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Verizon Wireless Backs Off $2 'Convenience' Fee

Consumer uprising forces company to retreat, following Bank of America's example

Just days after it stumbled badly in its handling of a series of 4G LTE network failures, Verizon Wireless has hastily abandoned an ill-conceived "convenie...

PhotoJust days after it stumbled badly in its handling of a series of 4G LTE network failures, Verizon Wireless has hastily abandoned an ill-conceived "convenience" fee of $2 for some customers paying their bill online or over the phone.

The holiday period around the end of the year -- when consumers are not paying attention to the news -- is when companies and politicians often try to sneak through new policies they hope will manage to flit under the radar.

It didn't work this time.  Verizon Wireless ran into the same wall of consumer outrage that Bank of American encountered just a few months ago with its $5 debit card fee, also quickly abandoned.  

Speed of light

Verizon's landline division likes to talk about its FiOS fiber-optic service operating at the speed of light, and that's just the speed at which consumers landed on Verizon Wireless. They lit up the Internet in no time with denunciations of grinchlike behavior befouling their holidays.

"I am unhappy with the fee for paying my bill online," said Victor of Lutz, Fla., in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com.  

"I think this is terrible," said Ria of Glendale, Ariz. "I will be looking for a different cell phone company that does not charge to make a payment over the phone."

A ConsumerAffairs.com survey of comments made on Twitter, Facebook and other social media wasn't much better.  In fact, it might have been a little worse.

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Verizon kept a stiff upper lip and managed to mouth platitudinous assurances that it had had its customers' best interests at heart at all times.

"Improve efficiency"

"The company made the decision in response to customer feedback about the plan, which was designed to improve the efficiency of those transactions," a spokesman said. "The company continues to encourage customers to take advantage of the numerous simple and convenient payment methods it provides."

Even more solicitous was Dan Mead, Verizon Wireless CEO.  “At Verizon, we take great care to listen to our customers. Based on their input, we believe the best path forward is to encourage customers to take advantage of the best and most efficient options, eliminating the need to institute the fee at this time," he purred.

One might reasonably expect there were harsher words behind the scenes as Mead and his lieutenants sought someone to take the fall for the blunder.

The $2 fee would have applied to customers making one-time payments via the Web or over the phone. Besides attracting 100,000 angry consumers who signed an online petition, the affair drew the attention of the Federal Communications Commission, which isn't easy to do over the holidays.

The commission said Friday it was "concerned about Verizon's actions" and was looking into the matter, the Wall Street Journal reported.

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Isabella, Jayden Win the Baby Name Derby in NYC

Ashley falls back, Chloe moves up; Jacob & Joseph make the Top 10

Isabella and Jayden held fast as the most popular baby names in New York City for the second year in a row, according to the city Health Department’s...

PhotoIsabella and Jayden held fast as the most popular baby names in New York City for the second year in a row, according to the city Health Department’s latest tally of birth certificates.

There nearly 600 Isabellas born in the Big Apple in 2010 (yes, the statistics are a year behind) and more than 800 Jaydens.

Nine of the top 10 girls’ names for 2010 were holdovers from 2009, with Ashley falling to number 13 and Chloe joining the list, up from 11 to number 10.

Among boys, Jacob and Joseph made it into the top 10 after getting bumped off two years ago. Jacob came back strong, listing in the 4th place slot as most popular in 2010 while Michael’s rank fell further to 7th place from 4th place in 2009. Michael had been the top boy’s name during the 1980’s through early 2000’s.

From 2009 to 2010, the number of babies born in New York City dipped slightly, down 1.6% from 126,774 to 124,791 (64,076 boys and 60,715 girls). Brooklyn saw the greatest number of babies born last year with 41,469 births. Queens came is second with 26,955 births followed by 21,258 babies born in the Bronx, 19,646 in Manhattan and 5,580 on Staten Island.

There are almost as many babies born on Staten Island (5,580) as there are babies born to New York State residents who live outside of New York City (5,719).

Star Power

MOST POPULAR BABY NAMES 
NEW YORK CITY, 2010
RankGirlsBoys
1IsabellaJayden
2SophiaEthan
3OliviaDaniel
4EmilyJacob
5MadisonDavid
6MiaJustin
7EmmaMichael
8LeahMatthew
9SarahJoseph
10ChloeJoshua
NYC Total Births60,71564,076

New Yorkers continue to be inspired by movie, music, sports and fashion icons as they search for the perfect name. Last year’s big draws included common actress names such as Sofia (#16) and Angelina (#28), popular singer names like Usher (#155) and Mariah (#99), and athlete names namely Eli (#49) and Carmelo (#168). Suri (#136) and Jayden (#1) – names chosen by celebrity parents Katie Holmes and Will Smith – were also popular.

Biblical Names

Religious figures were an even bigger source of inspiration. Holy names for girls included Leah (#8), Sarah (#9), Esther (#15) Rachel (#18) and Chana and Miriam (tied for #34), while Daniel (#3), Jacob (#4), David (#5), Matthew (#8), Joseph (#9), Joshua (#10), Noah (#20) and Elijah (#21) were often bestowed upon boys.

Geographic Names

Big cities and states were also popular baby names. Charlotte (#33) and Brooklyn (#138) were on the 2010 list. Austin (#109), Georgia (#136), Phoenix (#146), and Virginia (#151) also made the cut. Some parents selected international monikers like Paris (#125) and London (#164).

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Verizon Explains 4G Outages ... Sort Of

Vague yet boastful statement attributes outages to "growing pains"

Verizon Wireless is blaming "growing pains" for the three recent outages that left many of its 4G LTE customers without the high-speed wireless service the...

PhotoVerizon Wireless is blaming "growing pains" for the three recent outages that left many of its 4G LTE customers without the high-speed wireless service they're paying for.

"Being a pioneer comes with growing pains," Verizon said in a prepared statement. "The recent issues that affected our customers’ 4GLTE service were unforeseen despite careful, diligent planning, deployment and ongoing upgrade programs."

"Nonetheless, we estimate that 4GLTE connectivity has been available approximately 99 percent of the time this year," the statement continued.

Be that as it may, the repeated outages and the delayed, vague explanations are giving Verizon a black eye with at least some of its customers, who are paying a premium for fast, reliable service.

PhotoVerizon and other telecoms lose no time texting, calling and emailing when customers fail to pay 100 percent of their bill.  4G customers might reasonably expect the company to notify them when the service they're paying for is unavailable, even if it is only one percent of the time.

99% nothing to brag about

Ninety-nine percent, by the way, is not as great as it sounds.  U.S. airlines are finishing 2011 with only one fatality for every 7.1 million passengers, which is about as close to 100 percent as you can get. A 99 percent record would mean that one of every 100 airline flights crashed.

In its statement, Verizon attributed the problems to multiple, unspecified issues: "Each incident has been different from a technical standpoint. Our engineers have successfully diagnosed those past triggering events, and they have not re-occurred. We also work diligently to rectify technical problems in the Network before they affect any customers."

Whatever the problems might have been, Verizon says it's working to prevent them from happening again.

"We are taking a number of steps, working closely with our network suppliers, to ensure the integrity of our 4GLTE Network. We continue to fortify and improve its performance, and our goal is that our 4GLTE Network meets the same high standards that our 3G Network has set for performance and reliability," the company said.

It's the network

Verizon has spent millions of dollars advertising the supposed superiority of its network, often at the expense of AT&T, which has been struggling with network congestion in major cities for years.

While the latest incidents will most likely not be catastrophic for Verizon, as more serious failures were for rival Blackberry, a ConsumerAffairs.com sentiment analysis of about 4.4 million comments posted on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites and blogs finds less than negligible dissatisfaction with Verizon's network.

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Many companies facing a similar situation would try to nip disaffection in the bud by issuing at least a token refund and a sincere apology to customers, rather than Verizon's boastful and defensive bromide, which includes this rather unseemly bit of chest-thumping:

"The Verizon Wireless 4GLTE Network is BY FAR the largest and the most advanced 4GLTE wireless network in the world. It is available in 190 US markets and covers more than 200 million people, providing the fastest 4G Network in the US."

Well, most of the time, anyway.

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Sears Identifies 79 Stores to be Closed

Weak holiday sales contributed to the decision, company says

Sears Holdings has identified 79 of the 100 to 120 stores that it plans to close. ...

PhotoSears Holdings has identified 79 of the 100 to 120 stores that it plans to close.  The company said the stores each employed from 40 to 80 people.  Sears said earlier this week that poor holiday sales contributed to the decision to begin stores that have not been profitable.

The rest of the closings will be announced soon, the company said.

"Given our performance and the difficult economic environment, especially for big-ticket items, we intend to implement a series of actions to reduce ongoing expenses, adjust our asset base, and accelerate the transformation of our business model,” said Sears Holdings CEO Lou D'Ambrosio.

“These actions will better enable us to focus our investments on serving our customers and members through integrated retail -- at the store, online and in the home.”

FORMATSTREET ADDRESSCITYSTATEZIPCLOSE DATE
Sears Hardlines Only1916 19th AveLewistonID83501TBD
Sears Hardlines OnlyUs Hwy 25e - Ste B2 MiddlesboroKY40965TBD
Grand/Essentials5451 Halls Mill Rd Ste 14Mobile - Halls MillAL36619TBD
Grand/Essentials101 E Interntn'l SpeedwayDelandFL32724TBD
Grand/Essentials12080 Carmel Mountain RdSan Diego - CarmelCA92128TBD
Grand/Essentials3020 Se Federal HwyStuartFL34997TBD
Grand/Essentials4560 Forest Hill BlvdW Palm BeachFL33406TBD
Grand/Essentials3610 Peck RdEl MonteCA91732TBD
Grand/Essentials7655 Clairemont Mesa BlvdSan Diego - ClarmntCA92111TBD
Grand/Essentials375 Amherst St Bldg 1NashuaNH03063TBD
Grand/Essentials480 West StreetKeeneNH03431TBD
Grand/Essentials1363 Nw St Lucie W BlvdPort St LucieFL34986TBD
Grand/Essentials9200 Baltimore Nat PikeEllicott CityMD21042TBD
Grand/Essentials8375 E Grand RiverBrightonMI48116TBD
Grand/Essentials601 North M-291Lee's SummitMO64063TBD
Grand/Essentials625 Highway 136West BarabooWI53913TBD
Sears Full-Line1400 MetrocenterJacksonMS39209TBD
Sears Full-Line150 S 69th StUpper DarbyPA19082TBD
Sears Full-Line18000 Vernier AveHarper WoodsMI48225TBD
Sears Full-Line15 Crestwood PlzSt Louis-CrstwdMO63126TBD
Sears Full-Line5244 Hickory Hollow PkwyAntiochTN37013TBD
Sears Full-Line3661 Eisenhower PkwyMaconGA31206TBD
Sears Full-Line880 N Military Hwy Ste 1086 NorfolkVA44221TBD
Sears Full-Line921 Eastchester Dr Ste 1002High PointNC27262TBD
Sears Full-Line2121 N Monroe St Space 300MonroeMI38671TBD
Sears Full-Line1722 Veterans BlvdMccombMS39648TBD
Sears Full-Line1404 Old Aberdeen RdColumbusMS39705TBD
Sears Full-Line2109 S Scatterfield RdAndersonIN46016TBD
Sears Full-Line1357 S Main StAdrianMI49221TBD
Sears Full-Line5167 Hwy 70 Cypress Bay Plaza; Suite 90Morehead CityNC28557TBD
Sears Full-Line2727 Iowa StLawrenceKS66046TBD
Sears Full-Line1400 Nw Garden Valley Blvd #1RoseburgOR97470TBD
Sears Full-Line200 Paul Huff Pkwy Nw ClevelandTN37312TBD
Sears Full-Line1057 Broad StSumterSC29150TBD
Sears Full-Line363 S Illinois AveOak RidgeTN37830TBD
Sears Full-Line1250 S Hover RdLongmontCO80501TBD
Sears Full-Line351 W Schuylkill Rd PottstownPA19465TBD
Sears Full-Line1801 Nw Us Highway 19Crystal RiverFL34428TBD
Sears Full-Line1631 W Rose St Ste 2Walla WallaWA99362TBD
Sears Full-Line1100 N Wesleyan BlvdRocky MountNC27804TBD
Sears Full-Line1689 E Broad St StatesvilleNC28677TBD
Kmart17625 Chillicothe RdChagrin FallsOH44023TBD
Kmart951 By-Pass Rd WinchesterKY40391TBD
Kmart2601 S Main StRice LakeWI54868TBD
Kmart2960 Derr Road Springfield - N'landOH45503TBD
Kmart51027 Highway #6Glenwood SpringsCO81601TBD
Kmart1605 Buford HighwayBufordGA30518TBD
Kmart101 Town & Country LaneHazardKY41701TBD
Kmart1525 Sadler Road Fernandina BeachFL32034TBD
Kmart225 S Tyndall PkwyCallawayFL32404TBD
Kmart66011 Van Dyke Washington Twp.MI48095TBD
Kmart9550 WickerSt. JohnIN46373TBD
Kmart1724 State Road 44New Smyrna BeachFL32069TBD

 

Kmart1605 S First StreetWillmarMN56201TBD
Kmart50700 Gratiot Ave NorthChesterfield Twp.MI48051TBD
Kmart9552 Highway 5DouglasvilleGA30135TBD
Kmart237 East MainHendersonvilleTN37075TBD
Kmart5005 W 120thBroomfieldCO80020TBD
Kmart1777 U S 1 SouthSt. AugustineFL32086TBD
Kmart2047 E University DriveAuburnAL36830TBD
Kmart75 E Broad StGadsdenAL35903TBD
Kmart2727 16th Ave S WCedar Rapids-16th AvIA52404TBD
Kmart2244 S Reynolds RdToledo - Reynolds RdOH43614TBD
Kmart627-701 E Manhattan BlvdToledo - Manhatn BlvOH43608TBD
Kmart7201 Pendleton PikeIndy - Pendlton PlzaIN46226TBD
Kmart230 Cleveland Ave S WAtlantaGA30315TBD
Kmart1105 North Court StreetMedinaOH44256TBD
Kmart810 Saxon BlvdOrange CityFL32763TBD
Kmart5600 Milgen Rd - Bldg 106Columbs-Manch SqGA31907TBD
Kmart7965 Tara BoulevardJonesboroGA30236TBD
Kmart11003 Hull St RdMidlothianVA23113TBD
Kmart3616 W Kimberly RdDavenprt-Kimbrly RdIA52806TBD
Kmart2421 N Federal HwyPompano BeachFL33064TBD
Kmart4141 Martin WayLaceyWA98516TBD
Kmart3100 Hamilton RdColumbus - Hamltn RdOH43227TBD
Kmart1734 Mall DrDuluth - Mall DrMN55811TBD
Kmart4300 Xylon NNew HopeMN55428TBD
Kmart3201 White Bear AveWhite Bear LakeMN55110TBD
Kmart6807 Midlothian TurnpikeRichmond - MidlothVA23225TBD
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Battery Fire Danger Leads to Recall of Fisker's First Model

Problem with hose clamps could cause short circuit and start a fire

Hybrid-electric battery supplier A123 Systems says it has identified a possible safety problem with the cooling system on batteries it made for Fisker Auto...

Electric and hybrid car manufacturers have another headache: a recall of Fisker Automotive's very first production model, the Karma.

The company announced the recall today, saying that hybrid-electric battery supplier A123 Systems had found a possible safety problem with the cooling system on batteries it made for Fisker.

"At Fisker Automotive we see this quick and thorough response as an investment in our long-term reputation as we build a solid company that understands the importance of doing what is right for our customers," said CEO Henrik Fisker in an open letter to customers.

Photo

Hose clamps on some of the batteries made by A123 were not aligned properly, and could lead to a leak of coolant fluid, which could lead to an electrical short circuit and possibly start a fire, an A123 official said.

Only 50 or so of the sleek -- and expensive -- Fisker cars have been delivered so far, so the recall won't inconvenience may consumers, but it may cause more consumers to think twice about potential safety problems in battery-powered and hybrid cars.

"We expect this situation to have minimal financial impact on A123, and our relationship with Fisker remains strong," said A123 CEO David Vieau.

$529 million loan

The Karma, supported by $529 million in loans from the U.S. Energy Department, was long-delayed and whether the luxury car takes off remains to be seen.  Fisker has said it expects to sell between 10,000 and 12,000 vehicles in 2012. The plug-in hybrids go for about $100,000 each.

A123, meanwhile, received a $249 million grant from the Energy Department to fund battery production in Michigan, plus another $125 million from the state of Michigan.

Besides Fisker, A123 has a contract to supply batteries for GM's all-electric version of the Chevrolet Spark minicar that's scheduled to be introduced in 2013.

Luxury Car of the Year

The Fisker Karma has also had its share of good news recently. It was crowned ‘Luxury Car of the Year’ by BBC Top Gear magazine as well as ‘Car of the Year’ by Top Gear TV presenter, James May.

The Karma – Fisker’s first production car – is a 403 hp luxury sedan and the company claims it is the world’s first true electric vehicle with extended range (EVer). The EPA rates its electric-only range at 32 miles, its gas and electric range at 230 miles.

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Dead Mouse Case Scampers Forward in Illinois Court

Pepsi denies there was a dead mouse in Ronald Ball's Mountain Dew

Truth may be the best defense but it's not always the most appetizing. In defending itself against charges that there was a dead mouse in a can of M...

PhotoTruth may be the best defense but it's not always the most appetizing. 

In defending itself against charges that there was a dead mouse in a can of Mountain Dew, Pepsi-Cola says there couldn't possibly have been a mouse in the can of soda, as plaintiff Ronald Ball claims.

Why?

Because it would have dissolved, according to expert testimony submitted on Pepsi's behalf.  

The case is being heard in Madison Madison County, Ill., Circuit Court, where Judge Dennis Ruth recently ordered the case continued.

Ball claims that after opening and beginning to drink the soda he purchased from a vending machine at work, he tasted something foul. He claims he spat out the soda to reveal a dead mouse, according to court testimony cited by The Madison Record.

Ball claims he sent the mouse to Pepsi, which destroyed the mouse body. He is seeking damages in excess of $50,000 and other relief.

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Another Verizon 4G Outage Goes Unexplained

Unexplained outages don't do much for "most reliable" ad claim

There's a bit of a buzz in telecom circles, as everyone tries to figure out what's up with Verizon's 4G LTE coverage, jinxed by outages lately. The third n...

PhotoThere's a bit of a buzz in telecom circles, as everyone tries to figure out what's up with Verizon's 4G LTE coverage, jinxed by outages lately. The third nationwide outage started yesterday and was fixed overnight, according to Verizon.

Unlike Blackberry's disastrous outages of a few months ago, however, the 4G outage probably went unnoticed by many Verizon users, since smartphones automatically fall back to the 3G network when 4G service is not available.  Blackberry users, by contrast, were left high and dry.

That doesn't mean, however, that it isn't a black eye for Verizon. Since 4G is still fairly new and rather expensive, current customers tend to be tech-savvy early adopters who are quick to notice, pounce on and complain about service failures.

PhotoVerizon hasn't made any official statements about the problem, although it tweeted earlier today: “4GLTE issue resolved overnight. 3G operated normally; calling, texting were unaffected.”

Jack of Edcouch, Texas, said he has been having connectivity problems with his Verizon 4G MiFi device and wonders if it's related to the outages.

"We have the Verizon 4G MiFi device which usually works great.  I run a script to a file and get 100% loss or trips times from four seconds on down. This is very irritating to say the least," Jack said.

Companies increasingly put their heads in the sand when problems occur, sending out a few tweets and perhaps a coy posting on their Facebook page, neglecting to issue the formal statements that were taken for granted just a few short years ago.

Whether that's effective is anyone's guess. We ran a sentiment analysis of some 4.4 million consumer comments on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere looking for weak spots in Verizon's armor.

Photo

While many customers still view Verizon's network as a plus, there is a substantial group that views it as a negative.  Continued outages with no explanation may not be a good long-term solution to whatever Verizon's network problem is.

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Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase

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Tips For Avoiding a New Year's Day Hangover

Physician stresses moderation on New Years Eve

Tips for avoiding the very unwanted New Year's day hangover provided by Dr. Aaron Michelfelder: Before the party, during the party, after the party and the...

PhotoEven people who don't usually drink to excess sometimes get carried away on New Year's Eve. It can result in a raging hangover the next day.

There are a number of ways to deal with a hangover - first and foremost by being very measured in your alcohol consumption. Limiting yourself to a glass of wine at dinner and a Champagne toast at midnight will usually do the trick.

For those who expect to imbibe a bit more than that, Loyola University Health System family physician Dr. Aaron Michelfelder offers the following tips:

Before the party:

  • Plan to drink moderately -- a maximum of five drinks for men and three drinks for women during a minimum three-hour period.
  • To prevent inflammation, take an anti-inflammatory drug such as ibuprofen or Aleve.

During the party:

  • Eat first, and then drink, not the other way around. Food slows the absorption of alcohol.
  • Drink slowly.
  • To prevent dehydration, drink a glass of water after each alcoholic drink.
  • Take a B vitamin supplement.

After the party:

  • Do not drink and drive.
  • Get as much sleep as possible.

The morning after:

  • Take another B vitamin.
  • Drink lots of water.
  • Exercise (if you can stand it). During vigorous exercise, blood circulates three times as fast as it does when you are sitting on the couch. And the faster you circulate blood through your liver and kidneys, the faster your body will remove the toxins.

Michelfelder also has some advice about what will not work. Coffee will make you more alert, but it won't prevent or help a hangover, he says. Also, forget "hair of the dog" -- the notion that having a drink can relieve a hangover. It will only make you feel worse.

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Retailers Reluctant to Restock Enfamil

Many stores waiting for feds to test the infant formula to be sure it's safe

  SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — Price Chopper Supermarkets won’t stock Enfamil Premium Newborn formula until it gets the all-clea...

PhotoRetailers are in no hurry to put Enfamil Premium Newborn infant formula back on their shelves, even though Mead Johnson Company says its tests have found no problems.

Walmart, Walgreens, Supervalu, Price Chopper and many smaller retailers removed the formula last week after a Missouri infant who had been fed Enfamil died from a rare bacterial infection attributed to Cronobacter, a microorganism that occurs in nature and is sometimes implicated in infant deaths. An Illinois baby also became ill but is recovering, officials said.

Retested

Mead Johnson says it has retested the batch of the formula involved in the infant's death and found no problems but the stores say they prefer to wait until they get the all-clear from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

There has been no official recall of the formula but retailers said they didn't want to take any chances.  Besides testing the formula, the FDA is examining other possible sources of the infection, including the water used to mix the formula in the infant's home.

The FDA has confirmed that it visited the plant in Zeeland, Mich., where the formula was manufactured and also examined some records at a Mead Johnson facility in Evansville, Ind.

About Cronobacter

Cronobacter is a naturally-occurring organism that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is implicated in a handful of infant illnesses each year.  It has a fatality rate of about 40 percent.

Although formula in sometimes implicated in infant illnesses, it is often not known whether the Cronobacter was in the formula when it was packaged or whether it was introduced later, after the package had been opened by parents and caregivers.

In 2001, a Mead Johnson product, Portagen, was recalled after an infant died in Tennessee.

CDC officials stressed the importance of parents and caregivers washing their hands thoroughly, sterilizing bottles and other equipment and preparing only small amounts of formula. 

Breast-feeding is safest

In 2008, two cases of Cronobacter infection, one in a male infant and the other in a female, were reported in New Mexico, in families living aobut 200 miles from each other. Although the infants had been fed the same brand of formula, the genetic types of Cronobacter were different.  The female suffered severe brain damage and the male infant later died of SIDS.

The exact path of transmission was not determined but traces of Cronobacter were found in vacuum cleaner samples taken from the male infant's home. No Cronobacter was found in unopened canisters of formula in either home.

The message, say health officials, is to practice extremely careful sanitation and sterilization practices when preparing and handling formula.

The safest procedure is to breast feed.  Breast-feeding not only eliminates the problem of contaminated formula but provides better nutritional and emotional support to infants.

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Court Blocks Bogus Tax Credit Scheme

California man claimed he had billions of dollars of tax credits to sell

If someone offers to sell you a batch of tax credits he just happens to have lying around, it's a good idea to run, not walk, in the opposite direction...

Photo
If someone offers to sell you a batch of tax credits he just happens to have lying around, it's a good idea to run, not walk, in the opposite direction.
 
A federal court in Los Angeles has permanently barred Lamar Ellis of Brea, Calif., from promoting a scheme involving sales of bogus federal tax credits.  
 
According to the government’s complaint, Ellis fraudulently claimed to have billions of dollars in federal research tax credits that the United States supposedly granted him for purported scientific breakthroughs.                                         

The government's suit alleged that Ellis advertised the sale of these bogus credits on the Internet and issued phony documents to people purporting to give them credits that could reduce their tax obligations.   The government also alleged that Ellis partnered with the Southwest Louisiana Business Development Center, a nonprofit organization in Jennings, La., to try to sell $24 billion of the fictitious credits.

The civil injunction order entered against Ellis bars him from telling prospective customers that he can transfer tax credits to them.  

Ellis is also required to give the government a list of the names, addresses and social security or tax identification numbers of everyone he previously sold the "credits" to. Those unfortunate souls can expect to hear a knock on the door soon.

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Yahoo Could Wind Up in Chinese Hands

Alibaba pursuing a Yahoo purchase, reports say

OK, so the U.S. has lost its leadership in the manufacturing category, but it still reigns supreme as the world leader in software and entertainment produc...

PhotoOK, so the U.S. has lost its leadership in the manufacturing category, but it still reigns supreme as the world leader in software and entertainment products.  But maybe not for much longer.

Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. has hired the Washington, D.C. lobbying firm headed by former White House official Kenneth Duberstein as it explores a possible Yahoo takover. The hiring was disclosed in a December 23 filing.

Yahoo now owns 40% of Alibaba but Alibaba founder Jack Ma has previously said he is interested in acquiring all of Yahoo.

Although Alibaba is an independent business, the U.S. reaction to a Chinese firm taking over an American media company would be likely to arouse considerable opposition in Washington.  Hence the Duberstein hiring.

Duberstein, who was chief of staff during the Reagan Administration, would be expected to do that voodoo that lobbyists do so well, smoothing ruffled Congressional feathers and calming hyperactive regulators.

Yahoo, which recently ousted its CEO, Carol Bartz, has been in an earnings slump for years Google and Facebook cut into its audience and earnings, and its board is exploring various options to make the company profitable or unload all or part of it.

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Survey: Job Market May Not Improve Much In 2012

Careerbuilder.com's annual job forecast sees little change ahead

A job site issues its employment forecast for 2012...

PhotoIf you plan to look for a new job in 2012, better plan on a longer-than-expected search. The job market should improve some, but not a lot, according to CareerBuilder.com's annual job forecast.

According to the report, nearly one-in-four hiring managers plan to hire full-time, permanent employees in 2012, similar to 2011. Employment trends among small businesses, which account for the majority of job creation in the U.S., are expected to show some improvement over last year.

The nationwide survey, which was conducted by Harris Interactive from November 9 to December 5, 2011, included more than 3,000 hiring managers and human resource professionals across industries and company sizes. Though the forecast is not all that encouraging, CareerBuilder says the situation could turn out to exceed expectations.

“Historically, our surveys have shown that employers are more conservative in their predictions than actual hiring,” said Matt Ferguson, CEO of CareerBuilder. “Barring any major economic upsets, we expect 2012 to bring a better hiring picture than 2011, especially in the second half of the year. Many companies have been operating lean and have already pushed productivity limits. We’re likely to see gradual improvements in hiring across categories as companies respond to increased market demands.”

Full-time, Permanent Hiring

Twenty-three percent of employers surveyed plan to hire full-time, permanent employees in 2012, relatively unchanged from 24 percent for 2011 and up from 20 percent for 2010. Seven percent expect to decrease headcount, the same as for 2011 and an improvement from nine percent for 2010. Fifty-nine percent anticipate no change in their staff levels while 11 percent are unsure.

Small Business Hiring

Small businesses are reporting more confidence in both hiring and retaining headcount in 2012. Plans to downsize dropped two percentage points across small business segments while plans to hire increased two percentage points among companies with 50 or fewer employees.

  • 50 or fewer employees – 16 percent plan to add full-time, permanent staff in 2012, up from 14 percent for 2011; those reducing headcount fell from 5 percent for 2011 to 3 percent for 2012
  • 250 or fewer employees – 20 percent plan to add full-time, permanent staff, up from 19 percent for 2011; those reducing headcount fell from 6 percent for 2011 to 4 percent for 2012
  • 500 or fewer employees – 21 percent plan to add full-time, permanent staff, on par with 2011; those reducing headcount fell from 6 percent for 2011 to 4 percent for 2012

 

Despite a stubbornly high jobless rate, some companies insist that they have job vacancies because they are unable to find qualified applicants to fill them. That's prompted some job seekers to return to school for an advanced degree, a step they believe will make them more marketable.

The New York Times reports that the increased number of workers dropping out of the labor force are women. It says for the first time, there are more young women in school than in the labor force.

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Teens May Be Damaging Hearing With Personal Music Players

One in four teens at risk, study says

Teens at risk of hearing loss because of music players...

PhotoIf your child got an iPod or MP3 player for Christmas, it might be a good idea to supervise its use and volume. According to new Tel Aviv University research, advances in audio reproduction have turned personal listening devices into a serious health hazard, with teenagers as the most at-risk group.

The researchers contend that one in four teens is in danger of early hearing loss as a direct result of these listening habits. Their results, published in the International Journal of Audiology, demonstrate clearly that teens have harmful music-listening habits when it comes to iPods and other MP3 devices.

Too late

"In 10 or 20 years it will be too late to realize that an entire generation of young people is suffering from hearing problems much earlier than expected from natural aging," said Prof. Chava Muchnik, a leader of the research team.

Hearing loss caused by continuous exposure to loud noise is a slow and progressive process. People may not notice the harm they are causing until years of accumulated damage begin to take hold, the researchers warn.

While today's Baby Boomers are beginning to feel the effects of rock concerts and headphone use, those who are misusing MP3 players today might find that their hearing begins to deteriorate as early as their 30's and 40's — much earlier than past generations.

80 percent of teens use them

Today's problem may be worse, since the researchers found 80 percent of teens use a personal music player regularly, with 21 percent listening from one to four hours daily, and eight percent listening more than four hours consecutively. Taken together with the acoustic measurement results, the data indicate that a quarter of the participants are at severe risk for hearing loss, the study warns.

The increased use of smartphones has increased the number of young people listening to music using earbuds. They are now able to download music directly to their devices or listen to online music services, such as Pandora.

Solutions

Currently, industry-related health and safety regulations are the only benchmark for measuring the harm caused by continuous exposure to high volume noise. But is it enough? The research suggests it is not.

The study recommends that manufacturers adopt the European standards that limit the output of PLDs to 100 decibels. Currently, maximum decibel levels on music players can differ from model to model, but some can go up to 129 decibels.

Steps can also be taken by schools and parents, the researchers suggest. Some school boards are developing programs to increase awareness of hearing health, such as the "Dangerous Decibels" program in Oregon schools, which provides early education on the subject. Teens could also choose over-the-ear headphones instead of the ear buds that commonly come with an iPod.

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Feds Investigating Rust Issues on Older Ford, GM Vans

Fuel leaks and corrosion in wheel wells causing concern

 The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Tuesday it has opened investigations into rust issues on older vans and minivans built by G...

PhotoFederal safety regulators say older Ford and General Motors vans are getting rusty.  That's not surprising, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says the rust and corrosion is so severe in some models that it may pose a safety risk.

The investigation involves 63,000 2004 Ford Freestar and Mercury Monterey minivans over severe corrosion in rear wheel wells and rust-related fuel leaks in 17,165 2003 Chevrolet Express vans.

In the case of the Express vans, NHTSA said fuel filter pipe could corrode and leak fuel. It has already received five complaints from the “salt-belt” states (locations that use road salt during winter months) for rust issues.

NHTSA said it has also received seven complaints regarding the 2004 Ford Freestar and Mercury Monterey minivans from salt-belt states. Consumers said the rear wheel wells had become severely corroded, noting that the anchor mount for the third-row seats had become completely detached from the minivans.

 

 

 


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What's On Your Mind? Sears, Smishing Scam, AT&T

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Sears, Smishing Scam through suspicious text messages, AT&T, smishing attempt and stiffed in small claims....

PhotoRecently, Leanna, of Johnson City, Tenn., said she received a call from a Sears telemarketer, asking her to renew the service plan on her washer and dryer. She had a ready answer.

"Why would we want to renew it if we couldn't get them to come when we had a problem," Leanna asked. "After four calls and being told there was nothing wrong with the washer I demanded someone come and check it out. For two years, I struggled to wash a load of clothes without it stopping in mid cycle with the error SD (too much suds). It didn't matter how much soap I used or how many times I washed the same load WITHOUT soap, I got the same message. I was even told by a customer service representative that I should always wash clothes without soap. When a repair man finally came two-plus years later, I was told there was a recall over a year before on a circuit board and the agitator which did fix the problem."

Long story short, Leanna told the telemarketer she'd take a pass on the service plan renewal. She says the news this week that Sears is closing some stores did not come as a surprise to her.

Smishing attempt

Sabrina, of West Valley City, Utah, reports getting a suspicious text message, purportedly from Health Care Credit Union, she instantly recognized as a scam.

"Received a text message stating my card is locked and to call 650-200-4041 to unlock it," Sabrina told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I do not have an account with this company, my guess is it is a scam to obtain additional information."

Sabrina is absolutely correct. If she had taken the bait and called the number, she would have received a scammer who would have asked her for all sorts of personal information that could be used to steal her identity or break into her bank accounts.

Stiffed in small claims

We often advise consumers who feel they have been wronged by a large company to sue them in small claims court. Georgia, of Oakland, Calif., did just that but has been unable to resolve the matter.

"I took AT&T to Small Claims Court," Georgia said. "I won a judgment for damages on a television during a U-Verse installation. However, the judgment was awarded in August. I have been unable to reach any department or individual will accept responsibility or knows whom to contact to have this judgment satisfied. This is outrageous."

This is often the hardest part of litigation -- collecting what the court has awarded. If Georgia can find an AT&T office or even just a van, she can ask the sheriff to seize it on her behalf.  No all jurisidictions will do this but the sheriff or the clerk of the court should be able to put her in touch with a commercial debt collector who will do it for a fee. 

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Pennsylvania Bus Company Ordered to Shut Down

Double Happyness Travel violated federal safety regulations

The U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has ordered Double Happyness Travel, Inc., of Huntingdon Valley...

PhotoThe U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has ordered Double Happyness Travel, Inc., of Huntingdon Valley, Pa., to immediately cease all intrastate and interstate passenger service declaring the carrier an “imminent hazard” to public safety.

Thes order follows an extensive review of the company’s operations, which found multiple hours-of-service, vehicle maintenance, and controlled substance and alcohol testing violations.

“Safety is our highest priority,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.  “During this busy holiday travel season, we will remain vigilant in our efforts to protect bus passengers and all motorists from unsafe bus companies.”

Double Happyness Travel was immediately shut down after FMCSA safety investigators found the company failed to comply with hours-of-service, records of duty and driver qualification requirements.

Double Happyness Travel provided service between New York City and Albany, N.Y.; Baltimore, Md.; and Wilmington, Del.

“FMCSA will continue to do everything within its current legal authority to remove unsafe bus operators like this one from our roadways,” said FMCSA Administrator Anne S. Ferro.

What to do

Before buying a ticket or hiring a bus company for group travel, consumers are encouraged to review the Department of Transportation’s pre-trip safety checklist.  The list helps consumers review a bus company's safety record, safety rating and DOT’s operating authority. 

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Study: Vitamins Do Nothing For Health

But FDA still says they can be helpful in some cases

Another study says buying vitamins is a waste of money...

PhotoAnother study casts doubt on any health benefit from taking a daily multivitamin. French researchers who spent six years following 8,000 test subjects found those taking a daily supplement were just as likely to develop cancer or heart disease as those taking a placebo.

The researchers conclude that consumers who take a daily vitamin supplement are wasting their money. They are not the first to reach that conclusion.

Previous studies

In 2009, the Women's Health Initiative study, led by researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, found women taking a daily vitamin pill got no protection against cancer or heart disease. A year earlier, In perhaps the largest cancer chemoprevention trial ever conducted, researchers found that taking vitamin E or selenium, alone or in combination, was not associated with a lower risk of prostate cancer or other cancers.

Other researchers have concluded that parents don't need to give their children multi-vitamins either.

"Multivitamin preparations for older children and adolescents are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and may result in adverse effects ranging from nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain to increased cerebrospinal pressure, liver abnormalities and neuropathy," wrote the authors of a February 2009 report in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Unproven claims

A year ago, under a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), major marketers of children's vitamins must stop making false and unproven claims that their supplements promote healthy brain and eye development in kids. The companies have agreed to pay $2.1 million in refunds to consumers who purchased certain multivitamins in their Disney and Marvel Heroes line.

Not only do vitamin supplements not protect against gastro-intestinal cancer, they may slightly increase the risk of cancer, according to a 2004 systematic review and meta-analysis of previously published randomized trials in THE LANCET, a leading British medical journal. If the findings are correct, 9,000 in every million users of such vitamin supplements will die prematurely as a result of taking something they think is good for them.

"The prospect that vitamin pills may not only do no good but also kill their consumers is a scary speculation given the vast quantities that are used in certain communities, David Forman of the University of Leeds and Douglas Altman, Cancer Research UK, said in an accompanying commentary.

FDA's position

What does the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have to save about vitamin supplements?

"There are many good reasons to consider taking vitamin supplements, such as over-the-counter multivitamins," the FDA says on its website.

The agency says a doctor may recommend supplements for certain health problems, if you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, or if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

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Seven LCD Screen Makers Settle Price-Fixing Charges

Firms will pay a total of $553 million

The prices of flat screen TVs, computer monitors and laptops were higher than they should have been because companies making the LCD screens were fixing pr...

PhotoThe prices of flat screen TVs, computer monitors and laptops were higher than they should have been because companies making the LCD screens were fixing prices - that's the conclusion of a legal settlement that resolves suits by eight states against seven manufacturers.

The settlement totals $553 million in fees, penalties and restitution.

The companies named in the settlement include: Chimei Innolux Corp., Chi Mei Optoelectronics USA, Inc., Chi Mei Optoelectronics Japan Co., Ltd, HannStar Display Corporation, Hitachi, Ltd., Hitachi Displays, Ltd., Hitachi Electronic Devices, USA, Inc., Samsung Electronics, Co., Ltd., Samsung Electronics America, Inc., Samsung Semiconductor, Inc., Sharp Corporation, and Sharp Electronics Corporation.

Arkansas, Florida, California, Michigan, Missouri, New York, West Virginia and Wisconsin are parties to the settlement.

Conspiracy

The complaint alleged the defendants conspired to prevent competition and to increase prices for TFT-LCD panels, the most common form of LCD panels used in popular electronic devices such as desktop monitors, laptop screens, and flat panel televisions.

“Price-fixing is detrimental to Florida’s consumers, governmental agencies, and the economy,” said Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. “I am pleased that we will be able to return funds to those who were harmed by this illegal and deceptive behavior.”

The complaint alleged that the defendants organized the conspiracy at the highest levels of their organizations in various secret meetings and telephone conversations. A number of the defendants and their employees have pleaded guilty to federal charges in the same federal court. The litigation will continue against other non-settling defendants, including well-known manufacturers of electronic goods, LG, Toshiba, and AU Optronics.

'Manipulating the playing field'

“This price-fixing scheme manipulated the playing field for businesses that abide by the rules, and left consumers to pay artificially higher costs for televisions, computers and other electronics,” said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. “Protecting the integrity of the marketplace is the only way to ensure the best outcome for New York’s consumers. That is why my office will aggressively police anti-competitive practices and hold accountable those who violate the law.

As part of the settlements, the companies that engaged in price fixing will provide a fund for consumers and businesses in 25 states. The settling companies have also resolved claims brought by California Attorney General Kamala Harris for civil penalties under California's Unfair Competition Law, as well as restitution for government agencies that purchased the flat screen LCD panels.

Litigation continues

The California case was originally filed in San Francisco Superior Court, where litigation continues against AU Optronics Corporation, AU Optronics Corporation America, Inc., LG Display Co., Ltd., LG Display America, Inc., Toshiba Corporation, Toshiba Mobile Display Co., Ltd., and Toshiba America Electronics Components, Inc.

In 2008, two companies - LG Display Co., Ltd. and LG Display America, Inc. - pleaded guilty to federal charges for price fixing TFT-LCD panels and paid $400 million in federal fines. Defendants AU Optronics Corporation and AU Optronics Corporation America, along with several employees, have been indicted on federal charges of price fixing. The criminal trial is scheduled for January 2012 in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.

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More Than 40,000 New State Laws Set to Take Effect

All 50 state legislatures were hard at work in 2011, passing loads of laws

A wide range of new legislation goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2012. A host of new laws—from making it a crime to sell a live animal on any stree...

PhotoYou can no longer sell a live animal in the street in California. Voters must now present a photo ID in  voters to present photo identification will go into effect in Kansas, Rhode Island, Tennessee  and Texas. And in North Carolina, you can't run for more than one office in the same election.

Those are just a few of the more than 40,000 new laws passed by state legislatures around the country in 2011.  Most take effect Jan. 1, 2012.

Washington, D.C., may have suffered gridlock but back home in Sacramento, Santa Fe, Springfield and Salem, lawmakers were toiling away, seemingly regulating everything in sight and slapping new taxes and fees on anything that moved. States blessed -- or cursed, depending on your point of view -- with a full-time legislature cranked out more laws than those whose lawmakers must earn a living on Main Street most of the year.

Several states passed legislation regarding the use of E-Verify that will go into effect at the start of the new year. Other bills range from prohibiting the sale of shark fins to allowing civil unions, from creating a license plate for music teachers and banning people under the age of 18 from using tanning beds.

Here, courtesy of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), are just a few of the new laws, grouped by topic.

Alcohol & Drug Policy

A new law in California will make it a misdemeanor to sell, dispense or distribute a synthetic cannabinoid compound, commonly known as “spice” or “K2.”   At least 40 states have adopted laws or departmental rules to ban chemical substances related to synthetic cannabinoids. California SB 420

Another California law prohibits the production, distribution or sale of beer to which caffeine has been directly added as a separate ingredient. California SB 39

And another new law in California will prohibit any person or retail distributor from knowingly supplying a drug or substance containing any quantity of dextromethorphan, or DXM, to a person under 18 without a prescription. DXM, an active ingredient in cough suppressants, is often used as a recreational drug. California SB 514

Animals & Wildlife

New legislation in California increases the misdemeanor penalty for animal neglect and makes it a crime to sell a live animal on any street, highway, public right-of-way, parking lot, or carnival. California SB 917

Two new laws in Oregon and California prohibit the possession, sale, trade or distribution of shark fins.  California AB 376 and Oregon HB 2838

A package of bills in Oregon aims to increase compliance with the requirement to report any hunting  activity. HB 2125 allows the department to impose a $25 surcharge on the hunting license renewal of anyone who fails to file a report.

An Oregon law increases the damages for unlawfully taking or killing certain game mammals, and specifies the value of the wildlife for purposes of certain crimes. Oregon HB 2439

Children & Families

A law in New Mexico amends the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act to provide a basis for the registration, recognition and enforcement of child support orders from foreign countries. New Mexico SB 284

Civil Unions / Rights

A law in California amends the  Fair Employment and Housing Act to add gender identity and gender expression to the enumerated characteristics that require equal rights and opportunities under the law and prohibit discrimination. California AB 887

New laws in Delaware and Hawaii make same-sex couples eligible for civil union recognition and grant them the same rights and benefits as married couples under the law. Delaware SB 30,Hawaii SB 232

Consumer Protection

A new law in California prohibits the use of ultraviolet tanning devices by children under the age of 18. California SB 746

Legislation in Oregon will exempt certain farmers from certain regulations, allowing them to sell products directly to the consumer without licenses of inspection. The law also issues labeling requirements for products sold by one farmer but produced by another. Oregon HB 2336

California begins banning stores from selling expired infant food and formula, and over-the-counter medication that has lost important nutritional or pharmaceutical benefits.  California AB 688

Corrections & Criminal Justice

Legislation in California requires that when a defendant is extradited back to the state, the judge issue bail at $100,000 in addition to any bail already issued for the underlying original offense. California SB 291

An Oregon law expanded the list of people eligible to have their convictions set-aside to include some non-violent class B felony offenses. Oregon HB 3376

Crime & Law Enforcement

A California law includes encouraging, persuading or forcing a person under 18 years of age to engage in a commercial sex act within the definition of a criminal profiteering activity. California AB 90

California now will include injury as a result of strangulation or suffocation in the list of traumatic conditions under the felony domestic violence statute. California SB 430

A new law in California makes it a misdemeanor to openly carry an exposed, unloaded handgun while in a public place or on a public street in an incorporated city, or in specified prohibited areas of an unincorporated county. California AB 144

A new law in Kentucky amends the provisions for those who commit elder and vulnerable adult abuse, neglect and financial exploitation. Kentucky HB 52

A new California law authorizes wage garnishments of those convicted of elder financial abuse. California AB 2619

Legislation in California will include certain posts on social networking sites as a form of bullying, incorporating them into existing law that deems cyber bullying as grounds for student suspension or expulsion. California AB 746

Distracted Driving

Many states passed laws restricting texting or the use of cell phones while driving. A Nevada law will prohibit all drivers from text messaging and using handheld phone devices (SB 140). North Dakota passed a law that bans drivers younger than 18 from using cell phones in their cars (HB 1256), and another that bars all drivers from text messaging (HB 1195)

A new Oregon law adjusts exceptions to the offense of operating a motor vehicle while using a cell phone. The law prohibits texting while driving, but adds an exception for Oregon drivers operating a tow vehicle, roadside assistance vehicle, or a vehicle owned by a utility. Oregon HB 3186

Education

California will now require school districts that offer athletic programs to remove an athlete who is suspected of sustaining a concussion or head injury from the activity. The law also prohibits the return of the athlete until he or she is evaluated and receives written clearance from a licensed health care provider. California AB 25

The California Dream Act expands eligibility for non-state funded scholarships to students who quality for the existing exemption from non-resident tuition (California AB 130). 

A law in California adds lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, persons with disabilities, and others to the list of cultural groups whose roles and contributions to the development of the United States should be accurately portrayed in social science instructional materials. California SB 48

A law in Oregon requires state universities and community colleges to waive tuition and fees for current and former foster children under age 25, and gives foster children priority for state Opportunity Grants when there aren’t enough funds to help all eligible students.  Oregon HB 3471

Elections

California passed a series of election reform bills that will go into effect on Jan. 1.  AB 80 consolidates the presidential primary with the state primary.  AB 84 allows new citizens to register and vote on Election Day, compared with other citizens who must register at least seven days before the election.AB 547 makes it a misdemeanor for someone who provides care to an elderly person in a state facility or program to coerce or deceive the person into voting a certain way.

A new law in California allows active duty military personnel who are serving outside the state to file candidacy papers through a power of attorney. AB 754

North Carolina adopted the Uniform Military and Overseas Voters Act, which makes the voting process easier for service members and civilians overseas. HB 514.

A Tennessee law clarifies that the federal postcard application used by military and overseas voters will be accepted for all elections, not just federal elections (HB 1081).

A new law in Texas require deputy and volunteer voting registrars to meet the same requirements as a registered voter:  be U.S. citizens and eligible to vote in the state of Texas. The law also prohibits performance-based compensation for voter registration drives. Texas HB 2194

E-Verify

Laws requiring businesses to enroll in the federal E-Verify program to determine the eligibility of their employees to work in the U.S. will go into effect in Louisiana (HB 646), Tennessee (HB 1378), South Carolina (SB 20) and Georgia (HB 87).

California will now prohibit any state or local government from requiring a private employer to use the federal E-Verify program unless required by federal law or as a condition of receiving federal funds.  AB 1236

Employment

A new law in California prohibits an employer or prospective employer from using a consumer credit report for employment purposes. The law will bar employers from using consumer credit reports to evaluate candidates unless the position for which the candidate is applying meets one or more of the law’s exemption criteria and the employer obtains the consent from the candidate.  AB 22

Another new law in California prohibits employers from refusing to maintain and pay for individual maternity coverage under a group health plan for the duration of an employee’s pregnancy leave, for up to four months. SB 299

A law in Oregon prohibits employers from ceasing to provide health, disability, life or other insurance to an employee who is serving jury duty. It also makes it illegal for employers to fire, threaten to fire, or intimidate employees over their service as a juror. Oregon HB 2828

Health Care

Florida has enacted new reporting requirements for physicians and dentists who dispense controlled substances for treatment of nonmalignant pain. Florida HB 7095

A Louisiana law requires health benefit plans to notify and disclose covered prescription drugs. The law will also limit modifications to drug coverage during a plan year and will allow it only upon renewal. Louisiana HB 345

Human Trafficking

The California Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010 requires large retailers and manufacturers to tell consumers on their websites what steps, if any, they take to ensure their product supply chains are free from slavery and trafficking. California SB 657

A new Oregon law will require businesses with liquor licenses to supply proof of age for all their employees upon request. Oregon SB 898

Housing

A New Mexico law adopts the Uniform Assignment of Rents, which defines who should receive rent payments when a creditor takes over a mortgage on a property.  New Mexico HB 199

Impaired Driving

A new law in California authorizes courts to revoke for up to 10 years the driver’s license of any person convicted of three or more DUI offenses. The current law allows for a license revocation of three years. California AB 1601

An Oregon law requires the courts to include ignition interlock devices as a condition of DUI diversion agreements. Oregon HB 3075

Insurance

A law enacted in North Carolina and five other states requires companies offering insurance against loss, theft, or mechanical failure for portable electronic devices to hold a limited lines license issued by the North Carolina Department of Insurance. The Department of Insurance would have the same regulatory authority over portable electronics insurance as it has with all limited lines insurance. North Carolina HB 617

Transportation

In addition to being asked if they want to be an organ donor, people applying for a driver’s license or state identification card in Minnesota will be asked to contribute $2 to a donor awareness campaign. Minnesota HF808

A new California law will prohibit the impounding of a vehicle at a sobriety checkpoint if the driver’s only offense is the failure to hold a valid license. California AB 353

An Oregon law directs the Transportation Department to construct and maintain a roadside memorial sign for police officers killed in the line of duty. The law creates a Roadside Memorial Fund to finance the memorials. Oregon HB 3039

A Minnesota law taking effect May 25, 2011, required that information about carbon monoxide poisoning be included in the driver’s manual and be part of driver’s education training. Minnesota HF 650

Legislation in California mandates that children remain in booster seats an additional two years until they reach age 8 or four feet nine inches tall. California SB 929

Washington legislation authorizes the use of modified off-road motorcycles on public roads and grants drivers all the rights of motorcycle drivers. Washington SB 5800

Washington approved special license plates to support volunteer fire fighters (HB 1136) and music teachers (HB 1329).

 

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Google Speeds Up Travel Searches, Annoys Travel Search Sites

Speedy search helps consumers, airlines but harms smaller competitors

Google is causing trouble again.  This time, the search giant is making waves for travel sites like Kayak, Expedia and Orbitz.  But its defenders...

