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Once Again, Feds Delay Rearview Camera Rule

Transportation Secretary LaHood blames "complexity" for the latest delay

There's been yet another delay in issuing new rules that would require backup cameras in all cars and trucks by 2014. Secretary of Transportation Ray ...

PhotoThere's been yet another delay in issuing new rules that would require backup cameras in all cars and trucks by 2014. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood had said the standards would be published today but now says it's not likely to happen until Dec. 31.

If it really takes that long, 2014 models will already be in the pipeline, meaning that cameras won't appear in all cars until 2015 -- at the earliest.

Congress passed legislation in 2008 requiring LaHood's department to set rules for backup sensors or camereas no later than Feb. 28, 2011. Now, a year after that deadline, LaHood says he needs more time, citing "the complexity and volume of issues identified in the public comments on our proposed rule."

What's complex?

What's so complicated? There's no official explanation but some reports have suggested that the sticking point is the "boot-up" time -- the time that elapses between the moment the driver shifts into reverse and the image appears on the screen.

Regulators are said to be pushing for one second, while carmakers say three seconds is more realistic. 

The Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act of 2007 was passed by Congress after a 2-year-old who was killed when he was inadvertently backed over by an SUV. Parents, consumer and safety groups praised the bill as an important child auto safety measure at the time it was passed and have been pressing for its implementation ever since.

"Backover" accidents are thought to kill about 300 people and injure thousand each year.  Many of the victims are children and, in many cases, the drivers are the parents or other close relatives.

No one knows the exact number because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) -- part of LaHood's department -- only tracks accidents on vehicles that are in motion on public roads, not in driveways or parking lots. 

The cameras are expected to cost between $160 and $200 per vehicle and, if the usual pattern prevails, manufacturers and dealers will claim that the resulting higher car prices will hurt sales.

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Windows 8 Preview Available for Download

Feeling adventurous? Be the first on your block to take Windows 8 for a spin

It's been a long time since those prehistoric times when digit-heads stood outside all night waiting for Egghead to open so they could get a copy of Window...

PhotoIt's been a long time since those prehistoric days when digit-heads stood outside all night waiting for Egghead to open so they could get a copy of Windows 95. (Yes, that really did happen).

Things have changed.  For one thing, you don't have to wait outside anymore. For another, Microsoft is -- for once -- being consistent in its product numbering.  Windows 7 has been out for a few years and now a Windows 8 is about to spring onto a waiting world.

For those who just can't wait -- and who have a non-essential computer handy -- a download of Windows 8 Consumer Preview is now available.  Yes, it would have been called "Beta" a few years ago but Microsoft apparently feels Google has about worn out that designation.

Before you rush off to drag that old Pentium machine out of the closet, check Microsoft's site for some compatilibity information.

To run the preview version, you'll need a machine with at least a 1 GHz Intel or AMD processor, 1 GB of RAM on 32-bit systems or 2 GB of RAM on 64-bit machines, 16 GB or 20 GB of disk space respectively, and a graphics card compatible with DirectX9 or higher. 

Visit Microsoft's download page to get your copy. The preview version is free and will work until the final version is released this fall.

Why bother? 

Why would you want to do this?  We frankly have no idea, unless you're the type who likes to take things apart and put them back together just to pass the time.  

Also, you will get big points in some quarters when you start talking about how you've put Windows 8 through its paces.  

For the curious, Windows 8 -- like Apple and Linux Ubuntu -- is aiming for the tablet market.  Computer and software manufacturers have noticed that consumers who are lukewarn to PCs and laptops have taken to tablets and smartphones in a big way.

Thus, forthcoming operating systems mimic tablets and, for machines that are properly equipped, let you poke things on the screen instead of messing around with keyboards.  

Microsoft is pretty far behind the curve in this segment and hasn't had much luck getting Windows 7 onto smartphones so it's hoping Windows 8 helps it get back into the game.

The geeknoscenti tell us that the Windows 8 interface -- called Metro -- is borrowed from Windows Phone 7, which uses Live Tiles to display real-time information, which can be further explored by touching the appropriate tile.

We're hauling out our spare laptop right now and will get it loaded up tonight, so stay tuned for our take on Windows 8.

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March, Not January, May Be True 'Divorce Month'

Analysis shows web searches and filings reach peak in March

March appears to be the month most active for divorce...

PhotoAmong divorce lawyers, it was an article of faith that January would bring an uptick – if not a surge – in new business.

After all, couples had made it through the stress of the holiday season, keeping up appearances, but with the start of a new year were ready to make a clean break. January was widely considered “divorce month.”

But that may not be the case. According to a new analysis of divorce filings and searches for divorce-related information on the Internet, March is the true “Divorce Month,” according to Internet legal site FindLaw.com.

Internet searches

The company analyzed searches for “divorce” and related phrases such as “family law” and “child custody” and found these searches jumped 50 percent – from just over 10,000 in December 2010 to nearly 16,000 in January 2011, and continued to surge through March. “Divorce” has been the No. 1 searched term on FindLaw.com since February 2010.

At the same time, FindLaw.com said it analyzed divorce filings across the U.S. between 2008 and 2011 with Westlaw, the leading legal research database. The analysis revealed that divorces spike in January, continue to rise and peak in late March.

Other factors

Mark Ohnstad, an attorney with the Minneapolis law firm Thomsen Nybeck, says there may be several important factors as to why January is such a key time of year for seeking divorce information.

“While they’ve been thinking about divorce for some time, and taking steps such as obtaining marital counseling to save their marriage, many men and women may put off their decision to file to avoid additional stress during the holiday season,” said Ohnstad, who has practiced law for more than 30 years. “Couples with children may want to have one last holiday season together as a family.”

For others, the stress of in-laws, money troubles and career challenges coupled with the pressures to “be happy” during the holidays leads some men and women to cheat on their spouses during this time.

There's actually some research to back that up. Marriage therapist Dr. Bonnie Eaker Weil says a study on holiday depression noted that of those who cheat on their spouses, 56 percent of men and 42 percent of women do so during the holiday season.

