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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 ...

PhotoSpecialized 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

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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 condit...

PhotoThe 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.

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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

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...

PhotoThere'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.

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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.

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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 r...

PhotoOne 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, the Fair 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.
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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 Administ...

PhotoVoluntary 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. 

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Can You Trust A Favorable Review?

Businesses increasingly try to game the review system

Businesses are paying consumers to write phony reviews...

PhotoMost 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.

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Find Out If You Have To Pay the Alternative Minimum Tax

It could mean a much higher tax bill

How to find out if you have to pay the Alternative Minimum Tax...

PhotoEvery 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.

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What's On Your Mind? Turbotax, Samsung, Right Size Smoothies

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Turbotax software malfunction, Samsung, Right Size Smoothies, fix it yourself and read the contract....

PhotoWhen 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.

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Court Bars Tax Fraud Scheme

Nevadan promoted claim that citizens can "opt out" of paying taxes

A federal court has permanently barred David Champion from promoting a tax fraud scheme designed to assist his customers evade federal taxes. The civil i...

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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.  Fif...

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.

 

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Is That A Security Breach In Your Pocket?

Security experts offer tips for keeping smartphone data safe

tips for improving the security of your smartphone...

PhotoHow 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.

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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 reac...

PhotoGas 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.

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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...

PhotoNew 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.
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J.C. Penney TV Ad Draws Strong Reactions

Female consumers find screaming women irritating, annoying and disturbing

J.C. Penny's commercial featuring screaming woman draws negative response...

PhotoJ.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.

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IRS Offers Free Tax Help

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

How to get free tax preparation help from the IRS...

PhotoWith 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.

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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 t...

PhotoSix 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:

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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, kno...

PhotoThe 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.

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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 C...

PhotoA 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.

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'Scammer Guard' Faces Fraud Lawsuit In Florida

State claims company carried out 'fraudulent scheme'

Florida sues Scammer Guard for defrauding scam victims...

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.  

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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

Ways the IRS can help your tax situation if you've fallen on hard times...

PhotoEconomists 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.  

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What's On Your Mind? Bank of America, Gateway, Experian

Our daily look at consumer reviews

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

PhotoWhen 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.

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New School Lunch Standards Aim to Help Kids Slim Down, Shape Up

Better diet should also help students perform better academically

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and First Lady Michelle Obama have lunch with students at Parklawn Elementary SchoolAmerica&r...

Photo
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and First Lady Michelle Obama have lunch with students at Parklawn Elementary School

America’s school-aged children will have twice the amounts of fruits and vegetables on their school lunch trays, as well as more whole grains, and less sodium and trans fat, under the new nutrition standards for school meals unveiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Despite heavy lobbying by the food industry and Congressional interference, the new standards are the best ever, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“The new school meal standards are one of the most important advances in nutrition in decades,” said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. “They’re much needed, given high childhood obesity rates and the poor state of our children’s diets.”

Approximately 32 million children eat school lunches and breakfasts, providing half of many children’s daily calories, according to USDA. The standards released yesterday were mandated by Congress in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, signed into law by President Obama in late 2010.

"This isn’t just about our kids’ health. Studies have shown that our kids’ eating habits can actually affect their academic performance as well," First Lady Michelle Obama said at a ceremony at Parklawn Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., where the new standards were released.  "Anyone who works with kids knows that they need something other than chips and soda in their stomachs if they're going to focus on math and science, right?  Kids can’t be expected to sit still and concentrate when they’re on a sugar high, or when they’re stuffed with salty, greasy food -- or when they’re hungry."

In the next month or two, USDA will propose regulations setting nutrition standards for the rest of the foods sold in schools, including through vending machines, school stores, and the a la carte foods sold in the cafeteria alongside the USDA-reimbursed meal.

Pizza protected

Although health groups praise the new standards, food industry lobbyists got Congress to prevent USDA from limiting French fries and ensure that pizza counts as a serving of vegetables due to its tomato paste.

“USDA, states, school officials, food manufacturers, food service workers, and parents need to work together to help all schools meet the new standards,” Wootan said.

The rules set calorie maximums for the first time and lower calorie minimums to better ensure that school meals address obesity, as well as hunger. All milk sold in schools will have to be low-fat or fat-free. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will provide schools with additional funding, training, model menus and recipes, healthy product specifications for commodities, and more frequent reviews to ensure that school systems comply with the new standards.

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Google's New Privacy Policy Raises Concerns

Anything you do on nearly any Google service is collected and analyzed

Google used to say its mission was to organize all the world's information.  Now its mission, judging from its new privacy policy, is to organize all ...

PhotoGoogle used to say its mission was to organize all the world's information. Now its mission, judging from its new privacy policy, is to organize all the information it has about you.

The new policy means that anything you do on almost any of Google's 60 or so services will affect what you see on other Google services. This raises any number of questions, including:

  • How does it do that? By following you and keeping track of what you do.
  • How do you opt out? You don't.
  • Is it anonymous? Not exactly. 

Basically, Google will now be combining all the personal data you share with any of its products or sites, except for Google Chrome, Google Books and Google Wallet, hoping to create a more comprehensive picture of you.

This means that anytime you’re signed into your Google account, whether on a computer, tablet, or Android phone, Google collects information about your activities and adds it to its growing profile of who you are, what you do and so forth.

Who benefits?

What's the benefit?  Well, the benefit to Google is that it will be able to provide more closely targeted ads, increasing the likelihood of your clicking on one of them and ringing its cash register. 

The benefit to you -- well, that's a little harder to define. Alma Whitten, Google's Director of Privacy, Product and Engineering, says on Google's Blog that by integrating all of its information about you, Google will be better able to  “figure[e] out what you really mean when you type in Apple, Jaguar or Pink.”

Not only that, says Whitten, Google will be able to “provide reminders that you’re going to be late for a meeting based on your location, your calendar and an understanding of what the traffic is like that day” and “ensure that our spelling suggestions, even for your friends’ names, are accurate.”  

Kind of creepy?

PhotoWhile this perhaps creates some benefits for consumers, it also presents some  possibilities the ACLU of Massachusetts refers to as "creepy."  

For example, if you conduct a search or have an email conversation or watch a YouTube video about a topic you don't want your friends, parents, spouse or significant others to know about, Google's new policy means that your interest in that topic will be a part of your profile and may influence the search results, ads and content suggestions for an indefinite period of time.

Then there's the issue of keeping one's personal and professional lives separate.  There are many among us who use one email address and profile  for professional or job-related activities while keeping a separate identity for private lives.

Doctors routinely shield their personal from their professional information, trying to keep at least a few hours to themselves. Police officers and prosecutors prefer not to make their home address and family information available to murderers and other dangerous criminals. Same for ministers, teachers, journalists and others whose public persona subjects them -- and their families -- to abuse from anonymous strangers.

While there may be ways around this going forward, it appears there's not much to be done about information that's already out there.  Google says it will “replace past names associated with your Google Account so that you are represented consistently across all our services.” 

Government surveillance

What’s more, this data aggregation is not just about what ads you see but creates an even larger treasure chest of personal information for government investigators to rummage through.

Don't think this is something to worry about?  It's worthwhile taking a look at Google's "Transparency Report," which details the thousands of government requests it receives for information about individual consumers.

In the first six months of 2011, Google received 5,950 requests from government agencies in the U.S. seeking data on 11,057 individuals. It complied with 93% of them.

The ACLU is so concerned about this and other online privacy issues that it has launched a campaign called Demand Your dotRights, hoping to organize consumer protests and, presumably, legal action against what it perceives as unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

 

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BMW Recalls 2012 X5 Models

"Park" may not engage properly

BMW is recalling a small number of 2012 X5 models because the automatic transmission's "Park" function may not engage properly. ...

PhotoBMW is recalling a small number of 2012 X5 models because the automatic transmission's "Park" function may not engage properly.

This could allow the car to roll away, causing a crash.

Dealers will repair the problem at no charge.  Owners may contact BMW at 1-800-525-7417.

Vehicle Make / Model:   Model Year(s):
     BMW / X5   2012
Manufacturer: BMW OF NORTH AMERICA, LLCMfr's Report Date: JAN 20, 2012
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Bank of America Should be Broken Up, Feds Told

Public Citizen says giant bank is a "grave threat" to financial stability

Bank of America, the second-largest bank holding company in the U.S., should be broken up and reformed, Public Citizen said in a petition to the ...

PhotoBank of America, the second-largest bank holding company in the U.S., should be broken up and reformed, Public Citizen said in a petition to the Federal Reserve and the Financial Stability Oversight Council.

Public Citizen also sent a separate letter to financial regulators co-signed by 19 individuals, including economists and legal scholars, and by Americans for Financial Reform, Center for Media and Democracy, Demos, National People’s Action, Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project, New Bottom Line, SAFER and U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

The letter calls on regulators to investigate any threats posed by Bank of America or other large and complex financial institutions commonly known as “too big to fail” and to take all actions necessary to safeguard financial stability.

Public Citizen’s petition calls on regulators to use authority granted by section 121 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act to reform Bank of America into a set of smaller, simpler and safer institutions.

Too complex

Bank of America, which holds assets equal to roughly one-seventh of the country’s gross domestic product, is too large and complex to manage or regulate properly, the petition said. Moreover, its financial condition is poor and could deteriorate rapidly.

Near- and long-term financial indicators demonstrate the market’s unease with Bank of America and show that the bank is becoming increasingly unstable, the organization said In addition, it said Bank of America likely is undercapitalized, as it faces potential liabilities and market risks that could severely destabilize it.These liabilities could arise from the bank’s ongoing litigation and from exposure to financial instability in Europe.

An ongoing study by the Volatility Institute at New York University’s Stern School of Business confirms the danger posed by the bank: When looking at financial institutions’ contributions to systemic risk, Bank of America ranks first among U.S. financial institutions. The analysis shows not only that Bank of America is highly susceptible to financial crises, but also that it could “create or extend” a crisis.

“The bank poses a ‘grave threat’ to U.S. financial stability by any reasonable definition of the phrase,” said David Arkush, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “If Bank of America in its current form were to fail, it would devastate the financial system. We’re asking the regulators to make sure that never happens. The only way to be sure is to reform the institution into something safer before any crisis materializes.”

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Poll Suggests School Obesity Efforts Might Have Downside

Some parents worry their children are developing eating disorders

Survey finds concern anti obesity efforts may trigger eating disorders...

PhotoA new report from the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health identifies what it says is an unintended consequence of the new anti-obesity emphasis in the nation's schools.

The findings suggest we're trading one health problem for another, with some children now showing signs of developing eating disorders.

Worrisome behavior

The poll asked parents about obesity prevention programs in their children’s schools and about food-related behaviors and activity that may be worrisome.

Overall, 82 percent of parents of children age 6-14 report at least one school-based childhood obesity intervention program taking place in their child’s school.

Among these programs are nutrition education, limits on sweets or “junk food” in the classroom, height and weight measurements, and incentives for physical activity.

Additionally, seven percent of parents report that their children have been made to feel bad at school about what or how much they were eating.

Signs of eating disorder

This same group of parents was also asked about their children’s eating behaviors.

Thirty percent of parents of 6-14 year-olds report least one behavior in their children that could be associated with the development of an eating disorder. These behaviors include inappropriate dieting, excessive worry about fat in foods, being preoccupied with food content or labels, refusing family meals, and having too much physical activity.

“The issue of childhood obesity is a serious problem,” said Dr. David Rosen, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School. “In order to intervene in what seems like an epidemic of childhood obesity, everyone needs to be involved.”

But Rosen worries that when obesity interventions are put in place without understanding how they work and what the risks are, there can be unintended consequences. Well-intentioned efforts can go awry when children misinterpret the information they’re given.

Just a phase

“Many of these behaviors are often dismissed as a phase,” said Rosen. “But given what we know about the association of these behaviors with the development of eating disorders and knowing that eating disorders are increasing in prevalence, they should be taken very seriously.”

Is it possible for children to be “too physically active?” Some parents seem to think so. Of the parents that report incentive programs at their children’s school to increase physical activity, 11 percent say their kids get too much exercise.

Whether the parent's concern is misplaced or not, Rosen says it's inportant that parents are in touch with their children's behavior.

“It’s much better and safer for parents to respond to worrisome eating behaviors early – even if there turns out to be no problem – than to wait until there is obviously a big problem,’ Rosen said. “It is much easier to prevent an eating disorder than it is to treat an eating disorder.”

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What's On Your Mind? State Farm, Fake Debt Collector, Hollywood Video

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: State Farm, Fake Debt Collector, Hollywood Video, Dangerous scam and Speak up....

PhotoTamera, of West Point, Ga., presents us with an object lesson about car insurance. The lesson is about the bad things that can happen if your car is stolen and you assume your insurance company will cover it.

“My car was stolen on November 13, 2011 from a local mall,” Tamera told ConsumerAffairs.com. “It was recovered on December 14, 2011 with major damages. I brought the car two months before it was stolen in excellent condition. My State Farm claims adjuster told me it was up to me to prove the condition of my car before it was stolen and crashed. He stated that in his research that he did not feel that the thief would have caused such damages. Unfortunately I did not take any pictures when I brought the car, the car dealership did not have any pictures, nor did the finance company have any pictures.”

Fortunately, Tamera said she provided enough affidavits from witnesses who could verify the condition of her car that State Farm agreed to cover the repairs. It's a good reminder, though, that we should all photograph our vehicles, just like we should the contents of our homes, for insurance purposes.

Dangerous scam

We get reports every day from consumers who receive phone calls from someone who claims to be collecting a payday loan debt and who threatens them with arrest. Even though the target is well aware that it's a scam, this is still very dangerous, as Karen, of Tornado, W. Va., learned.

“I hung up on guy and he called me back approximately 20 or 30 times and I finally answered and told him I was at work and not to harass me,” Karen said. “He called back again and told me my social security number and bank acct number. That was scary. I told him that no one would call him back and this was fraud and he said I would be in trouble tomorrow and hung up.”

Karen was not picked at random. The scammer has enough personal information about her to steal her identity. She should immediately call all three credit reporting agencies and place a freeze on her credit. She should also contact the fraud departments of her bank and credit card companies. Finally, some law enforcement agency should find out where these scammers are obtaining this information.

Speak up

Ever since Hollywood Video closed its doors, former customers have received collection notices for missing or past due movies. Most say the charges are invalid and unverified. Pam, of Englewood, Colo., urges her fellow consumers to complain to the right people.

If you have received a collection letter from Universal Fidelity LP representing "Legal Successor of Hollywood Video" for unsubstantiated and potentially bogus past charges from Hollywood Video, please call your state Attorney General's office and file a complaint,” Pam said. “They are receiving complaints, but the volume must be in the hundreds for them to pursue any action. Colorado's has three as of today and they need more.”

Pam also suggests complaining to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) by calling 877-FTC-HELP. After all, there is strength in numbers.

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Spare Tires Face Extinction in New Cars

Another casualty of cost-cutting, fuel-efficiency standards

It's fun oohing and aahing over all the new cars manufacturers are showing off at auto shows around the country.  But pop the trunk and chances are, y...

PhotoIt's fun oohing and aahing over all the new cars manufacturers are showing off at auto shows around the country.  But pop the trunk and chances are, you won't find a spare tire, or a jack, or even a lug wrench.  They've gone the way of the Model T.

That’s because some vehicle manufacturers are omitting heavy spare tires in order to meet new government fuel efficiency standards, explains the auto club. Instead of a spare, auto makers, from Acura to Volvo, are equipping new vehicles with an emergency sealant and inflator kit or tires that if damaged can run reasonable distances without air. The vanishing spare tire has car buyers buzzing.

“The sad truth is, many vehicle owners are unaware that their late model vehicle has no spare tire until they have a flat tire or a blow-out, and that could cause desperation on the side of the road,” said John B. Townsend II, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Manager of Public and Government Affairs. “Yet, the emergency sealer/inflators kits are ineffective, if your tire gets a large puncture or has a blow-out.

"Auto dealerships in the Washington metro area say they are seeing a surge in the number of customers worried about the eventuality of a flat tire and, as a result, they are purchasing spare tire kits for their recently purchased vehicles. The cost of the spare tire kit can run from $150 to $350, depending upon the make and the model,” Townsend said.

“There are more than 700 new automobile makes and models on the marketplace today, but only 51 models come equipped with full-size matching spare tires, which are quickly becoming a relic of the past. First, they were replaced by ‘donuts’ or compact temporary spares and now more cars are coming off the assembly line with no spare at all. Many motorists will find that vexing and annoying,” he said.

13 percent

In fact, 13 percent of all new vehicles sold in the first half of 2011 did not include a spare tire, and that number is expected to increase in future models and makes, explains AAA Mid-Atlantic. Even so, 51 percent of 2011 models came equipped with temporary spares, and the run-flat tire was standard in 7.2 percent of 2011 model-year vehicles, auto industry research shows.

A consumer who recently purchased a new 2012 Elantra posted the following diatribe to the Hyundai Motor America Corporate Office  blog. “No spare tire, No jack…Was not told any of the above (about the jack and spare) I called the office and [the dealership] told me they don’t put the jack and spare to get the fuel mileage…not happy with this new Elantra. Would not buy another.”

Why the sea change?  Well, in 2010, the Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency established new corporate average fuel economy standards for vehicle model years 2012 to 2016. The new standards are set at a combined 29.7 mpg for the 2012 model year, increasing to 34.1 mpg by 2016.  Achieving these standards will require many changes to the vehicles we drive. 

“As a result, consumers should review their owner’s manual and emergency maintenance supplies they have in the vehicle and be informed about alternatives to a spare to prevent panic or a delay when encountering a flat tire,” the auto club advises.

One area of focus is to reduce the weight of vehicles without compromising occupant safety.  A spare tire, related tools and a jack can weigh more than 40 pounds. That may seem like a small amount, but every little bit helps. Unlike other weight-saving changes, it doesn’t add cost to the vehicle.  

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J.C. Penney Revamping Prices, Promising Monthly Sales Events

James Cash Penney's company gets a new look, new logo, new sales strategy

J. C. Penney -- or, as it now wishes to be called, jcpenney -- is implementing a new pricing and sales plan that its CEO says he thinks will make it "Ameri...

PhotoJ. C. Penney -- or, as it now wishes to be called, jcpenney -- is implementing a new pricing and sales plan that its CEO says he thinks will make it "America's favorite store." Speaking to financial analysts in New York today, Ron Johnson unveiled "Fair and Square Pricing, making every day a great day to shop."

"The department store is the number one opportunity in retail today. We are going to rethink every aspect of our business, boldly pursue change, and create long-term shareholder value, as we become America's favorite store," Johnson said. "Every initiative we pursue will be guided by our core value to treat customers as we would like to be treated -- fair and square."

The new pricing plan consists of three types of prices, Johnson said:

  • "Everyday, regular prices, which are always great;
  • Month-Long Values, even better prices on the things you need now; and
  • Best Prices, jcpenney's lowest prices, which always happen on the 1st and 3rd Fridays of every month as jcpenney makes room for exciting new merchandise."

The plan is sort of lunar, actually, based as it is on a monthly calendar. There will basically be 12 sales per year, each lasting a month and each tied to the products customers are likely to want at that time of the year.

"We want customers to shop on their terms, not ours. By setting our store monthly and maintaining our best prices for an entire month, we feel confident that customers will love shopping when it is convenient for them, rather than when it is expedient for us," Johnson said.

New brands

Johnson's ebullient comments no doubt added salt to the wounds over at Macy's, which is seething at Martha Stewart for signing up to provide products to the revamped jcpenney.  Macy's has sued Martha, claiming it had an exclusive right to sell Matha Stewart products.

But while Martha may be tied up in court for awhile, jcpenney will have comedian Ellen DeGeneres as its new "brand partner." Ellen began her career in her teens as a jcpenney sales person, we're told.

Oh, and by the way, as part of what Johnson fondly called the "reimagining" of the company founded 110 years ago by James Cash Penney, the brand will henceforth be known as jcpenney, as noted above.  This is what marketing people call a new "brand identity."

There's even a new logo -- pictured above -- which we're told "combines the elements that have made jcpenney an enduring American brand, by evoking the nation's flag and jcpenney's commitment to treating customers Fair and Square."

"The square frame imagery will be evident throughout all of jcpenney's marketing, to remind customers to frame the things they love," a news release from the newly-reimagined company gushed.

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WSJ: Google Execs Knew of Illegal Drug Ads

Federal prisoner carried out a sting operation against the search giant

When Google agreed to pay $500 million last August to settle charges it carried ads for illegal drugs, the story that went untold was that the charges grew...

PhotoWhen Google agreed to pay $500 million last August to settle charges it carried ads for illegal drugs, the story that went untold was that the charges grew out of a sting operation conducted by a prison inmate operating under the watchful gaze of federal agents.

The Wall Street Journal tells that tale today, including allegations that Google co-founder Larry Page, now the company's CEO, and other top executives were aware of legal problems with the drug ads. 

Mr. Page knew about the illicit conduct, said Peter Neronha, the U.S. attorney for Rhode Island who led the multiagency federal task force that conducted the sting.

"We simply know from the documents we reviewed and witnesses we interviewed that Larry Page knew what was going on," Neronha said, according to the Journal.

Narcotics, steroids

As the Journal tells it, convicted con artist David Whitaker spent $200,000 of government money to buy ads on Google, promoting narcotics, steroids, human growth hormone and other illegal substances.  Google initially rejected some of the ads but reportedly relented following conversations between Whitaker and Google ad executives.  

Google has long contended that it is not responsible for the actions of its one million advertisers but in the half-billion-dollar settlement, which headed off potential criminal charges against the company, agreed to pay not only its profits on the ads but also the proceeds that flowed from the illegal drug sales.

That, says Neronha, set an important precedent: "Where evidence can be developed that a search engine knowingly and actively assisted advertisers to promote improper conduct, the search engine can be held accountable as an accomplice," the Journal reported.

So is Google taking a more cautious approach in its advertising policies? Not according to some of its critics.

"Google is highly motivated to turn a blind eye to all sorts of dubious advertising on its search engine because AdWords is such a cash cow," said John M. Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project, after the August settlement.

Perhaps presciently, Simpson cited a study by his group that found Google had become "a leading purveyor of ads by scammers who prey on struggling homeowners."

Bogus mortgage ads

A few months later, in November, under pressure from federal prosecutors, Google shut down bogus mortgage ads from companies that claimed to offer assistance to homeowners who were behind on their mortgage payments and facing foreclosure.

Google acted in November after a federal agency opened a criminal investigation of at least 85 companies that used Google AdWords to sell mortgage modification services. 

"Google should never have published these ads, but its executives turned a blind eye to these fraudsters for far too long because of the substantial revenue such advertising generates," said Simpson. "The company cannot be allowed to benefit from these ill-gotten gains. Google must donate the money to aid homeowners who were victimized because of its callous quest for profits."

It's not only Google that profits from ads for illicit, illegal or fraudulent products, of course.  Besides displaying advertisements on its own sites, Google has a vast network of Web sites -- so-called "content partners" -- that display the ads on their sites as well.  (ConsumerAffairs.com is a Google content partner). 

The content partners range from major newspapers like The New York Times to the smallest local news or special interest site.  In fact, thousands of sites have been created -- so-called "Made for AdWords" sites -- that serve no purpose but to show up in search engines and to present site visitors with so little useful information that they are driven to click on the Google ads to escape.

Thus, if Google mounted a truly extensive effort to root out misleading and fraudulent advertisements, it would have an impact not only on Google's revenue but on those of its hundreds of thousands of content partners. 

Just wants to be free?

"Information just wants to be free."  That was the credo of the cyberprophets back when the Internet was just pulling itself together. Like Grateful Dead fans milling around a parking lot, early Internet proponents proclaimed that, at last, information would be freed of corporate influence and society would at last be, well, free.

A decade or two later, information is stolen and redistributed with reckless abandon and search engines -- which were going to be the roadmap to the cybersphere of free information -- are increasingly driven by advertising.

Google still provides information for free to the end user but, increasingly, that information is paid for, with advertising providing 96 percent of Google's 2011 revenue.  

In fact, companies which must constantly find new customers for their products and services now have little choice but to spend, and spend big, with Google.

The No. 1 source of advertising revenue for Google is the finance and insurance industry, which spent $4.0 billion last year, according to WordStream, a search-advertising firm. State Farm spent an estimated $43.7 million on Google AdWords, followed by Progressive at $43.1 million.

Retail and general merchandise was the second-biggest category last year, at $2.8 billion, and travel and tourism at $2.4 billion. Amazon.com spent $55.2 million, and eBay spent an estimated $42.8 million. 

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Where To Put Your Money In 2012

Financial experts have a surprising suggestion

financial experts suggest buying a house is a good investment...

PhotoThe investment landscape continues to be a scary place. So, if you have some money to invest, where should you put it?

The stock market rose sharply in late 2011 and could go even higher this year. On the other hand, it could be one big sovereign debt default away from a substantial decline.

How about gold? You can't argue with its rapid appreciation over the last few years, but how much more upside does it have? Billionaire investor George Soros has called gold “the ultimate bubble.”

Discouraged yet? Maybe you want to just sock your money away in a bank certificate of deposit (CD). But financial experts at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) say interest rates are so low that buying a $1,000 two-month CD from the bank will only earn you 83 cents more than if you buried the same amount in your yard for two months.

Real estate?

So, what does Andreas Rauterkus, assistant professor of finance with the UAB School of Business, think you should do with your money. Believe it or not, he says buy a house. That's right, invest in real estate.

“First-time home-buyer rates are around 3.8 percent for a 30-year mortgage, so if you can afford a $1,000 mortgage payment monthly for 30 years then you can buy a $250,000 home right now,” said Rauterkus. “It won’t get you much in New York City, but you can get quite a house for that in Birmingham and other affordable areas across the country.”

That's true, home values have fallen each of the last three years – some markets by more than 50 percent. Prices in some areas are now back to their levels before the housing bubble began to inflate.

You have to do your homework

The biggest mistake people make is not doing their homework, says Lary Cowart, Ph.D., assistant professor of real estate and finance at the UAB School of Business. A certified real estate appraiser, he says the primary change in real estate during recent years is price, which has gone down.

Cowart says people will research the obvious factors — school systems, convenience and neighborhood — but ignore details about the property and the transaction that lead to big problems.

“Not enough people take time to study things that will affect the transaction and rely on others to do the homework for them,” said Cowart. “Even smart people can buy a house and not realize it needs work. So suddenly they need $12,000 for a new roof, but they’ve spent all their money buying the house.”

Ask the right questions

Buyers, especially inexperienced ones, should be prepared to ask the right questions of the owner and every service provider, and to exercise their right to inspect the property thoroughly, he says.

If you qualify for a home loan, Cowart advises against waiting for the house of your dreams to drop in price; once the housing prices hit bottom, interest rates rise. And each time the interest rates rise, you lose money.

“Holding out to try and find the lowest price is not a good strategy because if the house were to go down 10 percent but the interest rate goes up 1 percent you are not gaining anything,” said Cowart. “If rates go up 1 percent, say from 4 to 5 percent, that is a 25 percent increase in the interest rate; so the mortgage payment goes up by more than 10 percent and the amount of house that can be purchased goes down by more than 10 percent. People fail to realize that and it is another little thing that will cost them big over the 30-year life of the loan.”

All of this, of course, relies on you being able to come up with a 20 percent down payment and otherwise qualify for a mortgage. But for those who can qualify, Rauterkus and Cowart says a house may be the best place to put your money in 2012.

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Are You Required To File An Income Tax Return This Year?

It may pay to file, even if you don't have to

How to find out if you are required to file a tax return...

PhotoEach year, some people file a federal tax return even though they aren't legally required to. Are you one of them?

According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), you are required to file a federal income tax return if your income is above a certain level, which varies depending on your filing status, age and the type of income you receive. If you don't meet that threshold, you don't have to file.

However, there may be a good reason to file, even if you aren't required to. By filing a return, you could get a refund of any withheld taxes or qualify for a tax credit.

Here's another good reason to file a return. It's a federal crime to not file a return if you are legally required to, so erring on the side of caution is never a bad idea, if you are in doubt.

To find out if you need to file, check the Individuals section of the IRS website or consult the instructions for Form 1040, 1040A or 1040EZ for specific details that may help you determine if you need to file a tax return with the IRS this year.

You can also use the Interactive Tax Assistant available on the IRS website. The ITA tool is a tax law resource that takes you through a series of questions and provides you with responses to tax law questions.

Six reasons to file

Even if you don’t have to file for 2011, here are six reasons why you may want to:

1. Federal Income Tax Withheld

You should file to get money back if your employer withheld federal income tax from your pay, you made estimated tax payments, or had a prior year overpayment applied to this year’s tax.

2. Earned Income Tax Credit

You may qualify for EITC if you worked, but did not earn a lot of money. EITC is a refundable tax credit; which means you could qualify for a tax refund. To get the credit you must file a return and claim it.

3. Additional Child Tax Credit

This refundable credit may be available if you have at least one qualifying child and you did not get the full amount of the Child Tax Credit.

4. American Opportunity Credit

Students in their first four years of postsecondary education may qualify for as much as $2,500 through this credit. Forty percent of the credit is refundable so even those who owe no tax can get up to $1,000 of the credit as cash back for each eligible student.

5. Adoption Credit

You may be able to claim a refundable tax credit for qualified expenses you paid to adopt an eligible child.

6. Health Coverage Tax Credit

Certain individuals who are receiving Trade Adjustment Assistance, Reemployment Trade Adjustment Assistance, Alternative Trade Adjustment Assistance or pension benefit payments from the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, may be eligible for a 2011 Health Coverage Tax Credit.

Eligible individuals can claim a significant portion of their payments made for qualified health insurance premiums.

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Feds May Relax Media Cross-Ownership Rules

As the Internet steadily erodes other media, FCC may relax "duopoly" rules

Here's an issue that used to be a real hot button but which no longer seems to excite much public interest: media ownership.  For decades, consumer ac...

PhotoHere's an issue that used to be a real hot button but which no longer seems to excite much public interest: media ownership.  For decades, consumer activists complained that there was too little diversity in the ownership of television, newspapers and radio.

You don't hear much of that anymore, what with the Internet and cable providing all the shouting matches anyone can tolerate.   

Perhaps mirroring that thinking, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is planning to eliminate the decades-old rules limiting cross-ownership of TV and radio stations in local media markets. The FCC also says it will "revisit" its rules regulating common ownership of same-market broadcast and newspaper properties. But the question remains whether regulatory changes will lead to marketplace changes.

Whether any of this will make much difference is an open question. There's not much public outcry about "the media" anymore, except when John King asks Newt Gingrich the question that's on everyone's lips. We tried to conduct a computerized sentiment analysis of what consumers think about the issue  but our search of Twitter, Facebook and so forth turned up exactly zero comments about the phrase "media crossownership" over the last 12 months.

Compare that to 29 million comments about Google over the last year and we get an idea of where the public's head is at, so to speak.

Business interests aren't exactly falling all over each other to snatch up local properties either. The market value of local media properties has been badly eroded by the rise of Internet media.  It's not that Web content is necessarily all that great, but sites likes Craigslist have decimated the local advertising that was once the mainstay of local papers and broadcasters.

Giant sucking sound

With Google and its competitors sucking billions of dollars out of local and national advertising budgets, it makes it a little harder to think that anyone other than Rupert Murdoch will be eagerly snapping up multiple properties in a market.  But stranger things have happened, and at least a few groups are taking up the no-crossownership cudgel.

Most prominent is the American Civil Liberties Union, which opined in a blog this week that the FCC's proposal "would weaken important existing protections that ensure our free access to media of all varieties."

"Recognizing the importance of a diversity of opinions in media coverage, the FCC established media ownership rules in the 1970s to promote competition and diversity in our media by protecting local markets from being controlled by a small handful of media companies," said Sandra Fulton of the ACLU's Washington office.

"The ACLU believes that in order to best serve the people and our democracy, the FCC should hold on to rules that encourage diversity and media ownership by women and minority communities," Fulton said.

"Diversity of perspectives"

Sharing that view is the Writer's Guild of America, East, which said consolidation "undermines the quality of broadcast news and reduces the diversity of perspectives on TV."

"The Writers Guild of America, East takes issue with the assertion made by various media companies that consolidation of ownership frees up resources to improve news coverage, the union said in a statement. "Simply permitting television, radio, internet, or newspaper outlets to combine will inevitably result in less substance, in the absence of clearly defined requirements that specific levels of resources be devoted to journalism."

What do broadcasters and publishers think about this?  There hasn't been much reaction so far, partly because the advantages of cross-ownership -- owning both a TV station and newspaper in the same community, for example -- aren't what they used to be, with cable and Internet properties flooding the pipeline.

Also, as The Daily Deal, an industry publication, noted recently, "the TV, radio and newspaper industries have become increasingly distinct, making the FCC's proposal far less deregulatory in practice than it may appear in print."

Of greater concern the broadcasters is a little-noticed suggestion that the FCC insert itself more deeply into the relationship between stations and networks.  

"The potential for the FCC to further regulate who can become an affiliate of a top-rated network would interpose the FCC in what has been historically a free-standing commercial and content-based decision between networks and station operators," the paper said. 

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Scammers Exploiting Foreclosure Review Process

The real foreclosure review is free

Foreclosure relief is very much in this week's headlines, and that can end up being a bad thing if scammers latch onto it and try to exploit consumer confu...

PhotoForeclosure relief is very much in this week's headlines, and that can end up being a bad thing if scammers latch onto it and try to exploit consumer confusion.

It's an especially worrisome possibility because federal bank regulators, late last year, ordered certain mortgage servicers to identify consumers whose homes faced foreclosure between January 1, 2009 and December 31, 2010.

These consumers should have received a letter by the end of 2011 indicating that they may request an independent review of their foreclosure. If the review finds that the homeowner suffered financial injury caused by deficiencies in the foreclosure process, they may be eligible for compensation. There is no cost associated with the federal government's Independent Foreclosure Review program.

But here's where the scammers come in

Sounds good, and it is. But what if scammers start contacting homeowners offering to conduct an "Independent Foreclosure Home Loan Review" or a "securitization review" for a fee? That's exactly what's happening in Oregon, according to state Attorney General John Kroger. He's warning residents of his state to steer clear of any offer of a foreclosure review that involves a fee.

“Beware of anyone who wants payment to assist you with an independent foreclosure review or any other homeowner assistance or foreclosure prevention program,” Kroger said. “If you receive a letter suggesting that you qualify for compensation or received a grant without having requested an independent review from the federal government, it is a scam.”

Remember, a government agency will never request your contact information, Social Security Number, banking information, or credit card numbers in an email. By all means, steer clear of anyone who claims they can guarantee a permanent mortgage modification or halt the foreclosure process.

The real review process

How does the real foreclosure review process work? In April 2011 the Federal Reserve (Fed) issued enforcement actions against four large mortgage servicers – GMAC Mortgage, HSBC Finance Corporation, SunTrust Mortgage, and EMC Mortgage Corporation. Under those actions, the four servicers were required to retain independent consultants to review foreclosures that were initiated, pending, or completed during 2009 or 2010.

The review is intended to determine if borrowers suffered financial harm directly resulting from errors, misrepresentations, or other deficiencies that may have occurred during the foreclosure process. The servicers are required to compensate borrowers for financial injury resulting from deficiencies in their foreclosure processes.

If you had a mortgage loan on your primary residence and believe you were financially harmed during the mortgage foreclosure process by any of the four servicers in 2009 or 2010, you can request an independent review and potentially receive compensation. The four servicers are required to make the independent reviews available to borrowers as part of their compliance with the April 2011 enforcement actions.

If you think you are eligible, you can talk to someone at 888-952-9105, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. (ET), and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (ET). Individuals can also get more information about the review through a website set up by the servicers.

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'Immigration Center' Tricked Consumers, FTC Charges

Charged $2,500 for immigration forms that are available at no charge

The immigration services business will be permanently off limits to an operation that allegedly posed as the federal government and tricked people into pay...