PhotoGoogle is causing trouble again.  This time, the search giant is making waves for travel sites like Kayak, Expedia and Orbitz.  But its defenders say it is helping travelers find flights faster and as for the  airlines, they like anything that cuts out the middleman sites like Orbitz and Expedia.

There's a lot that goes on behind the scenes in the seemingly simple search business, but screenshots are sometimes worth a thousand words, as someone might have once said had there been screenshots way back when.

Say you're going from Washington Dulles to Los Angeles International, a busy route with many flights. We tried three different ways of finding available flights.

Orbitz

From the Orbitz search page, we typed in our itinerary, then waited eight seconds while this placeholder graced our screen:

Photo

That was followed by a results page listing available flights, times and prices:

Photo

This is all pretty familiar to anyone who's done much traveling in the last few years. The next step is to click on the desired flight and book it through Orbitz, which acts as a travel agent and takes a cut of the ticket price.

Now, Orbitz will argue that this is the best option since it supposedly will be there for us if anything goes wrong during our travels.  This sounds good but many consumers have found it doesn't always work that way.

Let's be clear: Orbitz is selling something.  Like Expedia and other online travel agents, it wants to sell you an airline ticket, book a hotel room and reserve a rental car.  It takes a cut from each of these. Whether it gives greater prominence to deals that give it a bigger slice of the pie isn't something that's easy to find out.

Kayak

Kayak is different.  We might call it a specialized search engine.  It really doesn't do anything but find flights, prices, times, etc. and, in most cases, provide a link directly to the airline. Kayak doesn't sell you anything and doesn't take any money out of your or the airlines' pocket.  It sells advertising on its site, just like Google, and relies on that for its revenue.

We entered the same travel parameters on Kayak and had to wait only three seconds for the results:

Photo

PhotoThe results, sorted by price, came up quickly and gave us several options for booking our selected flight. We can book directly through the airline, thorugh Cheaptickets.com, Travelocity or Expedia.com.

Fair enough.  The Kayak site is indeed covered with ads but it is relatively straightforward and appears to present all of the available options impartially.

Google

Using Google, we simply typed "IAD to LAX" into the search box and immediately (or, as Google would prefer, in 0.22 seconds) got the results in the familiar Google format -- paid ads on the top, then the results, then more results for other pages related to the topic.

Photo

As on the other sites, we simply select the flight we want and hit "Book." Unlike Kayak, Google didn't try to direct us to Expedia.com, Cheaptickets.com or any other third party; it took us right into the United Airlines reservation system and brought up a final purchase screen confirming the itinerary and price.

Like Kayak's pages, Google's pages contain advertising, which remains Big G's primary revenue source.  

Consumers complain about advertising, of course, but it is the basis of the free press that is in turn the basis of American democracy, so perhaps the less said about that the better.

The problem?

So what's the problem?  Well, the other travel sites say the problem is that Google will in short order put them out of business by "favoring" its own searches.  It's what they've been saying since Google bought ITA Software Inc. last year. 

ITA is the mother lode of flight data.  It supplies the information used not only in Google flight searches but also in nearly all of the competing searches, including Kayak, Expedia, etc.

The Justice Department allowed the purchase to go forward after Google promised that it would "build tools that would drive more traffic to airline and online travel agency sites." The other sites are now complaining loudly that Google isn't doing that.

Proper role

The question comes down to whether Google must forever more be nothing but a passive search engine, combing through data posted on the Internet by others or whether it should try to live up to its mandate to "organize the world's information."

Providing comprehensive, impartial flight data quickly seems to fit into Google's mandate and also, just in passing, would seem to be a benefit to consumers.  Google is not obligated to think first of consumers, of course, but publishing has traditionally been a public service business -- providing information that meets consumers' needs in a reasonably impartial manner.

If other businesses are damaged by that, it may be what in other venues is called collateral damage.  It wasn't many years ago that the online travel agencies were being vilified for running bricks-and-mortar travel agents out of town.

Some of those traditional travel agents found ways to adapt and survive. The Expedias of the world may have to do the same.

Caveats

A couple of points should be noted: the Google travel search is, for the moment, only domestic.  International flights are available directly from the airlines and through online travel agents.  

Also, the Google travel search does not include hotels and car rentals, so Orbitz, et al can continue to eke out an existence there, although hotels are putting on a full-court press to get their regular customers to book directly, promising better service and lower rates.

And finally, it should be noted that not all airlines are included.  Southwest, JetBlue and a few others don't make their schedules available, preferring to handle everything themselves.

 

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What's On Your Mind? Netflix, Midas, Best Buy

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Netflix, Midas, Best Buy, Gender bias and confusion....

PhotoIt hasn't been such a great year for Netflix, at least the second half of it. The video rental company that seemingly could do no wrong alienated a lot of customers with its new pricing policies. And, it turns out, at least one customer is unhappy with her treatment by customer service.

"I have been a loyal customer for about a year now," Michelle, of Louisville, Ky., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "This December I found where Netflix was charging two of my credit cards. Both accounts had the same name. I called Netflix when I found this and the operator stated that he could clearly see that I had not signed up twice and I would be credited all my money back to my credit card on the account created in July. However this did not happen I was only credited for three months of the six months I was billed. I called and asked Netflix why I couldn't have the rest and was told their system would not let them refund that to me. Then I asked if they could give me a free month because they could clearly see it was a fraud account and the guy on the phone today was rude, disrespectful, and refused to allow me to speak to a supervisor or someone in a higher position than him."

Michelle says she still doesn't know how Netflix started charging her second credit card.

Gender bias?

It's an old story. Many female consumers say they feel they are singled out for unfair treatment when they go to purchase or repair a car. Tina, of Port St. Lucie, Fla., says it happened to her when she took her vehicle to a Midas repair shop.

"I took my car in for a little squeal and was quoted a price of $489.00 for new rotors and pads on the front," Tina said. "I told the guy that I couldn't afford that and to just cut the rotors and put the pads on. When he said he couldn't do that I told him to put the wheels back on and I would pick the car up. I took the car to my old mechanic who told me that I didn't need brakes, they just needed cleaning!"

Tina's bill at her old mechanic? $48! The moral of the story is don't hesitate to get a second opinion when the price sounds out of line.

Huh?

Leah, of Flowery Branch, Ga., said she didn't want an extended warranty on her new iPhone but said the clerk at Best Buy talked her into it.

"He said buy it for a month and cancel it, since most people damage it the first month," Leah said. "I did and now when I've tried to cancel it I was transferred five times and then the message said the call could not be transferred. Obviously making it very difficult to cancel coverage."

Not only that, the situation as Leah describes it makes absolutely no sense. An extended warranty kicks in after the manufacturer's warranty expires. That's usually 12 months. It sounds like the clerk was just trying to make a sale and, unfortunately, Leah fell for it.

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Navien Recalls Tankless Water Heaters

Carbon monoxide danger

Navien is recalling about 13,000 Instantaneous or Tankless Water Heaters. An unstable connection can cause the water heater’s vent collar to sep...

Navien is recalling about 13,000 Instantaneous or Tankless Water Heaters. An unstable connection can cause the water heater’s vent collar to separate or detach if pressure is applied. A detached vent collar poses a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning to the consumer.

Navien tankless hot water heaters are white with “T-Creator” and “NAVIEN” on the front. Recalled model numbers are CR-180(A), CR-210(A), CR-240(A), CC-180(A), CC-210(A) and CC-240(A) manufactured in 2008. A label on the side of the water heater lists the model number along with the manufacturing year in YYYY format.

Wholesale distributors sold the heaters to in-home installers nationwide from February 2008 through March 2009 for between $1,500 and $2,100. They were made in South Korea.

Photo

Consumers should immediately stop using and check the model and manufacture year information on their Navien water heater.

Consumers with recalled water heaters should immediately contact Navien to schedule a free repair. Navien will replace all Nylon 66 vent collar with PVC collars. Consumers who continue use of the water heaters while awaiting repair, should have a working carbon monoxide alarm installed outside of sleeping areas in the home.

Customer contact: For additional information, contact Navien at (800) 244-8202 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday, or visit the firm’s website at www.navienamerica.com

Regardless of the type of water heater that is used, every home should have a CO alarm outside all sleeping areas and consumers should ensure that their CO alarms have working batteries.

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Consumers Shrug Off Global Economic Concerns

Consumer confidence jumps in December

Consumer confidence rose again in December...

PhotoIn case you haven't noticed lately, the economic headlines have been full of doom. Europe's credit crisis is threatening to spread, the International Monetary Fund has warned the global economy is in danger of collapse, oil prices are rising because of a feared showdown with Iran.

But U.S. consumers are looking on the bright side these days. The Conference Board's monthly Consumer Confidence Index rose to 64.5 in December from November's 55.2. The Present Situation Index increased to 46.7 from 38.3. The Expectations Index rose to 76.4 from 66.4.

In other words, consumers are feeling much better now than they were just a month ago, for whatever reason.

"After two months of considerable gains, the Consumer Confidence Index is now back to levels seen last spring,” said Lynn Franco, Director of The Conference Board Consumer Research Center. “Consumers’ assessment of current business and labor market conditions improved again. Looking ahead, consumers are more optimistic that business conditions, employment prospects, and their financial situations will continue to get better. While consumers are ending the year in a somewhat more upbeat mood, it is too soon to tell if this is a rebound from earlier declines or a sustainable shift in attitudes."

Gas prices

What's behind the burst of optimism? It should be noted that the rising level of confidence coincides with the steady decline in gasoline prices. Even though prices at the pump are still higher than they were a year ago, the drop from high levels of the summer make filling up almost seem like a bargain.

The Conference Board assessment backs up early indications that U.S. retailers enjoyed stronger-than-expected holiday sales, despite a still-recovering economy. In the Conference Board report, the proportion of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months increased to 16.7 percent from 13.7 percent, while those expecting business conditions will worsen declined to 13.4 percent from 16.1 percent.

Consumers' outlook for the job market was also more favorable. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead increased to 13.3 percent from 12.4 percent, while those anticipating fewer jobs declined to 20.2 percent from 23.8 percent. The proportion of consumers expecting an increase in their incomes improved to 17.1 percent from 14.1 percent.

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What To Do With Unwanted Gift Cards

A gift card exchange will pay you a portion of the face value

How to trade in an unwanted gift card...

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The day after Christmas Kathy, of Pleasant Prairie, Wis., contacted ConsumerAffairs.com with a problem: she had recently charged an expensive smartphone at Best Buy. Then her son gave her a Best Buy gift card for Christmas.

“I need to pay the bill with the gift card,” Kathy said. “They would not apply it to a bill - he gave me a lot of money - they said you can only purchase merchandise.”

While it is true that most store-issued gift cards cannot be used to pay existing debts, Kathy is not without options. There are a number of online gift card exchanges where she can sell her Best Buy gift card for cash. While she should not expect to receive the full face value, she could receive enough to go a long way toward paying for her smartphone.

Using an exchange

At Plastic Jungle you can sell your unused gift cards and Plastic Jungle sells those gift cards at a discount to other consumers.

“You can sell the gift card to Plastic Jungle, and get cash for it,” the company says on its site. “Then we turn around and sell that very same gift card to someone who loves that brand and is thrilled to buy the gift card for less than face value.”

To sell a gift card, you click the link that says “Sell a Gift Card.” Enter the details about the card you want to sell. Plastic Jungle will then make an offer for your card. The company says it will pay up to 92 percent of the gift card's value. Since that's the most it will pay, you should probably expect to receive less.

If Plastic Jungle's inventory of cards happens to have an abundance of Best Buy gift cards, Kathy might be offered less. At the same time, if there aren't many other Best Buy cards available at the time she sells hers, she might receive a bit more.

Payment options

Kathy would receive her money by cashier's check, an Amazon.com gift card, or a deposit into her PayPal account.

Gift Card Rescue, Card Pool, Monster Gift Card, Swapagift.com and other exchange sites work much the same way. Not only can you sell unwanted gift cards but you can buy gift cards at a discount.

Since these exchange sites are relatively new – and new ones are popping up all the time – consumers would be wise to do some research before selecting one. Be sure to search the name of the site and read posts and reviews from people who have used it.

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As Many As 120 Sears, Kmart Stores To Close

Retailer reports disappointing holiday sales

Sears is closing more than 100 Sears and Kmart stores...

PhotoConsumers may have spent more this holiday season, but they didn't spend quite enough at Sears and Kmart. Sears Holdings announced today it is closing as many as 120 Sears and Kmart stores in the coming year.

"Given our performance and the difficult economic environment, especially for big-ticket items, we intend to implement a series of actions to reduce ongoing expenses, adjust our asset base, and accelerate the transformation of our business model,” said Sears Holdings CEO Lou D'Ambrosio.

“These actions will better enable us to focus our investments on serving our customers and members through integrated retail -- at the store, online and in the home.”

Sears says that, as a result, it will close 100 to 120 Kmart and Sears full-line stores. The company expects these store closures to generate $140 to $170 million of cash as the net inventory in these stores is sold and it generates additional cash proceeds from the sale or sublease of the related real estate.

Final determination of the stores to be closed has not yet been made. 

Other profit-boosting measures include better inventory management, promotion and targeted pricing, with a goal of reducing fixed costs by $100 to $200 million.

Sears Holdings made the announcement as it disclosed comparable store sales for the eight-week holiday sales period. Sears Domestic sales were off 3.3 percent while Kmart sales were down 1.8 percent.

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What's On Your Mind? Toys R Us, Bally Total Fitness, Travel Zoo

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Toys R Us, Bally Total Fitness, Travel Zoo, Locked out and Going up....

PhotoMonday was a big day for returns and not a good day for Sandra, of Baltimore, Md, who discovered that Toys R Us does not do returns on opened video games.

“I brought my son, who is five, a DSI 3D game console for Christmas but when he opened it up the screen was too bright for his eyes and he didn't like it,” Sandra told ConsumerAffairs.com. “So I never knew that Toys R Us didn't do returns on open games, so I went to the store. That was when I found out that I can't get a refund for a game my son will never play, and I asked if I can just exchange for a plain DSI and she said no. I'm just out the money and the game.”

It's unfortunate Sandra was unaware of the return policy on opened video games, but stores have them for obvious reasons. However, Sandra should be able to trade it through an independent video game exchange for a game her son would like better.

Locked out

The new year will prompt many people to head to the gym to try to shed those holiday pounds. That's going to be tough for Luis, of Miami, Fla.

“I was sold a nationwide membership to Bally Total Fitness, but now they telling me they sold all the clubs in Florida,” Luis said. “I lived in Florida, for the last six years.”

If Luis pre-paid his membership, he certainly has money coming to him in the form of a refund, or else membership under the new owner. He should talk with someone in Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi's office about his options.

Going up

Travel Zoo is one of the latest travel booking sites that promises discounts on hotels and airfare. JR, of East Brunswick, N.J, is not a fan.

“They advertised a promotion rate, for the Helmsley Hotel in Manhattan that was a fixed rate, $159, during a stay from Dec 27th to Dec 29th, not a starting at price,” JR told ConsumerAffairs.com. “When you call the hotel to book the room using the code they mention it is no longer available but is available at $189. When you call Travel Zoo they do not want to honor the advertised rate from their website.

Different sites work differently. You have to carefully read the terms and conditions. Frankly, travelers might do better dealing with the hotels directly.

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Many Happy Returns: Post-Holiday Tips

Avoid stress by knowing a store's return policies

Policies can vary from store to store, so get familiar with them before getting in the return line. If it's a chain store, you'll likely find the policies ...

PhotoNow that Christmas is over and the presents have all been unwrapped, the stores will be crowded once again with people using their gift cards and standing in line to exchange gifts for a different size or color, or for something else entirely.

While holiday shopping can be stressful, so can holiday returns. It's best to begin the process with all your ducks in a row.

Mixed bag

Return policies can vary from store to store, so get familiar with them before getting in the return line. If it's a chain store, you'll likely find the policies on the corporate website.

Some businesses allow gift exchanges, returns or refunds at any time; others impose a deadline by which a return must be made, whether a receipt must be shown, and if only store credit is issued. Some stores won't accept returns if the product has been opened or limit how many returns a single consumer can make. Still other merchants do not accept any returns, even with a receipt.

"No one wants to spend the holidays haggling with retailers over a gift refund, a defective product or a confusing warranty plan," said Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler. "Being an informed consumer will lessen the chances of a frustrating shopping experience and, more importantly, allow you to spend more time with loved ones."

State laws vary widely.  In Gansler's Maryland, if the retailer doesn't have a posted policy and it is not printed on the receipt, the consumer may assume there are no refund limitations and must receive a merchandise exchange or a refund, as long as the item is in good condition. Also, if a purchased item is defective, the store is required to repair it, exchange it or give a refund, regardless of its return policy.

You can find out about laws covering returns in your state by checking your state attorney general's website.

Gift cards

If you're using a gift card, it's also good to know the store's policy. For example, it's good to know whether remaining value after a purchase can be received in cash and whether gift cards can be used online, as well as in-store.

Excessive fees and short expiration periods aren't the problems they once were. Federal legislation adopted in 2009 extends expiration protection to five years, although consumers may be subject to fees during the fifth year.

Gift cards issued by banks and processed through a national credit or debit card service, such as American Express, MasterCard or Visa, offer more flexibility - most stores accept them - but may have different protections. If the card is not reloadable, federal legislation prevents expiration in less than five years, but fees may still apply once a month if there has been at least one year of inactivity.

Any terms or conditions regarding an expiration date or fee (service charge, inactivity fees or reload fees are among the most common) must be visibly printed on the card itself, on a sticker permanently affixed to the card or on an envelope containing the gift card.

Fees

Fees cannot be charged more than once a month and require that there is at least one year of inactivity on the card prior to being initially assessed. These terms may not be changed after the date of purchase unless it benefits the consumer.

Finally, in Maryland and many other states, defective merchandise is covered by an implied warranty - a guarantee that the item works when it is purchased -- even if a store has a "No Refunds, No Exchanges" policy. Implied warranties require that new and used goods are fit for sale and continue to function for a reasonable period of time. If you buy a defective product, you have the right to have it repaired or replaced, or to get a refund.

A product may not be sold "as is" under Maryland's implied warranty law, except used cars that have more than 60,000 miles and are more than six years old. Dealers selling a car "as is" must include a written disclosure stating that the implied warranty does not cover automobiles.

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Sony Fights Red Ink In TV Business

Spinning off investment in LCD manufacturer

Sony's TV sales have fallen but not complaints...

PhotoSony has announced it is selling its share of an LCD manufacturing business it operates jointly with Samsung. Sony will receive $934 million and continue to purchase TV screens from the venture, which Samsung will operate as a subsidiary.

Sony is making the divestiture as it faces steep losses in its TV set business, a sector it once dominated. Sales and profits have fallen while complaints about quality has risen in recent years.

Darla, of Arley, Ala., said she was watching her Sony flat screen TV last week when a huge black line appeared in the display.

"I called Sony Tech Support and spoke with someone who barely spoke, and I do mean barely, and who tried to talk us through trying different things," Darla told ConsumerAffairs.com. "However, there was no success and he said something about sending us a new USB port. It sounded like he's heard of the problem before. From everything I've read, this won't fix it since the LCD board broke and it would take a fortune to fix. The TV is barely 3 years old! The bad news is that there is a 52-inch TV also in the media room downstairs. Could the same fate be awaiting?"

Reputation for quality

Owners of flat screen TVs are well aware of the problems that seem to plague expensive LCD and Plasma TVs, and not just those made by Sony. Many brands appear to be affected. But many consumers, like Sujal, of Morganville, N.J., say they expected more from their Sony because of its reputation.

"I use to just believe in Sony products for quality," Sujal said. "They are not even on my top 10 list anymore. Their quality has gone down!"

Sony, meanwhile, is fighting a losing battle to remain profitable in the consumer electronics business. The company said - before the sale of the LCD manufacturer - it expected to lose over $1 billion in the current fiscal year.

Consumers shouldn't expect any product change because of the sale. Sony said it will continue to buy its screens from the soon-to-be Samsung subsidiary.

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NTSB: Hand-Held Cell Phone Ban Doesn't Go Far Enough

Truck and bus drivers should be banned from all cell phone use, board chair argues

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chair is saying a new rule that prohibits interstate truck and bus drivers from using hand-held cell phones...

PhotoThe National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chair is saying a new rule that prohibits interstate truck and bus drivers from using hand-held cell phones doesn't go far enough.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) announced the new rule Dec. 23, and NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman says that while it's a "positive step forward," it doesn't go far enough.

"Given what we've seen in our accident investigations ... we think that the DOT should have gone further," Hersman said in a prepared statement. "Research shows there is no safety benefit to the use of hands-free cell phone devices. When at the wheel of a 40-ton vehicle, driving safely should be the driver's only focus."

Just as dangerous

Recent studies have indeed found that hands-free cell phones are just as distracting -- and just as dangerous -- as hand-held models.

A September 2010 study by researchers at the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) found no reductions in crashes after laws take effect that ban texting by all drivers.

"The laws aren't reducing crashes, even though we know that such laws have reduced hand-held phone use, and several studies have established that phoning while driving increases crash risk," said Adrian Lund, president of Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

For example, an IIHS study that relies on driver phone records found a four-fold increase in the risk of injury crashes. A study in Canada found a four-fold increase in the risk of crashes involving property damage. Separate surveys of driver behavior before and after hand-held phone use bans show reductions in the use of such phones while driving.

Longtime concern

As early as 2006, Hersman notes, the NTSB was concerned about the impact of distracted driving on commercial drivers when it investigated a crash involving an experienced bus driver who was distracted by his hands-free cell-phone and failed to move to the center lane, striking  the underside of an arched stone bridge on the George Washington Parkway in Alexandria, Virginia.

Eleven of the 27 high school students on board his bus were injured.

"As a result, we made a recommendation to prohibit the use of cell phones, hand-held or hands-free, by commercial drivers with a passenger endorsement," Hersman said.

Earlier this fall, following the investigation of a 2010 crash in Munfordville, Kentucky, a truck-tractor crossed the median of I-44 and struck a 15-passenger van killing 11 people, the NTSB called for a complete ban on the use of cell phones by all drivers holding a commercial driver's license, except in emergencies. According to interviews conducted after the crash, the truck driver normally used a hands-free device.

And just last week, said Hersman, after concluding an investigation of a highway accident that killed two and injured 38, the NTSB called on the 50 states and the District of Columbia to ban the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices for all drivers.

"We are witnessing a disturbing trend in accident and incident investigations -- the ever-present cell phone poses an insidious danger when it comes to cognitive distractions behind the wheel," she said.

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Think We're Big Holiday Spenders? Think Again

U.S. ranks 20th in holiday spending

To hear all the holiday ads and blaring headlines about Black Friday, Cyber Monday and so forth, you'd think American consumers went on an absolute shoppin...

PhotoTo hear all the holiday ads and blaring headlines about Black Friday, Cyber Monday and so forth, you'd think American consumers went on an absolute shopping binge for the holidays.

Not so, says a noted economist. 

Joel Waldfogel, the Carlson School's Frederick R. Kappel Professor of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota, says that Americans typically spend $70 billion more in December than in the average November and January (the months around December). That puts the U.S. at about 20th in terms of holiday spending.

Waldfogel is the author of Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays. He notes that even though the U.S. economy has grown since the turn of the last century, the amount of U.S. spending in December (relative to November and January) has not kept pace with that growth.

In fact, says Waldfogel, the extra spending in December is less as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product than it has been at any time over the last 75 years.

Worth it?

Is it worth it? Waldfogel says the impact of this spending is even smaller if measured by the satisfaction it produces. The reason, he said, is simple: "The problem with gift giving is that somebody is going out and spending $100 on someone else and if the giver does not know exactly what the recipient wants, it is possible for the giver to spend $100 and buy something the recipient would only be willing to pay $50 or perhaps nothing for."

This type of gift giving, said Waldfogel, undermines economically efficient choices.

"Whatever amount of spending occurs, it results in less satisfaction than could have occurred if people bought stuff for themselves," which, he claims, results in the loss of billions of dollars in economic value to the overall economy.

Waldfogel made the comments in a National Science Foundation interview.  The complete text is available on the NFS website.

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Mortgage Modifications Not For Every Struggling Homeowner

Instead of lower payments some find foreclosure

Mortgage modifications aren't for everyone...

PhotoKaren, of Winder, Ga., sounds like an ideal homeowner. She had owned her home for 12 years and never missed a payment.

All would have been fine, she insists, if she had not applied for a mortgage modification.

"I got on board the modification ride because our president told the American people to take advantage of the modification process, even if you are not in trouble, but got a bad loan from Countrywide," Karen told ConsumerAffairs.com.

The modification process was actually designed for people who were unable to make their mortgage payments after low "teaser" rates adjusted to much higher rates. Though she had a subprime loan and her payments took a big bite from her monthly budget, Karen was able to handle the expense. Still, she contacted Bank of America - the new owner of Countrywide - about a modification in July 2009.

Approved

"They Fed-Exed a letter that I have in my possession to this day, that arrived at my home in March of 2010, saying that I was approved for the modification and to keep my eyes out for my new loan documents," Karen said. "Day after day, week after week, then month after month I got the run around again."

In that respect, Karen's story is not that different from others, who say misscommunication and neglect by loan servicers required them to fax documents multiple times, often with no result. Karen was told to make a lower trial loan payment, with the difference, plus interest, tacked onto the end of her loan.

By the end of October 2010, Karen said she was receiving letters from the lender threatening foreclosure.

All alone

"Being single, with no family and no one to get advice from, I left the home because I refused to pay Bank of America another penny," she said. "The house had sat for one year before they actually did the foreclosure and repairing all the damage that had been done the past year it sitting empty. Again, I never missed a payment. I would still be in that home, modified loan or not, if I wouldn't have been lied to and cheated.

Karen's story seem particularly tragic since it appears to be a foreclosure that never should have happened. Without anyone to give her advice, she embarked on a course that ultimately led to foreclosure and bankruptcy.

Where to turn

Homeowners who find themselves in similar circumstances can turn to the Making Home Affordable program for advice. There is information on the website and homeowners can get advice by calling 888-995-4673.

But homeowners like Karen who are struggling but are able to pay their mortgage each month should think long and hard before applying for a mortgage modification. First, the track record for this program actually helping people is not that good.

In fact, there are many example of homeowners, like Karen, who ended up in worse shape after beginning the modification process.

Part of the problem is that a modification is not a clearly defined product. It can vary, depending on the homeowner's circumstances. It might be designed to lower the interest rate or it might try to reduce the monthly payment. But in the end, the lender will require that the loan be repaid.

"If they can afford to pay, they should pay," Thomas Kelly, a spokesman for J.P. Morgan Chase, told Bankrate.com recently. "If they can't afford to pay, we need to make sure they have a fighting chance to make the new payments and pay back the loan over the long term."

For homeowners, the question is whether they can continue to make their house payments, even if it requires struggle and sacrifice. If so, they will likely be better off with the status quo, rather than rolling the dice on a modification that could result in losing their home faster than they might have otherwise.

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Texas Freezes Assets Of Texas Highway Patrol Association

State found group misrepresented itself to donors

Texas Freezes Assets Of Texas Highway Patrol Association...

PhotoThe attorney general of Texas has secured an asset freeze and temporary restraining order against the Texas Highway Patrol Association (THPA) and two of its affiliate organizations. Attorney General Greg Abbott charged all three defendants with illegally soliciting charitable donations and falsely claiming, in part, that donors’ contributions to THPA and its affiliates would benefit the families of fallen state police officers.

Many consumers in other states may be familiar with the pitch. A telemarketer claiming to be with a law enforcement association of some sort asks for a donation, saying it will support police officers and their families. In Texas, Abbot said his investigation turned up evidence to the contrary.

According to state investigators, the defendants purported to provide death benefits to slain law enforcement officers’ families. However, state investigators found that few survivors actually receive any financial assistance. Instead, investigators discovered that the defendants unlawfully utilized donors’ charitable contributions for their personal use, including meals, in-house pet care, entertainment and unauthorized travel by board members, their friends and families.

Temporary receiver to be named

The Travis County, Texas Probate Court also appointed a temporary receiver and will set a temporary injunction hearing on a date to be determined. The State’s enforcement action names THPA, the Texas Highway Patrol Museum, THPA Services, Inc. and several senior THPA officials as defendants.

Abbott also charged the defendants with falsely claiming that THPA is a tax exempt, charitable organization registered with the IRS. However, THPA is a nonprofit business league organized under Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(6) and is therefore not actually a charitable organization.

The defendants also face civil penalties under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act for promoting all three entities by falsely claiming that the organizations are linked to the Texas Department of Public Safety and its Highway Patrol Division. The state agency is not affiliated with the defendants.  

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What's On Your Mind? Kohl's, Payday Nation, Best Buy

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Kohl's, Payday Nation, Best Buy, Bad loans and Should have waited until Christmas....

PhotoHow do you spend your time when the cashier is ringing up your purchases? Gazing at the cover of People Magazine? Thinking about throwing your diet to the wind and buying that giant Hershey bar? Sy, of Hilliard, Ohio, reminds us that consumers should be paying attention during the checkout process to make sure they get the right price.

"It has been more than often when I shop at Kohl's that I always find discrepancy between the discount price posted above the merchandise versus what's actually being discounted at the register," Sy told ConsumerAffairs.com. "If a customer doesn't watch the cash register during check out and remember what discount they're expecting, they would never know."

Good advice. When items are marked down the information doesn't always get into the system. Being a savvy consumer is more than hunting for bargains. It also means making sure you get the advertised price.

Bad loans

Joanne, of Franklin Park, N.J. is angry about her payday loan. But from her description of the encounter, it's clear she is missing something.

"I took out a $300.00 loan from from Payday Nation with the contract reading that I would pay an extra $75.00 in interest, making the total amount of the loan $375.00," Joanne said. "I have added up all of the monies that have been taken out since Sept 30, 2011 and the grand total is adding up to $562.50 - way more than what I was told Pay Day Nation was supposed to take."

What Joanne is missing is this: payday loans are generally for a two-week period. The full amount is due at that time, along with the fee. If Joanne had been able to repay the loan in mid-October, as scheduled, her cost would have been limited to $75. But as she is still making payments, it's clear Joanne was not able to repay the loan in two weeks and therefore had to renew it, costing more in fees. That, in a nutshell, is the problem with payday loans and that's how you can end up owing hundreds or thousands of dollars more than you borrowed.

Should have waited until Christmas

Kathy, of Pleasant Prarie, Wisc., had her heart set on an expensive smartphone a few weeks ago and bought it on her Best Buy account. When the bill arrived she didn't have the money to pay it.

"My son gave me a gift card for Christmas but Best Buy would not apply it to the bill," Kathy said. "He gave me a lot of money on the card, but they said you can only purchase merchandise."

That's true, store gift cards generally may not be used to pay existing debts. However, Kathy may have an option. Various gift card exchange websites will allow you to swap a store gift card for cash, or another gift card. If Kathy had a Visa or Mastercard gift card, she would probably use it to pay her bill.

Of course, if Kathy had just waited a few more weeks, she could have taken the gift card to Best Buy and purchased the phone with it. Sometimes, patience pays.

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Green Valley Recalls Alfalfa Sprouts

May be contaminated with Salmonella

Green Valley Food Corp. of Dallas, Texas is recalling a grand total of 6,723 cases because of a “Let’s Grow Healthy Together!” Alfalfa Sp...

Green Valley Food Corp. of Dallas, Texas is recalling a grand total of 6,723 cases because of a “Let’s Grow Healthy Together!” Alfalfa Sprouts 5 oz. container test result showed to be contaminated with Salmonella, an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems.

Healthy persons infected with Salmonella often experience fever, diarrhea (which may be bloody), nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. In rare circumstances, infection with Salmonella can result in the organism getting into the bloodstream and producing more severe illnesses such as arterial infections (i.e., infected aneurysms), endocarditis and arthritis.

The items affected in the recall are as follows:

  • “Let’s Grow Healthy Together!” Alfalfa Sprouts 5 oz. containers with the UPC number 714722228818
  • “Let’s Grow Healthy Together!” Spicy Sprouts 5 oz. containers with the UPC number 71472222991
  • Alfalfa Sprouts 4oz. clamshell UPC number 815098001088
  • “100% Natural Onion Sprouts” 4oz. clamshell UPC number 815098002054

The sprouts affected in this recall were distributed in Texas via truck deliveries to all customers in Texas. All customers were retail grocery store and food distribution centers. If you are a customer affected by this recall you will be receiving a letter asking for the quantities you were shipped and their whereabouts. Please, respond as soon as possible.

The product descriptions are as follows:

  • “Let’s Grow Healthy Together!” Alfalfa Sprouts 5 oz. container is 4 inches by 4 inches with the UPC number 714722228818. The label has blue lettering that states “Let’s Grow Healthy Together!” Alfalfa Sprouts.
  • “Let’s Grow Healthy Together!” Spicy Sprouts 5 oz. container is 4 inches by 4 inches with the UPC number 71472222991. The label will have red lettering stating “Let’s Grow Healthy Together!” Spicy Sprouts.
  • Alfalfa Sprouts 4oz. is a clamshell measuring 4 inches by 5 inches with the UPC number 815098001088. The label has green lettering stating “100% Natural Alfalfa Sprouts”.

“100% Natural Onion Sprouts” 4oz. clamshell measures 4 inches by 5 inches with UPC number 815098002054.The label has yellow lettering stating “100% Natural Onion Sprouts”

Any of these items received or purchased from 12/07/2011 to 1/1/2012 are affected in this recall and/or if the items have a use by date ranging from 12/22/2011 to 1/1/2012.


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Man Who Subdued Underwear Bomber Sues Airlines

Christmas Day disaster was averted when passengers tackled would-be bomber

It was just two years ago that the "underwear bomber" attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines jet as it approached the Detroit airport on Christmas Day 2...

PhotoIt was just two years ago that the "underwear bomber" attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines jet as it approached the Detroit airport on Christmas Day 2009.

Now a passenger who helped subdue the bomber has filed a $10 million lawsuit against Delta Airlines, which now owns Northwest, and Air France-KLM, claiming the airlines were negligent in allowing Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board the flight.

In his federal suit in New York, Theophilus Maranga says that when Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate his bomb and set himself on fire in the process, Maranga "risked his life running over to Mr. Abdulmutallab and then jumping on top of him to extinguish the fire and subdue the threat."

Maranga, of Wappanger Falls, N.Y., says he suffered numerous injuries which required medical treatment, including injuries to the ribs, permanent numbness in his hands, pain in the neck that precludes him from turning to the left without rotating his waist, and removal of a tooth. Maranga says he also suffers from psychological injuries stemming from the incident.

Courthouse News Service reported that Maranga blames defendants Delta Airlines and Air France-KLM, whom he claims were negligent in screening passengers and allowing Abdulmutallab to board the fight with an explosive.

Maranga sued under U.S. law and under the Warsaw Convention and the Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage by Air, also known as the Montreal Convention.

Abdulmutallab is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to eight criminal charges, including the attempted murders of 289 people with a weapon of mass destruction.

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Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Priced at $26,610 for 2012

Additions for the new year mostly in the gadgets category

Hybrids are definitely becoming more mainstream and less exotic, which translates in many cases to less expensive.The 2012 Hyundai Sonata fits that bill,...

PhotoHybrids are becoming more mainstream and less exotic each year, which translates in many cases to less expensive, at least as compared to gas-only models.

The 2012 Hyundai Sonata fits that bill.  Its base price of $26,610 is just $55 above this year and, while there are no huge improvements in mileage or performance, next year's model has a broader array of creature comforts to choose from. 

The car is comparable to, but cheaper than, mid-size hybrid competitors such as the Ford Fusion and Toyota Camry. The Sonata, by the way, can run on electric power alone, something that's not always true of hybrids.  So if you run out of gas or have serious engine problems, you should be able to buzz over to a dealer.

Hyundai's reliability and service record has improved somewhat in recent years and, as with most brands, depends to a great extent on the dealer.  Our advice, as always, is to check out the dealers in your area using sites like ours, the BBB and local references.

So should you be considering a Hyundai?  The brand's hovering in the mid-60% approval range lately, according to a ConsumerAffairs.com analysis of about 740,000 consumer comments on Twitter, Facebook and other social media and blogs.

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As for intensity, our survey found more consumers who had intensely positive feelings about Hyundai than those who were intensely unhappy, which isn't always the case with cars.

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Under the hood

PhotoAs for the new Sonata, not much is changed under the hood. The power plant remains Hyundai's 2.4-liter, four-cylinder Atkinson-cycle engine coupled to a six-speed automatic transmission. Power from the four-cylinder is rated at 166 hp, while the electric motor adds 40 hp for a total system output of 206 hp.

Purists would probably say that makes the Sonata a "mild" hybrid but whatever you call it, the Sonata hybrid maintains its mild appetite for fuel, once again turning in a 35-city, 40-highway mpg rating.

The specs don't specify premium fuel, so with regular in the tank and the 270-volt lithium polymer battery jammed in down below, the Sonata should be an economic daily driver.

The Blue Link telematics system will be a standard item for 2012.  It will let you download a Blue Link app onto your smartphone and use it to remotely lock and unlock the car as well as perform other functions.  And yes, it includes voice activation, so be careful what you say.

Options include the usual -- leather seats, dimming mirrors, bigger wheels and so forth, enabling you to get the price above the $30,000 mark without ever trying.

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Infant Formula Removed from Stores After Infant Dies

Walmart, Supervalu remove Enfamil from their shelves pending further testing

Photo for illustration purposes onlyWalmart and Supervalu have removed Enfamil from their shelves after a Missouri infant died from a r...

PhotoWalmart and Supervalu have removed Enfamil from their shelves after a Missouri infant died from a rare bacterial infection attributed to Cronobacter, a microorganism that occurs in nature and is sometimes implicated in infant deaths.

The Missouri infant had been fed Mead Johnson Company's Enfamil, a popular and widely-used formula.  No recall has been issued by either the company or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) pending further testing.

Mead Johnson said it was cooperating in the investigation but did not think its formula was to blame.

"All of our finished infant powdered products (including this batch) are tested for Cronobacter prior to shipment. If an ingredient or a batch of powdered infant formula product is found to contain Cronobacter, it is rejected and not distributed," the company said in a prepared statement.

"The batch of the product used by the child's family did not show the presence of the bacteria when it was produced and packaged, and that has recently been reconfirmed from our batch records," the company said. "This product is not being recalled - nor is any other Mead Johnson product - but some retailers are removing it from their shelves as a precautionary measure."

Premium Newborn

The product is Enfamil PREMIUM Newborn 12.5 ounce powder with number ZP1K7G on the bottom of the can. The FDA said a sample of the formula supplied by the infant's family was being tested.

The dead child was identified as Avery Cornett.  Walmart said the family had purchased the formula at its Lebanon, Mo., store. 

Mead Johnson has established a phone number for parents with questions: 1-800-BABY-123.

About Cronobacter

Cronobacter is a naturally-occurring organism that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is implicated in a handful of infant illnesses each year.  It has a fatality rate of about 40 percent.

Although formula in sometimes implicated in infant illnesses, it is often not known whether the Cronobacter was in the formula when it was packaged or whether it was introduced later, after the package had been opened by parents and caregivers.

In 2001, a Mead Johnson product, Portagen, was recalled after an infant died in Tennessee.

CDC officials stressed the importance of parents and caregivers washing their hands thoroughly, sterilizing bottles and other equipment and preparing only small amounts of formula. 

Breast-feeding is safest

In 2008, two cases of Cronobacter infection, one in a male infant and the other in a female, were reported in New Mexico, in families living aobut 200 miles from each other. Although the infants had been fed the same brand of formula, the genetic types of Cronobacter were different.  The female suffered severe brain damage and the male infant later died of SIDS.

The exact path of transmission was not determined but traces of Cronobacter were found in vacuum cleaner samples taken from the male infant's home. No Cronobacter was found in unopened canisters of formula in either home.

The message, say health officials, is to practice extremely careful sanitation and sterilization practices when preparing and handling formula.

The safest procedure is to breast feed.  Breast-feeding not only eliminates the problem of contaminated formula but provides better nutritional and emotional support to infants.

 

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Brain Size May Predict Early Alzheimer's Disease

Finding could aid early detection of the disease

Researchers say the size of the brain cortex could by predictor for Alzheimer's...

When it comes to Alzheimer's disease, researchers say size matters. Brain size, that is.

The study suggests that, in people who don’t currently have memory problems, those with smaller regions of the brain’s cortex may be more likely to develop symptoms consistent with very early Alzheimer’s disease.

“The ability to identify people who are not showing memory problems and other symptoms but may be at a higher risk for cognitive decline is a very important step toward developing new ways for doctors to detect Alzheimer’s disease,” said Susan Resnick, PhD, with the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore, who wrote an accompanying editorial.

For the study, researchers used brain scans to measure the thickness of regions of the brain’s cortex in 159 people free of dementia with an average age of 76. The brain regions were chosen based on prior studies showing that they shrink in patients with Alzheimer’s dementia.

Of the 159 people, 19 were classified as at high risk for having early Alzheimer’s disease due to smaller size of particular regions known to be vulnerable to Alzheimer’s in the brain’s cortex, 116 were classified as average risk and 24 as low risk. At the beginning of the study and over the next three years, participants were also given tests that measured memory, problem solving and ability to plan and pay attention.

The study found that 21 percent of those at high risk experienced cognitive decline during three years of follow-up after the MRI scan, compared to seven percent of those at average risk and none of those at low risk.

More research needed

“Further research is needed on how using MRI scans to measure the size of different brain regions in combination with other tests may help identify people at the greatest risk of developing early Alzheimer’s as early as possible,” said study author Bradford Dickerson, MD, of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and a member of the American Academy of Neurology.

The study also found 60 percent of the group considered most at risk for early Alzheimer’s disease had abnormal levels of proteins associated with the disease in cerebrospinal fluid, which is another marker for the disease, compared to 36 percent of those at average risk and 19 percent of those at low risk.

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Read Liquid Acetaminophen Labels Carefully, FDA Warns

Giving the wrong dose to children can cause serious injury and death

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is urging consumers to carefully read the labels of liquid acetaminophen marketed for infants to avoid giving the wr...

PhotoThe Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is urging consumers to carefully read the labels of liquid acetaminophen marketed for infants to avoid giving the wrong dose to their children.

A less concentrated form of the popular medication is arriving on store shelves, and giving the wrong dose of acetaminophen can cause the medication to be ineffective if too little is given or cause serious side effects and, possibly, death if too much is given.

In an attempt to reduce the confusion over different strengths that have been blamed for past overdoses, some manufacturers are voluntarily offering only the less concentrated version for all children.

Until now, liquid acetaminophen marketed for infants has only been available in a stronger concentration that doesn’t require giving the infants as much liquid with each dose.

Both concentrations

But currently, both concentrations of liquid acetaminophen are in circulation. Before giving the medication, parents and caregivers need to know whether they have the less concentrated version or the older, more concentrated medication. FDA is concerned that infants could be given too much or too little of the medicine if the different concentrations of acetaminophen are confused.

“Be very careful when you’re giving your infant acetaminophen” says Carol Holquist, director of FDA’s Division of Medical Error Prevention and Analysis.

Here’s what the agency wants parents and caregivers to do:

  • Read the Drug Facts label on the package very carefully to identify the concentration of the liquid acetaminophen, the correct dosage, and the directions for use.
  • Do not depend on a banner proclaiming that the product is “new.” Some medicines with the old concentration also have this headline on their packaging.
  • Use only the dosing device provided with the purchased product in order to correctly measure the right amount of liquid acetaminophen.
  • Consult your pediatrician before giving this medication and make sure you’re both talking about the same concentration.

Overdosing a serious risk

An April 2011 report from FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) found that confusion caused by the different concentrations of liquid acetaminophen for infants and children was leading to overdoses that made infants seriously ill, with some dying from liver failure.

So to avoid dosing errors, some manufacturers voluntarily changed the liquid acetaminophen marketed for infants from 80 mg per 0.8mL or 80 mg per 1 mL to be the same concentration as the liquid acetaminophen marketed for children—160 mg per 5mL. This less concentrated liquid acetaminophen marketed for infants now has new dosing directions and may have a new dosing device in the box, such as an oral syringe.

But this is a voluntary change and some of the older, stronger concentrations of acetaminophen marketed for infants are still available and may remain available.

“There is still some on store shelves; there is still some in homes; and there is still some in distribution,” says Holquist.

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What If the Bank Paid You To Have an Account?

Perkstreet does just that -- free checking and debit card rewards

This is the time of year when most Americans are feeling pretty pinched.  Oh sure, everyone's jolly, merry and bright but they're also keeping a wary ...

PhotoThis is the time of year when most Americans are feeling pretty pinched.  Oh sure, everyone's jolly, merry and bright but they're also keeping a wary eye on the checking account and credit card balance.

It may create a little joy around your tree if you take a look at PerkStreet, which actually does what many banks and credit unions claim -- pays you to bank there, assuming you follow the rules.

How is that possible?  Well, this is a "bank" with no branches and just a single product -- a checking account that includes a debit card that pays you a rebate, or "perk," ranging from 1% to 5% of the purchases you make with the card.

Although hardly a household word, PerkStreet is generating a fair amount of buzz.  We analyzed more than 7,000 comments on Facebook, Twitter and other blogs and social media and found PerkStreet perking along with a net sentiment in the 90% neighborhood towards year's end, which is about as good as it gets.

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PerkStreet is the brainchild of founder and CEO Dan O'Malley, a former Capital One executive.  As O'Malley tells it, it was while he was working on  Capital One's cash-back credit card business that it occurred to him that the rewards were really an incentive to run up a big credit card balance.

"I realized the product I was selling was designed to get people into debt," O'Malley said.  "A majority of families are not going to be able to pay off their credit card debts.  I found it distasteful."

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O'Malley

O'Malley vowed to set up a reward program using debit cards, something that would reward consumers who spent only as much money as they had in their account.

The result is PerkStreet Financial, launched during 2009 in the midst of the worst financial crisis in nearly a century.  But O'Malley says the company has shown steady growth and, though it is not widely known, has more customers than 65 percent of the banks and credit unions in the country.

How it works

Basically, PerkStreet provides a free checking account and a debit card  that pays a 2% cash rebate if you have a balance of $5,000 on the day you make a purchase with the card.  Less than $5,000 and the card pays 1%.

From time to time, selected merchants offer daily deals that pay rebates of up to 5%.  

The 5% rebates are part of O'Malley's drive to build customer engagement and to give a "high five" to consumers for being frugal and making the decision to spend within their means.

It's no longer unusual for banks to not have branches and most consumers probably know someone who already uses a virtual bank.  There are various ways to make deposits, including direct payroll deposits, the mail and a forthcoming iPhone application that will let consumers scan the checks they want to deposit.  To get cash, customers use affiliated ATMs.

What is unusual is a debit card that pays rewards.  How does PerkStreet do it?  O'Malley attributes it to the money he saves by not having branches.

"We've stripped the costs out of the system.  If you take the amount the banking industry spends on branches and divide by the number of households in the country, it comes out to $800 per household per year," O'Malley claims.  

"It's a waste of everyone's money.  It's almost unethical to keep building these branches when they're not doing anything," he told ConsumerAffairs.com recently.

How well does it work?

We don't want to be unduly enthusiastic, not yet anyway, but unlike most banks, PerkStreet is not an object of widespread ridicule and hatred on the Web.  We found few derogatory comments, and our sentiment analysis found most consumers quite content.

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Putting our money where our mouth is, we went to the PerkStreet site and signed up for an account.  It was a lot simpler than going to a branch bank -- something we had done twice in two days to try (unsuccessfully) to straighten out problems with our online Wells-Fargo account -- and took less than five minutes.

We simply typed in the account and routing numbers of our current account and authorized PerkStreet to take out $100 to get the new account up and running.  It's too soon to say how well it works but you can be sure we'll put it through its paces the next few weeks.

If you decide to try it, be sure to read the FAQs and take note of the various charges that can apply if you overdraw the account, let it sit idle or ask for special services.  Otherwise, it looks like it might be a good way to get the new year off on the right foot.

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Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase

 

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Holiday Scams to Avoid

Don't make the holidays merry for scam artists

Tired of hearing warnings about holiday scams?  Of course you are, but the holiday season stretches into January and the pickings are ripe for the sca...

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Cortez Masto

Tired of hearing warnings about holiday scams?  Of course you are, but the holiday season stretches into January and the pickings are ripe for the scam artists for whom this really is the most wonderful of the year. 

Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto is the latest to round up her favorite collection of warnings and cautionary notes.

“In addition to family fun and shopping outings with loved ones, it is also unfortunately the season for scams,” Masto said.  “Criminals will take advantage of those with generous hearts and good will this holiday season. Nevadans should be cautious of fraud this time of year and make sure their purchases are made through legitimate businesses and that donations help legitimate organizations.”

SMiShing

Criminals are becoming even more sophisticated by sending text messages, called SMiShing, a term that combines “SMS” and “phishing”.  Fraudsters send a text, supposedly from the recipient's bank, informing them that their debit card has been locked. They are asked to reply to the text message and are eventually asked to give out their debit card number and in some cases, even a social security number. 

The text is a scam and any information given to the fraudsters will be used to clean out the victim’s bank account. Do not respond to any such text message.  Call your bank using the numbers on the back of your debit card if you have any questions.

Identity theft

Tips to avoid identity theft and fraud:

  • Never give out personal or financial information over the phone.
  • Thoroughly review all financial statements for any unusual activity. Immediately contact the company if an item looks suspicious.
  • Shred or destroy credit card statements, bills, insurance papers or bank statements before throwing them out.
  • When making a credit card purchase, ask for the carbons if the retailer is not using carbonless forms.
  • Carry only one or two credit cards in your wallet.
  • Do not carry your social security card in your wallet.
  • Be wary of anyone calling to “confirm” personal or financial information. Often, these are criminals trying to obtain those facts under the guise of “confirmation”.
  • Share your social security number only when absolutely necessary or when required by law.
  • When creating passwords and PINS, do not use anything that could be discovered easily by thieves.
  • Memorize all your passwords and PINS.
  • Keep a list or photocopy of all your credit cards, so you can quickly contact your creditors in case your cards are lost or stolen. Do the same with bank accounts.
  • Never toss ATM and credit card receipts in a public trash container.
  • Watch the mail when you are expecting a new credit card. Immediately contact the issuer if the credit card does not arrive.
  • Avoid paying by credit card if you think the business does not use adequate safeguards to protect your personal information.
  • Be careful before you use a credit card or supply personal information online.

Charities

Tips to avoid charitable donation scams:  

  • Never give a charitable contribution in response to a telemarketing call.
  • Decline to give personal or financial information to anyone who solicits contributions. 
  • Make contributions directly to known organizations, rather than relying on others who claim in e-mails that they will channel the donation to established groups.
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Can-Am ATVs Recalled

Power steering can fail

About 1,600 Can-Am ATVs are being recalled. The Dynamic Power Steering (DPS) main shaft can crack and pieces can detach. Those pieces inside the ...

PhotoAbout 1,600 Can-Am ATVs are being recalled. The Dynamic Power Steering (DPS) main shaft can crack and pieces can detach. Those pieces inside the DPS can block gears and cause limited steering ability, posing a loss of control hazard with risk of serious injury or death to the operator.