These affairs may trigger post-New Year’s divorce filings by spouses who discover the affairs or by the cheating spouse who now wants to end the marriage.

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NIH Research Suggests New Therapy for Alzheimer's Disease

Repression of gene activity occurs early in Alzheimer's victims

A repression of gene activity in the brain appears to be an early event affecting people with Alzheimer's disease, researchers funded by the National Insti...

PhotoA repression of gene activity in the brain appears to be an early event affecting people with Alzheimer's disease, researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health have found. In mouse models of Alzheimer's disease, this epigenetic blockade and its effects on memory were treatable.

"These findings provide a glimpse of the brain shutting down the ability to form new memories gene by gene in Alzheimer's disease, and offer hope that we may be able to counteract this process," said Roderick Corriveau, Ph.D., a program director at NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), which helped fund the research.

Dr. Li-Huei Tsai and her team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute found that a protein called histone deacetylase 2 (HDAC2) accumulates in the brain early in the course of Alzheimer's disease in mouse models and in people with the disease.

HDAC2 is known to tighten up spools of DNA, effectively locking down the genes within and reducing their activity, or expression.

In the mice, the increase in HDAC2 appears to produce a blockade of genes involved in learning and memory. Preventing the build-up of HDAC2 protected the mice from memory loss.

Dr. Tsai and her team examined two mouse models of Alzheimer's around the time that the mice begin to show signs of brain cell degeneration. They found that the mice had higher levels of HDAC2, but not other related HDAC proteins, specifically in the parts of the brain involved in learning and memory. This increase in HDAC2 was associated with a decrease in the expression of neuronal genes that HDAC2 is known to regulate.

Gene therapy

Use of a gene therapy approach to reduce the levels of HDAC2 prevented the blockade of gene expression. The treatment also prevented learning and memory impairments in the mice. It did not prevent neuronal death, but it did enhance neuroplasticity — the ability of neurons to form new connections.

Dr. Tsai and her team also examined HDAC2 levels in autopsied brain tissue from 19 people with Alzheimer’s at different stages of the disease, and from seven unaffected individuals. Even in its earliest stages, the disease was associated with higher HDAC2 levels in the learning and memory regions of the brain.

"We think that the blockade of gene expression plays a very important role in the cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer's disease," said Dr. Tsai. "The good news is that the blockade is potentially reversible."

Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia in older adults, and affects as many as 5.1 million Americans. In the most common type of Alzheimer's disease, symptoms usually appear after age 65. A hallmark of the disease is the accumulation of a toxic protein fragment called beta-amyloid in brain cells, which is widely believed to be the initial trigger for neurodegeneration.

Dr. Tsai theorizes that HDAC2 is brought into play by beta-amyloid. Indeed, she and her team found that exposing mouse neurons to beta-amyloid caused them to produce more HDAC2.

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Tax Refunds Slower Getting to Taxpayers This Year

Some consumers are blaming their tax preparers

Some tax refunds are slow to get to taxpayers...

PhotoIf you are anxiously awaiting your income tax refund, you aren't alone. A number of taxpayers have complained that, despite e-filing and using direct deposit, weeks have passed without their promised refund.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) isn't saying much about the delays, but has acknowledged that new fraud filters placed on the system this year could be slowing things down a bit. The agency says the information on its Where's My Refund? site is being processed and should be current.

Meanwhile, consumers ike Ameka, of Anniston, Ala., were blaming their tax preparer when she contacted ConsumerAffairs last week.

"Jackson Hewitt's automated system put out a bogus message that in 24-48 hrs my IRS refund will be direct deposited into my account," Ameka wrote on ConsumerAffairs. Well, Where's my Refund's automated system is saying March 6th. Today is FEB 22! Come on, as a consumer I feel like it is misleading and unfair."

Maybe not to blame

However, it may not be Jackson Hewitt's fault. The tax preparer may fully have expected a faster return, based on past experience.

For the record, the IRS reminds taxpayers to keep in mind that many variables can affect the speed of a tax refund. And even with a system delay, using e-file with direct deposit remains the fastest option for taxpayers.

Following technology improvements, the IRS said it 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 said it issues the vast majority, more than 9 out of 10 of all refunds — whether filed electronically or on paper — in 21 days or less.

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Congressman Sings Praises of His Toyota Corolla

Reports to constituents the car has more than 300,000 miles

“A trip to the mechanic told me that my odometer simply wouldn’t go any higher and that it would have to be reset back to zero,” Wittman wrote....

PhotoRep. Rob Wittman (R-VA) represents Virginia's sprawling 1st Congressional District, meaning he does a lot of driving.

Not only does he drive across his district, which stretches from Newport News to the outskirts of Washington, DC, he commutes to the nation's capital from his home in the tiny town of Montross, Va., a distance of some 80 miles.

Last week, in his newsletter to constituents, Wittman waxed poetic about his car, a 2005 Toyota Corolla. On one particular trip home, he said, he watched as the odometer turned from 299,999 miles to 300,000. Then, he said, the odometer simply stopped.

“A trip to the mechanic told me that my odometer simply wouldn’t go any higher and that it would have to be reset back to zero,” Wittman wrote. “Despite not being able to see the 300,000-mile mark on my dashboard, I’m still satisfied to have gotten such great use out of this car.”

Last July, Wittman said his car sustained some damage in a fender bender. The other driver's insurance company classified the vehicle as “totaled.” However, Wittman wasn't prepared to part with his wheels.

Plenty of miles left

“I knew that my car had plenty of miles left to drive, and so I bought the car back from the insurance company, fixed it and put it back on the road, after ensuring it was safe,” Wittman wrote.

The Congressman then used the story as a jumping-off point to talk about problems in Congress, but the message to consumers is pretty clear. Cars manufactured over the last few years are built to go a lot farther than most consumers drive them.

Getting 200,000 miles not that uncommon now

While consumers are sometimes unfortunate enough to get stuck with a lemon, with an endless string of problems, many vehicles will go 200,000 or more miles, with proper maintenance.