PhotoThe immigration services business will be permanently off limits to an operation that allegedly posed as the federal government and tricked people into paying up to $2,500 for immigration forms, under settlements with the Federal Trade Commission.

The two settlements resolve charges the FTC filed in January 2011 against Immigration Center and its principals alleging that they claimed they were authorized to provide immigration and naturalization services, that they were affiliated with the U.S. government, and that fees paid by consumers would cover all the costs associated with submitting immigration documents to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The court subsequently shut down the operation, froze the defendants' assets, and appointed a receiver to control the business until the case was resolved.

In addition to banning Immigration Center, Charles Doucette, Deborah Stilson, and Alfred Boyce from providing immigration services, the settlement orders prohibit them from making misrepresentations about any goods or services, including federal government affiliation, the terms of any refund or cancellation policy, and their qualification to provide legal advice or services.

They also are prohibited from selling or otherwise benefitting from customers' personal information, and from failing to properly dispose of customers' personal information within 30 days. The order against Immigration Center, Doucette, and Stilson also imposes a judgment of more than $3.1 million against Immigration Center, and a judgment exceeding $3.7 million against Doucette and Stilson. The judgments will be suspended upon the surrender of certain assets, including a car and a mobile home.

The order against Boyce also imposes a judgment of more than $2.7 million, which will be suspended if the terms of the settlement order are met. The full judgments will become due immediately if the defendants are found to have misrepresented their financial condition.

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Macy's Sues Martha Over J.C. Penney Deal

Claims it has the exclusive right to sell Martha's stuff

Macy's is miffed at Martha. No, it doesn't have anything to do with those infamous exploding tables. No one seems to care about those, except their unlucky...

PhotoMacy's is miffed at Martha. No, it doesn't have anything to do with those infamous exploding tables. No one seems to care about those, except their unlucky owners.  

This fight is over something more basic -- marketing rights.  Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia recently signed an agreement with J.C. Penney to sell home and kitchen items under the Martha Stewart name, something Macy's thinks is its exclusive territory.

After all, Macy's has been selling Martha's stuff since way back in 2005 or so, when a similarly snotty dust-up occurred between Sears/Kmart and Macy's.

Is this starting to sound like Newt Gingrich's marital history?

You may remember that Kmart had been selling a line of Martha Stewart merchandise for years and stuck with her during, oh, you know, that little unpleasantness with the courts and prison and everything.

When she got out, Martha repaid Sears/Kmart by doing a deal with Macy's.  Now Macy's is on the receiving end, and has filed suit in a New York court charging breach of contract and claiming that the right to sell Martha Stewart home and kitchen items belongs exclusively to Macy's.

A Stewart spokesman said the merchandise sold at Penney's would be different from that sold at Macy's.

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Study Finds Behavioral Tracking Widespread on Children's Sites

FTC asked to upgrade online privacy safeguards

In comments filed with the Federal Trade Commission, the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), along with 16 consumer, health, privacy, and child advocacy gr...

photoIn comments filed with the Federal Trade Commission, the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), along with 16 consumer, health, privacy, and child advocacy groups, endorsed the Commission’s proposals to update the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) rules.  

The groups supported the agency’s recommendations for critical changes in its regulations aimed at addressing contemporary data collection and marketing practices. 

CDD also released an analysis of tracking and targeting techniques employed by the leading child-targeted websites, which found that the great majority of the sites (81%) engage in some form of tracking through the use of such “persistent identifiers” as flash cookies, web bugs, and other online data collection tools. 

“The online data collection practices we originally identified in the 1990s have been eclipsed by a new generation of tracking and targeting techniques, as online data collection in this era of Big Data,” commented Kathryn Montgomery, Professor of Communication at American University, who, along with CDD Executive Director, Jeff Chester, spearheaded the campaign to pass COPPA in 1998. “It is imperative that the rules be changed if they are going to continue protecting children’s privacy in the growing digital marketplace.” 

Nearly half of the sites (48%) appear to be using behavioral targeting technologies. 

Behavioral targeting is becoming a pervasive practice across the web. The practice is based on building profiles of individual users by tracking behaviors on one or more websites and combining that data with information from a variety of other sources (e.g., IP addresses, search history, registration, etc.) in order to deliver marketing or advertising to an individual online.

“Given children’s limited cognitive abilities and the sophisticated nature of contemporary digital marketing and data collection, strong arguments can be made that behavioral targeting is an inappropriate, unfair, and deceptive practice when used to influence children under 13,” the groups explained in their comments.  “At the very least, marketers should be constrained from engaging in such practices without obtaining meaningful, prior consent from parents.”

A separate analysis of the privacy policies on the top children’s websites, commissioned by CDD, found that many of the websites fail to provide accurate, clear, and complete information that parents need to make informed decisions.  The study found that most of the policies do not adhere to COPPA requirements for user-friendly explanations, but instead couch their practices in obscure, difficult to understand legalese. 

Parents, therefore, have no way of knowing or understanding the nature and extent of data collection and use on these sites.

“These findings demonstrate that children’s privacy is not being taken seriously by many of the leading U.S. online content providers targeted at young people,” Chester said.

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When Can You Expect Your Tax Refund?

The IRS is sending out refunds sometimes within 10 days

How to know when your tax refunding is coming...

PhotoWhen completing their tax returns, taxpayers usually have just two questions; how much am I getting back and when am I getting it?

While many variable come into play in determining how much of a refund you are getting, the same is true for the speed of your tax refund. The good news for taxpayers is, the refunds are going out faster all the time. The keys are filing electronically and selecting direct deposit instead of a paper check.

Technology speeds things up

Following technology improvements, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will issue refunds to more taxpayers in as few as 10 days this year for those who e-file and select direct deposit. Overall, the IRS issues the vast majority - more than 9 out of 10 - of all refunds, whether filed electronically or on paper, in 21 days or less.

Although refund speed will generally increase overall, the IRS emphasizes these are “best-case scenarios,” where tax returns are filed accurately and no corrections or review are required.

In addition, the IRS also cautions taxpayers it is increasing scrutiny of tax returns for signs of fraud. This means some tax refunds will face additional screening and review before being released, which will add time before the refund is delivered.

There are some simple ways for people to help ensure they receive their refund quickly. E-file remains the best way to ensure an error-free return.

No errors

Not making mistakes, it turns out, is another way to speed up a refund. Use the correct Social Security number or taxpayer identification number, the correct address, and the correct bank and routing number if electing direct deposit.

The IRS even has a section on its website called “Where's My Refund?,” a tool to check on the status of your refund. Information about refund status is available about three days after the IRS acknowledges receipt of your e-filed return, or four weeks after mailing a paper return.

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What's On Your Mind? Proactiv, Progressive Business Publications, Just Flowers

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Proactiv, Progressive Business Publications, Just Flowers, Stealth 'survey' and No flowers....

PhotoWe've gotten several complaints from consumers about Proactiv, a mail order acne treatment. The complaint centers on the multiple shipments of the product the company sends, along with monthly charges to their credit card. Evelyn, of Greenwell Springs, La., thinks she's found the solution.

“I have found a way to stop future charges - cancel the credit card and get a new one,” Evelyn said. “I have just discovered that this works like a charm.”

Evelyn had better reconsider this. Cancelling a credit card might solve the problem short term, but it could end up with Proactiv turning the debt over to collections, and damage to Evelyn's credit score. If Evelyn believes she was deceived in this transaction, she should take the trouble to dispute it with her credit card company. That way, it's off the books and won't come back to haunt her.

Stealth 'survey'

If you run a small business, be careful who you allow to answer the phone. Or at least instruct them not to answer “surveys.”

“A salesperson from Progressive Business Publications called our facility under the guise of being a survey type agency,” Charla, of Watsonville, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “The employee, who is not authorized to order such items to begin with, figured it was a sales type call, didn't pay attention to the company name and basically just said yes, yes, all the way through to their questions. Unbeknown to him, through the process, this started the sending of a certain publication and at the end of the phone call all they said was 'you have 30 days to cancel.' He didn't even know what he had unknowingly signed up for!”

Charla said the next thing she knew, she had gotten a bill. If Charla, or any other business owner, thinks they were unfairly signed up for something they didn't want, they should report it to their state attorney general's office.

No flowers

Sandra, of Roseville, Calif., wanted to send flowers last weekend to her grand-daughter, who was ill. So, she ordered a bouquet through Just Flowers for Saturday delivery and paid an extra fee for delivery within a four-hour time window.

“The four hour time frame came and went and no flowers,” Sandra said. When I called to inquire he assured me that the flowers would be delivered on Sunday and that my order would be the first delivery made at 9:00. By noon the flowers were still not delivered. I called and spoke to a manager who told me that they couldn't find anyone to deliver on Sunday. Keep in mind that I was the one who was calling them. Not one time did I get a follow up call or an e-mail letting me know about the problems happening.”

The lesson here is, why would you use a third party company to order and deliver flowers? Sandra should have Googled “florists” in the community where he grand-daughter lives, picked one and called and talked to them directly. By talking with the florist directly, she might have gotten a better feel for whether they were actually going to “deliver.”

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New Gmail Users Get Google+ As Well

New sign-up process requires a Google profile

One reason people sign up for online email accounts like Gmail and Hotmail is that they're free and easy. Fill in a few blanks and you've got a new email a...

PhotoOne reason people sign up for online email accounts like Gmail and Hotmail is that they're free and easy. Fill in a few blanks and you've got a new email address.

Google has added a few steps to the process, requiring new users to create a Google profile along with their new Gmail account.  Oh, and it also gets you a Google+ account, whether you want it or not.

The new sign-up form name, birthday, gender (required for Google+) and mobile phone number (not required).

Google has been going to great lengths to cajole, persuade and outright require users of its various services to sign up for Google+, its attempt to compete with Facebook.  After all, goes the think at the 'plex, there are 350 million Gmail users and "only" 90 million Google+ members, so obviously there's plenty of room for growth, if only the strays can be rounded up and herded into the corral.

While some consumers may see this as annoying or a threat to their privacy, it's not likely Google is going to relax the pressure.  It sees Facebook as a serious threat to its search business and is doing everything it can to make Google+ a serious competitor.

Also, Google's most recent earnings statement came as something of a disappointment to analysts and investors who have become accustomed to huge revenue increases and high profit margins. 

Antitrust worries

Still, there may be trouble ahead.  Bloomberg News reported recently that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has expanded its antitrust investigation of Google to include Google+.

The report comes after Google announced that it would include personal data gathered from Google+ in the results of users' searches, a move that raised the hackles of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

"Google's business practices raise concerns related to both competition and the implementation of the Commission’s consent order," EPIC said, referring to a settlement that the FTC reached with Google that establishes new privacy safeguards for users of all Google products and services and subjects the company to regular privacy audits. Google first confirmed the FTC’s antitrust investigation in June 2011.

EPIC has also been urging the FTC to investigate whether Google uses  Youtube search rankings to give preferential treatment to its own video content over non-Google content. 

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Orange Juice Prices Could Be Headed Even Higher

Speculators increasingly expect Brazilian import ban

Orange juice prices are going up...

PhotoIn case you haven't noticed, the price of orange juice has surged this month because of growing speculation the U.S. might ban orange juice from Brazil. It turns out Brazilian growers have been using a fungicide not approved under U.S. regulations.

Since the issue first arose earlier this month, futures traders have bid up the price of orange juice by 27 percent. Prices on the futures market rose again Monday as more traders began to place bets on an import ban.

Consumers have yet to see much in the way of higher prices, but should a ban go into effect, it seems higher retail prices will be a certainty. Right now it's a Wall Street story, but the longer it goes on, the more it affects Main Street.

Awaiting test results

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is testing Brazilian juice for the fungicide, known as carbendazim, but as of yet has had little or nothing to say publicly. The agency did say last week that it is awaiting the results of the tests in conducted on the samples. The small amounts that it has detected so far, it says, is not enough to block the sale of the product.

While most orange juice is produced in the U.S., Brazil now accounts for as much as 10 percent of U.S. supplies. The loss of Brazilian imports would be a sudden and significant reduction in supply and push retail prices higher.

However, if the FDA fails to find traces of the fungicide and imports are not affected, analysts say futures prices for orange juice are likely to come down just as fast as they went up. Any retail price increase is likely to be temporary.

Carbendazim is used to control a broad range of diseases on arable crops, fruits and vegetables. Research on mice showed increase tumors in two out of three studies. Carbendazim is classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as ‘unlikely to present hazard in normal use.’  

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High Levels Of MRSA Bacteria Found In Meat Products

Can cause food poisoning if not thoroughly cooked

Researchers found greater than expected levels of MRSA bacteria in pork...

PhotoMRSA, the antibiotic-resistant bacteria that sometimes infects hospital patients, can also be found in our food. And a new study says MRSA is a lot more common in retail pork products than previously believed.

The new study was conducted by researchers at the University of Iowa College of Public Health and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

MRSA can occur in the environment and in raw meat products, and is estimated to cause around 185,000 cases of food poisoning each year. The bacteria can also cause serious, life-threatening infections of the bloodstream, skin, lungs, and other organs. MRSA is resistant to a number of antibiotics.

The study, published Jan. 19 in the online science journal PLoS ONE, represents the largest sampling of raw meat products for MRSA contamination to date in the U.S. The researchers collected 395 raw pork samples from 36 stores in Iowa, Minnesota, and New Jersey. Of these samples, the researchers say 26 -- or about 7 percent -- carried MRSA.

More than we thought

"This study shows that the meat we buy in our grocery stores has a higher prevalence of staph than we originally thought," said lead study author Tara Smith, Ph.D., interim director of the UI Center for Emerging and Infectious Diseases and assistant professor of epidemiology. "With this knowledge, we can start to recommend safer ways to handle raw meat products to make it safer for the consumer."

The study also found no significant difference in MRSA contamination between conventional pork products and those raised without antibiotics or antibiotic growth promotants.

"We were surprised to see no significant difference in antibiotic-free and conventionally produced pork," Smith said. "Though it's possible that this finding has more to do with the handling of the raw meat at the plant than the way the animals were raised, it's certainly worth exploring further."

While MRSA may be resistant to antibiotics, it is like any other bacteria when it comes to heat. Bacteria present in raw food can be eliminated by cooking food thoroughly.

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USDA Proposes New Poultry Inspection Procedure

Consumers wary but industry groups support the plan

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says it can inspect chickens and turkeys quickly and more cheaply with a new system it has devised, but some cons...

PhotoThe U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says it can inspect chickens and turkeys quickly and more cheaply with a new system it has devised, but some consumer advocates think the agency is playing chicken with public health.

"The modernization plan will protect public health, improve the efficiency of poultry inspections in the U.S., and reduce spending," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. "The new inspection system will reduce the risk of foodborne illness by focusing Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) inspection activities on those tasks that advance our core mission of food safety."

Currently, some FSIS employees in poultry establishments perform several activities which are unrelated to food safety, such as identifying visual defects like bruising, while others conduct the critical inspection activities. Under the proposed plan, all FSIS inspection activities will focus on critical food safety tasks to ensure that agency resources are tied directly to protecting public health and reducing foodborne illnesses, Vilsack said.

But the Consumer Federation of America said it has several concerns with this announcement.  It said Vilsack's announcement precluded any independent review of the new standards, something that had been requested recently by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said USDA should "modify its inspection program carefully to ensure that the program reduces the unacceptably high levels of Salmonella and Campylobacter in chicken and turkey."

"One can’t escape the fact that the government is shrinking, and that historic programs like this one need to demonstrate their value. The proof will be in reduced contamination rates, leading to fewer deaths and illnesses," Jacobson said.

Meat industry groups expressed support for the program.

“As new research expands our ability to respond to food safety issues, it is essential that we embrace new inspection approaches that keep pace with that knowledge,” said AMI Executive Vice President James H. Hodges.  “While our knowledge has grown exponentially in the last two decades, there have been no major changes to our federal poultry inspection system during this period.  We commend USDA for embracing science and we look forward to working with them as they finalize the rule and implement this new approach.”

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IRS Free File Now Open For Business

Seventy percent of taxpayers are eligible for free tax preparation software

Description of IRS Free File system...

PhotoIf you would like to use the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Free File service, it's now open for business for the 2011 tax filing year, the IRS said.

As the name implies, Free File is a free tax-preparation service that taxpayers can use online. According to the tax agency, more 33 million returns have been filed through Free File since its debut.

Everyone can use Free File, but there is an income limit for using the free tax preparation software the IRS offers through a number of commercial partners. To use the software, you must have an adjusted gross income of $57,000 or less.

Free File Fillable Forms, the electronic version of IRS paper forms, has no income restrictions. The only difference is, you have to prepare your taxes yourself.

“Free File can save you time and money,” said Diane Fox, director, Free File program. “You can prepare and e-file your tax return at no charge. And, the software helps you find the tax breaks you are due. Free File helps make taxes less taxing.”

Most taxpayers eligible for free software

The IRS estimates that 70 percent of taxpayers fall into the category that allows them to use the free tax preparation software. To get started, click here

All Free File members must meet certain security requirements and use the latest in encryption technology to protect taxpayers’ information.

People with an adjusted gross income of $57,000 or less are eligible for at least one software product if not more. Each of the Free File software providers sets their own eligibility requirements, usually based on qualifiers such as income, state residency, age or military status.

The easiest way to locate a software provider is to use the online “get help” tool at the IRS website, with a little of a taxpayer’s information such as income, age and state residency, can identify matching free-file products. Or, taxpayers can review all providers and their offers. Some software providers also offer state income tax preparation for free or for a fee.

Volunteer help

Also, the IRS is working with select volunteer tax sites such as Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly. There are 200 locations nationwide that have set up Free File kiosks where taxpayers can use computers to prepare their own returns with Free File.

For taxpayers whose incomes are more than $57,000, there’s Free File Fillable Forms, also available at the IRS website. This program is best for taxpayers experienced in preparing their own federal tax returns. For people who prefer doing their taxes the old fashioned way – by paper – this is an electronic alternative.

Free File Fillable Forms performs some math calculations and provides links to some IRS publications. It does not use the familiar question-and-answer format used by software. Taxpayers can e-file the forms for free. It also does not support state income tax returns.

Taxpayers must access the free-file products through IRS.gov or authorized kiosks.

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What's On Your Mind? Kmart, Netflix, GE Light Bulbs

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Kmart, Netflix, GE Light Bulbs, When a free trial isn't and Shedding some light on the light bulb issue....

PhotoWhen is a “gift” not really a gift? Ask Teresa, of Chenago Forks, N.Y. who says she received a $5 gift card from Kmart when she purchased $94 worth of merchandise before Christmas.

“When I had to return a pair of slippers that were the wrong size, I received a refund of $7.85 for the $7.99 purchase price,” Teresa told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I then had to return a pair of pajamas that cost me $14.99, my refund was $14.74. Both returns were done with the original receipt and during the correct time frame.
This time I caught the discrepancy while I was standing at the register and asked why there was a difference in price. The clerk told me that it was due to the fact that I had received a gift card. and that it came off the price of the purchase. Mind you, I had received the gift card, not used one.”

So the gift wasn't really a gift. And as it turned out, Teresa said there was a one-week window of time when the card could be used, and she missed it.

When a free trial isn't

Netflix markets its video service by offering a one month “free trial.” While most free trial offers are just a way for a marketer to get access to your credit card, a free month of Netflix would certainly give you ample opportunity to decide if you want to keep the service. Weerasak, of Teaneck, N.J., says she didn't get that opportunity after she signed up for the free trial last week.

“The next day I got a charge on my credit card $7.99,” Weerasak said. “I has called customer service and she said that I not eligible for a free trial because I leave in the same house of a previous customer.”

If this is indeed the policy, this could impact millions of people who live in apartments or other high-turnover residences.

Shedding some light on the light bulb issue

Dalton, of Mayfield, Ky., is not happy with new GE Helical light bulbs.

“I have been told, that they will be a requirement to use in the United States rather than regular light bulbs,” Dalton said. “They do not last five years as they say. You're lucky to get five months out of them. One of my main concerns is that they will not work in my dimmers. When you turn the button to dim the light it starts to flicker and gets even worse the more you turn it down. What I really would like to know is who in our democratic system of government has decided that we will be forced to use these bulbs and why.

Let's address Dalton's second question. The new federal regulations that took effect this month do not “ban” incandescent light bulbs. They just set higher efficiency standards. Some incandescent bulbs meet these standards. The new rules do not mandate the use of any particular type of bulb, so Dalton doesn't have to use helical bulbs.

And as for dimming, compact fluorescent lights are not "dimmable."  If he is using them with a dimmer, that explains the short service life he has experienced.  

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VW Disputes GM's Claim to No. 1 Spot

Volkswagen says it would be first if its affiliate sales were included, as GM's are

Is Volkswagen the Rick Santorum of the auto world?  Just a day after the former Pennsylvania senator was named the winner of the Iowa primary followin...

PhotoIs Volkswagen the Rick Santorum of the auto world?  Just a day after the former Pennsylvania senator was named the winner of the Iowa primary following a recount, bumping Mitt Romney, VW says a fair count would make it the world's No. 1 auto maker, bumping GM, which claimed the title yesterday.

GM, which lost the No. 1 title to Toyota in 2008, yesterday said it had regained it with sales of 9.03 million vehicles worldwide, putting it about 1 million ahead of VW.

Ach but wait, exclaimed VW, which said its sales figures don't include sales from truckmakers MAN and Scania, which it owns.  Volkswagen argued that GM inflates its numbers by including sales from its China affilites SAIC and Wuling.  

On one point there's no controversy.  VW's sales are growing faster than GM's. VW sales last year were up 11% while GM's rose 7.6%.

PhotoToyota, meanwhile, is expected to be down 6% when it releases its full-year results, estimated to be around 7.9 million. Toyota sales were battered by the natural disasters in Japan and Thailand and, possibly, by public concerns over a rash of recalls in recent years.

Both GM and VW have been cranking out new models in hopes of gaining new market share.  

VW has built a new plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., enabling it to build cars and crossovers for the U.S. market more cheaply than in Germany. VW has established a goal of selling 10 million vehicles a year by 2018 and expects to become the world's largest carmaker by 2018 or sooner.

GM's growth was aided last year by the Chevy Cruze compact, which helped boost the Chevy brand to sales of 4.76 million. GM expects to show earnings last year of $8.1 billion.

Hearts & minds

Numbers are one thing.  Consumer sentiment is something else and on that score, Volkswagen appears to have a leg up on General Motors.  We conducted a computerized sentiment analysis of more than 1 million consumer comments on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. 

Volkswagen enjoyed a consistently positive net sentiment while GM's more closely resembled a seesaw, as these charts illustrate

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'Unwanted Faxes' Scheme Could Result In More Unwanted Faxes

By wary of fax that claims it can stop unwanted faxes

The Better Business Bureau says unwanted faxes pitch may be fax number harvesting effort...

Small businesses around the country have reported receiving an unwanted fax, telling them how to end "unwanted faxes." The best advice? Throw it away.

The fax comes from an organization called the "Envirofax Commission." In bold type, the fax declares "Fax Us Your Unwanted Faxes." In smaller type the fax notes that a change in regulations, in 2006, gives fax recipients the the right to opt-out from receiving future faxes.

"Please fax your unwanted faxes to the Envirofax Commission," the fax declares. "We will contact the sender and have your fax number permanently removed from their fax list."

What's the angle?

The fax states this service is free, so what's the angle? According to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), the motive may not be all that altruistic.

"It sounds too good to be true and like a scam to gain active fax numbers," the BBB says.

The group said, based on its inquiries made more than a year ago, it believes that there is no such thing as this commission, and that this group’s primary goal is to confirm valid fax numbers to that it can turn around and sell them to companies that send out junk faxes.

No contact info

The BBB notes the flyer contains no phone number or address for the organization, just a fax number.

Under the government's regulations, a business can only send you a fax if they have an existing business relationship, or "there is an existing relationship formed by a voluntary two-way communication between a person or entity and a business or residential subscriber with or without an exchange of consideration [payment], on the basis of an inquiry, application, purchase or transaction by the business or residential subscriber regarding products or services offered by such person or entity, which relationship has not been previously terminated by either party.”

How to opt out

When you receive an unwanted fax and want to opt-out of receiving additional faxes in the future, your request must identify the fax number or numbers to which it relates and be sent to the telephone number, fax number, Web site address, or e-mail address identified on the fax advertisement.

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Zappos.com Customers Should Remain Wary Of Identity Theft

Phishing scams may be the biggest danger

Security advice to Zappos.com customers...

PhotoIf you are one of Zappos.com's estimated 24 million customers, you will be getting an official notification that some of your personal data has been compromised in last weekend's massive cyber attack.

A security expert at Indiana University (IU) says you should take it very seriously. But the threat is not that credit card information will be stolen.

"Credit cards are covered by a federal law that limits consumer liability in the case of fraud up to $50, and card issuers universally waive even that small amount," said Fred H. Cate, a professor at the IU law school. "Compromised credit card data is not the major area for concern."

Sensitive information

Instead, according to Cate, who also serves as director of the IU Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research, the data that were reportedly accessed in the Zappos breach -- customer names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses and encrypted passwords, in addition to the last four digits of customer credit card numbers -- pose the greatest risk to affected individuals. That risk falls into three categories.

First, he says, it sets up Zappos.com customers for phishing scams.

"Think about it," Cate said. "If you get an email from a company that includes your correct name and contact information and refers to the last four digits of your credit card number, wouldn't you think it is real?

Cate says it's not clear how customers will be able to distinguish real messages from fraudulent emails claiming to come from Zappos itself.

Second, this is exactly the information necessary to locate other data about individuals in public and commercial records.

"If I have your name, address and phone number, in many states I can get your property tax records, marriage license and other publicly available information," Cate said. "With that additional information a criminal is in an even better position to commit frauds in your name or to access password-protected sites by using the extra information to answer password-reset questions."

Third, since the information included emails and encrypted passwords, this poses a serious risk to other online accounts held by affected customers of Zappos.

"Almost all consumers reuse passwords, and email addresses often serve as default account names for online sites, so depending upon the quality of encryption being used by Zappos, it is entirely possible that the perpetrators will have access to a wide range of online accounts," Cate said.

What to do

Fortunately, most major breaches do not result in extensive fraud. In addition, there are practical steps consumers can take to protect themselves. If you are a Zappos.com customer, here's what Cate says you should do:

  • Change passwords on all accounts that use the same password as you Zappos.com account.
  • Use unique passwords on all accounts
  • Monitor account, credit card and bank statements carefully
  • Be very careful about responding to any email that appears to be from a company that requires your action. When in doubt, look up the company's number and call it directly.
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How To Report Miscellaneous Income On Your Taxes

Outside income, even gambling winnings have to be reported to the IRS

Explanation of miscellaneous income reporting requirements...

PhotoWhile most people are aware they must include wages, salaries, interest, dividends, tips and commissions as income on their tax returns, many don’t realize that they must also report "outside," or miscellaneous income.

With a tough economy and raises few and far between, more people are doing work on the side to earn extra money, so the reporting requirements affect a lot more taxpayers than before. In addition to income from side jobs, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) also requires you to report:

  • barter exchanges of goods or services,
  • awards, prizes, contest winnings and
  • gambling proceeds

 

Taxpayers must report all income from any source and any country unless it is specifically exempt under the U.S. tax code. There may be taxable income from certain transactions even if no money changes hands.

You report this income using Form 1099-MISC, which you should receive from the person paying you. It is a common misconception that if a taxpayer does not receive a Form 1099-MISC or if the income is under $600 per payer, the income is not taxable. However, the IRS says there is no minimum amount that a taxpayer may exclude from gross income. If you earn it, you must report it.

All income earned through the taxpayer’s business, as an independent contractor or from informal side jobs is self-employment income, which is fully taxable and must be reported on Form 1040.

Use Form 1040, Schedule C, Profit or Loss from Business, or Form 1040, Schedule C-EZ, Net Profit from Business (Sole Proprietorship) to report income and expenses. Taxpayers will also need to prepare Form 1040 Schedule SE for self-employment taxes if the net profit exceeds $400 for a year. Do not report this income on Form 1040 Line 21 as Other Income.

Independent contractors must report all income as taxable, even if it is less than $600. Even if the client does not issue a Form 1099-MISC, the income, whatever the amount, is still reportable by the taxpayer.

Fees received for babysitting, housecleaning and lawn cutting are all examples of taxable income, even if each client paid less than $600 for the year. Someone who repairs computers in his or her spare time needs to report all monies earned as self-employment income even if no one person paid more than $600 for repairs.

Bartering

Bartering is an exchange of property or services and oftentimes this slips through the tax-reporting cracks. But the IRS says even bartering is subject to taxation.

The fair market value of goods and services exchanged is fully taxable and must be included on Form 1040 in the income of both parties. An example of bartering is a plumber doing repair work for a dentist in exchange for dental services. Income from bartering is taxable in the year in which the taxpayer received the goods or services.

Gambling winnings

In most places, gambling is against the law. Even so, gambling winnings are fully taxable and must be reported on Form 1040.

Gambling income includes, among other things, winnings from lotteries, raffles, horse races, poker tournaments and casinos. It includes cash winnings as well as the fair market value of prizes such as cars and trips.

Even if a W-2G is not issued, all gambling winnings must be reported as taxable income regardless of whether any portion is subject to withholding. In addition, taxpayers may be required to pay an estimated tax on the gambling winnings.

Losses may be deducted only if the taxpayer itemizes deductions and only if he or she also has gambling winnings. The losses deducted may not be more than the gambling income reported on the return.

Prizes and awards

In most cases the cash value of prizes or awards won in a drawing, quiz show program, beauty contest, or other event, must be included on the tax return as taxable income. Taxpayers must also report the fair market value of merchandise or products won as a prize or award, as taxable income. For example, both a $500 cash prize and the fair market value of a new range won in a baking contest must be reported as other income on Form 1040, Line 21.

For more information about miscellaneous income reporting requirements, check out IRS Publication 525 - Taxable and Non-Taxable Income.

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Supreme Court: Telemarketers Can Be Sued in Federal Court

Decision makes it easier for consumers to go after abusive telemarketers, faxers

The Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that consumers injured by violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), which outlaws abusive te...

PhotoThe Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that consumers injured by violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), which outlaws abusive telemarketing practices, may bring lawsuits in federal courts as well as state courts.

Lawyers for the consumer group Public Citizen represented Marcus Mims in the case, Mims v. Arrow Financial Services, a debt collection agency.

Mims, a Florida resident, alleged that Arrow, seeking to collect a debt, repeatedly used an automatic telephone dialing system or prerecorded or artificial voice to call Mims's cellular phone without his consent. He charged that Arrow "willfully or knowingly violated the TCPA" and sought declaratory relief, a permanent injunction, and damages.

"The court’s opinion, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, accepts without reservation all of the arguments we made in support of [Mims'] right to choose a federal court to assert his claims," said Scott Nelson, a Public Citizen attorney.

"We find no convincing reason to read into the TCPA's permissive grant of jurisdiction to state courts any barrier to the U. S. district courts' exercise of the general federal-question jurisdiction they have possessed since 1875," Ginsburg wrote. "We hold, therefore, that federal and state courts have concurrent jurisdiction over private suits arising under the TCPA."

The TCPA forbids such practices as calls to cell phones that use automatic dialers, calls to residences that use prerecorded messages, and unsolicited junk faxes, and it says that consumers who are victims of such practices can sue for up to $1,500 per violation.

The act specifies that those lawsuits may be brought in state courts. But, as the court ruled, the act does not prevent consumers from going to federal court instead, by invoking the federal courts’ general jurisdiction over all cases that are based on federal law.

The decision will make it possible for plaintiffs with large claims that are suited to litigation in federal court to choose a federal forum for those claims. It also may facilitate class actions that could not be brought if TCPA claims were limited to state courts.

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AT&T Raises Prices for Smartphone, Tablet Data

Spectrum in short supply after T-Mobile deal falls through

AT&T is jacking up data plan rates by as much as 33% for smartphones and tablet computers.“Customers are using more data than ever before,&rdqu...

PhotoAT&T is jacking up data plan rates by as much as 33% for smartphones and tablet computers.

“Customers are using more data than ever before,” said David Christopher, chief marketing officer, AT&T Mobility and Consumer Markets. “Our new plans are driven by this increasing demand in a highly competitive environment, and continue to deliver a great value to customers, especially as we continue our 4G LTE deployment.”

Normally, when one produces and sells more of a commodity, it becomes cheaper. But in the case of bandwidth, demand is outpacing supply and carriers are raising prices or imposing usage ceilings, or both. AT&T prefers to say the plans "give customers more data and value."

“Customers are using more data than ever before,” said David Christopher, chief marketing officer, AT&T Mobility and Consumer Markets. “Our new plans are driven by this increasing demand in a highly competitive environment, and continue to deliver a great value to customers, especially as we continue our 4G LTE deployment.”

The new plans will launch this Sunday, January 22. 

The new smartphone plans include:

  • AT&T Data Plus 300MB: $20 for 300MB
  • AT&T Data Pro 3GB: $30 for 3GB
  • AT&T Data Pro 5GB: $50 for 5GB, with mobile hotspot / tethering

Smartphone customers needing additional data can pay $10 per additional gigabyte on the AT&T Data Pro 3GB and Data Pro 5GB plans; AT&T Data Plus users will receive an extra 300MB for $20.

The new tablet plans include:

  • AT&T DataConnect 3GB: $30 for 3GB
  • AT&T DataConnect 5GB: $50 for 5GB

Existing smartphone and tablet customers will have the choice of keeping their current plans or choosing one of these new plans, and the current $14.99 for 250MB plan for tablet customers will remain available. 

The tablet plans are for 30 days and automatically renew every 30 days, unless you cancel service prior to the start of the 30 day renewal, while smartphone plans are covered by contracts, normally three years. 

The company said customers should keep their device’s Wi-Fi turned on because data usage over Wi-Fi does not count against a customer’s monthly data plan. AT&T smartphone and tablet customers have access at no additional charge to AT&T’s 29,000 Wi-Fi hotspots nationwide.

Now that AT&T has officially given up on its plan to acquire T-Mobile, it's going to have to keep a tighter rein on its available spectrum, which would have been greatly increased had the T-Mobile deal gone through. Not that AT&T is any stranger to rate caps. It was the first carrier to limit consumption when it introduced tiered pricing plans way back in 2010.

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Kodak Files for Bankruptcy Protection

It's the latest victim of the digital transformation

Eastman Kodak Co. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in New York early Thursday morning, after the struggling photography icon ran short on cash ne...

PhotoEastman Kodak Co. has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after running short of cash to finance a turnaround that's still in the darkroom.

“Kodak is taking a significant step toward enabling our enterprise to complete its transformation,” said Antonio M. Perez, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer. “At the same time as we have created our 
digital business, we have also already effectively exited certain traditional operations, closing 13 manufacturing plants and 130 processing labs, and reducing our workforce by 47,000 since 2003."

Kodak said it had secured $950 million in financing from Citigroup Inc. to help keep it afloat during bankruptcy proceedings.

"The Board of Directors and the entire senior management team unanimously believe that this is a necessary step and the right thing to do for the future of Kodak,” Perez said. “Our goal is to maximize value for stakeholders, including our employees, retirees, creditors, and pension trustees. We are also committed to working with our valued customers."

The company named Dominic Di Napoli, a vice chairman at FTI Consulting Inc., as its chief restructuring officer to manage the trip through bankruptcy court.

Tough times in the digital age

Founded as Eastman Kodak Company in 1892, the company has struggled to find its footing in the digital age. It recently stopped making its iconic Kodachrome film, a product that captured images for generations and inspired a number one hit song by singer-songwriter Paul Simon in the early 1970s.

The company last reported a profit in 2007 as it moved into producing digital cameras and office equipment. Mary, of Bradenton, Fla., is not a happy Kodak customer.

