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    TriCross Bicycle Carbon Forks Recalled

    The forks can come apart

    Specialized Bicycle Components Inc. is recalling about 460 bicycles equipped with Advanced Group carbon forks.

    The brake component housed within the bicycle's carbon fork can disengage from the fork and allow the brake assembly to contact the wheel spokes while rotating, posing a fall hazard.

    This recall involves the 2012 Tricross Sport and 2012 Tricross Comp model bicycles. The bicycles are various colors and have the brand name "Specialized" on the lower front frame tube. The model name "Tricross Sport" or "Tricross Comp" is on the top tube.

    Authorized Specialized retailers sold the bicycles nationwide from June 2011 through November 2011 for between $1,250 to $2,000. They were made in Taiwan.

    Consumers should immediately stop riding these bicycles and return them to an authorized Specialized retailer for a free repair or replacement carbon fork.

    For additional information, contact Specialized toll-free at (877) 808-8154 from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. PT Monday through Friday, or visit the company's website at www.specialized.com

    Specialized Bicycle Components Inc. is recalling about 460 bicycles equipped with Advanced Group carbon forks.The brake component housed within the ...
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    FDA Takes Action Against Mexicali Cheese

    Company allegedly failed to correct violations despite warnings

    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is asking a federal court to shut down a New York cheese manufacturer because of a history of unsanitary conditions and producing cheese in a facility contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes bacteria.

    According to a complaint for permanent injunction filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, Mexicali Cheese of Woodhaven, N.Y., and two of its officers, Edinson Vergara and Claudia Marin, produced cheese under persistent unsanitary conditions that contributed to widespread Listeria monocytogenes contamination in Mexicali Cheese's facility.

    In addition, the complaint, filed January 30 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, says that the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets, Division of Milk Control and Dairy Services found similar unsanitary conditions in addition to product contamination.

    Mexicali Cheese makes and distributes a variety of soft Mexican cheeses to grocery stores and supermarkets in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Mexicali Cheese’s products include queso fresco [fresh cheese], queso oaxaca [Oaxacan cheese] and queso para freir [cheese for frying].

    If entered by the court, the injunction would stop the company and its officers from manufacturing and distributing food until they can bring their operations into full compliance with the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and FDA food safety regulations.

    "FDA filed this complaint to protect the health of consumers," said Dara A. Corrigan, associate commissioner for regulatory affairs. “Working closely with New York’s Department of Agriculture and Markets, we took this step to ensure that consumers do not eat potentially dangerous foods from this company.”

    Consumers can report problems with FDA-regulated products to their district office consumer complaint coordinator.

    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is asking a federal court to shut down a New York cheese manufacturer because of a history of unsanitary condit...
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    Nearly Half of U.S. Families Are One Crisis Away From Poverty

    Study finds number of "asset-poor" families is up 21% in two years

    There's a lot of bantering by wealthy politicians about who's truly rich, whether the rich should pay more taxes and whether a $10,000 bet is excessive. There's not much talk, though, about who's poor and who's in imminent danger of becoming truly penniless -- but a report released today suggests that maybe there should be.

    The Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED) finds that nearly half of U.S. households (43 percent) have almost no savings and 27 percent are “asset poor,” meaning they lack both savings and other assets to cover basic expenses for just three months if a layoff or other crisis leads to loss of income.

    That's an increase of 21 percent since the last time the CFED compiled its  Assets & Opportunity Scorecard in 2009-2010.  The number of asset poor families has increased by 21 percent -- from one in five families to one in four families -- in just two years. The asset poverty rate is now nearly twice as high as the Census Bureau’s official income poverty rate of 15.1 percent.

    For the first time the Assets & Opportunity Scorecard includes a measure for “liquid asset poverty,” which excludes assets such as a home, business or car that can’t easily be converted to cash. It consequently provides a more realistic picture of the resources families have to meet emergency needs.

    According to that measure, 43 percent of households nationwide are “liquid asset poor” with little or no savings to fall back on if emergency strikes.  Most bankruptcies are the result of health crises and job loss, the two swords that hang over the heads of those with few or no liquid assets.

    No savings, no cushion

    “Growing numbers of families have almost no savings or other assets to see them through if they lose their jobs or face a medical crisis,” said Andrea Levere, president of CFED. “Without savings, few will be able to build a more economically secure future, including buying a home, saving for their children’s college educations or building a retirement nest egg.”

    Levere added that the Scorecard findings are “particularly disturbing in the context of precipitous drops in incomes for many Americans and widening of the wealth gap between the richest and poorest households.”

    The report found that households of color are more than twice as likely as white households to be asset poor — 44 percent compared with 20 percent, respectively. A similarly high proportion (65 percent) of households of color is liquid-asset poor compared with 34 percent of white households.

    The Scorecard also found sizable differences between states, with asset poverty rates ranging from a high of more than 45 percent in Nevada to a low of 15.7 percent in Vermont; liquid asset poverty rates ranged from 64.5 percent in Alabama down to 22.8 percent in Hawaii.

    Typically, states with programs and policies in place to address growing need were in far better shape than those with a less robust safety net. For instance, Nevada’s policies to support financial security and opportunity are among the weakest in the country, while Vermont has a long history of supporting such efforts. The Scorecard presents data on the array of state policies that help families move along a path from financial insecurity to economic opportunity.

    Key findings

    The Scorecard also assessed a variety of measures that affect people’s ability to save and build assets, including job quality, homeownership, access to credit and education. Among the key findings:

    • More than half of consumers (56 percent) have subprime credit scores.
    • Between the third quarters of 2008 and 2011, the home foreclosure rate increased by 50 percent, widening the already-considerable homeownership gap between white households and households of color. As of 2010, 73 percent of white households owned homes, compared with just 47 percent of households of color.
    • One in five jobs is low-wage and nearly half of employers do not offer health insurance. In addition, 55 percent of workers do not have or participate in retirement plans.
    • While the number of people getting four year college degrees is up slightly, the average debt for graduating college seniors has risen 19 percent since 2007 to $25,250.

    The complete report is available online.

    The Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED) finds that nearly half of U.S. households (43 percent) have almost no savings and 27 percent are “asset p...
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      Asset Acceptance to Pay $2.5 Million for Deceptive Practices

      Debt buyer must not falsely tell consumers it will sue them to collect old debts

      One of the nation's largest consumer debt buyers has agreed to pay a $2.5 million civil penalty to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it made a range of misrepresentations when trying to collect old debts. In addition, the company, Asset Acceptance, LLC, has agreed to tell consumers whose debt may be too old to be legally enforceable that it will not sue to collect on that debt.

      The proposed settlement order resolving the agency's charges also requires that when consumers dispute the accuracy of a debt, Asset Acceptance must investigate the dispute, ensuring that it has a reasonable basis for its claims the consumer owes the debt, before continuing its collection efforts.

      The proposed order also bars the company from placing debt on consumers' credit reports without notifying them about the negative report. The U.S. Department of Justice filed the proposed settlement order this week at the FTC's request.

      “Most consumers do not know their legal rights with respect to collection of old debts past the statute of limitations,” said David Vladeck, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “When a collector tells a consumer that she owes money and demands payment, it may create the misleading impression that the collector can sue the consumer in court to collect that debt.  This FTC settlement signals that, even with old debt, the prohibitions against deceptive and unfair collection methods apply.”

      The FTC alleged in its action that Asset Acceptance violated the FTC Act, theFair Debt Collection Practices Act, and the Fair Credit Reporting Act – is part of the FTC's continuing efforts to protect consumers adversely affected by the struggling economy.

      The agency today also issued a new publication for consumers, "Time-Barred Debts: Understanding Your Rights When It Comes to Old Debts".

      Old debts

      Michigan-based Asset Acceptance buys unpaid debts from credit originators such as credit card companies, health clubs, and telecommunications and utilities providers, as well as other debt buyers, and attempts to collect them. Asset Acceptance has purchased tens of millions of consumer accounts for pennies on the dollar. It targets accounts that other collectors have pursued and are more than a year past due, and in some cases attempts to collect debt that is more than 10 years old.

      Some of this debt is too old to be legally enforceable – state statutes of limitations cut off the right to sue to collect the debt after some period of time has passed, depending on the state and the type of debt. And many consumers do not know that making a partial payment of a debt may reset the state law's clock on the collector's ability to take legal action.

      The proposed settlement requires that when Asset Acceptance knows or should know debt may not be legally enforceable under state law – often referred to as "time-barred" debt – it must disclose to the consumer that it will not sue on the debt and, if true, that it may report nonpayment to the credit reporting agencies.

      Once it has made that disclosure, it may not sue the consumer, even if the consumer makes a partial payment that otherwise would make the debt no longer time-barred.

      The order also prohibits the company from:

      • Making any material misrepresentation to consumers and making any representation that a consumer owes a particular debt, or as to the amount of the debt, unless it has a reasonable basis for the representation. To ensure it has such a basis, the order requires Asset Acceptance to investigate consumer disputes before continuing collection efforts;
      • "Parking" – or placing – debt on a consumer's credit report when it has failed to notify the consumer in writing about the negative report, and;
      • Violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, in the ways alleged in the complaint.
      One of the nation's largest consumer debt buyers has agreed to pay a $2.5 million civil penalty to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it made a r...
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      Feds Urged to Impose Strict Salt Guidelines

      Packaged, restaurant food still a major source of sodium despite industry guidelines

      Voluntary efforts by industry to reduce sodium levels in the food supply have failed, according to comments filed with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest.

      CSPI urged the agency to create strong but realistic mandatory regulations to reduce sodium levels in restaurant and packaged foods.

      According to a recent survey commissioned by CSPI, the public sees the need to lower sodium; 71 percent of Americans indicated that the food industry had a responsibility to reduce the sodium content of their foods, and 58 percent support a government requirement to reduce the sodium in processed and restaurant foods.

      “Overconsumption of sodium is one of the single greatest causes of hypertension and cardiovascular disease, and restaurant and packaged foods—not salt shakers—are far and away the largest contributors of sodium in the American diet,” said CSPI deputy director of health promotion policy Julie Greenstein. “Unfortunately, the food industry has failed to significantly bring down sodium levels despite 40 years of governmental admonitions. It’s time for the FDA to step in and require reasonable reductions.”

      The U.S. government’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that people with hypertension, those who are middle-aged or older, and African Americans should consume no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day. According to the Center for Disease Control, about 70 percent of adults fall into those categories, yet current average daily consumption is actually closer to 4,000 mg.

      Significant health risk

      Recently, the American Public Health Association passed a resolution that calls on FDA to begin regulating sodium in the food supply within one year and to establish a timetable for gradually reducing sodium in the food supply by 75 percent over 10 years. CSPI’s filing notes that reducing sodium consumption would save billions of dollars in medical costs, and upwards of 150,000 lives annually.

      Overwhelming evidence indicates that excess sodium levels pose significant health risks, but consumer education efforts are poorly funded and ineffective, according to CSPI, making efforts to reform dietary habits of Americans difficult. A recent survey indicates that 59 percent of Americans are “not concerned” about their sodium intake. As a result, an Institute of Medicine committee recommended mandatory regulations limiting sodium levels to improve public health and decrease healthcare costs.

      Many frozen dinners and canned foods contain high amounts of sodium. Boston Market frozen Meatloaf with Mashed Potatoes and Gravy has 1,460 mg of sodium per serving (about one day’s worth). Marie Callender’s frozen Creamy Chicken and Shrimp Parmesan has 1,200 mg of sodium (almost a day’s worth).

      One of the worst restaurant offenders is Applebee’s Provolone-Stuffed Meatballs with Fettuccine, which has 3,700 mg of sodium (more than two days’ worth). Denny’s Spicy Buffalo Chicken Melt has 3,760 mg of sodium (two and a half days’ worth).

      CSPI first petitioned the FDA in 1978 to reduce salt in processed foods. Besides urging the FDA to set mandatory limits on sodium content in the food supply, CSPI asked the agency to lower the Daily Value for sodium from 2,400 mg to 1,500 mg. 

      Voluntary efforts by industry to reduce sodium levels in the food supply have failed, according to comments filed with the Food and Drug Administ...
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      Can You Trust A Favorable Review?

      Businesses increasingly try to game the review system

      Most of us are happy to read a glowing movie review. It's probably a movie we'd like to see anyway, and we're grateful someone in authority – a reviewer – has blessed it and told us we'll like it.

      Does the same hold true for products? Retailers and manufacturers are betting it does, and they too are happy to believe that. Instead of spending millions on a TV commercial to run during the Super Bowl, they use a fraction of their ad budget and offer incentives for consumers to post positive reviews on e-tailer sites like Amazon.com.

      Bing Liu, a computer science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, calls it “opinion spam.”

      Opinion spam

      “Opinion spamming refers to illegal activities that try to deliberately mislead readers or automated opinion mining and sentiment analysis systems by giving undeserving positive opinions to some target entities in order to promote the entities,” Liu said.

      While a casual reader might not be able to easily spot a bought-and-paid-for review, Liu is working on software that will detect them. On his website, Liu shares some of the signals he looks for.

      Spotting a phony review

      For example, pay close attention to the review content. Can you detect content and style similarity among different reviewers. Companies paying reviewers often have a list of “review points” they want their reviewers to emphasize in a positive way.

      Also, note the screen name used by the reviewer and note if they are active on a lot of sites. Once you have isolated an individual, look for inconsistencies. Do they refer to their husband in one review and their wife in another, for example?

       “We believe that as opinions on the Web are increasingly used in practice by consumers, organizations, and businesses for their decision making, opinion spam will get worse and also more sophisticated,” Liu said. “Detecting spam reviews or opinions will become more and more critical. The situation is already quite bad.”

      Researchers at Cornell are also working on software that acts as a "lie detector for the Internet." They said the software, after scanning 800 Chicago hotel reviews, was able to highlight 90 percent of the bogus write-ups.

      Regulators take notice of trend

      The Federal Trade Commision (FTC), which has taken a few companies to task for rewarding consumers for hyping their products, says the practice of paying a consumer to write a positive review isn't illegal, but not disclosing it is.

      Last March a company selling a popular series of guitar-lesson DVDs agreed to pay $250,000 to settle FTC charges that it deceptively advertised its products through online affiliate marketers who falsely posed as ordinary consumers or independent reviewers.

      The FTC said the complaint against Nashville, Tennessee-based Legacy Learning Systems Inc. and its owner, Lester Gabriel Smith, is part of an effort to make sure that advertising to American consumers is truthful and not deceptive, whether the advertisements appear in traditional or newer forms of media.

      Businesses are paying consumers to write phony reviews...
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      Find Out If You Have To Pay the Alternative Minimum Tax

      It could mean a much higher tax bill

      Every year taxpayers need to consider whether they will have to pay the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT). The AMT was enacted in 1982 and limits tax benefits from a variety of deductions. It's designed to make sure wealthy individuals pay at least some tax.

      Because the levels at which the AMT is triggered are not automatically adjusted for inflation, as are regular tax thresholds, some non-rich taxpayers have found themselves required to pay the AMT in recent years. It usually results in a much higher tax bill.

      The AMT Assistant, a tool provided by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), is intended to provide a simple test for taxpayers who fill out their tax returns without using software to determine whether they may be subject to the AMT.

      To use the IRS's AMT Assistant, you just answer a few simple questions about entries on your draft 1040 and the system does the rest. You will see the results immediately on your computer screen.

      Yes or no

      Based on your entries, the results will tell you that either you do not owe the AMT or that you must go further and complete Form 6251 to find out if you owe the AMT. The IRS says it takes about five to ten minutes to fill out the questionnaire.

      Questions include things like “did you claim an accelerated depreciation?” or “did you claim deductions from a farm tax shelter?” Entries are anonymous and the information will be used only for the purpose of determining your eligibility. All entries are erased when you exit or start over.

      Before you start, you should have your draft 2011 Form 1040 available, completed through Line 44. The AMT Assistant can be used by individuals, tax practitioners and community or public service organizations.

      How to find out if you have to pay the Alternative Minimum Tax...
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      What's On Your Mind? Turbotax, Samsung, Right Size Smoothies

      Our daily look at consumer reviews

      When you use a tax preparation software, it performs the calculations for you. But Randy, of Fort Mohave, Ariz., suggests double checking it with a calculator. He said his 2010 return, prepared with TurboTax, was audited by the IRS and, as a result, he owed an extra $3,500.

      “Essentially, due to no fault or negligence of my own, the 2010 software malfunctioned while calculating my taxable income, errors so profound that it's obvious upon close scrutiny of the 1040 Form,” Randy told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Since I blindly trusted the Turbo Tax service, I never reviewed the hardcopies e-filed, believing all to be in order. Much to my chagrin, I did review the 1040 Form after the IRS notice and saw the error almost instantly.”

      Randy says TurboTax denied his claim under the company's accuracy guarantee. It's worth remembering that, ultimately, it's the taxpayer's responsibility to ensure the information on the tax return is accurate.

      Fix it yourself

      We see a lot of complaints about flat screen TV sets that have to repaired just as soon as they go out of warranty. Consumers understandably are frustrated and angry. Richard, of Detroit, Mich., says he got no help from Samsung, but did find help on the Internet.

      “I repaired the tv myself for $20.00 in parts from Radio Shack and a YouTube video,” Richard said. “No more Samsung products for me.”

      Blown capacitors are a common problem on these TV sets. They aren't that hard to replace and, indeed, there are plenty of how-to videos online.

      Read the contract

      Bonnie, of Del Ray Beach, Fla., said she tried the free trial of Right Size Smoothies and was disappointed in the outcome. She says she wasn't disappointed in the product so much, but in how the “free trial” worked out.

      “I ordered Lean Cocoa Bean and Skinni Vanilliy and received Lean Cocoa Bean and Very Berry,” Bonnie said. “I thought oh well, still a variety. The berry was very sweet and the cocoa bean made me feel sluggish and not quite up to par afterwards. I called to return and cancel and was told that I should have read the agreement that states if I open both cans the trial period becomes null and void. The best they can do is break the 119.80 into two payments. Why order two flavors if you can only try one?”

      Good question. In addition to reading the contract – always a good idea – it seems the customer service rep could have explained that.

      Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Turbotax software malfunction, Samsung, Right Size Smoothies, fix it yourself and read the contract....
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      Big Firms Launch Offensive Against Spam, Phishing Emails

      Companies outline plans for enhanced email authentication

      Email used to be a useful utility but it has been rendered nearly useless by the massive growth of spam, phishing and other deceptive techniques.  Fifteen large tech and financial firms are hoping to change that.

      Google, Yahoo, PayPal and AOL are among the firms behind DMARC.org, a technical working group that has been developing standards for reducing the threat of deceptive emails.

      "Email phishing defrauds millions of people and companies every year, resulting in a loss of consumer confidence in email and the Internet as a whole," said Brett McDowell, Chair of DMARC.org and Senior Manager of Customer Security Initiatives at PayPal. "Industry cooperation -- combined with technology and consumer education -- is crucial to fight phishing."

      DMARC.org's founders say it draws upon a history of private industry collaboration with 18 months of dedicated work, to outline an enhanced vision for email authentication that can scale up to today's Internet needs. The group's work includes a draft specification that helps create a feedback loop between legitimate email senders and receivers to make impersonation more difficult for phishers trying to send fraudulent email.

      Authentication lacking

      The DMARC specification addresses concerns that have traditionally hindered widespread deployment of an authenticated, trusted email ecosystem. Today, email receivers lack a reliable way to know the extent to which an email sender uses standards like SPF and DKIM for authenticating their messages.

      As a result, providers must rely on complex and imperfect measurements to separate legitimate unauthenticated messages sent by the domain owner from fraudulent phishing messages sent by a scammer.

      By introducing a standards-based framework, DMARC has defined a more comprehensive and integrated way for email senders to introduce email authentication technologies into their infrastructure.

      For example, a sender could set policies to easily request a provider to discard unauthenticated email in order to block phishing attacks. The specification also creates a mechanism for email providers to send detailed reports back to email senders to help catch any gaps in the authentication system. This feedback loop raises the trust level within the email ecosystem and makes it easier to detect and stop phishing attempts.

      "[The working group] has been committed to defining and improving email authentication standards and practices to meet the financial services industry's needs. DMARC's evolutionary approach is critical in assuring these needs are met for years to come," said Paul Smocer, President of BITS, the technology policy division of The Financial Services Roundtable.

      DMARC.org (Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting and Conformance) is an unincorporated working group made up of many of the world's leading email providers (AOL, Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail), financial institutions and service providers (Bank of America, Fidelity Investments, PayPal), social media properties (American Greetings, Facebook, LinkedIn) and email security solutions providers (Agari, Cloudmark, eCert, Return Path, Trusted Domain Project). The group is dedicated to developing Internet standards to reduce the threat of email phishing and to improve coordination between email providers and mail sender domain owners.

      Email used to be a useful utility but it has been rendered nearly useless by the massive growth of spam, phishing and other deceptive techniques.  Fif...
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      Is That A Security Breach In Your Pocket?

      Security experts offer tips for keeping smartphone data safe

      How many of us are walking around with all manner of highly sensitive information in our pockets or purses, completely exposed and vulnerable?

      If you have a smartphone – and nearly half of American consumers do – you could be at risk.

      “In today’s digital age, while we enjoy the benefits of technology, we must also be aware of the risks it presents,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley. “Criminals have turned to technology as access points for key personal information. The best way for consumers to protect themselves is to make sure their technological devices are secure.”

      Smartphones are sophisticated little devices. Many have the same functions as your laptop or desktop computer at home. But while your home computers may be protected against malware, chances are your smartphone isn't.

      According to mobile security experts, there are six steps you should take to keep your smartphone secure:

      1. Password Protect Your Phone

      Loss or theft of your phone is the easiest way to put your personal data at risk, and with data showing that smartphone theft is on the rise, security experts suggest consumers secure their phones with a password to ensure that if it is misplaced, gaining access won’t be easy.

      Consumers should change their passwords frequently and should not use passwords containing their name, information found on their driver’s licenses, or other easy to guess passwords such as birthdates, anniversaries, and your children’s names. Encrypting your smartphone provides an even greater level of security.

      2. Set Up “Remote Wipe”

      Most smart phones carry a “remote wipe” feature allowing consumers to destroy all data on a phone that is stolen including emails, texts, contacts, documents and passwords. Consumers should consult their smart phones’ instruction manuals to learn how to remotely wipe. For smartphones that do not have the feature, there are a number of programs that can be purchased to perform this function.