In addition to checking oil frequently and replacing it every 3,000 to 5,000 miles, other regular maintenance should include maintaining proper tire pressure, maintaining adequate coolant levels, cleaning battery terminals and checking engine belts for proper tension.

Using one mechanic, who tracks the work done on your car, may also extend the life of your vehicle.

Wittman, meanwhile, says he has no plans to get rid of his Corolla anytime soon, and the car continues to provide his principal transportation as he travels to meetings across his district.

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Feds Finally Ready to Require Rearview Cameras in All Cars

"Backovers" account for nearly half of non-traffic fatalities; many victims are children

Today's cars are filled with all kinds of gadgets that keep us entertained and help us avoid getting lost.  But most electronic gadgets contribute lit...

PhotoToday's cars are filled with all kinds of gadgets that keep us entertained and help us avoid getting lost.  But most electronic gadgets contribute little or nothing to safety and are, instead, potentially dangerous distractions.

Auto safety regulators are about to change that by requiring that automakers put rearview cameras in all cars by 2014, according to The New York Times.  The cameras are now available as options on luxury cars.  

The Times quotes an estimate by KidsAndCars.org that two children die and about 50 are injured every week when someone accidentally backs over them. All too often, the person driving is a parent, grandparent or other close relative.

The cameras are expected to cost between $160 and $200 per vehicle and, if the usual pattern prevails, manufacturers and dealers will claim that the resulting higher car prices will hurt sales.

Cameron Gulbransen

The proposed regulation is the result of the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act of 2007, passed by Congress back in 2008. It's named after a 2-year-old who was killed when he was inadvertently backed over by an SUV. Parents, consumer and safety groups praised the bill as an important child auto safety measure at the time it was passed.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been working to craft the proposed regulation since then. KidsAndCars and other consumer and safety groups have been pushing for adoption of the standards that will be sent to Congress by NHTSA this week.

"We know what the problems are, we have inexpensive and effective technological solutions available and now we will have a law that includes deadlines for federal government action," said Jackie Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

Back-over incidents have increased dramatically in recent years, claiming the lives of at least 474 children from 2002-2006 compared to 128 from 1997-2001. Backovers now account for half of all non-traffic fatalities involving children, safety groups estimate.

The reason for the increase isn't clear but the popularity of SUVs and other high-riding vehicles is thought to be a factor, as is the poor rearward visibility of cars that use an aerodynamic design to improve gas mileage.

Oddly, no one is quite sure just how many such incidents there are. That's because NHTSA collects reports on injuries only from vehicles in motion on roads and highways, not driveways or parking lots.

Jeep Commander

A Consumer Reports' examination of vehicle blind zones in 2006 found the 2006 Jeep Commander Limited ranked as the worst vehicle overall. CR measured the blind zone behind the Commander at 44 feet for a driver who is five feet, eight inches tall and a stunning 69 feet for a shorter driver (five feet, one inch tall) with all three rows of seats raised. 

The vehicle that previously held the worst blind zone record in Consumer Reports' tests was the 2002 Chevrolet Avalanche 1500, a pickup truck, which had a blind zone of 29 feet for a five-foot, eight-inch driver and 51 feet for a five-foot, one-inch driver.

It's estimated that about 100 deaths and thousand of injuries could be avoided each year by eliminating the wide blind spot behind most vehicles. 

 

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States Taking On Unauthorized Charges For 'Memberships'

Consumers complain they were unaware they were making a purchase

States are cracking down on unauthorized credit card charges...

PhotoFor years, consumers have complained of finding charges on their credit cards for memberships in buying clubs and discount programs they had never heard of.

The charges stem from negative option marketing campaigns which enrolled the consumers after they had made an online purchase with their credit cards. Now, states appear to be turning their attention to the companies that market these products.

In New York, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has announced a settlement with Vertrue Incorporated and its subsidiary, Adaptive Marketing, LLC to provide $2 million in refunds to New York consumers who say they were tricked into enrolling in these discount clubs.

Tricked into signing up

“This scheme tricked thousands of New York consumers into unknowingly signing up for memberships programs they did not want or need,” Schneiderman said. "The discount-club seller Adaptive profited by luring consumers with enticing but deceptive offers that included hidden membership fees. This settlement helps make the Internet a safer place for consumers to shop."

Schneiderman says his investigation found that Adaptive entered into arrangements with many well known retail companies, such as Classmates, Intelius and VistaPrint, that permitted Adaptive to solicit the companies' customers by offering discounts, rebates, or other incentive offers while the customer was shopping online.

When a consumer accepted what he or she thought was the retailer's online offer, the consumer was unknowingly transferred to an Adaptive webpage and automatically enrolled in Adaptive's fee-based membership program. Because Adaptive obtained a consumer's credit or debit card account information from the retail partner, consumers were not required to re-enter their credit and debit card numbers and were unaware that they were being enrolled in Adaptive's fee-based membership program.

Iowa secures refunds

New York isn't the only state taking action in this arena. Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller says refund checks totaling about $700,000 are going out to approximately 2,800 Iowa consumers who had been unlawfully charged for memberships by AmeriMark Direct, LLC of Cleveland, Ohio, another marketer is discount club memberships.

The refund checks are part of a settlement agreement from last May, called an Assurance of Voluntary Compliance, which required AmeriMark to make payments into a fund to provide partial refunds to Iowans.

AmeriMark has sent all required payments, and the Consumer Protection Division is now mailing refund checks to eligible Iowa consumers. The refund checks range in amount from $63 to $1,780, according to Miller.

The Consumer Protection Division investigated AmeriMark after receiving a complaint in September 2010 from an Iowan who discovered that her credit card had been charged more than $1,500 over a four year period for a membership she didn’t know she had.

Both Miller and Scheiderman advise consumers in their states to be very wary of "trial offers," or "free offers." That's how consumers usually get enrolled in these memberships.  

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Can A Credit Card Help You Save Money On Gas?

Some cards provide cash back on gasoline purchases

How the right credit card can save money on gasoline...