“I purchased an All-in-One Printer Esp 3200 about a year and a half ago,” Mary told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I was going to take it back immediately because it clunks and makes noise long after it has printed, and operates slow. I kept it and now wish I had returned it because mine has a problem with the print-head. I rarely use the printer and like everyone else says, it runs out of ink very quickly. This is not a savings in ink, and false advertising. From now on, I'm going with my gut instincts on brands. I just thought I'd give Kodak a shot and they're not ready.”

Meanwhile, the news that Kodak might be contemplating bankruptcy took few by surprise on Wall Street. Kodak has virtually becoming a penny stock, selling for less than $1. A bankruptcy filing would also allow Kodak to sidestep some expensive pension obligations to retirees.  

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Formula 'Stretching' A Danger To Infants

Doctors find low-income families are watering down formula

Study finds low income families are watering down formula...

PhotoYou might say it's an invisible hunger issue. Pediatricians in some low-income communities have found a dangerous practice they call formula “stretching.” Families that can't afford enough infant formula have begun watering down the formula to make it last longer.

“We were surprised to find one in three families worried about putting food on the table,” said Andrew Beck, MD, a general pediatrician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and one of the study’s authors. “Food insecurity tends to be an invisible problem, forcing families to make difficult choices between nutrition and other essential needs.”

After encountering instances of “stretching” at urban pediatric clinics, the research team launched a separate quality improvement project to help doctors better identify families with hunger issues. The new study was just published online in the journal Pediatrics.

Public assistance recipients at high risk

The researchers found that families receiving public assistance remain at high risk of food insecurity – defined as the inability to afford enough food to meet basic nutritional needs. Approximately 30 percent of families in the clinics reported food insecurity, a rate that is roughly twice the national average.

Two-thirds of the families in the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program – which provides nutrition basics for low-income women with children – reported running out of WIC-supplied formula toward the end of most months.

Watering down infant formula is especially harmful to babies, since they have not started eating solid food, and thus rely on formula for all their daily nutrition needs.

Watering down formula

Among food-insecure families, 27 percent reported watering down formula or reducing feedings, a practice the pediatric researchers said can have serious health consequences for babies’ developing brains, leading to cognitive, behavioral and psychological issues.

Why do families seem to be running low on formula? There could be many reasons, but researchers point out that, in 2009, WIC decreased the amount of formula provided to infants over the age of six months.

“We’re seeing the effects of those changes in our urban clinics, highlighting that WIC is truly a supplemental program,” said Mary Carol Burkhardt, MD, lead author of the study. “I would venture to say that cities with similar demographics and poverty levels are seeing some of the same behaviors found in our study.”

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When Products Change, Some Consumers Notice

Savvy consumer calls out General Mills on reformulated Whole Grain Cheerios

Consumer notes the reduction in vitamins in favorite cereal...

PhotoCompanies change their products from time to time. The packaging may change color, the box may get smaller, or they may adopt a new logo. Most of the time consumers notice these changes.

Other changes may escape our notice, but they don't get by at least one consumer – Susan, of Kenton, Ohio, who says she has been buying General Mills' Multi Grain Cheerios cereal for years.

“For years the product has boasted not only whole grains but, like the company’s Total cereal line, a wide range of vitamins and minerals,” Susan told ConsumerAffairs.com.

But now, says Susan, the company has “reformulated” Multi Grain Cheerios. The box is still the same size and is still the same color. What's different is the list of vitamins and nutrients on the side, along with the percentage of the recommended daily allowance. Most consumers might not notice, but Susan did.

Reductions and eliminations

“Out of the sixteen vitamins and minerals of the previous formula, the new version of the cereal has reduced the percentage of eleven vitamins and minerals and completely eliminated two others.”

For example, Susan says the amount of vitamin C has been reduced to 10% and iron reduced to 45%.

Susan says when she contacted General Mills by email, she got this response:

“Multi Grain Cheerios’ vitamin levels have been reformulated,” the message read. “The vitamin and mineral profile of Multi Grain Cheerios is now similar to that of Yellow Box Cheerios. Multi Grain Cheerios now delivers an excellent source of 8 vitamins and minerals for our all-family consumer base.”

Reducing the product but not the cost

Maybe so, but Susan's point is the product is not what it once was but still costs the same. Susan says she would have preferred the company either raise the price of the product without making any changes or reduce the size of the box, which she said would be easier to detect than reduced vitamin content.

“Had I been given the choice to either pay more to cover the increased manufacturing costs, or have the vitamin/mineral percentages of the food altered, my wallet would have been wide open,” Susan said. “But consumers were not consulted; the company simply took it for granted that money is more important to the general public than physical well-being.”

Caught in a squeeze

All kinds of businesses caught in the squeeze between higher manufacturing costs and the retail price consumers will accept face a dilemma. If they raise their prices to reflect the real cost of the product, Susan may keep buying it but a lot of other consumers will look for a cheaper alternative. Sales will go down.

For competitive reasons, businesses selling mass market products want to keep their prices as low as possible. Unfortunately, that can mean products that aren't what they used to be.

If Susan truly wants a cereal that has more vitamins and minerals than the reformulated Multi Grain Cheerios offers, she should check the cereal aisle at Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Wegmans or other chains that offer a wider range of nutritious foods.

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Taxpayers Have To Worry About Identity Theft Too

Identity thieves aren't just after your credit cards

The IRS is beginning to help taxpayers deal with identity theft...

PhotoAs consumers, we've had it drummed into us in recent years about the dangers of identity theft; how it can ruin your credit and cause you to spend countless hours straightening out the mess.

Less has been said about how identity theft can impact your relationship with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), but the tax agency is now addressing the issue.

If thieves steal your identity, they can apply for credit cards and loans in your name. But you may not have thought about another threat. According to the IRS, they can – and do – file fake tax returns in your name, claiming a big refund.

Here's how it works. An identity thief uses a legitimate taxpayer’s identity to fraudulently file a tax return and claim a refund. Generally, the identity thief will use a stolen Social Security Number (SSN) to file a forged tax return and attempt to get a fraudulent refund early in the filing season, before the victim has had a chance to file their real return.

How you'll know

You may be unaware that this has happened until you file your return later in the filing season and discover that two returns have been filed using the same SSN.

Be alert to possible identity theft if you receive an IRS notice or letter that states that:

  • More than one tax return for you was filed,
  • You have a balance due, refund offset or have had collection actions taken against you for a year you did not file a tax return, or
  • IRS records indicate you received wages from an employer unknown to you.

What to do

If you receive a notice from IRS, respond immediately. If you believe someone may have used your SSN fraudulently, you should notify IRS immediately by responding to the name and number printed on the notice or letter. You will need to fill out the IRS Identity Theft Affidavit, Form 14039.

For victims of identity theft who have previously been in contact with the IRS and have not achieved a resolution, please contact the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit, toll-free, at

How can you protect your tax records?

The IRS has established the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit to assist taxpayers who think they could be vulnerable to identity theft. You could be included in this group if you've lost a wallet or purse, found questionable activity on credit accounts or otherwise suspect you've been a victim of identity theft. You can reach this special unit by calling 1-800-908-4490.

Meanwhile, there are ways you can minimize the chance of becoming a victim. Don’t carry your Social Security card or any document with your SSN on it. Don’t give a business your SSN just because they ask. Give it only when required.

Also, check your credit report every 12 months using www.annualcreditreport.com.

Secure personal information in your home. Protect your personal computers by using firewalls, anti-spam/virus software, update security patches, and change passwords for Internet accounts.

Finally, don’t give personal information over the phone, through the mail or on the Internet unless you have initiated the contact or you are sure you know who you are dealing with.

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What's On Your Mind? JK Harris, Kirby Vacuum Cleaners, State Farm

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here's what's on consumers' minds today...

Photo
J.K. Harris

With tax season in full swing, some taxpayers are not only dealing with their 2011 returns, but trying to resolve tax issues from past years. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has recently made it easier to deal directly with the tax agency when you have a tax problem. Des, of Charlotte, N.C., says she wishes she had known that before contacting JK Harris.

“I joined with them in Jan 2011 thinking I was going to get help with my IRS debt, but when in fact, like everyone else, all JK Harris did was make my situation worse,” Des said. “Now I have the IRS about to garnish my wages and I'm a single mother of two and JK Harris stole about $4,000 from me and my children. Thanks JK Harris for nothing.”

Earlier this month JK Harris & Co. suspended operations, sent its employees home and is reported to be preparing to liquidate its assets. The firm, the subject of hundreds of complaints to ConsumerAffairs.com over the years, has been in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings since October but has reportedly been unable to raise enough funding to continue operations.

Not really a gift, was it?

Kirby Vacuum Cleaner salesmen are known for being pushy and persistent when they come knocking on your door. But Sandra, of Dayton, Va., says one Kirby representative came to her door bearing a gift.

“He gave me a candle for letting him come inside,” Sandra told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I told him that I already owned a Kirby but he insisted that he show me this model. I told him I was not interested, so he showed me anyway. When he was done he called his boss to pick him up. Before leaving the boss told him to come back to the door and ask for the candle back. What kind of leadership is this?”

Yes, but at least Sandra wasn't pressured into making a purchase. That's worth losing a candle any day.

See you in court

Laura, of Bakersfield, Calif., said she was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic signal. The driver, she says, is insured by State Farm.

“I am still under treatment for my neck injuries but have already been told by the State Farm adjuster that they will not be considering the injuries to my hip when they do try to settle with me because I had a bone spur on my hip that I was not even aware of,” Laura said. “They are trying to get out of paying me for all my out of pocket expenses and my lost wages The person that hit me was 100% responsible no question on that but they still are trying to get out of paying me and I am a State Farm customer too - have been since 1994."

If Laura is not satisfied with the company's settlement offer, she can decline to sign any papers and retain legal counsel. There are a lot of personal injury attorneys advertising these days. They aren't hard to find.

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Giant Bicycle Recalls Defy, Avail Models

The fork can break

Giant Bicycle is recalling about 900 2012 Model Year Giant Defy Advanced and Avail Advanced Bicycles. The fork can crack, posing a fall hazard to ride...

PhotoGiant Bicycle is recalling about 900 2012 Model Year Giant Defy Advanced and Avail Advanced Bicycles. The fork can crack, posing a fall hazard to riders.

This recall involves all 2012 model year men’s Giant Defy Advanced 0, 1 and 2 model bicycles and the women’s Giant Avail Advanced 0, 1, and 2 model bicycles. “Giant” and the model name are printed on the bicycle. The bicycles are various colors and sizes.

Authorized Giant Bicycle dealers sold the bikes nationwide from August 2011 through November 2011 for between $3,000 and $4,550. They were made in Taiwan.

Consumers should immediately stop riding the recalled bicycles and contact any authorized Giant Bicycle dealer for a free inspection and replacement of the fork.

PhotoFor additional information, contact Giant Bicycle toll-free at (866) 458-2555 between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. PT Monday through Friday or visit the firm’s website at www.giant-bicycles.com

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Just How Serious Was The Zappos Data Breach?

It may be more serious than you think

Zappos data breach raises troubling issues, security expert warns...

PhotoOnline shoe retailer Zappos.com reported this week that one of its customer database servers was compromised by hackers over the weekend. The initial reports, however, were not that alarming.

After all, the company said hackers were not able to get access to customers' credit card information. The company is requiring all 24 million customers to reset their account passwords.

While all of this may be slightly reassuring – as reassuring as data breaches can be – one security expert says it's still a very serious breach.

“Zappos said that credit card information was not stolen, but acknowledged that email addresses, billing and shipping addresses, phone numbers, and the last four digits from credit cards may have been compromised,” said Stephen B. Wicker, Cornell professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “This is a lopsided outcome for the customer.”

Wicker conducts research in wireless information networks. He focuses on networking technology, law, and sociology, and how regulation can affect the privacy and speech rights. He is the author of the book “Cellular Convergence and the Death of Privacy,” to be published by Oxford University Press at the end of 2012.

The bigger problem

“The bigger problem Zappos faces is that large databases of consumer information can be used for identity theft,” Wicker said. “As Zappos acknowledged, users who use the same or similar passwords are at risk of theft through access to other sites such as Amazon or Ebay.”

Wicker says information about a customer can be used to “de-anonymize” other databases on other Web sites, further invading customer privacy. In other words, hackers can begin building databases on individuals, piecing together bits of data from a variety of sources.

Correlation attacks

“Correlation attacks enabled by such data have been shown to strip anonymity from NetFlix, AOL and other databases that were assumed safe,” Wicker warned. “Thus, the information used can include customer preferences, beliefs and practices that are far harder to change than a credit card number.”

Wicker says he thinks Zappos responded quickly and correctly, calling the response admirable for its forthrightness and immediacy. But he says it's also a reminder of the risk run when online service providers maintain databases of user data. This is a practice that many, many web site and service providers engage in for convenience and, in some cases, for profit.

“This is a practice that a networked society cannot afford for the long term if individual privacy is to be preserved,” Wicker said.

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At Last, A Way to Cash In On Your Friends

What good are friends, if they're not a profit center?

Someone unfortunate enough to become President once said that if you want a friend in Washington, you should get a dog.  It was good advice then and m...

PhotoSomeone unfortunate enough to become President once said that if you want a friend in Washington, you should get a dog.  It was good advice then and may be even better today, when the D.C. definition of friendship seems to have spread virally across the cybersphere.

Not too long ago, a friend was someone who offered not just occasional facetime and frequent tweets but was also someone you could count on to stand by you in good times and bad -- you know, somebody who would offer sympathy, support and honest advice.

But increasingly, a friend is just a "friend," meaning someone who has managed to hook up with you on Facebook Twitter, Google+ and so forth.

In fact, there are now people who spend quite a bit of time amassing huge lists of "friends" for reasons that aren't quite clear, although it seems that we're coming to regard "friends" as something akin to airline miles or bonus points on a credit card.  

In other words, they're not worth much now but maybe we'll find a use for them one of these days.

A friend indeed

Sensing which way the wind is blowing, two young lads, Ryan and Andrew Landau, have left their presumably cushy posts at Google and IBM to launch something called PowerVoice, their P.R. person told us recently.

Believe it or not, PowerVoice promises to "automate the ability to measure the influence of a particular individual."  This should at the very least come in handy when deciding who gets an organ transplant or who gets to board the airplane first.

Better yet, if you believe in selling out your friends, PowerVoice promises to enable you to do just that. Here's how the company describes its noble mission:

"PowerVoice negotiates a marketing agreement with companies and their brands. PowerVoice then provides a paying customer (or sale) to the brand for a fee. Lastly, PowerVoice takes part of that fee and passes it along to the original consumer that acted as a conduit for the transaction to occur."

In other words, you'll be able to tell your friends how great that new super-whitening toothpaste is, how much you loved the taste, how white it made your teeth, etc., etc., and get paid for it, even if you keep your teeth in a drawer at night.

Everyman's payola

The possibilities are pretty much endless, as the Messrs. Landau presumably see it.  Why stop with "friends," after all? Maybe they'll sign up members of the clergy, who can use their time in the pulpit to make some real money instead of just storing up pennies in heaven. Will parishoners be told to "go forth and buy a Ford?"

Or maybe psychiatrists will recommend specific vacation spots, airlines and car rental companies to their depressed patients.  Car pool partners will have a daily opportunity to importune their carmates about the latest and greatest Starbucks flavor, now on sale in the office building lobby.

It is, in other words, payola for the masses.  Now everyone can be a lobbyist. Why should Jack Abramoff make all the money?  Oh well, sure, he's in prison now, but he did pretty well back in the day, all by talking to his "friends."

And speaking of prison, there is one little problem with being paid to endorse products without disclosing that fact: It's illegal.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has for years enforced prohibitions against deceptive and undisclosed endorsements.  Simply put, says FTC attorney Lesley Fair, "Any material connection between the seller and endorser that prospective buyers wouldn’t normally expect must be disclosed."

In other words, if your friends think of you as, well, a friend and not just a "friend," they're not likely to think you're being paid to tell them what a great time you had on your last visit to Match.com.

The FTC has managed to stay outfront in most areas of Internet advertising and already has rules and guidelines in place that would seem to anticipate what the Landau lads have in mind.

As the agency says in one of its publications: "If there’s a connection between the endorser and the marketer of the product that would affect how people evaluate the endorsement, it should be disclosed."  Failure to do so can fall under the rules prohibiting deceptive advertising, which can result in pretty unpleasant fines and other penalties.

Now, of course, it's quite possible the Landaus themselves might not be directly liable, since they are probably not going to be endorsing products, other than their own.  But individual consumers hoping to make a buck off their friends?

Well, you might want to think again.  Or at least be sure that after you tell your "friends" how much you really loved that NutriSystem diet and how you shed pounds like dandruff, you add a simple little phrase along the lines of: "These and other comments of a similar nature made by me during the course of what appears to be a non-commercial conversation between us may constitute a paid endorsement."

They'll love you for that.

Lastly, today's consumer tip:  If you find yourself growing suspicious of your "friends" constantly babbling on about what a great time they had during their Sheraton weekend, you might want to take an occasional peek at the PowerVoice Advertisers page, just to see who's doing the pay for play game this week.  

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What's On Your Mind? West Bay Acquisitions, Southwest Airlines, Ally Bank

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: West Bay Acquisitions, Southwest Airlines, Ally Bank, Complication and slow pay....

PhotoSince Hollywood Video went out of business, former customers have received notices from debt collection agencies saying they owe either late fees or must pay for unreturned movies. In nearly every case, these consumers have disputed the charges. Alison, of Roseville, Minn., tells us how she dealt with a collection effort

“Thanks to my husband's research efforts and helpful postings from ConsumerAffairs.com, I was able to successfully dispute a bogus debt collection attempt by West Bay Acquisitions, LLC, located in Cranston, Rhode Island,” Alison said. “I received a collection letter from West Bay dated January 9, stating that I owed $43.66 in rental fees from bankrupt Hollywood Video. I did not owe Hollywood Video any fees and filed complaints with the FTC, BBB, and the Minnesota Attorney General's Office. The Boston BBB contacted West Bay on my behalf on January 16; on January 17 I received a response from West Bay via the Boston BBB stating that they 'have decided to cease all collection activity and close the account.'”

Alison's proactive approach paid off. She also says the response from the debt collector said "at no time have any of these accounts been reported to any consumer reporting agency by West Bay Acquisitions, LLC."

Complication

Debra, of League City, Tex., certainly has a complicated issue with Southwest Airlines. She says she had a $57 credit from a previous ticket that was set to expire January 24, 2012.

“I used that credit to purchase a ticket to travel January 20, 2012 and the total cost of the ticket was $300.00,” Debra told ConsumerAffairs.com.

Debra paid used her credit and paid an extra $243 for her ticket. But here's where it starts to get complicated.

"For business reasons I need to move the flight forward one week to January 27, three days after the $57 credit expires,” she said. “I am now told that I have lost the entire $300 even though I only purchased the additional $243 one week ago. I was told I could call in after the ticket expires on January 24 and they would give me a six month extension. Does it make sense to lose the entire $300 because of three days difference?”

Of course, the answer is that it depends on what kind of fare Debra bought.  If it was a special, discounted fare, it no doubt came with restrictions on changes, cancellations, etc. 

Slow pay

Patrick, of North Smithfield, R.I., thinks Ally Bank is just a little too slow to send him his money when he asks for it.

“So far, six phone calls to very nice customer service representatives of Ally Bank have identical results; promises but no cash,” Patrick said. “In short, two CD’s matured December 31 and direction to close those accounts and surrender my principal with interest has not been completed as of January 17. Sure, I received the interest but the principal just hasn’t shown up like promised.”

Different banks have different policies about the length of time they will take to disburse funds. Unless you actually walk in to a branch, you're unlikely to get a check the same day. Even though there have been a couple of holidays in there, Patrick's wait does sound a bit excessive.

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Good Riddance: Last Year for 'Instant' Tax Refund Loans

There are other free and nearly-free ways to get your refund quickly

There's at least one bright note for consumers as this tax season gets into gear: This is the final year in which refund anticipation loans (RALs) will be ...

PhotoThere's at least one bright note for consumers as this tax season gets into gear: This is the final year in which refund anticipation loans (RALs) will be available from banks on a large scale, nationwide basis. After this season, there will be an end to the hundreds of millions drained from taxpayer refunds by these high-cost, high-risk loans.

“We will be glad to see the last of RALs, which were both high-cost and high-risk,” says Chi Chi Wu, staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC). “It’s not a moment too soon to stop multi-million dollar corporations from skimming off the tax refunds of hard-working families.”

Consumer advocates suggest that taxpayers looking for quick refund cash should consider these lower-cost or free alternatives:

  • Taxpayers with a bank account can get their tax refunds in 8 to 15 days with e-filing and direct deposit.
  • Taxpayers without a bank account can get a fast refund by e-filing and having their refund deposited to a prepaid card, including any existing payroll or prepaid card that the taxpayer already has.
  • H&R Block is even offering free refund anticipation checks (RACs) until early February if the customer uses its prepaid Block Emerald Card to receive the refund.
  • Walmart will cash your refund check up to $1,000 for $3, or $6 for up to $7,500.

With refund anticipation checks (RACs), the bank opens a temporary bank account into which the IRS direct deposits the refund check. After the refund is deposited, the bank issues the consumer a check or prepaid card and closes the temporary account. A RAC allows the consumer to pay for tax preparation fees out of the refund and provides the speed of direct deposit of tax refunds for unbanked taxpayers, but generally at an additional cost.

Life after Refund Anticipation Loans (RALs)

Even after the end of RALs, tax preparers and banks will continue to offer RACs, for which the banks generally charge about $30-$32. Tax preparers may also charge their own “add-on” fees, which can range from $25 to several hundred dollars.  

Since their main purposes is to defer payment of the tax preparation until the refund arrives, RACs may represent a high-cost loan of that fee. With the exception of free RACs, consumer advocates recommend taxpayers consider alternatives.

Prepaid cards are one alternative to allow taxpayers without a bank account to receive a fast refund. Taxpayers, however, should be cautious when selecting a prepaid card. “As with any financial product, taxpayers should compare costs and consumer protections,” recommends Wu.

Taxpayers without a bank account should also consider opening a bank account to receive their refund. “Getting a big refund is the perfect time to open a savings account and start a nest egg,” advises Jean Ann Fox, director of financial services for Consumer Federation of America.

Free tax preparation

Low-income taxpayers have a number of options for free tax preparation, including Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) (1-800-906-9887 or www.irs.gov) and AARP Tax-Aide sites. Choosing a VITA or AARP Tax-Aide site saves taxpayers the cost of a tax preparation fee. Many VITA sites also offer services to help open a bank account or get a low-cost prepaid card, which enables taxpayers to get fast refunds without pay a fee.

Free tax preparation may be available on military bases, and since servicemembers are required to have bank accounts, they are able to benefit from the speed of electronic delivery of their tax refunds

There are also a number of websites that allow taxpayers to prepare and file their taxes online for free, such as the IRS Free File program (www.irs.gov) and the I-CAN! E-file site (www.icanefile.org).

Enter the payday lenders

With the end of RALs made by banks, a few high-cost fringe lenders have stepped into the fray. Liberty Tax Service, which is planning an initial public offering, revealed in its prospectus that the tax preparation chain plans to partner with an unnamed non-bank lender to make RALs.

Liberty’s website shows that it has partnered with SGS Credit Services, Inc., which appears to be linked with Texas payday lenders.

A prominent payday lender, Advance America, is offering “fast” refunds though its storefronts, although it is unclear whether the product is a RAL, a regular payday loan, or a RAC in actuality.

The website for TaxWorks, a division of RedGear, which is owned by H&R Block, is promoting a “Tax Season Cash Advance” provided by Schear Lending Group and Atlas Financial Services. Schear Lending Group appears to be somehow affiliated with Ohio-based payday lenders.

“Consumers have even more reason to avoid RALs made by payday lenders,” advises Jean Ann Fox, “These RALs are likely to be more expensive and riskier.”

RALs made by nonbank lenders will most likely not be as widespread as bank RALs. Nonbank lenders do not have the legal ability, unlike banks, to flout state laws that cap interest rates, i.e., usury laws. Tax-time loans from payday lenders and other storefront outlets that offer to prepare taxes and make loans may be subject to state loan laws, usury caps, or loan broker requirements in states that have them. Seventeen states (and District of Columbia) do not permit payday lending at all.

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Six Résumé Mistakes Job Seekers Make

How to improve your odds of getting an interview

Common Résumé Mistakes: Wasting space on experience that does not apply, email blunders, making the recruiter guess what you do, using that tired, old refe...

PhotoWith unemployment stubbornly high, getting a job is a lot harder than it used to be. Add in online recruiting, which is now much more common, and a job seeker must make the most of their limited opportunities.

The first contact with a potential employer will probably be a résumé, so it's now doubly important that the document be the most compelling description and endorsement of your skills, experience and abilities. Unfortunately, job recruiters report many resumes fall short of that goal and are simply disregarded.

Job placement specialists say the first goal of a résumé is to distinguish yourself from the crowd. In this competitive market, even with ideal work experience, glowing references, and an endless catalogue of professional achievements, you can still miss out on your dream job due to these six small, yet critical common errors.

1. Wasting space on experience that does not apply

Résumé real estate is both scarce and valuable. Recruiters care most about your recent experiences and accomplishments, so do not waste your efforts and their time on a lengthy description of your college work/study position. Maximize your precious space by crafting a powerful career profile, focusing on what you have accomplished in your last two or three positions.

Limiting the number of jobs listed on your résumé will allow you to devote more attention to phrasing, tone and keywords. Be sure to start off with content that is truly meaningful and illustrates the essence of who you are as a professional.

2. Email blunders

Never, ever use your work email address on your résumé. This will most assuredly reveal your job search to your current supervisor, putting both of you  in an awkward position.

Likewise, spending company time and resources to explore your career options is disrespectful, and potential employers are likely to perceive this as a reflection of poor character. The rules are the same for your work phone number—just don't.

Since you won't be using your work email address, be sure that the one you use is still professional. Off-the-wall email address such as PelicanKillerNo1@xyz.com and 2CutetoBReal@xyz.com will not paint an appropriate picture. Keep your address neutral, limiting it to your name or initials and, if necessary a number.

3. Making the recruiter guess what you do

A generic résumé will automatically be deleted or ignored. Potential employers want to know who you are. Once you've determined your professional identity, prove to recruiters that you have the skillset and experience that will add value to the position in question.

Make sure that each job description is specifically worded to highlight any specific qualifications.

"Concentrate on your abilities and achievements most applicable to the position at hand,” said Katie Adams, a professional résumé writer and career consultant. “Professional resume writers can help you find exceptional ways to present your talents and avoid being so cookie-cutter."

One easy way to avoid confusion is by including a unique profile or targeted statement briefly describing what you do and what would make you an invaluable employee. Use this space to summarize the talents that your two to three job descriptions illustrate in detail, and highlight those most applicable to the position you seek.

4. Using that tired, old reference line

You might think the phrase "references available upon request" is covering the necessary bases, but the fact is this line is obsolete, and will actually flag job seekers as out-of-touch. There is generally no need to mention your references at all, and they should only be included in the application process if it is explicitly required that you do so.

Instead, create a separate reference page that you can present in interviews upon request. It is also important to remember that previous employers are legally not allowed to reveal anything about your term of employment beyond confirmation that you worked for them, and whether you were terminated, part of a layoff, or that you left voluntarily.

5. Grammar and spelling errors

Typos, misspellings and poor grammar are, unfortunately, fairly common in resumes. Though this seems it should go without saying, have your résumé proofread by at least two or three people before sending it out.

Many job seekers are nervous or insecure about having others read their résumés. Get over it. Any anxiety you might have over sharing your work experience will be quickly replaced when someone points out that the date is not, in fact, 20012.

6. Badmouthing your previous employer

Though this particular gaffe is most applicable to cover letters or interviews, it is imperative to avoid at all costs. While it is certainly normal to harbor some unenthusiastic opinions about your former boss or employee, understand that negativity generates nothing but more negativity.

"Divulging these feelings is a recipe for disaster," said Peggy Padalino, of Jobfox, a job search and career networking site. "If a job seeker indicates that he was fired from his previous position because his boss 'had it out for him,' so to speak, the implications of this revelation would certainly eliminate him from the running. Think about it. Is this person going to be pleasant to work with? Unlikely. Is this person going to speak poorly of me in the future? Most definitely."

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'Free' TurboTax Charges Usurious Interest Rates, Suit Alleges

Fees deducted from refund amount to quadruple-digit interest, suit claims

A federal class action lawsuit says Intuit charges usurious "quadruple-digit interest rates" as fees for using the supposedly "free" online edition of its ...

PhotoA federal class action lawsuit says Intuit charges usurious "quadruple-digit interest rates" as fees for using the "free" online edition of its TurboTax software.

Tasha and Frederick Smith say they used Intuit's online tax preparation software in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Each time, they say, they deferred paying the $86.90 fee to use the software, and chose to have it deducted from their tax refund, Courthouse News Service reported.

Intuit charged them another $29.95 for this, more than 34 percent of the $86.90 fee, the Smiths say. Their suit alleges that Intuit violates the Truth in Lending Act, and California business and usury laws.

The Smiths, who live in Arkansas, say that each year they received their refund from the IRS in about two weeks.

"Plaintiffs paid $29.95 for an approximate 14-day loan of $86.90," the complaint states. "The APR, properly calculated in accordance with TILA, was an exorbitant quadruple-digit interest rate. Such interest rates also violated California's usury laws."

Service fee

Intuit calls the $29.95 charge a Refund Processing Service Fee. The Smiths call it "a ruse and merely a device through which usurious interest would be exacted".

The Smiths may be onto something but, considering how distasteful the subject of taxes is, most consumers seem fairly satisfied with TurboTax.  We analyzed 74,000 consumer comments on Twitter, Facebook and other social media and found positive sentiment running high:

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Most of the complaints we hear at ConsumerAffairs.com have to do with alleged errors and billing problems.

"D" of Mineola, Teas, for example, said that he used TurboTax Premier 2010. Software and that it allowed a passive loss on rental property even though his family's income was above $150,000.  The result was an IRS audit and $5,000 or so of additional taxes, penalties, interest and expense.

"T" of Deerfield Beach, Fla., also found himself in trouble with the IRS after using TurboTax.

"In 2010 I used a free version of Turbo Tax online," he said. "At that time of completing the taxes, I was only able to retrieve a cover page ... indicating the refund due me and four other lines. The 1040EZ was not attached. I saved what was available to my computer and was grateful I was receiving a refund."

But T's gratitude was short-lived: "Now, a year later I am being contacted by Internal Revenue citing I owe them as the witholding amount was different than that indicated on my W2."

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Used Car Prices On The Rise

Kelly Blue Book says selection of late model cars getting smaller

Prices of used cars are going up in the first quarter of 2012...

PhotoIf you are in the market for a used vehicle, time is of the essence, according to Kelley Blue Book, a provider of new- and used-car information.

The company says it expects used-car values to increase three to five percent in the first quarter of 2012, with gains continuing into the second quarter. Making a purchase early in the quarter, Kelly says, can help you get a better deal.

Used car values have been flat through the first two weeks of January; although, a handful of segments have started to increase earlier than originally anticipated. Non-luxury cars and crossovers increased between $50 and $10  in the past week alone, and they will likely continue to rise in the weeks and months ahead, the company predicted.

Slowdown in lease returns

One reason for the upward pressure on prices is a slight slowdown in lease returns and an aging fleet of vehicles. Kelly said that's likely to keep prices high through most of this year, potentially higher than the record levels established in 2011. The inventory of late-model used cars is often made up of leased vehicles and corporate and rental car fleets.

"Consumers eyeing one of the many highly acclaimed redesigned 2011 model-year vehicles for their next used car should be prepared to pay a significant premium," said Alec Gutierrez, senior market analyst of automotive insights for Kelley Blue Book. "For example, the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze and Kia Optima currently maintain a premium higher than 40 percent versus the 2010 model-year counterpart, significantly outperforming the Honda Accord and Toyota Corolla, which weren't redesigned for model-year 2011."

Redesigns are attractive

Car shoppers are often attracted to a model that has undergone a major redesign, setting it apart from earlier models. Car salesmen know this and attach a premium to these cars, especially when the outgoing generation was an under-performer in its segment.

Increasingly, consumers turned to cars that are one to three years old instead of purchasing a new car . New cars have always carried a higher price that often goes down as soon as the new owner drives it off the lot.

But Kelly says even used cars are going to be more expensive this year. No matter what vehicle a shopper may have in mind, higher prices are the reality of today's market and used vehicles will only become more expensive and difficult to come by as time goes on, the company said.

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Social Networking At Work Surged Last Year

Twitter use at work is up 700 percent

Report shows employees increasing their use of social networks...

PhotoCompanies hoping that Twitter and Facebook were just passing distractions for their employees are in for a disappointment. Research by Palo Alto Networks, a security company, suggests explosive growth in global social networking and browser-based file sharing on corporate networks.

The company said it found a 300 percent increase in active social networking compared with activity during the same period in the latter half of 2010.

"Whether or not employees are using social networks or sharing files at work is no longer a question; this data clearly demonstrates that users are embracing and actively using such applications,” said René Bonvanie, chief marketing officer at Palo Alto Networks. "Companies must determine how to safely enable these technologies on their networks so that users can maintain the levels of productivity that many of these applications can afford, while at the same time ensuring that their corporate networks and users are protected against all threats.”

Gobbling bandwidth

Among the findings, Twitter use has surged, growing by 700 percent year-over-year. Since October 2010, social networking usage patterns have become more active with bandwidth consumption for Facebook Apps, Social Plugins, and posting increasing from five percent (October 2010) to 25 percent (December 2011) when measured as a percentage of total social networking bandwidth.

The report also found that file sharing sites continue to be used on most networks, appearing on the networks of 92 percent of the participating organizations. In total, 65 different browser-based file-sharing variants were found with an average of 13 being used in each of the analyzed organizations.

The report also explores a variety of risks associated with browser-based file-sharing applications, which varies by application and use case. However, the use of evasive techniques by these applications implies that they are often operating unchecked on corporate networks, the report warned.

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New Form 1099-Ks Due January 31

Your part-time business may mean a new tax reporting requirement

The new form 1099-K tracks credit and debit card sales...

PhotoIf you own a business that accepts credit or debit cards, you will receive a new form – 1099-K – from your credit card processor by January 31. You'll file that with your tax return, as a statement of income.

The form must be generated to show the following transactions:

  • All payments made in settlement of payment card transactions (e.g., credit card); 
  • Payments in settlement of third party network transactions IF:
  • Gross payments to a participating payee exceed $20,000; AND
  • There are more than 200 transactions with the participating payee.

 That means if your business generated less than 20,000 in credit or debit card sales last year, or fewer than 200 credit or debt card transactions, you won't be getting a form and it isn't required as part of your return.

Filing deadlines and procedures

1099-Ks are due to merchants by January 31, 2012. Electronically filed 1099-Ks are due to the IRS April 2, 2012 (normally March 31), while paper 1099-Ks are due February 28, 2012.

It's not just banks and credit card companies that have to issue the new form. So do third party networks such as PayPal and Google. That's where some consumers could find themselves caught up in the new reporting requirements.

The IRS generally isn't interested in what you make at your annual yard sale. But if you have a booming business selling other people's unwanted junk on eBay, and you made more than 200 PayPal transactions totalling over $20,000, then you'll be getting a form and you have to file.

The new requirement is part of a law Congress passed in 2008 in an effort to help the IRS collect more revenue.

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What's On Your Mind? Education Scams, Capital One, U-Haul

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Education Scams, Capital One, U-Haul and unmentioned charges, phantom interest, you have to read the rental agree...

PhotoMost scams have been around, in one form or another, for years. Once a scammer finds something that works, they tend to stay with it. However, now and then someone comes up with something new. Cathleen, of Ottawa, Ontario, fell victim to a pitch for phony training courses.

