Current Events in December 2011

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    Senate Blocks Consumer Financial Protection Chief

    Obama: 'We are not giving up on this,' may try recess appointment

    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."

    The long struggle to establish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau isn't over.  Filibustering Republicans in the Senate yesterday blocked confirm...

    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 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.

    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...

    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 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."

    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. 

    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 ...

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      Alec Baldwin Experiences How The Other Half Flies

      Actors complaint not that uncommon, it seems

      Actor 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.

      passengers increasingly complain about rude flight attendants...

      New Breast Cancer Treatment Shows Promise, Researchers Say

      Drug makes cancer stem cells less resistant to traditional drugs

      Admittedly, 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.

      Promising breast cancer research from Loyola...

      Latest Mortgage Data Paints More Hopeful Housing Picture

      But qualifying for loan still problematic

      The 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.”  

      Mortgage rates remain near record low...

      Consumers Taking On More Credit Card Debt

      Report shows surging use of plastic in third quarter

      CardHub.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.

      Consumers are piling on credit card debt...

      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-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.

      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-...

      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 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.”

      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...

      What's On Your Mind? Zyrtec, Best Buy, Brookstone

      Our daily look at consumer reviews

      Zyrtec 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.

      Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Zyrtec, Best Buy, Brookstone, Confusion and Bait & Switch....

      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 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.

      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...

      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, 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?

      What'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.

      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, ...

      TransUnion Sees Fewer Mortgage Delinguencies In 2012

      For many consumers, credit picture appears to be improving

      Mortgage 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.  

      TransUnion reports consumers are making more on-time payments...

      Analyst Sees Cable Giants Moving Onto Netflix's Turf

      Verizon may launch competing video streaming service

      Netflix 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.

      Verizon may launch a new video streaming service...

      Controlling Leftovers Helps Control Weight

      Holiday temptations don't end when the meal is over

      This 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.

      Controlling Leftovers Helps Control Weight: Controlling your desires at these events is crucial to maintaining a healthy weight during the holidays....

      '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) 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.”

      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...

      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 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.

      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...

      What's On Your Mind? Postal Service, Digital TV, AT&T

      Our daily look at consumer reviews

      The 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.

      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....

      Last Again! Once More, AT&T Places Dead Last in Customer Satisfaction

      Smaller companies rate higher than 'big 4' providers

      For 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.

      Consumer Reports' new cell phone customer satisfaction survey...