BRP has received two reports of broken DPS resulting in limited steering ability. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves 2010 and 2011 Can-Am Outlander and Renegade model ATVs. The ATVs were sold in black, yellow and red and have “Can-Am” and the model name printed on the side panels. Models included in the recall are:

Model Year 2010:Can-Am® OUTLANDER™ 500, 650 and 800R, packages XT, XT-P and Ltd; on MAX and one-Up models Can-Am® RENEGADE™ 800R, package X xc only
Model Year 2011:Can-Am® OUTLANDER™ 500, 650, 800R, packages XT, XT-P, X xc, X mr and Ltd; on MAX and one-Up models Can-Am® RENEGADE™ 800R package X xc only

Can-Am dealerships nationwide between September 2009 and November 2011 for between $6,800 and $13,500.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled ATVs and contact their local Can-Am ATV dealer to schedule a free repair. BRP will contact registered owners directly.

For additional information, contact BRP toll-free at (888) 638-5397 between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or visit the firm’s website at www.can-am.brp.com

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Sears Offers a Wireless Electric Car Charger

At the end of a long day, who has time to plug in the car?

If the thought of plugging your car in each night seems off-putting, here's some good news: Sears has hooked up with Evatran to sell and install wireless c...

PhotoIf the thought of plugging your car in each night seems off-putting, here's some good news: Sears has hooked up with Evatran to install wireless charging systems for electric cars for home and commercial use.

The Evatran system, called Plugless Power, means that you can simply buzz into your home or office garage and jump out of the car without having to worry that you forgot to plug it in.

This admittedly may not be one of life's big problems but having a car that won't go is a lot worse than having an iPad that isn't juiced up, so don't be too quick to laugh about it.

Installation will handled by Sears Home Services, which has been installing appliances, heating and air conditioning and electronics for decades.

"Sears is very excited to announce this agreement with Evatran to support the installation and servicing of these stations. We look forward to being one of the leaders in this growing industry," said Stu Reed, SVP and President, Home Services at Sears Holdings.

The companies say the benefits of the Sears-Evatran link-up include: 

  • Simplified Purchasing: Evatran will offer Plugless Power systems with optional basic or standard home installation wrapped into the purchase price of the equipment; this full price may be included in the vehicle purchase or lease at the time of sale.
  • Pre-Installation Site Visits: Site visits, as necessary to quote non-standard and commercial installations, will be completed in advance of installations.
  • Timely Installation: Sears will receive automatic notification of a customer's installation request; Sears will contact the customer within one business day of equipment purchase to schedule home installation.
  • Convenient Additional Services: Sears will offer ongoing service and maintenance to Plugless Power owners.

Sears installation network technicians will be trained and certified on the wireless charging systems and will work with Evatran to structure a comprehensive launch plan for aftermarket systems throughout 2012, the companies said.

Product offerings will initially focus on Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf models but Sears and Evatran said they will quickly expand to include additional electric vehicles. Installation will be offered with the sale of each Plugless Power system and priced based on the customer's home and current electrical service. Sears will also offer commercial installation for electric vehicle fleet owners and managers.

Aftermarket systems will be available for installation starting in 2012 for Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt models. A specific geographic rollout plan will be announced next year with final installation pricing for basic and standard home installations.

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Tesla's Model S Charged Up & Ready for Mid-2012

Top-of-the-line electric sedan priced at $92,400

Tesla Motors Inc., the U.S. electric-car maker that plans to build a rechargeable sedan in California, said a top-of-the-line version of the Model S will c...

PhotoTesla Motors says its Model S electric sedan will be ready to roll in mid-2012, with a price tag of $92,400 for the top-of-the-line version.

With most cars, paying more gets you more leather, bigger wheels, fancier sound systems and so forth.  With Tesla, the extra bucks mostly get you a bigger battery, which translates to greater range.

The top-of-the-line extended-range version will have enough lithium-ion battery capacity to travel as far as 300 miles on a single charge, Tesla said.

The base version with a 40-kilowatt-hour battery pack will be able to travel as far as 160 miles per charge and will cost $57,400 without accessories. A mid-grade version that can go 230 miles per charge will have a base price of $67,400.

All versions qualify for a $7,500 federal tax credit.

Yes, it's expensive and you won't be able to jump in the car and drive from Los Angeles to Seattle but if you can settle for blasting up to Santa Barbara, it should be a quick trip.  The Model S reportedly will accelerate from 0 to 60 in 4.5 seconds, which is two-tenths of a second quicker than the 2011 Porsche 911 Carrera with a manual transmission. 

Tesla Model S Sneak Peek: Alpha Drives from Tesla Motors on Vimeo.

Palo Alto, Calif.-based Tesla, is hoping to become the first profitable electric-car manufacturer.  Besides the S, it makes a small, two-seat roadster that gets up to 245 miles per charge.

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California Official Cites Medical Marijuana Abuses

Attorney General asks lawmakers to reform the law

California is finding problems with its medical marijuana law...

California Attorney General Kalama Harris is the latest law enforcement officials to voice concerns about her state's medical marijuana law. In a letter to California lawmakers, Harris said she is troubled by the exploitation of the law by gangs and criminal enterprises.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has taken a similar position and supported local prosecutors who have tried to close medical marijuana dispensaries in the state.

Harris said her office recently completed a series of meeting across the state with cities, counties and patient groups with the goal of finding a way to revise the state's medical marijuana guidelines.

"I have come to recognize that non-binding guidelines will not solve our problem," Harris said. "State law itself needs to be reformed, simplified, and improved to better explain to law enforcement and patients alike how, when, and where individuals may cultivate and obtain physician-recommended marijuana."

Reform the law

The letter, to the President Pro-Tem of the California Senate and the Speaker of the General Assembly, requested that lawmakers formally take up measures to reform California's medical marijuana law, one of the first in he nation.

California legalized marijuana for medical use by voter referendum in 1996. In 2003 legislators established guidelines outlining how much medicinal marijuana patients may grow and possess. Under the guidelines, qualified patients and/or their primary caregivers may possess no more than eight ounces of dried marijuana and/or six mature (or 12 immature) marijuana plants. However, the guidelines allow patients to possess larger amounts of marijuana when such quantities are recommended by a physician.

Critics of the law say it is subject to widespread abuses and serves as a cover for recreational use of the drug. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia now have medical marijuana laws.

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What's On Your Mind? Buick, Priceline, Victoria's Secret

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Buick, Priceline, Victoria's Secret, Go straight to the source and Mad Men....

PhotoDariusz, of Buffalo, N.Y., bought a 2011 Buick LaCrosse V6 with 18-inch wheels and writes to say that he is not impressed with the car or the road testing conducted at GM.

"The main culprit is the terrible road noise coming from wheels," Dariusz told ConsumerAffairs.com. "On any surface that is slightly rougher than completely smooth asphalt, the noise is very excessive. We compared the road noise with a 2002 very used Nissan Altima and found noise in the LaCrosse to be much worse."

He cites a second complaint, with the exhaust.

"The two mufflers sound like a boom box at very low rpm's," he said. "We plugged one up to test where the noise comes from and found the car 50% quieter. Apparently the other muffler is just for the looks and does not serve the purpose that it was designed for; that is, muffling the noise."

We checked to see what automotive site Edmunds.com had to say about the 2011 LaCrosse and there was no mention of the problems Dariusz cited. In fact, they praised the "smooth, quiet ride" in the V6. If he hasn't already, Dariusz should see what his dealer has to say about it.

Go straight to the source

Here's another reminder why, if your travel plans are subject to change, you should not use a third-party site to book your rental car, hotel or airline.

"I had never utilized Priceline previously," said Paul, of San Diego, Calif. "I reserved a rental car for one week trip to Ohio last September. "About an hour later, I was informed that we needed to revise our travel plans and would not be able to make the trip on the scheduled date. I immediately sent two email requests to Priceline regarding our change of plans and to cancel the car rental reservation. I received two email responses that company policy was to not grant refunds or credit for future rentals. I contacted Capital One, my credit card company, regarding stopping payment, but they were of little assistance."

Capital One could not act because it was a legitimate charge - Priceline was following its stated policies. Keep in mind, nearly all of these travel sites were launched in the early days of the Internet before travel-related businesses had their own websites. Today they all have websites where you can book travel directly, and often find very good deals.

Mad Men

Victoria's Secret advertising has always been a bit provocative. After all, consider the product. But Brittany, of San Diego, Calif., who describes herself has a 20-year old Victoria's Secret customer, says the current TV ad campaign goes too far.

"I am watching ABC holiday shows while nearly nude women caress themselves asking men to 'kiss me, love me, want me..."here is no other woman like me.'" Brittany said. What is Victoria's Secret trying to sell here? Model women" They flat out are brainwashing men with sex propaganda. It is disgusting and offensive! I thought I was the only one that felt that way so I polled my friends on my Facebook. Out of 200 female friends, 65 percent of them, who are in the range from 17-35, agreed that the commercials were offensive and inappropriate."

Brittany said she thinks the Federal Communications Commission should hear about it. Probably a better course of action would be for Brittany and her friends to let Victoria's Secret know how they feel.

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Guilty Pleas in Nation's Largest Mortgage Fraud Case

Hundreds of Cleveland-area homes went into foreclosure

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, the Attorney General's Ohio Organized Crime Investigations Commission (OOCIC), and Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill ...

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Gofman

Five defendants pleaded guilty in Ohio today to mortgage fraud crimes covering more than 500 real estate transactions totaling $50 million, involving $44 million in fraudulent loans, and earning $31 million in profits.

The scheme resulted in 358 of 453 homes going into foreclosure in the Cleveland-area, prosecutors said.

"Today's court action proves that criminals who defraud people in this state will not get away with their devious schemes," Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said. "The 18-month investigation ... unearthed the evidence, linked the lies, and connected the dots of deception."

The charges were filed in August of 2009, after an 18-month probe conducted by the Cuyahoga County Mortgage Task Force, which operates under the authorization of the Attorney General's OOCIC.

"These criminals are mortgage fraud predators and deserve every year in prison that they receive. While these hoodlums were illegally making money they were devastating our neighborhoods with foreclosures," said Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason.

Today, Uri Gofman, 39, of Beachwood, pleaded guilty to eleven  fraud counts. Prosecutors said Gofman orchestrated one of the nation's largest mortgage fraud cases by enlisting family, friends and others to invest in his real estate company, Real Asset Fund, with the promise of profit.

Gofman's enterprise began with seed money from an investor who transferred funds from an Eastern European bank account in Latvia.

Straw buyers

Gofman's typical scheme involved setting up straw buyers to purchase homes; falsely claiming home improvements were performed or inflated the value of improvements on houses in order to refinance them; and then selling houses to unqualified buyers with assistance of real estate agents, mortgage brokers, and title companies, according to court testimony.

Gofman and others defrauded lenders through loan application fraud, down payment fraud, and loan distribution fraud, prosecutors said.

Gofman agreed to pay $1 million in restitution, forfeit $600,000 in seized cash, forfeit 43 houses valued at $4.1 million in real estate to the Cuyahoga County Land Bank, and cooperate in future prosecutions. Gofman will be sentenced to 8.25 years on February 1, 2012, at 10:00 a.m. in Cuyahoga County Judge Daniel Gaul's courtroom.

Anthony Capuozzo, 41, of Concord, pleaded guilty to ten fraud  counts. He owned, operated, and controlled Family Title. Capouzzo executed a fake down payment scheme by providing lenders with false settlement statements misleading lenders into believing that the buyer was making the down payment when in reality, the buyer was not. 

Capouzzo was sentenced today to one year in prison consecutive to the 26-month federal sentence he has already received, which Capouzzo beings serving January 10, 2012.

The Real Asset Fund and Karka, Inc. were Gofman's business entities which owned or controlled the real estate. Clear Choice Realty, also owned by Gofman, sold the real estate. 

 

 

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GM Promises to Extend Saab Warranties

Not many unsold Saabs left; is it a good time to buy one?

General Motors says it will extend warranty coverage to owners of thousands of Saab vehicles sold before February 2010, while Saab's North American board m...

PhotoGeneral Motors says it will extend warranty coverage to owners of thousands of Saab vehicles sold before February 2010, while Saab says it may be able to cover some cars. 

Saab filed for bankruptcy and liquidation earlier this week after GM, its former owner, torpedoed a deal with a Chinese company that would have kept the struggling automaker alive.

Although GM retains ownership of only a small part of Saab, it said it could not allowed technology that it licenses to be used to compete with GM products in China, an important and fast-growing market for all automakers.

Saab jettisoned Saab, Saturn, Pontiac and Hummer back in 2009 as part of its bankruptcy proceedings. It sold Saab to an independent firm in 2010 but the new owners weren't able to raise enough money to keep the company going.

Out-of-court

Saab Cars North America (SCAN) said today it has elected to pursue an out-of-court resolution rather than going through a formal bankruptcy process.  It said its directors believe the procedure will "maximize the enterprise value for its customers, dealers and creditors."

A GM spokesman, meanwhile, said GM is working to notify Saab customers that it will step in.

"In the event Saab cannot or will not fulfill its obligations to administer the warranty programs with its U.S. and Canadian dealers through Saab Cars North America or otherwise, GM will take necessary steps to ensure that remaining warranty obligations on Saab vehicles marketed by GM in the United States and Canada will be honored," Jim Cain told the Detroit News.

SCNA said it is committed to developing a solution that would provide warranty coverage for Saab vehicles covering model year 2010 and 2011 models, while GM covers warranties for model year 2009 and prior years.

"The SCNA Board's decision to explore all possibilities out-of-court is the most appropriate direction to take for customers, dealers and creditors," said Tim Colbeck, President and COO, Saab Cars North America.  "By having an experienced, outside Administrator oversee the process, the interests of all parties are better served."

SCNA is aggressively investigating all options aimed at reinstating its parts business in North America in a timely manner, SCNA said.  Saab Parts Company in Sweden remains operational and not impacted by the recent announcement regarding Saab Automobile AB.

Good time to buy?

There are only a few thousand Saabs still unsold in North America and the company says it has stopped all dealer incentive payments to its 188 U.S. dealers. But even without incentives and cut-rate financing, buying a Saab might make sense in some cases.

There would be only two reasons to buy a Saab today: to own a collector's item and to get a pretty decent car at a very low price.

Make no mistake: a Saab today is worth a lot less than it was a few days ago.  This is bad news for current Saab owners but if you're in the market for a safe, sporty, well-designed European car you should be able to pick up a Saab at a huge discount.

Just keep in mind it will be worth next to nothing in the future and, if you keep it long enough, you will eventually begin to encounter trouble getting parts at a reasonable price and finding mechanics interested in working on the thing.

Collectors and enthusiasts are another matter, of course.  If you think it's worth $30,000 or so to buy something that will be considered an oddity someday, and if you have room to store it, now is the time to strike. After all, like land, they're not making Saabs anymore. At the worst, it will be an expensive conversation piece that your spouse uses as a club whenever he or she is perturbed with you.

Take it from one who has owned any number of extinct cars, including Peugeots, Alfa Romeos and Fiats, they're priceless classics to you -- but they're just old cars to just about everyone else.

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FDA Warns Against Using ShoulderFlex Massager

At least one strangulation death reporter among users of the device

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is warning consumers again not to use the ShoulderFlex Massager.  At least one person is reported to have d...

PhotoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration is warning consumers again not to use the ShoulderFlex Massager.  At least one person is reported to have died from strangulation while using the device.

The massager is sold in retail stores, catalogs and over the Internet. It's intended to provide users with a deep tissue massage to the neck, shoulders and back area while lying down.

But the FDA warns that hair, clothing or jewelry can become entangled in the device and cause serious injury or even death from strangulation. There have been reports of one death and one near-death, due to strangulation.

“The ShoulderFlex Massager poses serious risks. Consumers should stop using this device, health care providers should not recommend it to their patients and businesses should stop distributing and selling the device,” said Steve Silverman, director of the Office of Compliance in the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. 

Recalled in August

King International recalled the ShoulderFlex Massager on Aug. 31, 2011; however, during a recent compliance audit, the FDA found that the company has gone out of business. King International has not followed through with recall procedures; the 800 number established by the firm for this recall is no longer in service; and many of the companies that sell this device are not aware of the recall or did not properly notify customers who purchased the massager.

Because of this failure, the FDA is concerned that consumers may not be aware of the risks posed by the ShoulderFlex Massager and may still be using this dangerous product. 

The FDA recommends that customers and consignees safely dispose of the ShoulderFlex Massagers so that the device cannot be used. The massage fingers should be removed and disposed of separately from the device; the power supply should be disposed of separately, as well.

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Countrywide To Pay $335 Million to Settle Lending Discrimination Charges

Minority borrowers were charged higher fees or placed in subprime loans

The Department of Justice today filed its largest residential fair lending settlement in history to resolve allegations that Countrywide Financial Corpor...

PhotoThe Department of Justice today filed its largest residential fair lending settlement in history to resolve allegations that Countrywide Financial Corporation, now part of Bank of America, discriminated against qualified African-American and Hispanic borrowers in their mortgage lending from 2004 through 2008.  

The settlement provides $335 million in compensation for victims of Countrywide’s discrimination during a period when Countrywide originated millions of residential mortgage loans as one of the nation’s largest single-family mortgage lenders.

The settlement, which is subject to court approval, was filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in conjunction with the department’s complaint which alleges that Countrywide discriminated by charging more than 200,000 African-American and Hispanic borrowers higher fees and interest rates than  white borrowers in both its retail and wholesale lending.   

The complaint alleges that these borrowers were charged higher fees and interest rates because of their race or national origin, and not because of the borrowers’ creditworthiness or other objective criteria related to borrower risk.  

Subprime loans

The United States also alleges that Countrywide discriminated by steering thousands of African-American and Hispanic borrowers into subprime mortgages when non-Hispanic white borrowers with similar credit profiles received prime loans.   All the borrowers who were discriminated against were qualified for Countrywide mortgage loans according to Countrywide’s own underwriting criteria.

“The department’s action against Countrywide makes clear that we will not hesitate to hold financial institutions accountable, including one of the nation’s largest, for lending discrimination,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “These institutions should make judgments based on applicants’ creditworthiness, not on the color of their skin.

"With today’s settlement, the federal government will ensure that the more than 200,000 African-American and Hispanic borrowers who were discriminated against by Countrywide will be entitled to compensation,” Holder said.

The settlement resolves the United States’ pricing and steering claims against Countrywide for its discrimination against African Americans and Hispanics.  

Based on race

The United States’ complaint alleges that African-American and Hispanic borrowers paid more than non-Hispanic white borrowers, not based on borrower risk, but because of their race or national origin.   Countrywide’s business practice allowed its loan officers and mortgage brokers to vary a loan’s interest rate and other fees from the price it set based on the borrower’s objective credit-related factors.   This resulted in African American and Hispanic borrowers paying more.   

The complaint further alleges that Countrywide was aware the fees and interest rates it was charging discriminated against African-American and Hispanic borrowers, but failed to impose meaningful limits or guidelines to stop it.  

“Countrywide’s actions contributed to the housing crisis, hurt entire communities, and denied families access to the American dream,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division.  “We are using every tool in our law enforcement arsenal, including some that were dormant for years, to go after institutions of all sizes that discriminated against families solely because of their race or national origin.”

Steering

The United States’ complaint also alleges that, as a result of Countrywide’s policies and practices, qualified African-American and Hispanic borrowers were placed in subprime loans rather than prime loans even when similarly-qualified non-Hispanic white borrowers were placed in prime loans.   

The discriminatory placement of borrowers in subprime loans, also known as “steering,” occurred because it was Countrywide’s business practice to allow mortgage brokers and employees to place a loan applicant in a subprime loan even when the applicant qualified for a prime loan .   In addition, Countrywide gave mortgage brokers discretion to request exceptions to the underwriting guidelines, and Countrywide’s employees had discretion to grant these exceptions.         

 

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Pampered Chef Recalls Ice Cream Dippers

The end of the scoop handle can fly off

The Pampered Chef is recalling about 20,000 ice cream dippers. When the liquid-filled ice cream scoop is exposed to warm water, the cap and seal at th...

PhotoThe Pampered Chef is recalling about 20,000 ice cream dippers. When the liquid-filled ice cream scoop is exposed to warm water, the cap and seal at the end of the scoop handle can fly off with substantial force, posing an impact injury hazard to nearby consumers.

The Pampered Chef has received 16 reports including damage to kitchen items and six reports of personal injuries including lacerations, bruises and redness caused by caps coming off the base of the handle.

The dippers are metallic gray aluminum with a plastic dome-shaped cap on the base of the handle. “Pampered Chef” is imprinted in the cap. The ice cream dippers measure around seven inches in length. A non-toxic liquid is sealed inside the handle of the product which conducts the heat of your hand to more easily scoop hard ice cream.

The dippers were sold by Pampered Chef consultants and online at www.pamperedchef.com from July 2010 through September 2010 for about $15. They were made in the U.S.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled ice cream dippers and contact The Pampered Chef for instructions on obtaining a replacement or refund. Consumers can also contact their Pampered Chef consultant for replacement and refund information.

For additional information, contact The Pampered Chef toll-free at (877) 917-2433 between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. CT Monday through Friday and between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. CT on Saturday or visit the firm’s website at http://www.pamperedchef.com/recall/cust info collection.jsp. Consumers can also e-mail The Pampered Chef at productalert@pamperedchef.com

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Feds Drain Hydro-Assist Fuel Cell Claims

Turn water into gas? Not likely, the FTC charges

Turn any vehicle into a hybrid?  Don't think so.  And neither does the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which has put a stop to the phony claims o...

PhotoTurn any vehicle into a hybrid?  Don't think so.  And neither does the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which has put a stop to the phony claims of marketers who sold a device that they claimed could boost gas mileage by 50 percent.

The "Hydro-Assist Fuel Cell" could turn water into "water gas" with five times the potential energy of gasoline, according to the claims made by UCSA Dealers Group LLC.

In a complaint filed in 2009, the FTC charged that Dennis Lee, Dutchman Enterprises LLC, and United Community Services of America Inc., doing business as UCSA Dealers Group LLC, made false claims for their Hydro-Assist Fuel Cell. The court subsequently halted the allegedly illegal practices and froze some of the defendants' assets pending further litigation.

A settlement order reached this week bans the defendants from selling energy generation or conservation products, and allows them to sell or transfer fuel cell kits or parts only if they don't misrepresent energy or fuel efficiency capability and don't permit others who buy them to do so.

They can sell the kit's liquid fuel additive component only if they disclose, upfront, that it contains petroleum distillates, and only if they provide buyers with a copy of the Material Safety Data Sheet for the additive dated February 3, 2008.

If the defendants sell or transfer any kits or parts, they must tell the FTC each buyer's name and address and describe any prior business relationship they may have had with the buyer.

The order also prohibits the defendants from misrepresenting any good or service, and from selling or otherwise benefitting from customers' personal information, and requires them to properly dispose of customers' personal information within 30 days.

In addition, the order imposes a judgment of more than $2.7 million against the defendants, all but $230,356 of which will be suspended when they have surrendered frozen assets. The full judgment will become due immediately if the defendants are found to have misrepresented their financial condition.

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What's On Your Mind? Emerson, Sirius XM, VistaPrint

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Emerson, Sirius XM, VistaPrint, Starting over and Bah, humbug....

PhotoShopping for a new microwave oven? Nancy, of Manns Choice, Pa., writes to say she has been very disappointed in her Emerson Microwave she purchased two years ago.

"It is only two years old and the inside of it is rusting everywhere," Nancy told ConsumerAffairs.com. "The paint is bubbling and rusting. Also the door will not shut or open most of the time. I contacted the company by email and ask them about the rust and they said it's my fault and they cannot help me. The way I am cleaning it and so forth and not to use it. Well, who has money to buy a new one every other year? They should last a while.I have had numerous other ovens and NEVER seen the inside rust. Never!

The inside of a microwave should not be rusting. It's hard to imagine that the method of cleaning could cause rust, unless there was some problem with the paint.

Starting over

Wayne, of Old Town, Fla., is another consumer who reports difficulty in cancelling a subscription to Sirius XM Satellite Radio.

"Tried to cancel order 60 days before expiration and withdrew credit card info," Wayne. "They said I would have to wait till it expires. They then gave me free month and auto renew my contract. Then turned me over to collection agency when I wouldn't pay. Settled with them for $20.00 and said they would not provide any evidence that I accepted a free month."

Offering a cancelling customer a "free month" as a good will token is simply a trick. If the customer accepts the free month, they have negated their cancellation - the account is still active. They have to call again to cancel it. Only they don't call because they think they already have cancelled it. It is only when they see the charge on their credit card that they realize the account is still active. By then they are into another month. The lesson? Never accept a "free month" when you are cancelling a service.

Bah, humbug!

Dana, of Braintree, Mass., isn't sending out any Christmas greetings this year. It's not that she didn't want to.

"I ordered Christmas Cards from VistaPrint on Dec 9," Dana said. "They arrived Dec 19 and were totally creased and unusable. The offer I got from VistaPrint was that they would resend them by Dec 23, not enough time to get out for Christmas. Since I used a Groupon, they offered no refund and told me to take up my concern with Groupon."

It seems Dana waited a little late to order Christmas cards. She might have been better off picking up some at a local gift shop or department store.  

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Google Planning a Tablet to Compete with iPad

Amazon's Fire blazing new trails in ad growth

Forget smartphones, tablets are taking over.  Google is the latest to enter the tablet derby, saying it will have a media tablet "of the highest quali...

PhotoForget smartphones, tablets are taking over.  Google is the latest to enter the tablet derby, saying it will have a media tablet "of the highest quality" to compete with the Apple iPad within the next six months. And the Kindle Fire is burning up ad budgets.

In an interview with an Italian newspaper, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt said the company was working on a technologically advanced tablet.

in an interview with an Italian newspaper, Schmidt credited Apple's Steve Jobs with understanding better than anyone the revolutionary potential of the tablet and went on to create the iPad, which Schmidt called "an amazing product."

However, Schmidt said it's the nature of capitalism to compete and Google will be trying to go Apple one better when its tablet debuts.

Schmidt said the Android-based Google tablet will compete with the next-generation iPad and such premium Android slates as the Asus Eee Pad, not with the more humble Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble Nook.

The Fire's on fire

OK Eric, but the Kindle Fire from Amazon is not only selling in huge numbers, it's also blazing away on the advertising front. 

According to data from mobile ad network Millennial Media, the Fire has seen its ad impressions grow at an average daily rate of 19% since its launch. In fact, the Kindle Fire’s impression growth on the platform has slightly outpaced that of the iPad when that device launched in early 2010.

"We're not just seeing millions of impressions, we're seeing a monthly run rate of hundreds of millions of impressions," said Millennial’s report of the Fire.

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Demise of AT&T/T-Mobile Deal Leaves Questions for Consumers

AT&T still short of spectrum, T-Mobile's future remains hazy

Consumer groups and other activist organizations swooned in ecstasy as AT&T bowed to pressure from the Obama Administration and abandoned its attempt t...

PhotoConsumer groups and other activist organizations swooned in ecstasy as AT&T bowed to pressure from the Obama Administration and abandoned its attempt to take over T-Mobile.

  • Parul P. Desai, policy counsel for Consumers Union said, “It’s an early holiday gift for consumers. From the first day that this deal was announced, we have warned regulators, lawmakers, and consumers of the dangerous consequences of this merger."
  • Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron said, "The Obama administration deserves praise and credit for standing up to AT&T's relentless lobbying and propaganda. And the American public can breathe a sigh of relief that this time the public interest trumped AT&T's self-serving attempt to kill off what little competition remains in the wireless market."
  • Media Access Project’s Senior Vice President and Policy Director Andrew Jay Schwartzman said: "While AT&T surely will say that it must quickly obtain additional spectrum, the filings in this case show that AT&T has been hoarding spectrum.  It should instead use its existing spectrum more efficiently and expedite deployment of more efficient LTE technology."

 

They should perhaps have talked to some T-Mobile customers.

"T-Mobile customer care representatives explained to me that it is not their problem if I do not have reception in an area where I moved to," said Jessica of Mulberry, Fla., one of the thousands of customers who have written to ConsumerAffairs.com complaining of billing disputes, network problems, defective phones and poor customer service.

"They also misinformed me about my contract telling me that only one of the phone lines was going to be extended. Instead, they extended all four of my contracts and will charge me $800 to cancel all four lines!" Jessica said.

Union endorsed deal

The Communications Workers of America had endorsed the merger, saying it would create 96,000 American jobs and protect existing workers from losing their jobs.

The CWA said opponents of the merger were "misguided" and wrong in their contention that previous mergers had created job losses at AT&T Wireless.

The deal would have created the largest single wireless carrier and, according to AT&T, would have hastened the deployment of wireless broadband and 4G LTE cellphone service to underserved areas.

It might also have brought relief to AT&T customers, long plagued by dropped calls and other symptoms of a network that's trying to carry more data than it can accommodate -- trying to put three gallons into a two-gallon bucket, to put it simply.

The Justice Department, FCC and other opponents didn't buy the argument, though, predicting that AT&T would just gobble up T-Mobile, concentrate its resources in the most profitable (i.e., most populous) areas, leaving rural and other underserved areas no better off than they are now.

But at this point, arguing over what might have been is like arguing over whether to buy a Saab or a Saturn.  The question is: what does the deal's demise mean for consumers?

Now what?

It's not likely AT&T wireless customers will see any immediate effects from the breakdown.  That's not necessarily good, of course, since many AT&T customers are in a perpetual snit over dropped calls, slow data and other annoyances.

T-Mobile customers, on the other hand, may want to consider their options.  T-Mobile's German owners, Deutsche Telekom AG, have been reluctant to make the long-overdue investment that's needed to expand the company's network and compete vigorously in the marketplace and CEO René Obermann isn't painting a rosy picture.

Just hours after the deal went south, Obermann said that long-term challenges for T-Mobile remain and confessed he found it  "not understandable" that U.S. regulators had opposed the deal so vigorously.

Obermann walks away with a $3 billion break-up fee and a few bushels of spectrum from AT&T but that's hardly enough to awaken much enthusiasm in Deutsche Telekom executives, who have their hands full with their much more successful European properties and don't want to divert resources to what increasingly looks like a failing U.S. property.

With the AT&T deal in tatters, T-Mobile is the only national carrier that isn't building its own LTE network, and also the only one not selling the iPhone. This isn't exactly great for business, which may be why T-Mobile lost 850,000 customers in the first nine months of the year.

Although opponents of the merger heaped effusive praise on T-Mobile, it is hardly breaking new trails in pricing, customer service or technical excellence.

It's hard to see how Obermann and company will be motivated to put much more into the venture, given the back-breaking costs of competing more effectively.  

Even more galling is the barrier to exit the Germans now face.  Having been blocked from selling their company for reasons best described as inexplicable to European telecom executives, they may be tempted to view the entire exercise as futile.

 

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Study: Alcohol Marketed Heavily On Digital Media

Beer and spirits marketers increasingly turning to social media

Beer and spirits producers moving heavily into digital marketing...

It's illegal to sell alcoholic beverages to anyone under 21 years of age, but a new study concludes that hasn't stopped the industry from marketing to underage consumers.

The Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has documented what it says is the alcohol industry’s push into digital marketing. The findings, the center says, raise questions whether the industry’s self-regulation is adequately protecting underage youth from exposure to the “alcohol experience” available on social marketing platforms such as FaceBook, YouTube and Twitter.

CAMY, in turn, has used the Internet to fight back, releasing its findings in a series of YouTube videos.

Large Facebook presence

The study found that 10 leading alcohol brands have more than 16.5 million people "liking" their Facebook brand pages, and as of November 2011, 10 alcohol brands with youth appeal had uploaded 35,725 photos and 377 videos to their Facebook pages. Fans of brands with youth appeal had also uploaded 15,416 photos and 98 videos to the brand Facebook pages, taking their messages viral.

Images of Santa, toys, and sexually suggestive photos as well as those indicating binge consumption of alcohol are on the industry’s social media sites despite the industry standards, the center said.

CAMY said it also tested the adequacy of the industry’s “age affirmation” technology that is aimed at preventing exposure of this marketing to underage youth. The result? "Essentially meaningless," the center said. “Age affirmation” means a social media site user needs to state their age, but the age is not verified.

Number one problem

CAMY says alcohol is the number one drug problem among American youth. Each year, an estimated 4,700 youth die from excessive alcohol use. More young people drink alcohol than smoke tobacco or use marijuana, though a recent survey suggested the number of teens drinking alcohol is declining while the number smoking marijuana is climbing.

In 2003, trade groups for beer and distilled spirits committed to placing alcohol ads in media venues only when underage youth comprises less than or equal to 30 percent of the audience. At least 14 longitudinal scientific studies have found that the more young people are exposed to alcohol marketing, the more likely they are to start drinking or, if already drinking, to drink more.

“Over and over again, youth are more likely to hear, read or see alcohol ads in mainstream media, and brands are now taking their messages from their branded sites to social media platforms such as YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, and Facebook,” said David Jernigan, director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth. “As teens are early adopters of social media and there are viral elements of this media, parents need to be more aware of this marketing and to educate their children about the real harms of underage drinking in spite of the industry’s message of glamour and allure.”

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Tyson Recalls Ground Beef

May be contaminated with E. coli

Tyson Fresh Meats Inc., a Dakota City, Neb. establishment, is recalling approximately 40,948 pounds of ground beef products that may be contaminated with&n...

PhotoTyson Fresh Meats Inc., a Dakota City, Neb. establishment, is recalling approximately 40,948 pounds of ground beef products that may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced today. 

The following products are subject to recall:

  • 10-pound chubs of "CHUCK FINE GROUND BEEF 80/20," packed in cases containing eight chubs

The products subject to recall have a "BEST BEFORE OR FREEZE BY" date of "11/13/11" and "EST. 245C" on the box label. The products were shipped to institutions and distributors in Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. 

The problem was discovered through routine FSIS monitoring which confirmed a positive result for E. coliO157:H7. FSIS and the company have received no reports of illnesses associated with consumption of these products. 

E. coli O157:H7 is a bacterium that can cause bloody diarrhea, dehydration, and in the most severe cases, kidney failure. The very young, seniors and persons with weak immune systems are the most susceptible to foodborne illness. Individuals concerned about an illness should contact a health care provider. 

FSIS routinely conducts recall effectiveness checks to verify recalling firms notify their customers of the recall and that steps are taken to make certain that the product is no longer available to consumers. 

FSIS advises all consumers to safely prepare their raw meat products, including fresh and frozen, and only consume ground beef that has been cooked to a temperature of 160° F. The only way to confirm that ground beef is cooked to a temperature high enough to kill harmful bacteria is to use a food thermometer that measures internal temperature. 

Consumers with questions regarding the recall should contact the company at (866) 328-3156. Media with questions regarding the recall should contact the company's Director of Public Relations, Gary Mickelson at (479) 290-6111. 

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Advice to Journalists: Keep Your Hands Clean

Reporters, editors should stay out of politics, organization advises

Given the revolving door between politics and journalism at the network TV level, any mention of journalists avoiding political involvement is usually gree...

PhotoGiven the revolving door between politics and journalism at the network TV level, any mention of journalists avoiding political involvement is usually greeted with gales of laughter.

But, believe it or not, "journalism" and "ethics" are sometimes used in the same sentence and smaller, less star-struck organizations still take such things seriously.

The Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ) is so concerned by the horrible examples being set at the national level -- presidential advisers and even family members being magically "transformed" into journalists -- that it has issued a position paper to provide guidance to reporters and editors who may be tempted to stray onto forbidden turf.

The SPJ Ethics Committee says in a preface to the report that it gets a significant number of questions about whether journalists should engage in political activity.

The answer is no

"The simplest answer is 'No.' Don’t do it. Don’t get involved. Don’t contribute money, don’t work in a campaign, don’t lobby, and especially, don’t run for office yourself," the comittee advised, but concedes there is a little bit more to it than that.

In its position paper, the committee advises journalists:

  • Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived
  • Remain free of associations that may compromise integrity or damage credibility


While those are the most directly relevant provisions, the committee advises the following also apply, but in different ways:

  • Disclose unavoidable conflicts
  • Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable
  • Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context
  • Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection


"Objectivity in today’s superheated political environment may be impossible, but impartiality should still be a reporter’s goal," the report advises. "Even those who are paid to have opinions — columnists, editorial writers, talk show hosts, bloggers (OK, maybe not always paid) — should at least be aware of all relevant points of view."

While there may be some leeway for media types not directly involved in reporting and editing, the group advises that reporters covering politics are at the other end of this spectrum of what may be tolerated.

"For them, almost no political activity is OK. Some reporters interpret this as meaning it’s off-limits even to register to vote as a Democrat or Republican or third-party member. Some take it to extremes and even decline to vote in a general election. Those are extreme positions, and unnecessarily prim. The proof of a reporter’s impartiality should be in the performance," the report advises.

Oh, and by the way, yard signs, bumper stickers and even campaign buttons should be considered off-limits, SPJ cautioned. 

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Survey: Job Security is Workers' Top Concern

Employees worried about career development, advancement

A new survey finds more than three-quarters of U.S. employees are satisfied overall with their jobs, but fewer than one-half of them are happy with opportu...

A new survey finds more than three-quarters of U.S. employees are satisfied overall with their jobs, but fewer than one-half of them are happy with opportunities for career development and advancement -- and nearly everyone is concerned about job security.

The findings are from the 2011 Job Satisfaction and Engagement Research Report released by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

The significance of the research results, according to Mark Schmit, SHRM’s vice president for research: “As we slowly come out of the recession, the war for talent will be back on. When that happens, there is the potential for turnover given the dissatisfaction that employees seem to have with the real or perceived lack of advancement opportunities.”

SHRM’s new research showed that 83 percent of U.S. employees reported overall satisfaction with their current jobs. Although declining slightly since 2009, the percent of satisfied employees hasn’t changed significantly in the last 10 years, Schmit noted.

“In general, people find ways to be satisfied at work,” he said.

But only slightly more than 40 percent were satisfied with their career development and advancement opportunities.

For the first time since SHRM’s annual job satisfaction survey began almost 10 years ago, the research also examined employee engagement — how connected or committed employees are to their organization.

Moderately engaged

About seven out of 10 employees reported being moderately engaged in their work, determined to accomplish work goals and completely focused on work projects. They also reported putting extra effort into their work. At the same time, however, only about one-half of employees felt completely plugged in at work (52 percent) or enjoyed volunteering for activities beyond what the job requires (53 percent).

“Employees seem to be saying: I’m not getting training or opportunities for development, so why would I volunteer to do extra things to advance my career by helping out the organization,” Schmit said. “But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that has implications not only for employees but for HR professionals and business leaders who manage the talent in their organizations.”

The survey polled 600 randomly selected employees at small to large companies. Other findings included:

• Job security remains the biggest driver of job satisfaction for the fourth year, with 63 percent of respondents saying it was very important to them. But only 28 percent of respondents were very satisfied with their job security. Women felt less satisfied with job security than men.

• Employees also value communication with senior managers, but less than one-third of employees reported feeling very satisfied with that communication. “This is driven in part by economic conditions,” Schmit said. “If employers don’t have good news, it’s hard for them to be communicative with their employees.”

• Employees were moderately engaged in 2011. Seventy percent frequently felt that they were putting all their effort into their work and were completely focused on work projects.

 

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What's On Your Mind? United Healthcare, ECAST Settlement, Office Max

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: United Healthcare, ECAST Settlement, Office Max, Haunted by an old debt and Too many computers....

PhotoEarlier this month New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a new law banning prescription drug plans from forcing participants to use a mail-order pharmacy. Cathy, of Lorton, Va., probably wishes she lived in New York.

"I take pain medication for severe neurological pain related to a very rare neurological disease," Cathy told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I tried to refill my prescription at my local pharmacy and was denied by United Healthcare and told I have to use their mail-order pharmacy to get this drug. This was news to me.

"I need the drug today since I'm out so they said they could do a one-time override. But after waiting on the phone for 15 minutes, the Medco rep said they couldn't get Prescription Solutions to answer the phone and wanted to give me the phone number so I could call them. What made them think I could get them to answer the phone if they couldn't! And, I wanted a Medco/United rep on the phone when I spoke with them. He declined."

As a result, Cathy said she purchased the prescription and paid for it out-of-pocket.

Haunted by an old debt

Valerie, of Newton, Tex., contacted us about a fairly serious tax problem. Her trucking business filed bankruptcy in 2001 and included in the filing were two credit cards with Cross Country Bank.

"I have received a letter from the IRS saying that I did not report a cancellation of debt on my last year income tax (2010) from a company I had no knowledge of," Valerie said. "The company is ECAST Settlement Corp. This was a debt that was suppose to be taken care of in the bankruptcy."

Valerie should not respond to the IRS until speaking with an accountant or tax attorney. If she is correct that the credit cards were covered in the bankruptcy, the collection agency that bought the debt might not be aware of that. She should get solid professional advice before proceeding.

Too many computers

Consumers are doing more of their holiday shopping online this year, drawn by bargains and the convenience. But with the convenience, there have been glitches. William, of Houston, Tex., said he ordered a computer from OfficeMax on Black Friday.

"I received error messages on first two attempts," William said. "I changed to Google Chrome and my purchase went right through with email confirmation and shipping confirmation two days later. A computer arrived a week later. Two weeks after arrival of the computer two more computers arrived and my account is debited for the computers.

The first two attempts to order the computer, which William concluded were unsuccessful because he got error messages, were obviously logged in the system. But William notes there were no confirmation emails for the erroneous orders, they simply shipped them.

"I called customer service from store and they stated they did have server issues and multiple orders went out," William said. "She spoke directly to the manager to give return information and to credit my account, I thought. Manager inputs information and says it will have to be store credit. Yes, store credit on computers I never purchased."

William said he finally resolved the situation with Office Max agreeing to pick up the computers and credit his account. The lesson for consumers placing online orders is to never assume an error message during the transaction has negated the sale. It might not have.

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Liberty Mutual Charged With Ordering Used Parts For Car Repairs

West Virginia sues, seeks restitution

West Virginia accuses Liberty Mutual of repairing cars with junkyard parts...

PhotoWhen you're in an accident, the insurance company has a lot of leeway in the repair process, even approving the body shop doing the repair work. But in West Virginia, insurance companies must meet one hard and fast rule – they aren't allowed to mandate used or refurbished parts for the repair.

West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw has sued Liberty Mutual Insurance Company and a West Virginia repair shop - Greg Chandler’s Frame & Body, LLC - for repairing vehicles with junkyard parts in violation of state law.

The suit lists what it says were repeated violations of the West Virginia Consumer Credit and Protection Act by Liberty Mutual and Greg’s Body Shop. McGraw’s office alleges that Liberty Mutual required body shops to repair vehicles with reconditioned, re-manufactured, and used parts in violation of West Virginia law. In addition, he said Liberty Mutual failed to provide the proper notices and written statements to consumers.

In West Virginia, it is unlawful for an insurance company to require the use of salvaged, used, or reconditioned OEM crash parts when negotiating repairs of motor vehicles within three years of manufacture, without acquiring the motor vehicle owner’s consent.

Complaints about junkyard parts


The attorney general began investigating Liberty Mutual and Greg’s Body Shop after receiving evidence that new vehicles were being repaired with junkyard parts. The investigation by McGraw’s Consumer Protection Division confirmed that Liberty Mutual employed a policy that violated state law.

McGraw’s lawsuit asks the court to enjoin the defendants from engaging in this unlawful activity in the future, seeks restitution for consumers whose cars were illegally repaired with junkyard crash parts, and asks for civil penalties.

“My office will always work to insure that West Virginians receive safe, high quality, competent, and lawful repairs to their vehicles,” McGraw said. “Implementing policies that thwart state law in an effort to increase profits is unacceptable.”

Consumers who think they have been a victim of this policy should contact Attorney General Darrell McGraw’s consumer protection hotline at 1-800-368-8808.

For consumers in states other than West Virginia, it might be prudent to call your state insurance commissioner's office when your car is being repaired by an insurance company. Ask what the law states about the use of used, or after-market parts and make sure the insurance company is complying with the law.

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Payday Lender Ordered to Pay $294,000

Ecash and Getecash illegally tried to garnish borrowers' wages

At the request of the Federal Trade Commission, a federal court has ordered one of the individuals behind a payday lending scheme to pay $294,536...

PhotoAt the request of the Federal Trade Commission, a federal court has ordered one of the individuals behind a payday lending scheme to pay $294,536 for illegally trying to garnish borrowers’ wages, and for using other illegal debt-collection practices.

The order bans Joe S. Strom and two companies he controls from the illegal lending and collection practices challenged by the FTC in this case.

The court found that the defendants sought repayment of loans they made by taking money from borrowers’ paychecks.  Online loan applicants checked a box indicating their agreement with loan terms, including an inconspicuous “wage assignment” clause providing that their wages would be garnished to cover delinquent loan payments. 

The court held that the clause violated the FTC’s Credit Practices Rule, which bans wage assignment clauses in consumer contracts in many cases.

U.S. law allows federal agencies – but not private companies – to require employers to garnish employees’ wages without a court order when the employees owe the government money.  The court determined that the defendants misrepresented that they had the same collection rights as the government.

Violated FDCPA

The court also found that the defendants falsely told consumers’ employers that the consumers knew their pay would be garnished and had had an opportunity to dispute the debt, in violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) and the FTC Act, and that they violated the FDCPA by telling employers and co-workers about consumers’ debts without their consent.

The order prohibits Strom, LoanPointe, LLC and Eastbrook, LLC, also doing business as Ecash and Getecash, from misrepresenting either the available terms, rates, conditions, or amounts of any loans or other extensions of credit; or any other fact that is relevant to a consumer’s decision to obtain credit.

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Utah Charges Loan Modifier with Felonies

Alleged scam artist spent money on wife's plastic surgery, state alleges

David MoffittThe owner of a Utah loan modification business has been charged with 9 felony counts for allegedly defrauding hundreds of ...

Photo
David Moffitt

The owner of a Utah loan modification business has been charged with 9 felony counts for allegedly defrauding hundreds of desperate homeowners. 

David Shawn Moffitt, 34, operated Fortified Financial, Fortified Academy and Wasatch Rent 2 Own between 2009 and 2010.

According to court documents, Moffitt charged between $2,500 to $3,000 to modify a loan so they would not lose their homes.  Customers were promised a full refund if they were not satisfied.

However, Moffitt allegedly refused to give refunds to as many as 200 eligible clients money because the money was being used to pay for personal expenses, including food, rent, entertainment and even $4,000 for his wife’s plastic surgery, prosecutors charged.

“We hope these charges send a strong message to anyone seeking to take advantage of struggling homeowners,” says Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.

Company accountants found that Moffitt and his wife took $124,000 in 2009 and $72,000 in 2010 from Fortified and and other $33,000 was transferred to Wasatch Rent 2 Own during those two years. During the same time, Fortified employee paychecks started to bounce and bonuses were not paid.

A hard look

“This scam should be a warning to everyone to take a hard look at anyone before trusting them with your money and especially your home,“ said Utah Department of Commerce Executive Director Francine Giani. 

After an investigation by Utah Division of Real Estate Chief Investigator Kent Nelson, Assistant Attorney General Che Arguello filed 7 second-degree felony counts of communications fraud, theft and racketeering and 2 third-degree felony counts of theft.

Investigators interviewed numerous clients victims and the charging documents include alleged victims in Vernal, St. George, Salt Lake City and Centerville. 

If convicted, Moffitt could serve 1-15 years in prison for each second-degree felony and 0-5 years behind bars for each third-degree felony.  

Last March, Moffitt was ordered to pay $92,000 in actual damages and $2 million in punitive damages after a civil lawsuit was filed by former clients.  One of the defendants in the lawsuit, Daniel Pogue, was shot and killed by police in December 2010 after he pointed a shotgun at people outside the LDS Oquirrh Mountain Temple.

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Saab Reaches the End of the Road

Game over; Swedish automaker is out of time and out of money

For at least nine months, Saab's owners have been hoping to restart the troubled brand, left at the side of the road by General Motors along with Saturn, P...

PhotoFor at least nine months, Saab's owners have been hoping to restart the troubled brand, left at the side of the road by General Motors along with Saturn, Pontiac and Hummer back in 2009. 

But the struggle to get Saab rolling again came to an end this weekend, as its Dutch owners admitted defeat and filed for bankruptcy and liquidation. A Swedish court approved the action  Monday.

GM can take credit not only for dumping Saab in the first place but also for vetoing a rescue attempt that included Chinese investor Zhejiang Youngman Lotus Automobile.

GM still owns a small part of Saab and holds licenses to key technology. When it nixed the latest resuscitation plan this weekend, Saab's Dutch owners conceded the deal was dead and so, therefore, is Saab, ending a 60-year run as one of the world's most idiosyncratic cars.

Jet fighters

PhotoSaab, whose roots are in aviation, was nothing if not innovative. Its front-wheel-drive cars proved a sporty car could also perform well on ice and snow.  Saab's engineers pioneered everything from small-block engines to the now-ubuiqitous teardrop shape and even came up with headrests that actually protected occupants' necks in crashes.

The first Saab prototype was unveiled in 1947 and quickly became a favorite of weekend racing enthusiasts, as it demonstrated that a daily driver didn't have to be dull. The cars became legendary for their speed, handling and safety, although reliability was not always on a par with other European marques.

Many enthusiasts wrote off the reliability problems or blamed them on poorly-trained dealer personnel.

"I bought an eight-year-old 9-3 four years ago. I haven't had one single problem with it. The only money I've spent is the annual cost of the MOT certificates and two new front tires," said happy Saab owner Steve earlier this year. "I think my Saab was a bargain, a powerful luxury car at a low price, and extremely reliable!"

PhotoIn the Swedish town of Trollhattan, emotions ran high, Reuters reported, as townspeople prepared for the loss of 3,500 high-paying jobs. The plant has been idled since April and most workers knew the end was near but held out hope of a last-minute rescue.  

A niche player, Saab's latest owners had hopes that the fast-developing Chinese market would at last allow Saab to crank its plant up to its full capacity of 100,000 cars annually.  

Swedish rival Volvo, now owned by China's Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd., made almost 400,000 cars last year and plans to sell at least 50,000 of them in China this year.

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Telemarketer to Pay $500,000 for Do Not Call Violations

Americall Group purposely avoided requests to stop calling, FTC alleged

An Illinois-based telemarketing firm will pay $500,000 to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it interfered with consumers' requests to be placed ...

PhotoAn Illinois-based telemarketing firm will pay $500,000 to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it interfered with consumers' requests to be placed on company-specific do not call lists and transmitted deceptive Caller ID names.

The FTC alleged that Americall Group, Inc. violated the FTC's Telemarketing Sales Rule.

"When it comes to the Do Not Call provisions, compliance is not rocket science," said David C. Vladeck, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "It includes honoring a consumer's request to be placed on a specific do not call list, and not messing with anyone's caller ID. Legitimate companies comply with the law every day."

Americall, headquartered in Naperville, Illinois, is a third-party telemarketer that specializes in calling consumers on behalf of major banks, credit card issuers, insurance companies, and other financial institutions. The company also conducts telemarketing campaigns for firms selling household products, magazine subscriptions, beauty products, and educational materials.