PhotoPrices at the pump have surged in the last month amid predictions they will go even higher as summer approaches. Is there anything consumers can do to make a fill-up less painful?

Maybe. Using the right credit card, it turns out, can have gasoline-related advantages.

Card Hub, a company that analyzes credit card offers, reports there are two types of credit cards that offer gas rewards: gas station-affiliated credit cards and generic gas credit cards. Which type consumers get depends on their geographic location and spending habits.

Card Hub analyzed 1,000 cards listed the cards it says provide the best deals for motorists. The top three among generic gas credit cards are:

  • Pentagon Federal Credit Union Platinum Cash Rewards Credit Card – This is one of the Pentagon Federal Credit Union credit cards that offers 5% cash back on gas purchases at any station (as long as they’re paid at the pump) in addition to 1% cash back on all other purchases. While these cards do not have initial bonuses or annual fees, they do require PenFed membership, which will cost you $15.
  • Blue Cash Everyday from American Express – Provides 2% cash back at gas stations and department stores, 3% at supermarkets, and 1% on everything else. It has no annual fee and gives you a $100 bonus for spending $1,000 in the first three months.
  • TrueEarnings Card from Costco and American Express – Gives you 3% cash back on all gas purchases up to $3,000 (1% thereafter), 2% at restaurants, 2% on travel, and 1% on everything else. This card does not have an initial bonus, and Costco members do not have to pay an annual fee.

Of the three, Card Hub CEO Odysseas Papadimitriou says the Pentagon Federal Credit Card stands out.

 “It’s phenomenal that Pentagon Federal Credit Union is offering 5% cash back on gas, regardless of what station you buy it at," Papadimitriou said. "Rewards earning rates that high are typically only seen on station-affiliated cards."

Among station-affiliated cards, here are Card Hub's top three:

  • BP Credit Card – Offers rebates of 10% for BP gas, 4% for travel and dining, and 2% for everything else for the first 60 days after account enrollment.  Thereafter, consumers will get rebates of 5% for BP gas, 2% for travel and dining, and 1% for everything else. This card does not have an annual fee or an initial bonus.
  • Marathon Credit Card – Offers a 25-cent rebate (~6.9%) for each gallon of Marathon gas purchased during months a cardholder charges at least $1,000 on this card, $0.15/gal. (~4.2%) for spending $500 and $999.99, and $0.05 (~1.4%) for spending less than $500. This card does not have an annual fee or an initial bonus.
  • ExxonMobil MasterCard – Provides a 15-cent rebate (~4.2%) for each gallon of ExxonMobil gas as well as up to 2% rebates on all other purchases up to $10,000 in annual spending and 1% thereafter.  This card neither has an annual fee nor an initial bonus.

While station-affiliated gas credit cards could offer the most lucrative rewards, they certainly aren’t for everyone, given that users can only save on gas purchased at affiliated stations. Consumers should only open one if they’re already brand-loyal in their gas consumption or could easily become brand loyal without changing their habits significantly.  

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FDA Expands Advice on Statin Risks

Cholesterol-lowering drugs may increase risk of memory loss, diabetes

If you’re one of the millions of Americans who take statins to prevent heart disease, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has important new safety...

PhotoIf you’re one of the millions of Americans who take statins to prevent heart disease, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has important new safety information on these cholesterol-lowering medications.

FDA is advising consumers and health care professionals that: 

  • Routine monitoring of liver enzymes in the blood, once considered standard procedure for statin users, is no longer needed. Such monitoring has not been found to be effective in predicting or preventing the rare occurrences of serious liver injury associated with statin use.
  • Cognitive (brain-related) impairment, such as memory loss, forgetfulness and confusion, has been reported by some statin users.
  • People being treated with statins may have an increased risk of raised blood sugar levels and the development of Type 2 diabetes.
  • Some medications interact with lovastatin (brand names include Mevacor) and can increase the risk of muscle damage.

This new information should not scare people off statins, says Amy G. Egan, M.D., M.PH., deputy director for safety in FDA’s Division of Metabolism and Endocrinology Products (DMEP).

“The value of statins in preventing heart disease has been clearly established,” she says. “Their benefit is indisputable, but they need to be taken with care and knowledge of their side effects.”

FDA will be changing the drug labels of popular statin products to reflect these new concerns. (These labels are not the sticker attached to a prescription drug bottle, but the package insert with details about a prescription medication, including side effects.)

The statins affected include:

  • Altoprev (lovastatin extended-release)
  • Crestor (rosuvastatin)
  • Lescol (fluvastatin)
  • Lipitor (atorvastatin)
  • Livalo (pitavastatin)
  • Mevacor (lovastatin)
  • Pravachol (pravastatin)
  • Zocor (simvastatin).

Products containing statins in combination with other drugs include:

  • Advicor (lovastatin/niacin extended-release)
  • Simcor (simvastatin/niacin extended-release)
  • Vytorin (simvastatin/ezetimibe).

Liver Injury

FDA has found that liver injury associated with statin use is rare but can occur. Patients are advised to consult their health care professional if they have symptoms that include unusual fatigue, loss of appetite, right upper abdominal discomfort, dark urine or yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes.

Statins work in the liver to reduce the production of cholesterol, a waxy substance that can form plaque on the walls of the arteries and keep the heart from getting the blood it needs.

Egan explains that there had been signals in early clinical trials of possible liver damage tied to statin use, so health care professionals were advised to regularly test their patients’ liver enzyme levels. However, she says, such damage is rare, and the tests are not effective at predicting or preventing who will develop this rare side effect.

So FDA is now recommending that liver enzyme tests be performed before statin treatment begins and then as needed if there are symptoms of liver damage.

Memory Loss

FDA has been investigating reports of cognitive impairment from statin use for several years. The agency has reviewed databases that record reports of bad reactions to drugs and statin clinical trials that included assessments of cognitive function.

The reports about memory loss, forgetfulness and confusion span all statin products and all age groups. Egan says these experiences are rare but that those affected often report feeling “fuzzy” or unfocused in their thinking.