“My husband and I were approached at home in the spring of 2010 and paid for CPR training, which we were told we could take any time up to April 2013,” Cathleen told ConsumerAffairs.com. “We were told that the courses were offered continuously, and we were given a list of locations and a number to call to book. That number is not in service, and in searching the web - yes, I know I should have done that first - I realize that we have been scammed. I hope something can be done about it. We paid $120 each for the course.”

A good rule of thumb is to be wary of anyone selling something door to door. While the traveling peddler has a long and rich tradition in commerce, lately it's rarely worked out well for consumers.

Phantom interest?

Thomas, of Longmont, Colo., says he paid off his Capital One credit card, in full, back in August and hasn't used it since. So he was surprised when he recently got a bill.

“Capital One created phantom charges, added interest and then late payments,” Thomas said. “Now I 'owe' $104.28. Not only do I owe $104.28 for no products or services delivered in return, but my credit report was dinged as well because I didn't know I could be charged phantom fees and interest.”

Thomas didn't say if he went back and looked at statements, but he should have. Capital One could not have charged him fees and interest without leaving a paper trail. When paying off a balance, make sure you know when the payment clears. Otherwise, you could be in for a nasty surprise.

You have to read the rental agreement

Mathew, of Blairsville, Ga., says he was told one thing but charged another when he rented a truck from U-Haul.

“I was told it would be $29.92, plus gas,” Mathew said. “When I returned they told me my bill was over $200.00 and that I was being charged 89 cents per mile. I was never told that, or I would have borrowed my grandfather's truck and trailer and made two trips. This is totally unacceptable and I will never use U-Haul again.”

Misunderstandings occur. The rental agent may have not mentioned the mileage charge, or Mathew might not have heard it. That's why it's always important to carefully read the rental agreement, especially the part about what you are paying. What the rental agent isn't binding. The rental agreement is.

 

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Suit Charges Janitorial Franchise Scammed Latinos

Spanish-speaking applicants say company took their money, didn't deliver their franchise

More than 50 people say so-called janitorial franchisor Stratus Building Solutions of Orange defrauded them in a cold-blooded "corporate scam" aimed at Spa...

PhotoIn a lawsuit filed in Orange County, Calif., 51 Latino plaintiffs say they were the victims of a scam aimed at Spanish speakers seeking to buy janitorial franchises.

The plaintiffs say GoldeneyeHoldings dba Stratus Building Solutions of Orange ran a "simple" scam that targeted "victims who don't speak English by taking out ads in Spanish speaking publications," Courthouse News Service reported.

The plaintiffs say they responded to Spanish-language ads that directed them to call or visit "Fernando," one of Stratus' sales representatives and promised them profitable cleaning franchises located near their homes. 

Instead, "plaintiffs' attempts to achieve the 'America Dream' was thwarted by the new American reality - the corporate scam," the complaint states.

"Once the prospective franchisee agrees to purchase a franchise, 'Fernando' immediately pulls out a franchise agreement in English and immediately insists that the prospective franchisee sign the agreement in order to reserve a franchise since it contends that its franchising opportunities are about to be sold out," the suit alleges.

But after they sign the agreement and pay the agreed-upon amount, the company fails to deliver the franchise and stops answering their calls, the suit charges: "Each of the plaintiffs purchased a franchise from Stratus and none of them ever received the franchise they were promised by "Fernando," while acting as an agent for Stratus."

The plaintiffs seek damages for fraud, breach of contract and violations of the California Business & Professions Code.

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TrueCar.com Knuckles Under to State Regulations

Online car discounter ran afoul of anti-brokering laws in many states

Online new-car discounter TrueCar.com is reworking its business model to satisfy state laws that prohibit "brokering" or "bird-dogging" of cars. Ope...

PhotoOnline new-car discounter TrueCar.com is reworking its business model to satisfy state laws that prohibit brokering or "bird-dogging" of cars. 

Operating much like Priceline.com, TrueCar.com invites consumers to enter the make and model car they're looking for, then claims to find the best available price in their area and puts them in touch with the dealer offering that price.

It sounds aboveboard and many dealers were enthused about TrueCar's ability to gets cars rolling off their lots. Other dealers weren't so happy; they saw sales going to other dealers and found themselves with little alternative but to cut prices while paying a bonus to TrueCar for each sale.

"Too competitive"

Soon came squawks from states that have laws set up to protect auto dealers from becoming -- let's say -- too competitive. In many states, laws that dealers themselves wangled out of their legislature prohibit third parties from getting in between car dealers and their customers. That spelled trouble for TrueCar.com, which is what's known in Internet parlance as a "lead provider" -- someone who puts buyer and seller together and takes a piece of the action.   

So now TrueCar founder Scott Painter says his company will change the way it charges particpating dealers -- basically charging them a monthly subscription fee instead of the per-car finder's fee of $299 for each lead that results in a new-car sale.

Painter said that TrueCar has suspended its service in Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Louisiana until those states have signed off on the changes it's making.  And he says that he will look at the laws in every state to be sure he's in compliance.

Even in states, like California, that allow brokering, TrueCar will switch to a subscription model, he said.

Disclosures

Besides the brokering restrictions, TrueCar has also run afoul of various state laws governing disclosures.  To comply with those laws, TrueCar will state its promised discounts in terms of a dollar-figure discount from the sticker price, not the invoice price.

Several states ban the term "invoice" in car ads, saying it is not always an accurate measure of the dealer's true cost.

While some of the state laws TrueCar has run afoul of are intended to protect consumers, just as many -- if not more -- are the result of years of lobbying by car dealers determined to protect themselves from what they view as unfair price competition.

Even after all the changes are made, one thing about the TrueCar process will stay the same: After choosing a make and model, picking options and getting what is supposedly the lowest available price, consumers will have to provide their name, address and contact information.  

Only then will they be able to print a "certificate" that they can take to the dealer to get the price quoted by TrueCar.

Consumers will still have to be prepared for all the usual tricks of the trade -- cars that are mysteriously out of stock, options that weren't included on the TrueCar site and all the usual fees, charges, taxes and other miscellany that tend to creep in at the last minute.

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Zappos.com Internal Server Hacked

Passwords, but not credit card info, may be compromised

Zappos.com is telling customers to reset passwords after a hacking attack...

PhotoConsumers who have ordered from the popular online shoe retailer Zappos.com are being told to change their account passwords after a hacker successfully penetrated one of the company's servers over the weekend.

The company said the server that contains customers' credit card information was not compromised. Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh said the company is cooperating with law enforcement officials who are investigating the security breach.

"We've spent over 12 years building our reputation, brand, and trust with our customers,” Hsieh said in an email to Zappos.com customers. “It's painful to see us take so many steps back due to a single incident."

Password reset

Hsieh said the company has reset customers' passwords, to prevent any unauthorized access to accounts. He said it may take a few days to get the staff trained to assist consumers with the process of setting up new passwords for their accounts.

Zappos.com has more than 24 million consumers in its database. The company said customers will soon receive an email from the company with instructions for setting up a new password. The company said it would press all employees into service to help with the process.

Sensitive data

While the hackers apparently did not get credit card numbers, they did gain access to other sensitive data. The company says the compromised server, located in Kentucky, contained email addresses, billing and shipping addresses, and telephone numbers.

Despite the precautions about passwords, it is believed the hackers did not gain access to actual passwords, but an encrypted version of passwords.

Zappos was founded as an online shoe retailer in 1999 and was acquired by Amazon.com in 2009.  

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Prepaid Debit Cards Getting Wider Use

Celebrities now lending their names to help market them

A comparison on pre-paid debit cards...

PhotoThere seems to be a sudden proliferation of prepaid debit cards, so marketers have enlisted celebrity endorsements to set their cards apart.

You may have seen ads for cards offered by Russell Simmons, the Kardashian sisters and Lil Wayne. But the latest celebrity-endorsed card bears the name of Suze Orman, known for her books and TV programs about personal finance.

So, is her card any better than the other fee-laden prepaid cards? Cardhub.com recent conducted an evaluation. They compared it to the Green Dot and American Express prepaid cards, which an earlier analysis had identified as the best replacements for a checking account and for its financial literacy tools.

Low basic fee structure

“Orman’s Approved Card has a pretty low basic fee structure as long as you regularly deposit money onto the card and use one of the over 35,000 ATMs AllPoint has nationwide," said Card Hub founder and CEO Odysseas Papadimitriou, a former Capital One executive. "However, there’s a fee floor, so to speak, which means this card will always cost you something.”

The Green Dot Prepaid Card is free to use as a replacement checking account, whereas the Approved Card will cost $3.25 per month.

The Green Dot Card costs $5.95/mo. for the financial literacy tool, the Amex Prepaid Card costs $6.66/mo., and the Approved Card costs $3.25/mo., making it currently the best option for teaching young people how to manage their money.

Bad for Suze?

Whether Suze Orman's card is good for consumers may be open to debate but, so far, what appears pretty certain is that the card isn't doing much for Suze Orman's reputation among consumers.

An analysis of about 31,000 consumer comments, admittedly just a handful, on Facebook, Twitter and other social media finds that she was enjoying a positive net sentiment rating as high as 80% until December, when the card was announced and her rating fell to near-zero territory.

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There's not much doubt about what caused the steep plunge in net sentiment. Nearly all of the "dislikes" named by consumers had to do with the prepaid card.

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Identity theft protection

The Orman Card provides a service through TrustedID that monitors your personal information and alerts you about any suspicious activity. This is undoubtedly beneficial for consumers, Card Hub says.

“Consumers often worry about identity theft, and the TrustedID service not only helps safeguard one’s money, but it also offers some peace of mind," Papadimitriou said. "The Emergency Fund feature also makes budgeting a little easier and overspending a bit more difficult – good things when you consider the rate at which people are adding new credit card debt these days.”

What should be clear to consumers using any prepaid card is that there are always fees involved for using your own money. It's just a matter of how many fees and how high they are.

Alternatives to the alternative

Consumers considering a prepaid card as an alternative to a big bank checking account might first check into what's available from a small, community bank or credit union. Small community banks, which sometimes have a few branches in urban and suburban areas, usually charge fewer fees and some even still provide free checking.

"Virtual" banks, like PerkStreet, provide more services than a simple prepaid card. PerkStreet offers a free checking account, online bill-paying and other services normally associated with brick-and-mortar banks.

Credit unions are membership organizations and are non-profit in nature. While they have to earn enough to pay operating costs, they don't have to show a profit and therefore, they tend to have fewer and lower fees.

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Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase

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Medicare Doctors Not Always Easy to Find

Survey finds some patients have problems finding a new primary care physician

The endless political bickering over Medicare may be taking its toll on patients. A new survey finds a small but growing number of patients report problems...

PhotoThe endless political bickering over Medicare may be taking its toll on patients. A new survey finds a small but growing number of patients report problems finding a new primary-care physician.

The problem may be at least partially caused by the continuing uncertainty over reimbursement rates for doctors, which has made many doctors wary of taking on new Medicare patients.

The survey's findings included:

  • Only 6 percent of Medicare patients looked for a new primary care doctor in 2011.
  • Of the 6 percent, 3.6 percent had "no problem" finding a new primary care physician.
  • Meanwhile, while 0.7 percent had a small problem and 1.3 percent had a big problem.

The survey, conducted by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, found that searching for a new family physician or internist who is accepting Medicare patients was even more difficult than scheduling an appointment with a new specialist.

  • Of all Medicare patients, 14 percent sought a new specialist in 2011.
  • Of the 14 percent, 12.1 percent had "no problem" finding a new specialist.
  • 1.1 percent had a small problem and 1 percent had a big problem.

This trend largely stems from concerns regarding physician compensation related to Medicare reimbursements, the study authors found.  The sustainable growth rate (SGR) formula, which establishes many of the reimbursement rates paid to doctors who are treating Medicare patients, will create significant cuts in payments.

  • The SGR was scheduled to reduce Medicare payments by 27.4 percent on January 1st, but Congress delayed the cut by two months, continuing a decade of deferment.
  • The cost of a repeal (measured in additional payments to health care providers) that would simply maintain current Medicare rates over 10 years has grown to $289.7 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
  • Another option, repealing the formula and providing annual payment updates pegged to the increased costs over time of providing care, would cost $352.7 billion.
  • Yet a third recommendation has suggested a 10 year pay freeze for primary care with cuts for other services.
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Can You File Taxes Using The 1040EZ Form?

Using the short form might be to your advantage

How to know if you can use for 1040EZ...

PhotoWhen it comes to preparing your taxes, you can save time, and sometimes money, if you can use form 1040EZ – sometimes called “the short form” - instead of form 1040.

As the name implies, it's a much shorter, easier form to fill out. If you are paying to have your taxes done, it will cost less if the preparer can use form 1040EZ.

According to the Internal Revenue Service, you can use form 1040EZ if:

  • Your taxable income is below $100,000
  • Your filing status is Single or Married Filing Jointly
  • You and your spouse – if married -- are under age 65 and not blind
  • You are not claiming any dependents
  • Your interest income is $1,500 or less

 

If you qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EIC), you can still use the short form under certain conditions. But If you have a qualifying child for the EIC, you must use Schedule EIC and Form 1040A or 1040 to do so.

Even though it may cost less to prepare the form 1040EZ, it might be to your financial benefit to use form 1040A or 1040 instead. For example, you can claim the head of household filing status, which usually results in a lower tax than single, only on Form 1040A or 1040. You can claim the retirement savings contributions credit only on Form 1040A or 1040.

Also, you can itemize deductions only on form 1040. You would benefit by itemizing if your itemized deductions total more than your standard deduction.

If you're in doubt, seek the advice of a qualified financial professional before filing your tax return.

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What's On Your Mind? Toshiba, Sprint, Paula Deen Cookware

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Toshiba's short warranty on replacement parts, Sprint, Paula Deen Cookware, you can't take their word for it and ...

PhotoWhen you buy a computer, it's normally covered with a one-year manufacturers' warranty. But if you have warranty work done on the machine, the replacement parts are covered for a much shorter time.

“I purchased a Toshiba laptop and within one year, their tech group diagnosed the motherboard as bad and replaced it,” F., of Palo Alto, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “That board went bad again, rendering the computer useless. Their customer service said sorry, our replacement parts - from their own tech repair - are only under warranty for 30 days.”

F., says he paid $1,500 for the laptop, but now faces the prospect of buying another, having only received less than a year of uninterrupted service. When checking out computers, it might be a good idea to get an explanation of warranty policies, especially on warranty repairs.

Also, try spending less.  You can find reconditioned, almost-new laptops for less than half the regular price at sites like Geeks.com. The warranties are not as long or as comprehensive as for a new model but the lower price lessens the risk you'll end up like F.

You can't take their word for it

Once you sign a cell phone contract, you're pretty much locked in for two years, no matter what a sales rep tells you.

“My husband and I wanted to try out smartphones,” said Maria, of Burlington, Iowa. “I did some searching and Sprint seemed to be the one that had a better deal, although I was still a little skeptical. I opened a new account with Sprint. I however cancelled the account and managed to cancel it prior to them charging me an early cancellation fee. I was instructed to return the phones and was told that they would only charge me for the only days that I used the phone. I was pleased with that. A week later I received a bill of $260.20. I assumed that they hadn't yet adjusted my account. Another week later I received an email from Sprint stating that my bill would soon be sent to a collection agency.”

Maria said she called Sprint and was told by several employees the charges were valid and she had to pay. However, she says, it wasn't what she was told when she bought the phones. That's why its important to always read the contract. If the sales rep tells you something different from what's in the contract, they are wrong. It's that simple.

Disappointed

Paula Deen is a popular TV chef but her line of cookware is not as popular with some consumers.

“We bought our Paula Deen cookware from Fingerhut about two years ago,” Beverly, of Connellsville, Pa., said. “We have been complaining about them for one year to no avail. Our pots and pans are peeling on the inside and the outside of them looks real bad. They are brown and faded. We have them on display in our kitchen but,it is very embarrassing to have them hang there any longer. We love Paula Deen and are very disappointed in the cookware.

There could be a problem with the products, but Beverly should make sure she carefully reads the instructions for using the pots and pans. Some high-end cookware requires low heat and special care when cleaning.

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Samsung's Goal: An All-Day Smartphone Battery

The trick is to extend battery life without compromising speed, reliability

Samsung has set what sounds like a pretty modest goal.  It would like for its smartphones to be able to go all day on a single battery charge.But si...

PhotoSamsung has set what sounds like a pretty modest goal.  It would like for its smartphones to be able to go all day on a single battery charge. That's fine but we hear from a lot of consumers who would be happy if their phones would just stop freezing up.

But back to battery life for a moment.  Simple as it sounds, getting through the day on a single charge is a rarity in today's smartphones. Many of them can't make it even if they do nothing but loll around in their owner's pocket or purse. 

Samsung vice president of product innovation Kevin Packingham would like to change that, he said in an interview with CNET at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Smartphones pack a lot of features these days and a result, they also suck up an awful lot of energy, resulting in battery life that's much worse than we enjoyed just a few years ago.

Sure, it's nice to have those big screens, fast processors and 4G LTE transceivers but all those things take energy, and lots of it, as a Samsung smartphone owner named Syriac told us recently.

"Battery life is very very poor. Every day morning I go out with 100% charge. The battery will be empty by noon," Syriac said. "I will not even sell this phone to someone because I don't want to take his curse. I will definitely dig this phone in to garbage."

Motorola recently attacked the problem by offering the Droid Razr Maxx, which has a bigger battery than its standard Droid Razr.  This trick has been around for years among laptop users who don't mind totaing a few extra pounds but isn't generally an option for smartphones.

Packingham says Samsung will be using bigger batteries too but will also be working to find ways to make the phones operate more efficiently.

Consumers' concerns

No doubt Packingham is onto something but he might also want to take a look at the problems we hear about most often from Samsung smartphone users, like Steven of Clinton, Iowa, who says his phone "constantly freezes up on me while texting."

"I can promise you I will never buy another Samsung phone ever! This is the second Samsung phone I have and I am very disappointed with the quality. My newer phone is only a few months old and it has some major malfunctions. I shouldn't have to take it in and have it fixed already," Steven fumed.

Willie of Oakland, Calif., has the same problem.

"My phone constantly freezes causing me distress because I have children who rely on my communication by phone on a daily basis," he said. "I have taken the phone back to Metro several times because of this reason and the phone dropping from 4G which does not allow me to use the phone in certain areas, and I am not allowed internet access when the phone is not in the proper 4G status."

Yes, but ...

We decided to run a quick check to see how consumers were feeling about all this.  We found more than 6 million comments on Facebook, Twitter and other virtual water coolers and, although there is some grumbling, consumers seem to be feeling pretty good about Samsung.

Photo

So, if Packingham can pack more battery power into the phones and Samsung's engineers can cure the screen-freeze problem, the company just might be on the road to having a pretty enviable rating.

We'll take a look at how consumers view other Samsung products next week.

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Study Finds Millions Have Autoimmune Condition

32 million Americans have autoantibodies that target their own tissues

More than 32 million people in the United States have autoantibodies, which are proteins made by the immune system that target the body’s tissues and...

PhotoMore than 32 million people in the United States have autoantibodies, which are proteins made by the immune system that target the body’s tissues and define a condition known as autoimmunity, a National Institutes of Health study shows.

The first nationally representative sample looking at the prevalence of the most common type of autoantibody, known as antinuclear antibodies (ANA), found that the frequency of ANA is highest among women, older individuals, and African-Americans. 

Earlier studies have shown that ANA can actually develop many years before the clinical appearance of autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis. ANA are frequently measured biomarkers for detecting autoimmune diseases, but the presence of autoantibodies does not necessarily mean a person will get an autoimmune disease.

Other factors, including drugs, cancer, and infections, are also known to cause autoantibodies in some people.

"Previous estimates of ANA prevalence have varied widely and were conducted in small studies not representative of the general population," said Frederick Miller, M.D., Ph.D., an author of the study. "Having this large data set that is representative of the general U.S. population and includes nearly 5,000 individuals provides us with an accurate estimate of ANA and may allow new insights into the etiology of autoimmune diseases." The findings appear online in the Jan. 11 issue of the Journal Arthritis and Rheumatism.

Miller, who studies the causes of autoimmune diseases, explains that the body’s immune system makes large numbers of proteins called antibodies to help the body fight off infections. In some cases, however, antibodies are produced that are directed against one's own tissues. These are referred to as autoantibodies.

Blood serum samples

A multi-disciplinary team of researchers evaluated blood serum samples using a technique called immunofluorescence to detect ANA in 4,754 individuals from the 1994-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The overall prevalence of ANA in the population was 13.8 percent, and was found to be modestly higher in African-Americans compared to whites.

ANA generally increased with age and was higher in women than in men, with the female to male ratio peaking at 40-49 years of age and then declining in older age groups.

"The peak of autoimmunity in females compared to males during the 40-49 age bracket is suggestive of the effects that the hormones estrogen and progesterone might be playing on the immune system," said Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of NIEHS and an author on the paper.

The paper also found that the prevalence of ANA was lower in overweight and obese individuals than persons of normal weight. "This finding is interesting and somewhat unexpected," said Edward Chan, Ph.D., an author on the study and professor of the Department of Oral Biology at the University of Florida.

"It raises the likelihood that fat tissues can secrete proteins that inhibit parts of the immune system and prevent the development of autoantibodies, but we will need to do more research to understand the role that obesity might play in the development of autoimmune diseases," said Minoru Satoh, M.D., Ph.D., another author on the study and associate professor of rheumatology and clinical immunology at the University of Florida.

The researchers say the paper should serve as a useful baseline for future studies looking at changes in ANA prevalence over time and the factors associated with ANA development. 

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Food Lion Kills Off Its Bloom Brand, Closes 126 Stores

Latest sign of hard times in the supermarket business

Delhaize America is closing 126 supermarkets and retiring its Bloom brand.  The company said it will focus on strengthening its Food Lion and Bottom D...

PhotoDelhaize America is closing 126 supermarkets and retiring its Bloom brand.  The company said it will focus on strengthening its Food Lion and Bottom Dollar Food brands.

The company said it will:

  • Close 113 underperforming Food Lion stores, primarily in markets in which the company has the least store density;
  • Retire the Bloom banner;
  • Convert 64 Bloom and Bottom Dollar Food stores in Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia to Food Lion stores;
  • Close seven underperforming Bloom stores and six underperforming Bottom Dollar Food stores in overlapping Food Lion markets;
  • Convert one Food Lion store in Florida to a Harveys store;
  • Discontinue operations of its distribution center located in Clinton, Tenn., and
  • Accelerate the roll out of the Food Lion brand strategy in an additional 600 to 700 stores.

"Today's actions will continue to solidify our U.S. operations and enable our company to focus on our successful brand strategy repositioning at Food Lion and the expansion of Bottom Dollar Food in new markets," said Ron Hodge, CEO of Delhaize America. "While these were difficult decisions given the impact on our associates, customers and communities, we believe these actions will enable us to better serve our customers in our markets with high density, while positioning the company for future growth."

All affected stores will close within 30 days, and store conversions will begin immediately. 

About 4,900 people will lose their jobs. 

Food Lion
The company will convert the Food Lion store in Lake City, Fla., to a Harveys store. As a result of these actions, Delhaize America will no longer operate the Food Lion banner in Florida, but will continue operations of its Sweetbay and Harveys banners in the state.

The company said it is increasing its density of Food Lion stores in other states by converting Bloom and Bottom Dollar Food stores to Food Lion, specifically in Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia. After these actions are complete, Food Lion will operate in 10 states and have 1,127 stores.

Bottom Dollar Food

Delhaize is converting 22 Bottom Dollar Food stores in Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia to Food Lion stores, and closing six underperforming stores in North Carolina and Virginia,

Bottom Dollar Food will open 14 stores in Pittsburgh and Youngstown, Ohio, by the end of the first quarter, and expects to open another 10 to 15 stores by year-end in its new markets. In addition, the company plans to continue aggressive growth of the banner by adding several hundred Bottom Dollar Food stores in the next five years.

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Honeywell Recalls Portable Heaters

The heating element can detach, creating a burn hazard

Honeywell is recalling about 19,000 Surround Select Portable Electric Heaters sold under the Honeywell name but manufactured by Ningbo SMAL Electrics ...

Honeywell is recalling about 19,000 Surround Select Portable Electric Heaters sold under the Honeywell name but manufactured by Ningbo SMAL Electrics Co. Ltd., of China.

The heater’s internal housing, including the fan, heating element and circuitry, can detach, posing a burn hazard to consumers.

Photo

This recall includes Honeywell Surround Select Series portable electric heaters with model numbers HZ-420, HZ-430, and HZ-440 and five-digit date codes that have 11 as the last two digits. The heaters are black or white cylinders with a handle on top. The model number is stamped into the plastic on the bottom of the heater. The date code is located on the metal prongs of the heater’s electrical plug. “Honeywell” and “Surround Heat” are printed on the front of the heaters. This heater was distributed by Kaz USA under license from Honeywell.

Best Buy, Meijer and Walmart stores sold the heaters nationwide from July 2011 through December 2011 for between $50 and $70.

Consumers should immediately unplug and stop using the heaters and contact Kaz for a full refund.

For additional information, contact the distributor, Kaz USA Inc., at (800) 370-8137 from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or visit the firm’s website at www.kaz.com/recall

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Three Ways To Better Manage Your Money

These tips might help you keep your New Years resolution

money management tips...

PhotoWe're early into a new year and many consumers have made resolutions to better manage their finances. So, how's that working out?

Gail Cunningham of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) says many of these well-intentioned resolutions have already fallen by the wayside because consumers lack a solid strategy for achieving their goals.

NFCC offers three simple steps consumers can easily implement that will put them on the road to financial stability:

Action

Many are paralyzed by their situation, frozen in a state of financial anxiety. Others feel that they are in such deep financial trouble that there is no real help available. Some may fear that they'll reach out for help to the wrong organization, thus ending up worse off than when they began.

Failure to act only makes matters worse, as the problem isn't going to cure itself. Likewise, delaying action only makes the situation more difficult to resolve. Consumers owe it to themselves and their family to sit down with a Certified Credit Counselor at a legitimate nonprofit agency. These counselors are trained to do a thorough review of the situation and provide concrete solutions, ones that can mean the difference between financial failure and financial success. 

Automate

Make technology your friend by signing up for direct deposit, automatic bill paying and online banking. You can avoid ever having a late fee by arranging credit card payments to be sent automatically before the statement due date each month, making sure the payment amount equals at least the minimum amount due.

You can always circle back and pay the balance in full, but knowing the bill has been paid on time brings you peace of mind and avoids negative dings on your credit report and score. Direct deposit helps to avoid the long lines at the bank on payday, as well as providing a degree of safety since the paycheck can't be stolen from an unattended mailbox. Further, the surest way to save is to have money automatically deposited into a savings account before you ever see it.

Accountability

People are well-intentioned justifiers. Financial accountability starts with financial honesty. If you find that you have more excuses than money in the bank, enlist the support of an accountability partner. Make sure this person is someone you're comfortable revealing your financial dirty laundry to, is someone you respect enough to follow their advice, and is strong enough to speak the truth to you.

It may be tempting to pick someone who is in the same financial shape as you, but that type of relationship often ends up being a two-person pity party. Instead, find someone who is a responsible money manager and is willing to share those skills with you.

"Know that small steps can equal big rewards," said Cunningham. "The process starts with a person resolving to take charge of his or her financial future. After that, it's a matter of executing the plan."

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Bank of America May Pull Out of Some Regions

Ailing bank tells regulators it may have to abandon some parts of the country

Wells Fargo can always circle the wagons when the going gets rough but Bank of America has fewer options and, according to The Wall Street Journal, may be ...

PhotoWells Fargo can always circle the wagons when the going gets rough but Bank of America has fewer options and, according to The Wall Street Journal, may be preparing to turn tail and retreat from some areas of the country.

The Journal quoted sources as saying the giant bank has told regulators that if its financial condition continues to weaken, it may close branches and pull out of some of its less profitable markets.

There are quite a few consumers out there who would not mourn the bank's passing.

"This bank does nothing for the people that need modifications or help and all they care about is foreclosure. They should rename their bank, American Bank Of Foreclosures," said RoseAnne of Kissimmee, Fla., who said that instead of helping her family modify their mortgage, a bank rep suggested they should rent. Similar blunders, like the ill-conceived $5 fee for using debit cards, haven't exactly endeared the bank to many of its customers.   

In fact, a review of 830,000 consumer comments on social media finds Bank of America firmly in the doghouse, with a net sentiment of -20%, the nadir in a year that only rarely saw overall sentiment venture into positive territory.

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OK, but how do consumers really feel?  Using computerized sentiment analysis, ConsumerAffairs.com distilled their top five positive and negative feelings, again based on about 830,000 comments on Facebook, Twitter and so forth.

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Relentlessly stalking

For 20 years, what started out as NationsBank of North Carolina, has been relentlessly stalking takeover targets, stitching together a nationwide organization rivaled only by Chase and Wells Fargo.

It was the 1998 takeover of BankAmerica Corp. of San Francisco and the 2004 purchase of FleetBoston that finally stitched together the banking blanket that now covers the country.

Could it really unravel?

It's possible.  The financial crisis hit all banks hard but BA took it especially hard, thanks it its 2008 acquisition of Countrywide Financial, which made it particularly vulnerable to losses in the mortgage sector.

Now, with its share price down more than half and regulators hounding it to raise more capital to cover ongoing mortgage liabilities, the bank that ate America is in trouble.

Retrenching is one of the options the bank provided to regulators recently, the Journal said, although there are other options on the table as well.

What to do

What does this mean for consumers who do business with Bank of America? 

Probably not much.  Banks are bought and sold with some regularity and the heavy lifting mostly occurs behind the scenes but the possibility of BA's retreat may be something to consider if you're looking for a new bank.  If BA starts cutting back branches or slicing staff, as it's already doing in at least some areas, customer service could suffer.

The best place to shop for a bank may be locally.  There are 7,400 banks in the country, after all.  If you live in Nevada, do you really care whether your bank has branches in Maine?

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Do You Qualify For The Earned Income Tax Credit?

It's a major tax benefit for low and moderate income earners

How to qualify for the earned income tax credit...

PhotoIf you don't have a high income, you may qualify for a larger tax refund than you think. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), sometimes called EIC is a tax credit for low to moderate income working individuals and families.

Congress originally approved the tax credit legislation in 1975 in part to offset the burden of social security taxes and to provide an incentive to work. When EITC exceeds the amount of taxes owed, it results in a tax refund to those who claim and qualify for the credit.

To qualify, you must meet certain requirements and file a tax return, even if you do not owe any tax or are not required to file.

How do you know if you qualify? You must have earned income from employment, self-employment or another source and meet certain rules. In addition, you must either meet the additional rules for Workers without a Qualifying Child or have a child that meets all the Qualifying Child Rules for you.

Unfortunately, the specific criteria is not clearly defined. The best way to find out if you qualify is to answer this survey on the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) website.

However, you can quickly see if there is potential for qualifying by consulting the income requirements. The tax credit is available for people earning less than these amounts:

  • $43,998 ($49,078 married filing jointly) with three or more qualifying children
  • $40,964 ($46,044 married filing jointly) with two qualifying children
  • $36,052 ($41,132 married filing jointly) with one qualifying child
  • $13,660 ($18,740 married filing jointly) with no qualifying children

 

The Tax Relief and Job Creation Act signed into law December of 2010 provides a temporary increase in EITC and expands the credit for workers with three or more qualifying children. These changes are temporary and apply to 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 tax years.  

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CVS Caremark Fined $5 Million for Deceptive Pricing of Prescription Drugs

Many seniors and disabled consumers will get reimbursement checks

CVS Caremark Corporation will pay $5 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it misrepresented the prices of certain Medicare Part D p...

PhotoCVS Caremark Corporation will pay $5 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it misrepresented the prices of certain Medicare Part D prescription drugs – including drugs used to treat breast cancer symptoms and epilepsy – at CVS and Walgreens pharmacies.

The allegedly deceptive claims caused many seniors and disabled consumers to pay significantly more for their drugs than they expected and pushed them into the "donut hole" – a term referring to the coverage gap where none of their drug costs are reimbursed – sooner than they anticipated or planned.

The settlement will bar deceptive claims related to Medicare Part D drug prices and require CVS Caremark to pay $5 million to reimburse affected Medicare Part D consumers for the price discrepancy.

"This settlement puts money back in the pockets of older Americans who struggle to pay for their medications," said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. "With the cost of health care on the rise, the FTC is especially focused on protecting consumers from any deceptive claims that would cause them to pay more than they should."

According to the FTC complaint, CVS Caremark offers Medicare Part D prescription drug plans through subsidiaries like RxAmerica, which CVS Caremark acquired in October 2008. Many consumers choose their Medicare Part D drug plans by looking up plan benefits and drug prices on RxAmerica's website, by going to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services website and using the web-based tool Plan Finder, or by visiting other third-party websites where such information is posted.

Incorrect prices

The FTC charged that from 2007 through at least November 2008, RxAmerica posted on its website and supplied for posting to Plan Finder and third-party websites incorrect prices for Medicare Part D prescription drugs at two pharmacy chains, CVS and Walgreens.

In some instances, the actual prices for these drugs were as much as 10 times more than the posted prices. As a consequence of the deceptive price claims, many elderly and disabled consumers chose RxAmerica plans and paid significantly more than they expected for their drugs at CVS and Walgreens, the FTC alleged.

The proposed settlement order bars CVS Caremark from misrepresenting the price or cost of Medicare Part D prescription drugs or other prices or costs associated with Medicare Part D prescription drug plans. It requires that CVS Caremark pay $5 million in consumer refunds.

The FTC will be mailing checks to eligible consumers who were harmed by these misrepresentations after the order becomes final. The settlement also contains standard record-keeping provisions to allow the FTC to monitor compliance with its order.

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Amtrak Has Record Year, Orders New Locomotives & Cars

Wi-Fi, e-ticketing expanded to more trains in 2011

Amtrak is rolling out an aggressive expansion plan in the Northeast Corridor, saying it will build the first of 70 new electric locomotives and 130 single-...

PhotoAmtrak is rolling out an aggressive expansion plan in the Northeast Corridor, saying it will build the first of 70 new electric locomotives and 130 single-level long-distance cars this year.  The DC-based railway also says it will expand e-ticketing to all trains.

Despite perennial funding problems, Amtrak had a good year in 2011, transporting a record 30.2 million passengers and made onboard Wi-Fi available to 75 percent of passengers.

"Amtrak is building the equipment, infrastructure and organization needed to ensure our strong growth continues into the future,” said President and CEO Joe Boardman. “We are investing in projects critical for enhancing the passenger experience, essential for supporting our national network of services and vital for the future of America’s Railroad.”

The new locomotives will operate at speeds up to 125 miles per hour between Washington and Boston and up to 110 miles per hour from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, Pa.  

The new long-distance cars include sleepers, diners, baggage cars and baggage/dormitory cars. They will allow Amtrak to retire the oldest cars still in service that date back to the 1940s. 

Besides new trains and electronics, Amtrak's plans include expanding capacity for its popular high-speed Acela Express, upgrading tracks, bridges and tunnels along the Northeast Corridor and advancing work on the Gateway Program, which will expand capacity into Manhattan.

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Lender Cuts Credit to Sears/Kmart Vendors

Sears Holdings insists it is solvent

Bedraggled Sears Holdings, already planning to close 100 or more stores, has run into another hurdle -- CIT Group says it will no longer finance loans to S...

PhotoBedraggled Sears Holdings, already planning to close 100 or more stores, has run into another hurdle -- CIT Group says it will no longer finance loans to Sears' suppliers who are awaiting payment from the company.

The loans, known as factoring, enable suppliers to finance their operations as they wait for payment from retailers.  Sears insists that CIT, the nation's largest factoring lender, provides only about five percent of the loans to its suppliers but the announcement is still likely to send chills through the Sears supply chain.