Under the FTC's Telemarketing Sales Rule, a company may not call a consumer who has requested not to receive calls from that particular seller. The Rule also makes it illegal to deny or interfere with a consumer's right to be included on a company-specific do not call list.

Ignored requests

According to the FTC's complaint, Americall trained its representatives to avoid honoring the requests of consumers who asked to be put on a company-specific do not call list of an Americall client.

For example, Americall's training manual instructed its telemarketers that when a consumer said, "Don't call again" or "Don't call me back," the employee should not place the consumer's name and number on a client's do not call list.

The FTC's complaint also alleges that Americall transmitted false Caller ID information to consumers. In many cases, the Caller ID information did not name Americall or its client as the caller. For instance, when telemarketing on behalf of an insurance company, Americall masked the company's identity by transmitting the name "Gas Rebate Center" over Caller ID. The Telemarketing Sales Rule requires telemarketers to transmit accurate Caller ID information so consumers can know who is calling before they pick up the phone.

The settlement order resolves the FTC's charges against Americall. In addition to imposing the $500,000 civil penalty, it prohibits the company from continuing to engage in the conduct alleged in the complaint and from violating any provision of Telemarketing Sales Rule in the future.

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Public Citizen Objects to Class Action Deal with CareOne

Settlement with debt-relief law firms is insufficient, it argues

A proposed class-action settlement between a debt-adjustment law firm and its clients should be rejected, Public Citizen said in a brief filed Tampa o...

PhotoA proposed class-action settlement between a debt-adjustment law firm and its clients should be rejected, Public Citizen said in a brief filed Tampa on behalf of an objecting class member.

A class of more than 120,000 people alleges that the law firm and an affiliated credit counseling company, CareOne, offered to help consumers settle their debts with their creditors but instead took large fees from the consumers.

"I entered the debt management program at CareOne for the express purpose of lowering my interest rate and consolidating my payments. My cards were not late, my credit is in good standing," Teresa of Illinois told ConsumerAffairs.com last week. "CareOne didn't send my payment in a timely manner to my Citi accounts and after 3 months of 're-negotiating, Citi has now dropped those accounts from my consolidation, leaving me with late fees, a penalty 29% interest and late payments."

Additionally, the law firms are alleged to have misrepresented their debt-settlement services, failed to assist their clients and discouraged their clients from responding to creditors even when the consumers were sued.

Often in settlements in cases against debt-adjustment firms, the plaintiffs recover most or all of the money they paid to the debt adjustor. But under the proposed settlement, wronged members of the class would give up their right to take legal action against the defendants but get nothing in return.

Consumers get nothing

The defendant law firms and affiliated credit counseling company would make a payment to the American Bar Foundation ($100,000), to the settling attorneys (up to $300,000) and to the named plaintiff in the class action ($5,000), and would be responsible for the costs of administering the settlement.

The more than 120,000 other consumers in the class would be forced to surrender any claims that they have against the defendants but not get a penny.

“The release under the proposed settlement is of staggering breadth,” said Michael Kirkpatrick, the Public Citizen attorney representing a member of the class who objects to the proposed settlement. “The release sweeps far beyond the conduct at issue in this lawsuit to grant defendants blanket immunity for any type of claim. The settlement is unfair because in exchange for giving up their legal rights, class members get nothing in return. A settlement that provides no value to the class should be rejected.”

“Class counsel and the representative plaintiff should not be rewarded for selling out the class,” said Scott Michelman, another Public Citizen attorney working on the case.

Payment improper

In addition to the problem of class members getting nothing in this settlement, Public Citizen argues that the proposed payment to the American Bar Foundation is improper because the foundation has no connection to the interests of the class and so would not benefit class members even indirectly.

The defendant law firm involved in the settlement is Persels & Associates, LLC; also named as defendants are its associated and predecessor entities Ruther & Associates, LLC and Legal Advice Line, LCC, along with Persels & Associates attorneys Jimmy M. Persels, Neil Ruther, Robyn R. Freedman. The other defendant is an affiliated debt management company, CareOne Services, Inc.

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Amazon Promises to Fix Kindle Fire Problems

Hot-selling tablet has some glitches that Amazon says it can fix quickly

The tablet has been taking a lot of heat from users about software glitches but Amazon says it will be fixing many of those problem...

PhotoThe hot-selling Kindle Fire tablet has been taking a lot of heat from users about software glitches but Amazon says it will be fixing many of those problems with a software upgrade within the next few weeks.

"In less than two weeks, we're rolling out an over-the-air update to Kindle Fire," an Amazon spokesman told The New York Times, in a story published Sunday.

Amazon wasn't specific about the update but said it would improve overall performance and navigation and would also add a feature that will let users delete their browsing histories, a concern that has been raised by privacy advocates.

Users have also complained the Fire's audio volume is somewhat anemic and have said the device is prone to unpredictable lock-ups that require a full restart.

The initial problems aren't hurting sales of the new tablet.  Amazon says it expects to sell nearly 4 million by year's end, which would give it nearly 14 percent of the global tablet market, second only to Apple's iPad, with nearly 66 percent.  Samsung is expected to end up around 4.5 percent with its Android-based Galaxy Tab.

The Fire's low price -- $199 -- makes it highly competitive with the iPad, which starts at $499.  The Fire includes many high-end features including an LCD screen that displays 16 million colors in high resolution.

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Online Holiday Sales Up Sharply This Year

Last week may have been busiest for online shopping

More holiday shoppers are using the Internet this year...

PhotoEither consumers are spending more money this holiday season or more of that spending has shifted to online sales. Data from research firm comScore over the weekend showed U.S. online sales this holiday shopping season are up 15 percent compared to last year.

Not only that, the company says this past week may have been the busiest week of the season in terms of online sales. The data shows shoppers spent over $1 billion on four days last week. Total sales for the week climbed 15 percent to $6.31 billion compared to last year.

The five days that ended on Friday “will almost certainly be the heaviest week of the online holiday shopping season,” said comScore chairman Gian Fulgoni. Online spending will begin to slow as Christmas draws closer, he said.

Shoppers have spent $30.9 billion online from Nov. 1 through Dec. 16, up from $26.9 billion at the same point last year.

Despite last week's massive spending, “Cyber Monday,” the Monday after Thanksgiving, is still the largest online shopping day ever, according to comScore. Sales for that day rose 22 percent from last year to $1.25 billion. Cyber Monday sales topped $1 billion for the first time last year.

Consumers taking advantage of promotions

What's behind the big jump in online spending? Part of it may have been the product of declining gasoline prices during the autumn months. Consumers feel that they have more money to spend.

Online merchants have also been more aggressive with their marketing, including promotions like "free shipping day."

“Free shipping is undoubtedly one of the most important incentives for consumers and has become a key driver of online buying activity over the past few years,” Fulgoni said. “This season has seen a continuation of the trend where an increasing percentage of transactions involve free shipping, as more consumers demand it and more retailers provide it. During the week of Thanksgiving and Cyber Week we saw at least 3 in 5 transactions use free shipping, significantly higher rates than we’ve ever previously observed.”

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What's On Your Mind? Vizio, US Bank, Best Buy

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Vizio, US Bank, Best Buy, It's your money, but you can't have it yet and Mistreating Santa....

PhotoMost likely a lot of big screen TVs will end up under the tree this year. Let's hope Santa shops carefully and does a lot of homework, because these devices, almost regardless of the make and model, seem to be prone to problems.

"Bought a 65-inch 3D Vizio in February 2011, Dave, of San Antonio, Tex., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "It has gone out. Vizio said they would have the repair man call to set up an appointment in about five days, and in 24 hours after that they should come out. Yep.. Over a week without a television that I paid over $3000.00 for. The question becomes how can a company that makes such items that are repeatedly failing costumers be allowed to continue?"

It's your money, but you can't have it yet

Diane, of Fenton, Mo., says she opened an account at US Bank two weeks ago and Friday deposited her paycheck. She said she was told $200 would be available immediately with the balance available on Saturday.

"I tried withdrawing to buy groceries, get gas and pay bills and was rejected. I spoke with the clerk and gave her my deposit slip," Diane said.

Diane didn't get what she considered a satisfactory explanation so she told the branch manager to close her account and give all of her money back. That's when she got another surprise.

"He refused and said I had to wait five days to get my money," Diane said. "He said it was in all the paperwork he had given me. So, for five days, we are without grocery money, 2 bills will be late, and I have no gas to get back and forth to work with. This is not what I was told when I opened the account."

The delays are probably due to the fact that Diane's account is new. But her point is that she thinks this was not adequately explained when she opened the account.

Mistreating Santa?

Patty, of Decauter, Ala., has a rather unusual complaint against Best Buy. She writes to say she doesn't like the company's Christmas-themed commercials.

"The ads are showing the moms being mean to Santa. It is not right," Patty said. "My kids do not like it! There are enough people who are mean in this world. We do not need to show kids it is alright to be mean to Santa."

The commercials in question show moms competing with Santa to give the best gifts by picking up iPads and other gadgets at Best Buy. They're obviously meant to be humorous and not mean-spirited. Patty probably needs to lighten up a bit.

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Veterans Return to Anemic Economy, Weak Job Market

One war may be over but the battle is just beginning for returning vets

War is hell, but being young and unemployed is no fun either. American forces who survived their tours of duty in Iraq and returning home to a faltering ec...

PhotoWar is hell, but being young and unemployed is no fun either. American forces who survived their tours of duty in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere are returning home to a faltering economy, poor job prospects, questionable education and job-training opportunities and a nation that does not understand their needs.

The unemployment rate for veterans aged 20 to 24 has averaged 30 percent this year, more than double that of others the same age, though the rate for older veterans closely matches that of civilians.

The situation for reservists and those in the National Guard may be even worse, although exact figures are hard to come by.  Federal law prohibits employers from discriminating against reservists and National Guard members but enforcement is less than poor.

No one seems to know quite why veterans are having a harder time finding a job than civilians with similar educations. Most employers say they prefer veterans because they are highly disciplined and more likely to take their work seriously, but those kind words don't often translate into employment.

Hard transition

PhotoPart of the problem, many veterans say, is that the transition from day-to-day life in Iraq or Afghanistan to Main Steet USA is simply so jarrging that returning military personnel are in a state of virtual shell shock, unable to easily switch from worrying about roadside bombs to  keeping track of the Starbucks flavor of the month, the latest Twitter jargon or shopping app.

Aggravating the situation, says a group called Ohio Combat Veterans, is that so few Americans today have served in the military.

"Ninety-nine percent of Americans have not served in the military. That means veterans make up less than 1 percent of the population," the group says on its Web site.  "Yet 25% of the nation's homeless are veterans."

"It’s shell shock for a lot of them, going from such a structured lifestyle to a lifestyle that’s got so many variables,” said group founder Daniel Hutchison, 29, in a New York Times story today.  “They’re dealing with all the emotional things they went through, and they feel like they’re alone.”

Hutchison was so affected by the difficulties and roadblocks he and his returning comrades faced that he uses his combat disability check to cover the start-up costs of his group, which tries to ease the transition and find jobs for returning War on Terror veterans. 

Besides volunteer groups like Hutchison's, there are any number of official government and industry-sponsored jobs programs for veterans, including:

  • U.S. Labor Department administers the Jobs for Veterans Act; 
  • Veterans Affairs Department has numerous training and placement services; and 
  • State employment service offices in every state.  All states provide special programs for veterans.

Many veterans, however, have trouble navigating the bureaucracy and red tape that accompany government programs, partly because of the after-effects of their combat service.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, notes Hutchison, more than 40,000 troops have been physically wounded. The estimates are that over 300,000 will suffer from PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury, severely complicating the return to civilian life. 

Financial pitfalls

PhotoBesides facing the challenge of finding, or returning to, a job, veterans face numerous financial risks and are often targeted by unscrupulous businesses, including payday loan providers and shady car dealers.  

Supposedly reputable businesses have also taken advantage of veterans, sometimes through ignorance of the legal protections afforded to veterans, other times simply because they can get away with it.

The Soldiers and Sailors Credit Relief Act limits the interest rates that can be charged on mortgages, credit cards, auto loans and other debts when military personnel are called to active duty. But it is routinely ignored and prosecution of violators is almost unheard of.

In April, JPMorganChase agreed to pay $56 million to settle claims it overcharged service members for their mortgages.  The case came about only through the action of U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Jonathon Rowles, whose South Carolina home was foreclosed on by Chase while he was flying military missions over South Korea.

Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo, Countrywide and other large financial institutions were also investigated and, in some cases, paid penalties and refunds but most cases go unprosecuted and, once the highly-publicized cases are settled, Congress gets back to its primary task of assuaging large contributors.

So severe was the damage being done to active-duty military by predatory payday loans that in 2005, the Defense Department determined they were affecting military readiness.  

Mild reforms were instituted after the dust-up but as ConsumerAffairs.com reported in July, big banks, unable to pass up iinterest rates averaging 365 percent, are now wading into the payday loan business as alleged government regulators stand meekly by.

For-profit education

PhotoNothing better typifies the shabby treatment afforded returning military than the for-profit colleges and vocational training institutes that have sprouted like weeds over the last decade.

“The price tag for these colleges is so high that about half of all borrowers who default on their student loans attend for-profit colleges,” the consumer group USPIRG said earlier this year. “The quality of the education is so weak that, in one survey, 57 percent of students departed without a diploma.”

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) went on the offensive against for-profit schools and browbeat the U.S. Education Department into adopting tougher standards but many military veterans say they have wasted their education benefits on degrees and certificates that turned out to be worthless.

"If I decide to change schools, none of the credits I received from [University of] Phoenix will be accepted, and this is where Phoenix gets to keep veterans on their books in order to receive more money, because we are veterans," said Timothy of Frankfurt, Ky., earlier this month. "This is a sham, and a poor excuse for a higher education facility."

In his efforts to rein in for-profit schools, Harkin has noted 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.

Strangers at home

Of course, none of this harrumphing and listing of outrages does much to help individual veterans. As in nearly every other sorry situation of corruption and neglect, government agencies and a Congress that is almost totally removed from reality simply don't provide the feet on the street that are needed to deal with each and every individual veteran who needs -- and deserves -- a grateful nation's help.

Grassroots self-help organizations like Hutchison's are the most likely to provide the understanding and unstinting 24/7 dedication that can  eventually help heal those wounded by war and its aftermath. The need is great -- and urgent.  If you know of organizations worthy of public support, please tell us about them.  Email news@consumeraffairs.com.

"The saddest statistic tells a terrible story," Hutchison said. "On average, 18 American veterans commit suicide -- every single day."

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Last Ford Ranger Rolls Off the Line Next Week

Compact pickup truck loses out to brawnier siblings

Say good-bye to the Ford Ranger.  The last of Ford's small pickups rolls off the assembly line sometime next week.  When it does, Ford's Twin Cit...

PhotoSay good-bye to the Ford Ranger.  The last of Ford's small pickups rolls off the assembly line sometime next week.  When it does, Ford's Twin Cities plant in St. Paul, Minn., will close, taking some 800 jobs with it.

What happened to the mid-sized Ranger?  

Auto industry analysts say that over the last few years, Ford put more of its money into the full-sized F-150, offering more and bigger rebates and upgrading the bigger truck's styling and fuel economy.

Basically, we're told, Ford did such a good job with the F-150 that it put the Ranger out of business, as truck buyers discovered they could get a full-sized for about the same price as the little Ranger.

Bad habits

Of course, it didn't help that the Ranger shared many of the problems of its bigger sibling.  Like the F-150, the Ranger had a nasty habit of catching fire.

"I bought a 2001 Ford F-150," said Doug of Royal Palm Beach, Fla. "On July 28, 2011, I parked it at the golf course. On the 9th hole tee box, a ranger came up and asked if I owned a F-150. I said yes. He said 'It's on fire.' It had been parked under a tree for nearly 2 hours. The fire department Captain said it was an engine fire that started on the driver's side."

Some owners, like Carlos of El Sobrante, Calif., complained about erratic handling.

"Truck hydroplaned at around 25 mph from the back. This caused it to spin, losing control, and go off the freeway, rolling sideways down a hill next to the freeway. The truck is a loss. The driver suffered injuries," Carlos told ConsumerAffairs.com.  "There is something very wrong about this truck model. It demonstrated instability at 20-25 mph on the curves, and on one occasion, after starting it uphill, even on dry road."

Bug truck

The last Ranger reportedly will go to Orkin, the pest control company, whose fleet includes many Rangers.  Orkin is probably a typical small-pickup user.  It doesn't haul big loads and needs the maneuverability and ease of operation offered by a smaller truck.

Besides being good light-duty work trucks, Rangers were also popular with consumers who used them to commute to work as well as for weekend handyman and lawn-care chores and for the occasional hunting or fishing trip.  Those who needed a heavy-duty work truck opted for the F-150 or similar models from Chevrolet, Dodge and Toyota.

The energy crisis of the late 1970s built demand for lighter, smaller trucks that didn't guzzle as much gas and the Ranger at one time commanded a healthy share of the market but sales fell off rapidly in the late 1990s and early 2000s, prompting Ford to close its Edison, N.J., plant in 2004.  

Today, the St. Paul plant is producing only 500 or so Rangers per day and by the end of the year, the plant's 86-year run will be over.  It's an economic blow to those who worked there and also to Minnesota, which has lost 100,000 of its 400,000 manufacturing jobs in recent years.

No doubt there's a market for baristas and Walmart greeters, but for semi-skilled workers in the Twin Cities, the Ford plant closing does little to brighten spirits as 2012 dawns.

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Lawmakers Block Incandescent Light Bulb Ban

Republicans withdraw funding to implement new rule

The ban on incandescent light bulbs will not go into effect January 1...

Photo
An LED bulb

Starting January 1, U.S. consumers won't be able to purchase light bulbs that don't meet strict energy conservation standards. Under the rule, most of the cheap, incandescent bulbs on the market today won't be available.

At least, that's what the law says.

But in a lengthy appropriation bill just approved by Congress, there is a provision that eliminates the funding to implement the new rule. As a result, the rule will not go into effect January 1, 2012, as mandated in the 2007 legislation.

As the deadline approached this year, the light bulb became a partisan issue. Democrats generally supported the new rule as a sensible step to reduce the nation's energy consumption. Republicans opposed it, saying the government shouldn't dictate what kind of light bulbs consumers have to buy.

The incandescent bulb hasn't changed much since Edison invented it. It's considered highly inefficient because it produces both heat and light. However, it has the advantage of being very cheap.

CFL and LED bulbs

Its replacements are the Compact Florescent Light (CFL)  and LED bulbs, both much more expensive but advertised as lasting much longer than traditional incandescent bulbs and using much less electricity to produce the same amount of light.

Politics aside, many consumers who've tried out the new bulbs aren't impressed.

"I have replaced numerous GE Energy Smart 13 watt CFL bulbs in the past year," Candace, of Cocoa Beach, Fla., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "All of them say 'lasts 8 years' on the package. I'm lucky if one lasts 8 months! These things are not cheap, and in my humble opinion are a total rip off! As soon as I replace one, another one burns out, and at almost $10 for a package of two bulbs."

For consumers, the reprieve may only be temporary. The 2007 is still on the books and will presumably be implemented at some point.

The U.S. is actually behind much of the rest of the world on the light bulb transition. The European Union and several Latin American countries have already banned them.  

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Northeast Grocery Chain Recalls Ground Beef Products

Possible salmonella contamination feared

Hannaford, a Scarborough, Maine-based grocery chain, is recalling an undetermined amount of fresh ground beef products that may be contaminated with a stra...

PhotoHannaford, a Scarborough, Maine-based grocery chain, is recalling an undetermined amount of fresh ground beef products that may be contaminated with a strain of Salmonella Typhimurium, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced today. 

The products subject to recall are any size package of the following: 

  • "73% Hannaford Regular Ground Beef"
  • "75% Hannaford Regular Ground Beef"
  • "80% Hannaford Regular Ground Beef"
  • "85% Hannaford Regular Ground Beef"
  • "90% Hannaford Regular Ground Beef"
  • "80% Taste of Inspirations Angus Ground Beef"
  • "85% Taste of Inspirations Angus Ground Beef"
  • "90% Taste of Inspirations Angus Ground Beef"
  • "85% Nature's Place Ground Beef"
  • "90% Nature's Place Ground Beef"

This recall was initiated due to concerns about illnesses caused by an outbreak of salmonellosis that may be associated with use and consumption of fresh in-store ground beef prepared in and purchased at Hannaford stores. The PFGE pattern associated with this outbreak is reported rarely in the U.S.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) have reported 14 ill persons with an indistinguishable PFGE pattern, and 11 of those individuals reported consuming ground beef. Seven individuals were hospitalized and no deaths have been reported. Ten of the 14 case-patients reported purchasing ground beef at Hannaford stores in Maine, New York, New Hampshire and Vermont between Oct. 12 and Nov. 20.

No other product description is available at this time.

As a result of on-going epidemiologic and traceback investigations, as well as in-store reviews, FSIS, working with the CDC and its state health partners, determined that there is a link between the Hannaford ground beef products and this illness outbreak. FSIS is continuing to work with CDC, public health partners in the affected states and the company on the investigation. FSIS will continue to provide information as it becomes available. 

The various ground beef packages bear sell-by dates of Dec. 17, 2011 or earlier and were sold at Hannaford stores throughout Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont. FSIS and the company are concerned that some product may be frozen and in consumers' freezers.

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Maryland Takes Action Against Medical-Alert Provider

Company allegedly took money but provided no service

You should shop carefully for a medical-alert alarm provider...

A medical-alert system, offered by national chains and local operators, can provide peace of mind to the elderly and their loved ones. But that peace of mind comes only if you're sure the company is providing the service it says it is.

While the national chains draw their share of consumer complaints, so do the independents. In Maryland, Attorney General Douglas Gansler says his Consumer Protection Division has issued a Cease and Desist Order against Glenn Chumley and his business, Medical Alert Buyers Alliance Corp.

The state alleges that Chumley preyed on elderly consumers by selling them emergency alert devices and one-year service plans promising to connect them with an emergency alert center if they fell or had other medical emergencies, but then failed to respond when they needed help.

'Appalling act'

"Taking advantage of vulnerable Marylanders who depend on their medical alert devices is an appalling act that could lead to serious injury or even death and it must not be tolerated," said Attorney General Gansler. "Consumers rely on emergency alert providers for help when they need it most."

According to the charges, the company entered into contracts with more than 1,000 customers promising to help them, but after going more than $100,000 in debt with a vendor, it stopped providing the emergency alert services for which consumers had already paid. As a result, when consumers had emergencies and pressed the buttons on their emergency alert devices, nobody responded.

No one responded

In a petition that accompanied the charges, one consumer described his elderly mother pressing her emergency alert device when she fell and broke her shoulder, but nobody replied. Another consumer described waiting for hours to get help after she could not reach anyone using the emergency alert device purchased from Chumley's.

To make matters even worse, the state alleges that the company continued to bill consumers for emergency services it did not provide, made unauthorized charges on consumers' credit cards and failed to honor warranties and guaranties that it made to customers.

The order requires Medical Alert Buyers Alliance Corp. to stop selling medical-alert services unless it posts a $20,000 bond with the state.

The lesson in all of this, of course, is finding the right medical-alert/security firm takes some research. One question to ask is how secure is the security firm. Is it adequately funded to provide services in the future. Keep in mind most of these companies require of contract of year or more.

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Fed Report Finds Speculators Played Big Role in Housing Collapse

Speculators defaulted in large numbers as real estate market imploded

Speculators have taken a lot of the blame for the collapse of housing prices and the subsequent financial crisis, but evidence to support the charge has be...

PhotoSpeculators have taken a lot of the blame for the collapse of housing prices and the subsequent financial crisis, but evidence to support the charge has been scant.

Now the New York Federal Reserve has documented the role of speculators in the housing collapse, conducting a study that found real estate "investors" -- borrowers who use financial leverage in the form of mortgage credit to purchase multiple residential properties -- played a very important role in the housing downturn by defaulting in large numbers.

Data unearthed by the Fed included:

  • Investor shares of home purchases roughly doubled between 2000 and 2006.
  • At the peak of the boom in 2006, over a third of all U.S. home purchase lending was made to people who already owned at least one house.
  • In 2007-2009, investors were responsible for more than a quarter of seriously delinquent mortgage balances nationwide.

The effects of investors on the housing bubble are even more pronounced in those states that faced the harshest effects of the bubble.  Arizona, California, Florida and Nevada had the most severe housing downturns, and they also had some of the highest activity of home investors.

The National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) found these highlights in the Fed study: 

  • While investors were responsible for one third of all home purchases nationwide in 2006, this number is approximately 45 percent in these four states.
  • Furthermore, investors with three or more properties constituted 20 percent, which is triple their share from 2000.
  • In the years following the bubble burst, investors were responsible for more than a third of delinquent balances in Arizona, California, Florida and Nevada.

Flipping

The impact of investors on the housing market can be understood by taking a closer look at their basic strategy.  By "flipping" a house, an investor attempts to buy it and sell it as quickly as possible while maximizing profit, NCPA said.  

Because they have little intention of holding onto or living in the house in the long term, they often accepted high interest rates on mortgages in order to minimize down payments.  However, when the housing market dried up and investors were no longer able to clear houses, they were left with unforeseen interest payments that were too high to be kept up with. 

This caused a disproportionate number of investors to become delinquent and for their flipping to contribute strongly to the housing crisis.

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Feds Shut Down Alleged Father-Son Ponzi Scheme

Statewide scheme took in $220 million in Utah

The Securities and Exchange Commission has charged a father and son in Utah with securities fraud for selling purported investments in their real estate bu...

PhotoThe Securities and Exchange Commission has charged a father and son in Utah with securities fraud for selling purported investments in their real estate business that turned out to be nothing more than a wide-scale $220 million Ponzi scheme.

The SEC alleges that Wendell A. Jacobson and his son Allen R. Jacobson operate from a base in Fountain Green, Utah, and offer investors the opportunity to invest in limited liability companies (LLCs) in order to share ownership of large apartment communities in eight states.

The Jacobsons solicit investors personally and through word of mouth, and appear to be using their memberships in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to make connections and win over the trust of prospective investors.

The SEC alleges that the Jacobsons represent that they buy apartment complexes with low occupancy rates at significantly discounted prices. They then renovate them and improve their management, and aim to resell them within five years.

Investors are said to share in the profits derived from rental income at the apartment complexes as well as the eventual sales. But in reality, the LLCs are suffering significant losses and the Jacobsons are merely pooling the money raised from investors into large bank accounts from which they are siphoning money to pay family expenses and the operating expenses of their various companies. They also are paying earlier investors with funds received from new investors in classic Ponzi scheme fashion.

Assets frozen

After filing its complaint yesterday in federal court in Salt Lake City, the SEC obtained an emergency court order freezing the assets of the Jacobsons and their companies.

“Wendell and Allen Jacobson misled investors to believe they were financially supporting what was portrayed as a widespread and reputable operation to revamp apartment communities and turn a significant profit,” said Ken Israel, Director of the SEC’s Salt Lake Regional Office. “Their promises were anything but truthful.”

According to the SEC’s complaint, the Jacobsons raised more than $220 million from approximately 225 investors through a complex web of entities under the umbrella of Management Solutions, Inc.

They have operated the allegedly fraudulent scheme since at least 2008, the complaint said. They sold the securities in the form of investment contracts without filing any registration statement with the SEC as required under the federal securities laws. Wendell and Allen Jacobson are acting as unregistered brokers in connection with their offers and sales of membership interests in LLCs.

The SEC alleges that the Jacobsons falsely assure investors that the principal amount of their investment will be safe, and their funds will be used to acquire, rehabilitate, and manage certain identified properties.

Investors are promised annual returns ranging from 5 to 8 percent per year depending upon the particular apartment complexes pertaining to their LLC, with additional profits promised when the properties are sold. Wendell and Allen Jacobson tell investors that their funds are designated for a particular LLC. Wendell Jacobson has told investors that only one time has he ever lost money on a property, and on that occasion he covered the loss personally so that investor returns would not be reduced.

According to the SEC’s complaint, investor funds are never held and used exclusively to acquire, rehabilitate, and operate rental properties as represented by the Jacobsons.

In fact, the LLCs are experiencing significant net losses, the complaint charges. Nevertheless, the LLCs continue to pay returns to investors, falsely leading those investors to believe their LLCs are operating at a profit. When investor funds are received, they are almost always transferred or pooled immediately in accounts of various Jacobson-owned entities, most commonly in the account of Thunder Bay Mortgage Company. Investor funds are then used for a variety of purposes that have not been disclosed to investors.

The SEC further alleges that on numerous occasions since Jan. 1, 2010, investors have been told that the property owned in their LLC has been sold, and that they have realized a profit on the sale. In fact, those properties were not sold, and the Jacobsons used the alleged “sales” as a means of shifting investors into and out of certain properties. They have essentially been operating a shell game intended to raise additional funds from new or existing investors in order to meet the rapidly growing financial obligations of their operation.

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Bankruptcy More Expensive and Cumbersome Than Ever

Congressional "reform" made the system more complex, study finds

STUDY FINDS BAPCPA’S REQUIREMENTS CREATING INCREASED COSTS AND BURDENS ON CONSUMER DEBTORS AND THE BANKRUPTCY SYSTEMDecember 15, 2011 Alexandria, V...

A new study finds the bankruptcy system is more cumbersome and expensive than ever, thanks to the 2005 Congressional "reform" of bankruptcy laws.

The study found that since the new law took effect, debtors’ attorneys’ fees plus filing fees and the debtor education fee have increased the total direct access costs for both consumer chapter 7 and 13 cases.

The study was funded by the American Bankruptcy Institute Anthony H.N. Schnelling Endowment Fund and National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges Endowment for Education.  It found that the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (BAPCPA) made the bankruptcy system cumbersome and costlier to use for both debtors and bankruptcy professionals.

According to the study, additional debtor paperwork requirements have added time and monetary burdens throughout the consumer bankruptcy system. The new law also imposed new duties and obligations on attorneys, trustees and court personnel.

Increased complexity

The increased complexity of the consumer bankruptcy system calls for professionals to have a “nuanced understanding of the dissonance between how the system is designed to work in theory, and how it works in practice, said Lois R. Lupica, Maine Law Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Maine School of Law, the study's principal investigator.

"There is a disconnect between the skill, time and commitment it takes for attorneys to provide debtors with first-rate representation, and compensation that does not always reflect such excellence,” Lupica said. The “tension inherent in the indispensability of highly skilled consumer bankruptcy attorneys, and the resources reasonably available to sustain a quality bar,” means the system is fighting “best practices.”

Lupica examined a national random sample of 11,221 chapter 7 and chapter 13 consumer cases (approximately 0.12 percent of the consumer bankruptcy cases filed) in 90 judicial districts filed between 2003 and 2009. 

A full copy of the study is available online

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What's On Your Mind? Maytag, NationStar, Jackson Hewitt

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Maytag washers, NationStar's mortgage lender phone calls, Jackson Hewitt, late is late and choose a preparer care...

PhotoWhen a brand new washer breaks down in the first year you might not be overly concerned, since it has to be under warranty. But not so fast. Let Pat,of Elkhart, Ind., tell you about her experience.

"I purchased a Maytag Bravo 300 from Lowes in February of 2011," Pat told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Last week I was doing a load a laundry and the washer stop in mid-cycle, and it gave an alarm and error code "d. I checked out the manual and it said there was a problem with the drain line. I check the drain line and it was fine, so I called Maytag to have a service man take a look at it. Before he even looked at the washer he said it was probably the pump, and it is not covered under warranty, and he said that it will cost $140."

Pat says the repairman told her that the pump is too small for the unit.

"He obviously sees this all the time," Pat said.

Late is late

Lezlie, of Long Beach, N.Y. is another consumer who apparently doesn't understand what a payment "grace period" means.

"In the past few months, NationStar Mortgage has starting calling our house approximately six times a day after the sixth of the month on, to inform us that we are 'late' on our mortgage," Lezlie said. "They also call my work twice a day. Like others, we have a grace period until the 16th of the month, after which a late fee is charged. I have filed complaints with the BBB and the Texas Attorney General's Office and would encourage others to do the same. It is shocking that a business is allowed to get away with this."

Lezlie, your mortgage lender is well within its rights to prompt you for a late payment, and if you pay after the due date, your payment is late. A grace period is provided as a courtesy because things can happen, and a payment might be mailed late a couple of times a year. The grace period means the consumer doesn't get reported to the credit agencies if they make up the payment quickly. Consumers who habitually milk the grace period run the risk of causing lenders to review the hole concept of a grace period.

Choose a preparer carefully

With tax filing season starting next month, it might be good to give some throught now to who is going to prepare your taxes. It can make a difference.

"I had used Jackson Hewitt when I lived in Maryland so I used it at a Wal-Mart location here," said David, of Marion, N.C. "It took the man a LONG time to complete. When it was all finished he charged $210, more than I had ever paid. I told him about the move. He didn't mention I could get a deduction because of the move. I waited some time for the refund and it didn't come. I finally called IRS and they had no record of a filing! I called Jackson Hewitt and was told to go to another branch. The woman at that tax office gave me a disc with my info and told me to take it someplace else. I was fed up and took it to another tax preparer who understood my problem with Jackson Hewitt and filed it free and I was able to claim the move and it turned out better."

The problem with a national franchise tax preparer is one office might be terrific and another not so good. A consumer really has no way of knowing. It's better to do what David finally did, finding a reputable independent tax preparer or accountant, who likely will be there year after year.

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Subaru Wins Top Safety Ratings for Every 2012 Model

Stronger roofs bolster safety ratings of many models

Cars keep getting safer but Subaru is the only manufacturer this year to win the distinction of having every one of its models chosen as a Top Safety Pick ...

PhotoCars keep getting safer but Subaru is the only manufacturer this year to win the distinction of having every one of its models chosen as a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which gave the designation to a total of 115 models covering every size range.

In all, 69 cars, 38 SUVs, 5 minivans, and 3 pickups earned the IIHS' top safety award, which recognizes vehicles that do the best job of protecting people in front, side, rollover, and rear crashes

Because the federal government now requires all 2012 and later passenger vehicles to have electronic stability control to help drivers avoid loss-of-control crashes, ESC no longer is a requirement to win as it was in prior years.

The winners' circle includes 18 new recipients for 2012, while 97 models that previously qualified for the 2011 award carry over to 2012.

"For the second year running a record number of models qualify," says Institute president Adrian Lund. "It's tough to win, and we commend auto manufacturers for making safety a top priority."

That commitment to protecting people in crashes is evident in the fast pace of design improvements automakers have made during the past year, Lund said. Initially 66 vehicles qualified for last year's award as less-than-perfect rollover ratings held back many contenders. Later the number climbed to 100 as manufacturers redesigned roofs to make them stronger or introduced new models to win.

Again this year every major automaker has at least one winner. Subaru remains the only manufacturer with the distinction of earning awards for every model it builds. Subaru picks up five awards, including one for the redesigned Impreza, a small car.

Toyota/Lexus/Scion has 15 winners for 2012, more than any other auto manufacturer. General Motors is next with 14, followed by Volkswagen/Audi with 13, and Ford/Lincoln and Honda/Acura with 12 awards apiece.

Honda improves

PhotoTen of the 18 new additions are Honda/Acura models, including the midsize Accord sedan, which hasn't earned the top pick since the Institute toughened criteria to win the 2010 award by adding a test to assess roof strength in a rollover crash.

Vehicles rated good for rollover protection have roofs more than twice as strong as the current federal standard requires. The Institute estimates that such roofs reduce the risk of serious and fatal injury in single-vehicle rollovers by about 50 percent compared with roofs meeting the minimum requirement. A new federal standard for roof strength will phase in beginning with 2013 models.

Roofs on the 2009 Honda CR-V and 2010 Pilot scored marginal ratings in prior Institute tests, while earlier models of the Accord, CR-Z, Fit, and Insight rated acceptable. Now all of these 2012 models earn good ratings and the top pick.

"Honda/Acura deserves credit for most-improved status," Lund says. "The automaker buckled down and upgraded roofs on 10 models that missed winning last year because of rollover protection. Now, the automaker has winners in the minicar, small car, midsize car, small SUV, midsize SUV, minivan, and large pickup categories."

Another midsize sedan, the Toyota Camry, earns its first-ever top safety pick. Last year, the Camry missed the mark because of a marginal rating for seat/head restraints. The Toyota Yaris also earns its first award. Toyota upgraded the roof and seat/head restraints of the 4-door hatchback model to win. Good ratings secure the Yaris a spot alongside 3 other minicars, the Fiat 500, Ford Fiesta, and Honda Fit, as 2012 winners.

"It's great to see the Accord and Camry, 2 of the top-selling midsize cars in the U.S. market, join the top safety pick ranks this year," Lund says. "The Accord previously won the 2009 award but has been missing from the list since then."

Greener

With fuel efficiency and reduced emissions on many buyers' wish lists, the winners' circle includes more green choices. Toyota's all-new Prius v is among them. Roomier than the original, the v hybrid brings to 15 the number of winners available as hybrids. The plug-in electric Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf, winners in 2011, also earn this year's award.

For drivers who need to haul loads, the Ford F-150, Honda Ridgeline, and Toyota Tundra are good choices in the large pickup category. Small pickups continue to be shut out. None the Institute has evaluated qualify for the award.

"When we launched top safety pick in 2005, consumers had 11 models to pick from. Six years later, finding a winner that fits most budgets and lifestyles is easy," Lund says. "It's a testament to the commitment automakers have made to going above and beyond minimum safety standards."

Complete list

Minicars
Fiat 500 built after July 2011
Ford Fiesta sedan and hatchback
Honda Fit
Toyota Yaris 4-door hatchback

Small cars
Chevrolet Cruze
Chevrolet Sonic
Chevrolet Volt
Ford Focus
Honda Civic 4-door
Honda CR-Z
Honda Insight
Hyundai Elantra
Kia Forte sedan
Kia Soul
Lexus CT 200h
Mazda 3 sedan and hatchback
Mini Cooper Countryman
Mitsubishi Lancer except Ralliart and Evolution
Nissan Cube
Nissan Juke
Nissan Leaf
Scion tC
Scion xB
Scion xD
Subaru Impreza except WRX
Toyota Corolla
Toyota Prius
Volkswagen Golf 4-door
Volkswagen GTI 4-door

Midsize moderately priced cars
Audi A3
Buick Verano
Chevrolet Malibu
Chrysler 200 4-door
Dodge Avenger
Ford Fusion
Honda Accord
Hyundai Sonata
Kia Optima
Subaru Legacy
Subaru Outback
Toyota Camry
Toyota Prius v
Volkswagen Jetta sedan
Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen
Volkswagen Passat
Volvo C30

Midsize luxury/near luxury cars
Acura TL built after September 2011
Acura TSX sedan and hatchback
Audi A4
Lincoln MKZ
Mercedes C-Class
Volkswagen CC except 4-wheel drive
Volvo S60

Large family cars
Buick LaCrosse
Buick Regal
Chrysler 300
Dodge Charger
Ford Taurus
Toyota Avalon

Large luxury cars
Audi A6
BMW 5 series except 4-wheel drive and V8
Cadillac CTS sedan
Hyundai Equus
Hyundai Genesis
Infiniti M37/M56 except M56x 4-wheel drive
Lincoln MKS
Mercedes E-Class sedan
Mercedes E-Class coupe
Saab 9-5
Volvo S80

Small SUVs 
Honda CR-V
Hyundai Tucson
Jeep Patriot with optional side torso airbags
Kia Sportage
Subaru Forester
Volkswagen Tiguan

Midsize SUVs
Chevrolet Equinox
Dodge Durango
Dodge Journey
Ford Edge
Ford Explorer
Ford Flex
GMC Terrain
Honda Pilot
Hyundai Santa Fe
Jeep Grand Cherokee
Kia Sorento
Subaru Tribeca
Toyota Highlander
Toyota Venza

Midsize luxury SUVs
Acura MDX
Audi Q5
BMW X3
Cadillac SRX
Infiniti EX35
Lexus RX
Lincoln MKT
Lincoln MKX
Mercedes GLK
Mercedes M-Class
Saab 9-4X
Volvo XC60
Volvo XC90

Large SUVs
Buick Enclave
Chevrolet Traverse
GMC Acadia
Volkswagen Touareg

Minivans
Chrysler Town & Country
Dodge Grand Caravan
Honda Odyssey
Toyota Sienna
Volkswagen Routan

Large pickups
Ford F-150 crew cab models
Honda Ridgeline
Toyota Tundra crew cab models

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Bumbo Baby Sitters a Continuing Danger to Infants

Ineffective recall campaign does little to stop injuries to infants

The Bumbo Baby Sitter is not, as its name implies, something that "baby sits" infants.  It is instead a plastic seat that helps infants sit upright be...

PhotoThe Bumbo Baby Sitter is not, as its name implies, something that "baby sits" infants.  It is instead a plastic seat that helps infants sit upright before they are able to do so on their own.

The problem with this is that babies can arch their backs and hurl themselves out of the Bumbo.  That's bad if the Bumbo is on the floor but it's really bad if a parent or caregiver has placed the Bumbo on a table or counter.

There have been at least 45 known incidents in which infants fell from Bumbos.  In 17 of those cases, the infants suffered skull fractures, which are always serious and can be life-threatening. In at least 50 other reported cases, babies managed to wriggle out of Bumbos that had been placed on the floor, resulting in two skull fractures and a concussion.

The seats, made by Bumbo International Trust of South Africa, were recalled on October 25, 2007 but, like many recalls, the action did not require that the seats be collected and destroyed -- or even that that they no longer be sold.  Instead, Bumbo International agreed to put safety-warning stickers on the seats, warning parents and caregivers to keep an eye on their children.

The company dutifully supplied the stickers to parents who bothered to ask for them and now slaps the stickers on new seats, which continue to line the shelves of Toys R Us and other mass merchandisers.

Parents protest

Parents were quick to complain that the recall was too little, too late -- and that was back in 2007.

"I feel that this item should be taken off the market, as a new warning label is not going to reduce the hazard this product poses," said Wendy of Hawthorne Fla., in a 2007 complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com. Wendy said her child was injured while her Bumbo was on the floor.

"I have a Bumbo Baby Seat and have always used it as suggested. I keep it on the floor and keep a close eye on my daughter," Wendy said. "She weighs way less than the 22 lbs suggested maximum weight. She still managed to come out of the seat landing on her head resulting in a large bruise."

Not much has happened since then.  The seats are still being sold, some 3.85 million of them since 2003 and, from what we hear, babies are still falling out of them.

"My 8 month old daughter fell out of the chair while she was on the floor in our living room!" said Scarlett of Oil City, Pa. in a July 2011 complaint. "She was reaching over the side for a toy and she went face first into the carpet! The idea is good but NOT SAFE for your child!"

What's being done?

So what is being done about this clear and present danger to infants? Well, the supposedly rejuvenated and re-energized U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has issued a press release reminding parents and caregivers not to let their infants fall off of tables.

More aggressive action is coming from the much-maligned trial bar. In Austin, Texas, Ross Cunningham of the Rose Walker law firm old Reuters he has settled a dozen lawsuits over Bumbo's safety.

Of course, while a settlement presumably provides compensation to the injured parties it does nothing to get dangerous products off the market. Also, in nearly every case, companies routinely require that the court proceedings be sealed as a condition of the settlement, thus preventing the public from learning of the case.

In one lawsuit that's still pending, Cunningham alleges that Bumbo "has taken no effort" to reconfigure the product to prevent children from getting out of it, "despite having actual knowledge of the dangers associated with the Bumbo Baby Sitter...and the potential of the Bumbo Baby Sitter to cause serious injury to children."

Bumbo says the seat is safe when used as directed.  In merchandising directories, the company boasts that "Innovation, Safety and Comfort are the two [sic] most important starting points for developing any of our products here at Bumbo."

Brain development

"No parent can afford to be without a Bumbo," according to the company's listing in GVPedia.com, an international business directory. The company goes on to promote the Bumbo as stimulating infants' brain development:

"[I]t enables and encourages babies' interest in their environment, which, until now, has been problematic for moms (who, contrary to popular belief, only have one pair of hands). And this interest, a crucial element for stimulating brain development, profoundly affects Baby’s intelligence over the long term." 

In fairness, it should be noted that on the home page of its corporate site, Bumbo posts this warning:

WARNING! Prevent falls
Never use the Bumbo baby seat on any elevated surface.
The seat is not designed to be totally restrictive.
Use of the seat on any elevated surface may result in serious injury.
Never leave your child unattended.

No doubt that's good advice but whether it's adequate, given the clear danger of the product, is a question perhaps not yet fully addressed.

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Supplement Maker Found in Contempt

Lane Labs had been previously barred from making deceptive health claims

A federal judge has ruled in favor of the Federal Trade Commission, finding supplement marketer Lane Labs-USA Inc., and its president Andrew Lane in contem...

PhotoA federal judge has ruled in favor of the Federal Trade Commission, finding supplement marketer Lane Labs-USA Inc., and its president Andrew Lane in contempt of a court order that bars them from making deceptive health claims.

 In 2000, the FTC charged Lane Labs with making unsupported and false claims that BeneFin and Skin Answer, a shark cartilage product and a skin cream, could prevent, treat, or cure cancer, and were clinically proven to do so. 

Lane Labs and Andrew Lane settled the charges by agreeing to a court order that barred them from making unsupported health claims about any food, drug, or dietary supplement.

In 2007, the FTC filed civil contempt charges against the defendants alleging that they violated the 2000 order based on their advertising and marketing of AdvaCAL, a calcium supplement the defendants touted as vastly superior to competing calcium products and prescription drugs used to treat osteoporosis.  The charges were filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.

Violated court order

The district court ruled last month that the defendants violated the 2000 order by making unsupported claims that AdvaCAL is three-to-four times more absorbable than other calcium supplements, and distorting the results of tests and studies on AdvaCAL and competing calcium supplements. The district court also rejected the defendants’ claim that they substantially complied with the order, because their violations were not merely technical or inadvertent.

The recent decision follows an October 2010 ruling from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals overturning the district court’s original denial of the FTC’s contempt motion.  The appeals court determined that the defendants had violated the order by making unsupported claims that AdvaCAL was comparable or superior to prescription drugs.  The appeals court then sent the case back to the district court, which ruled last month that the defendants were in contempt. 

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What Does A Doctor Order At A Fast Food Restaurant?

You can eat out and control your weight

Tips for ordering at a fast food restaurant...

PhotoGoing on a diet, or at least watching your calories, doesn't necessarily mean you have to stay away from fast food restaurants. It all depends on what you order when you go to one.

And let's face it, in a busy life it's sometimes hard to avoid fast food. Often, you don't have the time to plan, prepare and consume three low-calorie, nutritious meals a day.

“The average American consumes close to 50 percent of his or her meals outside of the home and fast-food restaurants are abundant,” said Dr. Jessica Bartfield, an internist who specializes in nutrition and weight management at Gottlieb Memorial Hospital, part of Loyola University Health System. “By following a few rules, you can keep any fast food meal in calorie check.”

Closet fast food fan

It turns out Bartfield might not be typical of others in her profession. She admits to liking fast food restaurants. By looking over her shoulder, and watching what she orders, dieters might get some solid tips on eating out and not packing on the pounds.

Bartfield says she likes sandwich shops that allow customers to load up on vegetable toppings, which adds nutritional value, and also pass on higher-calorie ingredients like cheese and dressings.

“I am also a fan of fast-food places that offer soup or even chili as soup can be a terrific option, particularly ones loaded with veggies, lean meats and beans,” she said. “Be careful to avoid the cream- or cheese-based soups and beware the bread bowl, which can increase the calories by up to 1,000.”

Bartfield listed for us her top five fast food tips:

  1. Select grilled rather than fried. A fast-food grilled chicken sandwich has 470 calories and 18 grams of fat while the fried version has 750 calories and 45 grams of fat.
  2. Hold off on cheese, mayonnaise and salad dressings unless low-fat options are available. Cheese can add an additional 100 calories or more per serving, as does mayonnaise and, often, you won’t miss the taste when ordering the plainer versions.
  3. Order the smallest size available. Go for the single burger rather than the double and for the small fry rather than bonus-size.
  4. Skip sugar-sweetened drinks, which are usually absent in nutritional value and don’t make you feel more satisfied. These calories quickly add up leading to excessive calorie consumption, especially at restaurants offering free refills on drinks.
  5. Save half of your order for your next meal. You save calories, save time and also save money.
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Poll Finds Boomers Less Optimistic About Retirement

Large number say they'll depend on Social Security

Baby Boomers are more concerned about retirement now...

PhotoAll along it was assumed that Baby Boomers would do retirement differently than their parents. A new survey suggests that's true, not because of any sense of independence but out of economic circumstances.

First, Boomers might not have saved all that much money for retirement. Second, the Great Recession hit at just the wrong time for many who were contemplating an early retirement. As a result, a survey by Allstate and the National Journal shows 68 percent of Boomers say they expect to keep working, in some form, past the traditional retirement age of 65.

About 50 percent of them say they'll keep working out of economic necessity. Only 11 percent of current retirees report they have jobs.

Impact of the Great Recession

"The impact of the recession on the middle class is larger than past recessions. Not only is long-term unemployment at record levels, but Baby Boomers now say they will have to retire six years later than previous retirees," said Thomas J. Wilson, Allstate chairman, president and chief executive officer. "Sandwiched between the happily retired and the optimistic young, these near-retirees feel the pain of their declining home values and retirement savings and expect to work until 66 years of age. This profound decline in Baby Boomers' retirement expectations has significant public policy and private market implications."

The poll found that people nearing retirement have different expectations about the sources of their retirement income and their financial security in retirement than current retirees. Both groups express a similar reliance on Social Security: 68 percent of retirees say it is a major source of income; 62 percent of near-retirees expect it to be.

Pensions less of a factor

However, more than half of current retirees cite a pension as a major income source, while only 37 percent of near-retirees expect the same. Meanwhile, 34 percent of near-retirees expect part-time work to be a major income source, while only 8 percent of current retirees report part-time work due to economic necessity.

While 79 percent of current retirees say they're confident about their retirement security, only 67 percent of near-retirees say the same.

"For those approaching retirement, the sense of security expressed by many of today's retired seniors looks like a ship that is sailing beyond reach," said Ronald Brownstein, editorial director of National Journal Group. "This survey captures a palpably greater degree of anxiety among near-retirees – families that have been exposed more directly to the battering of the job, housing, and stock markets."

401(k) funds not that significant

Despite the wide-spread availability of 401(k) retirement plans in the last two decades, only 39 percent of near-retirees expect these tax-deferred funds to be a major source of retirement income. Perhaps because of that, only 25 percent say they expect their retirement to be more comfortable than their parents'.

Also no surprise, near-retirees overwhelmingly support Medicare in its present form, as opposed to a voucher system recently floated by some House Republicans.  

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Consumers Lack Protections for Mobile Payments

Consumers union wants wireless carriers to step up to the plate

Most cell phone and tablet users can purchase digital goods and charge them to their monthly bill or prepaid phone account. But they may not get the protec...

PhotoMost cell phone and tablet users can purchase digital goods and charge them to their monthly bill or prepaid phone account. But they may not get the protections they need to limit their financial liability if something goes wrong with the transaction.