In general, the symptoms were not serious and were reversible within a few weeks after the patient stopped using the statin. Some people affected in this way had been taking the medicine for a day; others had been taking it for years.

What should patients do if they fear that statin use could be clouding their thinking? “Talk to your health care professional,” Egan says. “Don’t stop taking the medication; the consequences to your heart could be far greater.”

Diabetes

Diabetes occurs because of defects in the body’s ability to produce or use insulin—a hormone needed to convert food into energy. If the pancreas doesn't make enough insulin or if cells do not respond appropriately to insulin, blood sugar levels in the blood get too high, which can lead to serious health problems.

A small increased risk of raised blood sugar levels and the development of Type 2 diabetes have been reported with the use of statins.

“Clearly we think that the heart benefit of statins outweighs this small increased risk,” says Egan. But what this means for patients taking statins and the health care professionals prescribing them is that blood-sugar levels may need to be assessed after instituting statin therapy,” she says.

Muscle Damage

Some drugs interact with statins in a way that increases the risk of muscle injury called myopathy, characterized by unexplained muscle weakness or pain. Egan explains that some new drugs are broken down (metabolized) through the same pathways in the body that statins follow. This increases both the amount of statin in the blood and the risk of muscle injury.

FDA is revising the drug label for Lovastatin to clarify the risk of myopathy. The label will reflect what drugs should not be taken at the same time, and the maximum lovastatin dose if it is not possible to avoid use of those other drugs.

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Sleeping Pills Linked To Early Death

Research uncovers increase in cancer deaths among pill users

For decades, sensational reports of celebrity deaths often included accounts of sleeping pills being found nearby, whether they were the direct cause of de...

PhotoFor decades, sensational reports of celebrity deaths often included accounts of sleeping pills being found nearby, whether they were the direct cause of death or not. But new research suggests it isn't just an accidental overdose that might make these pills dangerous.

A study by researchers at Scripps Clinic in San Diego, Calif., links medications to a 4.6 times higher risk of death and a significant increase in cancer cases among regular pill users. The results, published by the online journal BMJ Open, cast a shadow over a growing segment of the pharmaceutical industry that expanded by 23 percent in the United States from 2006 to 2010 and generated about $2 billion in annual sales.

“What our study shows is that sleeping pills are hazardous to your health and might cause death by contributing to the occurrence of cancer, heart disease and other ailments,” said author Daniel F. Kripke, MD, of the Viterbi Family Sleep Center at Scripps Health.

Sleeping pills and cancer

The research is the first to show that eight of the most commonly used hypnotic drugs were associated with increased hazards of mortality and cancer, including the popularly prescribed medications zolpidem, known by the brand name Ambien, and temazepam, also known as Restoril. Kripke said those drugs had been thought to be safer than older hypnotics because of their shorter duration of action.

While powerful sleeping aids are known to have a number of potential side-effects, cancer has not been one of them, until now. But the study showed rates of new cancers were 35 percent higher among patients who were prescribed at least 132 hypnotic doses a year as compared with those who did not take the drugs.

The study

Using data stored in an electronic medical record that has been in place for more than a decade, the researchers obtained information on almost 40,000 patients cared for by a large integrated health system in the northeastern United States.

The study included 10,531 sleeping pill users who were prescribed the medications for an average of 2.5 years and 23,674 control participants who were not prescribed the drugs. Information came from outpatient clinic visits conducted between Jan. 1, 2002, and Sept. 30, 2006.

“It is important to note that our results are based on observational data, so even though we did everything we could to ensure their validity, it’s still possible that other factors explain the associations,” said co-author Lawrence E. Kline, DO, who is medical director of the Viterbi Family Sleep Center. “We hope our work will spur additional research in this area using information from other populations.”

In the meantime, the researchers suggest physicians consider alternatives to hypnotic drugs to help their patients sleep.

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Expert: Consumers Give Too Little Thought to Online Privacy

Predicts Consumer Privacy Bill Of Rights won't work

Expert casts doubts about Internet privacy proposal...

PhotoPresident Obama last week unveiled a proposed Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights that, in essence, gives consumers the the right to control what information companies can collect from their web browsing and how they use it.

For such a system to be effective, however, one privacy expert says consumers are going to have to become more serious about privacy issues. Fred Cate, who directs the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University, says Obama's proposal is noble, but will probably fail because "it puts the power of consent into the hands of a public that, for the most part, doesn't know what to do with it and cannot use it effectively to protect privacy."

At the core of the legislative proposal is what the Obama administration calls the "Consumer Control Principle," which would give consumers the right to exercise control over what personal data is collected and how it is used. That is typically achieved through voluntary consent.

Individual choice doesn't equal privacy protection

"More than 30 years of experience with control-based laws has demonstrated that they don't work and they don't protect consumer privacy," Cate said. "Individual choice is not the same thing as privacy protection, and merely providing choice does not necessarily enhance privacy protection."

Cates asks consumers to remember when they signed up for Facebook, or installed the latest version of iTunes. Consumers, when faced with privacy policies dozens of pages long, can't skip to the end fast enough, Cate said.

"Consent shifts the burden for protecting privacy to the individual, yet few individuals have the time, knowledge or interest to make all of those choices about data collection and use," he said. "The control-based system of data protection is not working. The flurry of notices may give individuals some illusion of enhanced privacy, but the reality is far different."

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Buffet Calls Single-Family Home 'Attractive Investment'

Legendary investor thinks residential real estate could beat stocks

Warren Buffet thinks buying a single-family home is a good investment...

PhotoIt's been a long time since anyone described the purchase of a single-family home as "an attractive investment." But Warren Buffet, the Oracle of Omaha, did just that this week, saying he would buy up "millions" of them if it were practical to do so.

In an interview with business cable channel CNBC, Buffet predicted that, if a buyer purchased a home and held it for the long term, the payoff would probably be better than investing the money in stocks.

While the investment advice might take some by surprise, given the recent history of the housing market, those who follow Buffet's investment philosophy might see his logic. Buffet is not a believer in a quick buck, but usually invests for the long haul. He's also very bullish on the U.S., saying again today that it is a mistake to be pessimistic about the U.S. economy.

Money where his beliefs are

Buffet is also known for putting his money where his beliefs are. After the near financial collapse of 2008, Buffet invested billions of dollars in beaten-down U.S. stocks and made hundreds of millions when the market recovered.

Buffet's comments about residential real estate come at a time when the market has begun to show small but sustained signs of life. Sales of existing homes have increased in three of the last four months and inventories continue to fall.

On Monday, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) reported pending home sales rose in January  to the highest level in nearly two years.

And investors continue to be active in the market, according to NAR. Each month investors account for about 23 percent of the purchases and are on pace to purchase more than one million properties this year.

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Carlisle Recalls Melamine Cups and Mugs

The cups can break when exposed to hot liquids

Carlisle FoodService Products, of Oklahoma City, Okla., is recalling about 111,000 melamine cups and mugs. The cups and mugs can break when exposed...

PhotoCarlisle FoodService Products, of Oklahoma City, Okla., is recalling about 111,000 melamine cups and mugs. 

The cups and mugs can break when exposed to hot liquids, posing a burn hazard to consumers.

Carlisle has received three reports of cups and mugs breaking. No injuries were reported.

The nine models of Carlisle cups and mugs were sold in a variety of sizes from 7 to 16 oz., and in the following colors: white, green, red, brown, black, ocean blue, sand, honey yellow, bone and sunset orange. They are approximately 2 to 3 inches tall and are made of melamine. The name "Carlisle OKC, OK" and model number are imprinted on the bottom, along with "Made in China" and "NSF." Some may also include the model name and size, ex. "Durus 7 oz cup." Cups and mugs included in this recall are:

NameSizeModel Number
Sierrus™ Mug7.8 ozModel # 33056
Durus® Challenge Cup7.8 ozModel # 43056
Dallas Ware® Stacking Cup7 ozModel # 43546
Dayton™ Stacking Cup7 ozModel # 43870
Kingline™ Ovide Cup7 ozModel # KL300
Kingline™ Stacking Cup7 ozModel # KL111
Melamine Stackable Mug8 ozModel # 4510
Cappuccino Mug12 ozModel # 4812
Cappuccino Mug16 ozModel # 4816

The cups were sold nationally through distributor outlets and online, including food service companies, broadliners and equipment supply distributors. The mugs were sold between January 2011 and January 2012 for between $4 and $10 each. They were made in China.

Consumers should stop using the mugs immediately and return them to Carlisle for credit toward a future purchase of Carlisle FoodService Products merchandise. Carlisle will provide instructions for free return shipping.

For additional information, contact Carlisle FoodService Products at (800) 217-8859 between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. CT Monday through Friday, or visit the firm's website at www.carlislefsp.com/productsafety

 
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Consumers Urged to Seek LCD Settlement Funds

You might be entitled to compensation

Funds from LCD price-fixing settlement being distributed...

PhotoIn October 2010, several states filed a lawsuit against ten companies, accusing them of engaging in price-fixing of LCD panels from 1999 to 2006. The alleged price-fixing. the complaint said, resulted in higher prices for a number of products.

Now that there's a half-billion dollar settlement, attorneys general in eight states are urging consumers to file a claim. Consumers who purchased products with LCD panels - computer monitors, laptops, and PCs - from 1999 to 2006 are encouraged to visit a special website to get more information.

The settlements announced in December 2011 resolve claims against seven companies, filed by eight attorneys general and a national class action. As part of the settlements, the companies that engaged in price fixing will provide a fund for consumers and businesses in 25 states.

The settling companies have also resolved claims brought by California Attorney General Kamala Harris for civil penalties under California's Unfair Competition Law, as well as restitution for government agencies that purchased the flat screen LCD panels.

California is joined in the settlements by the attorneys general of Arkansas, Florida, Michigan, Missouri, New York, West Virginia and Wisconsin, as well as a class action brought on behalf of private claimants in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.

Settling defendants include: Chimei Innolux Corp., Chi Mei Optoelectronics USA, Inc., Chi Mei Optoelectronics Japan Co., Ltd, HannStar Display Corporation, Hitachi, Ltd., Hitachi Displays, Ltd., Hitachi Electronic Devices, USA, Inc., Samsung Electronics, Co., Ltd., Samsung Electronics America, Inc., Samsung Semiconductor, Inc., Sharp Corporation, and Sharp Electronics Corporation.

The alleged price-fixing came to light in 2006, mostly through an international effort. Investigators in the U.S. were joined by counterparts in the European Union, Korea and Japan to expose anti-competitive activity. The investigators said that activity made computer monitors, laptops and flat screen TVs more expensive than they would have otherwise been.  

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Nevada Rolls Ahead with Driverless Car Plans

Could be first state to gamble on automated cars

In issuing new regulations for “driverless cars,” the state of Nevada has made one more step toward being the first U.S. state to allow these a...

PhotoIn issuing new regulations for “driverless cars,” the state of Nevada has made one more step toward being the first U.S. state to allow these automatically guided vehicles on its roadways.

State officials announced earlier this month that Nevada’s Legislative Commission had approved a more detailed set of regulations for driverless car operation, following a prior ruling in 2011.

Although Nevada, a state known for its generous tax laws and laissez-faire business regulation, has made advances toward allowing new driverless cars on its roads, these kinds of vehicles have a long way to go before being sold on the American market.

Google is considered the frontrunner in developing prototypes for this technology, where existing vehicles can be fitted with devices that make them into self-driving cars.

Artificial intelligence

Footage from Google trials shows a Toyota Prius operating independently of a human driver; in a March 2011 post on the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) web site, Sebastian Thrun, director of the Artificial Intelligence Lab at Stanford University, details the emergence of this new kind of vehicle, noting the first drafts of the driverless car were part of a U.S. military project called the DARPA Challenge, after which partners including Stanford began to expand on the more primitive designs.

“It’s the perfect driving mechanism.” says Thrun, adding that sensors allow cars to 'see' everything around them in order to operate safely.

But the enthusiasm for this new kind of car is not unanimous; consumer groups and other parties are asking questions about how these new vehicles would work practically on the road, and, for instance, how the new technology would affect America’s current network of state auto insurance systems.

As for claims that driverless cars would allow families to get more transportation out of a single vehicle, some critics of the design are pointing out that updating the public transit systems of American cities and other municipalities might be just as effective, and more efficient.

But how safe?

As for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), officials there have made mixed remarks about the future of the driverless car. After a dust-up over published remarks in The New York Times, NHTSA Chief Counsel Kevin Vincent wrote in a letter to the paper Jan. 30 that, “It is too early for the agency to draw conclusions about the safety or feasibility of these vehicles,” but generally echoed prior comments that officials are “pleased” with the advances of Google and their partners in developing alternatives for the future of the American car.

Overall, NHTSA staffers and safety advocates alike are focused on saving lives by decreasing incidents of distracted driving and otherwise engineering modern vehicles for optimal safety.

There's still a long way to go, but today’s human-driven cars could some day be replaced by state-of-the-art robotic vehicles, the same way that preindustrial team-drawn conveyances were, not so long ago, eclipsed by the “horseless carriage.” That removed one set of horses' derrieres from the streets. The driverless car could remove many more.

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How Much Sugar Are You Really Eating?

It's not easy for consumers to figure out the real sugar content of many foods

If Americans knew exactly how much added sugar came with the food and beverages they and their families consume, many might make different choices.A coal...

PhotoIf Americans knew exactly how much added sugar came with the food and beverages they and their families consume, many might make different choices.

A coalition of public health organizations is calling on the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require that food labels display information on added sugar.

“While current regulations stipulate what foods can be labeled ‘No Sugar Added’ or use a similar phrase, there is currently no requirement that added sugars be shown separately on the ingredients list,” the group wrote FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. “We recommend that FDA require that added sugars be listed on the ingredients section of food labels so that consumers can make healthier choices when they shop.”

According to the American Heart Association, which signed the letter to Hamburg, Americans’ average intake of added sugars is around 22.2 teaspoons per day, or 355 calories. The AHA’s daily-recommended limit for added sugar is 100 calories for women, and 150 for men.

Research by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found more than 33 percent of adults and roughly 17 percent of children and adolescents living in the U.S. are obese.

“Many in the sugar and food industry like to encourage personal responsibility over government regulation of food and ingredients,” the coalition wrote. “Without specific information on the amount of ‘added sugars’ on the labels of food products, consumers can hardly exercise that responsibility and make smarter choices in the grocery aisle.”

Honey Smacks

Late last year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) reviewed the sugar content for more than 80 popular cereals marketed toward children and found most loaded with the ingredient. 

In fact, a one-cup serving of the Kellogg's Honey Smacks brand packs more sugar than a Hostess Twinkie, and one cup of any of the 44 other children’s cereals has more sugar than three Chips Ahoy! cookies.

The following organizations signed the letter to Commissioner Hamburg:

  • Environmental Working Group,
  • American Association for Health Education,
  • American Heart Association,
  • Center for Science in the Public Interest,
  • Corporate Accountability International,
  • Defeat Diabetes Foundation,
  • American Association for Health Education,
  • National Association of School Nurses,
  • Young People’s Healthy Heart at Mercy Hospital,
  • Indiana Rural Health Association,
  • American Society of Bariatric Physicians, ?
  • The FGE Food & Nutrition Team,
  • Cambridge/Somerville WIC, and
  • Iowa Public Health Association

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the ranking Democrat on the House appropriations subcommittee responsible for funding the FDA, has called on the agency to disclose added sugar.

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Investigators Searching For 'Rachel' the Robo-Caller

Indiana sues telemarketer allegedly tied to elusive caller

Investigators Searching For 'Rachael' The Robo-Caller...

PhotoChances are you may have gotten a robo-call from a telemarketer named "Rachel," from "card member services," trying to sell you various credit-related services.

Who is Rachel and who does she work for? A number of federal and state agencies are trying to find out. The calls are illegal, and state officials, like Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, say the calls generate leads that some unscrupulous operators use to scam consumers.

Lawsuit

Zoeller said Indiana is making headway in its own investigation after filing a lawsuit against Consumer Credit Group (CCG) of Florida, which he says has been linked to the calls.

“The ‘Rachel’ auto-dialer service provides leads to companies like Consumer Credit Group to generate business,” Zoeller said. “We hope this lawsuit translates into fewer robo-calls to Hoosiers, but this will not be a cure-all. We believe there are numerous illegitimate companies that are paying for leads from the ‘Rachel’ callers. However, we will continue our aggressive efforts to find the source of the ‘Rachel’ calls and the companies that profit from them while victimizing Hoosiers.”

According to the lawsuit, one of the consumers received an automated call from “Rachel” and was transferred to a live operator who identified themselves as working for CCG. The consumer had no prior business relationship or communication with CCG and his home telephone number is on Indiana’s Do Not Call registry.

Promised service carries steep advance fee

Credit card interest rate reduction scams often originate with a robo-call promising to lower rates for an up-front fee ranging from $700 to $1200. These offers usually accompany a money back guarantee.

Zoeller said these phony sales pitches claim consumers can pay off their credit card debt three to five times faster and save them thousands of dollars in interest and finance charges. These companies are offering services that consumers can already do for themselves at no cost, by calling the credit card company and asking for a reduced rate.

Zoeller said his office received 14,148 Do Not Call or Auto-Dialer complaints in 2011 – that’s more than twice the number received the year before. More than 6,900 of those complaints were about calls from credit card service companies.

Meanwhile, the search for 'Rachel' and the people she works for goes on. If you should get a call from her, Zoeller says the best advice is to simply hang up.

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Simple Ways to Reduce Odds of an IRS Audit

Follow these steps to avoid raising red flags

There are things you can do to reduce the risk of a tax audit...

PhotoNo matter what people tell you, there's no guaranteed way to avoid an audit of your tax return by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). While the IRS tends to focus its attention mostly on high-income taxpayers, it also picks a number of random returns for an audit.

But looking back at past years, it is possible to give some advice for people currently filing out their 2011 returns on how to avoid raising red flags that just ask for closer scrutiny.

Choose tax-preparer carefully

It starts with the professional you hire to prepare your return. Do they have a good reputation? Do they take a conservative approach to tax laws? That can be important because, if the IRS spots a trend of problem tax returns from one tax preparer, chances all all that person's clients are going to get a closer look.

The very rich and the very poor can also come under the magnifying glass. The odds of an audit go up significantly if your income is over $200,000.

At the same time, low income taxpayers who claim the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) can also get closer scrutiny. The EITC can go to people who actually paid no taxes, so the IRS tends to be vigilant when it comes to writing those checks. People who qualify for the credit should claim it, but claiming it when you don't qualify usually results in getting caught.

Self-employed get a closer look

If you're self-employed, you stand a better chance of getting an audit than if you work for a paycheck. You can minimize those chances by incorporating. Sole proprietors who file a Schedule C are more likely to be audited.

That's because many "businesses" aren't really businesses, they're hobbies - they don't produce income. Business expenses are deductible but hobby expenses aren't. The IRS will look closely to make sure you aren't writing off a hobby.

That brings us to deductions in general. Taxpayers should claim legitimate deductions to which they are entitled, but should also keep the total to a reasonable amount, relative to your total income. If your deductions add up to a significant percentage of your income, IRS auditors are likely to be skeptical.

Finally, prepare your state return with the same care you do your federal return. If your income picture in your state return is different than the one you've painted in your federal return, that's a problem. The IRS and state tax agencies all share information.

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Is It Time To Throw Away Your Checkbook?

Writing checks may become a thing of the past

It's getting harder and more costly to pay with checks...

PhotoIn the grocery checkout line, an older woman pulls out a check to pay for her groceries but before she can fill it out, the clerk asks for the blank check, scans it, and hands it back to her.

The clerk explains to his confused customer that you don't need to write checks anymore. The machine captured the bank account information and automatically deducted the purchase, much like a debit card.

Discouraging check-writing

Businesses appear to be discouraging the use of paper checks, in part because of growing fraud. Many merchants have retained the services of a company called Certegy, which is in the risk management business. When you try to write a check that Certegy thinks is the least bit suspicious, the merchant rejects it.

"I wrote a check to Pac-Sun for $173.51 and it was denied," Marlene, of Springboro, Ohio, wrote in a review on ConsumerAffairs. "I know that I have over $5,000 in my checking account as I looked at it this morning to verify."

On its website, Certegy says it uses"proprietary risk models for the decisioning process regarding the acceptance of checks." The risk models are based on factors that closely model previous transactions that resulted in losses for businesses. Your check could be perfectly legitimate but the merchant isn't going to take the chance.

Costly checks

Even if you can persuade a business to take your check, there could be extra costs involved.

"If you pay by check, as I do, Earthlink charges $1.00 for the paper invoice, and $1.00 for non-automated payment,"S., of Washington, DC, wrote on ConsumerAffairs. "I've been a customer since 1999, paid over $3,000 for the service (mind you by check).

What's a consumer to do? Most have no choice but to rely on credit or debit cards. Or cash. Paying with cash may be the simplest option, and may even help you stay within your budget.

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Feds Sue to Stop Massive Robocalling Operations

Defendants allegedly made hundreds of millions of illegal calls

The Federal Trade Commission has filed complaints to stop two operations that allegedly enabled telemarketers to place hundreds of millions of illegal prer...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission has filed complaints to stop two operations that allegedly enabled telemarketers to place hundreds of millions of illegal prerecorded calls to consumers around the country, including many who had registered their phone numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry.

The FTC's complaints in both cases allege that the defendants offered "self-service" voice broadcasting – a service that makes it easy for marketers who have no telecommunications expertise to deliver tens of millions of robocalls for pennies a call.

The defendants arranged for marketers to deliver prerecorded sales pitches by uploading a recorded message and list of telephone numbers through web sites owned by the defendants that would then dial each uploaded phone number and play the designated prerecorded message.

These messages pitched a variety of products and services, including debt relief services, carpet and upholstery cleaning services, auto warranties, mortgage loan modification and foreclosure assistance, timeshares, satellite dish broadcasting, and burial insurance.

In the first case, the FTC charged that Brian Ebersole, Voice Marketing, Inc., and B2B Voice Broadcasting, Inc. provided clients with access to computers, telecommunications services, and automated dialers needed to make telephone calls and deliver prerecorded messages. They had the ability to make thousands of telephone calls simultaneously and deliver more than one million prerecorded messages each day.

The defendants allegedly also sold access to their voice broadcasting technology through intermediaries – or "resellers" – that sold robocall services under various names. 

VoiceBlaze

One such reseller was JGRD, Inc. d/b/a VoiceBlaze – along with principles Charles Joseph Garis, Jr. and Randall Keith Delp – all of whom were named as defendants in a separate FTC enforcement action. According to the FTC's complaint, the VoiceBlaze Defendants marketed voice broadcasting services that used automated dialing equipment to deliver prerecorded messages through telephone calls.

In both cases, the defendants allegedly conducted or enabled telemarketing campaigns they knew, or should have known, illegally called numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry, abandoned calls by playing a prerecorded message after a person answered, failed to disclose the callers' identity, and delivered prerecorded messages after September 1, 2009, when amendments to the Telemarketing Sales Rule largely prohibited such calls.

Caller ID

The FTC also alleged that the VoiceBlaze Defendants manipulated the caller names displayed on caller identification services, in violation of the Telemarketing Sales Rule.

The complaint alleges that, rather than the name of the telemarketer or the name of the seller on whose behalf the telemarketer was calling, the VoiceBlaze Defendants caused consumers' caller identification services to display names such as "CUSTOMERSVC," "CUST SERVICE," "SERVICE," "SERVICE ANNOUNC" and "INSURANCECO."

The settlement orders agreed to by the defendants in both cases bar them from violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule and require them to pay civil penalties. