel, three different individuals over the past 45 minutes they were unwilling to give me anything but a refund for the last quarterly charge. I had signed up for their five month promotion for $20.00 and then after using it for two or three days tried to cancel. They will acknowledge a phone call inquiring about my account status, but say they have no record of me cancelling.”

When ordering something online, or cancelling an order or reservation, the business should give you a confirmation number. That is the way you can track and verify the transaction. If the business does not give you a confirmation number, you probably haven't successfully cancelled your contract.

Pests

Melissa, of Newell, Iowa, says telephone solicitors for Debt Relief Network repeatedly call her despite her request to be put on their Do Not Call list.

“I have blocked their number and they keep calling me with different numbers,” Melissa told ConsumerAffairs.com. “They repeatedly hang up on me and they are very rude when I ask them to quit calling me. I ask for a website to look up their company information and they hang up on me. They call me everyday and I am sick of it.”

Melissa should lodge a complaint with Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller's office about the unwanted calls. And if she isn't already, she should get on the Federal Trade Commission's national Do Not Call List. Here's how

Happy ending

In recent years coffee makers, of a variety of makes and models, have been the source of consumer gripes. John, of Wilmette, Ill., had a problem with his Bunn BTX-B coffeemaker, but says the company stood behind its product.

“I called Bunn customer service and a very nice lady asked for the code date on the bottom and then told me that it was covered by warranty,” John said. “They shipped me a new one no charge, asking only that I pay the shipping to send the broken one back, which I thought was reasonable. When a company takes responsibility like that, they earn my confidence.”

Once upon a time, that was simply considered good business.  

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'Privacy' Bill Threatens to Censor Huge Swaths of the Internet

"End of the Internet as we know it," says Congressional critic

A bill slithering through Congress gives companies new power to shut down Internet sites that offend them, all in the name of curtailing "piracy"...

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Rep. Smith

A bill slithering through Congress gives companies new power to shut down Internet sites that offend them, all in the name of curtailing "piracy" of copyrighted material.  

But critics like CNET's Larry Downes call it "Hollywood's latest effort to turn back time."

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) would require Internet intermediaries -- meaning your ISP, Facebook and sites like this one -- to censor any posting that supposedly violated intellectual property laws.

Critics like Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) say SOPA “would mean the end of the Internet as we know it."  Canadian pop star Justiin Bieber went even further in a radio interview last week, suggesting that any member of Congress who votes for the bill "needs to be locked up — put away in cuffs."

'Rogue' sites

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and others, would authorize the Justice Department to seek injunctions against "rogue" websites dedicated to providing access to pirated goods or content. It would also allow the government and rights holders to demand that third parties, including payment processors and online ad networks, cut ties with such sites.

Ironically, Smith, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, claims to be a foe of "unnecessary regulations," and frequently touts his committee's passage of a bill that would supposedly "reform the federal regulatory process and reduce unnecessary burdens on job creators."

Smith and his follow SOPA sponsors say the measure is necessary to stop Americans from sharing music, movies and other copyrighted material with each other. But technology groups say the bill would be a "nightmare" for Web and social media firms.

"[T]his is not a bill that targets 'rogue foreign sites.' Rather, it allows movie studios, foreign luxury goods manufacturers, patents and copyright trolls, and any holder of an intellectual property right to target lawful U.S. websites and technology companies," the Consumer Electronics Association and the Computer and Communications Industry Association said in a letter to members of Congress.

Stifle innovation

The Electronic Freedom Frontier (EFF) says the measure would stifle innovation and creativity and destroy jobs, while making the Internet  duller and drabber while making it easy for just about anyone with a grievance to shut down entire sites. 

"This bill could also have a huge impact on the work of human rights advocates and whistleblowers who depend on online tools to protect their anonymity and speak out against injustice," said EFF's Travor Timm. "Platforms created to provide anonymity software to human rights activists across the world, as well as next generation WikiLeaks-style whistleblower sites, could be major casualties of this bill — all in the name of increasing Hollywood’s bottom line."

Under SOPA, private companies would be able to force payment processors to shut down payments to websites by merely claiming the site “engages in, enables or facilitates” infringement.  This broad provision could target websites behind important Internet projects such as Tor, the anonymity network that has been vital for protecting activists from government surveillance in Tunisia and Egypt, Timm said.

"Corporations concerned about users illegally downloading music could use SOPA to force Visa and Mastercard to cut off donations to Torproject.org — despite Tor’s aim to facilitate human rights activism, not piracy," he said.

Whistleblower sites could also find themselves in trouble if they post any documents related to corporate corruption or law breaking, if those documents contain trade secrets or are copyrightable.

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Study Suggests Tougher Chantix Warning Label

Researchers say risks of anti-smoking drug outweigh the benefits

The smoking-cessation drug varenicline, marketed under the brand name Chantix, already carries a “black box” warning on its label. But research...


PhotoThe smoking-cessation drug varenicline, marketed under the brand name Chantix, already carries a “black box” warning on its label. But researchers at Harvard, Johns Hopkins and other institutions, say it might not be enough.

Writing about their study in the journal PloS One, they say the drug's poor safety profile makes it unsuitable for first-line use among those who want to quit smoking.

According to the researchers, Chantix showed a substantially increased risk of reported depression or suicidal behavior compared to other smoking-cessation treatments.

'Might as well have been heroin'

“This drug might as well have been heroin,” Ken, of Kent, Wash., told ConsumerAffairs.com last year. “I suffer from constant heighten anxiety levels and frequent panic attacks. I was diagnosed with panic disorder by the doctor who prescribed this worse than crack to me.”

Teresa, a nurse from Burton, Ohio, said she took Chantix in 2008 and was able to stop smoking. However, she said she was left with a number of serious side effects that she believes will remain with her the rest of her life.

“I am so angry,” Teresa said. “I wish the drug companies would spend more time testing their product before putting it on the market to prevent, after the fact problems.”

Side effects

The researchers focused on Chantix side effects and said they found that 90 percent of all reported suicides related to smoking- cessation drugs since 1998 implicated varenicline, even though it was on the market only four years in the nearly 13-year study period. They also found that varenicline (Chantix) was eight times more likely to result in a reported case of suicidal behavior or depression than nicotine replacement products.

“Our study contradicts the implications of a recent review by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) showing no difference in psychiatric hospitalizations between varenicline and nicotine replacement patches,” said Curt D. Furberg, M.D., Ph.D., professor of Public Health Sciences at Wake Forest Baptist, co-author of the study and a nationally recognized leader in drug safety research. “The FDA hospitalization studies were flawed because they could not capture most of the serious psychiatric side effects, including suicide, depression, aggression and assaults. These can be catastrophic events but do not normally result in hospitalization.

Too risky

Furberg said he and his colleagues concluded that when it comes to Chantix, “the risks simply outweigh the benefits.”

The researchers said they strongly recommend that the FDA revise the black box warning to say what this study and the FDA’s own data show – that varenicline has higher risks for suicidal behavior and depression than other smoking-cessation treatments.

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Government Agencies Ordered To Probe Drug Shortages

But reasons for shortage may be numerous

Why is there a shortage of many once-common prescription drugs?...

PhotoAmerica, it turns out, has a shortage of some prescription drugs. At a Congressional hearing in September, doctors complained they were unable to find what used to be fairly common cancer drugs.

For many consumers, this doesn't come as news. For years, thyroid patients taking a drug called Armour Thyroid have complained about a shortage.

“I was told today that I would no longer be able to get my prescription of Armour Thyroid filled due to a shortage in the product," Catherine, of Farmersville, Texas, told ConsumerAffairs.com in 2009. "How can a company have a shortage of a product that millions of Americans depend on for their very lives? My mother passed away when I was 15 from an untreated thyroid problem. I myself have already had a heart attack due to complications from my thyroid.”

Not enough pig thyroid?

Forest Laboratories, the company that makes Armour Thyroid, reported in 2009 that it was having a hard time finding the active ingredients in the drug. Armour Thyroid is a "natural" hormone replacement therapy because the thyroid glands are collected from pigs. The thyroids are processed, dried, powdered, and compounded to produce Armour Thyroid tablets.

While the drug supply appears to be adequate today, consumers who take it say it has been reformulated and does not achieve the same positive results it once did.

“Original Armour Thyroid was the only thyroid medication I have been able to tolerate,” Linda, of Walnut Creek, Calif., reported last month. “I feel awful on the reformulated version. I can't tolerate any thyroid medications. The best and the only one I could tolerate was the original Armour Thyroid I feel generally awful and cannot find a medication to get enough thyroid support without side effects - different side effects for different medications. Please bring back the original medication!”

Executive order

President Obama, meanwhile, has issued an executive order, instructing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Justice Department to take action to prevent drug shortages. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) applauded the move, noting that drug shortages have tripled over the last five years.

“We know that nearly half of these shortages are because of problems at manufacturing facilities which fail to meet FDA safety and quality standards to ensure that Americans have access to safe, effective, and affordable medicines, DeLauro said. “The industry must step up to meet these standards, and we must invest in staff and technology at the FDA so the agency can work with industry to resolve manufacturing problems in a timely manner.”

But DeLauro's colleague, Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee, says the reasons for the shortage are not clearcut and the president's action was hasty.

“The issue is complex and witnesses, including Health and Human Services (HHS), testified at our hearing that there are multiple causes and as a result, it will require multiple solutions,” Pitts said.

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Apple Pinpoints Battery Problem In iPhone 4s

Bug found in operating system, fix promised within weeks

Apple has discovered the cause of the battery life problem in the iPhone 4S...

PhotoNot long after consumers picked up their new iPhone 4S smartphones last month they began reporting a problem with the battery life. It wasn't as long as they expected – certainly not as long as the previous model, the iPhone 4.

Now, Apple says it has found the problem in the device's iOS5 operating system.

"A small number of customers have reported lower than expected battery life on iOS 5 devices,” Apple said in a statement. “We have found a few bugs that are affecting battery life and we will release a software update to address those in a few weeks."

Apple started getting complaints from customers that the battery life drained from the 4S in less than 24 hours in some cases. Some users found work-arounds, such as turning off the smartphone's location settings.

The announcement from Apple that the battery problem is software-related comes as a relief to new iPhone users, who initially feared the devices new advanced features – such as its voice control system – might be causing the problem.

Apple Insider reports the company has released the first beta iOS5.1 for developers to begin testing. In addition to addressing the battery life issue, the update will reportedly add multitasking gestures for the original iPad, fix bugs with Documents in the Cloud, improve voice recognition for Australian users who are using the dictation feature and add other security enhancements.

Because the battery life issue involves the operating system, consumers should not have to take their iPhones in for any kind of repair, but simply download the update once it becomes available.

Meanwhile, CNET reports Sprint, which began supporting the iPhone with the release of the 4S, is investigating reports of slow iPhone 4S download speeds on its network. Sprint told the tech site that it has not been able to replicate the problem but takes seriously the complaints from its customers.

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Could Bad Credit Keep You From Getting A Job?

It might, but researchers find no link between low score and poor performance

Employers increasingly judge job applicants using credit scores...

PhotoSince the onset of the Great Recession three years ago, many people have seen their credit scores suffer. That lower credit score means they'll have a harder time getting loans, and when they do get a loan, they'll pay a higher interest rate for it.

But will it also keep them from getting a job? Employers are increasingly looking at credit histories before hiring someone.

According to a 2010 poll by the Society for Human Resource Management, 60 percent of surveyed employers conducted credit checks for some or all candidates as part of the hiring process. Because many people saw their credit scores suffer when they lost jobs, it seems especially ironic that a low credit score might prevent someone from getting a better job.

Bigger impact

Now, losing a career opportunity has a potentially higher impact than nearly ever before, while the nationwide wave of foreclosures simultaneously makes it more likely for an individual to have a black mark on their record. So, the question should be asked, is a credit score a legitimate means to judge someone for employment?

Researchers from LSU, Texas Tech University and Northern Illinois University have tried to address that question. Their recently completed a study showcased the link between credit ratings and an individual's personality, and found no connection between poor credit scores and theft.

First, the authors found a link between credit scores and personality types. But it's not the kind of link that many personnel managers might expect.

"With regards to personality and credit – it makes sense that conscientiousness is related to good credit, but what was really interesting was that agreeableness was negatively related to your credit score," said Jeremy Bernerth, assistant professor in LSU's E. J. Ourso College of Business Rucks Department of Management. "That suggests easy-going individuals actually have worse credit scores than disagreeable and rude individuals. This suggests that agreeable individuals might get themselves in trouble by co-signing loans for friends or family or taking out additional credit cards at the suggestion of store clerks."

No link between low score and poor job performance

However, contrary to what many employers consider common knowledge and practice, the researchers found no correlation between poor credit scores and bad behavior on the job.

"It was telling that poor credit scores were not correlated to theft and other deviant types of work behaviors," said Bernerth. "Most companies attempt to justify the use of credit scores because they think such employees will end up stealing, but our research suggests that might not be the case."

If you have bad credit and think a prospective employer will hold that against you, here are some things you should know: according to the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and your state Attorney General, an employer must get your permission to look at your credit report.

What to do

If you don’t get a job because of information in your report, the employer must show you the report and tell you how to get a copy from the consumer reporting company. There is no charge for the report if you request it within 60 days of getting notice that you did not get the job.

What if the information in your credit report is wrong? According to the FCRA, both the consumer reporting company and the information provider (that is, the person, company, or organization that provides information about you to a consumer reporting company) are responsible for correcting inaccurate or incomplete information in your report. To protect your rights under the law, contact both the consumer reporting company and the information provider to dispute any information. The FTC has information about disputing credit report errors on its website.

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Broadcasters May Have To Be More Upfront About Political Ads

Proposed regulations would require online info about ads and their sponsors

Television stations have been gleefully looking forward to cashing in on another political season, but their euphoria has been dampened by the Federal Co...

Television stations have been gleefully looking forward to cashing in on another political season, but their euphoria has been dampened by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which wants the broadcasters to post online information about each political ad.

The broadcasters, as expected, say it would be too much trouble and might even be costly.  They'd rather just take the money and let the voters try to figure out what's what.

Stations already collect the information, which includes the name of the candidate or group running the ad, the reason for broadcasting the ad, the time and placement and the cost.

So all that would really be involved is taking the existing information and posting it to a Web site that would be operated by the FCC.  The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) says it would be "a significant challenge" to do that.

Broadcasters want the FCC -- meaning the taxpayers -- to reimburse them for their trouble.

An attorney who represents broadcasters told Advertising Age the public posting would enable candidates to find out which stations had the best advertising rates, which would be bad for business.

"The FCC is just trying to bring broadcasters into the 21st Century," said Corie Wright, an attorney for Free Press, a media reform group.  He said making the information public would bring much-needed scrutiny to independent political groups next year.

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States Want Feds to Crack Down on Cramming

FCC should adopt tougher rules to protect consumers

The federal government should be doing more to protect consumers against the phone bill fraud known as cramming, the attorneys general from 17 states say....

PhotoThe federal government should be doing more to protect consumers against the phone bill fraud known as cramming, the attorneys general from 17 states say.

"Consumers ... deserve action against the predatory and exploitative charges that drive up phone bills and impose burdensome costs in money, time and energy to correct," New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said. "My colleagues and I strongly urge the FCC to adopt effective regulations that stop cramming, and provide consumers with relief."

Unauthorized third-party charges on telephone bills cost consumers upwards of $2 billion per year, a recent Senate report found.

‘Cramming’ occurs when third parties – other than the phone service provider – add unauthorized charges to phone bills for non-call related services like email, website hosting, discount buying programs or voicemail services. 

Investigations by the attorneys general, as well as complaints received by their offices, reveal that consumers do not intend to purchase these services and rarely make use of them. In addition, most consumers are unaware that they are exposed to such fraudulent billing practices just by using a wireless or landline service. 

Disclosure not enough

The rules currently under consideration by the FCC would be limited to landlines, and rely only on better phone bill disclosures and options to allow consumers to request blocks on such charges. In comments filed with the federal agency, the attorneys general explained that based on experiences in their states, federal anti-cramming regulations need to be stronger than those proposed. 

Given that landline ‘cramming’ charges are often phony and imposed without consumers’ consent, the AGs urged the FCC to ban all non-telephone, third-party charges on landline telephone bills. If the FCC fails to implement such a ban, then the AGs suggested that landline telephone companies be required to automatically block all third-party charges unless and until the consumer opts to accept such charges for a specific vendor by consenting through a phone call to their telephone company.

Consumers would still be free to purchase these third-party services through more traditional means, such as by credit card.

The attorneys general also called on the FCC to extend its regulations to protect wireless telephone users, as more and more consumers rely exclusively on wireless telephone service. The coalition advised the FCC to require wireless telephone service providers to obtain consumer consent for each third-party charge, verified by either call or text, before being billed.  The Attorneys General also recommended that all wireless consumers be provided the option of blocking all third-party charges from their account, at no cost.

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Pet Food Seen as Human Salmonella Risk

FDA steps up testing of pet food and treats

You don't want Spike getting salmonella from his dog food -- and you most certainly don't want to get it yourself.  Yet the Food and Drug Administrati...

You don't want Spike getting salmonella from his dog food -- and you most certainly don't want to get it yourself.  Yet the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it's increasingly concerned about humans getting sick from exposure to contaminated pet food.

The agency says it is increasing its inspections of dry pet food and pet treats from distributors, wholesalers and retailers.  There've been numerous recalls of pet food tainted by salmonella and other contaminants in recent years.

While humans usually get salmonella poisoning by eating contaminated food, it's also possible to pick up the disease by handling contaminated pet food.  In January 2006, at least 70 people were sickened by selmonella-tainted pet food from a Pennsylvania plant.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says pet owners should be sure to wash their hands after feeding their pets.  

What to do

Here are some more pointers from the CDC:

Purchase Tip

  • Purchase products (canned or bagged) with no visible signs of damage to the packaging, such as dents, tears, or discolorations.