The protections consumers receive will vary depending on their wireless carrier's policies and what's in their cell phone contract, according to a new analysis by Consumers Union.

"Consumers using mobile payments should get the same strong protections they currently enjoy when they make purchases with a credit card or debit card," said Michelle Jun, senior attorney for Consumers Union, the nonprofit advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. "But we found that consumer rights can vary widely between wireless carriers and the protections carriers claim to provide are often nowhere to be found in customer contracts."

In May 2011, Consumers Union called on the top wireless carriers to strengthen their contracts to protect consumers in the event that their phone is lost or stolen or if a merchant makes a billing mistake or the customer is not satisfied with a purchase. The consumer group urged the carriers to provide the same strong protections guaranteed by law when consumers use a credit card or debit card.

In addition, Consumers Union pressed the companies to provide consumers across the country with the same protections California phone customers are entitled to receive as a result of regulations issued by the state's Public Utilities Commission (PUC).

Carriers say it's adequate

Since May, Consumers Union has been in communication with representatives from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless to find out how they handle disputed mobile payment transactions. All four carriers maintain that they provide ample protections for consumers.

However, Consumers Union found that the protections these carriers provide fall short of what consumers get when they use credit cards and debit cards or when California consumers report a disputed charge on their phone accounts. In addition, many of the protections that wireless carrier representatives described to Consumers Union are not disclosed in customer contracts, making it difficult to know whether consumers can count on these safeguards when problems arise.

"As new mobile payment options become available, consumers are better off sticking to services linked to credit cards or debit cards, which come with strong protections required by law," said Jun. "If wireless carriers want consumers to have confidence in direct carrier billing programs, they should strengthen their contracts with the protections consumers need."

For more details, see How Top Wireless Carriers Compare on Consumers Protections for Mobile Payments.

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Don't Fall For A Loan Audit Scam

Foreclosure rescue scam gets a new name

FTC tips for avoiding loan audit scam...

PhotoBy now many distressed homeowners know they should avoid "foreclosure rescuers," most of which are scams. So the scammers call it something else, like a "forensic loan audit."

That might sound impressive, but the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says it's not.

"In exchange for an upfront fee of several hundred dollars, so-called forensic loan auditors, mortgage loan auditors, or foreclosure prevention auditors backed by forensic attorneys offer to review your mortgage loan documents to determine whether your lender complied with state and federal mortgage lending laws," the agency warns. "The “auditors” say you can use the audit report to avoid foreclosure, accelerate the loan modification process, reduce your loan principal, or even cancel your loan."

You can't. According to the FTC and its law enforcement partners:

  • there is no evidence that forensic loan audits will help you get a loan modification or any other foreclosure relief, even if they’re conducted by a licensed, legitimate and trained auditor, mortgage professional or lawyer.
  • some federal laws allow you to sue your lender based on errors in your loan documents. But even if you sue and win, your lender is not required to modify your loan simply to make your payments more affordable.
  • If you cancel your loan, you will have to return the borrowed money, which may result in you losing your home.

 

This new breed of foreclosure rescuer looks for homeowners in distress, especially those already facing foreclosure, to make their pitch. The FTC says these homeowners need to be able to recognize these scams when they see them and understand that there are legitimate options available if you are facing foreclosure.

Spotting a Scam

If you’re looking for foreclosure prevention help, avoid any business that:

  • guarantees to stop the foreclosure process – no matter what your circumstances are
  • instructs you not to contact your lender, lawyer or credit or housing counselor
  • collects a fee before providing any services accepts payment only by cashier’s check or wire transfer
  • encourages you to lease your home so you can buy it back over time
  • recommends that you make your mortgage payments directly to it, rather than your lender
  • urges you to transfer your property deed or title to it
  • offers to buy your house for cash at a fixed price that is inappropriate for the housing market
  • pressures you to sign papers you haven’t had a chance to read thoroughly or that you don’t understand.

Finding Legitimate Help

Housing experts say that when you’re behind on your mortgage payments, maintaining communication with your lender is the most important thing you can do. Contact your lender or servicer immediately if you’re having trouble paying your mortgage or you have received a foreclosure notice. You may be able to negotiate a new repayment schedule.

Call 1-888-995-HOPE for free personalized advice from housing counseling agencies certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  

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What's On Your Mind? Verizon, Discover, Dell

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Verizon, Discover, Dell, Unprotected and poorer and Catch 22....

PhotoThere is no doubt that online bill pay through your local bank has many advantages. However, it requires you to be very, very careful when you enter the amount of a bill you want to pay.

"I paid my Verizon phone bill of $49.46 on November 14 through my online banking," Steve, of Azusa, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I didn't put a decimal point in and paid them $4,496. It was my fault, no doubt, but they are not sending me a refund. They say they need proof that my bank paid them. They sent me a statement where they took out the $49.46 and the next month's bill and I still have a credit of over $4,800. But still won't send me the credit."

Steve is going to have to greatly escalate this to get it rectified, we're afraid. Lower-level customer service personnel may have a difficult time authorizing a refund of that size, even if it is clearly owed. Steve needs to explain his situation to someone high up the chain of command.

If all else fails, he can cancel his phone service, at which time Verizon would have to pay any credit on his account. He can then re-establish service. A bother, true, but at least he'll get his money back. Otherwise, he has essentially pre-paid his phone bill for more than eight years.

Unprotected and poorer

Kelly, of Tustin, Calif., is another consumer who purchased a "payment protection plan" on her Discover account and, despite paying $60 a month for this coverage, has found it of little use.

"In November 2008, I was diagnosed with leukemia and went on disability," Kelly said. "When I returned home from the hospital in January 2009, we contacted Discover about activating the benefit. They sent us forms that we provided to my doctor, and my doctor returned the forms to Discover. A few months later, Discover sent us correspondence indicating that they did not receive necessary information from my doctor, so my benefit claim was being closed.

Despite that, Kelly went on paying $60 a month for the benefit she wasn't receiving. After applying for the benefit a second time, she said she was again denied.

"In May 2011, we lost our home to foreclosure," Kelly said. "Our payments to Discover were automatic. After moving to a rental, I found that we were still paying a minimum amount, and still incurring 22 percent interest and still paying $60 a month for a benefit we've never received. Why are we paying $60 a month for a benefit that is actually costing us money?

Why indeed? Some consumers feel the need to take out "insurance" on their appliances and credit cards, but they should keep in mind these policies are almost always to the company's advantage.

Catch 22

William, of San Antonio, Tex., bought a Dell Inspiron 1750 in December 2009. He also paid for what he thought was an additional warranty which provided coverage until Dec 2014.

"The keyboard quit working on Dec 14 2011." William said. "I called Dell for Service with the warranty and was told that I did not have a warranty but I had accidental insurance and that they would refund the money I had paid for non-existing warranty. I argued to no avail that I had bought a warranty but their response is canned as I am sure this is not the first instance. When I talked to the warranty department I was told I could not have the insurance without a warranty and that I would have to pay for the repair in order to get the warranty."

Wow, trying to follow this makes our head hurt! Surely William has the paperwork from his warranty insurance. If he doesn't, he's probably out of luck. To consumers considering an extended warranty on anything, put the money you would have spent on the warranty away and don't spend it. When the item breaks, use the money to help pay for the repair. Nine times out of ten you'll be better off.

And we just have to say ... this is an awful lot of bother, angst and consternation over a keyboard.  William can go to any Best Buy and pick up a keyboard for $20 or less.  Is it really worth fighting over?

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Cigarette Smoking Down, Marijuana Smoking Up

Teen smoking, drinking habits show overall improvement

Are teens smoking more or less?  Good question, and there's no simple yes or no answer.A survey released today by the University of Michigan, A...

PhotoAre teens smoking more or less?  Good question, and there's no simple yes or no answer.

A survey released today by the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, finds that cigarette and alcohol use by eighth, 10th and 12th-graders are at their lowest point since the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey began polling teenagers in 1975.

However, researchers found a slowing rate of decline in teen smoking as well as continued high rates of abuse of other tobacco products (e.g., hookahs, small cigars, smokeless tobacco), marijuana and prescription drugs.

The survey results appear to show that more teens continue to abuse marijuana than cigarettes; and alcohol is still the drug of choice among all three age groups queried.

"That cigarette use has declined to historically low rates is welcome news, given our concerns that declines may have slowed or stalled in recent years," said NIDA director Dr. Nora D. Volkow. "That said, the teen smoking rate is declining much more slowly than in years past, and we are seeing teens consume other tobacco products at high levels.

"This highlights the urgency of maintaining strong prevention efforts against teen smoking and of targeting other tobacco products," Volkow said.

PhotoThe 2011 results showed that 18.7 percent of 12th-graders reported current (past-month) cigarette use, compared to a recent peak rate of 36.5 percent in 1997 and 21.6 percent five years ago. Only 6.1 percent of eighth-graders reported current smoking, compared to a recent peak of 21 percent in 1996 and 8.7 percent five years ago.

"While it is good news that cigarette use has declined to historically low rates, we can and must do more to accelerate that decline," said Howard K. Koh, MD, MPH, assistant secretary for health. "The actual decline is relatively small compared to the sharp declines we witnessed in the late nineties."

Less alcohol

For alcohol, 63.5 percent of 12th-graders reported past year use, compared to a recent peak of 74.8 percent in 1997. Similarly, 26.9 percent of eighth-graders reported past year use of alcohol in 2011, compared to a recent peak rate of 46.8 percent in 1994.

There also was a five-year decrease in binge drinking, measured as five or more drinks in a row in the past two weeks, across all three grades. Binge drinking was reported by 6.4 percent of eighth-graders, 14.7 percent of 10th-graders, and 21.6 percent of 12th-graders, down from the 2006 rates of 8.7 percent, 19.9 percent and 25.4 percent respectively.

Despite the declines noted in the report, use of marijuana has shown some increases in recent years and remains steady. Among 12th-graders, 36.4 percent reported past year use, and 6.6 percent reported daily use, up from 31.5 and 5 percent, respectively, five years ago.

The upward trend in teens' abuse of marijuana corresponded to downward trends in their perception of risk. For example, only 22.7 percent of high school seniors saw great risk in smoking marijuana occasionally, compared to 25.9 percent five years ago.

Similarly, 43.4 percent of eighth-graders reported that they saw great risk in smoking marijuana occasionally, compared to 48.9 percent five years ago. In addition, concerns about the use of synthetic marijuana, known as K2 or spice, prompted its inclusion in the survey for the first time in 2011. Surprisingly, 11.4 percent of 12th-graders reported past year use.

"K2 and spice are dangerous drugs that can cause serious harm," said Gil Kerlikowske, director of National Drug Control Policy. "Parents are the most powerful force in the lives of young people and we ask that all of them talk to their teens today about the serious consequences of using marijuana, K2, or spice."

Prescription drugs

There was mixed news seen in the non-medical use of prescription drugs. Abuse of the opioid painkiller Vicodin was reported by 8.1 percent of 12th graders -- similar to 2010 and down from 9.7 percent in 2009. There was also a decline reported by 10th graders -- to 5.9 percent from 7.7 percent in 2010. However, no such declines were seen for the opioid painkiller OxyContin.

In 2011, the non-medical use of the ADHD medicines Adderall and Ritalin remained about the same as last year among 12th-graders, at 6.5 and 2.6 percent, respectively. There was, however, a significant decline in the abuse of over-the-counter cough medicine among eighth-graders, down to 2.7 percent in 2011 from 4.2 percent in 2006, when the survey first asked about its abuse. A similar decline in cough medicine abuse was seen among 12th-graders, to 5.3 percent from 6.9 percent five years ago.

"To help educate teens about the dangers of prescription drug abuse, NIDA is launching an updated prescription drug section on our teen website," said Dr. Volkow. "Teens can go to our PEERx pages to find interactive videos and other tools that help them make healthy decisions and understand the risks of abusing prescription drugs. 

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Study: Family Members Most Likely To Commit Financial Elder Abuse

Ten tips for avoiding becoming a victim

family and friends most likely to commit financial elder abuse...

PhotoA word of advice to senior citizens: be very careful which family members you trust with your finances. In fact, researchers at Virginia Tech suggest you might be better off finding someone outside your circle of family and friends to help you.

Karen A. Roberto, director of the Center for Gerontology at Virginia Tech, found that of the 1,128 news articles on elder abuse published from November 2010 through January 2011, 31 percent dealt with abuse of a financial nature.

Family, friends, neighbors

Although slightly more than one-quarter of these events were identified as singular random acts incurring relatively minor financial losses, a high level of brutality and disregard for human life characterized these crimes, she found.

Even more disturbing is the revelation that family, friends, and neighbors were identified as perpetrators in 45 percent of these cases and the overall dollar losses at the hands of family and friends were higher than from any other category of perpetrators.

“Our findings support what service providers have long suspected, older adults are particularly vulnerable to financial abuse during the holidays,” said Roberto. “This might be due to the increase in the frequency of visitors in and out of their homes, money flowing more freely, and distractions that take them out of their normal routines.”

The research study, which also analyzed newsfeeds from April through June of 2010, determined that older Americans are losing $2.9 billion annually to elder financial abuse, a 12 percent increase from the $2.6 billion estimated in 2008. “A trend,” said Roberto, “that perhaps is a reflection of the state of the economy.”

Women more likely to be victims

Elderly women, especially those between the ages of 80 and 89, were found to be nearly twice as likely to fall victim to financial abuse as men. They often lived alone and frequently required some level of assistance with either health care or home maintenance.

Conversely, nearly 60 percent of perpetrators were found to be younger males between the ages of 30 and 59. In almost all cases reported through the newsfeeds studied, financial abuse was achieved through deceit, threats and emotional manipulation of the elder.

Roberto offers 10 tips of preventing financial abuse:

  1. Stay active and engage with others; isolation increases both vulnerability and opportunity for victimization.
  2. Monitor your financial affairs. Even if assistance is needed, you or a trusted friend or family member should double check bank and credit card statements and other financial transactions. It is advisable to use direct deposit when possible and to sign your own checks if able.
  3. Stay organized. Know where your financial documents are (including wills, trusts, and power of attorney). Keep them safe and review annually; update as circumstances change.
  4. Discuss benefits of appointing a Power of Attorney with your attorney so that your directives can be adhered to even if you become incapable of stating them yourself.
  5. Be cautions in making financial decisions. Do not allow anyone to pressure you into making a hasty decision. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Never give out bank account, social security or credit account numbers to solicitors.
  6. Protect your passwords. Do not share banking, computer or ATM passwords with others, and notify company or bank if you notice any questionable charges or transactions.
  7. Beware of telephone solicitations. It is not rude to hang up when an unknown caller tries to talk you into doing something you don’t want to do or buying something you don’t want. Hang up! Then call the National Do Not Call Registry at 1-888-382-1222 to reduce the number of solicitation calls you receive.
  8. Be careful of individuals who may take advantage of you. Elder financial abuse can be committed by anyone, including caregivers or family members. Be wary if anyone pressures you to do something with your money or possessions that you are not sure you want to do (e.g. adding their name to your bank accounts or property titles). Be especially careful of someone who tries to keep you isolated from others, and call a trusted family member or the police.
  9. Recognize potential financial abusers. Most abusers are very persuasive in convincing the elder of their trustworthiness. Again, never make a monetary decision without talking it over with someone you are sure has your best interests at heart.
  10. Know what to do if you believe you are a victim of financial abuse. Put aside your fear or embarrassment and discuss your concerns with someone you trust, be it another family member, clergyman, bank manager, or attorney.
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Debt Consolidation Firm To Pay Refunds To Consumers

Florida finds United Financial Systems failed to pay promised refunds

debt consolidation firm customers to get refunds...

United Financial Systems, Inc. and its principal, Christopher Boulahanis, have agreed to pay refunds to 500 consumers as part of a settlement with the Florida Attorney General's Office. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi began an investigation when consumers complained the Florida-based company failed to provide refunds it had promised.

Consumers like Ann, of Virginia Beach, Va., said they had kept up their end of he bargain but United Financial had not.

"My experience with United Financial Systems was horrible," Ann told ConsumerAffairs.com. "They took my money from my checking account and did not pay my creditors for four months. I am out approximately $1600.00, plus they charged me a $60.00 fee each month to rob me. I had to make payment arrangements with the creditors, plus pay the company I am now with, to carry on the agreement I had with UFS. I just want my money back. I am retired and can ill afford to lose that kind of money."

$595,000 in refunds

The agreement with the state of Florida requires the company to refund approximately 500 consumers more than $595,000 in restitution in total.

“The people who sought financial relief from this debt consolidation company were already facing difficult financial times, which were exacerbated when the company failed to refund their money. I am pleased that we are helping 500 consumers receive nearly $600,000 in restitution,” Bondi said.

The settlement contains a strict enforcement mechanism such that any failure to make timely payments by United Financial Systems will result in a court ordered judgment against the company and its principals for the full amount of refunds due plus an additional $500,000 in civil penalties. The settlement also precludes the company and its representatives from engaging in credit counseling, debt management or debt consolidation in Florida.

How to get reimbursed

Consumers who have money coming to them will get it from the Office of the Florida Attorney General in two payments: a partial payment March 31, 2012, and a final pro rata payment Sept. 30, 2012. All affected consumers must submit a sworn affidavit documenting the amount of their loss postmarked by Jan. 20, 2012.

Any consumers who were defrauded by United Financial Systems should contact the Florida Attorney General’s Office immediately if they have not submitted an affidavit in this matter. Consumers can download an affidavit form.

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Facebook Adds Suicide Prevention Link

Hot line will respond to suicidal comments reported by Facebook users

Facebook is announcing a new service to help prevent suicides in the U.S. and Canada. The new service enables Facebook users to report a suicidal comment t...

PhotoFacebook is announcing a new service to help prevent suicides in the U.S. and Canada. The new service enables Facebook users to report a suicidal comment they see posted by a friend to Facebook using either a new "Report Suicidal Content" link or the report links found throughout the site.

The person who posted the suicidal comment will then immediately receive an e-mail from Facebook encouraging them to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK or to click on a link to begin a confidential chat session with a crisis worker.

“We're proud to expand our partnership with Lifeline, and to provide those in crisis with even more options to seek help,” said Facebook’s Chief Security Officer, Joe Sullivan. “The Lifeline’s commitment to suicide prevention has enabled people on Facebook to get fast, meaningful help when they need it most, and we look forward to continuing our work with them to help save lives.”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK or  is a toll-free suicide prevention hotline network comprised of 152 local crisis centers. The Lifeline is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). It provides free and confidential crisis counseling to anyone in need 24/7 and has answered over 3 million calls since its launch in 2005.

One murder, two suicides

“Facebook and the Lifeline are to be commended for addressing one of this nation’s most tragic public health problems,” said Surgeon General, Regina M. Benjamin, MD, MBA, who serves with Sullivan on the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. “Nearly 100 Americans die by suicide every day – 36,035 lives every year. For every person who is murdered, two die by suicide.

"These deaths are even more tragic because they are preventable. We have effective treatments to help suicidal individuals regain hope and a desire to live and we know how powerful personal connections and support can be," Benjamin said.

Crisis center workers from two centers in the Lifeline network, the Boys Town National Hotline and Goodwill of the Finger Lakes’ 2-1-1/LIFE LINE, will be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to respond to Facebook users opting to use the chat. The Lifeline currently responds to dozens of people each day who have expressed suicidal thoughts on Facebook.

“We have been partnering with Facebook since 2006 to assist at-risk users and are thrilled to launch this new service,” said John Draper, Ph.D., the Lifeline’s project director and MHA-NYC’ Vice President of Behavioral Health Technology. “Although the Lifeline on average handles 70,000 calls per month, we have heard from our Facebook fans and others that there are many people in crisis who don’t feel comfortable picking up the phone. This new service provides a way for them to get the help they need in the way they want it.”

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New York Law Forbids Mail Order Pharmacy Mandates

Consumers will now have option of using local drug stores

The law exempts drug plans negotiated by unions. In signing the bill into law, Cuomo said it would improve consumer convenience by expanding their options....

PhotoNew York Governor Andrew Cuomo has signed a new law that prevents health insurance companies or employers from forcing plan participants to use mail order pharmacies to purchase covered prescription drugs.

The law exempts drug plans negotiated by unions. In signing the bill into law, Cuomo said it would improve consumer convenience by expanding their options.

A spokesman for mail-order pharmacy Express Scripts told the New York Times that Cuomo should have vetoed the bill -- that mail-order delivery is still the cheapest option with the least potential for error. There are many consumers who have written to ConsumerAffairs.com who would disagree.

Consumer frustration

"This company is an absolute nightmare," Ginger, of Newport Beach, Calif., said of Express Scripts. "I have not received my medicines once before running out of the previous script. Not once! I've called their customer service so many times I should be on their Christmas card list."

Tara, of Dallas, Tex., also complains of slow service from Express Scripts.

"I get this medication filled every three months with a new script, and have been getting it filled with Express Scripts for nearly three years," Tara said. "So far, they're batting 1000: I run out of medication before I get the next order exactly 100% of the time, no exaggeration. Out of each year, I estimate I go without my medicine at least a month, and this year we're looking at six weeks already."

Not just one company

The consumer frustration appears to apply to mail-order pharmacies in general, not just Express Scripts. Medco, a competing mail-order pharmacy, draws similar complaints.

"First, they tried to deny medications that my doctor specifically requested for me because they were supposedly not covered under my plan," Heather, of Ladson, S.C., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "After reading my plan information I discovered that even if a drug is not routinely covered on the plan, Medco must cover it -valbeit at a very high copay - when directly requested by a physician due to allergic reaction to other covered drugs in the same category. When this was brought to their attention, they reluctantly agreed to cover my migraine meds."

Consumers in New York will now have the option of continuing with their mail-order pharmacy or using a local drug store to fill their prescriptions. Not surprisingly, the National Community Pharmacists Association, which represents brick-and-mortar drug stores, supported the legislation.

Local drug stores cheer

"In signing this bill into law, Governor Cuomo made the right call for public health, patient choice and New York jobs," said association CEO CEO B. Douglas Hoey. "The law empowers patients to choose the best pharmacy option for their personal health needs and preferences. While most patients overwhelmingly prefer to talk to a pharmacist in person, those who prefer to use mail order facilities will have that choice. But mail order is not for everyone and the key is leaving that decision in the hands of patients—not a large corporation with a vested interest in growing its mail order business."

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Feds Warn Against Misleading Lap-Band Ads

1-800-GET-THIN warned to clean up its advertising & promotion

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today announced that it has taken action against eight California surgical centers and the marketing firm  ...

Photo

The marketing firm 1-800-GET-THIN and eight California surgical centers are being warned that their advertising is misleading and doesn't provide enough information about possible side effects of the Lap-Band, a surgical procedure for weight loss in obese adults.

Several Californians have died following surgery related to the 1-800-GET-THIN advertising campaign, according to The Los Angeles Times.

A lawsuit filed last February seeks damages in the death of a 50-year-old California woman who died five days after Lap Band surgery. Laura Faitro of Simi Valley died after undergoing surgery at Valley Surgical Center in West Hills, Calif.

Her husband, John, said Ms. Faitro became interested in the surgery after seeing television commercials for1-800-GET-THIN. But a few days after the surgery, she was hospitalized with an infection and later died.

Warning letters

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration sent warning letters to the marketing group and to  Bakersfield Surgery Institute Inc.; Beverly Hills Surgery Center; Palmdale Ambulatory Center; Valley Surgical Center; Top Surgeons LLC; Valencia Ambulatory Center LLC; Cosmopolitan Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery; and San Diego Ambulatory Center LLC.

In the letters, the FDA warns that billboards and advertising inserts the centers are using fail to provide required risk information, including warnings, precautions, possible side effects and contraindications.

The FDA said it is also concerned that the font size of information related to risks on the advertising inserts is too small to be read by consumers.

"The FDA takes seriously its responsibility to protect consumers from products promoted without adequate warnings,” said Steve Silverman, director of the Office of Compliance in the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. “It's particularly troublesome when advertisements don’t communicate the serious risks associated with medical devices."

Action threatened

If the affected companies do not change the advertising and promotion strategies to address the concerns raised by the FDA, the agency is prepared to take further action, which could include product seizure or civil money penalties.

The Lap-Band is a gastric band, an implanted medical device used in a surgical procedure for weight loss in obese adults who have a body mass index (BMI) of 30-40, with one or more obesity-related medical conditions (such as type II diabetes and hypertension), or in patients with a BMI of 40 or over with or without an obesity-related medical condition.  Gastric banding is used when non-surgical weight loss methods (such as supervised diet, exercise and behavior modification) have not been successful. Patients considering gastric banding must be willing to make major changes in their eating habits and lifestyle.

“The decision to undergo a gastric banding procedure should be done in close consultation between a patient and his or her health care provider,” said Kimber Richter, M.D., deputy director for medical affairs in the Office of Compliance in the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. “It is important for the patient to fully understand both the risks and the benefits of the procedure and for the health care provider to be sure the procedure is appropriate for the patient.”

The Lap-Band has not been approved for use in children younger than 18. Only those who are able and willing to follow dietary and other health and lifestyle recommendations should consider the procedure. It’s important that patients and their physicians are aware of and understand the limitations of gastric banding, the FDA said.

Health care providers who choose to promote the gastric banding procedure are required to educate patients about the risks involved, which must also be included in any advertising and promotional materials. Patients considering the surgery should read the patient information provided by their doctor and should ask any questions they have about gastric banding before having surgery.

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FDA OKs Hand-Held Device to Detect Bleeding in the Brain

Helps determine if immediate CT scan is needed

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today allowed marketing of the first hand-held device intended to aid in the detection of life-threatening blee...

PhotoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today allowed marketing of the first hand-held device intended to aid in the detection of life-threatening bleeding in the skull called intracranial hematomas, using near-infrared spectroscopy.

The device, called the Infrascanner Model 1000, can help health care providers identify patients with critical head injuries who need an immediate brain imaging study.

“While patients with suspected brain injuries routinely receive a CT scan, this portable device offers emergency room physicians a non-invasive mechanism to aid in assessing whether an immediate CT scan is needed,” said Christy Foreman, director of the Office of Device Evaluation at FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health.

Intracranial hematomas occur when blood from a ruptured blood vessel collects within the brain or between the skull and the brain. As blood expands within the brain or in the narrow space between the brain and the skull, the brain becomes compressed.

This can produce symptoms such as headaches, vomiting, dizziness, lethargy, weakness in the arm or leg on one side of the body, seizures, or unconsciousness. An intracranial hematoma can be life-threatening if it is not treated immediately.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year about 1.7 million people in the United States experience a traumatic brain injury.

Infrascanner

The Infrascanner, Model 1000, uses a scanner that directs near-infrared light, a wavelength of light that can penetrate tissue and bone, into the skull. Blood from intracranial hematomas absorbs the light differently than other areas of the brain. The scanner detects differences in light absorption (optical density) and transmits the information wirelessly to a display on a hand-held computer.

By comparing the optical density from a series of scans of specific areas on both sides of the skull, a trained health care provider can use the information provided by the device, in conjunction with other clinical information, to determine the likelihood of an intracranial hematoma and the need for further diagnostic procedures, such as a computed tomography (CT) scan. 

The FDA reviewed data for the Infrascanner Model 1000 through the “de novo” classification process, a regulatory pathway for some low to moderate risk medical devices that are not comparable to a legally marketed device.

The FDA granted the de novo petition for the Infrascanner Model 1000 based on a review of data comparing results from 383 CT scans of adult subjects with Infrascanner scan results. The Infrascanner was able to detect nearly 75 percent of the hematomas detected by CT scan. When CT scans detected no hematoma, the Infrascanner detected no hematoma 82 percent of the time. The Infrascanner Model 1000, however, is not a substitute for a CT scan.

The FDA is specifying special controls in an accompanying regulation classifying the Infrascanner Model 1000 as a Class II device with special controls. The special controls provide information about specific risks that must be addressed by other manufacturers who may wish to market a similar device.

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Feds Call For Nationwide Ban On Driver Use Of Cell Phones

Blame texting for serious accident involving school buses in Missouri

The NTSB wants a nationwide ban of cell phone use behind the wheel...

PhotoThe National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has called on all 50 states - at least those that have not yet done so - to ban the use of cell phones and other electronic devices by people behind the wheel.

The recommendation came at the conclusion of an NTSB hearing into a 2010 accident in Missouri that involved two school buses, a piece of construction equipment, and a passenger vehicle. Two people were killed and 38 others injured.

The NTSB ruled the probable cause of the accident was the 19 year old driver of the passenger vehicle sending 11 text messages in the 11 minutes before the fatal crash. The young driver was one of the two fatalities.

The board also faulted the drivers of the two school buses; the first for inattention behind the wheel and the second for tailgating.

Up 50%

A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study released last week said texting behind the wheel increased 50 percent last year. Twenty percent of drivers admit they've dashed off a text message while driving. The study found the younger you are, the more likely you are to have done it.

Driving while talking on a cell phone, also against the law in a number of states, is an even more common practice, the survey found. Most drivers surveyed said they will take a cell phone call while driving.

Nine states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving. Except for Maryland, all laws are primary enforcement—an officer may cite a driver for using a hand-held cell phone without any other traffic offense taking place. Thirty-five states, D.C. and Guam ban text messaging for all drivers.

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What's On Your Mind? U.S. Postal Service, Capital One, McKenzie Legal

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Postal Service, Capital One, McKenzie Legal, Not worth the bother and Another scam target....

PhotoThe U.S. Postal Service (USPS) has served notice that, to save money, it's going to start slowing down delivery service in the future. Roxanne, of Rotondo West, Fla., thinks they've already started.

"I put a package out, Priority Mail, on Saturday," Roxanne told ConsumerAffairs.com. "My estimated delivery date was December 12. I got my confirmation that it just left the main postal facility on December 13! I could have sent it parcel post for the same price!"

Granted, this is the Postal Service's busy time of the year, but it seems there's no excuse for it to take two days for a Priority Mail package to get underway. It could be why USPS isn't getting a whole lot of sympathy over its money problems.

Not worth the bother

Michael, of Monte Sereno, Calif., is unhappy with the level of service he's receiving from his credit card company, Capital One.

"The problem is that over many years time the majority of my purchases, all quite normal, are simply denied and I'm forced to call their hotline," Michael said. "The number on the back of the card is out of order, and according to Capital One there is no replacement or 'the out of order number sometimes works.' Their service is so terrible I've stopped using the card for all but emergency purchases. I'm considering closing the account."

A better option for Michael would be to pay off any balance on his Capital One card and allow it to remain dormant, and apply for a new card for everyday purchases. Cancelling a credit card will usually take your credit score down a notch. As long as there isn't a balance on it, it doesn't hurt to keep the account active.

Another scam target

Marilyn, of Kansas City, Kan., got a call this week from a fake payday loan debt collector. Only, he said he was from McKenzie Legal Associates. And according to Marilyn, he's just like all the rest of the people trying to pull off this scam.

"I was called and threaten to be arrested by this company for an accused outstanding debt," Marilyn told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I was not able to receive information from McKenzie Legal Associates (apparently a made-up name) about the company that was issuing me a lawsuit, other than this being a debt incurred by me from a pay day loan I received on the internet. I was informed if I did not pay the $500.00 I received from the payday loan today, tomorrow I would be escorted to jail by process server and taken to court to face the judge and if not able to prove my innocence would be placed in jail. But, If I agreed to pay the $500.00 today nothing would go any further and all would be forgiven and dropped."

Fortunately, Marilyn didn't agree to the payment, which is bogus. Instead, she should report the scam attempt to her state attorney general.

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Domestic Air Fares Up 8.5%

Memphis, Cincinnati have highest fares, Atlantic City the lowest

Average domestic air fares rose to $370 in the second quarter of 2011, up 8.5 percent from the average fare of $341 in the second quarter of 2010, the U.S....

PhotoAverage domestic air fares rose to $370 in the second quarter of 2011, up 8.5 percent from the average fare of $341 in the second quarter of 2010, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) reported today. 

Memphis, TN and Cincinnati had the highest average fare, $476, while Atlantic City, NJ, had the lowest, $205.

Second-quarter fares increased 3.9 percent from the first quarter, the second consecutive quarterly increase. Quarter-to-quarter changes may be affected by seasonal factors. 

BTS reports average fares based on domestic itinerary fares. Itinerary fares consist of round-trip fares unless the customer does not purchase a return trip. In that case, the one-way fare is included.

Fares are based on the total ticket value which consists of the price charged by the airlines plus any additional taxes and fees levied by an outside entity at the time of purchase. Fares include only the price paid at the time of the ticket purchase and do not include other fees, such as baggage fees, paid at the airport or onboard the aircraft. Averages do not include frequent-flyer or “zero fares” or a few abnormally high reported fares.

Not inflation-adjusted, the $370 second-quarter 2011 average fares were up 6.5 percent from the previous second-quarter high of $347 in 2008. Unadjusted second-quarter fares dropped to a low of $302 in 2009 during the recession. Second-quarter 2011 fares were up 22.5 percent from the 2009 low, not adjusted for inflation.

Second-quarter 2011 fares, not adjusted for inflation, were highest of any quarter. The post-1995 high was $359 in the third quarter of 2008.  Adjusted for inflation, second-quarter 2011 fares in 1995 dollars were $250, down 17.4 percent from the second quarter of 1999, which, at $302, was the inflation-adjusted high for any second quarter since 1995. BTS air fare records reach back to 1995.

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10 Tips For Avoiding Holiday Weight Gain

Make January's weight loss resolutions easier to keep

advice for avoiding putting on pounds during the holidays...

PhotoThere's a very good reason that so many New Year's resolutions involve losing weight. The previous month often includes holiday parties and family feasts that add to the weight that needs shedding in January.

What if you could avoid putting on those extra pounds in the first place? A team of medical experts at Greenwich Hospital’s Weight Loss & Diabetes Center, in Connecticut, has come up with 10 tips for avoiding holiday weight gain.

  1. Set realistic expectations. Consider patterns in your weight during previous holiday periods. This is usually a time to maintain, not lose, weight.
  2. Schedule downtime. If you tend to have a lot of social events and responsibilities on your calendar, also schedule times to relax. It’s equally important for your overall health.
  3. Plan your meals and snacks ahead of time as best as you can. It’s easy to get distracted and pick up something "quick and easy" from a fast food restaurant. Instead, bring an apple, banana or small bag of nuts to eat in the car as a healthy snack.
  4. Write it down. This applies to a meal and snack schedule, and also to a food diary of everything you eat. Review it at the end of the day and start again the next day.
  5. Ask for help. It's nice to take care of others, but not to the point that it gets in the way of eating healthy, exercising adequately, and getting enough sleep for your personal health.
  6. Never go to a holiday party hungry. It’s a sure bet that you’ll overindulge on calorie-dense foods, and you'll be overeating in no time, but don’t get down on yourself for a special-occasion binge.
  7. Engage in mindful eating. In other words, don’t eat while multitasking. Savor each bite, focus on the joy of flavor. Appreciate every morsel.
  8. Drink water throughout the day and at events. Staying well hydrated can keep you alert. People often misread the body’s signals for thirst as hunger.
  9. Use exercise to relieve stress and empower you with physical and mental energy to follow your healthy holiday plans. Take a daily walk, even if it's only for a few minutes. This will help clear your head, regain perspective, help control your hunger and bump up your rate of metabolism.
  10. Get an adequate amount of sleep. When you are tired, simplest daily tasks can be a struggle, not to mention all of the holiday hustling. Lack of sleep triggers hormones that affect your weight and mood.
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California, Nevada Team On Mortgage Fraud Probe

States hope to offer more help for victims

California and Nevada will work together to investigate mortgage fraud...

PhotoCalifornia and Nevada are two of the nation's hardest hit states when it comes to the housing collapse. So it may be no surprise they have joined forces to investigate mortgage-related fraud and assist its victims.

By forging an alliance, California and Nevada will combine investigative resources, including litigation strategies, information, and evidence gathered through their respective ongoing investigations, assisting each state as it pursues independent prosecutions. The alliance will link the offices’ civil and criminal enforcement teams, aimed at speeding up investigation of wrongdoing in the two states.

Man-made disaster

“The mortgage crisis is a manmade disaster that has taken a heavy toll on the country, but it saved its worst for California and Nevada,” said California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris. “The mortgage crisis is a law enforcement matter, and we will prosecute to hold accountable those who are responsible and also protect the homeowners who are targeted for fraud."

In October 2011, Nevada and California ranked first and second, respectively, for the percentage of their housing units that entered the foreclosure process, reflecting a parallel surge in foreclosures in the two states. One in every 180 Nevada properties entered the foreclosure process in October, and one in every 243 California homes received a filing that month.

In 2010, California led the nation with a total of 546,669 foreclosure filings - 4 percent of the state’s housing units - while Nevada led the nation with 9.4 percent of its homes receiving a foreclosure filing, totaling 106,160 units.

“I am pleased to join forces with General Harris to fight against fraudulent mortgage and foreclosure practices that continue to devastate lives, homes, and the economy in Nevada and California,” said Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto. “This strong partnership will allow our states to make an even more concerted effort to hold fraud perpetrators accountable and ensure law-abiding homeowners receive justice.”

Non-judicial foreclosure states

The crisis in these Western states is similar because both states share a foreclosure system in which a bank can foreclose on a borrower’s home without court oversight, also called “non-judicial foreclosure.” The attorneys general say the result has created a rich opportunity for predators, leading both states to make mortgage-related law enforcement action a top priority.

Both states have taken unilateral action in the past. In May 2011, Harris formed a Mortgage Fraud Strike Force, now composed of nearly 40 attorneys and investigators, that has launched a wide series of investigations and litigation. It has resulted in multiple lawsuits and the arrest this month of three top officers of a Stockton real estate company who took thousands of dollars in up-front loan modification fees and made false promises to assist struggling Central Valley homeowners with lowering their mortgage payments.

In 2007, Masto formed the Nevada Mortgage Fraud Strike Force that launched a wide series of investigations and litigation into areas including violations of the law related to mortgage lending, servicing, and foreclosure practices and the creation, rating, marketing, sale, and management of mortgage backed securities. The Nevada Mortgage Fraud Strike Force has taken action against predatory “mortgage rescue” companies and individuals claiming to offer services to stop foreclosures.  

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Honda Plans to Recast Its Acura Brand

Gives up its long quest for top-tier luxury status

Honda had always hoped it could emulate Toyota and Nissan, which successfully propelled the Lexus and Infiniti brands into the rarefied luxury-car tier alo...

Honda had always hoped its Acura marque could emulate Toyota and Nissan, which successfully propelled the Lexus and Infiniti brands into the rarefied luxury-car tier alongside Mercedes-Benz, BMW and, arguably, Cadillac.

It never quite happened, and Honda now says it will try to reposition Acura as a mid-range, fuel-efficient brand, a plan it revealed during the recent Toyota Auto Show.

Could be, but Acura is blessed with a lofty reputation among consumers. A ConsumerAffairs.com analysis of more than 420,000 consumer comments on Twitter, Facebook and other social media and blogs finds consistently positive sentiment hovering around 70 percent.

Photo
Blue line indicates net sentiment

 

PhotoOver the next few years, Acura will introduce a new compact sedan, the ILX, built on Honda's global Civic platform, replacing the TSX, Automotive News reported. A redesigned RL flagship is expected by next fall, followed by a redesigned mid-sized TL sedan in the spring of 2013.

In the crossover category, a redesigned RDX compact will debut next spring with the next MDX arriving in 2013.

New NSX

But listen sports fans, not all the news is about fuel efficiency and miles per gallon.  Honda says it will also be bringing back the NSX sports car.

The original NSX was built from 1990 to 2005 and attracted a fanatical, if small, base of loyalists. The rear-wheel-drive, Pininfarina-designed speedster was often called a Japanese Ferrari and with good reason. 

Honda built the NSX from 1990 to 2005. It was a rare rear-wheel-drive effort by the automaker, and it sought design help from Italian car designer Pininfarina.  It was often thought of as a Japanese Ferrari, and it was just as fast.  The car sold for about $90,000. There’s no word on what the price of the new NSX might be.

Photo
1995 Acura NSX (eBay Motors photo)

The original NSX was a monster, with a hugely powerful racing engine, but the new model will make greater use of technology to achieve at least comparable results.

Acura sales chief Jeff Conrad said the approach will emphasize "efficiency and a strong power-to-weight ratio," Automotive News said. "If we are thinking about being sporty, we need to do it with the machine's efficiency. That's the thing we can do. The way we achieve it will be unique to Acura."

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Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase

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How To Improve Your Credit Score

Three things you can do to raise your score

Advice on raising your credit score...

PhotoA common concern among people writing to ConsumerAffairs.com is their credit score. They often worry how some action will affect their credit.

"We were in financial hardship and were needing to short sell our condo," Nicolette, of Saratoga Springs, Utah, told ConsumerAffairs.com. "We were told by CitiMortgage that we needed to be at least 60 days late on our mortgage payments in order to qualify for a short sell. We had excellent credit scores, and had never missed a payment on anything in our lives. But, in order to qualify for the short sale we stopped making payments and were 90 days late by the time the sale closed. Because of this misinformation, our credit scores have been ruined."

Once your credit score has been damaged, is there any way to restore it? Fortunately, there is.

Arm yourself with information

For starters, pull your credit reports using www.annualcreditreport.com. That's the free government-mandated service, and it does not require you to sign up for any kind of credit monitoring service. It's available free to all U.S. residents once a year.

Once you have your credit report, check it for errors. Your credit report contains the data used to calculate your score and it may contain errors. In particular, check to make sure that there are no late payments incorrectly listed for any of your accounts and that the amounts owed for each of your open accounts is correct. If you find errors on any of your reports, dispute them with the credit bureau and reporting agency.

Next, set up payment reminders for all of your monthly bills. Making your credit payments on time is one of the biggest contributing factors to your credit score.

Banks often offer payment reminders through their online banking systems that can send you an email or text message reminding you when a payment is due. You can also set up automated payments from your account to you don't have to remember to pay he bill.

Easier said than done

Try to reduce the amount of the money you owe. This might seem difficult, but reducing the amount of credit card debt you owe is going to give you the biggest bang for the buck.

Put away your credit cards until you've paid down your balance. If you have an asset that you can sell for cash, do it and apply the money to your debt. Come up with a payment plan that puts most of your available budget for debt payments towards the highest interest cards first, while maintaining minimum payments on your other accounts.

Be very selective about opening new credit accounts. Be wary of arguments that having another credit card will help improve your credit score. If you already have existing debt, it probably won't. And the kinds of credit cards that are marketed to people with poor credit often have low credit limits and very high fees. You could easily end up with an even lower credit score.

There's really no quick, easy way to repair your credit. If a company promises that there is, avoid them like the plague.  

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What's On Your Mind? Regions Bank, Hollywood Video, Experian

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Regions Bank, Hollywood Video, Experian, Will this movie ever end and Doesn't add up....

PhotoConsumers will tell you customer service has all but disappeared these days and that nowhere is that more apparent than in the banking industry. Jeffrey, of Madison, Ala., wrote to recount how he was hit with a series of $36 fees after depositing a check in his Regions Bank account from a client that turned out to have insufficient funds. He then made this observation.

"When I was a kid, if there was a problem at the bank, the president of the branch or manager would call my folks and advise them and afford them an opportunity to correct it," Jeffrey told ConsumerAffairs.com. "That was customer service. There is nothing remotely resembling customer service at Regions bank these days. I spoke to my branch manager who informed me that 'there was nothing they could do' since it 'wasn't a bank error.' So much for empathy."

Perhaps in a small town, where everyone knew everyone else, that was common practice. Today's bankers would probably tell you that such a practice isn't practical in a huge bank. But there's something else. The world Jeffry remembers was one in which businesses took the long view; take care of the customer and you'll have their loyalty forever. Today's practices are very short-term in nature. Charging fees at every opportunity will make the current quarter look better. But the next quarter might not look so good if customers start leaving in droves.

Will this movie ever end?

Former Hollywood Video customers are still hearing from debt collectors who claim they still owe money to the defunct DVD rental chain. Angelita, of Sacramento, Calif., said she just heard from West Bay Acquisitions.

"They say I owe $73.36, which is not true," Angelita said. "I kept my account clear always, I even had a monthly plan where Hollywood Video would withdraw for my rental rates from my bank card account."

Not only that, Angelita says Hollywood Video still owed her money when it close, and sent her a gift card to clear the debt. She thinks the whole thing smells like a scam. Reacting to similar complaints, attorneys general around the country in May reached a settlement with the original debt collector working for Hollywood Video. Angelita should report her experience to California Attorney General Kamala Harris

Doesn't add up

Richard, of Kiswick, Va., is justifiably proud of his credit rating. At one agency he says it's 782. At another it's 760. But lo and behold, he says Experian has given him a credit score of 687. What gives?

"I looked back several years and my Experian rarting was also in 750 range," Richard told ConsumerAffairs.com. "The only thing that has changed is that I have paid off my house and both family cars--I have NO debt!"

Normally, paying down debt will improve your credit score. But having no debt at all can actually negatively impact it, though in this case it's unlikely since it hasn't affected his Equifax and TransUnion scores. It's possible Experian has obtained some erroneous information. Richard should go to www.AnnualCreditReport.com and download a free copy of his Experian credit report to make sure it is accurate.

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Dog Power Dog Food Recalled

High aflatoxin levels detected

Advanced Animal Nutrition has announced a voluntary recall of its dry Dog Power Dog Food due to aflatoxin levels that were detected abo...

Advanced Animal Nutrition has announced a voluntary recall of its dry Dog Power Dog Food due to aflatoxin levels that were detected above the acceptable limit. The affected products were manufactured between Jan. 4, 2011, and Nov. 18, 2011.

No illnesses have been reported in association with these products to date, and no other Advanced Animal Nutrition pet food products are involved in this recall. Affected products are:

  • DOG POWER ADULT MAINTENANCE FORMULA 21-12 Dog Food, 50 pound bags
  • DOG POWER HUNTERS FORMULA 27-14 Dog Food, 50 pound bags
  • DOG POWER HI-PRO PERFORMANCE FORMULA 26-18 Dog Food, 50 pound bags

The recall only applies to the above products with the following Packaging Date Codes (lot numbers):  K0004 through K1322.

The affected dry dog food products were distributed in the following states – Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana.  Retailers have already been instructed to remove the affected brands and products from store shelves.

Consumers are urged to return affected products – whether in opened or unopened packages – to their place of purchase for a full refund.  For more information, contact 866-648-7646.

Aflatoxin is a naturally occurring mold byproduct.  Pets that have consumed any of the above recalled products and exhibit symptoms of illness including sluggishness or lethargy combined with a reluctance to eat, vomiting, yellowish tint to the eyes or gums, or diarrhea should be seen by a veterinarian.

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No More 'Instant Refunds' from Tax Preparers After This Year

Last bank offering high-cost refund anticipation loans forced to stop

Consumer advocates are celebrating the end of high-cost refund anticipation loans (RAL), often presented as "instant refunds" by tax preparers.The last b...

PhotoConsumer advocates are celebrating the end of high-cost refund anticipation loans (RAL), often presented as "instant refunds" by tax preparers.

The last bank offering the loans has been forced out of the business by a settlement with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). 

The settlement between the FDIC and Republic Bank & Trust requires the bank to terminate its RAL program after the end of the next tax season -- April 30, 2012, in other words.

The FDIC’s agreement imposes a $900,000 civil penalty on Republic. It also incorporates a plan for Republic to implement a system of verifications to ensure that its partner tax preparers operate their future tax settlement activities with appropriate safeguards.

Republic will have to review all advertising for tax settlement products at the partner preparer’s offices, and conduct audits, including surprise on-site visits and mystery shopper surveys, at ten percent of preparer locations.

“Mark Pearce and his team at the FDIC have delivered a big win for low-income tax payers today. Their determined efforts to finish the job reflect a commitment to protecting consumers from predatory loan products,” said Peter Skillern of the Community Reinvestment Association of North Carolina.

“The FDIC action is an important step toward protecting families who struggle to make ends meet from unfair bank credit products and practices,” said Jean Ann Fox of the Consumer Federation of 
America.

149% APR

RALs are one- to two-week loans secured by the taxpayer’s refund. RALs can be expensive; this year, Republic Bank is charging $61.22 for a RAL of $1,500, which translates into an APR of 149%.

RALs target low-income taxpayers, especially recipients of the Earned Income Tax Credit, a special tax break for working poor families. In 2009, RALs skimmed over $600 million from the refunds of 7.2 million American taxpayers.

“We are pleased see the last of the RAL banks forced out of the business,” said Chi Chi Wu of the National Consumer Law Center. “We also commend the FDIC for a settlement that includes a plan for
Republic to institute safeguards for its remaining refund anticipation check program.”

Going forward, consumer advocates expressed a desire for the FDIC to develop a regulatory standard for the sale of refund anticipation checks (RACs), particularly that the FDIC should be vigilant to make sure that pricing of RACs remains appropriate and consumers are not charged abusive extra fees by partner tax preparers.

Absent a decision to terminate those products as well, the key priority should be to establish a balance between the need to help people avoid paying out-of-pocket for tax preparation and being able to purchase a RAC at a fair price, the consumer groups said.

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Not Quite Ready For a Hybrid? Try This

"Mild" hybrids offer a pretty big boost for the buck

There are those who see the world as black and white, ignoring all those shades of gray.  You might say the same about cars -- they're no longer neatl...

PhotoThere are those who see the world as black and white, ignoring all those shades of gray.  You might say the same about cars -- they're no longer neatly divided into gas, electric or hybrid. A growing number of models are a little of each.

While everyone knows about General Motors' big-stakes bet on the Chevy Volt, most of us are clueless about the "mild hybrids" that GM is introducing across its product line.  

Unlike the Toyota Prius or the Volt, the mild hybrids don't proclaim themselves as the latest and greatest and they don't add a huge chunk to the price.  So what are they?

Get rolling

A mild hybrid is simply a gas-powered car that uses an electric motor to help get things moving.  After all, it's providing the torque that's required to start a car rolling from a dead stop that generally takes the most energy.  By providing a mild boost from a small electric motor, GM says it can inexpensively squeeze an extra 5 or 6 miles per gallon out of most cars.

This is especially good news for motorists who mostly make about-town trips that involve lots of stopping and starting.

Photo
"Eco gauge" displays efficiency

GM calls the technology eAssist. It has just started selling it on the 2012 Buick LaCrosse and Regal and plans to introduce it as an option on the redesigned Chevrolet Malibu this spring.

In the case of the LaCrosse, GM says the eAssist model with the four-cylinder engine gets 25 mpg in the city and 36 on the highway, compared with 19/30 for the previous four-cylinder model. GM says the 2012 LaCrosse gets better highway fuel economy than the much more expensive Lexus HS and Infinity M Hybrid.

The cost is, well, mild compared with the benefits.  The eAssist option on the Buick Regal is $2,000.  If you drive 15,000 miles a year and pay $4 a gallon for gas, you'll get that $2,000 back in less than four years, GM estimates.
 
AutoBlog.com says GM also has plans to add the eAssist system to its Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain SUVs for the 2014 model year.

Although other manufacturers have been their own mild hybrid technology, none is deploying it as quickly as GM.  Honda makes it available on a single model, the CR-Z coupe.  BMW and Mercedes-Benz offer it on a few models, admittedly more to avoid gas-guzzler penalties than to appeal to the pennywise. 

How it works

The GM light hybrids use several relatively modest technologies to conserve fuel, including:

  • An automatic start/stop technology that shifts from gas to electric power and back seamlessly -- conserving fuel. When you step off the brake, the engine restarts instantly -- lag free. 
  • A process called regenerative braking, which transforms your vehicle’s forward momentum into energy when you slow or come to a stop. 
  • A lithium-ion battery pack stored in the trunk, which uses the energy created via regenerative braking to power the radio, climate control, and other accessories whenever the engine operates in auto-stop mode.
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Albertsons, Jewel Stuffed Pasta Products Recalled

Products were not federally inspected

 D’Orazio Foods, Inc., a Bellmawr, N.J., establishment, is recalling approximately 161,000 pounds of frozen stuffed pasta products that were pro...

 D’Orazio Foods, Inc., a Bellmawr, N.J., establishment, is recalling approximately 161,000 pounds of frozen stuffed pasta products that were produced without the benefit of federal inspection, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced today. 

The following products are subject to recall: [View Labels(PDF Only)]:

  • 25-ounce poly bags of “ALBERTSONS’ SAUSAGE RAVIOLI”
  • 25-ounce poly bags of “JEWEL SAUSAGE RAVIOLI”
  • 25-ounce poly bags of “ALBERTSONS’ BEEF RAVIOLI”
  • 25-ounce poly bags of “JEWEL BEEF RAVIOLI”
  • 25-ounce poly bags of “OUR FAMILY BEEF RAVIOLI”


The products listed above bear the establishment number “Est. 20146” inside the USDA mark of inspection on the product label and a “Best If Used By” date ranging from “12/01/11” to “12/01/12” ink-jetted on the back of each bag. The frozen products, which were produced between December 1, 2010 and December 1, 2011, have a shelf-life of one year.

The products were distributed to distribution centers in California, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Oregon, Texas and Utah. FSIS routinely conducts recall effectiveness checks to verify recalling firms notify their customers of the recall and that steps are taken to make certain that recalled product is no longer available to consumers.

The problem was discovered as part of a routine food safety assessment conducted by FSIS at the facility. While conducting the assessment, the Agency determined that the pasta products were produced during a second shift when FSIS inspection personnel were not on-site, as required, during operating hours. FSIS has received no reports of illness due to consumption of these products. Anyone concerned about an illness should contact a health care provider.

Consumers with questions regarding the recall should contact the company’s President, Anthony D’Orazio, at (856) 931-1900, ext. 117. Media with inquiries about the recall should contact Edward Sheehan, Esq., at (856) 365-7665. 

Consumers with food safety questions can "Ask Karen," the FSIS virtual representative available 24 hours a day atwww.AskKaren.gov. "Ask Karen" live chat services are available Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. ET. The toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) is available in English and Spanish and can be reached from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. ET Monday through Friday. Recorded food safety messages are available 24 hours a day.

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How To Deal With A Debt You Don't Think You Owe

Just paying it to get rid of them might not work

Consumers have rights when it comes to debt collection...

PhotoIncreasingly consumers report being contacted by a debt collector about an obligation they insist they do not owe.

"On November 9, 2011 I received a bill for $7.45 for Parlee Tatem Radiologic Associates dated November 17, 2010," Alice, of Doylestown, Pa., told ConsumerAffairs.com. I don't recall such a debt; never received a bill previously for this. I call the number on the letter both that evening and the following Monday morning. Both times were when their office was listed on the letter as being open. But there were just recordings and then a hang-up."

Alice believes the request for payment is a scam, since she says she would certainly remember if she had used the medical services company. It could be a scam, or it could simply be a mistake. Either way, she should not pay it until she gets more information, and under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, she is certainly entitled to more information.

Alice's rights

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which drafted the law, every debt collector must send you a written “validation notice” telling you how much money you owe within five days after they first contact you. This notice also must include the name of the creditor to whom you owe the money, and how to proceed if you don’t think you owe the money.

If you send the debt collector a letter stating that you don’t owe any or all of the money, or asking for verification of the debt, that debt collector must stop contacting you. You must send that letter within 30 days after you receive the validation notice.

But a collector can begin contacting you again if it sends you written verification of the debt, like a copy of a bill for the amount you owe.

Assuming Alice determines she does not owe the debt but the debt collector does not agree and refuses to stop calling her, is there any way for her to make them stop? Yes.

Stopping the calls

According to the FTC, Alice should write a letter to the debt collector explaining that she does not owe the money and insisting that they stop contacting her. She should make a copy of the letter, sending the original by certified mail, and pay for a “return receipt” so you’ll be able to document what the collector received.

Once the collector receives your letter, they may not contact you again, with two exceptions: a collector can contact you to tell you there will be no further contact or to let you know that they or the creditor intend to take a specific action, like filing a lawsuit. Sending such a letter to a debt collector you owe money to does not get rid of the debt, but it should stop the contact. The creditor or the debt collector still can sue you to collect the debt.

Since the amount is less than $8, why not just send them a check? If the debt collector is, in fact, a scammer, sending them a check could give them access to Alice's bank account.

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Northern States Lure Job-Seekers

To get ahead you might have to dress warmly

Economic opportunities today lies in northern states...

PhotoUnemployment remains stubbornly high and the economy is producing jobs at an agonizingly slow pace. The impact falls most heavily on young adults, who increasingly find it harder to match their skills with employment.

At the end of the Civil War, nearly 150 years ago, America faced similar circumstances as war veterans returning to civilian society found jobs hard to come by. Newspaper icon Horace Greeley famously advised them to "go west, young man," and seek opportunity in America's unsettled territories.

Today, despite the depressing headlines, there are still places in the U.S. where jobs and economic opportunity appear to exist for those willing to pack their belongings and relocate. In fact, some states are  doing a lot better economically than the rest of the country.

In the early 1980s workers abandoned the "Rust Belt" of the upper Midwest for the "Sun Belt" of the American south and southwest. Today, however, the opportunity may call for movement in the opposite direction.

North Dakota?

In a state-by-state breakdown, the Financial Times has found that the economy in North Dakota, of all places, is booming. The unemployment rate is only 3.5 percent, thanks almost entirely to the booming oil sands industry. There appear to be plenty of high-paying jobs and even fast-food restaurants are offering $15 an hour to lure workers.

The North Dakota real estate market has largely recovered as well. Home values are rising in the state and there were only 32 foreclosures in the entire state between October 2010 and October 2011.

The other states in the upper Midwest also appear to be recovering faster than the rest of the nation as a whole. While manufacturing jobs are still declining, states are seeing growth in other sectors. Minnesota, for example, has seen a nine percent gain in "educational services" jobs. Nebraska, bolstered by this year's boom in agriculture, has recorded a nine percent gain in "business services" jobs.

Entire northeast

The entire northeast -- New England and the Mid-Atlantic states -- are also doing better economically than the rest of the nation as a whole. According to the Financial Times breakdown, Massachusetts' economy has led the nation in terms of recovery, showing the most overall improvement in terms of employment, foreclosures, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), home price stability, and the poverty rate.

While Massachusetts has recorded double-digit declines in manufacturing, mining and construction, its GDP has surged five percent in the last 12 months.

In the west, Utah appears to be an economic oasis in an otherwise struggling region. Again, heavy industry is not the economic driver. In Utah, the two hottest sectors are "educational services," up 19 percent, and "arts and entertainment," up 13 percent. The state has a seven percent unemployment rate but its GDP has risen nearly three percent in the last 12 months.

America has always been a mobile society and today, young adults who are more mobile than their older, more settled fellow Americans are best able to go where opportunity beckons.

People who own homes in stagnant real estate markets are less free to pick up and move. Renters, however, are not encumbered. Those willing to relocate, and put up with colder winters, just might find economic opportunity by moving north.

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Kindle Fire Takes Heat Over Usability Issues

Usability guru labels it "disappointingly poor"

The Amazon Kindle Fire is not only taking heat from consumers who find it clunky and hard to use, it's also getting a bad review from usability guru Jakob ...

PhotoThe Amazon Kindle Fire is  taking heat from consumers who find it clunky and hard to use. Worse yet, it's getting a bad review from usability guru Jakob Nielsen who says the Fire provides "a disappointingly poor user experience."

"Using the web with the Silk browser is clunky and error-prone. Reading downloaded magazines is not much better," Nielsen said in a recent review.

Most glaring was what Nielsen described as the "fat-finger problem," a phenomenon familiar to anyone who uses a smartphone touch screen.  

Nielsen described the problems of subjects who participated in a test he conducted: 

"You haven't seen the fat-finger problem in its full glory until you've watched users struggle to touch things on the Fire. One poor guy spent several minutes trying to log in to Facebook, but was repeatedly foiled by accidentally touching the wrong field or button — this on a page with only 2 text fields and 1 button." 

Volume control

PhotoA consumer who posts under the name "jocampo" on MobileRead.com echoed Nielsen's comments and added a few of her own:

"The lack of volume button is a negative point to me. And I would re-locate the power button or make it a slider (I've found myself pressing it by accident while using the unit) same for speakers, both are on same side, you cover those frequently while holding; I would put both speakers on the back, like the Nook Tablet."

It's not ink 

Several users posting to various sites commented on the Fire's weight, which also bothered Nielsen:

"The Fire is a heavy object. It's unpleasant to hold for extended periods of time. Unless you have forearm muscles like Popeye, you can't comfortably sit and read an engaging novel all evening," Nielsen said. "The lack of physical buttons for turning the page also impedes on the reading experience for fiction. On the older Kindles, it's easy to keep a finger on the button when all you use it for is to turn the page. In contrast, tapping an area of the screen disrupts reading enjoyment, is slightly error-prone, and leaves smudges on the screen. The Fire screen also has more glare than the traditional Kindle."

In fairness to the Fire, many of these comments also apply to the iPad, which this reviewer found to be inferior to the original Kindle for reading books.  The extra weight, the super-sensitive touch controls and the glare from the shiny screen were all negatives when reading text-heavy materials that don't benefit from the gee-whiz colors and other whoop-dee-doo features. 

"Most successful"

Amazon, meanwhile, says the Fire is the "most successful" new product it's ever launched but hasn't revealed any numbers.  

There's no question the Fire is low-priced.  It's hundreds of dollars less than the iPad.  And there's no question that Amazon has a huge and constantly-growing trove of books, magazines, movies and so forth -- all floating along in the cloud just waiting to be downloaded by some lucky consumer whose account will be debited instantly for each purchase.

And therein may lie the rub.  While one can quibble all day about weight, brightness and so forth, the Fire is a lot of tablet for the money.  Many speculate Amazon is selling the device at or below cost, just as in the legendary marketing strategy that supposedly led Gillette to sell its spiffy razors for less than cost so that it could sell a constant stream of blades.

The real question for consumers then becomes: what happens down the road, when just about everyone has a Kindle, Kindle Fire or whatever device the Amazon gods dream up next?

Will there still be 99-cent books?  Will Amazon still offer tens of thousands of free movies and high-def TV shows to its Premium customers?  Or will Amazon, once its user base reaches critical mass, simply put the hammer down and do what Economics 101 predicts -- namely, raise prices for consumers and take a bigger bite out of the authors, publishers, musicians and producers who supply its content?

Guess we don't learn the answer til the last chapter.

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Retailers Irate Over Amazon Price Comparison App

Sen. Snowe calls it "anti-competitive" and an attack on small business

Is Amazon's price-comparison tool that lets shoppers check out prices at competing online and local retailers a boon for consumers or an evil plot against ...

PhotoIs Amazon's price-comparison tool that lets shoppers check out prices at competing online and local retailers a boon for consumers or an evil plot against small business?

It depends on who you ask.  Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) is irate over Amazon's weekend promotion that offered customers 5% off if they checked the prices of goods on its Price Check app while browsing at a store, then ordered them online.

Retailers cried foul and Sen. Snowe took up the crusade, calling Amazon's promotion "an attack on Main Street businesses that employ workers in our communities.

"Small businesses are fighting everyday to compete with giant retailers, such as Amazon, and incentivizing consumers to spy on local shops is a bridge too far," Snowe said. "I urge Amazon to cancel its planned promotion, and look for ways to partner with Main Street, not promote anti-competitive behavior that could shutter the doors of America's small businesses." 

Amazon has defended the app as pro-consumer and has managed to  get at least one consumer group to come to its aid.

A spokesman for Consumer Watchdog in Santa Monica, Calif., said the Amazon app could benefit shoppers. "It could definitely be good price competition for consumers," Mark Reback said, according to the Los Angeles Times.

No comment

The National Retail Federation did not respond to a ConsumerAffairs.com request for comment but other industry groups took up the battle cry.

The Retail Industry Leaders Association said the app subverts shoppers into using retail stores as "showrooms" to check out a product before buying online.

"This is an underhanded way to send shoppers online," said Jason Brewer, the association's spokesman. "This app allows Amazon to exploit a loophole that allows them to sell the exact same product as brick-and-mortar stores and not charge sales tax."

Others saw Amazon's move as a clever promotion that would attract lots of free publicity.

"The stunt offers good value for money, particularly when you consider the price comparison app looks set to go mainstream as a new weapon in the war between bricks-and-mortar retailing and online retailing and Amazon will be leading the charge," said Gizmag.com. "The knowledge it gains will enable it to discern patterns on the exact deals their bricks and mortar competitors are prepared to do, and react in real time."

"Mobile phone retail is about to become a significant factor in purchasing decisions," Gizmag predicted.

 

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Ready-To-Bake Cookie Dough Not Ready-To-Eat

Raw dough probably a source of E. coli outbreak, researchers say

Your local supermarket has plenty of ready-to-bake cookie products that come in sausage-shaped packages of cookie dough. These make baking easier, but just...

PhotoYour local supermarket has plenty of ready-to-bake cookie products that come in sausage-shaped packages of cookie dough. These make baking easier, but just make sure you bake them. Eating the dough raw is a good way to get sick.

The investigation of a 2009 multistate outbreak of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC), an important cause of bacterial gastrointestinal illness, led researchers to a new culprit: ready-to-bake commercial prepackaged cookie dough.

Published in Clinical Infectious Diseases, a new report describing the outbreak offers recommendations for prevention, including a stronger message for consumers: Don't eat prepackaged cookie dough before it's baked.

Two conclusions

The researchers came to two key conclusions: food manufacturers should consider reformulating cookie dough products to make them safer if consumers eat them raw. In addition, the researchers said consumers need to be better educated about the hazards of eating an unbaked product.

During the 2009 E. coli outbreak, 77 patients with illnesses were identified in 30 states, and 35 people were hospitalized.

Previous E. coli-related food-borne illnesses have been associated with ground beef, leafy green vegetables, sprouts, melons, salami, and unpasteurized apple cider. The 2009 investigation, which involved extensive traceback, laboratory, and environmental analysis, led to a recall of 3.6 million packages of the cookie dough. However, no single source, vehicle, or production process associated with the dough could be identified for certain to have contributed to the contamination.

Eating uncooked cookie dough appears to be a popular practice, especially among adolescent girls, the study authors note, with several patients reporting that they bought the product with no intention of actually baking cookies. Since educating consumers about the health risks may not completely halt the habit of snacking on cookie dough, making the snacks safer may be the best outcome possible.

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What's On Your Mind? Match.com, Oster

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Match.com, Oster, Heating up, scammers and toasters....

Joy, of Davie, Fla., says she finds online dating to be anything but a joy. After signing up with Match.com, Joy said it seemed all the men with whom she was matched were located outside the U.S.

“When I called to complain I was told that they know about the Nigerians but thought that situation was improving,” Joy told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I said no it's not. I'm also getting men claiming to be in my area but stationed overseas in the military and will be home soon. Then they ask for iPods, money and give you a list.”

People using any online dating service should be wary of scammers, who use any kind of social connection they can find online to lure victims. An increasingly common pitch is to pose as a U.S. serviceman overseas.

Heating up

Robyn, of Redding Calif., reports her Oster toaster caught and destroyed the kitchen in her apartment.

“I lost everything I owned in the kitchen,” Robyn said. “Most of my belongings throughout the house were ruined from smoke damage or from the firefighters tearing through it. I had to move out of my apartment witch was declared uninhabitable and was homeless for 3 months. On top of it all my landlord kept $1000 from my deposit for fire damage.”

We've receive a few other reports in the last year of Oster toasters catching fire, but keep in mind almost any electric appliance – especially one designed to produce heat – can be a potential fire hazard. It's a good reason to have renters' insurance.

It's also a good idea to have a fire extinguished mounted on the wall in your kitchen.  Putting it on the wall is important.  If you keep in a cabinet or a closet, chances are you won't be able to find it when you need it.

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Investment Fund Manager Scammed Clients, U.S. Charges

Former Reno city councilman named in 41-count indictment

A former investment fund manager has been charged with defrauding investors out of millions of dollars by falsely promising investors their money would be ...

PhotoA former investment fund manager has been charged with defrauding investors out of millions of dollars by falsely promising investors their money would be used to purchase corporate bonds backed by the federally funded Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and then collaborating with his corporate counsel to cover-up the fraud.

John Farahi, 54, of Bel Air Estates, Calif., was named in a 41-count indictment returned late Wednesday afternoon by a federal grand jury. The indictment charges Farahi – a former member of the Reno, Nevada, City Council and Farsi-language radio investment advisor – with various fraud offenses that include making false statements to TARP-funded banks in relation to multi-million dollar loans.

“Farahi exploited TARP to line his own pockets and fund his lavish lifestyle,” said Christy Romero, Deputy Special Inspector General for the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP). “He is accused of selling investors fake securities that he called TARP-backed securities and committing loan fraud against TARP recipient banks to cover his losses. Investors should beware that there is no such thing as a TARP-backed security.”

Attorney named

The indictment also charges attorney David Tamman, 44, of Santa Monica, with conspiring with Farahi to obstruct a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigation into Farahi’s fraud scheme.

At the time of the alleged obstruction, Tamman, who is now a sole practitioner with offices in Century City, served as corporate counsel for Farahi’s investment company and was a law firm partner.

From 2005 until early 2010, Farahi ran the Beverly Hills-based New Point Financial Services, which he used to sell more than $20 million worth of investment instruments – which he called debentures – to more than 100 investors, most of whom are members of the Southland’s Iranian-Jewish community.

Farahi attracted many of the investors through his daily radio show in which he touted a conservative investment philosophy. When Farahi met with investors he falsely told them New Point Financial Services invested in low-risk investments like certificates of deposit, TARP-backed corporate bonds, and deeds of trust backed by substantial amounts of borrower equity.

The indictment alleges that Farahi did not make these types of investments and that he instead used investor money for a variety of personal purposes, including to support his family’s lavish lifestyle, to make Ponzi payments to early clients of New Point Financial Services, and to trade in high-risk and speculative future options trading.

$15 million

Starting in 2008, Farahi allegedly failed to tell New Point Financial Services investors that he had lost at least $15 million through his undisclosed options trading – even as he continued to solicit investors for New Point Financial Services.

In the face of huge trading losses at the end of 2008, Farahi allegedly tried to extend the scheme by drawing down extensively on lines of credit at banks while making false statements to those banks about his financial condition. The victim banks included Bank of America, U.S. Bank, and Sun West Bank. Bank of America and U.S. Bank were recipients of federal TARP funds.

When the SEC opened an investigation into New Point Financial Services in April 2009, Farahi allegedly conspired with Tamman, who was the company’s longtime securities counsel, to cover-up and conceal the fraud scheme from the SEC.

The indictment alleges that Farahi and Tamman engaged in a conspiracy to obstruct justice that involved, among other things, altering and backdating various documents to make it appear that New Point Financial Services investors were given full disclosures about the nature and risks of their investments, removing incriminating documents from investor files before they were produced to the SEC, and lying to the SEC in sworn testimony.

As a result of both his investment and loan fraud schemes, investigators believe that New Point Financial Services investors and financial institutions suffered losses of at least $20 million.

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Fiat 500 Gets a 3-Star Safety Rating From Feds

Lowest rating of any new model tested so far

More bad news for the slow-selling Fiat 500: federal safety regulators have given it a three-star rating, the lowest of any new model tested so far.The N...

PhotoMore bad news for the slow-selling Fiat 500: federal safety regulators have given it a three-star rating, the lowest of any new model tested so far.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the two-door  four stars for frontal crash and rollover accidents but just two stars for side-impact crash safety.

The tests gave the car a combined overall safety rating of three stars, NHTSA reported.  The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) had earlier named the car a "Top Safety Pick."

PhotoNHTSA's side-impact crash tests involve both an impact with a side barrier and a stationary pole in a 38.5 mph simulated intersection-type crash. Though the vehicles tested had curtain airbags and torso/pelvis airbags, the rear-seat passenger position was rated at just two of five possible stars for safety in the side-barrier crash test, while the driver's seat position achieved a five-star safety rating in the same crash test.

In the side-pole crash, which simulates an impact at 20 mph with a narrow, fixed object, the driver's position achieved a three-star rating out of a possible five stars, NHSTA reported.

"Development of the Fiat 500, like all Chrysler Group LLC vehicles, makes safety and security a priority," Chrysler said in a prepared statement. "In fact, the Fiat 500 features more than 35 safety and security features including: driver and front-passenger advanced multi-stage air bags, driver's knee air bag, full-length side-curtain air bags and standard seat-mounted side pelvic-thorax air bags, all to offer enhanced occupant protection to all occupants in the event of a collision."

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Can Credit Card Agreements Be Simpler?

Consumer Protection Bureau is testing new plain-English format

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is launching a "Know Before You Owe" project aimed at simplifying credit card agreements so that the pric...

PhotoThe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is launching a "Know Before You Owe" project aimed at simplifying credit card agreements so that the prices, risks, and terms are easier for consumers to understand.

The CFPB is asking the public to weigh in on a prototype credit card agreement that is shorter, written in plain language, and explains key features upfront. The CFPB also plans to pilot test the prototype with Pentagon Federal Credit Union, one of the largest credit unions in the country, to get on-the-ground consumer feedback.

“Credit cards can be complicated, with many moving parts that impact the cost to consumers,” said Raj Date, the Special Advisor to the Secretary of Treasury on the CFPB. “When a consumer has to read through pages of legal fine print in their credit card agreement to figure out how their card works – it’s easy to get confused. With a short, simple, easy-to-understand credit card agreement, consumers can clearly see the terms of the deal and make the decisions that are right for them.”

514 million

There are an estimated 514 million credit cards in circulation in the United States. Americans used their credit cards to spend an estimated $1.9 trillion in 2010, and credit card debt is estimated at $700 billion dollars.

The CARD Act, which was signed into law more than two years ago, made credit card costs more reliable – with less risk of unexpected rate increases or other charges.

But despite this progress, a recent study by J.D. Power found that roughly two-thirds of cardholders say they don’t completely understand how their cards work. And, as indicated in a recent CFPB report on credit card complaints received by the Bureau from July 21 to October 21, 2011, difficulty understanding the terms of their cards is a contributing factor in many consumer complaints.

Credit card agreements – contracts that consumers receive when they sign up – include information about the costs, features, and terms of the product. But while some companies have made improvements, agreements are often long, complicated, and written in legalese. Key information about interest rates, fees, billing, and payments is often surrounded by legal fine print.

A prototype

Designed to make it easier for consumers to understand their credit cards, the CFPB’s prototype is:

  • Short: The CFPB’s prototype is shorter – its word count is about 1,100 words, while the industry average for a credit card agreement is around 5,000 words.
  • Clear: The draft credit card agreement has an easy-to-read layout and is written in plain language. It is organized into three simple sections: costs, changes, and additional information.
  • Consumer-Friendly: The simplified agreement explains the prices, risks, and features of the credit card upfront, not buried in fine print.
  • Consistent: The prototype establishes standard definitions for legal terms like “card” and “balance transfer” that are contractually necessary but largely uninformative to consumers.

The prototype credit card agreement separates important information about prices, risks, and terms from the legalese by taking much of the legal language and moving it into standard definitions.

In the prototype, the definitions have been formulated by the CFPB based on standard industry usage and practices. To ensure that consumers can easily find these definitions, they will be housed online in a place where consumers can readily access them.

For consumers who do not have Internet access, the definitions will be available from their issuer in printed form. Doing this allows for a plain language document that clearly explains to consumers how the credit card works.

In addition to introducing the draft simplified agreement, the CFPB will host an online database of many existing credit card agreements where consumers can compare their existing agreement with the prototype.

The CARD Act required credit card issuers to provide copies of their credit card agreements to the Federal Reserve so it could maintain a database for consumers. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act transferred responsibility for this database to the CFPB.

For more information about Know Before You Owe, and to view a copy of the prototype credit card agreement and the database, visit the CFPB’s website.

 
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Is Solar Power About To Go Mainstream?

Study suggests economics are reaching tipping point

Study says solar power is rapidly becoming cost-effective...

PhotoFor years, the idea of harnessing energy from the sun has been a dream. Some say, a pipedream. But Joshua Pearce, an associate professor of electrical engineering and materials science at Michigan Technological University, isn't one of them.

While solar power currently produces less than one percent of U.S. electricity, Pearce says it can be much more than a boutique source of power.

A new analysis by Pearce and his colleagues at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, shows that solar photovoltaic systems – which convert sunlight directly into electricity - are very close to achieving the tipping point: they can make electricity that's as cheap—sometimes cheaper—as what consumers pay their utilities.

Pearce says he sees an approaching tipping point for two reasons. First, the price of solar panels has plummeted.

Costs drop 70 percent

"Since 2009, the cost has dropped 70 percent," said Pearce.

But more than that, the assumptions used in previous studies have not given solar an even break, he maintains.

"Historically, when comparing the economics of solar and conventional energy, people have been very conservative," said Pearce.

These comparisons, he says, don't take into consideration the declining costs of solar-generated electricity. Also, he notes, the price of solar equipment has been going down.

Out of date figures

Equipment costs are determined based on dollars per watt of electricity produced. One 2010 study estimated the cost per watt at $7.61, while a 2003 study set the amount at $4.16. The true cost in 2011, says Pearce, is under $1 per watt for solar panels purchased in bulk on the global market, though system and installation costs vary widely.

Solar costs also remain high in some areas because there aren't enough trained installers. Some contractors will limit the number of installation projects they will take on, charging more for the jobs they do take.

"If you had ten installers in Upper Michigan and enough work to keep them busy, the price would drop considerably," Pearse maintains.

Based on the study, and on the fact that the cost of conventional power continues to creep upward, Pearce believes that solar energy will soon be a major player in the energy game.

"It's just a matter of time before market economics catches up with it," he said.

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Google Launches Currents, a Digital Newstand for Phones & Tablets

New ad-supported offering competes with Apple's Newsstand

So here's the latest entrant in the war for your smartphone and tablet: Google Currents.It's a new ad-supported app for Android and Apple devices that ...

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So here's the latest entrant in the war for your smartphone and tablet: Google Currents.

It's a new ad-supported app for Android and Apple devices that displays magazines in a colorful, easy-on-the-eye format or, as Google put it, "swipable magazine format."

Most major publishers are represented, with titles including Forbes, Fast Company, The Daily Beast, Huffington Post and ABC News, among many others.

For anyone who has tried to read a text-only magazine on their smartphone, this should be a great leap forward.  Plain old text is OK for a few things but is a pretty dull way to read a magazine.

Colorful ads

Thanks in large part to the graphic display, there's room for colorful ads and therefore, subscriptions are free, since the project will be supported by advertising, with Google and the publishers splitting the proceeds.

Publishers, you'll recall, salivated when the iPad was introduced, thinking that at last they would once again be able to gouge both subscribers and advertisers.  Nice idea.  Too bad it didn't work.

Current's competitors include Apple's Newsstand, Yahoo's Livestand and a number of smaller players, including Flipboard.

We decided to take a look at it on our Samsung 'Droid.  Even with a strong Verizon 4G LTE connection, it took seemingly forever, about 20 minutes, to load the app and get it running. Once that was done, we paged through Fast Company, reading about -- what else? -- Currents.

The presentation is indeed easy on the eyes and the entire experience is much more like reading a magazine than staring beady-eyed at endless rows of unformatted text.  Pages load relatively quickly, although there are those pregnant pauses we have all come to anticipate.  Maybe someone should write an app to fill the idle seconds while pages and videos download? SuperQuickChess anyone?

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Older Workers Giving Up on Retirement

Many now say they will never be able to retire

Not too long ago, American workers looked forward to 20 or 30 years of retirement -- lounging around, playing golf, maybe moving to a warmer climate.No...

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Not too long ago, American workers looked forward to 20 or 30 years of retirement -- lounging around, playing golf, maybe moving to a warmer climate.

Now they increasingly expect to remain in the salt mines indefinitely, according to the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI). 

Many 50+ workers say they expect to never retire, Data suggest the trend may be tied to the recent economic recession.

In 2006 (just before the recent recession), 11.2 percent of workers age 50 or over expected to retire at age 70, but by 2010 (after the recession had officially ended) that had increased to 14.8 percent.

Even at higher ages, the expected retirement age has jumped: Just 1.7 percent of workers age 50 or over planned to retire at age 80 in 2006, while that more than tripled to 5.2 percent in 2010, EBRI found.

Expected retirement at earlier ages (62 and 65) also steadily declined over the four-year period of 2006-2010, the study found.

“The general trend shows that older Americans are expecting to retire later,” said Sudipto Banerjee, EBRI research associate and author of the study. “But the most striking finding is that nearly 20 percent of the sample expects never to stop working and more than 15 percent of the sample don’t know when they are going to retire.”

In addition, in 2008, during the recession, 22.4 percent of the workers age 50 or over said they plan to never retire. That declined to 16.3 percent in 2010. Over the 2006–2010 period, another 14–18 percent of workers said they don’t know when they will retire.

Full results are published in the December 2011 EBRI Notes. The study examines data from the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Survey on how the expected retirement ages of older Americans changed during the period of 2006–2010, covering the periods just before, during, and after the recent economic recession.

The EBRI report notes that while the rising age of expected retirement may reflect a growing awareness of economic and fiscal reality among Americans workers (especially at a time of rising longevity), other research by EBRI indicates many of them will be unable to actually work longer: The 2011 Retirement Confidence Survey finds that a large percentage of retirees (45 percent in 2011) leave the work force earlier than planned, often for health reasons or the necessity to care for other family members.

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Americans' Net Worth Takes a Big Hit

Spending on food dips as families struggle to make ends meet

Are you better off than your were three years ago?  Unless you won the lottery, chances are the answer is no.The Federal Reserve reports that the to...

PhotoAre you better off than you were three years ago?  Unless you won the lottery, chances are the answer is no.

The Federal Reserve reports that the total net worth of American households and nonprofit groups fell by $2.4 trillion in the third quarter of this year, a decline of 4.1 percent compared with the second quarter.

Why? Two primary reasons: the stock market did poorly and real estate values continued to fall.

Although nearly everyone inveighs against Wall Street, it's still true that when stocks and bonds have a bad quarter, it affects nearly everyone. The value of mutual fund shares and pension funds generally move up and down with the stock market.  With almost no interest being paid on savings and an anemic stock market, it's a difficult time for retirees and those who manage their funds. 

Meanwhile, real estate is still trying to find the bottom, as foreclosed homes sit vacant as would-be buyers try to find a mortgage. Household real estate assets fell by $98.3 billion (0.6 percent) from the previous quarter.

Then there's credit or, to be more precise, debt.  Some economists will tell you Americans cut their debt in the last quarter.  Others will say they did so unwillingly, as they failed to qualify for a new or refinanced mortgage.

Credit card debt, on the other hand, spiked during the last quarter,  as consumers piled on $16.8 billion in credit card debt, up 154 percent from the same quarter last year.

Food spending dips

Helping to put this in perspective, a new analysis of federal data (pdf) by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) finds that more and more Americans have been losing the struggle to afford an adequate and healthy diet.

Food spending by the average household fell dramatically over the past decade, with particularly dramatic drops in 2000-2002 and 2006-2010.

FRAC analyzed U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) annual reports that compare the amount of households’ median spending on food to the amount of the Thrifty Food Plan – the level the government defines as needed for a bare bones diet on an emergency basis, albeit a level that many experts consider to be inadequate for most families to obtain a healthy diet. The FRAC analysis found that:

  • Spending on food by the median household fell from 1.36 times the Thrifty Food Plan level in 2000 to 1.19 times that level in 2010.
  • By 2010 median spending on food by Black households and Hispanic households had fallen to the point where it was only a tiny bit above (101 percent for Black households) or was actually below (96 percent for Hispanic households) the bare bones Thrifty level.
  • Spending by households with incomes less than 185 percent of the poverty level fell from 106 percent of the thrifty level in 2000 to 95 percent in 2010.
"In short, tens of millions of households are failing to attain an adequate standard for food purchasing,” said FRAC President Jim Weill. “When families don’t have enough resources to purchase an adequate diet, it leads to increased hunger and damages health, mental health, family cohesion, early child development, learning, and productivity at work. Today’s inability to afford enough food will lead to widespread harm to the nation’s children and adults, its schools and its workplaces, and its economy unless this trend is reversed.”
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How About a Nice Big Glass of Food Coloring?

Color additives deceive consumers, threaten their health, report alleges

Fruit is good for you, right?  So Tropicana Twister Cherry Berry Blast should be really good for you.  Except for one thing.  Well, two actu...

PhotoFruit is good for you, right?  So Tropicana Twister Cherry Berry Blast should be really good for you.  Except for one thing.  Well, two actually.

First, it has no cherry juice.  Second, it has no berry juice. That dark red color?  Food dye.  Red 40, to be exact.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest says that’s deceptive. The nonprofit nutrition and food safety watchdog group is urging the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require food companies to disclose on the front of food labels whether a product is artificially colored.

It's not just a problem with soft drinks. Salad dressing, bread, breakfast cereals, candy, baked goods, and even mayonnaise and pickles may get their colors from additives.

Color additives are an inexpensive way to simulate absent fruit or vegetable ingredients, make white bread look more like whole wheat, or make sugary cereals more appealing to young children, according to CSPI.

Take Betty Crocker Carrot Cake, for example.  It has no carrots.  Instead, it has “carrot flavored pieces” made with corn syrup, flour, corn cereal, partially hydrogenated cottonseed and/or soybean oil, a small amount of “carrot powder,” unspecified artificial color, and Yellow 6 and Red 40.

Most varieties of Mt. Olive and Vlassic pickles appear greener and fresher thanks to Yellow 5. Kraft Light Catalina Salad Dressing contains Red 40. And caramel coloring and cocoa darken Pepperidge Farm Pumpernickel Bread.

“Betty Crocker is certainly free to make virtually carrotless carrot cake, and Tropicana is free to make berryless and cherryless juice,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “But consumers shouldn’t have to turn the package over and scrutinize the fine print to know that the color in what are mostly junk foods comes from cheap added colorings.”

Food colorings—be they synthetic dyes or obtained from nature—deceptively enhance the visual attractiveness of products and imply greater product quality, according to a regulatory petition CSPI filed with the FDA. CSPI says the agency should require that the label of a food containing color additives state ‘Artificially Colored’ on the package next to the product name—something the agency already requires of many artificially colored products.

Health issues

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There are also health reasons to be concerned about artificial colorings. The FDA has acknowledged that artificial food dyes, such as Red 40 and Yellow 5, trigger hyperactivity and behavioral problems in some children.

CSPI has also highlighted the cancer risks associated with certain caramel colorings, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, which are contaminated with carcinogens. In addition, some consumers are allergic to natural or synthetic color additives.

“Companies substitute color additives for real food ingredients to lower their costs at the expense of consumers’ health and pocketbooks,” said CSPI litigation director Stephen Gardner. “We hope that the FDA requires companies to label artificially colored foods honestly.”

Currently, FDA requires manufacturers to list synthetic color additives, such as Blue 2 or Yellow 6, by name in ingredient lists. Companies must also declare by name two allergenic colorings, carmine and cochineal extract, which are made from insects. But other colorings may be listed as “Artificial Color,” “Color Added,” or similar terms.

Three-quarters of Americans favor the mandatory disclosure on front labels when foods have been artificially colored, according to a national public opinion survey commissioned by CSPI in 2010.

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What's On Your Mind? Netflix, Bank of America, Covergirl

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Netflix, Bank of America, Covergirl, falling from grace and negative reaction due to consumer's developing new al...

PhotoJust a few months ago Netflix, it seemed, could do no wrong. But lately we've seen a lot of complaints, especially about problems with rented DVDs. Capell, of Laceys Spring, Alabama, complains about the volume.

“Thousands of Google searches return 'low volume' problems,” Capell told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Try to file a complaint with Netflix. It's like being on a merry go round. No answers, no resolutions, and no way to submit a complaint with their 'automated problem solver.'”

Netflix recently split its business between video streaming on the Web and the original DVD-by-mail service. Those sticking with the DVDs seem to be the ones generating the most complaints.

Falling from grace

Many creditors give you a short grace period to pay your bill. If you pay it within that grace period, you aren't charged a late fee. But keep in mind, if you exploit that grace period, your payment is still late. Traci, of Mechanicsville, Md., has a mortgage with Bank of America that is due on the first of the month, but she pays it on the 15th.

“I get two calls a day letting me know my mortgage is in arrears,” Traci said. “I have paid my mortgage on the 15th for 12 years. When I went into my local branch to try and get the calls to stop there was nothing they could do. This was the first they had heard of this and seemed as surprised as I was to learn that any payment after the 1st is past due.”

And because it's past due, the mortgage company is within its rights reporting it to the credit agencies. The best policy is to pay the bill by the date that's due, not by the date when they start charging a fee. Technically, Traci is in default and if BofA wanted, it could foreclose on her home.

Negative reaction

It's distressing when a product you've been using for a long time seems to develop negative effects.

“Two days ago I got Covergirl moisturizing top coat,” said Uma, of Potomac, Md. “I applied it at work in the afternoon and by the time I was leaving for home at 5.00 my lips started swelling with little bumps around the rim. This got worse the next day with skin becoming dry, flaky and painful. Seems like an allergic reaction. Strangely, I have used this product before with no reaction. I had a similar reaction when I used Chapstick before and had totally stopped using it. I looked it up and found out both these products contain propyl paraben that can cause contact dermatitis.

Whether its toothpaste or hair coloring, some products can cause severe reactions in some consumers but not others. In many cases, the product hasn't changed, but people have suddenly developed new allergies. If this happens you should see a doctor as soon as possible.

Cosmetics and toothpaste are often the source of complaints like Uma. Almost always, the underlying problem is an allergy or hypersensitivity.  The simple solution? Try another brand.

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Senate Blocks Consumer Financial Protection Chief

Obama: 'We are not giving up on this,' may try recess appointment

The long struggle to establish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau isn't over.  Filibustering Republicans in the Senate yesterday blocked confirm...

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Richard Cordray

The long struggle to establish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau isn't over.  Filibustering Republicans in the Senate yesterday blocked confirmation of former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray to head the bureau.

Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown said the vote showed that Republicans' "first loyalty is to Wall Street banks."

President Obama said the fight's not over.

"We are not giving up on this.  We're going to keep on going at it," President Obama vowed.  "We are not going to allow politics as usual on Capitol Hill to stand in the way of American consumers being protected by unscrupulous financial operators."

Obama had tried to skirt GOP opposition by nominating Cordray instead of Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren, the chief architect of the new agency.  Critics had complained she spoke too forcefully on behalf of consumers. 

Consumer advocates are urging Obama to appoint Cordray during the next Congressional recess, although Republicans have said they will keep the Senate in rump session to block such a tactic.

"Now it is time for President Barack Obama to end the needlessly drawn out process of installing a leader for the CFPB by making Cordray head of the agency through a recess appointment," said Public Citizen president Robert Weissman.

Weissman said that by blocking Cordray's nominations Senate Republicans "sent a clear message: They stand with Wall Street donors rather than American consumers."

Obama said the Senate's action "makes absolutely no sense."

"Consumers across the country understand that part of the reason we got into the financial mess that we did was because regulators were not doing their jobs," he said.  "People were not paying attention to what was happening in the housing market; people weren’t paying attention to who was being taken advantage of.  There were folks who were making a lot of money taking advantage of American consumers."

The Senate's Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said his party had made clear for months that it would not confirm Cordray or anyone else until the law establishing the new watchdog agency is amended to allow for more Congressional oversight.

“We won’t support a nominee for this bureau — regardless of who the president is” until those changes are made, McConnell said.

"Extremely disappointing"

“Today’s vote is extremely disappointing,” said Marge Baker of People For the American Way. “Senate Republicans are blocking a perfectly qualified and moderate nominee simply because they don’t want the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to do its job. This is cynical, crony politics at its worst."

"The CFPB was created to ensure that American consumers have a strong advocate in the financial sector, which has too often viewed the life savings of millions as the means to huge profits for a few. Republicans, however, would rather protect their friends at big banks than the consumers whose money those big banks rely on," Baker said.

“The list of financial tricks and traps that consumers are forced to deal with keeps growing,” said Travis Plunkett, legislative director for the Consumer Federation of America. “Fourteen months after Congress created the CFPB, the agency needs a permanent leader so it is not fighting financial abuses with one arm tied behind its back."

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Nissan Leaf Now Available in Seven More States

Automaker plans to offer the Leaf in all 50 states by March 2012

After a bumpy first year, Nissan is making its all-electric plug-in Leaf available in seven more states, with the goal of being in all 50 states by March 2...

PhotoAfter a bumpy first year, Nissan is making its all-electric plug-in Leaf available in seven more states, with the goal of being in all 50 states by March 2012.  

Dealers are now taking orders for the 2012 Leaf in Delaware, Indiana, Louisiana, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island, for a total of 30 states so far.

“Nissan Leafs have been on the U.S. roads for one year now, and thousands of drivers have become living proof that a 100% electric,  zero-emissions vehicle fulfills the daily needs of drivers from all walks of  life,” said Brian Carolin, NNA senior vp-sales & marketing.

“We are seeing already-strong interest in the LEAF continue  to grow across the country,” he added. “This market expansion brings us one  step closer to true, nationwide availability.”

Carolin said the 2012 Leaf features additional  standard equipment, including quick charging and cold-weather features.

But electrifying company announcements aside, the Leaf hasn't exactly set the world on fire, and recent reports of battery fires in the competing Chevrolet Volt haven't done much to help sales.

Falling leaves

Things looked great a year or so ago, when our Truman Lewis reported breathlessly: "The Nissan Leaf is sold out for now, even though not a single car has yet been delivered to a U.S. customer."

And yes, it was true that Nissan had collected 20,000 reservations from would-be Leaf owners.  But that didn't translate into 20,000 sales, with only 8,720 of the cars being sold by the end of November.

Production delays played a role but after an initial spark of excitement, consumers seemed to lose interest in all-electric cars, many picking up a bad case of "range anxiety," the fear that the Leaf wouldn't get them where they wanted to go.

An uncertain economy didn't help either.  The electric cars, like their hybrid cousins, cost thousands more than a comparable gas-powered car.  With more efficient gas and diesel models now available, many consumers have chosen to stay with technology they know, at least for now.

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Is Amazon Turning Shoppers Into Paid Spies?

Online giant pays up to $5 to consumers who scan bar codes in local stores

It wasn't long ago that if you walked around a store writing down prices with a pad and pencil, you would quickly be shown the door. Today, retailers look ...

PhotoIt wasn't long ago that if you walked around a store writing down prices with a pad and pencil, you would quickly be shown the door. Today, retailers look on in horror as customers stroll the aisles with their smartphones, scanning barcodes.

Stores are being turned into showrooms where consumers go to look at items that they then purchase online, a trend that has contributed to the demise of Circuit City and other big electronics retailers.

The customers think they're being smart shoppers, and maybe they are.  After all, what's wrong with comparing prices between stores and online merchants?  Theoretically nothing, except that it's a trend that local merchants say could be the death of them.  The harm done to communities by the loss of local businesses would far outweigh any savings consumers might realize, retailers say. 

In a particularly bold -- some would say outrageous -- maneuver, Amazon is offering consumers up to $5 off on their purchases of electronics and other high-end items if they compare prices using Amazon's mobile app while strolling through a store.

The promotion starts Saturday and Amazon says it's intended to encourage consumers to use its bar-code app.  Oh, and also, Amazon will hang onto the information so it knows who's charging how much for that electric toothbrush you were looking at.

This, says Rick of Hillsborough, N.J., "pulls back the shroud and shows [Amazon's] true evil intentions."

"Amazon is PAYING customers NOT to buy locally and to buy from Amazon," said Rick, who runs a local toy store. "The rather sinister plan is targeted at small, local businesses in one of the most important sales day before Christmas.  This day can make or break the profitability for a business for the entire year.  Amazon knows this.  Amazon, by paying people NOT to shop at local stores will put many local stores out of business."

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Consumer empowerment

Amazon says it's consumer empowerment.  

"We scour online and in-store advertisements from other retailers, every day, year-round,” said Sam Hall, director of Amazon Mobile, quoted by AllThingsD. “Now, we are enabling customers to use the Price Check app to share in-store prices while they search for the best deals.”

Amazon already competes unfairly by doing everything it can to avoid paying local sales taxes, retail merchants complain.  By paying consumers to be its spies, it goes too far, in Rick's opinion.

"They could do many promotions to enhance sales...but they chose to do one designed to pull people away from shopping locally.  This is no accident.  The big chains can handle it.  The small stores will close," Rick told ConsumerAffairs.com.

Independent bookstore owner David Didriksen, who runs Willow Books in Acton, Mass., says the Amazon promotion is "outrageous."

“It’s really just another in a long series of predatory practices by Amazon,’’ said Didriksen, who has in the past spoken on behalf of the Massachusetts Association of Retailers urging state legislators to end Amazon’s ability to avoid collecting state sales taxes on products it sells to Massachusetts residents. 

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Alec Baldwin Experiences How The Other Half Flies

Actors complaint not that uncommon, it seems

passengers increasingly complain about rude flight attendants...

Wikipedia photoActor Alec Baldwin made headlines this week when he was booted off an American Airlines flight for refusing to stop playing a word game on his smartphone as the plane sat at the gate at Los Angeles International Airport.

In a post on the Huffington Post, Baldwin apologized to fellow passengers for delaying the already late flight, but pointedly did not apologize to the airline or the flight attendant with whom he had words.

Sounds familiar

Baldwin's description of his run-in with the American flight attendant is not so different from some of the complaints ConsumerAffairs.com receives about airlines. The complaints increasingly concern members of the flight crew.

“A Delta flight attendant published serious threats against my daughter on Facebook, on which he identified himself as a Delta attendant,” Jim, of Scituate, Mass., told ConsumerAffairs.com recently. "I informed Delta about the threats, and asked if I should submit the details about the threat. He admitted he has a temper, and we believe he is plotting something against her, or her children. All I got from Delta was a form letter wanting to know the flight number and date.”

Tom, of Rockville, Md., recently described a run-in with a United flight attendant named Richard.

“He approached me regarding a bag that had slid out from under a seat, and rudely asked, 'what is that?' I told him it was a bag. He later admitted to knowing it was a bag and stated that it was United Airline's policy to ask passengers rude, sarcastic questions instead of asking passengers to place bags under seats. This flight attendant, is a bit scary. He should not be allowed on any flight. I will not travel with UA again.”

Screaming match at 30 thousand feet

Then there was the account provided by Adenike of Brooklyn, NY, or her encounter with a Jet Blue flight attendant, which she admits escalated into a screaming match.

“As I stepped off the plane, I was met by police officers,” Adenike said. “They forced me to remove the pictures of the flight attendant being aggressive with me. She was watching and I feel that she was smug because she was able to use her power to cover up her actions.”

Baldwin took three paragraphs to detail his encounter with the unnamed American flight attendant. He claims he was singled out by the crew member who, he said, used the “most unpleasant of tones.”

And presumably, he was seated in first class.

"The lesson I've learned is to keep my phone off when the 1950's gym teacher is on duty," Baldwin wrote.

American not backing down

The airline responded that “the passenger in question” was using offensive language, called people “inappropriate names,” and was responsible for delaying the flight.

Baldwin used the rest of his post to complain about the sad state of commercial aviation, but perhaps the 30 Rock star, as well as other consumers, should consider it's no picnic for flight crews either.

Maybe if they could all meet in the airport lounge once their planes were on the ground they could all agree on that. Or punch each other out.

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New Breast Cancer Treatment Shows Promise, Researchers Say

Drug makes cancer stem cells less resistant to traditional drugs

Promising breast cancer research from Loyola...

PhotoAdmittedly, it's a novel therapeutic approach to treating breast cancer. A drug called a “notch inhibitor” targets cancer stem cells by making them more susceptible to traditional cancer drugs.

These drugs, say Loyola University Medical Center researchers, are effective in killing mature cancer cells. But a handful of cancer stem cells are resistant to such drugs. They survive and go on to develop into new tumor cells.

A pilot study at Loyola found that the "notch inhibitor" appears to block this process by turning off key genes.

"Our results suggest a potential role that notch inhibitors could play in optimizing existing therapies and in overcoming resistance to cancer drugs," said Kathy Albain, MD, who led the study.

The so-called notch protein promotes tumor growth and survival and is present on the surface of cancer stem cells. The protein latches on to other cells, and the resulting "molecular handshake" activates various genes in the stem cells. Activating these genes, in effect, makes the stem cells resistant to common cancer drugs.

The study

The study included 20 patients who finished all therapy. The women all had early-stage, estrogen-receptor-positive breast cancer.

Following treatment with the notch inhibitor, patients underwent biopsies to provide tumor specimens. Researchers found that the drug turned off the key genes that in effect would have kept the tumor stem cells resistant to conventional drugs.

"The notch inhibitor appears to be doing what it is intended to do," said Clodia Osipo, PhD, a breast cancer scientist in Loyola's Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center.

What's next? Researchers proposed a randomized clinical trial, in which patients who received estrogen-blocking drugs before surgery would be compared to patients who received estrogen-blocking drugs plus a notch inhibitor.

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Latest Mortgage Data Paints More Hopeful Housing Picture

But qualifying for loan still problematic

Mortgage rates remain near record low...

PhotoThe good news for the housing market is mortgage rates are at rock bottom and last week saw a lot of new applications for mortgages.

However, the problem of actually getting approved for a mortgage remains.

In its weekly report today, Fredie Mac said average fixed rate mortgages remained largely unchanged, near historic lows. A 30-year fixed-rate mortgage(FRM) averaged 3.99 percent with an average 0.7 point for the week ending December 8, 2011, down from last week when it averaged 4.00 percent. Last year at this time, the 30-year FRM averaged 4.61 percent.

A 15-year FRM this week averaged 3.27 percent with an average 0.8 point, down from last week when it averaged 3.30 percent. A year ago at this time, the 15-year FRM averaged 3.96 percent.

"Thirty-year fixed-rate loans have declined 0.62 percentage points from a year ago, and median sales prices on existing homes are off 4.7 percent in the year ending with October,” said Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist, Freddie Mac. “These low rates and home prices have pushed housing affordability to record highs this year.”

You still need 20 percent down

However, to qualify for those low rates, a borrower needs at least a 20 percent down payment and sterling credit. Even so, the Mortgage Bankers Association reported this week that applications for new home purchase mortgages surged 12.8 percent from the previous week. That's not as big a gain as it might seem, since the previous week included Thanksgiving and Black Friday, when consumers were shopping for other things besides houses. Still, industry officials say the increase is a hopeful sign.

“Coming out of the Thanksgiving holiday, applications increased significantly as mortgage rates dropped to their lowest levels in about two months,” said Michael Fratantoni, MBA's Vice President of Research and Economics. “In particular, refinance applications increased sharply, with some lenders seeing refinance volume double. Despite this surge, aggregate refinance activity is still below levels reported two weeks ago. Some lenders indicated they are beginning to see an increase in HARP loans, but that increase is still a small portion of the move this week."

The problem

No one argues that affordability conditions have never been better. Home prices are back to pre-bubble levels and interest rates are low. Getting a loan remains the stumbling block.

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) says would-be home buyers must be aware of the new environment and take extra precautions to make themselves suitable to mortgage lenders.

“Many potential home buyers inadvertently hurt their credit scores and chances of getting a mortgage through easily averted actions, such as cancelling an old credit line while taking on a new one,” said Lawrence Yun, NAR's chief economist. “Such actions could unwittingly prevent buyers from obtaining a mortgage if their credit score is close the margins of qualifying, or they might get a loan but with less favorable terms.”  

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Consumers Taking On More Credit Card Debt

Report shows surging use of plastic in third quarter

Consumers are piling on credit card debt...

PhotoCardHub.com, an online credit card resource, reports consumers piled on $16.8 billion in credit card debt in the third quarter of 2011, up 154 percent from the same quarter last year.

The news comes on the heels of a report by First Data that credit card spending in the U.S. rose in the first three quarters of the year. The Great Recession may have promoted many consumers to put away their plastic for a while, but they are apparently spending again, with a vengeance.

Based on the results of its study, CardHub.com’s latest projection is that consumers will end 2011 with roughly $64 billion more in credit card debt than they began it with.

The company arrived at its conclusions by analyzing consumer debt data from the Federal Reserve’s G19 report in conjunction with quarterly charge-off data to determine how much consumer debt actually increased when you consider the amount of bad debt written off the books.

Unprecedented rate

While it is common for consumers to end the first quarter of each year with a significant net decrease in credit card debt and subsequently wipe out this reduction throughout the rest of the year, the speed at which consumers are garnering new debt in 2011 is unprecedented, the company said. More specifically, this is the first time in the last two years that a first quarter paydown has been completely eradicated by the end of the third quarter.

While economists have said a return of consumer spending is necessary to help the economy fully recover, unbridled credit card spending is probably not what they envisioned. If the recent trend of rising credit card debt in the fourth quarter continues – and data from Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping suggests it will – the report concludes that consumers could be headed down a dangerous path.

“Consumer spending is gaining momentum,” said Card Hub CEO Odysseas Papadimitriou. “While people going out and buying things is good for the economy, over-leveraging is not.”

The First Data report earlier this week found that Black Friday credit card purchases were up 7.4 percent over last year, while debt card purchases rose only 3.4 percent. In other words, consumers were spending money they didn't have at more than twice the rate they spent their own money.

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House OKs Video-Sharing Bill Backed by Facebook, Netflix

Video Privacy Protection Act currently forbids disclosing video rental information

In a land where just about everyone shares just about everything on Facebook and elsewhere, it's a little surprising that it's illegal to share your movie-...

PhotoIn a land where just about everyone shares just about everything on Facebook and elsewhere, it's a little surprising that it's illegal to share your movie-viewing habits online.  Not the movies themselves, mind you, just what you watched last night.

Believe it or not, it will take an act of Congress to correct the situation.  The House took the first step yesterday, approving a bill that will make it legal for you to share your Netflix viewing habits on Facebook. 

It was hardly unanimous though.  The bipartisan measure squeaked through as 116 members voted against it (roll call here).

If the Senate approves the measure, the United States will join the 44 other nations whose citizens are able to integrate their accounts to share their Netflix viewing habits on Facebook.

Music services like Spotify have been successfully doing this for months with, as far as anyone knows, no cataclysmic events.  Don't want your high-toned friends to know you listen to Hoobastank?  Just turn off sharing in your Spotify account panel.

Say what?

How did this all get strted?

Back in the quaint old 1980s, privacy advocates were fearful that evil-doers would get their hands on our movie rental accounts and tell the world how trashy our tastes were. So a 1988 bill called the Video Privacy Protection Act was enacted outlawing the disclosure of one's video rental information.

Getting it updated hasn't been easy though.  The bill approved yesterday, introduced by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) adds a sentence-length amendment to the original law but it wasn't without controversy.

Some members, including Rep. Mel Watt of North Carolina, objected to the measure, saying they couldn't understand why anyone would want to do such a thing.

"I don't think he gets it," said Matt Lira, the digital communications director for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, according to Fast Company. "He doesn't use social media in his everyday life, so how can we expect him to understand the value of sharing content?"

"Spotify shows that while not everyone is going to use it [on Facebook], there are millions of people want to use it," Lira said.

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States Join Fight Against Robocalls to Cell Phones

Congress may weaken consumer protections

The National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) has sent a letter signed by 54 state and territorial Attorneys General urging Congress to reject a bil...

PhotoThe National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) has sent a letter signed by 54 state and territorial Attorneys General urging Congress to reject a bill that would allow robocalls to cell phones.

The Mobile Informational Call Act of 2011 would amend the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) and allow debt collectors and other businesses to robocall consumers on their cell phones. Additionally, H.R. 3035 would preempt state laws regulating junk faxes, unsolicited text messages, Do Not Call registries, and automated calls.

“Our offices protect consumers by enforcing the TCPA and state laws concerning telephone solicitations, automated calls, junk faxes and text messages," the attorneys general wrote. "Over at least the last 22 years, Congress and the states have enacted strong laws to protect consumers from unwanted and intrusive robocalls.

"Currently, federal law bans robocalls to cell phones unless the consumer gives prior express consent. H.R. 3035 would change the law and undermine federal and state efforts to shield consumers from a flood of solicitation, marketing, debt collection and other unwanted calls and texts to their cell phones.”

Harmful implications

The letter further describes the harmful implications the legislation will have on consumers.

One concern is that H.R. 3035 would shift the cost of unwanted calls – such as debt collection and marketing calls – to consumers, placing a greater burden on low-income consumers who cannot afford to pay. H.R. 3035 would also cause an increase in robocalls to cell phones from businesses and charities.

The Attorneys General propose instead that Congress “make two small but significant changes to the TCPA to better protect consumers:

  • protect consumers’ privacy by clarifying that prior express consent to robocalls must be obtained in writing; and
  • eliminate any suggestion from the TCPA that state statutes regulating interstate telephone and fax harassment are preempted.”
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What's On Your Mind? Zyrtec, Best Buy, Brookstone

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Zyrtec, Best Buy, Brookstone, Confusion and Bait & Switch....

PhotoZyrtec is an over-the-counter allergy medicine taken by millions of people. Many think it's great, unless for some reason they can't get it.

“I have been on Zyrtec for about 10 years,” Michael, of Clinton, Conn., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I took it faithfully for about 8 of those years everyday because it was indeed the magic pill. But the day I forgot to get some more and couldn't get anywhere to get more, became the night from hell.”

Michael said he was kept awake by terrible itching, which went away, he said, as soon as he got back on the medication.

“Then about 8 months later I forgot to stop at the pharmacy on my way home to get some more, and then the same thing happened as before,” he said. “Now I have to take this million dollar medication to keep the rash away. Makes sense from a business point of view for sure, get them hooked like druggies so they have to keep coming back.”

Obviously not everyone who takes Zyrtec becomes dependent on it. But enough do, apparently, that the Food and Drug Administration should look into it to find out why.  Then again, it may just be that the itchiness is a symptom of the allergy that originally drove Michael and others to buy the drug in the first place.

Confusion

Alina, of Highland Park, N.J., was one of many people who tried to order a big-screen TV online Thanksgiving weekend. Alina said she went to BestBuy.com and ordered a 55-inch set for $1400.

“The TV was available at my local store so I selected the option for a local pick-up,” Alina said.

But no sooner than she received an email confirming her order, Alina said another email arrived telling her the TV was no longer available for pick-up at her store. She said she was then told it would be ready December 17 and she would receive an email when it was ready for pick-up.

“On December 5, I received an email stating that my order was cancelled,” Alina said.

When she inquired about the reason for the cancellation, Alina said she was told it was because she failed to pick up her TV. The kicker? If she reordered the TV it would now be an extra $800.

This sort of thing seems to happen when you order a bargain-priced product online. Somehow it seems to disappear before it can be shipped to you. Perhaps it's wise to seek all sale-priced merchandise with an in-store purchase.

If Alina really feels burned, she should consult the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs.

Bait & Switch?

To make our point, here's another example of an online holiday shopper who thought she was buying something for a bargain, only to find out she didn't.

Brookstone.com had a camera advertised online 'now $0.96,' and assuming it was a holiday special, I purchased 3 for gifts. received email confirmation, temporary authorization to my credit card,” Lora, of Watertown, Mass., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Two days later when I call to track my order, they tell me my order is cancelled, though I never got notice, then tell me the item is not available, but, oh I can reorder at the regular price of $99.99! They said it was a mistake on the price and they refuse to honor my purchase at the price on my confirmed order.”

We'll go out on a limb here and say it sounds reasonable that the 96-cent price for a camera was a misprint. But that doesn't mean Brookstone shouldn't have honored it. Lora might want to take it up with someone in Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley's office.

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GM Nears a Fix For Chevy Volt's Battery Pack

Reinforced case, laminated wires would provide more protection

Reports today say that General Motors is close to a package of modifications to the Chevrolet Volt lithium-ion battery pack to prevent fires from bein...

PhotoReports today say that General Motors is close to a package of modifications to the Chevrolet Volt lithium-ion battery pack to prevent fires from being triggered after a crash.

Reuters quoted sources inside GM as sayiing the modifications would include laminating the circuitry in the Volt's 400-pound battery pack, while also reinforcing the case that surrounds the battery.

The cooling system would also be better protected against leaks in the event of a severe crash.  

There are about 6,000 Volts on the road today and presumably all of them would be recalled as part of the retooling process while changes would be made to newly-manufactured cars before they were delivered.

GM engineers are thought to be hoping to get final approval from senior management by the end of the week.  It's thought the changes could be made quickly once they're approved.

Cars burn

Even without the modifications, some safety experts say they're confident the Volt is safe as is.  All cars are potential fire hazards in an accident, with gas-powered cars being considerably more prone to catch fire than those with diesel engines. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) yesterday said it had no plans to strip the Volt of its five-star safety rating.

The institute, whose findings are used by insurance companies in rating the insurability of cars, said it found no evidence of damage to the Volt's battery packs after its crash tests.

Federal safety regulators opened a formal investigation of the Volt months after a Chevy Volt burst into flames following a crash at a federal test site. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) did not immediately disclose the fire, which occurred last May, several weeks after a Volt had been wrecked as part of a crash test.

General Motors executives have said the Volt's battery should be properly powered down after an accident but personnel at the federal test center apparently didn't know about or follow that advice.

GM has offered free loaner cars to Volt owners worried about the vehicle's safety. GM said that as of last Thursday, 33 of about 5,000 Volt owners have taken the loaners.

In a letter to owners and dealers, North American GM President Mark Reuss tried to reassure them by noting: "I am also a Volt owner, my daughter drives it every day and she will continue to do so."

Most Volt owners are apparently pleased with the cars.  Last week, the Volt came up tops in customer satisfaction in a Consumer Reports survey.

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Arms Race Breaks Out as Giants Seek to Dominate Video Streaming

Combatants include Netflix, HBO, Verizon

The days when a couple of Hollywood moguls could lounge around their smoke-filled hang-outs and divvy up the spoils are long gone.No one smokes anymore, ...

Photo credit: ChinaStateupJobs.comThe days when a couple of Hollywood moguls could lounge around their smoke-filled hang-outs and divvy up the spoils are long gone.

No one smokes anymore, for one thing.  For another, there are so many players crowding into the streaming video market that it's starting to look like Saturday night in the Roman Coliseum.

Netflix is the acknowledged champion of video streaming but now that everyone has realized that, the race is on to unseat it. Competitors want to take over its franchise, while program producers want to sock it with ever-bigger licensing fees.

Verizon is reported to be planning a standalone service that would let customers stream movies and TV shows over the Web.  The new service, as yet unnamed, would be independent of FiOS, Verizon's exisiting broadband service, which has what many reviewers (including this one) think is the best On-Demand selection and superior quality and reliability.  Verizon's recent spectrum purchase gives it a major leg-up in the competition.

HBO Go The anywhere-anytime HBO service is similar in many respects to Netflix although its library is not nearly as big.  On the other hand, it has a huge inventory of top-notch recent HBO movies and shows, something that's notably lacking on Netflix. The Netflix "bin collection," as Hollywood types call it, contains a healthy share of old dogs that weren't exactly greyhounds in their youth.

For its part, Netflix vows that it will start producing its own programs, just as HBO and the other big cable channels do.

Amazon Sure, it's cornered the online market for books, ereaders and assorted home goods but can Amazon really wade into the ring with the big guys? Netflix CEO Reed Hastings doesn't think so. He pooh-poohed Amazon's potential at a recent conference, saying the company doesn't appear willing to spend the $1 or $2 billion a year on programming that will be needed to carve out a huge niche.

A true "friend"

It's hard to get anyone to badmouth Netflix, since it writes such big checks to so many people but protestations of friendship sometimes draw laughs. That's what happened earlier this week when Time Warner chairman and CEO Jeff Bewkes told an investors conference that he considered Netflix "our friend."

"It's true," Bewkes insisted, as laughter rippled through the room.  "We're partners." He insisted that earlier comments comparing Netflix to the Albanian Army were meant in good cheer.

Oh, and don't forget Yahoo.  Or go ahead.  Forget them if you want but the troubled Web portal is trying to ramp up its production of what Internet types call "video content," as opposed to just plain content, which is any mismash of text that contains keywords.  

Yahoo has rented a modest space in Manhattan and is building a studio where it apparently plans to produce news or interview programming.  Who knows where that will go?

So what?

Photo credit: ChinaStateupJobs.comWhat's all this mean for consumers?  Well, it means that for awhile there'll be lots of big money locking up programming and trying to stuff it into various distribution channels, creating a fluid situation that will, just as surely as concrete hardens, start to consolidate into fewer channels and higher prices.  

The trouble with streaming video, of course, is that it's like sunshine. You have to enjoy it while it's there because it can't be bottled.  

How you spend your time is your business.  As for how you spend your money, it's probably not a good idea to invest in anything that is proprietary -- say, a TV or Blu-ray player that only gets Netflix and a few other Internet channels in addition to the usual cable and over-the-air selection.  Ideally, it's best to stay flexible and become proficient at hooking up your computer or iPad to the big-screen TV.  

Better yet is a Roku box, an economical little gadget that will hook you up to just about any streaming video source out there.  That allows you to buy a simple, stand-alone TV and a lower-priced DVD player.  If the Roku eventually becomes obsolete, you're only out $80 or so.

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TransUnion Sees Fewer Mortgage Delinguencies In 2012

For many consumers, credit picture appears to be improving

TransUnion reports consumers are making more on-time payments...

PhotoMortgage delinquencies - homeowners falling behind on their payments by 60 or more days - can be a gauge of future foreclosures. So any prediction of a decline in delinquencies should be viewed as hopeful news or housing.

TransUnion, one of the big three credit reporting companies, says mortgage delinquencies should fall by one percent between now and the end of 2012. However, the company says they might increase slightly early in the year before beginning their decline.

Currently, about six percent of mortgages are considered delinquent. TransUnion says that number should fall to five percent a year from now.

"Although house prices and unemployment will likely face continued pressure next year, this forecast calls for gradual improvements in the second half of 2012 to other key variables, like improving credit quality of new originations, consumer confidence and GDP, that will positively influence homeowners' ability and willingness to pay their mortgages," said Tim Martin, group vice president of U.S. housing in TransUnion's financial services business unit.

"If things go as expected, there are no additional negative shocks to the U.S. economy and the average borrower's situation, mortgage delinquencies could fall as much as 16% in 2012 compared to 2011."

Credit Cards

While mortgage delinquencies have been declining steadily, so have late credit card payments. Credit card delinquency rates - the ratio of bankcard borrowers 90 days or more delinquent on one or more of their credit cards - reached their lowest levels in 17 years during the second quarter of 2011 and TransUnion expects them to remain relatively low in 2012. Currently, only 0.74 percent of borrowers are considered delinquent. TransUnion says that rate could fall to 0.69 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012.

"Credit card delinquencies are expected to remain fairly steady in 2012 ranging between 0.69% and 0.76% -- levels far below those typically observed in the last 15 years," said Steve Chaouki, group vice president in TransUnion's financial services business unit. "In today's uncertain economy, consumers have found that credit cards are among their most valued assets due to the flexibility they provide. As a result, consumers have made a concerted effort to make on-time payments and maintain relatively low balances."

In that regard, Chaouki said consumers have reduced the amount of money they carry as a balance on their cards. Credit card debt per borrower in the third quarter of 2011 stood at $4,762, approximately $1,000 less than the second quarter of 2009, the quarter in which the recession ended.

Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia are projected to see credit card delinquency declines in 2012 with only 11 experiencing increases.  

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Analyst Sees Cable Giants Moving Onto Netflix's Turf

Verizon may launch competing video streaming service

Verizon may launch a new video streaming service...

PhotoNetflix started off renting DVDs by mail but recently began offering instant content via live streaming on the Internet. That got the attention of Time Warner, Comcast and other content providers, who suddenly realized Netflix could deliver much the same content they were selling at a fraction of the cost.

At least one of these cable giants has apparently decided to fight fire with fire. Verizon, which provides video content via FiOS, may be poised to launch a new Internet video service that would go head to head with Netflix.

Tony Wible, Director of Entertainment and Digital Media at Janney Montgomery Scott, made the prediction Tuesday in a note to investors. As an analyst at Janney Montgomery Scott, Wible not only follows industry developments at Netflix, but also Time Warner, Disney, Viacom and other large media firms.

A catalyst

If Verizon were to launch such a service, Wible said it would be a catalyst for other media conglomerates to jump on board as well. To date, he notes, no cable or pay-TV provider has tried to market its content outside its original footprint. But it would be a simple matter for these companies to set up subsidiaries that could offer web-delivered content in addition to their other, more expensive services.

A basic cable TV service usually starts around $30 a month and can easily be more than $100 a month when premium channels and services are added. A Netflix subscription, on the other hand, is $8 a month.

Verizon has yet to formally announce a web service and did not comment on Wible's prediction.

If Verizon were to follow through on the new service, the timing might be to its benefit. Netflix stumbled badly over the summer when it split off its DVD-by-mail service from its web streaming access, in what amounts to a 60 percent rate hike.

Unhappy customers

Many customers were angry at the rate hike, and also unloaded on the company for other issues, like DVDs that didn't play and a new web browsing feature.

"Aside from having to deal with this new, completely unfriendly browsing feature, I too, am pretty annoyed with their price hike," Hanna, of Lynnwood, Wash., told ConsumerAffairs.com back in September. "This is your business, Netflix. How hard is it to actually keep things consistent? More importantly, how hard is it to get a little progressive and allow streaming for ALL the movies? One month a DVD is available for live streaming, then the next, it's back on the DVD list. And I can't ever get through their customer service number to complain!"

In October, a ConsumerAffairs.com computerized analysis of about 4 million consumer comments on Facebook, Twitter and assorted blogs found the company's approval rating continuing to plunge - from a 60 percent approval rating down to 14 percent.

Consumers aren't the only ones who have been unhappy lately. Investors have also punished Netflix. Earlier this year Netflix stock hit a high of $304 per share, but today is trading at around $70.

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Controlling Leftovers Helps Control Weight

Holiday temptations don't end when the meal is over

Controlling Leftovers Helps Control Weight: Controlling your desires at these events is crucial to maintaining a healthy weight during the holidays....

PhotoThis time of year can be murder on the waistline. Holiday parties and family dinners provide lots of temptation. Controlling your desires at these events is crucial to maintaining a healthy weight during the holidays.

But nutritionists point out the danger is not just at these events, but can linger afterward if they result in a refrigerator full of leftovers. Very often, the restraint you show at the dinner table seems to melt once the leftover food has been stored in microwavable dishes.

“Unfortunately, most people don’t shed extra holiday weight and just keep adding pounds year after year,” said Mary Ellen Herndon, wellness dietitian at the University of Texas. “And, unhealthy weight gain can put you at greater risk for diseases like cancer.”

Make a game plan

Herndon says you should make a game plan for leftovers.

“Right after a holiday meal, divide all leftovers into one-half cup servings,” Herndon said. “Refrigerate enough for a day or two and freeze the rest.”

Don't just reheat leftovers - turn them into new, healthy dishes. For example, white turkey meat can be used in chili instead of ground beef. Instead of a turkey sandwich, create turkey wraps, using whole wheat tortillas.

Sweet potatoes can be used to make a protein-packed sandwich spread or veggie dip by pureeing one-half cup sweet potatoes with one-half cup chickpeas. Eat only one or two tablespoons at a time.

Small is beautiful

Keep servings small. Whether eating a holiday meal, snacking on appetizers at a party or indulging in leftovers, keeping off the extra pounds starts with portion control.

Herndon says women should try to keep each meal to around 500 calories; men should strive for 700. Find the calorie counts and serving sizes for favorite holiday foods by using an online calorie calcuator.

Finally, one way to avoid overindulging is to get leftovers out of sight. Here’s how:

  • Give guests “doggie bags.” Have containers ready to speed up the process.
  • Give leftovers to relatives or friends who don’t cook or join the festivities.
  • Donate canned or boxed foods, as well as unopened store-bought baked goods to a food bank or homeless shelter.
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'Homeopathic' HCG Weight Loss Products May Be Banned

FDA, FTC say the products are dangerous and unproven

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have issued seven Warning Letters to companies marketing over-the counter (OTC...

PhotoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have issued seven Warning Letters to companies marketing over-the counter (OTC) HCG products that are labeled as “homeopathic” for weight loss.

Human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) is a hormone produced by the human placenta and found in the urine of pregnant women. HCG is FDA-approved as an injectable prescription drug for the treatment of some cases of female infertility and other medical conditions.

The letters warn the companies that they are violating federal law by selling drugs that have not been approved, and by making unsupported claims for the substances. There are no FDA-approved HCG drug products for weight loss.

The joint action is the first step in keeping the unproven and potentially unsafe products from being marketed online and in retail outlets as oral drops, pellets, and sprays.

Side effects

The labeling for the “homeopathic” HCG products states that each product should be taken in conjunction with a very low calorie diet. There is no substantial evidence HCG increases weight loss beyond that resulting from the recommended caloric restriction.  Consumers on a very low calorie diet are at increased risk for side effects including gallstone formation, electrolyte imbalance, and heart arrhythmias. 

“These HCG products marketed over-the-counter are unproven to help with weight loss and are potentially dangerous even if taken as directed,” said Ilisa Bernstein, acting director of the Office of Compliance in FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “And a very low calorie diet should only be used under proper medical supervision.”

“Deceptive advertising about weight loss products is one of the most prevalent types of fraud,” said David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Any advertiser who makes health claims about a product is required by federal law to back them up with competent and reliable scientific evidence, so consumers have the accurate information they need to make good decisions.”

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Feds Seize Ephedrine Supplements in California

Ephedrine alkaloids can cause dangerous side effects

At the request of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Marshals have seized raw materials imported by Infinity Marketing Group, Inc. containing ephe...

PhotoAt the request of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Marshals have seized raw materials imported by Infinity Marketing Group, Inc. containing ephedrine alkaloids, a large family of pharmacological compounds called sympathomimetics banned by FDA since 2004 for use in dietary supplements.

The seizure took place in Rancho Dominguez, Calif. FDA said the seizure amount to more than $70,000 worth of the potentially dangerous dietary supplement ingredients from the market.

Judge Gary A. Feess of the Central District of California issued a warrant for the seizure of more than 4,000 pounds of raw material – Cissus quadrangularis and Cassia angustifolia extracts – containing the ephedrine alkaloids.

Dangerous effects

Ephedrine alkaloids are adrenaline-like stimulants that can have potentially dangerous effects on the heart. Prior to 2004, dietary supplements containing ephedrine alkaloids had been extensively promoted for aiding weight control and boosting sports performance and energy.

But available data showed little evidence of the compound’s effectiveness except for modest, short-term weight loss without any clear health benefit, while confirming that the substance raised blood pressure and otherwise stressed the circulatory system. These effects were linked to significant adverse health outcomes, including heart attack, stroke and death.

FDA’s chemical analysis confirmed the presence of these alkaloids in the shipment, but the shipping drums carried no labels indicating that the material contained the banned ephedrine alkaloids.

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What's On Your Mind? Postal Service, Digital TV, AT&T

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Postal Service, Digital TV, AT&T, Don't touch that dial and Time to be assertive....

PhotoThe U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is struggling with well-publicized financial problems and this week announced it is reducing some service. Jennifer, of College Station, Tex., thinks the level of service at her local post office is pretty low already.

"My young daughter used her allowance money to order her sister a Christmas gift," Jennifer told ConsumerAffairs.com. "It was due to arrive over Thanksgiving, so I had the post office hold our mail while we were away. When we got back, we got a box of mail with other packages, but not that one. I followed the tracking number showing that it was delivered to our post office, scanned and sorted. So where is it? I filed a report at the post office, but they haven't contacted me. There is a second package without a tracking number missing. I don't expect to get that one either."

Jennifer said the loss of the money is secondary to her daughter's disappointment.

Don't touch that dial

We heard a lot of complaints a couple of years ago when broadcast television dropped its analog channels and went digital, requiring either a digital TV or a converter box. While the issue has been largely forgotten by some, it hasn't been forgotten by Linda, of McMinnville, Ore.

"The conversion from analog to digital has been a very poor experience, and I mean this in both senses of the word," Linda said. "The change has meant a big problem to the low-income in this country. We are forced to either purchase expensive new equipment, lease such equipment or do without. To top it all off, the digital equipment is far more susceptible to poor quality, with the consumer completely at the mercy of big business. Broadcast may have been at the mercy of the weather at times, but at least it was free--or we had a choice. Now we have to pay for cable or satellite. What a scam. This was a really bad idea, and very expensive for the people of this country."

Linda says the promised benefits never materialized and now she has to put up with pixelization, black screens, and slow or interrupted picture.

Time to be assertive

Elizabeth, of Larksville, Pa., says she ordered an iPhone through her local AT&T store at the end of November. She says she was informed the phone was damaged in transit and therefore, was not delivered as promised.

"I cannot get anyone to either return my money or deliver the phone," Elizabeth told ConsumerAffairs.com. "AT&T has not resolved the issue through their Wilkes Barre store as was promised. Now the store manager has not called back. I need my $212.00 back or the phone."

Well, this may call for a little persistence on Elizabeth's part but should be resolvable. Hopefully she has paperwork from her order and a bank or credit card statement showing she paid. Elizabeth should return to the store at a time when they are not overly busy and politely insist that someone either give her a phone or her money back. Increasingly, when businesses make errors it seems it's harder, and takes longer to resolve the problem than it used to.

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Last Again! Once More, AT&T Places Dead Last in Customer Satisfaction

Smaller companies rate higher than 'big 4' providers

Consumer Reports' new cell phone customer satisfaction survey...

PhotoFor a second straight year, AT&T finished last in Consumer Reports' cell phone customer satisfaction survey. The non-scientific poll questioned 66,000 Consumer Reports subscribers.

The survey found that consumers rated the smaller national and regional mobile providers higher than their larger competitors -- AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile. Heading the list in customer satisfaction is Consumer Cellular, a small national carrier. Ironically, this first-place finisher uses last-place AT&T's national network.

U.S. Cellular, which only operates in half the U.S., finished second in the poll.

TracFone was rated one of the better carriers among prepaid cell-phone service providers, with Straight Talk, T-Mobile and Virgin Mobile. All of the top four prepaid carriers received above average scores for value. Readers who prepaid for their cell-phone service were more satisfied overall than respondents with standard service.

“Our survey indicates that prepaid customers and those with smaller standard service providers are happier overall with their cell-phone service,” said Paul Reynolds, electronics editor for Consumer Reports. “However, these carriers aren’t for everyone. Some are only regional, and prepaid carriers tend to offer few or no smart phones. A major carrier is still a leading option for many consumers.”

Nobody's perfect

Indeed, ConsumerAffairs.com has logged a number of complaints from nearly every cell phone company's customers over the years. Ira, of Boone, Iowa, said Consumer Cellular charged him for a monthly texting plan, even though he didn't order it and doesn't even know how to text.

"I will ask the credit card company to enter into the dispute process," Ira told ConsumerAffairs.com. "In my view, I should not have to pay for any service I never ordered!"

TracFone, meanwhile, is also the source of regular consumer complaints.

"I bought a TracFone last month and the reception is so bad that nobody can hear me on the other end," NiVonne, of Winchester, Va., said. "I have spent most of my minutes repeating myself when I use the phone. I phoned customer service, which is a total joke."

Of the four major U.S. national cell-phone standard service providers, Verizon and Sprint were the better-rated carriers in the Consumer Reports poll. Verizon had an edge over Sprint in texting and in knowledgeable support staff, but Sprint rated better in value. T-Mobile was below Verizon and Sprint but continued to rate significantly better than the higher-priced carrier AT&T, which recently withdrew its application to the FCC to merge with its better rival.

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Chevy Volt Keeps Top Safety Rating Despite Fire Reports

Influential insurance group keeps five-star safety rating for the Volt

Despite a federal investigation into possible fire risks in the Chevy Volt gas-electric hybird, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) says it h...

PhotoDespite a federal investigation into possible fire risks in the Chevy Volt gas-electric hybird, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) says it has no plans to strip the Volt of its five-star safety rating.

IIHS tested the Volt last February and gave it a top rating. Last month, it said passengers in hybrids had less risk of injury in a crash because of the added mass provided by the heavy battery.

The safety group also said it found no evidence of damage to the Volt's battery packs in its tests.

"If we had found that the battery pack had been damaged or certainly if we had subsequent concerns about fire risk -- that would have raised red flags," IIHS spokesman Russ Rader said, according to a  Reuters report.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) opened a formal safety defect investigation of the Volt last month.  That could result in recalls and design changes in future models.

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.  

Gas fires

All cars, especially those powered by gasoline, pose a fire risk. Ford has fought a lengthy battle over charges that its Crown Victoria model, widely used in police and taxi fleets, is prone to explode into flames when rear-ended.  Millions of Ford F-150 and other model trucks were recalled because of the risk that they could burst into flames when parked and unattended.

GM has offered free loaner cars to Volt owners worried about the vehicle's safety. GM said that as of last Thursday, 33 of about 5,000 Volt owners have taken the loaners.

In a letter to owners and dealers, North American GM President Mark Reuss tried to reassure them by noting: "I am also a Volt owner, my daughter drives it every day and she will continue to do so."

Most Volt owners are apparently pleased with the cars.  Last week, the Volt came up tops in customer satisfaction in a Consumer Reports survey.

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What's the Best Paper Towel for Holiday Clean-Ups?

Bounty plain, Bounty Extra Soft, and Target’s Up & Up score best

We sometimes think life must be pretty exciting over at Consumer Reports.  They get to test all those neat, exotic products ... like, you know, paper ...

PhotoWe sometimes think life must be pretty exciting over at Consumer Reports.  They get to test all those neat, exotic products ... like, you know, paper towels.

The venerable magazine put 23 towels through their paces, testing for absorption, scrubbing, and wet strength.  Some good news: consumers don’t have to pay big bucks for good paper towels.

The top paper towel is plain Bounty, with a score of 90 (Don’t confuse it with its lower-scoring brand mate, Bounty Basic, which earned a 66 in CR’s tests). 

In second place was Bounty Extra Soft with a score of 84. It lost a few points due to its performance on wet strength, which measures the force required to pull a section of paper towel apart when it’s wet.  In third place, Target’s Up & Up Eastern version. The Western version, from a different supplier, didn’t perform as well.

Prices for paper towels range widely, says the report, available in the January issue of Consumer Reports and online at www.ConsumerReports.org.  Consumers can pay as little as $1.46 or as much as $5.12 per 100 square feet.  

The report notes that Walmart’s Great Value paper towels cost $1.82 per 100 square feet and were very good. Costco’s Kirkland Signature paper towels also performed well and were the cheapest ones tested.

Why pay more?

A pricy paper towel isn’t necessarily going to be good at slurping up holiday messes.  Earth Friendly Products, one of the priciest paper towels, were the lowest rated of all, with a score of 26.

Do green claims make a difference? The report points out that there are currently few or no governmental regulations for many of the “green” claims on paper towels.  But “recycled” claims do have some merit, so it’s a good idea to look for a high percentage of post-consumer recycled content. 


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Older Floridians Not Planning To Stop Driving

Survey finds 13 percent say they will never give up the wheel

A Florida survey questions older residents about driving...

It's said that old age creeps up suddenly, and if you haven't planned for it, life can get complicated in a hurry. For example, have you thought about what you will do when you are too old to drive?

Apparently not many of us have. Florida, which has one of the highest percentages of 65-plus residents in the U.S., recently posed that question and found that 13 percent of survey respondents indicated they would not stop driving at all, with three percent expressing the opinion that they would die before they would stop driving.

Not a comforting fact for everyone else on Florida's roads, perhaps. Researchers at Florida State University and the Florida Department of Transportation developed the survey to determine what states should be doing to help older drivers and assist them in the transition to their post-driving days. They're obtained a grant to set up to create a statewide Aging Road User Strategic Safety Plan.

A national model for older drivers

“The bottom-line measure of success for the grant from the DOT is that we reduce the number of fatalities, injuries and crashes that involve older adults in Florida,” said John Reynolds, a professor at Florida State. “However, in doing so we’ll be making the roads safer for all Floridians and hopefully serving as a national model for other states.”

The researchers surveyed a large number of Floridians, divided into two groups, those aged 50 to 64 and those age 65 and up. They found that most drivers don’t plan for a future day when they may be unable to drive safely. Eighty-three percent of survey respondents ages 65 and older, and 92 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds, reported that they have no “transportation retirement plan.”

No alternatives to driving

Many aging road users see no alternatives to driving in their communities, the study found. "When asked about ways they get around besides driving a car, 40 percent of respondents ages 65 and older replied that they ride with family or friends, 26 percent said they walk, and 15 percent said there was no other way to get around other than driving.

The survey found that while Florida's older drivers feel comfortable with their abilities behind the wheel, they're not so sure about everyone else on the road.

“Though many aging drivers in Florida view our roads as very or somewhat safe, we found a lot of concern about the other drivers who are on them,” Reynolds said. “People responding to the survey voiced frustration, and sometimes anger, at other drivers who are talking on their phones, texting, or are otherwise being careless while they drive. This concern is being heard all around the country.”

Residents ages 65 and older make up almost 18 percent of the Florida's population, and the Census Bureau projects that number to grow to 27 percent over the next two decades. In 2008, 447 older adults were killed in automobile crashes on Florida roads, making up about 15 percent of all crash fatalities in the state.

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Researchers Link Impatience With Credit Problems

Unwillingness to delay gratification associated with financial trouble

Researchers Link Impatience With Credit Problems...

PhotoIf you're struggling with a less than sterling credit score, could the solution be developing more patience?

A new study suggests your problem with money stems from a desire for an immediate reward, rather than waiting for a larger reward later.

Is there a psychological reason why people default on their mortgages? A new study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science finds that people with bad credit scores are more impatient – more likely to choose immediate rewards rather than wait for a larger reward later.

The new paper is by two economists who were working at the Federal Reserve’s Center for Behavioral Economics and Decisionmaking in Boston at the time they did the research. It seems people at the Fed are very interested in understanding how consumers ran up so much credit card debt and took on mortgages they couldn't afford.

Psychological factors

“Most often, the reasons economists put forward are, maybe there was not enough screening for mortgage applicants, or securitization, or other institutional reasons,” said Stephan Meier, who is now at Columbia University. ”That’s definitely important, but in the end humans make those repayment decisions. So there must be more psychological factors that explain how people make those decisions to default or not?”

During tax season, Meier and Charles Sprenger, of Stanford University recruited 437 low-to-moderate income people at a community center in Boston that was offering tax preparation help. Each person was given a questionnaire in which they made choices between a smaller, immediate reward and a larger reward later.

This is a common test for seeing if people are willing to delay gratification. The questions offer different time periods and different amounts. The participants also agreed to let the researchers access their credit scores.

Impatient people had lower credit scores

The results showed impatient people had lower credit scores. A low credit score can indicate some problems with credit in the past, like failing to pay bills or defaulting on a mortgage.

“Conceptually, it does make sense that how people discount the future, i.e. how impatient they are, affects their decision to default on their loans,” Meier said. “Individuals accumulate debt and then have to decide whether to repay the money or use the money for something else?”

If they don’t pay off their debt, they will have short-term benefits – any cash on hand is available for something else – but the costs/problems come much later, when a landlord, mortgage lender, or someone else sees their bad credit report.

Meier acknowledges that defaulting on a loan isn’t always a deliberate choice. People may default because they lose their job, for example.

“But there is a little bit of strategic defaulting going on, where some people make this cost-benefit analysis” – those individuals rather have more money now and deal with the repercussions later," he said.

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What's On Your Mind? Emeril Cookware, Delta Airlines, Ol' Roy Dog Food

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Emeril Cookware, Delta Airlines, Ol' Roy Dog Food, Grounded and In defense of Ol' Roy....

PhotoCelebrity chefs do more than show you how to cook on the Food Network. Some, including, Emeril Lagasse, have their own line of consumer cookware.

"My wife bought me a set of Emeril cookware for my birthday," Jim, of Loveland, Colo., told ConsumerAffairs.com.

"Did everything as instructed but what a pain to cook with. "No matter the heat setting it is too hot. Everything sticks and is a pain to clean. Would like to buy something else but too much cash wrapped up in this set."

People either seem to love these pots and pans or hate them. They are different from the cast iron and stainless steel many people are used to. If you use "gourmet" utensils, make sure you read the instructions carefully. Some have limits on the amount of heat they can withstand.

Grounded

Chris, of Atlanta, Ga., says he has been a long-time Delta Airlines customer, but no longer.

"I was flying from West Palm Beach to Savannah with a connection in Atlanta," Chris said. When I landed in Savannah, my checked luggage bag came out opened with items hanging out of the side. No TSA search memo inside, just opened. My Touchpad had been stolen from the bag. I addressed the issue with Delta and they informed me that anything checked that is electronic is not reimburrsable. I have trusted Delta for over 20 years, and this is how they reward my business?"

Not excusing the theft of Chris' computer, but a frequent flier these days should know not to place anything of value - particularly sensitive electronics, in checked luggage. Luggage is routinely opened and inspected now and, sad to say, many items go missing.

In defense of Ol' Roy

We've seen a number of complaints in recent weeks about Ol' Roy Dog Food, Walmart's house brand. Many pet owners have said their dogs got sick when they started feeding them Ol' Roy. That brought this response from Windy, of Tylertown, Miss.

"There is absolutely nothing wrong with this dog food," Windy said. "In many of the complaints I have read against this food many of the people stated that it was the food that made their dog sick. I feed this food to all four of my dogs. They range in size from four to 140 pounds and I have never once had a single problem with this food. Any person who has had dogs knows that switching foods takes time that you can not just give a dog or any pet a different food over night and not expect a reaction, such as loose bowels or vomiting."

Windy said she would be interested in hearing from the vets who cared for the dogs mentioned in the various Ol' Roy complaints.

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Smartphone App Offers Quit-Smoking Help to Teens

QuitSTART delivers cessation, mood management tips, tracks cravings

A new effort to help teens quit smoking will use one of today’s teen's most constant companions — the smartphone. Developed by smoking cessatio...

PhotoA new effort to help teens quit smoking will use one of today’s teen's most constant companions — the smartphone. Developed by smoking cessation experts, SmokefreeTXT is a free text message cessation service that provides 24/7 encouragement, advice, and tips to teens trying to quit smoking.

The initiative is led by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health.

Once they sign up, teens receive text messages timed according to their selected quit date. Following their quit date, they will continue receiving texts for up to six weeks — a critical piece of the SmokefreeTXT service, as research shows that cessation support continues to be important beyond the first few weeks of quitting.

Teens can sign up online at teen.smokefree.gov or text QUIT to iQUIT (47848).

Nearly 20 percent of teens are current smokers, and most will continue smoking into adulthood unless efforts are made to help them quit now. Many teens want to quit, but few use evidence-based cessation resources to support their quit attempts.
 
By connecting with teen smokers on their mobile phones, NCI hopes to more effectively engage young people in quitting with proven cessation tools and strategies.

"With 75 percent of youths between the ages of 12 and 17 owning a cell phone, there is immense potential for mobile technologies to affect health awareness and behavior change among teens," said Erik Augustson, Ph.D., a behavioral scientist in NCI’s Tobacco Control Research Branch.

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U.S. Becoming an Exporter of Toyotas

Kentucky-build Camry will be exported to South Korea

The line between American cars and imports has been hazy for years, and the latest announcement from Toyota makes it even more so.Toyota today announced ...

PhotoThe line between American cars and imports has been hazy for years, and the latest announcement from Toyota makes it even more so.

Toyota today announced plans to export U.S.-assembled Camry sedans to South Korea. Initial forecasts are that about 6,000 Camrys will be exported annually.

The Camrys will be produced at Toyota’s manufacturing plant in Georgetown, Ky.  The plant is Toyota’s largest manufacturing facility outside of Japan, employing nearly 7,000 workers directly and creating nearly 20,000 additional jobs with vendors and suppliers in Kentucky and other states.

“We are pleased with the reaction that the redesigned Camry is receiving from our customers, and the sales success it is having in the U.S. and overseas,” said Yoshimi Inaba, president and COO of Toyota Motor North America, Inc.  “The export of thousands of Camry vehicles to South Korea is an important development that builds on the great work of our talented U.S. team members as well as our extensive investments across North America."

The Toyota Camry has been the top-selling car in America for 13 of the past 14 years and a best-selling vehicle around the world. This is the first time the U.S.-assembled Camry will be exported outside of North America.  The vehicles are scheduled to arrive in South Korea beginning in January.

Since 1988 

Toyota began exporting U.S.-assembled vehicles in 1988. The  exports increased 30% in calendar year 2010 to approximately 100,000 units. Toyota now exports U.S.-assembled vehicles to 19 countries around the world.  The company began exporting Indiana-made Sienna minivans to South Korea last month.

Other exports include the Kentucky-produced Avalon sedan, the Indiana-produced Sequoia SUV and the Texas-produced Tacoma and Tundra pick-up trucks.

The Toyota Camry has been the best-selling car in America for nine years running and 13 of the last 14 years. Since it was introduced in 1983, more than 8.5 million vehicles have been sold in the U.S. and 15 million worldwide. For the past three years, the Camry has also been named the “Most American Car” in Cars.com’s annual American Made Index. 

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Group Warns of Danger From Fake Fungal 'Chik'n'

CSPI: Quorn line of meat substitutes should be banned or carry a prominent warning

The vat-grown mold used to make the Quorn line of meat substitutes causes gastrointestinal distress and in some cases, life-threatening anaphylactic reacti...

PhotoThe vat-grown mold used to make the Quorn line of meat substitutes causes gastrointestinal distress and in some cases, life-threatening anaphylactic reactions, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The nutrition and food safety watchdog group has again urged the Food and Drug Administration to revoke its “Generally Recognized as Safe,” or GRAS, designation for the controversial fermented fungus. If the agency does intend to allow Quorn’s “mycoprotein” to remain on store shelves, it should at least require a prominent warning label, the group says.

Quorn is a meat substitute that typically takes the shape of artificial chicken patties or nuggets, imitation ground beef, cylindrical “roasts,” as well as other meatless incarnations, such as “Cranberry & Goat Cheese Chik’n Cutlets.”

The principal ingredient is a microscopic fungus, Fusarium venenatum, which the company feeds with oxygenated water, glucose, and other nutrients in giant fermentation tanks. Once harvested from the tanks, the material is heat-treated in order to remove its excess RNA, and then dewatered in a centrifuge.

Combined with egg albumen and other ingredients, it is then “texturized” into various meat-like shapes.

Adverse reactions

CSPI first urged the Food and Drug Administration to take Quorn off the market in 2002, and has been collecting adverse reaction reports from consumers ever since at QuornComplaints.com. CSPI has collected about 500 such reports from Americans and 1,200 more from European and Australian consumers.

The vast majority of those reactions involved vomiting and diarrhea; others reported fainting or blood appearing in stool, vomit, or eyes. A smaller percentage of complaints involved hives or potentially fatal anaphylactic reactions. About 17 percent of complainants required medical treatment, sometimes hospitalization.

According to a telephone survey of consumers in the United Kingdom (where the product is marketed more widely than in the United States), nearly 5 percent of consumers reported being sensitive to Quorn.

CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson relayed 10 consumers’ complaints in a recent letter to FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods Michael Taylor.

One 20-year-old man from Waco, TX, told CSPI that two hours after eating Quorn Chik’n Nuggets, he began to feel nauseous, and, too far from a bathroom, tried to open a window in order to vomit. He blacked out and hit his head on a trash can.

And, according to a report filed by her daughter, a 75-year-old woman from Towson, MD, vomited and passed out in the theater during a production of Les Miserables four hours after eating half of a Quorn Chik’n patty. She spent the night in the emergency room and required anti-nausea medicine to stop her vomiting.

“There are plenty of nutritious, safe, and environmentally-friendly meat substitutes, made with soybeans, mushrooms, legumes, rice, and other real food ingredients,” said Jacobson. “It’s crazy to knowingly allow a potent new allergen into the food supply yet that’s exactly what the FDA has done.”

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AARP: Many Seniors Suffer Hearing Loss in Silence

Many don't think their problem warrants treatment

You may not always like what you hear but being able to hear is an important part of part of leading an active life.  Yet, a new survey of AARP member...

You may not always like what you hear but being able to hear is an important part of part of leading an active life.  Yet, a new survey of AARP members finds nearly half say their hearing is getting worse.

The survey, conducted by AARP and the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) released today, focuses on the state of hearing among Americans 50-plus.  It examines attitudes toward hearing, the needs and unmet needs that the 50-plus population has for treating hearing issues and knowledge of where to go for help.

“Maintaining hearing health as one ages is a very important concern among our members,” said AARP Vice President Nicole Duritz.  “While the survey results indicate that older Americans recognize the impact hearing difficulties can have on relationships with family and friends, people are also going without treatment, which can negatively impact quality of life and lead to safety issues.”

Key findings

Key findings from the survey include:

  • 85 percent of members surveyed said that maintaining hearing health is of great importance to them personally.  And 70 percent of respondents who said their hearing is excellent also said that they feel younger than their actual age.
  • Over a five-year period, nearly half (46 percent) of members surveyed say their hearing is getting worse.  And the same percentage (47 percent) reported having untreated hearing health issues.
  • During that same period in time, the vast majority of members surveyed reported either having a vision test or blood pressure monitoring (88 and 85 percent, respectively).  In comparison, 43 percent of respondents reported having had a hearing test conducted.
  • More than half (61 percent) of member respondents indicate that hearing difficulties make it hard to follow conversations in noisy situations.  And members point to the impact hearing difficulties can have on relationships with friends and family (44 percent) or during family gatherings (43 percent).
  • A majority (57 percent) of member respondents with untreated hearing difficulties don’t believe their problems warrant treatment.
  • Nearly two-thirds of poll respondents (63 percent) cite health insurance coverage limitations, concerns about cost, and lack of health insurance as reasons for not getting treatment for hearing difficulties.

Taken lightly 

"Untreated hearing loss is not a condition to be taken lightly or ignored," according to Paul R. Rao, PhD, President of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. "It can lead to social isolation and even depression. And it works against the desire of more and more Americans to stay in the work force. We sincerely hope that one result of our polling with AARP will be that people seek treatment."

 

The survey also found that more people will seek help for hearing issues if their issue is linked to their relationships.  Nearly 70 percent would seek treatment if they felt their hearing issues were affecting their relationships with family and friends.  Nearly as many would do so if someone they cared about asked them to seek treatment.

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Carrier IQ Denies Spying On Cell Phone Users

Company is at center of latest mobile privacy concern

Carrier IQ said it is not invading anyone's privacy...

PhotoMobile device software company Carrier IQ denies that its technology spies on cell phone users and says it is not collecting any data that would violate anyone's privacy.

A firestorm appeared to build last week around a report by an independent researcher that Carrier IQ’s software has the ability to record actions that you take on your phone — numbers that you dial, letters that you press when texting or searching the Web, menu buttons that you push — and send it all back to the company’s headquarters.

Carrier IQ issued a statement saying it wants to clarify what it calls misinformation on the functionality of its software.

“While a few individuals have identified that there is a great deal of information available to the Carrier IQ software inside the handset, our software does not record, store or transmit the contents of SMS messages, email, photographs, audio or video,” the company said. “For example, we understand whether an SMS was sent accurately, but do not record or transmit the content of the SMS. We know which applications are draining your battery, but do not capture the screen.”

Carrier IQ also released a statement from Rebecca Bace of Infidel, Inc., who it describes as a security expert.

Cites expert opinion

“Having examined the Carrier IQ implementation, it is my opinion that allegations of keystroke collection or other surveillance of mobile device user’s content are erroneous,” Bace said.

An independent security researcher, Dan Rosenberg, also came to the company's defense, writing in his blog: “Since the beginning of the media frenzy over CarrierIQ, I have repeatedly stated that based on my knowledge of the software, claims that keystrokes, SMS bodies, email bodies, and other data of this nature are being collected are erroneous.”

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) is calling for an investigation into the matter, calling last week's reports deeply troubling.

“Consumers need to know that their safety and privacy are being protected by the companies they trust with their sensitive information,” Franken said. “The revelation that the locations and other sensitive data of millions of Americans are being secretly recorded and possibly transmitted is deeply troubling."

But Carrier IQ says its software should not be a source of any concern, asserting that privacy is protected and that Carrier IQ operates exclusively within that framework and under the laws of the applicable jurisdiction.

“Carrier IQ is aware of various commentators alleging Carrier IQ has violated wiretap laws and we vigorously disagree with these assertions,” the company said.  

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Court Refuses Apple's Request To Block Samsung Tablet

The decision clears the way for holiday sales of the Samsung Galaxy Tab

A court has refused to block sales of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 in the U.S....

PhotoA U.S. District Court in San Jose, Calif., has rejected Apple's motion to ban the sale of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablet on the grounds it violates Apple's patent of the iPad 2.

The ruling was supposed to remain sealed but was accidentally posted to the court's website over the weekend, and thus made public. The ruling means the Samsung 10.1 tablet, as well as Samsung's Infuse 4G, Galaxy S 4G, and Droid Charge smartphone can be sold in time for the holidays.

Apple filed the suit claiming Samsung copied the iPad when it designed its new tablet computer. Once the ruling had been reported, Samsung issued a statement saying the ruling “raised substantial questions about the validity of the Apple patents. Samsung argued that it's design is more of a matter of function, not a copy of the iPad's technology.

More than one way

Apple countered that there is more than one way to design a tablet and that rather than come up with its own design, Samsung simply stole and implemented Apple concepts.

Apple presented an expert witness – independent industrial designer and inventor Cooper Woodring – who testified that the iPad's black rectangular frame, which is replicated on the Galaxy Tab, is ornamental in nature and has no other function.

Meanwhile, a court in Australia Friday refused to lift a ban on the sale of the Galaxy tablet until Apple had a chance to file an appeal. However, the court said it might rule on the request by December 9.

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Not Everyone's Spending Money For The Holidays

Large group plans no holiday spending this year

Poll shows many won't spend any more for holidays...

PhotoDespite the fact that U.S. retailers enjoyed a strong start to the holiday shopping season, there's evidence not all consumers are participating.

A poll continued online in November by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) found that 40 percent of respondents do not intend to spend any money on holiday purchases, as they anticipate experiencing further financial distress in the future.

The poll sends a strong signal that in spite of the increase in sales during Black Friday and Cyber Monday, a significant number of people lack enough confidence in their financial future to begin spending, even on traditional holiday expenses.

Not a reflection of general public

It should be noted that those taking part in the survey were generally consumers who were already struggling with finances, which is why they were on NFCC's website to start with. Still, the results are sobering.

"Historically, consumers have put aside their financial concerns during the holidays, even if to their detriment, and spent at some level," said Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the NFCC. "These figures provide a snapshot of the desperate situation in which consumers find themselves, and how seriously they are taking their situation."

Of note is the statistically significant increase reflected in the year-over-year trend. The NFCC posed the identical set of poll questions in the same month one year ago.

Between November 2010 and November 2011, there was a six percentage point increase in the number of consumers who indicated they will spend zero dollars during the holiday season, evidence of the depth of the financial despair in the country.

Disturbing numbers

Also disturbing, says Cunningham, is that slightly more than half of all poll respondents indicated they would cut back on holiday spending, as their financial situation is worse this year than last. Combining those who will cut back on spending with those who will not spend at all, a full 91 percent of consumers are clearly concerned enough about their financial circumstances that they will remain on the spending sidelines this holiday season.

Looking at the two categories with the lowest responses, seven percent revealed that they will spend as they did in 2010, and a modest three percent will spend more than they did last year.

"Consumers are doing themselves a disservice if they do not reach out to a legitimate credit counseling agency for help surviving these difficult economic times, as there may be solutions available that have not been considered," said Cunningham.

NFCC is a 60 year old organization of credit counselors, many of whom are non-profit. They are very different from debt or credit “settlement” firms, that often make big promises but fail to deliver any relief.

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What's On Your Mind? Thrifty Car Rental, Sony, LA Fitness

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Thrifty Car Rental, Sony, LA Fitness, DIY not advised and Check your records....

PhotoGetting a firm price on a rental car is all well and good. But consumers also have to be sure they understand a rental car company's policies. Otherwise, it could lead to unexpected heartburn.

“My husband and six year old son flew to San Francisco today,” Chris, of Huber Heights, Ohio, told ConsumerAffairs.com. “They arrived at the Thrifty counter with their rental agreement of $120 and change! What a deal! Well, he had cleared $285 dollars on his credit card to make sure he had plenty of money. He arrived at the counter, gave them his contract, and the lady asked for his driver's license and credit card. She ran the card and said it was declined. Hesaid it was impossible, there was clearly enough money available on the card to cover the $120 cost. She then told him, they need to hold $380 on the card. When he returned the car, he would only be charged the quoted amount.”

Chris says even after adding money to the card, her husband had to wait 24 hours to resubmit it to Thrifty. Consumers should keep in mind that all rental cars place a deposit on your credit card, over and above the expected amount, in case of overages. It's standard operating procedure in the industry. Make sure the card you're using has enough credit to cover the rental plus the $350 deposit.

DIY not advised

Here's a cautionary tale about trying to repair your new computer yourself. If you aren't trained in repair, you can make the problem worse, voiding your warranty in the process.

“I purchased Vaio laptop from Sony website on November 15,” said John, of Staten Island, N.Y. “After four days the optical tray was stuck closed and trying to open it, I broke it into two pieces. I called customer support and was told very straight and to the point that it is not covered under warranty and I would have to pay for the repair. I explained if the tray was not stuck I would not have pulled hard enough to break the tray.

Maybe John thought a little persuasion would open the tray, but in hindsight he would have sent it off to Sony and have them open the tray. That repair would probably have been covered.

Better yet, he could have solved the problem with a plain old paper clip.  Nearly every DVD/CD drive has a small hole into which you can insert a straightened paper clip or something similar to open the tray when it's stuck.    

Check your records

David, of Tuscon, Ariz., says he prepaid a one year membership renewal in Bally Total Fitness in late October, about the time LA Fitness bought out and took over all the Ballys gyms in Arizona. Last week, when David went to his health center, now part of LA Fitness, he said he was told his membership had expired.

“They would not allow me to talk to the manager since they said I was not a member of LA Fitness,” David told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I have filed complaints with five government agencies, as well as my credit card.”

There should be a simple resolution to this issue. When David renewed his membership, he should have received some kind of receipt. At the very least his credit card statement should reflect the charge. If he wasn't charged for a pre-paid membership, the LA Fitness is correct in assuming his membership expired.

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Porsche Hopes to Double U.S. Sales by Adding New Models

Smaller SUV and diesel options for popular models planned

Think of Porsche and, chances are, you think of the 911, perhaps the most iconic sports car ever.  But as something of a purist's car, the 911 has alw...

PhotoThink of Porsche and, chances are, you think of the 911, perhaps the most iconic sports car ever.  But as something of a purist's car, the 911 has always had a limited base.  

Porsche has been steadily changing that, introducing the hulking Cayenne SUV a few years ago and, more recently, the Panamera, its first four-door sports sedan.

Both have quickly become big sellers and Porsche is hoping to double its overall sales by adding a diesel Cayenne and a Panamera GTS while giving the 911 a facelift that will make it a bit more luxurious and a bit less like being inside a spinning clothes dryer. 

The Cayenne turbodiesel will be Porsche's first diesel offering in the U.S. and although it may take Americans a little while to get used to the idea, turbodiesels are very popular in Europe and often outperform their gas counterparts while delivering markedly better fuel economy.

Hot cars

PhotoThe Cayenne is now offered as a 380-hp hybrid with a top speed of 150. Oddly, the hybrid version delivers a fairly lame 24 mpg, only slightly better than the 22 mpg of the three gas versions.

The Panamera GTS will be the most powerful non-turbo Panamera, developing 430 horsepower and boasting a top track speed of 178 mph.  If that's not fast enough for you, there's still the Turbo S -- 550 horsepower, top speed 190.

The redesigned 911 is a little lower and a little wider than the current model and, in its base versions, more closely resembles a luxurious touring roadster than the scowling, heavy-breathing road warriors of yore.

There are, of course, still Porsches for those of solid spine and well-padded rump who place performance above all else -- or, as Porsche puts it in describing the Cayman R, it "reflects the radical rejection of the pursuit of comfort."   

Big bucks

Photo
The author demonstrates his ability to drive fast in reverse

While they may soon cover a broader range and be a little more accommodating to creature comforts, Porsches still won't be cheap. The mid-engine Cayenne and the Boxster roadster both start at $48,000 and accelerate quickly from there.  The 911 and Panamera hover around the $100,000 mark.  

If you really want to pin the needle, the Panamera Turbo S and the 911 Turbo S Cabriolet will quickly spin up within sight of $200,000, not counting taxes, transportation and a steady supply of tires and brake jobs.

Nevertheless, Porsche thinks it can double its annual U.S. sales within seven years.  It sold 25,000 cars in the U.S. last year, expects to come close to 30,000 this year and thinks its new models will take it to 50,000 by 2018, according to Automotive News Europe.

This might sound unrealistic given the sorry state of the U.S. economy. But 50,000 isn't a very big bite out of total U.S. car sales of somewhere around 10 million.

Just look around the parking lot the next time you're at your dermatologist's office or paying a visit to your dentist and chances are you'll see a Porsche or two.  Or you could just hang out on Wall Street or K Street, where you can watch the hedge fund managers and lobbyists roar past the Occupy crowd.

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Twilight Movie Draws Seizure Warning

Graphic birth scene sent at least one viewer to the hospital

Twilight Movie Draws Seizure Warning...

PhotoMovies are rated for violence and adult content. The blockbuster Twilight Movie: Breaking Dawn, has drawn a warning about potential seizures.

The warning comes from the Epilepsy Foundation, after receiving reports from some movie-goers after the film opened late last month.

"A scene in the latest Twilight movie, Breaking Dawn: Part One, has reportedly caused seizures in at least two audience members," the foundation warned in a posting on its website. "The scene contains flashing lights, which can sometimes trigger seizures in people with photosensitive epilepsy."

So far there have been at least nine reports of movie-goers having seizures during a very graphic and intense birth scene that includes a multi-colored strobe light effect. The Epilepsy Foundation says its something people should be aware of before they buy a ticket.

"If you have photosensitive seizures, please take this information into consideration when deciding whether to see this movie," the Foundation advises.

Nearly three percent of the nearly three million Americans with epilepsy have photosensitive epilepsy, according to the Foundation.

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Verizon Stakes Claim to Huge Spectrum Slice

Deals a cruel blow to AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint

Verizon Wireless is shelling out $3.6 billion for a huge swath of wireless spectrum space that covers about 259 million potential customers.Dan Mead, Pre...

PhotoVerizon Wireless is shelling out $3.6 billion for a huge swath of wireless spectrum space that covers about 259 million potential customers.

Dan Mead, President and CEO of Verizon Wireless, said the additional spectrum "will enable us to bring even better 4G LTE products and services to our customers."

In a world where spectrum space is to wireless operators as oil reserves are to energy companies, the deal gives Verizon a huge leg up on its competitors, most notably AT&T, stymied in its attempt to make off with T-Mobile's spectrum.

It not only assures Verizon of continued network dominace but takes a big stack of resources off the table and out of the reach of its competitors.

Verizon is buying the space from SpectrumCo, a consortium made up of major cable companies Comcast and Time Warner as well as Bright House Networks.

Spectrum drought

With consumers increasingly wedded to their smartphones, tablets and laptops, spectrum space is getting to be like water in the desert -- there's just not enough of it to go around and nearly every little bit and byte is already spoken for.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would like to open up more spectrums pace but the only way to do that is to take it away from existing licensees, including broadcasters and other well-organized groups who tend to circle their wagons and aggressively fight off intruders.

There was a time when the cable operators thought they might get into the cell phone business and they bought up as many spectrum licenses as they could.  Today's deal marks the end of that era but it doesn't mean you won't be seeing Comcast and Time Warner competing in the wireless world.

"These agreements, together with our Wi-Fi plans, enable us to execute a comprehensive, long-term wireless strategy and expand our focus on providing mobility to our Xfinity services," said Neil Smit, President of Comcast Cable. 

Resale plans

That's because, in addition to the spectrum sale, the companies have entered into several agreements, providing for the sale of various products and services.  Through these agreements, the cable companies, on the one hand, and Verizon Wireless, on the other, will become agents to sell one another's products and, over time, the cable companies will have the option of selling Verizon Wireless' service on a wholesale basis. 

In other words, Verizon Wireless will be able to sell Comcast and Time Warner cable services in areas where Verizon doesn't offer its FiOS service and, presumably, Comcast and Time Warner will be selling rebranded wireless service from Verizon.  This is an additional blow to AT&T, which currently offers broadband in areas not served by FiOS and, therefore, likely to be targeted by Verizon.

Or as Time Warner Cable President Rob Marcus said, "We're excited to be able to offer the nation's best wireless services to our customers and to have Verizon Wireless as a sales channel for our superb wireline services."

Additionally, the cable companies and Verizon Wireless say they have formed an innovation technology joint venture for the development of technology to better integrate wireline and wireless products and services.

The deal requires regulatory approval from the FCC and other agencies.

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House Bills Could Harm Consumer Protections

Consumers Union says measures would "devastate" critical programs

Three bills expected to be voted on by the House of Representatives beginning this week would have a devastating impact on critical consumer protections, C...

PhotoThree bills expected to be voted on by the House of Representatives beginning this week would have a devastating impact on critical consumer protections, Consumers Union wrote in a letter sent to members of the House.

The organization strongly urged lawmakers to oppose the regulatory reform bills, arguing they would waste federal resources and damage health, safety and other critical consumer protections.

“These three bills would hamstring federal agencies from ensuring that American families are protected from problems such as tainted food, dirty air and water, unsafe drugs, invasions of privacy, and predatory financial schemes,” said Ellen Bloom, Senior Director of Federal Policy and CU’s Washington Office.

“The proposals being considered would delay and even block the implementation of critical protections by requiring unnecessary and wasteful analyses. Congressional gridlock could wind up wasting important agency resources used in developing critical rules to protect public health and safety," Bloom said. "Instead of streamlining the regulatory process, these so-called ‘reforms’ waste time and resources while putting consumers at risk.”

Beginning today (Friday), the House will vote on three bills that would undermine the ability of federal agencies to implement new policies. H.R. 3010 (the Regulatory Accountability Act) mandates that agencies adopt the least costly rule, regardless of the impact on the public.

It would also require agencies to undertake numerous additional analyses and other procedural actions within the rulemaking process for every major rule, which could grind proposed necessary public health and consumer protections to a halt.

H.R. 527 (the Regulatory Flexibility Improvements Act) would cover virtually any agency action that might conceivably have an indirect impact on small businesses, subjecting it to a lengthy regulatory process and making it impossible for federal agencies to quickly respond to emerging hazards.

Finally, H.R. 10 (the REINS Act) requires that any rule with an effect of $100 million or more on the economy would need the approval of both the House and Senate within 70 legislative days. With few exceptions, if Congress failed to act, the rule could not be brought up again until the next Congress. 

“Each of these bills would do irreparable damage to a wide array of consumer protections and we call on policymakers to stand with consumers and reject them,” said Bloom.

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Is Your Cell Phone Spying On You?

Congress, consumer groups express concern about spyware on phones

Concern is growing about spyware on cell phones. Recent reports have charged that mobile software company Carrier IQ is working with phone manufacturers an...

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Sen. Franken

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) is calling for an investigation into spyware on cell phones. He's responding to recent reports that mobile software company Carrier IQ is working with phone manufacturers and cellphone carriers to install spying software on Androids and iPhones.

“Consumers need to know that their safety and privacy are being protected by the companies they trust with their sensitive information,” Franken said. “The revelation that the locations and other sensitive data of millions of Americans are being secretly recorded and possibly transmitted is deeply troubling."

Independent researcher Trevor Eckhart recently said he has documented that Carrier IQ’s software has the ability to record actions that you take on your phone — numbers that you dial, letters that you press when texting or searching the Web, menu buttons that you push — and send it all back to the company’s headquarters.

The software may also be present on models made by BlackBerry, Nokia and other manufacturers.

Carrier IQ bills itself as "the leading provider of Mobile Service Intelligence Solutions" and says it provides carriers and manufacturers "unprecedented insight into their customers' mobile experience."

On its Web site, the company says that by using itself system, carriers can not only measure large-scale trends but can "drill down to specific instances, giving you the insight your specialists need to make a difference." It claims to have its system enabled on more than 141 million phones.

AT&T, Sprint, HTC, and Samsung have all confirmed that that their mobile phones integrate the Carrier IQ software. 

Both AT&T and Sprint insisted that the software is being used solely to improve wireless network performance while phone makers HTC and Samsung said they were integrating the software into their handsets only because their carrier customers were asking for it.

T-Mobile said it uses Carrier IQ's software but described it as a diagnostic tool to troubleshoot device and network performance. Apple said that while it has used Carrier IQ’s network diagnostic software in the past, it recently stopped supporting it and plans to remove it from its mobile devices in a future software update. 

Google said it had no ffiliation with Carrier IQ and said that its Android operating system "is an open source effort and we do not control how carriers or OEMs customize their devices.”

Lot of questions

"This news underscores the need for Congress to act swiftly to protect the location information and private, sensitive information of consumers. But right now, Carrier IQ has a lot of questions to answer,” Franken said.

In a letter to Carrier IQ President and CEO Larry Lenhart, Franken asked Lenhart to explain exactly what information the software records, whether that information is transmitted to Carrier IQ or to other companies, and whether that information is shared with any third party, among other things.  He also asked if Carrier IQ would allow users to stop this tracking.

Earlier this year, Franken introduced the Location Privacy Protection Act, which would require companies like Connect IQ to obtain the explicit permission of customers before tracking their location information or sharing that information with third parties. The legislation has already garnered significant support in the Senate and from prominent privacy and consumer protection advocates.

Outrageous

Free Press Internet Campaign Director Josh Levy called it "outrageous that an American company is monitoring the use of our phones with spying technologies that you'd expect to see in China, not the U.S."

"Activists from Cairo to New York to Los Angeles are using their phones to broadcast images of cops wielding pepper spray, handcuffed journalists and squares full of protesters," Levy said. "Actions that breach the integrity of our mobile devices violate our freedom to communicate. We must ensure that the most important movements of our time aren’t compromised by gatekeepers with little regard for our free speech or privacy.

"Congress and the Department of Justice must investigate these shady practices. We have a right to know what Carrier IQ is doing with our information, and we have a right to use our mobile phones without fear of data spies."

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Our Man Truman Solves the USPS Problem in No Time

Forget stamps, how about a hook-up with Google Adwords?

The cash-starved U.S. Postal Service has been racking its collective brain trying to think of new money-making ideas. So after who knows how many hours of ...

The cash-starved U.S. Postal Service has been racking its collective brain trying to think of new money-making ideas. So after who knows how many hours of diligent brainstorming, what have they come up with?

Ads on trucks.

Yep, a century or so after ads first began appearing on buses, subway cars, trucks and other moveable surfaces, the USPS is experimenting with selling ad space on its trucks.

As part of a pilot program, USPS and Denver-based Lighted Promotions -- which installs lighted outdoor ads on big rigs -- have sold advertising on the back of 17,000 USPS freight trucks in 11 states.

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It costs about $500 to $600 a month to advertise on one of the trucks.  So far, the ads have been for topics related to driving -- highway safety, seatbelt use, drunken driving.

There aren't any ads for Starbucks or iPhones -- not even any of those ubiquitous Google ads. 

Hey!  There's an idea.  What if USPS did a deal with Google.  They could put a camera -- you know a minicam, like on your laptop -- on the back of the mail trucks.  

The camera could read your license plate and compare it to its stored profile of your known characterisitcs (nose size, eyewear, hairstyle, etc.) and then deliver ads that reflect your mood of the moment  -- ads for divorce lawyers, antacid tablets, mortgage rescue, high-paying jobs in sunny climes.

Google already knows everything about you, right?  And the USPS knows next to ... well, never mind.  Let's just say they're complementary.

Good ahead and laugh.  It beats selling stamps.  

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Snowballing Concerns About Online And Mobile Privacy

Websites and mobile devices getting closer scrutiny

there are new concerns about privacy...

PhotoOnline privacy and security concerns have taken center stage in the last week.

It started with Facebooks's settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) promising 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."

Smartphone vulnerabilities

If Facebook users are breathing a little easier, smartphone users might have something to worry about. ConsumerAffairs,com reported Wednesday that researchers at North Carolina State University found that 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.

The researchers found that HTC’s Legend, EVO 4G and Wildfire S, Motorola’s Droid X andSamsung’s Epic 4G all had significant vulnerabilities – with the EVO 4G displaying the most vulnerabilities.

Meanwhile, London's The Telegraph reported that malware installed on millions of Android phones could be secretly tracking every key stroke, Google search, and text message by their users. The paper reported that an Android app developer in the U.S. has posted a video showing what he claims is conclusive proof that 'Carrier IQ' software installed by manufacturers of many US phones record the way those phone are used in real time, as well as their geographic locations.

Carrier IQ, meanwhile, has claimed that the software only tracks information for the benefit of users, not for any spying purposes.

Congress takes note

Where issues of privacy are concerned, you can expect regulators and lawmakers to take an active interest. On Thursday Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass) made public communications he had with Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos concerning Markey's security concerns about the new Kindle Fire. Markey said he was concerned that Amazon was collecting too much information about consumers who used the e-reader.

“Amazon’s responses to my inquiries do not provide enough detail about how the company intends to use customer information, beyond acknowledging that the company uses this valuable information,” Markey said. “Amazon states ‘Customer information is an important part of our business’, but it is also important for customers to know how the company uses their personal information. Amazon is collecting a massive amount of information about Kindle Fire users, and it has a responsibility to be transparent with its customers. I plan to follow-up with the company for additional answers on this issue.”

Markey said he thinks Bezos is dodging questions about how the informatin will be used. He cited a New York Times story reporting that Amazon could collect and utilize information about its users Kindle Fire Internet surfing and buying habits through the combination of its new tablet and Silk browser, including which items users buy and how much they pay on sites across the Internet.

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What's On Your Mind? Walmart, T-Mobile, Payday Loans Yes

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Walmart, T-Mobile, Payday Loans Yes, Not so final bill and Unwanted loan....

PhotoThinking of doing some online holiday shopping using your Paypal account? Nadita, of New York, N.Y. says she bought an iPod at Walmart.com for in-store pickup at the Bayonne, N.J., store. What happened next will make her think twice about doing that again

"I checked the status of the order and it said I would be able to pick up by 10am," Nadita told ConsumerAffairs.com. "At 10:15 the item cancelled because of lack of stock. Item not available. I originally paid with my Paypal balance which is not a credit card nor a bank. I waited all day and they never refunded me my money. I called customer service and they said it would take three to five days for me to receive my refund."

It's another reason why, if at all possible, you should use a credit card for online purchases. It's more secure and, if it takes a long time to get a refund, it's not coming out of your pocket.

Not so final bill

Kristi, of Las Vegas, says her contract with T-Mobile was up and she wanted to terminate her service. She also wanted to make sure she didn't get any surprise bills after everything was settled. She says she not only paid the current due but paid ahead so there would be no more bills.

"I was told clearly, as I asked for it, that I would have no further obligations to T-Mobile," Kristi said. "They started attempting to bill me over $180, and I have no idea where they even came up with that as my plan was $120 per month and I no longer had service with them. They sent me to collections."

The fact that the bill is in collections is a serious matter, as it will affect Kristi's credit rating. She has the right to be informed specifically what she is being charged for. If the charge is erroneous, she will then have to challenge it with T-Mobile.

Unwanted loan

Taking out a payday loan is almost always a bad idea. Doing it online is even worse, as Susie, of Pacifica, Calif., discovered when she started the loan process with Payday Loans Yes.

"I inquired about the loan and submitted the required papers," Susie said. "I tried going to the e-signature for processing, but it didn't go through and I did not get a response approving my application. After going through the internet and found out that there were a lot of complaints. so I immediately cancelled my applications. Now, I have a $350 deposit in my account and a $10 processing fee charge to my account. I called them to remove the deposit and to put back the $10 processing, but they told me that it could not be done."

Susie should immediately pay back the $350 before it incurs more fees. If she gets out of this encounter only paying $10, she'll be fortunate.

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McDonald's Skirts Happy Meal Toy Ban -- Maybe

San Francisco law bans free toys with fatty foods, so McD adds a 10-cent charge

Today's the day that, by decree of the San Francisco City and County Board of Supervisors, restaurants can no longer give away toys with meals that don't m...

PhotoToday's the day that, by decree of the San Francisco City and County Board of Supervisors, restaurants can no longer give away toys with meals that don't meet nutrition guidelines spelled out in the law.

So does that mean no more Happy Meals?  Not the way McDonald's sees it. Beginning today, the toy that used to be free with a Happy Meal now costs ten cents, with the proceeds going to the city's Ronald McDonald House.  Burger King is doing something similar.

Can this be legal?  USA Today seems to think so.  "McD, Burger King outwit San Francisco's Happy Meal rules," the paper says. McDonald's "outwits City Hall," squeaked the San Francisco Chronicle. 

Maybe, but there are quite a few attorneys out there who think the McDonald's strategy is just a little too cute and that newspapers ought to do that thing they talk about all the time -- you know, that objectivity, get-both-sides thing.

One is Michele Simon, who writes for Grist, a "green news" Website.  Simon says fast food outlets routinely manipulate the "default options" on the menu to ensure maximum sales.  Order a combo meal, for example, and it's likely to automatically come with a soda, not juice or milk.

So if McDonald's is just automatically adding ten cents to the price of a Happy Meal and assuming the parent wants the toy included, it may not pass muster in court, Simon suggests.  What's called "legislative intent" carries a lot of weight in court, after all.

Fully comply

For its part, McDonald's is arguing that it is simply protecting the God-given right of parents to fatten up their children however they choose.

"While we will fully comply with this law, we also have a responsibility to give our customers what they want," Danya Proud, a spokeswoman for McDonald's, said in a statement, "Parents have told us they'd still like the option of purchasing a toy separately for their child when they buy them a Happy Meal."

Other critics said this was just the latest in a long line of cynical ploys by McDonald's to skirt any attempt to improve the healthfulness of its food aimed at children.

"As McDonald's long has, it is again using a charity that helps children get well to defend a practice that contributes to a range of diet-related conditions like diabetes," said Corporate Accountability International. "Currently McDonald's uses its contributions to the charity to defend the hundreds of millions it spends marketing its junk food brand to kids each year."

Relatively reasonable

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Supervisor Mar

The San Francisco ordinance isn't as draconian as it's being made out to be.  It sets a few relatively reasonable nutrition guidelines -- a maximum of 600 calories and limits on fat and salt, for example -- that meals must meet if they include a free toy.

San Francisco Supervisor Eric Mar, who initiated the ordinance,  dismissed the 10-cent strategy as a marketing ploy. Mar, who represents the Richmond District, is a public interest attorney who has also served on the San Francisco Board of Education.

The measure passed last year with a supermajority of the board despite heavy lobbying by McDonald's. 

“This is a tremendous victory for our children’s health. Our children are sick. Rates of obesity in San Francisco are disturbingly high, especially among children of color,” Mar said last November. “This is 
a challenge to the restaurant industry to think about children’s health first and join the wide range of local restaurants that have already made this commitment.”

Mar said at the legislation is aimed at promoting healthy eating habits and to address issues related to childhood obesity. The legislation encourages restaurants to provide healthier meal options. To provide an incentive item -- like the toys in Happy Medals -- meals must contain fruits and vegetables, not exceed 600 calories, and must not have beverages that have excessive fat or sugar.

 

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Pediatricians Fault Food Served In Children's Hospitals

Survey found only seven percent of entrees were healthy

Study finds unhealthy food served by children's hospitals...

PhotoChildren's hospitals are health care facilities that cater to children's special needs, but a UCLA pediatric specialist says they fall short when it comes to serving healthy meals to their patients.

Dr. Lenard Lesser, primary investigator and a physician in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholars Program in the Department of Family Medicine, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, led the team that studied menus at California's children's hospitals.

The researchers found that only seven percent of entrees could be classified as healthy.

“As health professionals, we understand the connection between healthy eating and good health, and our hospitals should be role models in this regard,” Lesser said. “Unfortunately, the food in many hospitals is no better – and in some cases worse – than what you would find in a fast food restaurant.”

Hard to find whole wheat bread

For example, 81 percent of the hospitals offered high-calorie, high-sugar items such as cookies and ice cream near the cash register. Only 25 percent sold whole wheat bread. Forty-four percent did not provide low-calorie salad dressings.

On the plus side, the researchers found that all offered low-fat or skim milk and diet soda.

Overall the average score for the 14 hospital food venues was 19.1, out of a range of 0 (least healthy) to 37 (most healthy). While nearly all the hospitals offered healthy alternatives such as fruit, less than one third had nutrition information at the point of sale or signs to promote healthy eating.

Already seeing improvement

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal Academic Pediatrics, say they are providing the results to hospital administrators to encourage improvement. Since the study was conducted in July 2010, they say some of the hospitals surveyed have taken steps to either improve their fare and/or reduce unhealthy offerings. For example, some have eliminated fried food, lowered the price of salads, and increased the price of sugary beverages or eliminated them altogether from their cafeterias.

“The steps some hospitals are already taking to improve nutrition and reduce junk food are encouraging,” Lesser said. “We plan to make this nutritional quality measurement tool available to hospitals around the country to help them assess and improve their food offerings.”

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California Lists Activities of Commercial Charity Fundraisers

States moves for more transparency in fundraising

California Lists Activities of Commercial Charity Fundraisers...

PhotoIt's not against the law to earn a profit by soliciting money for charity. But consumer advocates say there needs to be more transparency, so potential donors know how much of their contribution goes to the cause and how much goes to the fundraiser's bottom line.

Toward that end California Attorney General Kamala Harris has released a report on the activies of commercial fundraisers in the state. Her data shows that for-profit fundraisers in California raised $362.9 million in 2010, of which charitable organizations received less than 45 percent.

This represents an increase from the 2009 total of less than 43 percent. The data is included in the California Department of Justice's Annual Report of Commercial Fundraisers, produced by the Charitable Trusts Section.

"The data in this report allows donors to make informed choices this holiday season," Harris said. "Commercial fundraisers play a role in supporting charities in California, but it's important for donors to know how much of their money will be used to support the charity's programs, and how much will go to fundraising expenses."

Charities that hire fundraisers

Among numerous other tables, the annual report contains an alphabetical list of charities that hired commercial fundraisers in 2010 - along with the total revenue raised in those campaigns and the dollar amount and percentage of total funds raised that went to the charity.

Commercial fundraisers, who are hired by charities to raise money on their behalf, typically charge a flat fee for their services or a percentage of the contributions they collect.

By law, commercial fundraisers must register with the Attorney General's office prior to fundraising in California and must file annual financial disclosure reports detailing income and expenses for each fundraising campaign.

According to reports filed with the Attorney General's office, commercial fundraisers collected $362.9 million in donations in 2010. On average, $161.1 million - or 44.38 percent of the funds raised - went to the charities. The remainder was retained by the commercial fundraisers as payment of fees and expenses.

When asked by a solicitor to make a donation, the American Institute of Philanthropy suggests consumers follow these steps:

  • Ask the solicitor how a donation will be distributed.
  • Ask what percentage of donations will be used to pay for fundraising expenses.
  • Ask if the solicitor works for a commercial fundraiser and is being paid to solicit.
  • Avoid cash donations.
  • Avoid giving credit card information to a telephone solicitor or in response to a telephone solicitation.
  • Learn about a charitable organization, its activities and its fundraising practices before giving.  
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Older But Wiser? 65+ Now Biggest Population Group in U.S.

65 and up group growing faster than total U.S. population

Look out, kids.  Your grandparents are taking over.  New Census figures shod the 65 and up group is now the largest in terms of size and per...

Look out, kids.  Your grandparents are taking over.  New Census figures shod the 65 and up group is now the largest in terms of size and percent of the U.S. population -- and it's also the fastest-growing.

According to the 2010 Census, there were 40.3 million people 65 and older on April 1, 2010, increasing by 5.3 million since the 2000 Census when this population numbered 35.0 million. The percentage of the population 65 and older also increased during the previous decade.

In 2010, the older population represented 13.0 percent of the total population, an increase from 12.4 percent in 2000.

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Growing faster

Between 2000 and 2010, the population 65 and older grew 15.1 percent, while the total U.S. population grew 9.7 percent. The opposite happened between 1990 and 2000 when the growth of the older population was slower than the growth of the total population, with growth rates of 12.0 percent and 13.2 percent, respectively.

Examining the growth of 10-year age groups within the older population shows that 85- to 94-year-olds experienced the fastest growth between 2000 and 2010. This group grew by 29.9 percent, increasing from 3.9 million to 5.1 million.

Among five-year age groups in the older population, 65- to 69-year-olds grew the fastest. This age group grew by 30.4 percent, rising from 9.5 million to 12.4 million. The 65- to 69-year-old group is expected to grow more rapidly over the next decade as the first baby boomers start turning 65 in 2011.

The only older population age group to decline between 2000 and 2010 was the 75- to 79-year-old age group. This group decreased by 1.3 percent from 7.4 million to 7.3 million. The changes in this group mainly reflect the relatively low number of births during the early 1930s as fewer numbers of people entered these ages between 2000 and 2010.

Old guys closing the gap

While women continue to outnumber men in the older ages, men have continued to close the gap over the decade by increasing at a faster rate than women. The largest growth rate for a 10-year age group within the older population was for men 85 to 94 years old (46.5 percent). Women in this age group also increased but to a smaller degree (22.9 percent).

When five-year age groups are compared, men 90 to 94 years old had the fastest growth rate (50.3 percent) while women increased the fastest in the 65- to 69-year-old age group (28.2 percent).

The number of men per 100 women in the older ages has increased over time as differences in male and female mortality continued to narrow and more males entered into the older population. For most single years of age above age 65, the ratio of men to women was higher in 2010 than in 2000 and 1990.

In the 2010 Census, there were approximately twice as many women as men at age 89 (361,309 compared with 176,689, respectively). This doubling point occurred about four years older than it did in 2000 and six years older than it did in 1990, illustrating the narrowing gap in mortality between men and women at the older ages.

South is oldest

Comparisons across the nation's four regions in 2010 show that the South contained the greatest number of people 65 and older at 14.9 million, followed by the Midwest at 9.0 million, and the West at 8.5 million. The Northeast had the smallest number of people 65 and older at 7.8 million but also had the highest percentage of people 65 and older at 14.1 percent. 

85+ growing fast

Between 2000 and 2010, all states experienced increases in the number of people who were 85 and older. However, the magnitude of growth varied among states.

Alaska had the largest percent change between 2000 and 2010 (78.9 percent), increasing from 2,634 in 2000 to 4,711 in 2010. Mississippi had the smallest growth rate (3.4 percent) and increased from 42,891 in 2000 to 44,359 in 2010. Alaska was also the state with the lowest number and percentage of the population 85 and older when compared with other states.

Other Highlights

  • In the 2010 Census, there were 53,364 centenarians (people 100 and older), an increase of 5.8 percent since 2000.
  • The number of people 65 and older more than doubled in 21 counties in the United States.
  • Approximately 1.3 million people 65 and older - or 3.1 percent of this population - lived in skilled-nursing facilities in 2010.
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Feds Shut Down Acai Berry 'News" Sites

"Free trial" cost consumers $25 million, complaint charges

The Federal Trade Commission and the state of Connecticut have filed a complaint that seeks to permanently stop a Connecticut-based operation that all...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission and the state of Connecticut have filed a complaint that seeks to permanently stop a Connecticut-based operation that allegedly used fake news websites to promote their products, made deceptive weight-loss claims, and told consumers they could receive free trials of acai berry and "colon cleanse" products, and only have to pay the nominal cost of shipping and handling.

The FTC alleges that many consumers ended up paying $79.99 for the trial, and for recurring monthly shipments of products that were hard to cancel. The defendants have allegedly taken in more than $25 million from consumers in the United States.

The parties have agreed to a court order temporarily halting the illegal conduct of Boris Mizhen, LeanSpa LLC, and two other companies Mizhen controls; continuing an asset freeze; appointing a temporary receiver; and giving the receiver, the FTC, and the State of Connecticut immediate access to the business premises.

Fake news

The complaint alleges that the defendants hired affiliate marketers who used fake news websites to promote the defendants' products. The fake news websites used domain names that appear to be objective news or health sites, such as channel8health.com, dailyhealth6.com, and online6health.com.

PhotoThe sites included stories such as "Acai Berry Diet Exposed: Miracle Diet or Scam?" and "1 Trick of a Tiny Belly: Reporter Loses Her 'Belly' Using 1 Easy Tip," and often displayed the logos of major news sources, such as CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News.

Fake reporters on the sites claimed to have tried the defendants' weight-loss products, such as LeanSpa, NutraSlim, and SlimFuel, and to have lost a substantial amount of weight quickly – sometimes as much as 25 pounds in four weeks without any special diet or vigorous exercise regime.

The fake news sites had links to the defendants' own websites, where consumers were offered trial samples of two weight-loss dietary supplements: an acai-berry product and a colon cleanse product. The affiliate marketers earned a commission for each consumer who landed on their sites and signed up for a trial.

Limited time only!

According to the complaint, once consumers landed at the defendants' sites – including TryLeanSpa.com, TryNutraSlim.com, and TryQuickDetox.com – they were told that for a limited time only, in exchange for a nominal shipping and handling fee, typically $4.95 or less, they would receive trial samples of the acai berry or colon cleanse product, or both, and consumers were urged to provide their credit or debit card account information to pay the nominal fee to obtain a trial sample.

If they tried to navigate away, a pop-up message sometimes appeared stating: "Don't miss out on this GREAT OFFER!!! Just press Cancel to remain on this page and receive an instant discounted S&H price of $1.95." The defendants allegedly would typically charge consumers either $79.99 for one of the products, or $158.98 for two.

The complaint alleged that the defendants used several entities known as "Independent Sales Organizations," including Check21, LLC and Eureka Payments, LLC, to obtain merchant accounts at banks to process credit and debit sales transactions.

Using these merchant accounts with several banks, including National Bank of California, WestAmerica Bank, HSBC Bank, and First Bank of Delaware, the defendants caused millions of dollars of unauthorized credit and debit card charges. The bulk of those unauthorized charges allegedly were processed through First Bank of Delaware.

$79.99 for "trial samples"

The defendants' allegedly deceptive practices also included charging some consumers $79.99 for products before the consumers even received the trial samples or before the 14-day trial period had ended; falsely promising a "100% Satisfaction Guarantee" and full refunds to customers who were dissatisfied with the product; misrepresenting that objective news reporters have performed independent tests on the products and independent consumers have endorsed the products; making unsupported claims that consumers could lose a significant amount of weight quickly; and falsely stating that the claims were clinically proven.

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Supplement Makers ASN Found in Contempt, Sentenced to Prison

Companies violated earlier consent decree, court finds

New Jersey-based dietary supplement companies, Quality Formulation Laboratories Inc. (QFL) and American Sports Nutrition Inc. (ASN), were sentenced ...

PhotoNew Jersey-based dietary supplement companies, Quality Formulation Laboratories Inc. (QFL) and American Sports Nutrition Inc. (ASN), were sentenced for multiple counts of criminal contempt of court for violating a consent decree entered by the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey on March 16, 2010.

The defendants’ businesses manufactured and distributed food products and supplements, including many varieties of protein powder mixes sold in health food stores, as well as other powder mixes and dietary supplements.   The defendants’ products were distributed under the ASN brand to locations throughout the United States.   

U.S. District Court Chief Judge Garrett E. Brown Jr. sentenced company executives Mohamed S. Desoky to a term of 40 months in prison, three years supervised release and a fine of $60,000; Ahmad Desoky Esq., to a term of 34 months in prison, three years supervised release and a fine of $12,000; and Omar Desoky to a term of 34 months in prison and three years supervised release.   

In addition, Judge Brown ordered QFL and ASN to pay criminal fines totaling $1 million, and placed them on probation for a period of three years.  

All defendants, the individuals and the corporations, were prohibited from doing business in the dietary supplement industry during their periods of supervised release or probation unless they first obtained consent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Court.   Ahmad Desoky was barred from practicing law during his period of supervised release.   

In imposing sentence, the court commented that defendants’ criminal contempt was unique in its persistence and scope.

Adulterated food           

The complaint in the civil case that led to the court order alleged that the defendants, which included Mohamed S. Desoky, QFL and ASN, adulterated food by manufacturing them without following the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) regulations regarding current good manufacturing practice (CGMP) requirements.       

The complaint alleged that the defendants caused misbranding of food because the food contained milk, a major food allergen, not declared on the product labels.   The civil complaint went on to allege that defendants’ failure to have adequate sanitizing and cleaning operations and follow their own procedures for manufacturing products on dedicated equipment may have led to food being contaminated with this major food allergen by virtue of “cross-contamination” or “cross-contact” in the manufacturing process.           

The civil complaint also alleged that during an FDA inspection of the defendant’s facility in January 2009, FDA investigators observed a dead rodent—cut in half—on a blender motor platform; a dead rodent, surrounded by rodent excreta pellets, in an area used to store near-finished product; and, on two occasions, a live rodent running through the blending room.

Consent decree            

The consent decree that settled the civil action required that defendants shut down their manufacturing operation and not reopen there or elsewhere without first correcting these violations and getting FDA’s approval to reopen.   The criminal contempt charges alleged that Ahmad Desoky and Omar Desoky, with knowledge of the court’s order, assisted their father, Mohamed S. Desoky, in violating the order, and thus were criminally liable for the violations even though they were not named as defendants in the original civil case.        

“After the FDA found egregious sanitation and manufacturing problems at the defendants’ facility, we obtained a court order requiring the defendants to clean up their act,” said Tony West, Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Division of the Department of Justice.   “Instead of complying with that order, the defendants thumbed their nose at it and continued distributing product.   The court’s appropriately stiff sentences in this case make clear the lesson:   If you jeopardize the health and safety of the American people, we will hold you accountable.”

The petition for criminal contempt charged all five defendants with violating the decree almost immediately upon its entry by setting up operations at a separate location in Congers, N.Y., to which they transported their employees and equipment.   

In addition, the petition alleged that the defendants violated the decree by failing to notify FDA of this relocation of their operations.   On June 1, 2011, a jury found all five defendants guilty of these charges.  

 

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Chevy Volt Tops Owner Satisfaction Survey

93% of Volt owners say they would "definitely" buy one again

The Chevrolet Volt has its detractors but it also has its fans and, more significantly, many of those fans are Volt owners who drive the plug-in hybrids da...

PhotoThe Chevrolet Volt has its detractors but it also has its fans and, more significantly, many of those fans are Volt owners who drive the plug-in hybrids day in and day out.

The Volt has topped this year's Consumer Reports owner-satisfaction study with a whopping 93 percent of Volt owners saying they "definitely" buy one again.

Tied for second-place were the V8-powered Dodge Challenger and the legendary Porsche 911, each getting a thumbs-up from 91 percent of their owners.

However, Consumer Reports noted that the Volt had only been selling for a few months when the survey was conducted, so it remains to be seen how the Volt owners feel after they put more miles on the clock.

Then there's the federal investigation of the flammability of the Volt's battery.  Depending on that turns out, it could dim the car's popularity.

Then there's the "newer is better" mantra. With its usual caution, CR noted that "early adopters of a new technology tend to be among the most enthusiastic buyers."

High tech, high performance

PhotoThis year's ratings are not surprising.  Sporty cars and technically-advanced cars -- sometimes the same thing but not always -- usually top the list.

After all, your Toyota Sienna van might be just fine, but are you really going to get all enthused about it?  

A 911 or something similar, on the other hand, will make just about anyone spend at least a few minutes a day in his garage just looking at the thing.  You don't even have to drive it to get that nice warm feeling.

Same with high-tech cars.  Driving the latest and greatest fuel-sipper makes that trip to Trader Joe's feel really enobling.  

Or, as Rik Paul, Consumer Reports' automotive editor, put it: "These models reflect a larger trend we've seen in recent years: Sporty cars and fuel efficient cars with alternative drivetrains tend to generate more enthusiasm and loyalty than most other types of vehicles."  

Consumer Reports said 12 of the 27 models that topped its owner--satisfaction ratings -- meaning at least 80 percent of respondents said they'd definitely buy the vehicle again -- were sporty cars or convertibles; nine were hybrids or diesels.

Consumer Reports' owner-satisfaction survey includes responses from more than 314,000 subscribers on 2009-12 model year vehicles. It is based on the results from the magazine's annual auto survey conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.

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Abusive Boss Could Harm Your Marriage

Problems at work can lead to problems at home

Abusive Boss Could Harm Your Marriage: If you're having trouble in your marriage, it may not be just your spouse that's giving you problems....

PhotoIf you're having trouble in your marriage, it may not be just your spouse that's giving you problems. Your boss might be involved, say researchers at Baylor University – especially if he's a jerk.

The study also found that more children at home meant greater family satisfaction for the employee, and the longer the partner's relationship, the less impact the abusive boss had on the family.

"These findings have important implications for organizations and their managers,” said Baylor psychology professor Dawn Carlson, the study author. “The evidence highlights the need for organizations to send an unequivocal message to those in supervisory positions that these hostile and harmful behaviors will not be tolerated."

A supervisor's abuse may include tantrums, rudeness, public criticism and inconsiderate action. Complaints to ConsumerAffairs.com detail a wide range of bad behavior on the part of supervisors.

Examples

“They give us a rate/per hour ratio for the stock room and give us impossible goals for the day and then yell at us for not getting the job right,” one employee of Ross' Dress for Less in Fairfield, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “We are to the point that we are not even allowed to talk while we are in the back. They believe that if we are talking the we are not unpacking boxes.”

An employee of a Holiday Inn Express in Little Rock, Ark., reports that two supervisors are abusing the people who work there.

“I have seen this for two years but the employees are afraid to say something because anyone who says anything to them gets fired,” he said. “There have been multiple people that have quit because of this and people are suffering now as I speak.”

Taking the stress home with them

When employees are subjected to an abusive boss at work, the researchers say, they often bring that stress home with them, where it spreads to a spouse.

"It may be that as supervisor abuse heightens tension in the relationship, the employee is less motivated or able to engage in positive interactions with the partner and other family members," said Merideth Ferguson, PH.D., study co-author and assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at Baylor.

She says organizations should encourage subordinates to seek support through their organization's employee assistance program or other resources (e.g., counseling, stress management) so that the employee can identify tactics or mechanisms for buffering the effect of abuse on the family.

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iPhone 4 Burns On Australian Airliner

Filled cabin with 'dense, black smoke'

Smartphone catches fire on aircraft...

PhotoPassengers aboard an Regional Express (Rex) flight in Australia were alarmed this week when black smoke began filling the cabin.

The airline said a quick check found that the smoke was coming from a passenger's iPhone 4, which was also glowing. In accordance with company standard safety procedures, the airline said the flight attendant on the Lismore to Sydney flight carried out recovery actions immediately and “the red glow was extinguished successfully.”

Rex did not disclose whether the device was turned on at the time. The damaged iPhone has been turned over to Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) for investigation.

The airline released a photograph of the iPhone, showing large cracks on the back case and dark, charred areas around the edges of the device.

The plane, a Saab 340 aircraft, had just landed and was not in the air when the iPhone began smoking. No one was injured but the cabin was described as being filled with “dense, black smoke.”

It's the first reported incident of a smartphone overheating to the point of catching fire on an airline flight. However, notebook computers have been known to cause fires, destroying property on the ground.

In 2007 an Australian consumer reported his Macbook ignited in his home, causing extensive damage. In 2005 the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a warning that cell phone batteries run the risk of exploding and catching fire.

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Electronics Drive Early Holiday Sales

It seems everyone wants a gadget this year

Holiday sales off to strong start...

PhotoConsumers headed to the electronics aisle in big numbers on Black Friday and the days that followed, according to a report by NPD Research.

The firm's numbers show more than 23 percent of Black Friday shoppers purchased some type of electronics product, up 15 percent from 2010 and 50 percent above toys, the third most popular post-Thanksgiving shopping category.

Half of all consumer electronics buyers shopped the midnight Doorbusters between 12am and 3am, a significant increase from the 13 percent who bought last year during that time period, the report says. More than 28 percent of the shopping trips by consumer electronics buyers occurred between Thanksgiving night and 3AM on Friday, a significant increase over the 5 percent in 2010.

If the holiday shopping season is off to a successful start for most retailers, NPD says they can thank consumer's desire for games and gadgets. Smartphones, tablets and video game consoles were among the big sellers.

TV buyers were out in full force as nearly six percent of all Black Friday shoppers walked out with a new TV, a 36 percent increase from 2010. Smartphones, video game systems and software, and tablets were also extremely popular as buyers increased by 85 percent, 35 percent, and 34 percent respectively.

Top of mind

“A confluence of factors have kept consumer electronics top of mind during Black Friday”, said Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis at NPD. “A combination of the Black Friday promotional period expanding, the continuing focus on electronics in advertising and sales messaging, and the popularity of the category in general have helped to make Black Friday the consumer electronics shopping holiday.”

The buying continued through the weekend and into Cyber Monday. This year almost 28 percent of consumers reported shopping online Cyber Monday compared to 21 percent last year.

Of those shoppers, 16 percent reported making a purchase this year compared to 12 percent last year. The study’s results also indicate that brick & mortar stores got a Cyber Monday bounce. More consumers reported shopping in a store on Cyber Monday this year (20 percent) than last year (14 percent) and of those shoppers this year 16 percent report making a purchase compared to last year’s 11 percent.

“Cyber Monday turned into ‘Hyper Monday’ as both online and brick & mortar got healthy increases due to more shoppers even though they spent less,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD.

More people may have been shopping but they were spending less money. This year's average expenditure on Cyber Monday was $187.83, compared to $276.71. However, it doesn't mean they bought less. Cohen said there were more bargains this year, which may have affected the spending total.

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What's On Your Mind? Edenpure, Verizon Wireless, Charmglow

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Edenpure, Verizon Wireless, Charmglow, Account monitoring pays off and Turkey-day mishap....

PhotoWith winter on the way, consumers are thinking about keeping their homes warm over the next few months. Edenpure space heaters have proved a popular product, but not everyone is convinced.

“All of the advertising talked about heating 1000 square feet and they were offering a $349 heater for $199,” Don, of Montgomery, Tex., told ConsumerAffairs.com It also said it was safe to touch. When it arrived it showed on the cover, that it was safe for pets and showed it under a desk with a woman's knee up against it.”

But Don said when he opened the box it was a smaller model for 350 square feet, and and the instructions said not to block the front or the rear, suggesting it should not go under a desk as the picture showed.

“All in all, I think we got taken,” Don said. “I listened to the infomercial again this morning and now they say, just send $39 and then later send four more payments, implying that those payments will also be $39, but when I called and finally, after much insistence, was told the additional payments are $89.”

From our observation some people really like Edenpure heaters and some definitely do not. It might help to purchase it from a local store and not from an infomercial.

Account monitoring pays off

Verizon and other cell phone companies have been prompted by government regulators to begin warning their customers when they are about to exceed limits and incur additional charges. Robert, of The Colony, Tex., said he specifically asked when he signed up with Verizon Wireless if he would get these warnings and said he was assured that he would.

“I was more concerned about exceeding the 2gb of data,” Robert said. “I also noticed on their website they state that they 'strive' to notify customers to prevent overage charges. After receiving my first bill, I noticed $403 in overage charges for voice and $73.76 in taxes! Upon contacting customer service, I was informed the keyword there is they 'strive' to inform customers.”

While a reminder from the carrier is convenient, consumers should also take some responsibility for managing their account. Each Verizon Wireless customer, for example, can log into their account and monitor their voice and data usage. It's a good idea to do that on a regular basis.

Turkey-day mishap

We heard from some consumers who say their Thanksgiving feast was marred by exploding glass baking dishes in the kitchen. But Victor, of Orlando, Fla., says his Charmglow grill was the source of a food-related holiday mishap.

“On Thanksgiving, while using the grill the holes that lead into controls caught fire and melted,” Victor said. “It was my third time using it since I purchased it from Home Depot. I was told to report the incident to the manufacturer.”

If this sounds familiar, it should. In 2005 Brinkmann Corporation recalled about 130,000 Brinkmann-brand and Charmglow-brand gas grills because they posed a fire hazard. Since then, he have continued to get complaints. Victor should report his problem to the company and to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

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