      3. Beware of Unknown Applications

      While some third-party applications actually help consumers prevent viruses from overtaking their smart phones, others can be malicious. It is recommended that consumers always beware of the applications they are using.

      What kind of ratings and reviews does the application have? What company made the application? How much information does the application ask you to share?

      Applications can require a multitude of permissions including obtaining access to various functions of your smartphone such as your phones Global Positioning System (GPS) or camera. Applications can also access sensitive information stored such as contacts, text-messages, and email.

      4. Where Are You?

      Geotagging is a relatively newer concept that allows a consumer to “tag” a photo or video with their current location. Usually, the geotag contains GPS coordinates for pinpoint accuracy.

      Similarly location-based services operate by utilizing the GPS on smartphones. Sometimes by “checking in” to participating merchants and locations, consumers can earn rewards or discounts. However, by “checking-in” others can find out where and how long consumers were not home. Consumers can prevent geo-tagging by turning the function off on their smart phones or by paying particular attention to pop-up requests when opening various applications or websites.

      5. Be Careful When Surfing

      As stated earlier, smart phones can be as powerful as desktop computers and like desktops, they can pick up viruses and other mal-ware from simply surfing the Internet. It is recommended that consumers be careful when using the Internet. Just as when working on a desktop, do not click on unknown links and do not open suspicious emails.

      6. Be Cautious When Online Banking and Shopping

      Consumers should use caution when banking online and ensure that they are using a secure network and not an unsecured Wi-Fi hot spot. When shopping on-line, credit cards provide better protection than debit cards if your card is used fraudulently.

      tips for improving the security of your smartphone...
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      Record-High Gas Prices Expected This Year

      Prices inching up; analysts fear it's the calm before the storm

      Gas prices have been relatively stable the last few weeks but analysts are warning consumers to brace themselves.

      Most analysts agree gas prices will reach record high prices during the first half of the year.  Prices typically springboard from January lows, however, this January’s prices have set record highs for the month.  Many forecasts indicate we could see nationwide averages of $4.00 per gallon or higher by spring, depending on volatility of the domestic and international markets, unpredictable geopolitical events around the world, refinery outages or closures, and weather events.

      The national average for regular grade gasoline inched up a penny last week to $3.39 per gallon Friday.

      Prices are running about 15 cents above month-ago prices and 29 cents above year-ago prices, yet remain 72 cents below the all-time record high of $4.11 set in July 2008, according to Mid-Atlantic AAA.

      “International events, especially the volatile climate in the Middle East, continue to push crude oil prices higher, which leads to increases in prices at the pump,” said John B. Townsend, Manager of Public and Government Affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic.  “Motorists are in for potential record-setting gas prices during the first half of the year, according to many analysts, with prices likely to break through the $4.00 per gallon mark this spring.”

      To find prices at individual gas stations, go to AAA Fuel Price Finder.

      Crude oil prices pressed higher early in the week following a European Union agreement to embargo Iranian oil in stages by July 1.  Iran countered by threatening to stop oil exports to the EU ahead of the imposed embargo. European debt concerns, notably in Greece, also remain at the forefront.

      Crude oil was also supported by the Federal Reserve’s decision to extend its low interest rate policy into 2014, weakening the U.S. dollar, yet indicating positive economic expansion could gain momentum in the U.S. (the world’s top oil consumer), likely increasing demand.

      Weak dollar

      Although after a mid-week winning streak, a weak dollar and some disappointing economic data from the U.S. showing that the economy grew by less-than-expected in the fourth quarter sent crude oil to close lower Friday, at $99.56, after trading above $100 per barrel for most of the week.

      In its weekly report, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) showed the nation’s crude oil stocks rose by 3.6 million barrels to 334.8 million barrels, far more than analysts expected.  Gasoline stocks dropped 390,000 barrels, to 227.1 million barrels. Demand for oil dropped 4 percent.  Gasoline demand over the last four weeks showed a 6.4 percent decline over the same period a year ago, a slump typically associated with harsh winter weather.

      Gas prices have been relatively stable the last few weeks but analysts are warning consumers to brace themselves.Most analysts agree gas prices will reac...
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      Men More Likely to Have HPV Infection, Study Finds

      Helps explain why oral cancers are ore common in men than women

      New research shows that men are three times more likely to have an oral human papilloma virus (HPV) infection than women. The findings help explain why HPV-related oral cancers are three times more common in men than women.
      Dr. Maura Gillison, a medical oncologist and head and neck cancer specialist at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, led the study, which was published online by the Journal of the American Medical Association.
      Gillison and her collaborators sought to determine the prevalence of oral HPV infection in the United States and to understand the factors associated with infection and oropharyngeal cancer, tumors that affect the base of the tongue, the tonsils or back of the mouth. They analyzed mouth-rinse samples for HPV DNA and examined data collected from 5,579 men and women who participated in the 2009-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
      “This study of oral HPV infection is the first step toward developing potential oropharyngeal cancer prevention strategies,” says Gillison. “This is important because HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer is poised to overtake cervical cancer as the leading type of HPV-caused cancer in the United States, and we currently have no means to prevent or detect these cancers early.”

      7% infected

      The researchers estimate that 7 percent of Americans between ages 14 and 69 have an oral HPV infection, or about 14.9 million people, with 10.1 percent of men infected versus 3.6 percent of women.
      Other key findings include:
      • About 1 percent of the U.S. population is infected with HPV 16 – the type of HPV most often responsible for cervical cancer – and that HPV 16 infection is five times more common in men than in women.
      • Oral HPV infection was uncommon among those with no history of sexual contact compared with those with a history of sexual contact of any type (0.9 percent vs.7.5 percent, respectively.)
      • Oral HPV infection was independently associated with age, gender, number of sexual partners and current number of cigarettes smoked per day.
      Funding from Merck, John and Nina Cassils, and the Intramural Research Program of the National Cancer Institute supported this research.
      New research shows that men are three times more likely to have an oral human papilloma virus (HPV) infection than women. The findings help explain why HPV...
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      J.C. Penney TV Ad Draws Strong Reactions

      Female consumers find screaming women irritating, annoying and disturbing

      J.C. Penney's new TV advertising campaign, heralding its new discount pricing policy, is rubbing a lot of consumers the wrong way.

      Since late last week, shortly after the commercials began airing, ConsumerAffairs.com has received dozens of complaints, mostly from women, registering strong, negative reactions. The barrage of complaints began last Friday.

      "This is the worst ad of all time, stop it immediately," wrote Kathy, of Hillsboro, Ore. "We will boycott J.C. Penney until it offers an apology to all its customers!"

      Obnoxious

      "I am complaining about the obnoxious television commercial aired announcing your new pricing campaign," wrote Carole, of Lakewood, Calif. "It has to be one of the most irritating, annoying commercials ever created for television. If you think this will make anyone shop at your stores, you are mistaken as far as I'm concerned. I can't imagine anyone thinking this is good advertising. Remove it as soon as possible. IT IS ANNOYING!"

      The 30-second spot contains no dialogue, only female consumers screaming when they see signs and advertisements announcing the store's supposed steep price reductions. It's not clear what that's supposed to represent, although it may be that the screaming women represent consumers who shop at J.C. Penney competitors. You can see the ad for yourself below and draw your own conclusions.

      It turns out, watching the ad makes apparently makes consumers want to scream. L., of Frisco, Tex., calls it "the most annoying spectacle I have ever seen." Pamela, of DePew, N.Y., asks "how could you possibly think that this going to attract customers?" Kathi, of Orem, Utah, calls the ad "disturbing." "It does not encourage me to shop at your store," she said.

      J.C. Penny's commercial featuring screaming woman draws negative response...
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      IRS Offers Free Tax Help

      You may qualify if you are low income, or a senior citizen

      With the tax code getting more complex by the year, almost all taxpayers need some kind of help preparing their income tax returns. Unfortunately, most help comes at a price, either from a tax preparer or accountant.

      But for those who qualify, the Internal Revenue Service offers free tax help through its IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Program at over 12,000 locations. The free help is available to low- to moderate-income and elderly taxpayers.

      VITA offers free tax help generally to people who earn $50,000 and less. The Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) Program offers free tax help to taxpayers who are 60 and older.

      To take advantage of this service, taxpayers need to present the following items to have their returns prepared:

      • Photo identification
      • Valid Social Security cards for the taxpayer, spouse and dependents
      • Birth dates for primary, secondary and dependents on the tax return
      • Wage and earning statement(s) Form W-2, W-2G, 1099-R, from all employers
      • Interest and dividend statements from banks (Forms 1099)
      • A copy of last year’s federal and state returns, if available
      • Bank routing numbers and account numbers for direct deposit
      • Other relevant information about income and expenses
      • Total paid for day care
      • Day care provider's identifying number

      To file taxes electronically on a Married Filing Jointly tax return, both spouses must be present to sign the required forms.

      Trained community volunteers can help eligible taxpayers with credits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Child Tax Credit or Credit for the Elderly. Also, many sites have multilingual volunteers who can assist people with limited English skills.

      To locate the nearest VITA site, taxpayers should call 800-906-9887. As part of the IRS-sponsored TCE Program, AARP offers the Tax-Aide counseling program at more than 7,000 sites nationwide during the filing season. To locate the nearest AARP Tax-Aide site, call 888-227-7669 or visit AARP’s Internet site.

      The military also partners with the IRS to provide free tax assistance to military personnel and their families. The Armed Forces Tax Council (AFTC) consists of the tax program coordinators for the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. The AFTC oversees the operation of the military tax programs worldwide, and serves as the main conduit for outreach by the IRS to military personnel and their families. Volunteers are trained and equipped to address military specific tax issues, such as combat zone tax benefits and the effect of the EITC guidelines.

      How to get free tax preparation help from the IRS...
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      Acai Berry 'News' Sites Permanently Shut Down

      Defendants will pay $500,000 to settle deceptive practices charges

      Six online marketers have agreed to settlements with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that will permanently halt their production of fake news websites to market acai berry supplements and other weight-loss products.

      The proposed settlements will require that the six operations make clear when their commercial messages are advertisements rather than objective journalism, and will bar the defendants from further deceptive claims about health-related products such as the acai berry weight-loss supplements and colon cleansers that they marketed.

      The defendants also are required to disclose any material connections they have with merchants, and will be barred from making deceptive claims about other products, such as the work-at-home schemes or penny auctions that most of them promoted. 

      The settlements also require that these defendants collectively pay roughly $500,000 to the Commission because their advertisements violated federal law.  This money amounts to most of their assets.

      Federal courts temporarily halted these operations and four others.  In its sweep last year against marketers who allegedly used fake news sites to promote weight-loss products, the FTC alleged that their websites were designed to falsely appear as if they were part of legitimate news organizations, but were actually nothing more than advertisements deceptively enticing consumers to buy the featured acai berry weight-loss products from online merchants. 

      With titles such as “News 6 News Alerts,” “Health News Health Alerts,” or “Health 5 Beat Health News,” the sites often falsely represented that the reports they carried had been seen on major media outlets such as ABC, Fox News, CBS, CNN, USA Today, and Consumer Reports.  Investigative-sounding headlines presented stories that purported to document a reporter’s first-hand experience with acai berry supplements – typically claiming to have lost 25 pounds in four weeks, according to the FTC complaints.

      The proposed settlements impose monetary judgments in the full amount of the commissions the defendants received for deceptive marketing through their fake news sites.  Due to the defendants’ financial condition, the judgments will be suspended when the FTC receives the following assets from them.  In all cases, if it is later determined that the financial information the defendants provided the FTC was false, the full amount of their judgments would become due:

      Six online marketers have agreed to settlements with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that will permanently halt their production of fake news websites t...
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      Little Progress on Regulating BPA, Report Finds

      "Sluggishness" of federal agencies means continued exposure for infants, children

      The plodding pace of federal agencies means that little is being done to protect infants and children from the potential health effects of Bisphenol-A, known as BPA, a chemical found in many baby bottles and a host of other products, according to a new report from a nonprofit research group.

      “The sluggishness of the agencies means that there’s continued exposure in the meantime and a kind of flying-blind mentality,” said Noah Sachs, a law professor at the University of Richmond and an author of the report for the Center for Progressive Reform, which focuses on public health regulations.

      Recent studies point to BPA’s ability to interfere with the body’s hormone system, potentially leading to a variety of health problems, including damage to the reproductive system and the brain, particularly in children. Eleven states have banned the chemical’s use in certain products, typically baby bottles and other children’s goods; Canada, China and the European Union have similar restrictions.

      An industry group, the American Chemistry Council, says BPA has been used safely for decades and there is no evidence that it causes harm as it is currently used. A key component of many plastic products, BPA is found in everything from the lining of food cans to the paper used in store receipts.

      Federal regulators have expressed some concern but overall, their efforts have been “meager,” and the agencies have authority to do much more, the report says.

      The Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency are conducting research on BPA. The EPA is also in the process of proposing a rule to require further testing and is considering listing BPA among other “chemicals of concern.”

      But the CPR report says the agencies could do much more.

      The FDA, for example, could ban BPA in all products that come in contact with food. The EPA could require warning labels and ban certain uses of the chemical. And the Occupational Safety and Health Administration could set and enforce limits on how much BPA workers can breathe.

      Many of these steps would take time and likely face heavy resistance from companies that use the chemical. But there are steps the agencies should take now, the report says.

      The FDA should require companies that seek approval for a new use of BPA in food packaging to provide more data about the product’s safety, and certain uses — such as in baby bottles — should be presumed unsafe, the report says. The agency also should set up labeling standards and ensure that products marked “BPA-free” don’t simply substitute a similar chemical that may pose similar risks.

      The EPA should issue the rule mandating more testing, and the agency should update its database containing information about health risks from chemicals to include new data on BPA, the report says. As it is, the entry for BPA in this database, which underpins much EPA regulation, hasn’t been updated since 1993.

      OSHA should require employers to give their workers more information about the health risks of BPA, the report recommends.

      The plodding pace of federal agencies means that little is being done to protect infants and children from the potential health effects of Bisphenol-A, kno...
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      New Rule Protects Consumers Sending Money Overseas

      Exchange rate, fees must be disclosed in advance

      A new rule adopted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) increases protections for consumers sending money internaitonally.

      “The CFPB’s new regulation greatly increases transparency and protections for people sending money abroad,” said Margot Saunders, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. “Many immigrants send money to loved ones in other countries who depend on that money for food, housing, and other essentials. These regulations will ensure that the real cost of remittances will be transparent and that transfer providers will be held accountable for their errors.”

      Under the new rule, remittance transfer providers will generally be required to disclose the exchange rate and all fees associated with a transfer so that consumers know exactly how much money will be received on the other end. The rule also requires remittance transfer providers to investigate disputes and remedy errors.

      “People sending money to their loved ones in another country should not have to worry about hidden fees,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “With these new protections, international money transfers will be more reliable. Consumers will know the costs ahead of time and be able to compare prices. Transfer providers will also be held accountable for errors that occur in the process.”

      Consumers transfer tens of billions of dollars from the United States to foreign countries each year. These transactions can involve undisclosed fees and exchange rates that result in less money for the intended recipients. Those sending the money may not know how much the recipient will actually receive because the fees and exchange rates can be obscured in the transfer.

      Prior to the passage of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, international money transfers were generally excluded from existing federal consumer protection regulations. To remedy this, the Dodd-Frank Act expanded the scope of the Electronic Fund Transfer Act to provide protections for senders of remittance transfers, and mandated that rules implementing certain provisions of the new protections be issued by January 21, 2012.

      Under the Bureau’s rule, remittance transfer providers must disclose the fees, the exchange rate, and amount to be received by the recipient. Disclosures must generally be provided when the consumer first requests a transfer and again when payment is made. Consumers will generally have 30 minutes after payment is made to cancel a transaction.

      A new rule adopted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) increases protections for consumers sending money internaitonally.“The C...
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      'Scammer Guard' Faces Fraud Lawsuit In Florida

      State claims company carried out 'fraudulent scheme'

      Victims of scams are understandably angry, upset and often times vulnerable. If someone comes along and offers to help them recover their losses, or prevent future losses, they are often receptive.

      It's always a bad idea. It's a practice known as "reloading." In Florida, Attorney General Pam Bondi has sued a company called Scammer Guard, accusing it of falsely advertising "scam protection services."

      Bondi's suit alleges that Scammer Guard told consumers they were affiliated with the Florida Attorney General’s Office, the Federal Trade Commission, and other government agencies to obtain consumer refunds, and claimed to have access to “special” information regarding obtaining these funds. The company also allegedly claimed to be conducting the investigations on behalf of these government agencies. None of this was true, Bondi says.

      Upfront fee

      According to the complaint, Scammer Guard charged consumers up-front fees of $250 to $750 for these services. Bondi points out that advance fees are illegal for foreclosure-related rescue and certain recovery services.

      The Broward County, Fla., Circuit Court granted Bondi's motion for a temporary injunction to stop the company's deceptive practices.

      “This fraudulent scheme preyed on consumers who had already suffered financial harm,” Bondi said. “Consumers should never fall for any representation that the Attorney General’s Office partners with private companies to obtain consumer refunds or that our office charges consumers any fees.”

      Cease and desist

      The Court’s injunction requires Scammer Guard and its principal to cease all such misrepresentations and precludes the company from transferring any assets other than in the normal course of business.

      Scam victims, meanwhile, should never pay for the services of an individual or company to help them deal with a scam. Instead, they should contact their state attorney general's office for help.  

      Florida sues Scammer Guard for defrauding scam victims...
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      Fallen On Hard Times? Five Ways The Tax Law Might Help

      IRS will try to ease your burden, to a point

      Economists say the recession is long over but millions of people are hurting and unemployment remains stubbornly high. If you have recently fallen on hard times, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) says it may be able to help you navigate your changed tax situation and, in some cases, offer some assistance.

      There can be a tax impact to events such as job loss, debt forgiveness or tapping a retirement fund. If your income decreased, you may be newly eligible for certain tax credits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit.

      Most importantly, if you believe you may have trouble paying your tax bill you should contact the IRS immediately.

      "There are steps we can take to help ease the burden," the agency says on its website. "You also should file a tax return even if you are unable to pay so you can avoid additional penalties."

      Here are five economic setbacks and their tax implications:

      1. Losing a job

      The loss of a job may create new tax issues. Unfortunately, severance pay and unemployment compensation are taxable. Payments for any accumulated vacation or sick time also are taxable. You should ensure that enough taxes are withheld from these payments or make estimated tax payments to avoid a big bill at tax time. Fortunately, public assistance and food stamps are not taxable.

      2. Losing your home to foreclosure

      Under the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007, taxpayers generally can exclude income from the discharge of debt on their principal residence or mortgage restructuring. This exception does not apply to second homes or vacation homes. In some cases, you may be able to file an amended tax return for previous tax years.

      3. Withdrawing money from a retirement account

      Because of dire economic circumstances, some consumers have eaten through their savings and have now been forced to tap their retirement accounts. That, of course, has tax implications. Generally, early withdrawal from an Individual Retirement Account prior to age 59½ is subject to being included in gross income plus a 10 percent additional tax penalty. But the IRS will waive the 10 percent penalty in some circumstances, such as using IRA funds to pay your medical insurance premium after a job loss.

      4. Filing for bankruptcy

      Debts discharged through bankruptcy are not considered taxable income, the IRS says. If you are an individual debtor who files for bankruptcy under chapter 7 or 11 of the Bankruptcy Code, a separate “estate” is created consisting of property that belonged to you before the filing date. This bankruptcy estate is a new taxable entity, completely separate from you as an individual taxpayer. However, some tax debts are not dischargeable in a bankruptcy action. You will definitely need legal advice in cases like this.

      5. Can't pay your tax bill

      Don’t panic, the IRS says. If you cannot pay the full amount of taxes you owe, you should still file your return by the deadline and pay as much as you can to avoid penalties and interest. You also should contact the IRS to discuss your payment options at 1-800-829-1040. The agency says it may be able to provide some relief such as a short-term extension to pay, an installment agreement or an offer in compromise. In some cases, the agency may be able to waive penalties. However, the agency is unable to waive interest charges which accrue on unpaid tax bills.  

      Ways the IRS can help your tax situation if you've fallen on hard times...
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      What's On Your Mind? Bank of America, Gateway, Experian

      Our daily look at consumer reviews

      When bank regulations were tightened and some fees reduced or eliminated, consumers were warned that big banks would find other ways to extract fees from their customers. Vince, from Maryland, says Bank of America is now charging him $3 a month to view images of his checks online.

      "They claim that for the many years of banking with them, the fee was waived until now," Vince told ConsumerAffairs.com. "They indicated that I can switch to not receive check images, rather get the images online. Of course, less paper consumption is better for the Earth so, I opted for this. They will not reverse the $3 charge."

      Big bank fees are going to be a fact of life going forward. Vince, and other big bank customers who don't want to pay fees, should look into the lower-cost options provided by many community banks and credit unions.

      Wondering about quality

      Judlyne, of Austin, Tex., writes in to vent her frustration with her computer. It's not an uncommon complaint.

      "My Gateway laptop, which was purchased less than two years ago, now has a bad hard drive," Judlyne said. "I've contacted Gateway who so graciously told me that they could not really help me because my warranty was out. They can repair it, yes, but for a price I'm not willing to pay for a machine that's less than two years old. I'm wondering why a piece of machinery can be "broken" in less than two years. We would not tolerate this for larger appliances, but computers costs almost as much."

      Actually, we get lots of complaints about fairly new washers, dishwashers, microwaves and stoves needing expensive repairs. And yes, computers too.

      Unauthorized charges

      In December, Jim, of Pensacola, Fla., said he paid $1 for three agency credit reports through Experian. He was aware that the deal included signing him for up a "free trial period" of Experian's Credit Watch service. That's not the issue.

      "I was told if I cancel within so many days I would not be charged," Jim said. "My cancellation email arrived December 9th. My credit card was charged $17.95 on Dec. 15 and then again on Jan 17th. In January I clicked on a link in an email from Experian saying something had changed my credit score. I was charged $29.95 to look at my report. Since they already had my credit card information, I did not know they were charging me. I wrote my credit card company, Capital One, an email and included the cancellation email and they refunded everything Experian had charged me since the cancellation email."

      Jim handled the dispute correctly, letting his credit card company fight the battle with Experian. They have a lot more clout than he does. But Jim could have avoided all of this if he had gone to www.annualcreditreport.com to view his credit reports. It's free and there are not "free trial offers" you have to accept.

      Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Bank of America, Gateway, Experian, Wondering about quality and Unauthorized charges....
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