Sears has been struggling to overcome worries about its finances. All three major credit-rating firms have downgraded its debt in recent weeks, noting its declining earnings over the last year. Sears fell 5.8 percent to $31 at mid-morning Thursday as news of the CIT decision hit. The shares dropped 56 percent last year.

Sears Holdings has blamed poor holiday sales for the decision to close up to 120 underperforming stores, but analysts say the entire chain is underperforming, at least partly because it has failed to spend enough on freshening its stores so that they are attractive and inviting places to shop.

Inventory slipping?

If, on top on their already-dowdy appearance, Sears and Kmart stores begin to display empty shelves, sales could be further degraded. Judging from recent complaints to ConsumerAffairs.com, that may already be happening. 

"For the past 2 1/2-3 months I have been trying to order the Disney Botanical Baby Play Yard, only available at sears.com and Kmart.com," said Addie of Fort Riley, Kansas recently. "All four times I have ordered this item it has instantly gone 'out of stock.'" 

"For the last couple of years I have strictly shopped Kmart especially around the holidays but lately kmart has been falling behind on the availability of products," said Erica of Pearsall, Texas. "I have had to travel two hours to pick up my merchandise after completing the layaway plans."

"I ordered a combo toolbox for my husband on Dec. 4th with a delivery date of Dec. 23rd. When it didn't arrive, I called Sears and was told there was a backorder on the product," said Stacia of Jefferson, Ga. 

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Feds Put Orange Juice Through the Wringer

Imported OJ may contain fungicides linked to liver cancer

Like lots of things that are supposed to be good for you, orange juice may turn out to be not so good for you.  Maybe even bad for you. It depends who...

PhotoLike lots of things that are supposed to be good for you, orange juice may turn out to be not so good for you.  Maybe even bad for you. It depends who you ask.

U.S. regulators are concerned that there may be a prohibited fungicide, carbendazim, in some shipments of imported orange juice.

Carbendazim has been linked to increased risk of liver tumors in animals and was reportedly found in low levels last month in orange juice products from Brazil, which produces about 41 percent of U.S. imports, according to press reports.

"Carbendazim is approved for use in a variety of crops, including citrus, in many countries," Nega Beru, Ph.D., of the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Food Safety, said in an undated letter to the Juice Products Association.  

"In the United States, however, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not approved carbendazim for use as a fungicide on oranges, nor has it established a tolerance or an exemption from the need for a tolerance for carbendazim in orange juice in the United States.  Thus, carbendazim in orange juice is an unlawful pesticide chemical residue under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act," Beru said.

Immediate concern?

Beru went on to say, however, that there may not be an immediate safety concern.

"The Environmental Protection Agency has conducted a preliminary risk assessment based on the recent reports of carbendazim in orange juice.  Based on that risk assessment, EPA has concluded that consumption of orange juice with carbendazim at the low levels that have been reported does not raise safety concerns," Beru said.  "FDA does not intend to take action to remove from domestic commerce orange juice containing the reported low levels of carbendazim. FDA is, however, conducting its own testing of orange juice for carbendazim, and, if the agency identifies orange juice with carbendazim at levels that present a public health risk, it will alert the public and take the necessary action to ensure that the product is removed from the market."

Beru said FDA is also sampling import shipments of orange juice and will deny entry to shipments that test positive for carbendazim. 

Minute Maid Responds

One of the country's biggest juice producers says OJ is still safe.

“Brazilian orange juice is safe and always has been,” said Dan Schafer, a spokesman for Coca Cola Co., which owns the Minute Maid brand. “Second, this is an issue that impacts every company that produces products in the U.S. containing orange juice from Brazil.”

Coca-Cola, by the way, says it was the company that originally alerted U.S. regulators to the issues surrounding Brazilian orange juice after it found a fungicide in some of its products.

The company said it the FDA on Dec. 28 after detecting low levels of carbendazim in its own and in competitors' finished orange juice and in juice concentrates that were not yet on the market.

 

 

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At Least 12 Infected With New Swine Flu Strain

H3N2v virus confirmed in at least five states

the CDC is investigating an outbreak of a new swine flu variant...

PhotoAt least 12 people in five states have come down with a new strain of swine flu that isn't covered in this year's flu vaccine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The new strain is not the more common H1N1, that killed more than 17,000 people around the world over a two-year period. The new strain has been identified as H3N2v.

"In the second half of 2011, a number of U.S. residents were found to be infected with influenza A variant viruses, primarily H3N2v," the CDC said in a report. "Investigations revealed human infections with these viruses following contact with swine as well as limited human-to-human transmission."

Not known how widespread

While H3N2v viruses have been detected in U.S. swine, the CDC said it's unknown how widespread they are in swine herds. It's possible that sporadic infections and even localized outbreaks among people with this virus will continue to occur, according to the health agency.

So far, the CDC has counted only 12 cases. There are two in Indiana, three in Iowa, two in Maine, three in Pennsylvania and two in West Virginia.

"While there is no evidence that sustained human-to-human transmission is occurring, all influenza viruses have the capacity to change and it's possible that this virus may become widespread," the CDC warns.

Children appear more vulnerable

To date, the severity of illnesses associated with this virus in people has been similar to the severity of illnesses associated with seasonal flu virus infections. the limited studies that have been conducted so far suggest that adults may have some pre-existing immunity to this virus while children do not.

CDC said it is closely monitoring human infections with all novel influenza viruses, including H3N2v viruses, and will provide more information as it becomes available.

Swine influenza is a respiratory disease of pigs caused by type A influenza viruses that regularly cause outbreaks of influenza in pigs. Influenza viruses that commonly circulate in swine are called “swine influenza viruses” or “swine flu viruses.”

Swine flu viruses do not normally infect humans. However, sporadic human infections with swine influenza viruses have occurred.  

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Consumer Offers Advice For Dealing With Unauthorized Charges

Demand to see a proof of purchase and don't accept less than a full refund

Consumers recently complained about finding charges on their credit card bills for MBNA Credit Protection Plan. Many said they have no recollection of sign...

PhotoA number of consumers have recently complained about finding charges on their credit card bills for the MBNA Credit Protection Plan. Many, like Cyane, of San Francisco, Calif., have said they have no recollection of signing up for the service.

"I saw that a credit protection charge of around $58 - $65 had been applied to my bills," Cayne. "I don't remember seeing the charge so I called and asked for confirmation that I had ordered this service. The woman said I'd ordered it by phone. I asked for a record of the phone call, she said it was probably erased by now. I said I wanted to file a complaint. She said if I dropped the investigation, she'd credit my account two months. If I continued, with scant hope of winning my case, I would not be reimbursed. I just took the reimbursement for two months and am out $600, plus any interest I paid on that money."

Another reader, Steve of Ohio, was in the same situation but took another course.

"The same as other people who have complained, I had about $150 in charges accumulated over the past year," Steve told ConsumerAffairs.com. I finally noticed and contacted them.

Steve said he asked for the entire $150 back, saying he never signed up for the service. He says the customer service rep insisted that he had told a telemarketer he wanted the service. Steve says he stuck to his guns, demanding that MBNA Credit Protection provide a "proof of purchase."

"I was transferred to a supervisor who offered me a $30 credit to let it go," he said.

Holding out

Steve said he refused the offer and despite his repeated contacts didn't hear anything. He next filed a fraud report through his credit card company and not long afterward was reimbursed. The lesson for others in his situation?

"Stick to your word and demand proof, and they will either have to prove that you are wrong or else give you your money back," Steve said.

MBNA Credit Protection is a service that provides credit monitoring, as well as covering credit card payments in the event of certain adverse circumstances, such as loss of income. It's usually marketed in conjunction with another financial product or service.

Remember that the Federal Trade Commission requires that all such "negative option" sales clearly "clear and conspicuous" notice to the consumer that a sale is taking place. If you are unaware that you've bought something, chances are it doesn't meet that standard.

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What's On Your Mind? EZ Pass, Fake Debt Collector Scam, Amazon.com

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: EZ Pass, Fake Debt Collector Scam, Amazon.com, Seems everyone's doing it now and Misplaced annoyance....

PhotoGetting an EZ Pass can make life simpler for commuters who use toll roads. Instead of coming up with the exact change, you simply zip through the toll booth. But just like anything else that relies on technology and removes people from the equation - DVD vending machines come to mind - mistakes can happen.

"Got my statement and they had been charging my husband $6.50 A day to cross the Delaware water gap," Elaine, of Andover, N.J., told ConsumerAffairs.com.

Presumably the toll to cross is significantly less. Elaine reports straightening it out hasn't been easy.

"This has been ongoing for months and they charged $6.50 every day my husband went across to work," she said. "Lots of my money tied up here.

We're also heard from EZ Pass users who say get hit with toll booth violations, even though they have plenty of money in their account. Makes you want to go back to carrying a coin purse.

Seems everyone's doing it now

When the phony payday loan collector scam first surfaced a couple of years ago, the scammer was described as having a thick, foreign accent. He would call someone and accuse them on not repaying a payday loan - usually citing a real company but not one the victim had done business with - and threatened them with jail unless they paid with a credit card immediately.

Harriett, of Morton, Pa., reports others seem to be doing the scam now. The names have changed but it's still a scam.

"I received a phone call from a Ben and Officer Clark stating I owe $8,000 and if I could not pay they would settle for $3,000," Harriett said. "I do not have a loan with US FAST CASH. They want me to send a fax with my credit card info and license and they will not take no for an answer. They have called my supervisor and has harassed me at work when I have told them not to call me. Just yesterday they called me 37 times on my cell number and 10 times at work and today at work five times. I am so stressed out about this and do not know what to do. They have threatened to pick me up and arrest me and send to prison."

Harriett does not have to worry about going to prison - these guys are trying to scam her. However, it's troubling that they know where she works. They may have other information on her as well. She should immediately contact all three credit reporting agencies and place a fraud alert on her credit accounts. Then, when "Officer Clark" next calls her she can let him know that she knows he's a scammer and has reported him to the real police.

Misplaced annoyance

Bruce, of Saratoga, Calif., is steamed at Amazon.com because an Amazon gift card he purchased at Best Buy doesn't work.

"I submitted a case with Amazon on this issue and ended up getting four different responses from four different people with different resolutions," Bruce said.

One of the Amazon reps told Bruce that, since he purchased the gift card at a store, he needed to return to the store to resolve the issue. Bruce didn't much like hearing that.

"You would think Amazon being a 'great' online company, it would be able to figure out why the gift card doesn't work and fix the problem."

How so? Amazon didn't activate the card, Best Buy did. Bruce's beef is with Best Buy, not Amazon.

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Google's Personalized Search Raising Privacy, Antitrust Concerns

Do you care what your "friends" are saying when you're looking for expert information?

Google's latest tinkering with its search results is causing concern among privacy advocates and online publishers while also raising yet another set of an...

PhotoGoogle's latest tinkering with its search results is causing concern among privacy advocates and online publishers while raising yet another set of antitrust concerns.

The search giant is now providing what it calls "personalized" search, basically meaning it not only searches for keywords that match your search query but also shuffles through comments and postings made by your friends on blogs and social media sites, most particularly Google+.

Aside from usability questions -- do you really care what your online "friends" are saying about trans fat's role in heart disease or do you want an expert opinion -- it raises concerns about whether comments made on Google+ will carry more weight than those made on other sites.

Trust and ...

PhotoGoogle is constantly making changes in its super-secret search algorithm, of course, and we're asked to trust that these changes are all being made to provide even better, more impartial and more timely search results to the end users.

Of course, there's no way to verify that since the process is so secret that it has spawned an entire industry of consultants and soothsayers who claim to know how search results can be slanted to benefit their clients.

Even if these modern versions of the phrenologists who claimed to measure mental acuity by analyzing head bumps are accurate, it raises a question that, as far as we know, Google has never answered: Should authors, reporters and publishers have to pay off probable charlatans in hopes of getting a few degrees of visibility for their efforts?  

There are those who will argue that Search Engine Optimization, as it is grandly known, amounts to little more than the protection rackets that used to plague small merchants and businesspeople back in the days when shakedown artists were real instead of virtual.

Big Brother

Some of this was OK when Google was still a fresh-faced start-up newly emerged from someone's garage in Palo Alto (or was it Mountain View?) but it causes a bit more concern now that Big G has grown into Big Brother.

"Google is an entrenched player trying to fight off its challenger Facebook by using its market dominance in a separate sector," Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told The Los Angeles Times. "I think that should trouble people."

It certainly troubles Rotenberg, who says regulators should take a close look at what goes into Google's new personalized search results to see if there are legitimate privacy and antitrust concerns. Rotenberg says he may file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, asking it to investigate the situation.

He's not alone.  Twitter is publicly complaining that the personalized search results will be less relevant for many users and may harm Google's rivals in the social media and search fields.

Twitter general counsel Alex Macgillivray, who formerly worked at Google, said in a tweet yesterday that Google's search results were being "warped" and Twitter later issued a formal statement saying the changes would be "bad for people, publishers, news organizations and Twitter users."

Twitter said many Google users are looking for the latest breaking news.

"Twitter has emerged as a vital source of this real-time information, with more than 100 million users sending 250 million Tweets every day on virtually every topic," but Twitter said such results would be much harder to find if they must compete with Google+ results and other social media blather.

Ick

Many online news sites and even some traditional news publications are also concerned about the growing influence on search results of Google+, fearing that Google's search results will increasingly be determined by what Google+ members happen to be reading and commenting on rather than by more neutral, objective results.

“Ick. Remember when Google used to be a neutral player that crawled the Whole Dern Web? So sad to see that era pass,” said John Battelle, founder and chairman of Federated Media Publishing. “It’s not Google’s fault, entirely, but it’s sad nonetheless.”

Venture capitalist MG Siegler, writing on his blog, summed it up in a one-world headline: “Antitrust+?

“How on Earth is Google going to avoid antitrust inquiries with their new Search+ features announced today?,” he asked. “If Facebook, Twitter, etc., have any decent presence in DC, the ball began rolling a few hours ago. This is the type of case that Senators die for. Google wrapped it in a bow and placed it in one of their laps.”

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Harmful Trans Fat Still Plentiful in Packaged Foods

Sara Lee, Pepperidge Farm, General Mills among the holdouts

Health experts agree that artificial trans fat is among the most harmful substances in food and we're constantly being told we should avoid it. But th...

PhotoHealth experts agree that artificial trans fat is among the most harmful substances in food and we're constantly being told we should avoid it. But that's more easily said than done, as a recent survey by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) demonstrates. 

Marie Callender’s pies, Pop Secret’s microwave popcorns, and Long John Silver’s Breaded Clam Strips are among the many products that still contain high levels of artificial trans fat, the nonprofit CSPI said.

After the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required trans fat to be listed on food labels, most large manufacturers removed partially hydrogenated oil, the source of artificial trans fat, from their products. And after a series of lawsuits, bad press and new restrictions, most large restaurant chains similarly stopped using the discredited ingredient.

Thus, while many consumers might consider the problem solved, the sad fact is several large companies continue to market products containing unhealthy amounts of trans fat.

Examples:

  • Marie Callender’s Lattice Apple Pie (ConAgra Foods) contains 5 grams of trans fat per serving.
  • Varieties of Pop Secret microwave popcorn (Diamond Foods) contain 4 or 5 grams of trans fat per serving.
  • An order of Long John Silver’s Breaded Clam Strips contains 7 grams of trans fat.
  • While White Castle recently eliminated trans fat from most of its products, some regionally marketed pastries contain large amounts. White Castle’s doughnuts contain a whopping 8 or 9 grams of trans fat per serving.

Two grams

The American Heart Association recommends that people limit their trans fat intake to no more than two grams per day. Since small amounts of trans fat occur naturally in beef and dairy products, that leaves very little, if any, room for artificial trans fat from partially hydrogenated oil.

A sampling of foods containing three or more grams per serving includes:

  • Pillsbury’s Buttermilk Biscuits (General Mills),
  • Pepperidge Farm’s Luscious 3-Layer Lemon Flavor Cake (Campbell Soup Co.),
  • Utz’s Cheese Flavored Puff’n Corn,
  • Jimmy Dean’s Sausage, Egg & Cheese Croissant Sandwich (Sara Lee Corp.), and
  • Celeste’s Original Pizza (Pinnacle Foods Group).

Mrs. Budd’s Original Recipe Chicken Pot Pie, a regional brand, has more partially hydrogenated oil than carrots or peas, but consumers would have no way of knowing how many of its 17 grams of fat per serving are from trans fat: The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates food with meat or poultry, hasn’t adopted the FDA’s trans fat labeling rule. (The company told CSPI that the pot pie contains 5 grams of trans fat.)

Should be banned

In 2004, the Center for Science in the Public Interest filed a regulatory petition urging the FDA to ban the use of partially hydrogenated oil in food altogether.

“Considering the virtual unanimity among scientists that trans is the most harmful fat in the food supply, it is totally irresponsible for companies like Sara Lee, Pepperidge Farm, General Mills, and Long John Silver’s, along with many smaller ones, to continue marketing foods with artificial trans fat,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “The FDA could readily ban the use of partially hydrogenated oil or set a strict limit on the amount of trans fat in a product. Unfortunately, the FDA has let CSPI’s petition collect dust.”

CSPI estimates that companies have eliminated well over half of the partially hydrogenated oil in the food supply. But the remaining trans fat continues to promote heart disease, likely causing thousands of unnecessary premature deaths annually. 

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Biggest States Get Top Traffic Safety Rankings

Auto safety group issues its annual report card

A highway safety group today released its annual report card grading states on their adoption of traffic safety laws -- or, to be more precise, on the stat...

PhotoA highway safety group today released its annual report card grading states on their adoption of traffic safety laws -- or, to be more precise, on the states' adoption of traffic safety laws the advocacy group recommends. 

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety gave the District of Columbia and 17 states the highest rating of "green." Besides D.C., the top-ranked states were New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon, North Carolina, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Washington, Delaware, Maine, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Louisiana, and California.

The states with the worst rating of red are South Dakota, Arizona, Mississippi, Virginia, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, and Wyoming. All other states received a yellow rating indicating caution because there was a need for improvement because of gaps in traffic safety laws.

“If states want to save lives and save money, they should look to the 2012 Roadmap to State Highway Safety Laws for guidance," said Jacqueline Gillan, president of Advocates. “This report shows that too many states have unacceptable and deadly gaps in their traffic safety laws. Political leadership and action are needed now."

Among the 15 model laws Advocates evaluated are seat belt, booster seat and motorcycle helmet measures, in addition to restrictions and requirements for teen drivers, all-driver texting bans and tougher impaired driving laws.

The group did not present any statistics to support its contention that the laws it recommends actually prevent accidents or save lies.

The federal government estimates that motor vehicle crashes cost society $230 billion every year. In 2010, nearly 33,000 people died in crashes throughout the nation and over 2 million more were injured. This is equivalent to a “crash tax” of more than $750 for every person.

“The National Transportation Safety Board has made safety recommendations on every one of the 15 laws included in the Advocates’ report and some of those are also on the NTSB Most Wanted List this year,” said Mark R. Rosekind, Board Member, National Transportation Safety Board.

“Drunk driving costs the United States more than $132 billion annually,” said Jan Withers, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). “Effective laws like ignition interlock for all convicted drunk drivers will save lives and save money for states. With the technology at hand there is no excuse for states to delay enacting this lifesaving law.”

The group's grading system was based solely on whether or not a state had adopted a law as defined in the report, and not on any evaluation of a state's highway safety education or enforcement programs.

In 2011, two states improved their rating from Yellow to Green -- Maine and Rhode Island. Two states upgraded from Red to Yellow -- North Dakota and Pennsylvania.

In 2011, 13 states enacted one or more of Advocates’ recommended highway safety laws for a total of 16 new laws. No state enacted an all-rider motorcycle helmet law although there were 13 attempts to repeal existing laws.

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety is a coalition of insurance, consumer, health, safety and law enforcement organizations that work together to advance state and federal highway and vehicle safety laws, programs and policies. The complete 2012 Roadmap to State Highway Safety Laws, speaker statements and the news conference webcast can be found at www.saferoads.org.

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Use Care When Selecting A Dividend-Paying Stock

For careful investors, these stocks can provide income and capital growth

Considerations in choosing stocks that pay a dividend...

PhotoSometime last year, as the stock market struggled and interest rates hovered just above zero, small investors discovered dividend-paying stocks. Many who got in early have pocketed gains that significantly outperformed the market as a whole.

A dividend is a premium a company pays to its shareholders, usually on a quarterly basis. It's a way to return profits to shareholders, but not all companies do it. Usually, it's well-established firms with steady, consistent growth and income.

For example, in the telecom sector, both Verizon and AT&T pay what are generally regarded as attractive dividends. AT&T, for example, currently pays $1.76 per share per year. Verizon pays $2.00 per share.

A dividend payment is called a stock's “yield,” and is a percentage of the money required to purchase the stock. Today, AT&T is trading at $29.83 per share. By dividing the dividend -- $1.76 – by the share price, $29.83, you arrive at the annual yield – 5.9%. That means if you purchased AT&T stock, the investment would earn at a rate of 5.9 percent, far more than any CD.

At the same time, the price of AT&T stock could rise after you purchase it, increasing the value of your investment. If the stock gained 2% in value in a year, it would make for a combined return of 7.9 percent.

Risk

So, why doesn't everyone rush out and buy AT&T stock, or Verizon, Coca-Cola, IBM, and all the other stocks that pay dividends? Because, as with most investments, there is an element of risk. Like any stock, the value could go down, not up.

Also, there is no guarantee that a company will not cut its dividend if it encounters hard times, or even eliminate it all together. That happened in 2010 after the Gulf oil spill. At the time, British Petroleum (BP) was a high-flying stock paying an astounding 8% yield.

After it became clear that BP faced huge liabilities from the spill, and would likely not be able to keeping paying its shareholders, the stock price plummeted. Indeed, weeks later BP was forced to eliminate its dividend. Investors who were not quick to sell not only lost the dividend, but saw the value of their original investment in BP stock decline.

Choose wisely

That's why investors who pursue a strategy of dividend stocks must choose their investments wisely and and follow their stocks closely, sensitive to any change in direction. How do you pick a good dividend stock?

First and foremost, the company behind the stock should be strong and stable. The question you must ask, can this company continue to keep making these payments to shareholders?

One way to answer this is to research the company and the sector in which it operates. Is it a stable, well-run firm in a business that has potential for growth?

The second clue is to look at the company's earnings per share, and compare that to the dividend it is paying.

The 50% rule

If the company is earning $1 per share but is paying a dividend of $2, chances are it will not be able to do that for long. Stock guru Jim Cramer has suggested a good rule of thumb is to select stocks for which the dividend is not more than 50% of the earnings per share.

That brings us to a third factor: don't be greedy. In your research you will find plenty of stocks paying 8% or more in yield. But many will be companies you have never heard of, in sectors you know little about.

Often times the yield is high because the price of the stock has recently dropped in dramatic fashion. Here's an example: suppose company A's stock is trading at $40 per share and is paying a dividend of $2 per share. That's a yield of 5%.

But then something bad happens, and the stock price plunges to $10 per share. For now, the company is still paying the $2 dividend, but now the yield – based on the new $10 stock price – has surged to 20%! But does anyone think that kind of payout is sustainable?

That's why careful research is required. Especially now, since many attractive dividend stocks have dramatically risen in price over the last few months because investors have purchased them for their stable yield. However, as the stock value rises, the yield goes down, unless the company moves to increase their dividend.

Still, for a long-term investor dividend stocks, chosen carefully, can provide a 3% or more income stream, if you choose wisely. Again, any equity investment carries risk, so you should do your research and consult with a knowledgeable financial professional before making any investment decisions.

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Wells Fargo Agrees To 'Pick-A-Payment' Mortgages Settlement

Maryland homeowners to receive modifications, restitution

Wells Fargo agrees to mortgage settlement with Maryland...

PhotoBack during the housing bubble, Wachovia and Golden West Financial marketed “Pick-A-Payment” mortgages that turned out to be disasters for some homebuyers.

Now, Wells Fargo, which acquired the two companies, is settling charges brought by Maryland in connection with the marketing campaign. The bank has agreed to make loan modifications for certain consumers and provide nearly $1 billion in restitution to homeowners who eventually faced foreclosure.

"Especially in these difficult times, we focused this agreement on securing relief for vulnerable homeowners and those who have faced foreclosure," said Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler. "Wells Fargo is addressing these particularly troubling issues with mortgages issued by companies that Wells Fargo acquired."

According to the original complaint, Wachovia and Golden West offered borrowers a choice among several programs. Borrowers could choose a traditional, 30-year fixed rate, fully amortizing loan; a traditional, 15-year fixed rate, fully amortizing loan; a loan with payments of interest only; or a loan with payments that were less than the interest actually due.

Lack of information

According to the Gansler, Wachovia and Golden West did not fully explain to "Pick-a-Payment" borrowers who chose the fourth option that their minimum payments would not cover the full interest and that their principal debt would actually increase over time.

Under the terms of the agreement, Wells Fargo will consider loan modifications for homeowners who have "Pick-a-Payment" contracts, using the federal Home Affordable Modification Program. If the homeowner is not eligible for a HAMP modification, then Wells Fargo will use its own proprietary loan modification program.

The modifications may include principal forgiveness, loan extension, interest rate reduction and/or principal forbearance, depending upon the circumstances of the borrower.

Maryland officials will contact consumers who may be eligible for restitution funds under the settlement. In addition, the agreement will benefit homeowners who obtain loan modifications.

While federal agencies and prosecutors have taken little or no action in connection with the housing and financial crises, the states have consistently taken action on behalf of consumers. Prior to the Maryland settlement, 11 other states had reached similar agreements with Wells Fargo.

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Tax Agency Warns Of Increased Scams

Taxpayers cautioned against phony tax credit and refund schemes

Tax scams are abundant during tax season...

PhotoIt's not just tax season, it's also tax scam season. While filing a federal return and waiting for a refund is at the top of everyone's mind these days, criminals are trying to figure out ways to trick taxpayers into turning over their cash or sensitive financial information.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) warns that taxpayers must carefully choose a tax preparer, ensuring that they are not only competent to prepare your return, but also trustworthy. The IRS has noted an increase in tax-return-related scams, frequently involving unsuspecting taxpayers who normally do not have a filing requirement in the first place.

South and Midwest have been targets

These taxpayers are led to believe they should file a return with the IRS for tax credits, refunds or rebates for which they are not really entitled. Many of these recent scams have been targeted in the South and Midwest.

Most paid tax return preparers provide honest and professional service, but there are some who engage in fraud and other illegal activities. Unscrupulous promoters deceive people into paying for advice on how to file false claims. Some promoters may charge unreasonable amounts for preparing legitimate returns that could have been prepared for free by the IRS or IRS sponsored Volunteer Income Tax Assistance partners. In other situations, identity theft is involved.

According to the IRS, taxpayers should be wary of any of the following:

  • Fictitious claims for refunds or rebates based on excess or withheld Social Security benefits.
  • Claims that Treasury Form 1080 can be used to transfer funds from the Social Security Administration to the IRS enabling a payout from the IRS.
  • Unfamiliar for-profit tax services teaming up with local churches.
  • Home-made flyers and brochures implying credits or refunds are available without proof of eligibility.
  • Offers of free money with no documentation required.
  • Promises of refunds for “Low Income – No Documents Tax Returns.”
  • Claims for the expired Economic Recovery Credit Program or Recovery Rebate Credit. 
  • Advice on claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit based on exaggerated reports of self-employment income.

 

In some cases non-existent Social Security refunds or rebates have been the bait used by the con artists. In other situations, taxpayers deserve the tax credits they are promised but the preparer uses fictitious or inflated information on the return which results in a fraudulent return.

Don't be tempted by fliers and advertisements for free money from the IRS, suggesting that the taxpayer can file with little or no documentation. These items have been appearing in community churches around the country, starting last year. Promoters appear to be targeting church congregations, exploiting their good intentions and credibility, the IRS says.

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Timeshare Resale Agent Sentenced To Prison

State maintains defendant scammed owners out of $30 million

Timeshare resale agent going to jail...

Many a timeshare owner has complained that operators promising they have a buyer for their unit have pocketed a big advance fee but not sold their timeshare.

Many of these victims have expressed outrage that no one has been held accountable in these scams. But now, someone has.

Florida, which has its share of timeshares, has teamed with the federal government to send one timeshare resale operator to prison. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi says Jennifer Kirk, who operated Creative Vacation Solutions, was sentenced this week to 188 months in federal prison for conspiracy to commit fraud and wire fraud.

A $30 million take

Bondi says Kirk operated a timeshare resale scam that stole $30 million from more than 22,000 victims across the country. In December 2009 the Florida Attorney General's Office obtained a court order to close the company down.

"Florida will not tolerate people who prey on those trying to sell their timeshares," Bondi said. "This case is a great example of law enforcement working together to protect consumers."

Fraudulent time share re-marketing has become a bigger problem since 2008, when many people found they could no longer afford their timeshares and were desperate to get out from under the monthly payments and maintenance fees.

Targeted timeshare owners

According to the civil complaint, which was filed in December 2009, Kirk employed telemarketers who placed cold calls to timeshare owners and then falsely represented that their company had actual buyers for the owners’ timeshare property. Her telemarketers then solicited advanced fees of up to several thousand dollars from each victim in purported closing costs that they promised would be refunded to the owner once the closing on the property occurred.

The state maintains that, despite collecting fees from approximately $1,200 to $3,000 from each of the 22,000 victims, her companies never sold a single timeshare unit. The complaint also alleged that the defendant and her co-conspirators pocketed the closing costs.  

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What's On Your Mind? Enterprise, Dish Network, Priceline

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Enterprise, Dish Network, Priceline, Cut out the middle man and Book directly....

PhotoLast October J.D., of Van Nuys, Calif., returned to his parking spot on the street to find that his car had been damaged by another vehicle that left the scene. Fortunately, he has a lot more information about the incident than he would have otherwise.

“A witness identified the truck, with what turned out to be left over logos from a party rental company, and left a note with the license plate number,” J.D. said.

After following up, J.D. said he discovered the vehicle was rented from Enterprise and also learned the name of the driver and the company he represented. Sounds like an open and shut case, doesn't it?

“After contacting Enterprises' insurance company, RIS Rental Insurance Services, Inc., I was told that they were denying my claim,” J.D. said. “Now, any reasonable person would know that they are responsible when the truck was identified, with left over logos on the side from another business that rented the truck, and the name of the person who rented that truck on that day. Big business gets away again.”

J.D. didn't say whether he filed a police report. He should have done so.  Leaving the scene of an accident is a ticketable offense -- and a more serious offense in some jurisidctions.

A police investigation, and possible prosecution, would certainly provide some leverage. Leaving the scene of an accident is a crime. Depending on the extent of the damages, he could also sue the driver, the company he works for, and Enterprise.

J.D. should also have hired a lawyer.  He would have recovered his legal costs in court.

Cut out the middle man

William, of International Falls, Minn., says he has Dish Network and unlike many people posting complaints, he's very happy with it. He also observes there is a pattern to the complaints that he has read.

“I started my account directly with Dish Network,” William told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Most of the issues in this forum are by individuals who purchased the service through a third party who has everything to lose if the customer canceled service. I've seen this with friends who ordered the service from a third party contractor. When they ran into issues, I put them directly in touch with Dish and the issues were taken care of.”

We've also noted that some complaints about both Dish and DirecTV have to do with reception. In nearly every case, this is because the dish was not properly aligned to the satellite when it was installed. It makes William's point about the role of third party contractors.

Book directly

Here's another reason to by wary of third party travel booking sites.

“I purchased a round trip ticket to Cancun through Priceline,” said Caitlin, of Medford, N.Y. “When I received my confirmation it had someone else's name on it as the traveler. I was continuously told that it was my fault and I must have typed in this other persons name. Customer service was degrading, nasty and unwilling to help. I was told that I would receive a full refund until transfered to the supervisor who denied me that and refused to help me in any way, again stating that this is an error of my own. I have never been so poorly treated as a customer.”

Once you book travel through a third party site, it's pretty much set in stone, and as Caitlin points out, even obvious mistakes by the site are hard to correct. Remember that not all airlines participate in these sites. Southwest, for example, books exclusively through it's own site.

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Move Over Apple and Google, Ubuntu TV Has Arrived

Is this the TV of the future?

You might not know what Ubuntu is and even if you do, you may not associate it with TV, but nevertheless Ubuntu TV made its debut at the Consumer Electroni...

PhotoYou might not know what Ubuntu is and even if you do, you may not associate it with TV, but nevertheless Ubuntu TV made its debut at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas today.

First things first. Ubuntu is generally considered the most popular version of Linux, the open-source software that powers most of the Internet and a lot of the other gadgets, utilities and industrial processes. 

In addition to that, Ubuntu produces an operating system adapted for laptops and desktop computers that's similar to what you'd see on an Apple or Microsoft-powered machine.   (The name derives from a Southern Africa philosophy that espouses caring and friendship).

Lately, users of the Ubuntu desktop -- who tend to be gearheads -- have been grousing that their computer screen increasingly resembles a tablet computer or, even odder, a TV set.  Instead of the usual small, boxy menus, Ubuntu has sprouted big buttons that appear and disappear as one mouses around the screen.

Now we know why.  Canonical, the U.K.-based company that produces Ubuntu, has been edging towards the home television market, promising that the software will provide:

  • Easy integration of broadcast, online services and applications.
  • Modern broadcast TV experience – search, watch, record and play.
  • Millions of movies and TV shows streamed over the web on demand.

Sound familiar?

Does this sound a lot like what Apple, Microsoft and Google have been promising for their TVs?  If so, it's not surprising.  Ubuntu has for years matched -- some would say exceeded -- everything Apple and Microsoft have done for computers, so why would it not do the same for the new world of TV, the one that integrates the Internet, cable, broadcast, DVD, DVR and just about any other source you can think of?

Aside from complaints by its geeky users who resent anyone messing with their laptop design, Ubuntu has a sterling reputation for technical innovation and reliability.  Crashes, lock-ups, virus infestations are virtually unknown in the world of Ubuntu.  Of course, whether that rock-solid reputation transfers to TV remains to be seen.

Oh, did we mention that the versions of Ubuntu that power servers, laptops and desktops are free?  Commercial clients can buy support services from Canonical but it's not required and the vast majority of individual users rely on forums and their instincts to keep things running smoothly.

Canonical says it expects to have its first Ubuntu-powered TVs on store shelves by the end of this year. Canonical also promises tablets and smartphones sometime soon.

---

Disclosure: The author is a longtime Ubuntu adherent who habitually pesters friends and colleagues, pressing Ubuntu installation CDs on them and pleading with them to dual-boot their machines, a suggestion not appreciated by those of a conservative bent.

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Dish Dishes Up a Batch of New Services

Hopper DVR can record six HD signals at once

Whole-house high-def is the mantra being chanted by Dish Network as it rolls out a collection of new services including  expanded streaming video serv...

PhotoWhole-house high-def is the mantra being chanted by Dish Network as it rolls out a collection of new services including  expanded streaming video services, corporate logos, mascots, and new programming, on-demand content, and satellite broadband offerings at the Consumer Electronics Show this week.

CEO Joe Clayton is calling it a "relaunch of the company," highlighted by the new whole-home DVR system, which will feature the Hopper HD DVR with a 2-terabyte hard drive that is capable of recording up to six HD signals at a time and playing back up to four live streams.

Hopper includes smaller Joey boxes, which will be deployed in various rooms around the house to allow video to be paused, played back, and recorded throughout the home.
 
The product enhances Dish's TV Everywhere efforts by being capable by automatically recording prime-time programming from all four major broadcast networks. This would provide access to programming quicker than the one-day window typically available on cable, Clayton argued.

Kid shows

Dish is expanding its Blockbuster @Home service to include 6,000 family and kids shows. For $10 per month, consumers can get access to more than 100,000 DVD movies, TV shows, and games by mail and streaming of more than 10,000 movies and TV shows, including more than 3,000 kids’ shows.

The main Hopper unit features:

  • Three satellite TV tuners
  • A two-terabyte hard drive for up to 2,000 hours of video entertainment
  • Up to 250 hours of HD or up to 1,000 hours of SD user recordings
  • Bluetooth for linking to devices such as wireless headphones
  • Picture-in-picture for watching any two channels simultaneously

Combined with a Joey, the Hopper whole-home HD DVR system offers more advanced features:

  • 750 MHz Broadcom processer -- the fastest satellite receiver processor available today for a quick, responsive on-screen guide
  • Approximately 50 percent more energy efficient for a four-room installation than previous models
  • ZigBee RF4CE using a proprietary protocol remote with "remote control finder" alert
  • High definition user interface
  • Easy-to-use, fast, graphical, tile-based user interface with predictive search
  • Small, sleek chassis for convenient placement

"Building on a heritage of award-winning DVRs, DISH is proud to be the first to introduce a groundbreaking product that delivers the most choices for TV entertainment by integrating multiple sources of video into one set-top box," said DISH Network CEO Joe Clayton. "The Hopper gives our customers network TV shows on demand and thousands of family movie choices streaming or delivered to the hard drive. With its massive storage, the Hopper leads the industry in delivering the most entertainment options, bar none, for every member of the household."

The Hopper

The Hopper's new feature, PrimeTime Anytime, allows customers, with one click, to record using a single tuner all of the primetime TV programming from ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC -- the networks that deliver the most popular shows during primetime. Once activated by a customer, PrimeTime Anytime records network programming in high definition, where available, every night and stores them for eight days after they have aired.

This creates an on-demand library of approximately 100 hours of primetime TV shows, and makes it easy to catch up on episodes from last night and last week's airing.

The Hopper can record up to six TV shows at once (two live programs and four PrimeTime Anytime shows) while allowing viewers to watch up to four different recorded or on-demand shows in four rooms of the house, simultaneously. This gives a family a variety of options to control or view their recordings and to watch shows in any room from a single Hopper.

The Hopper also offers on-demand content for customers with limited or no Internet access with a feature called DISH Unplugged. This feature delivers via satellite hundreds of the most popular movies and TV shows to the hard drive, including transactional and authenticated videos on demand. DISH Unplugged provides a high quality picture without buffering and makes available many of the same streaming movie choices offered by Blockbuster @Home, including premium movie access.

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Do You Really Need A Hybrid To Save Gas?

New gas-powered cars getting hybrid-like mileage

A comparison of hybrids with fuel-efficient gas powered vehicles...

Photo
2013 Cadillac ATS (GM Photo)

At the U.S. government's urging, auto manufacturers have bought into a future of hybrid and electric cars in a big way. The North American International Auto Show in Detroit is a case in point, trumpeting a number of new hybrid and electric cars that get exceptional gas mileage.

But in a report from the auto show, Bloomberg News notes another, less-observed development: carmarkers are making ordinary gasoline-powered cars smaller, lighter, and with pretty impressive gasoline mileage.

For example, General Motors has introduced a Cadillac ATS that is said to achieve a nearly 40 miles per gallon highway rating, putting it on par with some hybrid models. And the Cadillac, even though it's a luxury car, costs less than some hybrids and certainly less than gas/electric plug-in models.

The Chevy Volt, for example, had a base sticker price of $40,000 when it was introduced last year. The Volt is powered by a bank of batteries that are charged when plugged in overnight. It also carries a small onboard gasoline engine that can recharge the batteries while underway.

GM has sold only a limited quantity of the cars so far and recently asked owners to return them to dealers for modifications to secure the batteries after a couple of fires were reported following crash tests.

There are many more hybrids on the road these days The Toyota Prius is perhaps the best known of the growing fleet of hybrids. It carries a base price of $23,520 for the hatchback model and achieves a 51 city, 48 highway miles per gallon rating.

Comparison

Compare that to the Hyundai Elantra, just crowned 2012 North American Car of the Year. The Elantra, powered by a four-cylinder gasoline engine, has a base price of $15,195 and achieves a mileage rating of 29 highway, 40 highway.

While the Prius is more fuel efficient, consumers will pay a premium to drive it. Then, there are maintenance costs.

ConsumerAffairs.com reported in 2008 that consumers reported a number of expensive repairs when they purchased a used Prius. The fuel savings were often offset by large repair bills.

The New York Times also noted an absence of buyers for hybrid and electric cars, noting analysts do not expect the segment to grow this year, if gasoline prices stay below $4 a gallon. The reason? The higher upfront costs. Initial sales for both the Chevy Volt and the competing Nissan Leaf fell short of expectations. 

Meanwhile, manufacturers do not seem deterred, unveiling still more hybrid and electric models at this week's auto show in Detroit.

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Walmart Rolls Out Tax Preparation, Refund Check-Cashing Services

"Americans shouldn’t have to pay exorbitant prices on their everyday financial needs”

Walmart is offering new services that it says will help consumers save money on their income tax preparation and it's offering to cash their refund checks ...

PhotoWalmart is offering new services that it says will help consumers save money on their income tax preparation and it's offering to cash their refund checks for $3 if the check is under $1,000 and $6 for checks up to $7,500.

Last year more than 60 million Americans didn’t have access to traditional banking services – such as credit cards and checking accounts – adding up to billions of dollars in fees paid by Americans who can least afford them, Walmart noted.

The average refund is $2,902 and many taxpayers spend up to $90 just to cash the check.

“We believe Americans shouldn’t have to pay exorbitant prices on their everyday financial needs,” said Daniel Eckert, vice president of Walmart Financial Services. “It’s their money and we want to make sure they can cash checks, pay bills and transfer money at a low price.”

Leading up to the biggest tax filing week of the year, January 16 through 22, Walmart said it has worked with Jackson Hewitt and H&R Block to double its in-store tax kiosks and lower the cost for tax preparation services.

Jackson Hewitt will offer free federal Form 1040EZ filing at its Walmart kiosks throughout the tax season and H&R Block will offer a free federal Form 1040EZ until February 29 for simple returns. H&R Block will have 250 kiosks in Walmart stores, while Jackson Hewitt is adding approximately 800 kiosks bringing their Walmart footprint to 2,800.  

“Customers need to make every dollar count in this tough economy, and that’s why we’re committed to helping customers pay less for their financial services during tax season and throughout the year,” said Eckert. “With more than 3,000 tax preparation kiosks in Walmart stores across the U.S. and low flat-fee check cashing services, our customers can conveniently make their refund dollars stretch farther by simply taking care of their tax needs at Walmart.”

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Researchers Say Memory Loss Can Begin As Early As 45

Treatment needs to begin sooner, study suggests

Researchers say memory loss can begin as early as 45...

The popular image of someone suffering from dementia is a gray-haired senior citizen, but recent studies suggest the process of memory loss begins much sooner.

While some recent studies concluded that there was little evidence of cognitive decline before the age of 60, British researchers say the presence of amyloid plaques in the brain, one of the things associated with memory loss, has been detected in young adults.

A study at Inserm and the University College London studies nearly 7,300 men and women between the ages of 45 and 70. The subjects were monitored for ten years.

As expected, the results show that cognitive performance declines with age and more rapidly so as the individual's age increases. The decline is significant in each age group.

For example, during the period studied, reasoning scores decreased by 3.6 % for men aged between 45 and 49, and 9.6 % for those aged between 65 and 70. The corresponding figures for women stood at 3.6% and 7.4% respectively.

Significant consequences

The authors stress that evidence pointing to cognitive decline before the age of 60 has significant consequences.

"Determining the age at which cognitive decline begins is important since behavioral or pharmacological interventions designed to change cognitive aging trajectories are likely to be more effective if they are applied from the onset of decline." said Archana Singh-Manoux, one of the authors.

The study concludes that some patients should begin treatment for Alzheimer's disease and other cognitive impairments at an earlier age.

The issue is a significant one since the large Baby Boom generation is now entering its senior years. As many as 10 million Baby Boomers will die of Alzheimer's, according to some estimates.

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Get A Fast Tax Refund Without A Refund Anticipation Loan

Filing electronically can save time and money

Ways to speed up your tax refund...

PhotoNow that the government has cracked down on predatory refund anticipation loans (RAL), some consumers bemoan the fact this “quick money” option is no longer available.

“We were counting on having our entire refund within about three days,” C., of Comanche, Okla., told ConsumerAffairs.com last year. “Without it we are facing cut off notices, canceled insurance and suspension of our driver's license, among other things.

But C. and others would have paid a very high price to get that money early.

“Refund anticipation loans (RALs) are one to two week loans made by banks, facilitated by tax preparers, and secured by the taxpayer’s expected tax refund,” said the Center for Responsible Lending. “RALs can carry triple digit APRs, and expose taxpayers to the risks of unpaid debt if their refunds do not arrive as expected.”

Fortunately, the refund process has been streamlined over the years and those who take advantage of these upgrades can often get their refunds in less than two weeks.

Free File

The first step is to file your return to the IRS electronically. The easiest, and least expensive way to do this is with Free File.

If your income is $57,000 or less, you can use Free File brand-name software to do the hard work for you with free tax preparation and free e-filing. It's available only through IRS.gov, where a number of tax software companies make their products available for free. Some also support state tax returns for free. Go to Free File to take advantage of this option. 

The second step for a speedy refund is to set up for direct deposit. The IRS is trying to discourage the use of paper checks, which cost money to print and mail. Getting your refund posted directly to your bank account speeds up the process and makes everyone happy.

Have your bank account information handy when you begin the Free File process. Once you have filed your return, you can monitor the refund progress with Where's My Refund? on the IRS website. 

One final note. The IRS warns that many scams revolve around bogus email messages that appear to be from the IRS with information about your refund. Don't fall for them If you receive an email that appears to be from the IRS and it asks you to provide any personal information, delete it. It's a scam.

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Chicago-Area Bally's Fitness Members Sue

Bally's left town, leaving "lifetime" members with no exercise facility, suit charges

Disgruntled Chicago fitness buffs have filed a class-action lawsuit against Bally's Fitness, which recently abandoned the Windy City and turned some of Chi...

PhotoDisgruntled Chicago fitness buffs have filed a class-action lawsuit against Bally's Fitness, which recently abandoned the Windy City and turned some of Chicago properties over to LA Fitness.

In the lawsuit, filed by attorney Christopher Cooper, the Chicagoans say they were assured in an email from Bally that their memberships would be honored at LA Fitness facilities, but some say they haven't found that to be the case.

Mike Markzon, one of the named plaintiffs in the case, say that as of Dec. 1 when LA Fitness took over, their memberships no longer were honored and they weren’t allowed to work out. One plaiintiff, Juan Dorado, said Bally's suggested he work out at a Bally's in St. Louis if he didn't like the Chicago locations.

The suit charges that Bally violated the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act by selling lifetime memberships to consumers, knowing that it did not have facilities in every locality in the United States.

In some cases, plaintiffs say there are LA Fitness gyms in their area but for unknown reasons, those gyms are refusing to honor the Bally's memberships.

Left behind

It's not only Chicagoans who are frustrated in their attempts to enlarge their shoulder muscles.  The suit says Bally similarly sold lifetime memberships in other cities, then pulled out and left their members gymless and consumers writing to ConsumerAffairs.com have told similar stories.

"I have a lifetime membership to Bally's that originated in NY, but I live in LA. LA Fitness bought out Bally's here and I am told that because Bally's still exist in NY, I cannot use the gym in LA," said Elizabeth of Los Angeles.

In the New York area, Bally sold out to LA Fitness, which has no facilities in New York City.  In Seattle, former Bally members are finding their memberships are not honored if they were purchased in Texas.

"Have a lifetime membership since 1975. Originated with Jack LaLanne - acquired by Bally," said Marguerite of Nesconset, NY. "Bally recently transferred all active accounts from their Lake Grove, NY gym to LaFitness, Lake Grove. I went to pay my fees this morning and workout and was told that it no longer existed. ...  Bally claimed that they did not know of our accounts and that they cannot help us."

In some cases, Bally abandoned entire metropolitan areas without making any provision for its members, the suit argues.

Dorado said he has four Bally memberships, one for himself and the rest for his family.  Bally has not transferred his memberships to LA Fitness and continues to insist he is a Bally member and can work out at Bally facilities in St. Louis, roughly five hours away.

The suit seeks an injunction requiring the class members be allowed to exercise at Bally and LA Fitness facilities.  It also seeks compensatory damages and legal fees.

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Feds Urged to Fine Red Cross for Blood Supply Problems

Public Citizen finds "inexplicable delays" in oversight of blood program

The consumer group Public Citizen wants the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to impose a nearly $10 million fine on the American Red Cross because of hun...

PhotoThe consumer group Public Citizen wants the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to impose a nearly $10 million fine on the American Red Cross because of hundreds of violations the agency found in a 2010 inspection of a donor support center in Philadelphia.

An FDA fall 2010 inspection of this national Red Cross center in Philadelphia, which was obtained by Public Citizen via a Freedom of Information request, documented hundreds of violations of a 2003 agreement between the FDA and the American Red Cross intended to ensure the safety of the nation’s blood supply, the organization said.

Public Citizen said it separately learned that months ago, the FDA decided to impose a financial penalty of nearly $10 million for those violations, but this has been held up for inexplicable reasons.

Failing to notify

The violations included:

  • failing to notify health departments when a blood donor has been determined to have infectious diseases, such as HIV, Hepatitis B or C, West Nile Virus or syphilis; 
  • failing to review donors whose blood donations needed to be quarantined in the past; 
  • failing to promptly add people with known problems such as infections to the national list of deferred donors; and 
  • delays in logging problems with donations more than five days after their discovery.

“Since the FDA and American Red Cross’s 2003 agreement, the Red Cross has been previously fined $37 million, but the substandard performance of critical Red Cross blood handling functions continues,” said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. “The longer HHS delays in imposing the financial penalties, the more opportunity it will afford for the Red Cross to claim that things are much better now, even if they are not.

"Too many lives are at risk if the Red Cross continues violating the important 2003 Consent Decree it agreed to abide by,” Wolfe said.

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Central Coast Neutraceuticals to Pay $1.5 Million

Feds charged company used shady sales practices to peddle acai beerry supplements

Central Coast Nutraceuticals has agreed to pay $1.5 million to settle federal claims that it used fraudulent marketing, phony claims and bogus endorsements...

PhotoCentral Coast Nutraceuticals has agreed to pay $1.5 million to settle federal claims that it used fraudulent marketing, phony claims and bogus endorsements from Oprah Winfrey and Rachael Ray to peddle its acai berry supplements, "colon cleansers," and other products.

The settlement order bans the Phoenix company from so-called "negative-option" sales, such as continuity plans and free or introductory price trial offers, in which consumers pay nothing up front or only a small fee to receive a product, but are then automatically charged a higher price unless they take steps to cancel the shipments, or return the product before the end of the trial period.

That's what  happened to Almondo of Champaign, Ill., and hundreds of other consumers who wrote to ConsumerAffairs.com about their experience.

"I ordered the free trial of Acai Berry and Advanced Colon Cleanse. The company charged my credit card $200 and have charged $87 a month for the past two months. I have made numerous calls to the company and they said my subscription was canceled. But it hasn't stopped," Almondo said.

Loretta  of Falls Church, Va., had a similar experience. 

"I ordered the Acai capsules as part of a "free" trial. I foolishly gave them my Visa number," she said. "I got the order but was charged $59.00 for some other stuff I never ordered. For the next 2 months, I noticed money coming out of my account for something I never ordered. ... Altogether I was charged more than $100.00 for this 'free' trial."

The Federal Trade Commission's 2010 complaint alleged that two individuals and five related companies deceptively claimed that their Acai Pure supplement would cause rapid and substantial weight loss, and that their Colotox colon cleanser would prevent colon cancer.

Also, despite claiming to offer a "free" trial for a nominal fee and full refunds upon request, the defendants allegedly repeatedly made unauthorized charges to consumers' bank accounts, and made it all but impossible to avoid paying full price for the products, typically $39.95 to $59.95.

Court order

At the request of the FTC in August 2010, a federal court halted the allegedly illegal conduct of the Central Coast Nutraceuticals defendants, imposed an asset freeze, and appointed a receiver to oversee the corporate defendants.

The settlement order against the defendants includes an $80 million judgment, which represents the total amount of consumer injury caused by their scheme. The monetary judgment will be suspended when the FTC receives assets worth approximately $1.5 million from the defendants.

The settlement order requires defendant Graham D. Gibson to pay the FTC the balance of his investment account; transfer to the FTC $500,000 after mortgaging his home in Phoenix, Arizona, or transfer the property to a court-appointed liquidator if he cannot obtain the mortgage; and divest himself of his interest in a Hawaii vacation property.

It also requires the court-appointed receiver to transfer to the FTC the estimated $600,000 that will remain in the accounts of Central Coast Nutraceuticals and the affiliated corporate defendants after their outstanding expenses are paid. 

Victimized consumers flooded law enforcement agencies with thousands of complaints about the company.

The defendants' marketing traded on the rampant popularity of acai berry supplements, which are derived from acai palm trees that are native to Central and South America. 

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Study: Nicotine Replacement Therapies Don't Work

Harvard researchers say FDA should take harder look at smoking cessation products

Researchers cast doubt on effectiveness of nicotine replacement therapies...

PhotoThere are a number of commercial products designed to help smokers kick the habit, including nicotine patches and nicotine gum. Collectively, they are known as nicotine replacement therapies (NRT).

Do they work? Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and the University of Massachusetts Boston suggest that they do not. They claims, they say, just don't add up.

"What this study shows is the need for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees regulation of both medications to help smokers quit and tobacco products, to approve only medications that have been proven to be effective in helping smokers quit in the long-term and to lower nicotine in order to reduce the addictiveness of cigarettes," said co-author Gregory Connolly, director of the Center for Global Tobacco Control at HSPH.

The research team included lead author Hillel Alpert, research scientist at HSPH, and co-author Lois Biener of the University of Massachusetts Boston's Center for Survey Research. They followed 787 adult smokers in Massachusetts who had recently quit smoking.

How they reached their conclusions

The participants were surveyed over three time periods: 2001-2002, 2003-2004, and 2005-2006. Participants were asked whether they had used a nicotine replacement therapy in the form of the nicotine patch (placed on the skin), nicotine gum, nicotine inhaler, or nasal spray to help them quit, and if so, what was the longest period of time they had used the product continuously. They also were asked if they had joined a quit-smoking program or received help from a doctor, counselor, or other professional.

The results showed that, for each time period, almost one-third of recent quitters reported to have relapsed. The researchers found no difference in relapse rate among those who used NRT for more than six weeks, with or without professional counseling. No difference in quitting success with use of NRT was found for either heavy or light smokers.

"This study shows that using NRT is no more effective in helping people stop smoking cigarettes in the long-term than trying to quit on one's own," Alpert said. He added that even though clinical trials have found NRT to be effective, the new findings demonstrate the importance of empirical studies regarding effectiveness when used in the general population.

Dueling studies

Their findings appeared the same day as researchers at George Washington University called for including smoking cessation treatments under Medicaid, arguing the government would receive a good return on its investment in the form of improved health. The Massachusetts researchers disagree.

Biener said that using public funds to provide NRT to the population at large is of questionable value, particularly when it reduces the amount of money available for smoking interventions shown in previous studies to be effective, such as media campaigns, promotion of no smoking policies, and tobacco price increases.

Smoking cessation medications have been available over the counter since 1996, yet U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics show that the previous adult smoking rate decline and quitting rates have stalled in the past five years.

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Philadelphia Credit Union Placed in Receivership

People for People CDCU is first to fail this year

The National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) today assumed control of service and operations at People for People Community Development Credit Union (CD...

PhotoThe National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) today assumed control of service and operations at People for People Community Development Credit Union (CDCU), a state-chartered, federally insured credit union, in Philadelphia. The credit union will remain open, NCUA said.

Deposits at People for People CDCU remain federally protected. Administered by NCUA, the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund (NCUSIF) continues to insure individual accounts at People for People CDCU up to $250,000. 

Service to People for People CDCU’s 1,561 members will continue uninterrupted. Members can continue to conduct normal financial transactions—deposit and access funds, make loan payments, and use shares. People for People CDCU serves an underserved 14.3 square mile area of north Philadelphia. The credit union reported assets of $1.1 million as of Sept. 30, 2011. 

The decision to conserve a credit union enables the institution to continue regular operations with expert management in place, correcting previous service and operational weaknesses. During conservatorship, members may therefore continue to conduct business at the credit union.

The Federal Credit Union Act authorizes the NCUA Board to appoint itself as conservator when necessary to conserve the assets of a federally insured credit union, protect members’ interests, or protect the NCUSIF. The Pennsylvania Department of Banking, which chartered People for People CDCU, concurred with the conservatorship decision. People for People CDCU is the first federally insured credit union placed into conservatorship during 2012.

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Philip Morris Accused Of Cooking Smoking Data

Researchers study same data, reach opposite conclusions

A research analysis shows that Philip Morris USA manipulated data on the effects of additives in cigarettes. Tobacco industry information shouldn't be acce...

PhotoResearchers at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) say their analysis of tobacco industry documents shows that Philip Morris USA manipulated data on the effects of additives in cigarettes, including menthol, obscuring actual toxicity levels and increasing the risk of heart, cancer and other diseases for smokers.

The takeaway, they conclude, is that industry information shouldn't be accepted at face value. Further, they say there is abundant evidence that hundreds of additives, including menthol, should be eliminated from cigarettes on public health grounds.

For the study, the researcher said they reassessed data from Philip Morris’ “Project MIX,” which detailed chemical analyses of smoke and animal toxicology studies of 333 cigarette additives. Philip Morris, the nation’s largest tobacco company, published the findings from that study in 2002.

By investigating the origins and design of Project MIX, the UCSF researchers conducted their own inquiry into the Philip Morris results and came up with a strikingly different outcome. They said they found that many of the toxins in cigarette smoke substantially increased after additives were added to cigarettes.

Just the opposite

Not only that, they say the also found, after obtaining evidence that additives increased toxicity, that tobacco scientists adjusted the protocol for presenting their results in a way that obscured these increases.

“We discovered these post-hoc changes in analytical protocols after the industry scientists found that the additives increased cigarette toxicity by increasing the number of fine particles in the cigarette smoke that cause heart and other diseases,” said senior author Stanton A. Glantz, PhD, UCSF professor of medicine and director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at UCSF.

Glantz says that when scientists conducted their own analysis by studying additives per cigarette – following Philip Morris’ original protocol -- they found that 15 carcinogenic chemicals increased by 20 percent or more. Additionally, in the independent study, the researchers discovered the reason behind Philip Morris’ failure to identify many toxic effects in animal studies: its studies were too small.

Size matters

“The experiment was too small in terms of the number of rats analyzed to statistically detect important changes in biological effects,” Glantz said. “Philip Morris underpowered its own studies.”

Glantz said the results of Project MIX were published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology. He said an examination of the publication found that its editor and many members of its editorial board had financial ties to the tobacco industry.

The UCSF study was supported by the National Cancer Institute.

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New Dodge Dart Channels the Alfa Romeo

Chrysler hopes to get back onto the compact/midsize track quickly

It's been a long time since a U.S. carmaker displayed a new compact car that got anyone very excited.  But this year's Detroit auto show includes a nu...

PhotoIt's been a long time since a U.S. carmaker displayed a new compact car that got anyone very excited.  But this year's Detroit auto show includes a number of new models that are catching the eye of car enthusiasts.

Perhaps the most intriguing is the 2013 Dodge Dart, which Chrysler Group LLC would have us believe is channeling Alfa Romeo.  It's the first new model to come out of the melded Fiat-Chrysler design studios and it betrays a strong Italian influence.

The new Dart is built on the Fiat platform that in Europe underpins the Alfa Romeo Giuletta.  It's the first of at least seven cars, SUVs and crossovers that will be built on Fiat platforms -- giving Chrysler what it hopes is a fast lap onto the compact/mid-size track in the U.S.

This may not sound so good to the red-blooded Americans who drive those big Dodge trucks but it's worth remembering that Fiat is the second-biggest carmaker in Europe, trailing only the mighty Volkswagen.

“The all-new Dodge Dart is a groundbreaking car that will surprise and delight customers who want a no-compromise, fun-to-drive car that’s a great value,” said Dodge President Reid Bigland. “With 12 exterior colors, 14 interior color and trim options, three powerful, fuel-efficient engines, three transmission choices, unsurpassed safety features and world-class aerodynamics, the new Dodge Dart sets a new standard for the compact car class.”

The 2013 Dodge Dart will be available in five trim levels: SE, SXT, Rallye, Limited and R/T. It will be built in the United States at Chrysler Group’s Belvidere Assembly Plant in Belvidere, Ill. Production of the 2013 Dodge Dart will begin in the second quarter of 2012.

It will offer a nine-speed transmission later in 2012, providing better fuel economy without overly dampening performance.

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Important Changes For 2011 Tax Year

Tax filing deadline extended to April 17 again

Income tax filing tips...

PhotoJanuary isn't just a month for New Years resolutions. It's also the time to start pulling together documents for filing your federal income tax. There are some important changes this year that taxpayers should be aware of.

For the second straight year, the tax-filing deadline is being extended from the traditional April 15 to April 17. That's because April 15 falls on a Sunday and the following day is a holiday in the District of Columbia. The April 17 date serves as a deadline for tax return filing, for payment of first quarter estimated taxes, for requesting a filing extension, and for making a 2011 contribution to a tax-deferred retirement account.

If you are reporting a capital gain or loss in 2011, there is an additional form this year. Use form 8949 to list the specifics of the gain or loss. In the past tax payers used Schedule D. This year, you will also use Schedule D, but only to summarize the transactions.

If you are claiming mileage deductions for the business use of your vehicle, there are changes to the deduction amount. You may deduct 51 cents for each business mile driven before July 1, 2012 and 55 ½ cents for miles driven after July 1.

The tax law also allows you to deduct mileage driven to receive medical car, but the allowance is less generous. The mileage deduction for miles driven before July 1 is 19 cents and 23 ½ cents a mile after July 1. The deduction applies to trips to the doctor or driving to receive specialized medical services, such as radiation treatments.

Standard deduction

Taxpayers who do not itemize deductions are allowed to take what is known as a “standard deduction,” and that amount has increased for the 2011 tax year. The new standard deduction will depend on your filing status.

If you are single or married, but filing separately, the standard deduction is $5,800. If you are married and filing jointly, the amount is $11,600 and if you are the head of a household, the amount is $8,500. The standard deduction is subtracted from your gross income on form 1040.

If you have questions about your 2011 taxes, chances are you can find the information at the IRS website.

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Nokia, Microsoft Hoping Their New Smartphone Is a Hit

Windows Phone 7.5 has a unique animated tile design that reviews swoon over

The tech world is abuzz about a new smartphone today -- and no, it's not an iPhone or an Android.  It's the Lumia 900, Nokia's attempt to fight its wa...

PhotoThe tech world is abuzz about a new smartphone today -- and no, it's not an iPhone or an Android.  It's the Lumia 900, Nokia's attempt to fight its way back into the smartphone market.

The Lumia 900 goes on display at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas Monday and will be sold through AT&T stores.  It joins the simpler Lumia 710, already available through T-Mobile.  

But what's causing all the buzz is not the hardware behind the Lumia. It's the software. That's because the Lumia 900 runs Windows Phone, long derided by the technohip as a drab also-ran, somewhere on the evolutionary scale between a rotary dial phone and an early Blackberry.

But the latest version of Windows Phone -- known officially as 7.5 Mango -- is turning heads with a snappy design that critics say shows the kind of obsessive attention to detail and usability that has long defined Apple products.

Mom factor

“Our work is very visual, very engaging, and it also has the Mom factor—you can show your Mom exactly what you’re working on and she’ll get it,” said James Drage, a senior software development engineer on the Windows Phone Shell Team, in a news release.

Ricardo Espinoza, a software development engineer on the team, agreed. “Working on the Windows Phone has taught me how important it is to create something that’s intuitive right out of the box,” he adds. “Mobile phones need to be easy to use even for somebody who’s never used one before. You can’t have a learning curve.”

Drage helped develop several features for the start screen including a prominent feature called the “task switcher” that enables users to flip back and forth among applications that are running. That's part of what sets Mango apart from earlier versions, and from other smartphone operating systems: it runs many programs in the background, alerting you with a flashing button when something new wants your attention.

Hard-wired

Both Facebook and Twitter, for example, are hard-wired directly into Mango, so that they're running all the time.  A button flashes when a friend posts a new update or someone you're following emits a new tweet.

Not too many mortals, us included, have yet seen Mango in person so we have to take the word of reviewers like the New York Times' Nick Wingfield, who is impressed by the "bold, on-screen typography and a mosaic of animated tiles on the home screen."

The tiles light up as calls come in, emails are received and social networks beckon.  The design is said to be much easier for the average user to understand.  Anyone who's ever fumbled frantically with the latest 'Droid trying to figure out how to unlock the damned phone and answer a call should appreciate the simple way in which a tile springs to life -- making it easy to figure out what's demanding your attention and, just as important, making it easy to respond by simply pressing the blinking tile.

Will it catch on?  It's too soon to say but both Microsoft and Nokia desperately need a hit.  Microsoft has been on the sidelines of the smartphone wars for years, losing vital market share to Google and Apple while Nokia has been shoved aside by the likes of HTC and Samsung.

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And Then There Were Six

Been busy? Or asleep? Here's a primary primer that will bring you up to date

By Edward RoederGuest ColumnistEleven months before the U.S. conducts the most expensive general elections in history, it's worth recapping what's just h...

By Edward Roeder
Guest Columnist

PhotoEleven months before the U.S. conducts the most expensive general elections in history, it's worth recapping what's just happened in pre-primary politics, and previewing what's to come.

Since the first debate of the 2012 Republican presidential nominating process last May, 13 debates and no elections have been held.  The pace is about to quicken.  In  January, six debates are scheduled as political junkies prepare for the first three Republican presidential primaries on January 10, 21 and 31 (in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, respectively.)

Last summer, Mitt Romney, the multimillionaire former governor of Massachusetts, led a big field.  With seven or eight candidates plus a huge chunk of undecideds in most polls, Mr. Romney's 25% was generally enough to put him way out ahead.  

The Tea Party was riding high after its success in the mid-term elections, wielding its new power in the House of Representatives in an effort to curtail the size of the government by refusing to allow more federal borrowing.  By the time a deal was reached, most of the country had soured on the tea partiers, public approval of Congress was in single digits, and the credit rating of the United States had been downgraded for the first time in history.  

Still, the calendar beckoned candidates to run for the GOP nomination, and at least a dozen names were floated as possible Republican standard-bearers to oppose the reelection of President Barack Obama.

Early drop-outs

Two of the classiest potential contenders, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, whose credentials include a stint as director of the Office of Management and Budget in the first term of President George W. Bush, and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, dropped out early, apparently unable to find sponsors and unwilling to drink the Tea Party's Kool-aid.  

Former vice presidential nominee and Alaska governor Sarah Palin never moved into campaign mode, perhaps because she can make far more money as a celebrity than as a politician.  Dealmaker Donald Trump, who has never sought election to public office but can flip-flop with the best of them, led in the polls briefly.  But after reviving the canard that President Obama wasn't born in the U.S. (which, if true, would make Mr. Obama ineligible to be president), Mr. Trump decided not to lower himself into the mosh pit of the primary process.

PhotoNewt Gingrich, a failed teacher at a small Georgia college who got elected to Congress in 1978, became Speaker of the House in 1995 and was forced out by his colleagues four years later after being fined $300,000 for ethics violations, is now a Washington political entrepreneur whose various operations have grossed more than $100 million since he left office.  

Mr. Gingrich’s campaign all but collapsed in June, shortly after it began, as 16 aides, including almost all of the top staffers, quit in a dispute over the candidate’s refusal to commit to basic scheduling.  Yet Mr. Gingrich participated in the debates, and while he wasn’t asked many questions because he was so far behind in the polls, he was articulate when he spoke.

Ron Paul, the perennial Libertarian now in his last term in the House, appealed to idealistic young people, but is seen as unacceptable to the party elders.  

Shaken, not stirred

The debates have done well in the TV ratings, but it's unclear whether that's because viewers are interested in politics or entertainment.  Mr. Romney, who always does well in debates, has perfected the art of suffering fools gladly;  he resists the temptation to roll his eyes as his rivals reveal how unprepared they are.

The debates may have left voters feeling like a 007 martini -- shaken, not stirred.  Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota Congresswoman and fundamentalist Christian who has embraced all things Tea Party-ish, won the Iowa straw poll last August, making her the first to challenge Mr. Romney's lead.  

PhotoThen Texas Gov. Rick Perry threw his Stetson into the ring, and soared in the polls.  He espoused Tea Party and right-wing values, but as a big guy and governor of a big state, projected more substance than Ms. Bachmann, whose accomplishments in Congress are limited to rhetoric.  Mr. Perry became "flavor of the month," leading in the polls, in September.

Mr. Perry proved to be terrible in televised debates, and the shadowy Tea Party leadership soured on him after he failed, in Florida debates, to adhere to the party line trashing undocumented immigrants.  In Orlando's straw poll they threw their support behind Herman Cain, a glib former Godfather's Pizza executive and radio talk show host, the only black person on the stage.  Cain had acquitted himself well in the first debate, in May.

Mr. Cain won the Florida straw poll and became the new hit flavor for October, as Southerners often like to deny their racism by suggesting that they have nothing against black people like the celebrity/athlete/success/hero before them.   But Mr. Cain soon flamed out, partly due to flubs in the debates and partly due to a burgeoning sex scandal that he handled classically wrongly.

Meanwhile, Gov. Perry continued to implode onstage in debates, at one point fumbling through 53 seconds of silence as he failed to remember the names of all the federal agencies he wanted to abolish.

ABM forces

By mid-Fall, the ABM (Anybody But Mitt) forces were getting frantic, seeing the race as a choice between fundamentalist Christian right and Tea Party conservatives such as Ms. Bachmann and Mssrs. Perry, Santorum and Gingrich on one hand, and moderates like Mr. Romney on the other.

PhotoThey didn't believe Mr. Romney's pledges of ideological purity, and sought a challenger who would hew closely to right-wing dogma.  (Ironically, in one of their debate conflicts, on immmigration, Mr. Perry advocated allowing the children of undocumented parents to attend college at in-state tuition rates while Mr. Romney took the hard right line.)  New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie declined the entreatments.

Then, apparently channeling his inner Jim Lehrer, Trump announced he would moderate a presidential primary debate.  After Trump's bid became the object of derision and all but two of the candidates opted out, he dropped the idea, and later indicated he might support a third-party candidate. Not that anyone had asked.

Mr. Romney didn’t need to win in Iowa;  he just needed to assure that no apparent alternative developed.  By December, Mr. Perry had self-destructed, along with Mr. Cain and Ms. Bachmann.  Ron Paul represented no threat, because his libertarian views were scary to the party elders.  That left Mssrs. Gingrich and Santorum.  The latter was the lesser threat, far less well-known, less wealthy, and less qualified than the former Speaker.

Smartest guy in the room

After Thanksgiving, Newt Gingrich became the leading alternative to Mr. Romney.  But Mr. Gingrich, who is the oldest, most obese and most accomplished of the candidates, is accustomed to being the smartest guy in the room, in rooms eschewed by smart people.  

Due to an incredible and entirely unjustified belief in his appeal or to an uncommon ignorance of modern presidential politics, Mr. Gingrich was blown away during December by Mr. Romney, and by a “superpac” set up by friends of Mr. Romney to do the dirty work.

Mr. Gingrich had pledged to avoid negative advertising, and had not spent the money on organization or advertising to counter Mr. Romney’s stealthy Iowa campaign.  Overtly, Mr. Romney was not negative.  But his sound bites and ads, such as one pointing out that he’d been married for 42 years, invited unfavorable comparisons with Mr. Gingrich, who is in his third marriage.  And the superpac’s ads were biting, accusing Mr. Gingrich of accepting $1.6 million from federal mortgage underwriter Freddie Mac at the peak of the housing bubble, and of producing an ad with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi supporting policies to curb global warming.

As more of Iowa’s undecided caucus-goers decided, poll numbers went up for candidates who hadn’t embarrassed themselves, except for Mr. Romney, who stayed around 25%.  Thus, the new hot flavor became former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who had made more trips to Iowa than any other candidate.

Ultimately, Mr. Romney won the Iowa caucuses by eight votes over Mr. Santorum, with Mr. Paul almost 4,000 votes behind.  But it was so close, for so long into the night, that Mr. Santorum’s excellent victory speech, given when he led by 18 votes and before Mr. Romney spoke, reached a far larger chunk of the electorate in future primaries than Mr. Romney’s.

With a bit more than half as many votes as the front-runners, Mr. Gingrich ran fourth, trailed by Mr. Perry and Ms. Bachmann.  Mr. Romney had gotten almost exactly what he wanted.  He won first place, albeit narrowly.  Second went to Mr. Santorum, an underfunded unknown, with no known base of support.  Third went to Mr. Paul, unacceptable to most of the party.  Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Perry had to settle for distant fourth and fifth place finishes -- not a good record to take to donors to inspire funding the South Carolina primary, on January 21.  

Solidly positioned

Going into the New Hampshire primary, Mr. Romney is solidly positioned at just over 40% in the polls.  Mr. Santorum raised a million dollars after his showing in Iowa, but can’t put together much of an organization in one week.  Nor can Mr. Gingrich.  

That makes it very likely that Mr. Romney will compete in South Carolina -- and debate on TV -- as the only candidate who has won anything, having won Iowa and New Hampshire.  The right-wing vote will be split among Mssrs. Perry, Santorum and Gingrich.  (Ms. Bachman has decided to “step aside” after garnering only 5% of the vote in Iowa caucuses.  Former Utah Gov. John Huntsman, who skipped Iowa to concentrate on New Hampshire, will only serve to further split Mr. Romney’s opposition.)

The first January debate, scheduled for tonight (Saturday night), should provide some interesting fireworks.  Mr. Gingrich, an angry elephant, will be trying to stomp, shove, and gore Mr. Romney, in hope of helping Mr. Santorum, who Mr. Gingrich feels confident he can beat.    

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JK Harris Suspends Operations, Prepares to Liquidate

Tax-preparation firm swamped by consumer complaints, lawsuits

John K. HarrisTax representation firm JK Harris & Co. has suspended operations, sent its employees home and is reported to be prepa...

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John K. Harris

Tax representation firm JK Harris & Co. has suspended operations, sent its employees home and is reported to be preparing to liquidate its assets.

The firm, the subject of hundreds of complaints to ConsumerAffairs.com over the years, has been in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings since October but has reportedly been unable to raise enough funding to continue operations.

"This is truly the most devastating event I have been forced to deal with in my 58 years on this earth," CEO John K. Harris said in an email to employees as he apparently prepared to file for a Chapter 7 liquidation.

The firm won't be mourned by many of the consumers who turned to it in their time of need.

One call does it all?

"My husband began working with JK Harris over 3 years ago and we have paid them at least $3,000.00 or more. They never return your calls, they are constantly telling you they are 'still working on it', they demand more money, they always have a new rep, etc.," said Christine of Anoka, MN, in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com a few days ago.

"Their ad says 'one call does it all.' That's a lie. I was told by my rep that I met with that no one could take money out of my disability checks. Well, they did. I am disabled and live on my disability," said Suzan of Blytheville, AR. "Every time I called J.K Harris' office, I was directed to a new rep. I sent in paperwork every 3 months and every time, it went to a new rep. I was told to ignore notices from IRS. This went on for over 4 years."

The company has been the target of complaints for years -- and it was those complaints and the resulting lawsuits that finally pushed it over the edge.

Harris filed for bankruptcy protection last October after Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott charged the firm with misrepresenting its ability to help Texans resolve their unpaid tax obligations. Harris agreed to pay $1.2 million in penalties to settle the case.

The state charged that the firm failed to provide promised services, misrepresented its employees professional skills and experience, overstated its ability to reduce debts that customers owe to the Internal Revenue Service, and accepted large, prepaid fees from customers whose tax liabilities the firm knew or should have known it could not reduce.

Sales personnel

Abbott's charges echoed many of the complaints voiced by consumers.

"While Harris' advertisements claimed that former IRS agents, Certified Public Accountants, lawyers, and other professionals were available to meet with consumers in 325 locations in 43 states, investigators discovered that JK Harris regional offices are staffed by sales personnel who are not trained tax experts," Abbott said.

Last July, Harris agreed to provide full refunds to West Virginia consumers who hired the firm but received no tax relief. The refunds total just over $14,000.

In 2008, the company agreed to pay $1.5 million to settle a suit filed by 18 states. 

"This company took advantage of people who paid for tax assistance and, in some instances, profited by taking their money and not giving them any help at all," said Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley in announcing the settlement. 

Also in 2008, then-Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon sued Harris on behalf of customers who received neither the services for which they paid as much as $4,500 each nor the refunds they requested.

"JK Harris promises it can help consumers who are having tax problems, but the Missourians who complained to my office told a different story -- one of unreturned phone calls, lost paperwork, and a worse financial situation than when they started," Nixon said.

In 2007, a class action lawsuit sought $6 million for consumers who complained that, far from solving their tax problems, JK Harris actually made their worse.

Holding the bag

The South Carolina-based company owes its primary lender, RAI Credit, nearly $11.9 million but has assets worth only about $3.8 million.

The firm's collapse not only leaves its employees and current clients in the lurch but also raises questions about the millions of dollars in owes in court settlements.  Unsecured creditors are typically at the back of the line in bankruptcy proceedings, leaving the possibility that many who are owed money will get little or nothing.

The company has a Jan. 10 court date at which the court is expected to appoint a trustee.

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Extreme Smartphone Users Becoming More Extreme

Study finds 1% of users now consuming half of all downloaded data

Data hogWe've long known that traffic only gets worse.  And now a new study confirms that it's not just vehicular traffic that dis...

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Data hog

We've long known that traffic only gets worse.  And now a new study confirms that it's not just vehicular traffic that displays this seemingly immutable rule.

Thanks to new smartphones and the apps that tag along, mobile data is accelerating beyond expectations, network management company Arieso finds in a new study.

Following a similar study in 2010, Arieso’s new analysis reveals that so-called "extreme" users are becoming even more extreme, with 1% of subscribers now consuming half of all downloaded data.

One thing is clear, the study finds: the capacity issues plaguing mobile operators around the world will worsen in 2012.

iPhone 4S

The Arieso study compares data usage across a variety of smartphones and connected devices. It finds that users of the iPhone 4S demand three times as much data as iPhone 3G users and twice as much as iPhone 4 users, who were identified as the most demanding in the 2010 study.

In a finding consistent with 2010 results, it also shows that Google Nexus One users make twice as many data calls as iPhone 3G users.

“The introduction of increasingly sophisticated devices, coupled with growing consumer demand, is creating unrelenting pressure on mobile networks. The capacity crunch is still a very real threat for mobile operators, and it looks set to only get harder in 2012,” commented Dr. Michael Flanagan, CTO, Arieso and study author. “The mobile industry needs new investment and new approaches to boost network performance and manage the customer experience”.

Top line results

The Arieso analysis compares the data consumption of users of the latest smartphones against the iPhone3G as a “normalised benchmark”. The study found that different users and different devices exhibit very different demands on the network.

The most significant change in consumer behavior between 2010 and 2011 data has been driven by the introduction of the iPhone 4S. iPhone 4S users download 2.76 times as much data as users of the iPhone 3G. And while an Android-powered device maintains last year’s position at the top of the table for uplink data volumes, with HTC Desire S users typically uploading 3.23 times as much data as iPhone 3G users, the iPhone 4S falls just behind in this category with a typical 3.20 times as much data uploaded.

There are some very hungry handset users, even compared to the iPhone 3G benchmark (iPhone 3G = 100%):

Data calls per subscriber:

  • HTC Google Nexus One: 221%
  • Sony Ericsson Xperia X10i: 157%
  • HTC Desire: 156%

Uplink data volumes:

  • 3G Modems (various): 2654%
  • HTC Desire S: 323%
  • iPhone 4S: 320%

Downlink data volumes:

  • 3G Modems (various): 2432%
  • iPhone 4S: 276%
  • Samsung Galaxy S: 199%

“While the report provides general trends, the studies on which they’re based demonstrate the importance to operators of understanding the increased consumption each type of smartphone brings. Despite stark industry warnings, mobile operators are still playing ‘Guess Who?’ with their subscribers,” continued Flanagan.

“Without adequately preparing networks to support the new generation of smart devices, operators risk spiralling and misplaced operational expenditure and delivering a sub-par quality of experience to customers. It’s critical that operators redouble their efforts to limit the impact of this inevitable squeeze.”

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Iran, U.S. Newspapers Mount Web Crackdown

New layers of surveillance, intimidation seek to limit free expression

In Iran, the government is imposing new levels of surveillance and intimidation on Internet cafes, giving them 15 days to install security cameras and coll...

PhotoIn Iran, the government is imposing new levels of surveillance and intimidation on Internet cafes, giving them 15 days to install security cameras and collect detailed personal information on their customers.

The goal is to choke back the free flow of ideas that are seen as a threat to the government's stability.

In the United States, The Associated Press (AP) and a handful of daily newspapers have launched NewsRight, a surveillance and "licensing" organization that will monitor Web sites and attempt to intimidate them into paying stiff fees for reporting news that the newspapers think they own.

The goal is to choke back the free flow of ideas that are seen as a threat to the newspaper industry's stability.

Libya, China and Cuba also practice aggressive surveillance and intimidation of Web users and publishers and, in some cases, block outside content from reaching readers in their countries.

Aggregators targeted

NewsRight and its ink-stained masters hope to require Web sites that "aggregate" news content to pay for the right to publish news and information of public interest, a right that is generally regarded as protected by the First Amendment.

"Newspapers don't own the news.  They own the presses, the rolls of paper and the rights to their trademarked and copyrighted material but not to the public information that they slice and dice into the day's news menu," said the editor of one well-known Web site which reaches millions of readers each month and maintains its own reporting staff.

Newspapers and the AP -- regarded around the world as the "semi-official American news agency" -- often control the primary news venues that they cover, shutting out reporters from smaller print, broadcast and Web publications.

In Washington, for example, the Senate Press Gallery is controlled by a five-member board of directors that this year includes representatives of AP, Bloomberg News, Congressional Quarterly, the Omaha Herald and the Salt Lake City Tribune.  They decide who gets admission to the Senate and House press galleries as well as to numerous other public venues, including the upcoming national political conventions. 

While granting their employers hundreds of credentials, the board routinely votes to exclude independent reporters and small organizations.

"If the American news cabal is going to control and lock down the major news venues, most of them owned by the American people, they cannot also claim to have the exclusive right to report the people business that is transacted in those venues," said one longtime Washington, D.C., journalist who asked not to be identified because it would result in his being black-listed.

The AP makes no secret of its goal.

“We hope to alter behavior in the marketplace,” said David Westin, CEO of NewsRight, an attorney and former executive at ABC News, which routinely under his tenure sought and won exclusive rights to events such as the Olympics. 

The real question, Westin said in an interview with the trade industry publication Poynter.org, is: “How much value can we generate and return to the producers?”

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U.S. Statin Costs Are 400% Higher Than UK's

Costs highest for those with private health insurance

A comparison on U.S. and UK statin costs...

PhotoIf you live in the U.S. and take a statin to lower your cholesterol, you're paying a premium price for that drug.

That's the conclusion of the Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) Boston Collaborative Drug Surveillance Program, which found the cost of statins for people in the U.S. under the age of 65 who have private insurance is approximately 400 percent higher than comparable costs paid by the government in the United Kingdom.

The cost of prescription drugs remains a large part of the ongoing debate on the costs of medical care in the U.S. and U.K. Because of the many variables that contribute to these costs, well-defined estimates of the actual and relative usage and costs for the two countries have not been reliably documented, the researchers said.

Over-prescribed?

Statins are popular but have rare and potentially severe adverse effects, particularly muscle damage, and some doctors believe they are overprescribed. A 2010 Johns Hopkins study of 950 healthy men and women has shown that taking daily doses of a statin medication to protect coronary arteries might not provide additional protection.

Lipitor, one of the most widely prescribed statins, just went generic, but it may be a few years before its price falls significantly. It's price before going generic was well over $1,000 a year.

Statins were prescribed to an estimated 32.7 percent of people in the U.S. and 24.4 percent in the U.K. In the U.S. the estimated annual cost of statins ranged from a high of $1,428 for simvastatin (generic unavailable), to a low of $314 for lovastatin (available in generic formulation).

In the U.K. the annual cost varied from a high of $500 for atorvastatin (generic not available), to a low of $164 for simvastatin (available in generic). The estimated cost per pill was at least twice as high for each statin prescribed in both countries.

When you don't pay, you don't care what it costs

Are American patients that much richer than their British counterparts, that they can afford to shell out $1,400 a year for a prescription drug? Not really. But the point is, they aren't paying for it directly. With so many health plans now providing prescription coverage, American patients often get very expensive drugs for a low co-pay. The actual cost is reflected in higher premiums and shifted to patients without drug coverage.

When the annual cost for each annual statin user together with the number of users were combined, the total estimated cost for statin users was $69.5 million in people covered by private insurance companies in the U.S. The total estimated annual cost for statin users covered by the government in the U.K. was $15.7 million.

"In addition to differences in overall statin use and per unit costs, another significant factor contributing to the disparity of costs appears to be the availability and utilization of generics," said lead author Hershel Jick, MD, Director Emeritus of BUSM's Collaborative Drug Surveillance Program and associate professor of medicine at BUSM.

Generics prove popular

According to the researchers, simvastin was approved in the U.S. for sale in generic formulation in late June 2006. Within the next six months more than 60 percent of users switched from the brand preparation to the generic.

The resulting estimated cost was reduced more than 60 percent. According to the researchers, however, it still was four times higher than that in the UK.

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What's On Your Mind? Target, Gold's Gym, Flat Rate Van Lines

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Target, Gold's Gym, Flat Rate Van Lines, Wrong approach and Moving bill shock....

PhotoThe holidays are over and many consumers are trudging back to the mall to exchange a gift they received. It's not always easy to do.

“My husband received a shirt that my son ordered online from Target,” Judith, of Wrightstown, Wisc., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “The shirt was too small so my husband went to Target locally for a return.

There were no similar shirts left at the store or online. My husband, who had all the appropriate receipts, asked for a refund. He was told that was not the store policy. They said he would receive an in store credit.”

Though not happy with the option of a Target gift card, Judith said her husband then encountered another nasty surprise.

“The shirt was $27.99 plus tax and shipping,” Judith said. “The gift card was for $23.75. When my husband asked why there was a $5.48 difference for the cost of the shirt, he was told the charges were for 'handling' and taxes, which had been paid once already along with the original order! So a shirt that originally cost my son approximately $34.00 was now only worth $23.75!”

Target might have assessed the fee because, rather than keeping the merchandise at the store, it was sending it back to the warehouse. Even so, it doesn't seem that Judith's husband should pay the price.

Wrong approach

Mike, of Elk Grove, Calif., said he joined Gold's Gym back in July and paid for the full year. Three months later, he says, the Elk Grove location shut its doors with no notice. Is Mike due a refund? Sure.

“I opened a dispute with my credit card company, Discover,” Mike said. “I heard back from Discover who stated that they had spoken with the Merchant's bank who agreed to Discover taking the money from the Golds Gym bank to apply the refund. Since then my girlfriend, who has no affiliation with my account apart from the fact that I also paid $99 for her to join, has started receiving collections calls for unpaid fees.

Rather than stopping the credit card payments, Mike should have contacted his state attorney general's office for assistance after he was unable to resolve the matter with Gold's Gym. States have been very active in requiring health clubs to reimburse members when the only clubs in their area close. The part of the company that processes credit card payments has no clue about the club closing and just sees it as a non-payment issue.

Moving bill shock

Why is it that the cost of a household move is almost never what the estimate says it will be? Marilyn, of Hummelstown, Pa., hired Flat Rate Van Lines to move some furniture and other household goods for me from a private home in North Wales, Pa to a self-storage depot in Harrisburg, Pa.

“The original 'Moving Estimate' was for $1225.04, while in fact the total charge on the bill came in at $2,502.00, more than double the estimate,” Marilyn said. “This move was optional, and I would not have even bothered to move the furniture at all if I had known what it was going to cost beforehand. I accurately stated the amount of furniture and the distance we had to travel for the estimate, so I was shocked when presented with the bill as my belongings were held hostage in what I assume was a rented Penske truck.”

Marilyn even says the estimator assured her that the estimate would be the final cost. If consumers are basing their decisions on estimates that are intentionally set low for competitive advantage, why isn't this a case of bait and switch? We'd like to hear from some folks in the moving industry who can explain this and maybe offer some advice or consumers trying to get a reasonably accurate assessment of what their move will cost.

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AT&T Turns Up More LTE Markets, Including NY, SF, LA

Carrier says it will finish network upgrade by the end of 2013

AT&T turned up its 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) network in 11 new markets over the holidays, bringing its total to 26 markets covering 74 mil...

PhotoAT&T turned up its 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) network in 11 new markets over the holidays, bringing its total to 26 markets covering 74 million people at the end of 2011, the company said.

Large cities like New York, San Francisco and LA, were included in the launch, as well as Austin, Chapel Hill, Oakland, Orlando, Phoenix, Raleigh, San Diego and San Jose. 

The additions make AT&T 4G LTE available in a total of 26 markets to 74 million consumers. 

The expansion adds to 15 markets launched in 2011: Athens, Ga.; Atlanta; Baltimore; Boston; Charlotte; Chicago; Dallas-Fort Worth; Houston; Indianapolis; Kansas City; Las Vegas; Oklahoma City; San Antonio; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Washington, D.C.

"Dual layers"

“We’re building a 4G LTE network that’s blazing fast, and we offer dual layers of 4G technologies to provide customers with a more consistent speed experience,” said John Stankey, President and Chief Executive Officer—AT&T Business Solutions. “Our network, together with our unsurpassed 4G device portfolio and innovative applications, will give our customers an industry-leading mobile broadband experience.” 

AT&T’s mobile broadband service currently covers 284 million people and more than 90 percent of the population, including the top 100 U.S. markets.

AT&T expects its 4G LTE deployment to be largely complete by the end of 2013, Stankey said.

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Upromise Settles Deceptive Practice Charges

"TurboSaver Toolbar" collected consumers' personal information

A membership reward service aimed at consumers trying to save money for college will be barred from its allegedly deceptive practice of using a web-browser...

PhotoA membership reward service aimed at consumers trying to save money for college will be barred from its allegedly deceptive practice of using a web-browser toolbar to collect consumers' personal information without adequately disclosing the extent of the information it is collecting.

The settlement with Upromise Inc. will require Upromise to clearly disclose its data collection practices and obtain consumers' consent before installing or re-enabling any such toolbar products, and to notify consumers how to uninstall the toolbars already on their computers.

The settlement also will bar misrepresentations about the extent to which the company maintains the privacy and security of consumers' personal information, and require the company to establish a comprehensive information security program and to obtain biennial independent security assessments for the next 20 years.

Upromise offers consumers a membership service that allows them to save money for college. When consumers buy goods or services from Upromise partner merchants, they receive rebates that are placed into consumers' college saving accounts.

"TurboSaver Toolbar"

In its complaint against Upromise, the FTC alleged that to allow consumers to identify and select merchants that would provide rebates, Upromise's website offered a "TurboSaver Toolbar" download that would highlight partner merchants in consumers' search results.

When downloading the toolbar, consumers saw a message that encouraged them to enable the "Personalized Offers" feature of the Toolbar, which Upromise allegedly claimed would collect information about the websites they visited "to provide college savings opportunities tailored to you."

The FTC alleges the Toolbar with the "Personalized Offers" feature enabled collected and transmitted, in clear text, the names of all websites consumers visited and which links they clicked on, as well as information they entered into some webpages, such as search terms, user names, and passwords. In some cases, the information collected included credit card and financial account numbers, user names and passwords used to access secured websites, security codes and expiration dates, and any Social Security numbers consumers entered into the webpages. The Toolbar transmitted consumers' information without encryption.

According to the FTC, while Upromise's toolbar was collecting and transmitting the data, its privacy statement claimed, "We understand the need for our customers' personal information to remain secure and private and have implemented policies and procedures designed to safeguard your information."

Upromise also said it was "proud of the innovations we have made to protect your data and personal identity," and that "Upromise automatically encrypts your sensitive information in transit from your computer to ours."

The Upromise TurboSaver Privacy Statement allegedly stated that the Toolbar would collect and transmit information about websites consumers visited, and that "infrequently" the collection might "inadvertently" collect a "name, address, email address or similar information," but that any personally identifying information would be removed before the data was transmitted.

Failed to disclose

According to the FTC complaint, Upromise's failure to disclose the extent of information collected by the Toolbar, and its claims that it encrypted consumer data and took reasonable measures to protect data from unauthorized access, were deceptive and violated federal law. The FTC also charged that Upromise's failure to take reasonable and appropriate measures to protect consumers' data was an unfair practice.

The proposed settlement order requires Upromise to destroy the data collected through the Personalized Offers feature of the Toolbar, and to provide clear and prominent disclosures to consumers and receive their affirmative consent before installing any similar product.

The disclosures must be made prior to installation and be separate from any user license agreement. The company also must notify consumers who had the Personalized Offer feature enabled, informing them as to the type of information collected, and how to disable the feature and uninstall the Toolbar.

The settlement order also prohibits Upromise from misrepresenting privacy and security practices and requires the company to establish and maintain a comprehensive information security program and to obtain biennial, independent, third-party audits for 20 years.

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Landmark Clearing Barred From Using 'Novel Method' to Debit Bank Accounts

Allegedly debited millions of dollars from consumers' accounts without permission

A payment processor and two of its principals have been banned from using a new payment method to process electronic payments under a settlement with the F...

PhotoA payment processor and two of its principals have been banned from using a new payment method to process electronic payments under a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, which resolves charges that they debited consumers' bank accounts without their consent.

Payment processors provide merchants with the ability to obtain customer payments for products and services via electronic banking.

According to the FTC's complaint against Landmark Clearing, Inc. and its principals, Larry Wubbena and Eric Loehr, the defendants used a relatively new payment method called "remotely created payment orders" to give merchants access to consumer bank accounts.

From the fall of 2008 until the spring of 2011, Landmark allegedly used remotely created payment orders to debit, or attempt to debit, millions of dollars from consumers' accounts without their consent.

The FTC charged that in many instances Landmark debited consumers who had never heard of Landmark or its client merchants, had never gone to any of the merchants' websites, and had never knowingly agreed to purchase products or services from the merchants.

According to the FTC's complaint, Landmark's payment processing activities caused substantial injury to thousands of consumers, often those who could least afford to have funds unexpectedly taken from their accounts without authorization.

Overdraft fees

The FTC alleged that as a result of the unauthorized debits, many consumers suffered significant costs from overdraft and bounced check fees, plus the time and expense of closing bank accounts, opening new ones, and ordering new checks.

An example is John Chagoya, a consumer in California who was living on a fixed income when money was taken from his account. While checking his bank statement, he noticed a debit from Landmark payable to Direct Benefits Group (DBG), one of Landmark's client merchants.

"They never contacted me at all, and I never authorized anyone to debit money from my account." As a result of the debit, Chagoya's account became overdrawn, and he had to pay bounced check fees.

The FTC's complaint alleged that Landmark's clients routinely failed to obtain consumers' authorization for the debits. By continuing to process these debits, Landmark played a critical role in its clients' unlawful business practices.

Payment orders

According to the FTC, remotely created payment orders are created by entering a consumer's name and bank account information into an electronic form and are processed like an ordinary paper check. When printed, remotely created payment orders look like regular bank checks, but instead of having the account holder's signature, they bear a statement such as "Authorized by Account Holder" or "Signature on File."

Federal banking regulations require the creator of a remotely created payment order to have the express authorization of a consumer to process the debit.

Unlike some payment mechanisms, such as credit cards, remotely created payment orders are not subject to significant oversight and monitoring, making them vulnerable to abuse. As a result, the FTC alleges, they have become a particularly attractive payment method for merchants and processors engaged in fraud and unauthorized debiting.

A red flag indicating unlawful debiting is a high rate of consumers and their banks rejecting and returning transactions submitted for debiting. According to the FTC's complaint, some of Landmark's clients generated astronomical return rates, sometimes higher than 80 percent, which gave Landmark compelling evidence that its client merchants had not obtained valid consumer authorizations for their debits.

"The return rates posted by Landmark's clients provided obvious signs that they were engaged in dubious practices," said David Vladeck, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "But the defendants looked the other way. Payment processors who reach into consumer accounts on behalf of clients engaged in fraud will be held accountable."

Avoided scrutiny

The FTC complaint alleges that Landmark actively promoted remotely created payment orders as a way to avoid the scrutiny associated with other payment mechanisms, advertising on its website that merchants "with a high percentage of overall returns" would benefit from using its remotely created payment order product.

According to the FTC, Landmark processed more than 110,000 remotely created payment orders with a value exceeding $5.3 million through the First Bank of Delaware on behalf of one client merchant, Direct Benefits Group (DBG), of which more than 70 percent were rejected and returned.

In August 2011, the FTC charged DBG with debiting consumers' bank accounts without their consent, and a federal judge halted DBG's operation and froze its assets pending further litigation.

Similarly, Landmark allegedly processed more than $5.7 million in debits through the First Bank of Delaware on behalf of Platinum Online Group, of which more than 83 percent were rejected and returned.

The FTC complaint alleges that Landmark accepted Platinum Online as a client even though Landmark had terminated EdebitPay, Platinum Online's parent company, because of its high return rates. Landmark also knew that in 2008, EdebitPay and its principals had agreed to pay $2.2 million in consumer redress to settle FTC charges for debiting consumers without their consent. The FTC later filed a contempt action against EdebitPay for violating the settlement order.

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Volt Battery Problems Fixed, GM Says

Changes will reduce fire danger during and after collisions, company says

General Motors says it has made "enhancements to the vehicle structure and battery coolant system in the Chevrolet Volt" that will reduce the risk of a bat...

PhotoGeneral Motors says it has made "enhancements to the vehicle structure and battery coolant system in the Chevrolet Volt" that will reduce the risk of a battery fire occurring days or weeks after a severe crash.

The enhancements come in response to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) probe of a fire in a battery pack that followed a Volt test crash.

NHTSA opened its probe on Nov. 25 following a severe-impact lab test on a battery pack that resulted in an electrical fire six days later. The test was conducted to reproduce a coolant leak that occurred in a full-scale vehicle crash test last May that resulted in an electrical fire three weeks later.  

“The Volt has always been safe to drive. Now, we will go the extra mile to ensure our customers’ peace of mind in the days and weeks following a severe crash,” said Mary Barra, GM senior vice president of Global Product Development.

Top Safety Pick

She noted that despite the NHTSA concerns, the Volt is a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Through the first 11 months of 2011, Volt owners accumulated nearly 20 million miles without an incident similar to the results in the NHTSA tests, she said.

The modifications outlined by the automaker will protect the Volt battery from the possibility of an electrical fire occurring days or weeks after a severe side crash. The modifications will:

  • Strengthen an existing portion of the Volt’s vehicle safety structure to further protect the battery pack in a severe side collision.
  • Add a sensor in the reservoir of the battery coolant system to monitor coolant levels.
  • Add a tamper-resistant bracket to the top of the battery coolant reservoir to help prevent potential coolant overfill.
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GM said it conducted four successful crash tests between Dec. 9 and 21 of Volts with the structural enhancement. The enhancement performed as intended. There was no intrusion into the battery pack and no coolant leakage in any of the tests.

“These enhancements and modifications will address the concerns raised by the severe crash tests,” Barra said. “There are no changes to the Volt battery pack or cell chemistry as a result of these actions. We have tested the Volt’s battery system for more than 285,000 hours, or 25 years, of operation. We’re as confident as ever that the cell design is among the safest on the market.”

Volt customers will be individually notified when the modifications are available for their vehicles. 

“We’re focused on one thing right now: doing what’s right by our customers,” said GM North America President Mark Reuss. “We’ll live up to our commitment to make sure our customers are delighted with their purchase.”  

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Barnes & Noble May Jettison the Nook

Struggling chain says Nook is successful but costly

It looks like the Nook may be the next casualty of the raging ebook battle, which is increasingly being fought between the Kindle, the Kindle Touch, the Ki...

PhotoIt looks like the Nook may be the next casualty of the raging ebook battle, which is increasingly being fought between the Kindle, the Kindle Touch, the Kindle DX, the Kindle Fire, the iPad and a few smaller players.

Barnes & Noble said today it is looking at spinning off the Nook which, though successful, is a drain on earnings. 

"We see substantial value in what we've built with our Nook business in only two years, and we believe it's the right time to investigate our options to unlock that value," Chief Executive William Lynch said.

Seeking to put a happy face on the situation, B&N reported "record holiday sales" for Nook devices and digital content.  During the nine-week holiday period ending December 31, 2011, Nook unit sales increased 70% over the same period last year. 

The company said that while sales of the Nook Tablet exceeded expectations sales of the Nook Simple Touch "lagged expectations, indicating a stronger customer preference for color devices."

Tough times

The well-polished statements leave little doubt that Barnes & Noble -- the sole surviving nationwide bookstore chain -- is having a hard time competing with Amazon and Apple, which dominate the e-reader and e-book markets.

In a prepared statement, Lynch said that in order to capitalize on the rapid growth of the Nook digital business and B&N's position in the expanding market for digital content, the company is looking at separate the Nook business from its bookstore empire.

Doing so would remove the drag on earnings the Nook represents and allow the digital business to raise capital independently of the book business.

"In Nook, we’ve established one of the world’s best retail platforms for the sale of digital copyright content," Lynch said. "Between continued projected growth in the U.S., and the opportunity for NOOK internationally in the next 12 months, we expect the business to continue to scale rapidly for the foreseeable future.”

B&N became the last of the giant bookstore chains last year when Borders declared bankruptcy and closed all of its stores.

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File Sharing Is Now a Religion in Sweden

Copying and pasting described as 'sacred'

The Church of Kopimism, a copying centen and file-sharing religion, reports it received religious status late last month by the Swedish government. ...

PhotoCopyright laws protect information in the digital universe, though content owners continue to fight against what they see as ongoing and persistent piracy. They are getting no help from the Swedish government.

The government of Sweden has now formally recognized copying content and file-sharing as a religion. The Church of Kopimism reports it received religious status late last month. That culminated a year-long effort that included three applications to the government.

“For the Church of Kopimism, information is holy and copying is a sacrament,” the church said in a statement. “Information holds a value, in itself and in what it contains, and the value multiplies through copying. Therefore, copying is central for the organisation and its members.”

According to the group's website, the Church of Kopimism is a religious organization with roots from 2010. Unlike most churches, the community of kopimi requires no formal membership. You just have to feel a calling to copy and paste. In fact, the keyboard shortcuts for copy and paste – Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V – are sacred symbols in the new religion.

Remember Napster?

Members say an example of the file-sharing religion is the Napster phenomenon of more than a decade ago. Napster was formed as a peer-to-peer file sharing site where consumers could upload and download mp3 audio files of songs. Millions of songs were downloaded for free before a horrified recording industry went to court to stop it. Napster has since morphed into a site where consumers may purchase music.

"Being recognized by the state of Sweden is a large step for all of kopimi,” said Isak Gerson, who is described as the spiritual leader of the Church of Kopimism. “Hopefully, this is one step towards the day when we can live out our faith without fear of persecution.”

Legal analysts say that's not very likely. In court, they say copyright laws are apt to prove more binding than religious freedom to copy and paste.

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Study: Older Drivers Prefer The Middle Lane

Built-in safety mechanism helps seniors feel safer

A study by the University of Leeds in the UK shows that older adults are naturally inclined to drive in the middle of the road, leaving the younger generat...

PhotoNext time you're driving down a six-lane highway, glance over at the driver in the middle lane. Chances are they will have gray hair, researchers say.

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Leeds in the UK shows older adults are naturally inclined to drive in the middle of the road, leaving the younger generation to cut corners.

The scientists suggest this tendency is a built-in safety mechanism that helps seniors stay safe behind the wheel.

The findings of the study, which are published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology Human Perception and Performance, have shown how older people naturally adapt when they can no longer move with the freedom they once had. Researchers hope that the work will be used to find new ways of helping patients recover lost motor skills, for example, after a stroke.

Effects of aging

Aging causes the body to respond more slowly and movements to become less precise. To see how this might affect performance behind the wheel, a team from the University of Leeds' Institute of Psychological Sciences compared the motor skills of healthy younger adults, aged between 18 and 40, with a group of over-60s.

Using a touch-screen laptop, participants were asked to trace wiggly lines of varying widths -- slowly, quickly and at their own preferred pace. They were also asked to steer along 'virtual' winding roads when sitting in a driving simulator.

The researchers found that the older adults made allowances for their age by adopting a 'middle-of-the-road' strategy in both tests. This meant they remained well inside the wiggly lines when tracing, and stayed in the middle of the road lines when driving. Younger participants, in contrast, had a greater tendency to cut corners.

"Our results suggest that this compensation strategy is a general phenomenon and not just tied to driving,” said postgraduate researcher Rachel Raw, lead author of the study. “It seems older people naturally adjust their movements to compensate for their reduced level of skill."  

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FDA Bans Some Antibiotics in Animals

Bacteria may become resistant to the drugs, endangering humans

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is banning the use of certain antibiotics in animals raised as food, fearing that overuse of the drugs may contribute...

PhotoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration is banning the use of certain antibiotics in animals raised as food, fearing that overuse of the drugs may contribute to heightened resistance in bacteria that cause human illness.

"FDA is taking this action to preserve the effectiveness of cephalosporin drugs for treating disease in humans. Prohibiting these uses is intended to reduce the risk of cephalosporin resistance in certain bacterial pathogens," the agency said.

The order prohibits certain uses of the cephalosporin class of antimicrobial drugs in cattle, swine, chickens and turkeys effective April 5, 2012.

"We believe this is an imperative step in preserving the effectiveness of this class of important antimicrobials that takes into account the need to protect the health of both humans and animals," said Michael R. Taylor, Deputy Commissioner for Foods.

Cephalosporins are commonly used in humans to treat pneumonia as well as to treat skin and soft tissue infections. In addition, they are used in the treatment of pelvic inflammatory disease, diabetic foot infections, and urinary tract infections. If cephalosporins are not effective in treating these diseases, doctors may have to use drugs that are not as effective or that have greater side effects, the FDA noted,

Extralabel uses

In its order, FDA is prohibiting what are called “extralabel” or unapproved uses of cephalosporins in cattle, swine, chickens and turkeys, the so-called major species of food-producing animals. Specifically, the prohibited uses include:

  • using cephalosporin drugs at unapproved dose levels, frequencies, durations, or routes of administration;
  • using cephalosporin drugs in cattle, swine, chickens or turkeys that are not approved for use in that species (e.g., cephalosporin drugs intended for humans or companion animals);
  • using cephalosporin drugs for disease prevention.

In 2008, FDA issued and then revoked an order that prohibited extralabel uses of cephalosporins in food-producing animals with no exceptions. Today’s announcement responds to public comment and includes the following exceptions, which protect public health while considering animal health needs:

  • The order does not limit the use of cephapirin, an older cephalosporin drug that is not believed by FDA to contribute significantly to antimicrobial resistance.
  • Veterinarians will still be able to use or prescribe cephalosporins for limited extra-label use in cattle, swine, chickens or turkeys as long as they follow the dose, frequency, duration, and route of administration that is on the label.
  • Veterinarians may also use or prescribe cephalosporins for extralabel uses in minor species of food-producing animals such as ducks or rabbits.

The new order of prohibition has a comment period that will begin on Jan. 6, 2012 and close on March 6, 2012. To comment on the order of prohibition, visit www.regulations.gov and enter FDA-2008-N-0326 in the keyword box. Following the comment period, the FDA will consider the comments prior to the order of prohibition going into effect on April 5, 2012.

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WSJ: Kodak Prepares Bankruptcy Filing

Company says it doesn't comment on rumors

Kodak may be preparing to file for bankruptcy protection...

PhotoA published report says long-time camera and film manufacturer Kodak is preparing to file court papers for bankruptcy protection.

The Wall Street Journal reported today that the preparations are being made in case Kodak's efforts to sell a number of its patents prove unsuccessful. The Journal reports Kodak, whose name was once synonymous with photography, is trying to obtain about $1 billion in financing to keep the doors open during bankruptcy proceedings.

The Journal quotes sources it says are familiar with the matter as saying Kodak has about 1,100 patents it can sell to raise cash, but may need bankruptcy protection to give it time to negotiate the best deals. A Kodak spokesman declined to comment, the Journal said.

Tough times in the digital age

Founded as Eastman Kodak Company in 1892, the company has struggled to find its footing in the digital age. It recently stopped making its iconic Kodachrome film, a product that captured images for generations and inspired a number one hit song by singer-songwriter Paul Simon in the early 1970s.

The company last reported a profit in 2007 as it moved into producing digital cameras and office equipment. Mary, of Bradenton, Fla., is not a happy Kodak customer.

“I purchased an All-in-One Printer Esp 3200 about a year and a half ago,” Mary told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I was going to take it back immediately because it clunks and makes noise long after it has printed, and operates slow. I kept it and now wish I had returned it because mine has a problem with the print-head. I rarely use the printer and like everyone else says, it runs out of ink very quickly. This is not a savings in ink, and false advertising. From now on, I'm going with my gut instincts on brands. I just thought I'd give Kodak a shot and they're not ready.”

Meanwhile, the news that Kodak might be contemplating bankruptcy took few by surprise on Wall Street. Kodak has virtually becoming a penny stock, selling for less than $1. A bankruptcy filing would also allow Kodak to sidestep some expensive pension obligations to retirees.  

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Study: Bariatric Surgery Reduces Heart Risks

Procedure may become more common weapon against obesity

Study finds bariatric surgery reduces risk of death for some...

PhotoNot too long ago, bariatric surgery – known in one of its forms as gastric bypass surgery – was a highly risky procedure. Now, the surgery is safer and doctors say for the obese, it reduces the long-term risks of cardiovascular deaths and events such as heart attack and stroke.

Researchers explained their findings in the January issue of JAMA, the journal of the American Medical Association.

Swedish scientist Lars Sjostromand colleagues conducted a study to test the hypothesis that bariatric surgery is associated with a reduced incidence of cardiovascular events and examined the relationship between weight change and cardiovascular events.

The study is an ongoing, nonrandomized, prospective, controlled study conducted at 25 public surgical departments and 480 primary health care centers in Sweden, and includes 2,010 obese participants who underwent bariatric surgery and 2,037 matched obese controls who received usual care.

"Weight loss might protect against cardiovascular events, but solid evidence is lacking," according to background information in the article.

Reduced death

In the study, bariatric surgery was associated with reduced number of fatal heart attack deaths, with analysis indicating that bariatric surgery was related both to reduced fatal heart attack incidence and total heart attack incidence. Also, bariatric surgery was associated both with reduced number of fatal stroke events and total stroke events.

In bariatric surgery, weight loss is achieved by reducing the size of the stomach. There are at least three principle ways this is achieved; with an implanted medical band, removing a portion of the stomach or by re-routing the small intestines to a small stomach pouch. The goal is to reduce the patient's ability to consume large amounts of food.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health now recommends bariatric surgery for people with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or greater. As the U.S. deals with a growing obesity epidemic, bariatric surgery is likely to become more common.

As with any major surgery, there can be adverse effects. A recent study found that complications were more likely to occur in patients over 40. A person is not considered a candidate for bariatric surgery unless they have tried and failed at traditional weight-loss methods. Any consideration of this procedure begins with a discussion with your physician.

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Obama Installs Cordray to Head Financial Protection Bureau

President uses recess-appointment power to put Cordray to work

President Obama used his recess-appointment powers today to put Richard Cordray to work as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which has been...

Photo
Cordray

President Obama used his recess-appointment powers today to put Richard Cordray to work as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which has been without a permanent leader for the 16 months it has been in existence.

Consumer groups and their allies applauded the action.

"American families finally have the consumer advocate we've needed for so long: Richard Cordray, the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau," said California Attorney General Kamala Harris. "We're at a critical moment for the middle-class in America, and we urgently need strong oversight of our financial institutions and accountability for wrongdoing." 

"The Consumer Federation of America applauds the President for appointing Richard Cordray to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau," said the CFA's Travis Plunkett. "As Ohio Attorney General, Cordray was a national leader in helping consumers harmed by abusive mortgage and predatory lending practices."

The White House said Senate opposition to Cordray left the President with few options.

"The President nominated Mr. Cordray last summer.  Unfortunately, Republicans in the Senate blocked his confirmation.  They refused to let the Senate go forward with an up or down vote," White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said in a blog posting. "It’s not because Republicans think Cordray isn’t qualified for the job, they simply believe that the American public doesn’t need a watchdog at all."

Cordray, meanwhile, said he would not be distracted by the political upheaval that's likely to erupt when Congess returns.

"I can't be distracted by that. I've got a big job to do and I need to be 100 percent focused on what we can do to protect American consumers," Richard Cordray told Reuters.

Cordray said his first order of business would be to expand enforcement of non-bank financial institutions, such as payday lenders. 

"Sham" Senate session

Pfeiffer said Senate Republicans tried to block the recess appointment by maintaining a "sham session" even though it was effectively in recess.

"Because of the President’s leadership and decisive action, the American people will have a consumer watchdog fighting tooth and nail on their behalf," Pfeiffer said.  "The President knows this is a make or break moment for the middle class and he’ll continue to build an economy that’s based on the values of fairness and shared responsibility."

Long struggle

Cordray was cleared by the Senate Banking Committee in October but Republicans have opposed the agency from the beginning and vowed to block the Senate from voting on Cordray's nomination until the agency is watered down to their liking.

"America's job creators are under siege," said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), ranking Republican on the committee.  "Regulators are about to subject those who had nothing to do with the financial crisis to hundreds of new rules and regulations without determining whether the benefits exceed the costs."

Democrats argue that the changes Senate Republicans want would weaken the new regulator, which opened its doors on July 21.

"Republicans have threatened not to confirm him, not because of anything he's done, but because they want to roll back the whole notion of having a consumer watchdog," Obama said at an October  news conference.

Cordray's confirmation hit its most recent snag on Dec. 12, when filibustering Republicans in the Senate blocked it, causing Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown to say the vote showed that Republicans' "first loyalty is to Wall Street banks."

What's a recess?

Obama is already taking heat from Republicans for making the recess appointment.  House Speaker John Boehner called it "an extraordinary and entirely unprecedented power grab."

In fact, though, Obama has made far fewer recess appointments than his predecessors -- just 29, compared with 171 for George W. Bush and 139 for Bill Clinton.

Senate Republicans argue that the Senate has not been in recess the last few weeks, even though nearly every Senator is out of town.  The White House is expected to argue that the Constitution does not define "recess" and that the appointment is therefore valid.

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Grieving Parents Sue Johnson & Johnson

"Stealth recall" of tainted Tylenol led to their son's death, they charge

Johnson & Johnson is accused of conducting a "phantom or stealth recall" of tainted Children's Tylenol that led to the death of Daniel and Katy Moore's...

PhotoJohnson & Johnson is accused of conducting a "phantom or stealth recall" of tainted Children's Tylenol that led to the death of Daniel and Katy Moore's son.

In a lawsuit filled with scathing accusations, the Moores say their two-year-old son, River, died of liver failure in July 2010, the day after he took Children's Tylenol.  Katy Moore says she gave River a dose of Tylenol and within 30 minutes, he was spitting up blood.  

"Defendant Johnson & Johnson, a Fortune 50 Company with $60 billion in annual sales, knew of defects, impurities and contamination in the children's drugs and, yet, embarked on a 'phantom' or 'stealth' recall of these drugs to hide these problems so the general public, ignorant of the dangers, would continue buying and administering these brand name drugs to their children," the complaint states, according to Courthouse News Service.

The Moores charged that Johnson & Johnson went around on the sly, collecting the tainted drug from stores without issuing a recall , "so the general public, ignorant of the dangers, would continue buying and administering these brand name drugs to their children."

Besides Johnson & Johnson, the suit names McNeil Consumer Healthcare, Costco and a long list of others in the chain of supply and distribution, and third-party contractors who allegedly bought up the over-the-counter drugs in the "phantom recall."

The Moores also claim the defendants ignored deplorable manufacturing conditions and had numerous recalls of its products, including its infants and children's Tylenol.

Internal documents

The suit quotes a number of internal documents to bolster its claim that Johnson & Johnson knew of the danger but wanted to save the expense of a recall.

"The purpose of the phantom/stealth recall is evidenced in an internal email in which a McNeil executive said, 'We are just trying to prevent a recall and a lot of expended dollars,'" the suit alleges.  "In another email, a McNeil executive described the success of the phantom/stealth recall by saying, 'This was a major win for us as it limits the press that will be seen.'

The suit says J&J hired third-party distributors to make the rounds of stores, scooping up the defective products, then misrepresented their actions to the government.

"J&J and McNeil subsequently misrepresented to the FDA that their third-party contractors were merely performing an audit of retailers to determine whether McNeil should initiate a formal recall," the suit allges.  "The FDA eventually became aware of the phantom/stealth recall when it received a copy of an internal memo containing the above instructions and confronted McNeil regarding those activities.

FDA warning

In May 2010, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) urged consumers to stop using Children's Tylenol and other over-the-counter products made by McNeil Consumer Healthcare. 

The agency said its inspectors encountered thick dust and contaminated ingredients at the Fort Washington, Pa., plant producing the products. Some equipment was covered with grime, there was a hole in the ceiling in one room and pipes were patched with duct tape.

On closer inspection, FDA said it found raw ingredients contaminated by an unspecified bacteria, a lack of quality control procedures and poor handling of complaints. Among the complaints, the agency said, were 46 reports of "dark material" in the liquid products between June 2009 and April 2010. While bacteria were present in the plant, FDA said its tests failed to detect it in any finished product.

Many Tylenol recalls

There's certainly been no shortage of Tylenol recalls, including:

  • June 3, 2005  Several types of Children's Tylenol recalled because label information may be confusing and could lead to overdosing.
  • September 27, 2009  Certain children's and infant's Tylenol products that were manufactured between April 2008 and June 2008 were recalled. The company said potential manufacturing problems could result in bacterial contamination.
  • January 15, 2010 Tylenol, Benadryl, Motrin and Rolaids recalled because of reports of an unusual moldy, musty, or mildew-like odor. 
  • Children's Tylenol  The recall included some Children's Tylenol as well as adult-strength Benadryl, Motrin IB, Tylenol Extra Strength, Tylenol Day & Night and Tylenol PM. The company said the expanded recall was triggered by consumer complaints of a musty, moldy odor.
  • January 18, 2011 More products recalled because of "musty or moldy odor."  
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No Need for Formula Recall, Feds Find

But cause of four cronobacter infections remains elusive

Federal and state health officials say they have not yet pinned down the cause of four recent Cronobacter infections and have found no evidence the cases a...

PhotoFederal and state health officials say they have not yet pinned down the cause of four recent Cronobacter infections but have found no evidence the cases are related.

Given the results so far, investigators say there is no need for a recall of Enfamil formula, which had been fed to some of the infected infants.  Several major retailers removed Enfamil from their shelves last month after an infant died of a Cronobacter infection in Missouri.

The four recent cases occurred in Missouri, Illinois, Oklahoma and Florida. The infants in Missouri and Florida died, while those in Illinois and Oklahoma are recovering. 

Cronobacter causes severe bacterial sepsis or meningitis in infants, which often starts with fever, and usually includes poor feeding,  crying or listlessness. It is found in the environment and in hospitals and homes. It can also multiply in powdered infant formula after the powder is mixed with water.

The Food and Drug Administrtion (FDA) said it has inspected the facilities that manufactured the infant formula and the nursery water that tested positive for Cronobacter bacteria and all were found negative.

Retailers reluctant

The findings may be encouraging to retailers, who have been reluctant to put Enfamil Premium Newborn infant formula back on their shelves, even though Mead Johnson Company says its tests have found no problems.

Walmart, Walgreens, Supervalu, Price Chopper and many smaller retailers removed the formula last month after a Missouri infant who had been fed Enfamil died. 

Mead Johnson, which manufactures Enfamil, said earlier that it had retested the batch of the formula involved in the infant's death and found no problems.

Cronobacter infections are normally very rare, with only four to six cases reported in a normal year.  There were 12 cases in 2011 and authorities say they are not certain if the higher number is the result of raised awareness or if some other factor is involved.

Cronobacter infections can be severe in young infants when they occur in the first days or weeks of life.

Breastfeeding recommended

Health officials recommend breastfeeding whenever possible.  When using powdered infant formula, CDC and FDA advise that caregivers make up fresh formula each time they feed the baby and discard any leftovers.  In addition, recommendations  for how to prepare and use powdered infant formula more safely include:

  • wash your hands with soap and water before preparing the formula,
  • clean all feeding equipment in hot, soapy water,
  • prepare only enough formula for one feeding at a time and give it to the baby right away, and
  • follow the manufacturer's directions on the printed label.

Lab results pending

In a joint release, the FDA and CDC said the following results have been confirmed from completed laboratory tests, although additional lab results are pending release:

  • CDC's laboratory conducted DNA fingerprinting of the bacteria from two recent cases of Cronobacter infection in infants (Missouri and Illinois). The results show that the Cronobacter bacteria differ genetically, suggesting that they are not related. (Bacteria from cases in Oklahoma and Florida are not available for analysis.) 
  • CDC laboratory tests of samples provided by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services foundCronobacter bacteria in an opened container of infant formula, an opened bottle of nursery water and prepared infant formula.  It is unclear how the contamination occurred.
  • The FDA tested factory sealed containers of powdered infant formula and nursery water with the same lot numbers as the opened containers collected from Missouri and no Cronobacter bacteria were found.

The FDA, CDC and state agencies continue to investigate the cause of the infections using epidemiological and laboratory methods. 

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Oil Insider Sees Move To Natural Gas Motor Fuel

Transition could begin this year, says Gulf Oil CEO

Gulf Oil CEO sees a move to natural gas as a motor fuel...

PhotoCan consumers look forward to higher gasoline prices at the pump in 2012? Almost certainly, say the experts. But one petroleum insider believes help for consumers could be on the way this year.

In an interview with business cable channel CNBC, Gulf Oil CEO Joe Petrowsky says the huge price spread between oil and natural gas means the industry will accelerate the move to begin running cars and trucks on cheaper and more plentiful natural gas. That, in turn, he says will eventually keep oil from becoming ever more expensive.

“The only thing long term that will keep oil prices from spiking much, much higher is abundance of natural gas and I think a lot of people in our industry are investing in ways to let natural gas become a transport fuel,” Petrowski said. That will be the story in 2012 that starts bubbling to the surface. Hopefully we can diversify away from petroleum as the only transport fuel.”

Petrowski is putting his money where his mouth is, saying Gulf plans to switch a number of its trucks this year to run on natural gas. The payoff, he says, will be immediate.

“If we were posting natural gas today as a transport fuel to replace diesel, we'd be posting $2 a gallon,” Petrowsky said. “That's $2 a gallon cheaper than diesel right now in the northeast. Our average truck uses 12,000 gallons a year. That's $24,000 in savings per truck.”

Prices moving in different directions

As oil prices have remained high, for the most part, since 2008, the price of natural gas has been coming down. The price spread, says Petrowsky, is a product of a huge increase in natural gas supplies.

“You've got an incredible amount of production coming out of the various shale fields,” he said.

An best of all, those natural gas shale fields are mostly located in the U.S., reducing the need for imports and supplying domestic jobs. In North Dakota, site of one of the largest natural gas fields in the U.S., unemployment is running at just 3.3 percent.

While there remain a number of economic and technological hurdles to using natural gas to power passenger vehicles in great numbers, it's much easier and cost effective to convert commercial vehicles like trucks and buses. But once the process begins, says Patrowski, oil will no longer be the exclusive motor fuel, and consumers will reap the benefit.

“The way crude oil is going to come down (in price) is when we link natural gas to the transport sector,” he said. “We really need to do that and I think that will be the story of 2012.”

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Report: Apple Plans 2012 Production Of iTV

Suppliers report Apple is gearing up to begin production

Apple could introduce its iTV later this year...

PhotoApple's long-rumored next-generation “iTV” set may be a lot closer to reality than many people think. DigiTimes, a technology web publication, reports Apple suppliers have gotten the word to get ready to gear up for production.

As with any story dealing with sources, the details aren't exactly consistent. But suppliers cited in the article do agree that the sets should go into production before the end of 2012. One of the sources says iTV will come in two screen sizes – 32 and 37 inches.

Jobs biography dropped big clue

The so-called “iTV” has been the subject of intense speculation since last fall's release of Walter Isaacson's biography of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

Isaacson reported that the Apple design team was hard at work on a "connected" television -- one that would do for TV what Apple once did for the computer, cell phone and portable music player.

"I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use. ... It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud," Jobs is quoted as saying. "It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.”

Such a device would be much less dependent on traditional sources of content, such as over-the-air broadcast and cable. It would make it much easier to access and view content from the Internet.

Beyond the set-top box

Apple already makes a set-top box that does provides some syncing capabilities, but Jobs reportedly referred to that product as “a hobby,” raising expectations for what else might be in the pipeline.

Whatever iTV turns out to be, consumers can only hope that it performs with greater reliability that the current generation of plasma and LCD TV sets on the market. As consumers have reported to ConsumerAffairs.com for years, these infernal devices are plagued by faulty capacitors and flaws in the display panels that manifest themselves after only a few years of use.

On the other hand, they're quite inexpensive if you shop carefully, so planned obsolescence may just be something we need to get used to.

Dave Maltz, a TV repairman in Oregon, solicited input from customers and viewers of his YouTube video, asking how long their flat screen TV had been operating without trouble. In his informal poll, six years was the longest any set had lasted without a repair.

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Gift Card Problems Mar Holidays for Many

Nothing foolproof or simple about the ubiquitous gift card

Every year, the holidays bring good cheer, glad tidings and all that, but they also bring a sleigh full of complaints about gift cards. This year was no ex...

PhotoEvery year, the holidays bring good cheer, glad tidings and all that, but they also bring a sleigh full of complaints about gift cards. This year was no exception.

The most common complaint, of course, is that the cards don't work. That's what happened to Chris of Kirkland, Wash., who wrote to us about his American Express gift cards.

“Received three Amex eGift cards,” said Chris. “They all decline, $75, $50, and another $50. This is an American Express banking scam.”

“They make these available on their website for quick purchase, confirm, and send but do not allow for these cards to be used online or in store. Every transaction was declined,” Chris complained.

Delores of Miami received a $50.00 American Express gift card for Christmas but the experience has so far left her with little more than a case of indigestion.

“We tried to use it today towards an $89.64 meal at a Hillstone Restaurant in Coral Gables, Florida. The waiter told us he would charge us another 20% to use the card. Since we would still owe $39.64 plus the gratuity, this made no sense,” Delores said. “We called American Express Gift Cards and did not receive a satisfactory explanation as to why an American Express merchant would not accept the card.”

Quintin of Escondido, Calif., was also left with a bad taste in his mouth.

“I received a $25 American Express gift card for Christmas. I activated it on their website and saw there was indeed a balance of $25. I tried to purchase an item on eBay, but it was declined because they could not verify the cardholder's address. I tried a second time … the card was declined again.”

Puzzled, Quintin went to the Amex Web site where he found that $2 had somehow been debited from the card.

“If my card was declined from making a purchase, then why is money being taken from my card at all? By the way, my Visa gift cards and MasterCard gift cards work just fine,” Quintin told us.

Best Buy

Kathy of Pleasant Prairie, Wis., was one of several consumers we heard from who had hoped to use a gift card to pay for something she had already purchased. This, unfortunately, isn't permitted by most gift card issuers.

Kathy said she bought a smartphone at Best Buy and a few days later, her son gave her a gift card which she tried to apply against the bill for the smartphone.

“They would not apply it to the bill,” she said. “He gave me a lot of money” but she is unable to use it except to buy additional merchandise.

Kmart

Rich, of Evanston, Ill., has lived in Illinois his entire life and felt he wanted to support Illinois-based Sears and Kmart, which had a rather feeble holiday sales season. Now he regrets it.

“I bought $50 worth of goods … which entitled me to a $5 gift card which was supposed to work the next several days,” he said. “I went back two days later [when] the card was valid and they said that they would not accept it for some reason. I wasted my time and money to drive there. I went again several days ago and they said that the card expired already. What a scam! Good one Kmart.”

Meijer Stores

April of Jeffersonville, Ind., is miffed because Meijer would do nothing to help her when $100 worth of gift cards went missing minutes after she bought them.

“I purchased $256 worth of items on 12/21 and $100 was in gift cards. I checked out at 3 pm, and called the store at 3:12 pm reporting my gift cards missing, then went back to the store to have them cancelled,” she said. “I was told I was just out $100 because they can not cancel gift cards (more like will not). I asked to speak to a manager, Kenn, who told me he would review video with Loss Prevention and call me the following day. I still have not received a phone call.”

Ann is still steaming, not only about the $100 but also about the treatment she got: “My experience involved 4 Meijer employees, all who were rude as could be! … I guess they got my money and could care less if I got what I paid for!”

Sam's Club

Ann of Colorado City, Texas, received a Sam's Club gift card from her daughter, only to find that the card would not work.

“My daughter bought this at Sam's in Odessa, it was debited from her bank account with her grocery purchase. She does not have her store receipt, she thought I had spent the card so she threw away the receipt. There should be some way for her to get her money back if the card doesn't work,” Ann said.

“I called the 800 number numerous times, to no avail. “Money is hard to come by these days. It was our Xmas gift, but now I guess its your (Sam's) Xmas gift,” Ann said ruefully.

Toys R Us

“I purchased an iTunes gift card worth $25 on Christmas for my son. After opening the card and trying to redeem it, it continuously gave error messages,” said Cecilia of Queens Village, NY. “I took the card with my receipt to the store of purchase and spoke with a cashier. She said that they couldn't give me my money back as they do not refund gift cards.”

Cecilia thought that was odd so she asked to speak to the manager, only to be told: "The manager will not help you; she'll be helping me."
Cecilia thought that was rude but held out hope the manager would help her.

No such luck.

“I then spoke with the manager, and was told I cannot be refunded my money even though the card was non-functional. I was told that it was not their problem, and that I had to contact Apple even though I purchased the card at Toys 'R' Us,” she said. “I then went to the Apple Store and was told that it was Toys 'R' Us’ problem because the card was not purchased from them. I did not receive any value for the gift card which was $25.”

Walmart

Cindy of Winnsboro, Va., shelled out $410.68 for 11 Vanilla Visa gift cards from Walmart.com, intending to give ten of them as Christmas gifts. She activated them by email, following the instructions provided by Walmart and assumed that all was well.

But all was not well, as Cindy learned when she tried to use the eleventh card on Dec. 14, only to have it declined. She then learned that only seven cards had been activated. Through much back and forth with Walmart, one of the remaining cards was activated, leaving three that were not activated and not suitable for gift-giving.

“Someone has collected interest for months,” Cindy said. “If widespread problem (intentional) then [it's] a case of fraud.”

Our advice

Admittedly, this is just a sampling of the experiences consumers have had with their gift cards. No doubt, there are millions of stories that had a happy, or at least routine, ending.

But why take chances? If the person on your gift list is someone you'll be seeing in person, stop by the bank and get some crisp $50 bills. Put them in a gift card and hand it over. We have never met anyone who objected to getting cash.

If your giftee lives far away, you might consider sending a check. Assuming the person has a checking account, this is as good as cash. And, like cash, it can be used anywhere at anytime for anything – which is something you can't say about gift cards.

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Congress Lets Ethanol, Electric-Charging-Station Tax Credits Expire

But $7,500 credit still available for electric-car buyers

The $100,000 Fisker KarmaCongress takes a lot of grief for not doing anything, but sometimes doing nothing is just what's needed. &nbsp...

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The $100,000 Fisker Karma

Congress takes a lot of grief for not doing anything, but sometimes doing nothing is just what's needed.  Many observers feel that way about an ethanol tax credit and an electric-car-charger credit that expired with the old year.

The 45-cent-a-gallon tax credit for corn-based ethanol-added gas, along with a corresponding 54-cent-a-gallon tariff on imported ethanol, didn't do much to clean up the air or reduce gas consumption but they certainly did drive up the cost of corn, which translates into the higher food prices currently plaguing consumers.

And then there's the car-charger credit.  Consumers could get a tax credit of up to $1,000 for installing a 220-volt charger in their home.  Businesses could get an even bigger credit, up to $30,000.

With enthusiasm for electric cars draining about as fast as a lithium-ion battery, it's not likely this tax credit will cause much pain.  Still on the books, though, is a $7,500 tax credit for purchasers of electric vehicles.

So if you were planning to snap up one of those $100,000 Fisker Karmas, you can still stick the taxpayers with a good part of the tab.  At last word, Fisker had only sold about 50 of the Karmas, so there should be plenty in stock.

Even less costly electric cars are selling poorly.  The Chevrolet Volt missed its first-year sales target of 10,000, as did Nissan's Leaf.  The Leaf sold about 8,700  units in the U.S. during its first year.  

Gloomy sales

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Lots of Leafs left

While the gloomy sales figures may be causing heartburn for automakers, they probably amount to good news for taxpayers, who are not only handing out tax breaks to middle-income early-adopter car ehtusiasts but also loaning and giving big bucks to car and battery manufacturers.

The Fisker Karma, for example, was supported by $529 million in loans from the U.S. Energy Department, which -- one hopes -- was not aware that the car would turn out to be a Porsche Panamera lookalike with a price tag of $100,000.

Fisker has said with a straight face that it expects to sell between 10,000 and 12,000 vehicles in 2012. After all it, was named the "Luxury Car of the Year" by BBC TopGear, a show sometimes described as pornography for hot rodders.

Oh, and then there's A123, the company that manufactures batteries for the Fisker and other electrc cars.  It is burning through a $249 million grant -- that's grant, not loan -- from the Energy Department to fund battery production in Michigan, plus another $125 million from the state of Michigan.

It was an A123 battery that led to the recent recall of all 50 Fiskers.  Seems the batteries could overheat and start a fire, just like the Chevrolet Volt batteries that overheated after crash tests conducted by federal safety regulators.

Down to earth

Photo
Das fuel sipper

All this hoopla over and bestowing of public funds on electric cars is puzzling to those who think there are real-world solutions much closer at home -- clean turbodiesels, for example.

The New York Times' Lawrence Ulrich was recently stunned by his test drive of a Volkswagen Passat, a full-sized sedan mind you, equipped with a 2-liter, 140-horsepower turbodiesel, which delivered real-world highway mileage of 50 mpg.

The Passat also boasts an 18.5 gallon fuel tank, which means it can cover  795 highway miles or so on a single tank, making it attractive to those who routinely cover long distances.

For trips around town and daily commuting slogs, the latest collection of hybrids can routinely return 30 and even 40 mpg performance with a much lower purchase price and no range anxiety.  

A final word about electricity vs. diesels and hybrids: Whenever we write about this, we hear from Los Angelenos fearful that gas engines will further muck up their somewhat-pristine environment. These earth-centered souls need to pay a visit to the Four Corners area of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado to see the coal-fired generating plants that produce a large share of the electricity that powers those little Leafs and Volts and in the process muck up what was once a truly pristine environment. 

Top that off with a visit to the San Onofre nuclear plant, near San Clemente and the Cristianitos fault. Have a nice year. Drive friendly.

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'Christian' Financial Adviser, Radio Syndicators Sued

Larry Bates targeted Christians and the elderly, class action alleges

A federal class action lawsuit says that onetime Tennessee state legislator Larry Bates, now a self-proclaimed "Christian" financial adviser, has defrauded...

PhotoA federal class action lawsuit says that onetime Tennessee state legislator Larry Bates, now a self-proclaimed "Christian" financial adviser, has defrauded investors who put their faith and trust in him.

Bates, a Democrat who served in the Tennessee General Assembly from 1971 to 1976,  "targets devout, Christian believers, elderly individuals, and widow/widowers with significant life savings, all who are seeking advice and help from a trusted Christian adviser and/or a Christian financial company," the lawsuit charges.

Plaintiffs Damian Orlowski of Chicago and Lynn Cechin of Texas filed the suit against Bates and other defendants including Radio Information Network, INC/IRN USA Radio News; Information Radio Network/IRN USA Radio News; Information Radio Network Inc.; and Barry Denison, a "senior staff economist" for Bates's First American Monetary Consultants (FAMC), "who travels regularly, advertising for FAMC and speaking on the economy, the threat of Islam, and the question of Israel and the church," Courthouse News Service reported.

The class claims Bates promised to move million of dollars in precious metals quickly on investors' behalf, but after getting his hands on the money said that delivery of the coins would be delayed by as much as a year. In some cases, orders were only partially filled, according to the complaint.

The complaint includes a list of 26 other people who allegedly suffered at the hands of the defendants.

Radio solicitation   

The class claims Bates uses his radio show, "News and Views," broadcast via Information Radio Network/IRN USA Radio News, to solicit for a wide range of products, including his books, an FAMC publication called "Monetary and Economic Review," DVDs and videos, and for himself, for personal appearances and speaking engagement at conferences.

Bates's and Denison's purported "expertise" is in teaching how to use gold and silver as economic insurance to protect one's assets, including retirement accounts, according to the complaint.

The two men quote extensively from the Bible in their sales pitch, the plaintiffs say. The plaintiffs say Bates relies on a "world's end, sky is falling" approach to encourage Christians to buy precious metals from his companies.

The class claims Bates lures Christians with statements such as: "Life as we have known it in the United States is about to change and change drastically ...The two things that will determine whether you and your family are wiped out by the storm are knowledge and action ..."

In fact, the class claims, the defendants' actions are intended solely to benefit themselves.

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'Teach Me to Trade' Stars Elude Liability

Even though duo lied, they can't be held personally liable, judge rules

A federal judge has ruled that the personalities behind the widely-viewed "Teach Me to Trade" infomercials cannot be held personally liable on claims that ...

PhotoA federal judge has ruled that the personalities behind the widely-viewed "Teach Me to Trade" infomercials cannot be held personally liable on claims that they lied about their expertise as securities traders, duping millions of dollars out of inexperienced and elderly investors, Courthouse News Service reported.

The judge, however, did allow litigation to proceed against several corporations involved in the alleged fraud, including Hands On Capital and Lashaico.

In a civil complaint, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) alleged that David Gengler and Linda Woolf claimed to be "expert securities traders who had purchased Teach Me to Trade (TMTT) packages and made extraordinary profits by trading securities using TMTT trading strategies."

Woolf allegedly represented that she "had known nothing about stocks before attending a TMTT workshop." In her sales pitches, she claimed to have "made more money trading for 30 minutes a day than she had made in any of her prior careers," the SEC claimed.

Gengler allegedly told audiences that he had "been in substantial debt before contacting TMTT but became a successful trader who was able to spend most of his day with his family after a brief time trading each day."

Lied about their background

After lying about their background and the success of TMTT strategies, the "infomercial personalities" advised clients about specific securities and trading devices, urging investors to engage in actual securities transactions.

"Personal mentoring," software and classes bilked $11,000 to $40,000 from consumers, according to the complaint. Woolf and Gengler allegedly targeted the elderly in their TV spots, with Gengler urging them to borrow against their retirement accounts. They falsely attributed a "96.5 percent success rate" to their plans, according to the complaint.

The SEC says that Woolf and Gengler are failed traders, that Woolf never declared a profit on trades in her federal tax returns, and that Gengler typically declared losses, or no profits. Yet Woolf allegedly made $4 million selling Teach Me to Trade packages, while Gengler earned $2.25 million.

Woolf and David were convicted of fraud in a jury trial in 2009 but the judge in that case overruled the jury and acquitted the pair of criminal charges.

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Green Valley Food Expands Recall

Products may be contaminated with Listeria

Green Valley Food Corp. is recalling approximately 35,159 cases of a variety of products because they have the potential to be contaminated with Listeria m...

PhotoGreen Valley Food Corp. is recalling approximately 35,159 cases of a variety of products because they have the potential to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

Random samples tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes, an organism which can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. Although healthy individuals may suffer only short-term symptoms such as high fever, severe headache, stiffness, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea, Listeria infection can cause miscarriages and stillbirths among pregnant women.

Any customer who received any of the products on 12/07/2011 to 1/1/2012 are affected in this recall and/or if the items have a use by date ranging from 12/22/2011 to 1/17/2012. The original recall was initiated on 12/23/11 and 12/24/11, we are adding the additional items mentioned in this recall.

The items affected in the recall are as follows , which includes all items from the original press release from 12/23/2011:

  • Let's Grow Healthy Together!” Alfalfa Sprouts 5 oz. plastic 2 piece containers with the UPC number 714722228818
  • Let"s Grow Healthy Together!” Spicy Sprouts 5 oz. plastic 2 piece containers with the UPC number 714722229914
  • Alfalfa Sprouts 4oz. plastic security sealed clamshell UPC number 815098001088
  • Green Valley Food Corp.” Onion Sprouts” 4oz. plastic security sealed clamshell UPC number 815098002054
  • Let's Grow Healthy Together!” Sunflower Greens 5 oz. plastic 2 piece containers with the UPC number 714722206069
  • Let's Grow Healthy Together!” Clover Sprouts 5 oz. plastic 2 piece containers with the UPC number 714722225510
  • Let's Grow Healthy Together!” Onion Sprouts 2 oz. plastic 2 piece containers with the UPC number 714722227712
  • Let's Grow Healthy Together!” Zesty Sprouts 5 oz. plastic 2 piece containers with the UPC number 714722221116
  • Let's Grow Healthy Together!” Organic Wheat Grass 6oz. plastic 2 piece containers with the UPC number 714722608122
  • Let's Grow Healthy Together!” Mung Bean Sprouts 8oz. red polypropylene bag with the UPC number 815098001071
  • Let's Grow Healthy Together!” Mung Bean Sprouts 16 oz. clear polypropylene bag with a green label, the UPC number 714722208162
  • Green Valley Food Corp. Spicy Sprouts 4 oz. plastic security sealed clamshell containers with the UPC number 815098002023
  • Green Valley Food Corp.” Snow Pea Shoots 3 oz. plastic security sealed clamshell containers with the UPC number 714722106062
  • Green Valley Food Corp.” Organic Wheatgrass 4 oz. plastic security sealed clamshell containers with UPC number 714722608122
  • Green Valley Food Corp.” Daikon Sprouts 3 oz. plastic security sealed clamshell containers with UPC number 714722206076
  • Broccosprouts” Sandwich Blend 4 oz. plastic security sealed clamshell containers with UPC number 815098000289
  • Broccosprouts” Salad Blend 4 oz. plastic security sealed clamshell containers with UPC number 815098000265
  • Broccosprouts” Deli Blend 4 oz. plastic security sealed clamshell containers with the UPC number 815098000272
  • Broccosprouts” Broccoli Sprouts 4 oz. plastic security sealed clamshell containers with UPC number 815098000258

The sprouts affected in this recall were distributed via truck deliveries to all customers in Texas. Customers consist of grocery store distribution centers and food service customers.

No illnesses have been reported so far.


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