Preparation Tips

  • Photo: A pet's food and water bowl.Washing hands is the most important step to prevent illness. Wash your hands for 20 seconds with water and soap right after handling pet food and treats, and especially before preparing, serving or eating food, drinks or preparing baby bottles
  • Preferably, people should feed their pet in areas other than the kitchen.
  • Wash pet food bowls, dishes and scooping utensils with soap and hot water regularly. Avoid washing these items in the kitchen sink or bathtubs to prevent cross-contamination. In households where there is no alternative, the sink area should be adequately sanitized after these items have been cleaned and removed.
  • Infants should not be bathed in kitchen sinks because of the risk of cross-contamination.
  • Do not use the pet’s feeding bowl as a scooping utensil – use a clean, dedicated scoop, spoon, or cup.

Storage Tips

  • Photo: A boy feeding his dog.Pet food should not be handled or stored in areas where food for humans is prepared.
  • If possible, store dry pet food in its original bag inside a clean, dedicated plastic container with a lid, keeping the top of the bag folded or closed.
  • Promptly refrigerate or discard unused, leftover wet pet food and containers (e.g., cans, pouches). Refrigerating foods quickly prevents the growth of most harmful bacteria. Refrigerators should be set at 40 degrees F. The accuracy of the setting should be checked occasionally with a refrigerator thermometer.
  • Dry pet food and pet treats should be stored in a cool, dry place under 80 degrees F.

Follow these simple guidelines to prevent getting a Salmonella infection from your pet:

  • Photo: Puppy with a toy.After contact with animals, their food, or their environments, wash your hands well with soap and running water.
  • Clean up after your pet. If you have a cat, scoop the litter box daily and dispose of the stool in a tightly sealed plastic bag. If you have a dog, clean up the stool while on walks or from the yard daily and dispose of the stool in a tightly sealed plastic bag.
  • Children younger than 5 years of age should not be allowed to touch or eat pet food, treats, or supplements and should be kept away from pet feeding areas. Young children are especially at risk for illness because their immune systems are still developing and because they are more likely than others to put their fingers or other items into their mouths.
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Doctors Face 7% Cut in Medicare Fees

Annual exercise in futility begins, thanks to dysfunctional 1990 law

Ready for the annual Medicare budget cuts?Every year around this time, Medicare announces plans to cut compensation to doctors, setting off protests by t...

PhotoReady for the annual Medicare budget cuts?

Every year around this time, Medicare announces plans to cut compensation to doctors, setting off protests by the elderly and, eventually, emergency action by Congress and the White House.

This year, Medicare says the cuts will amount to 27.4% -- enough to motivate many doctors to dump their Medicare patients in favor of the younger crowd.  

Seniors and their lobbying organizations -- most notably AARP -- are already taking to the barricades to fight cuts to Social Security and Medicare benefits by the so-called Congressional "Super Committee" which is supposed to be carving billions out of the budget.

"With a typical yearly income of $18,819, seniors are already struggling with high costs for food, health care and utilities while facing declining pensions, plummeting home values and deep losses to retirement and savings accounts," AARP’s Senior Vice President for Government Affairs Joyce Rogers said.

Rogers said seniors currently pay an average of $4,200 per year out of their own pockets for health care. 

“Our message to the super committee members today is this: No cuts to Medicare or Social Security benefits. Voters deserve a national conversation about health and retirement security, not a political deal that cuts the benefits they’ve earned,” she said.

Physician fees

The proposed reductions in physicians' fees are unrelated to the Super Committee's efforts.  The annual doctor-fee imbroglio harks back to a law passed by Congress in 1990 that calls for automatic cuts to doctors if Medicare costs keep rising.

Like lots of laws, it looked good when it was passed but has turned out to be totally unworkable.  Each year Congress bows to pressure and grants an exemption, as it's likely to do this year, fearful of the wrath of 48 million Medicare beneficiaries.

Even Medicare says the 27.4% figure is unrealistic.

“This payment rate cut would have dire consequences that should not be allowed to happen,” said Donald M. Berwick, M.D., administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in a statement on the agency's Web site.  “We need ...  to solve this problem once and for all. That’s why the President’s Budget and his Plan for Economic Growth and Deficit Reduction call for permanent, fiscally responsible reform and why we are committed to working with the Congress to achieve a permanent and sustainable fix.”

"We believe strong efforts are needed to evaluate Medicare’s fee schedule to ensure that it is paying accurately and to ensure that Medicare beneficiaries continue to have access to vital services,” said Jonathan Blum, deputy administrator and director for the Center for Medicare.

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Buying With Plastic Just Might Extend Your Warranty

Your credit card may provide coverage you don't know about

many credit cards carry extended warranty protection...

PhotoThis seems to happen a lot. A consumer purchases an expensive item, like a major appliance or a large screen TV. Shortly after the manufacturer's warranty expires, the product breaks down, requiring a major repair.

“Shortly after the one year warranty expired on our Kenmore 400 Washer, it began tearing holes in items,” Layne, of Los Angeles, told ConsumerAffairs.com. “The washer seems to enjoy eating jeans, boxer shorts, shirts, my wife's bras, and our blankets. After 14 months the washer no longer functions as it was described. I tried to reach out to the manufacturer, but to no avail.”

Layne says the best he could get from the manufacturer was the offer of a $50 gift card. The fact that the problems occurred just outside the warranty period just seems to make the matter worse.

Extended warranties have limitations

While some consumers seek to protect themselves by purchasing expensive extended service contracts, there are problems with that. One alternative is to make the purchase with a credit card that automatically provides extended coverage. In fact, this may be the most overlooked consumer protection available.

American Express has offered this kind of coverage for years. According to American Express, charge your covered purchases to the card and Extended Warranty will extend the terms of the original manufacturer's warranty for up to one additional year on eligible purchases. For example if you have a six-month manufacturer's warranty, we will add another six months. If you have a one-year manufacturer's warranty we will add one additional year.

The American Express coverage is good for the amount charged to your card for the item or $10,000, whichever is less, not to exceed $50,000 per cardmember account per policy year. Significantly better than a $50 gift card.

If Layne had purchased the washer with an American Express card, he would simply lot into the company's claim center and file a claim.

Other cards work too

Don't have an American Express card? Visa has a very similar extended warranty. To take advantage of this service a Visa credit card user only needs to use their Visa card to purchase an item that has its own warranty coverage and send in the warranty card.

When the item is out of warranty, the Visa warranty kicks in for an identical period of coverage. If the product breaks or is found to be defective, Visa will credit the purchase price back to the consumers credit card.

Mastercard's Peace of Mind Protection Plan offers very similar coverage on some – but not all - of its cards. In addition, it also provides a satisfaction guarantee.

Target won't accept your return? If you become dissatisfied with a product you purchase using your eligible MasterCard card within 60 days of purchase, and the store will not accept a return, you may be eligible for a refund for the cost of the product up to $250.

If find out if your card contains this coverage, read the credit card agreement that came with your card or call Mastercard's customer service department.

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What's On Your Mind? Target, First Mortgage West, LG

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Target, First Mortgage West, LG, Trouble, Newer not necessarily better and secondhand stores....

PhotoWe were reminded that it's a good practice to hold onto receipts when you purchase any kind of electronic device or appliance. Even if it works right out of the box, there are no guarantees it will keep working, and while some stores have very lenient return policies, others do not.

“I purchased a Sunbeam microwave about four or five months ago,” Linda, or Aurora, Ill., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I didn't keep my receipt as I've never owned a microwave that just died like this one did. It was more than 90 days so the store I bought it from couldn't get me a copy of the receipt. And I was told they couldn't help me without it. I bought it from a SuperTarget so I can't narrow down a transaction as I do all my grocery shopping there.”

The problem with keeping receipts, of course, is what to do with them. One trick we've often heard about is putting a basket or jar on your desk or bill paying area and routinely placing receipts in it. When you need to make a return, you can find the receipt with a little searching.

Trouble

Taking out a mortgage is a serious undertaking and should be done with care. Steven, of Colo., thought he was doing all the right things but he wasn't.

“I received a voice mail from First Mortgage West regarding very competitive mortgage loans rates,” Steven said. “I contacted them and spoke with Michael. He was very professional, offered the terms for high income, high credit rating applicants. Before processing the re-finance loan I checked them out on-line and with the BBB. Their product was new, but was reviewed with favor from all of those who had completed the loans and filed a review.”

But Steven was in for a nasty surprise.

“As of September 27, I was advised that funding for the loan would occur around October 5 and that I would be contacted with the time and date of closing,” Steven said. “I have not heard from them since after repeated attempts to contact them. They have approximately $12,000 of 'seasoning' funds outstanding.”

By that, Steven means that he paid an advance fee of $12,000 to the company. You never do that. A mortgage company might assess a small application fee but all other fees are collected at settlement. We're not sure where Steven got his information about First Mortgage West, but when we checked the Los Angeles BBB web site, we found the company had received a rating of “F.” Additionally, the BBB has issued an alert on the business, saying “the Bureau confirmed that the 1150 South Olive Street, Suite 2000 Los Angeles, CA 90015 address provided for this company is not a physical location. This is a virtual office.”

Newer not necessarily better

Shopping for a new washer and dryer? Maybe you should look at yard sales or a secondhand store.

“Our LG washer/dryer is less than five years old,” Ralph, or Mesa, Ariz., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “We bought these top of the line machines since we are getting older and wanted to trouble free for the foreseeable future. This year we had to replace both circuit boards on the dryer. Then after that the drum would not turn and motor just buzzed. So we had to have replaced the motor too. A little reading on the Internet and it seems that many people have had the same problem with the centrifugal switch on the motor, and circuit boards needing replacement is common as well. Now the washing machine has started to make a loud squeaking sound when it runs. My old washer/dryer combo was purchased in 1986 and was still working perfectly in 2007 when we bought the LG units. We paid a premium for top of the line, but we sure didn't get top of the line reliability.”

We're not sure why newer appliances don't seem to be as reliable as their predecessors, but it might have something to do with the sophisticated electronics they all seem to have. Maybe the best rule of thumb for appliances is “the simpler the better.”

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CDC: Epidemic of Prescription Painkiller Overdoses

Painkiller overdoses kill more Americans than heroin and cocaine combined

More than 40 people die every day from overdoses of prescription pain relievers like Vicodin, methadone, OxyContin, and Opana, according to the Center...

PhotoMore than 40 people die every day from overdoses of prescription pain relievers like Vicodin, methadone, OxyContin, and Opana, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said the death toll from overdoses of prescription painkillers has more than tripled in the past decade.

“Overdoses involving prescription painkillers are at epidemic levels and now kill more Americans than heroin and cocaine combined, ” said CDC Director Thomas Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “States, health insurers, health care providers and individuals have critical roles to play in the national effort to stop this epidemic of overdoses while we protect patients who need prescriptions to control pain. ”

The increased use of prescription painkillers for nonmedical reasons, along with growing sales, has contributed to the large number of overdoses and deaths, the CDC said.

In 2010, 1 in every 20 people in the United States age 12 and older—a total of 12 million people—reported using prescription painkillers nonmedically according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Based on the data from the Drug Enforcement Administration, sales of these drugs to pharmacies and health care providers have increased by more than 300 percent since 1999.

“Prescription drug abuse is a silent epidemic that is stealing thousands of lives and tearing apart communities and families across America, ” said Gil Kerlikowske, Director of National Drug Control Policy.  “All of us have a role to play. Health care providers and patients should be educated on the risks of prescription painkillers. And parents and grandparents can take time today to properly dispose of any unneeded or expired medications from the home and to talk to their kids about the misuse and abuse of prescription drugs. ”

Action plan

In April, the Administration released a comprehensive action plan to address the national prescription drug abuse epidemic to reduce this public health burden.  

The plan includes support for the expansion of state–based prescription drug monitoring programs, more convenient and environmentally responsible disposal methods to remove unused medications from the home, education for patients and healthcare providers, and support for law enforcement efforts that reduce the prevalence of "pill mills" and doctor shopping.   

Already, 48 states have implemented state–based monitoring programs designed to reduce diversion and doctor shopping while protecting patient privacy and the Department of Justice has conducted a series of takedowns of rogue pain clinics operating as “pill mills. ” 

For the analysis, CDC reviewed state data on fatal drug overdoses, nonmedical use of prescription painkillers, and sales of prescription painkillers to pharmacies and health care providers.

The study found:

  • State death rates from overdoses (from 2008 data) ranged from a high of 27.0 deaths per 100,000 people in New Mexico to a low of 5.5 deaths per 100,000 people in Nebraska.
  • Nonmedical use of prescription painkillers ranged from a high of 1 in 12 people aged 12 and older in Oklahoma to a low of 1 in 30 in Nebraska. States with more nonmedical use tend to have more deaths from drug overdoses.
  • Prescription painkiller sales per person were more than three times higher in the highest state, Florida, than in the lowest state, Illinois. States with higher sales per person tend to have higher death rates from drug overdose.
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Feds To Review Four Million Foreclosures

New hope for those wrongfully foreclosed upon

From the reports filed by distressed homeowners, it's clear that many foreclosures over the last few years might not have been necessary....

PhotoFrom the reports filed by distressed homeowners, it's clear that many foreclosures over the last few years might not have been necessary.

For example, Miranda, of Eugene, Ore., reports that she called her mortgage company, Bank of America, when she knew she was going to be late on a payment. Miranda said she was receiving the money to make the payment, it was just that she wouldn't be able to make it on time.

“I was advised that I was pre-approved for a mortgage modification program, but wouldn't qualify until I missed two payments,” Miranda told ConsumerAffairs.com.

Didn't really need a modification

So even though she could afford to pay her mortgage, Miranda followed the bank's advice, was late on a payment, and was invited to apply for the modification program.

“By the time I was eventually denied for the program, it had been two months and it was the day after they sent my mortgage into foreclosure,” Miranda said.

Miranda's, and as many as four million other foreclosures, may receive independent reviews under enforcement actions by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and Office of Thrift Supervision.

So far, the OCC says 14 large mortgage servicers have been required to correct deficiencies in their servicing and foreclosure processes and to engage independent firms to conduct a multi-faceted independent review of foreclosure actions that occurred in 2009 and 2010.

Independent review

Independent consultants have the job of evaluating whether borrowers suffered financial injury through errors, misrepresentations, or other deficiencies in foreclosure practices and determining appropriate remedies for those customers.

Where a borrower suffered financial injury as a result of these practices, the consent orders require remediation to be provided.

"The independent foreclosure review is a significant component of the mortgage servicers’ compliance with our enforcement actions," said acting Comptroller of the Currency John Walsh. "These requirements help ensure that the servicers provide appropriate compensation to borrowers who suffered financial harm as a result of improper practices identified in our enforcement actions."

Watch for a letter

If you are one of the eligible homeowners, be on the lookout for a letter from your mortgage company that will explain how you can request a review of your case.

If you don't receive a letter but feel you qualify for such a review, the OCC has set up a special website where you can get more information about the process.

From the many reports received by ConsumerAffairs.com over the last three years, it is clear that many homeowners believed they were following the rules and providing needed documentation for a modification when they suddenly learned their homes were about to be sold at foreclosure.

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Bank of America Cancels $5 Debit-Card Fee

Other banks left BA standing alone to face enraged consumers

After looking around and finding itself alone, Bank of America is canceling its plan to charge $5 per month for customers who use their debit cards to make...

PhotoAfter looking around and finding itself alone, Bank of America is canceling its plan to charge $5 per month for customers who use their debit cards to make purchases.

The plan enraged consumers.  Thousands said they had canceled or planned to cancel their Bank of America accounts.  

BA's surrender comes after SunTrust and Regions Banks joined Chase and Wells Fargo, which earlier canceled their plans to charge for debit cards.

“Consumers have the power to make the big banks back down from unfair practices if they raise their voices and vote with their feet and their dollars,” said Norma Garcia, manager of Consumers Union’s financial services program.  “In the end, Bank of America understood that it risked losing too many valuable customers by charging an unfair debit card fee.”

The fee, announced a month ago, was intended to make up the revenue Bank of America thinks it will lose from the new lower swipe fees. But it set off a firestorm of protest from customers who had had just one fee too many from an institution many believe is still in existence only because of the American taxpayer.

Consumer backlash

“President Obama gave those banks billions of our tax dollars and they turn around charging us more fees,” said Mary, of Decauter, Ga. “This is right down illegal and Bank of America will fall hard. They always say that the bigger they are, the harder they fall. I can't wait for that day.

“As the fees go up at the bank, customer service is declining,” Lisa, of Lillington, N.C., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Is it only important to take care of customers with large sums of money and not the middle class? I will definitely be moving to another bank that takes care of all the account holders. If you are looking for a new bank and don't want to pay large fees for your savings account and checking accounts, do not chose this bank.”

Apparently the consumer outrage resonated in the executive suite. Bank of America today issued a brief statement declaring it would not implement its announced debit card fee, citing the customer feedback it had received.

Bank of America blinks 

"We have listened to our customers very closely over the last few weeks and recognize their concern with our proposed debit usage fee," said David Darnell, co-chief operating officer. "Our customers' voices are most important to us. As a result, we are not currently charging the fee and will not be moving forward with any additional plans to do so."

The ill-fated debit fee was a result of this year's long-running battle between banks and retailers over how much lenders should charge for each debit card transaction. In the end, retailers won out, with the Federal Reserve lowering the “swipe fee” from 44 cents to 24 cents. 

“The public backlash over debit card fees should serve as a big wake up call to banks that they can’t arrogantly take their customers for granted,” said Pamela Banks, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union. “While banks may come back with other fees in the future, they’ll be gauging public reaction carefully.  Consumers should be on the lookout for new fees and remember that if they’re not happy with how they are being treated, they should shop around for a bank or credit union that can offer them a better deal.”

Retailers celebrate

The Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), which lobbied hard for the lower rate, declared Bank of America's retreat was “proof-positive” that consumers will be the winners with the lower swipe fee.

“Bank of America and its big bank peers are no longer free to fleece merchants and consumers at will,” said Katherine Lugar, RILA executive vice president of public affairs. “This outcome is just what consumers deserve, what reform advocates predicted and what we will fight to extend to the credit card market.”

The action by Bank of America follows decisions by competitors to drop customer trials of the new fees. SunTrust Banks Inc. and Regions Financial Corp. also said they will stop charging customers for debit-card transactions.

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More Banks Blink, Cancel Debit-Card Fees

SunTrust, Regions join Chase, Wells Fargo in bowing to consumer outrage

Two more banks -- SunTrust and Regions -- have seen the face of consumer outrage and withdrawn from the field of battle, withdrawing fees for customers who...

PhotoTwo more banks -- SunTrust and Regions -- have seen the face of consumer outrage and withdrawn from the field of battle, withdrawing fees for customers who make purchases with debit cards.

Wells Fargo and Chase withdrew their fees last week, after witnessing the mass outrage directed at Bank of America, which at last word will still clinging to its $5 monthly fee.

The four banks that have withdrawn the fees operate about 15,000 U.S. branches and account for more than $2.2 trillion in deposits, more than 20% of the industry total, The Wall Street Journal reported.

US Bank, Citigroup, PNCKey Bank have remained on the sidelines throughout, not advancing a plan to levy charges on debit-card users.

Banks backtrack

"We believe banking is a relationship business and recognize the importance of responding to client preferences," said Brad Dinsmore, Consumer Banking and Private Wealth Management executive at SunTrust. "We've listened to our clients' feedback and will provide the convenience and security of check cards at no additional charge as part of all of our checking accounts."

Clients will not need to take any action to receive their refund - it will automatically take place in the next 30 days, Dinsmore added.

"We are committed to providing an exceptional customer experience and are continually adapting our products and services in response to the needs and preferences of our customers," said John Owen, head of consumer services for Regions Bank. "We have heard from our customers and are responding to their feedback by eliminating the monthly fee for CheckCards."

Customers who previously incurred a CheckCard fee will not need to take any action to receive their refund and it will be credited to their account on Nov. 4.

Bank Transfer Day

Consumer dissatisfaction with Bank of America's $5 monthly debit-card fee has sparked a nationwide movement to urge consumers to move their accounts from large banks to smaller community banks or credit unions.

Kristin Christian, a Los Angeles businesswoman, is credited with organzing "Bank Transfer Day," scheduled for November 5.

Christian launched the 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.

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Judge Upholds Cell Phone Radiation Disclosure Requirements

San Francisco city ordinance is upheld over industry's objections

San Francisco U.S. District Judge William Alsup has given the green light to city authorities to require that retailers distribute fact sheets about cell p...

PhotoSan Francisco U.S. District Judge William Alsup has given the green light to city authorities to require that retailers distribute fact sheets about cell phone radiation to their customers.

CTIA: The Wireless Association, the cell phone industry’s leading trade group, filed suit two years in a row in an effort to block city ordinances  requiring that this kind of information be made available to cell phone buyers at the point of sale.

“CTIA continues to shamelessly fight tooth and nail to keep cell phone customers in the dark on potential cell phone hazards,” said Renee Sharp, senior scientist and director of the Environmental Working Group's California office. “New science is pointing to the possible risks of cell phone radiation exposure, particularly for children. It is important for consumers to know what steps they can take to minimize their exposure.”

Judge Alsup’s ruling allows San Francisco to require that retailers distribute informational fliers supplied by the city to customers who consider purchasing a cell phone. He dismissed the industry’s claim that the ordinance conflicts with the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) authority to regulate cell phone radiation.

“Nothing in the federal statutes or FCC regulations bars local disclosure requirements like those now required in San Francisco,” Judge Alsup wrote. Underscoring a basic point in the debate over potential health hazards from the ubiquitous technology, he added that, “The FCC has never found that cell phones are absolutely safe.”

Ongoing battle

EWG called Alsup’s decision a landmark decision in the ongoing battle to ensure that the public is kept up to date on the evolving science of possible cell phone radiation hazards.

“This is a true victory for the public’s right to know,” said Sharp. “Alsup’s decision marks the first time that any US government body will be allowed to require cell phone retailers to tell consumers about the potential health risks of using their products, and more importantly, what they can do about it if they are concerned.”

The judge ordered minor changes in the city’s proposed informational fliers for greater clarity and rejected provisions of the ordinance that required stores to display informational posters and stickers.

CTIA has used a variety of backroom tactics and legal maneuvers to limit public access to information about legitimate concerns over cell phone safety, EWG said.

EWG uncovered documents showing that CTIA officials met with the FCC about San Francisco’s original right-to-know ordinance, which was struck down, and that shortly thereafter the agency made changes to its website that softened earlier statements about the potential hazards of cell phone radiation.

The World Health Organization has classified cell phone radiation as possibly carcinogenic, a finding supported by long-term epidemiological studies. EWG’s own investigation of available science from around the world came to a similar conclusion. While the research continues, simple, inexpensive measures such as using a headsetcan help consumers reduce their exposure.

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What Happened Aboard JetBlue Flight 504?

Cockpit to tower tapes suggest a dangerous situation

JetBlue Flight 504 was stranded on the runway for more than seven hours...

PhotoWhen JetBlue Flight 504, bound from Fort Lauderdale to the New York area, was diverted to Hartford, Conn. by the weekend snowstorm, the plane sat on the tarmac at Bradley International Airport for more than seven hours before passengers reached the terminal.

While federal aviation authorities will investigate to see if the airline violated new rules designed to prevent these strandings, there may also be an inquiry to determine what exactly was happening on board the jet, and whether passengers were in danger.

Recordings of radio transmissions between the pilot of Flight 504 and the tower suggest a grim and possibly dangerous situation.

Pilot: If you try to come on with a jetway now and flash a trooper's uniform on the plane, it's not going to be good, it's not going to be pretty. They've (the passengers) calmed down a little bit, I told them we're waiting for a tug and a tow-bar and it's only a matter of seconds, so DO NOT BRING ANYONE ON BOARD THIS PLANE! So don't even put the airstairs up there.

Tower: OK, roger that.

Moments later it was apparent the situation had changed and the pilot had changed his mind.

Pilot: I've got a problem here on the airplane. I'm gonna need to have cops on board. There's some cops sitting right in front of you. I need some airstairs brought over here and cops brought on board the airplane.

Tower: JetBlue 504, roger.

At one point in the recording, the captain reports the situation has calmed a bit but that he is concerned about the passengers, especially one who is wheelchair bound and another who is diabetic.

He recounted for the tower the timeline of his flight, noting his plane had been in the air for three hours and on the ground at the airport for over seven and a half hours. He then thanked the tower crew for their help.

Pilot: Listen, I just want to put my two cents in, for whatever it's worth, thank you very much...because I think we got more help from you guys than our own people.

Tower: JetBlue 504, you're welcome, it's our pleasure.

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Think Twice Before Trying hCG For Weight Loss

Hormone not proven to help you lose weight

hCG is no miracle weight loss drug...

PhotoPeople who have trouble controlling their weight are often tempted to try more “exotic” solutions. If they are tempted to try choriornic gonadatropin (hCG), a prescription hormone, there are plenty of health experts who advise that they don't.

According to the website WebMD, hCG is used to aid proper sexual development in both boys and girls. Those who advocate its use for weight loss also prescribe a very low-calorie diet, as few as 800 calories per day. Doctors say it is the restriction of calories, not the hormone, that causes weight loss.

Not approved for weight loss

The Food and Drug Administration has not approved hCG for weight loss, and in fat requires a “black box" warning on the prescription labels clearly stating that fact. Despite that, many people continue to use it, often obtaining the hormone through Internet pharmacies.

Many, like Jennifer, of the Bronx, N.Y., who thought she was getting a “free sample of hCG from Power Health Brands, end up paying a lot more than they expect.

“I ordered the trial bottle but my account was charged $84.95,” Jennifer told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I returned the product by First-Class Mail and requested that my account be credited. To date, my account has not been credited nor has there been an explanation as to why not despite repeated emails to them.”

Texas takes action

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has reached agreements with several weight-loss clinics and a distributor of a weight loss product in Texas that were marketing hCG for weight loss uses. Under the agreement, the businesses must significantly alter the way they market their services and/or products.

The clinics all advertised hCG for weight loss and the distributor advertised and sold a homeopathic version of hCG as a weight loss product, according to Abbott.

The following businesses have agreed to stop advertising hCG for weight loss:

  • Biohealth of Texas, LLC, which operated in at least a dozen north Texas cities;
  • Weight Control of Texas, Inc., based in San Antonio;
  • Gulf Coast Plastic Surgery, P.A. of Houston; Dragon’s Breath Massage of Keller; and
  • Optimum Health Care, LLC of Pantego. Professional Health Products Southwest of Arlington agreed to stop advertising and distributing homeopathic hCG.

 

Although physicians are generally allowed to prescribe products for non-FDA-approved purposes, drugs cannot be marketed or advertised for a medical use unless that purpose has been approved by the FDA. As a result, physicians and weight-loss clinics may not advertise hCG for weight loss in part because the FDA has stated there is no substantial evidence indicating that hCG leads to weight loss, beyond that which stems from severe dieting.

There are, in fact, no approved homeopathic or over-the-counter hCG products.  

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What's On Your Mind? US Airways, Credit One, Nationwide Insurance, Nationstar Mortgage

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: US Airways, Credit One, Nationwide Insurance, Nationstar Mortgage and Playing the insurance game....

PhotoMost airlines give you the chance to book another flight if you buy tickets but are unable to travel. But sometimes, rescheduling the flight can be difficult.

“US Airways gave me a year to use my unused ticket,” Maxim, of Gainsville, Fla., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Now, almost a year later, I am trying to use it but am unable to. I am given only 345 days instead of 365, so I can't travel for Christmas vacation. US Airways says that I was given a year to complete the flight but the year starts when I purchased the ticket originally. I checked with other major airlines and no one else has same policy. Other airlines give passengers one year to either buy a ticket from the date they bought the original one or a year to fly since the day of the initial flight. US Airways is the only major company that gives one year to fly since the date booked.”

It's getting harder to fly, period. To remain profitable and cut down on empty seats, airlines have reduced the number of available seats on any given day.

Something doesn't add up

These days consumers seem to have a harder time making timely payments. But Linda, of Forestville, Md., says she pays Credit One on time but still gets calls from bill collectors.

“My bill for Credit One is due on the 27th of every month, I pay my bill on the 15th of every month,” Linda said. “On the 20th or 21st of every month I begin receiving harassing phone calls from credit one reps located in India. I have asked to speak to a person located in the United States and in return I am put through to the automatic system.”

This doesn't seem right since a payment made on the 15th has plenty of time to be received before the 27th. Besides, why would a bill collector be calling before the bill is due? It sounds like Linda may have overlooked a payment and is actually a month behind. Calling the bank after her payment clears, she should be able to find out if she is paid up or still a month behind.

Playing the insurance game

Steve, of Falkville, Ala., said he has been a longtime Nationwide Insurance customer for both home and auto, Recently, he says, Nationwide cancelled his policies after he made two claims totalling $5,000.

“They have made more money off of me over the years when I had no claims,Steve told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Now they are going to make my rates go up because of this and you have to have coverage. Why have insurance when you can not use it?”

That's a good question, but then again you have to think long and hard about what you expect an insurance policy to do for you. Should it pay for anything that happens, or just cover you against catastrophic loss? The insurance company now sees Steve as high risk. Had he paid for one of the losses out of pocket, he might have come out ahead. It seems perverse, but it's just the way the system works.

Fighting back

We have received a number of complaints over the years from distressed homeowners who thought they were in the midst of a loan modification, only to discover that their property have been foreclosed upon and sold out from under them. Keith, of Black Hawk, Colo., is among the first we've heard from who has gone to court to stop it. Keith has sent us a copy of the suit he has filed against Nationstar Mortgage alleging wrongful foreclosure.

“Specifically, Nationstar repeatedly and falsely told Plaintiff that his loan modification was either in-process or had been approved, failed to inform plaintiff that his loan-modification application had been denied, and that this failure prevents plaintiff from exercising legal rights, including but not limited to, Chapter 13 bankruptcy, that would have allowed him to retain title to his home, which he largely built with his own hands,” the complaint reads.

Keith is asking the court to vacate the foreclosure sale and restore his property to him. It's a longshot, but we're keeping an eye on this one.

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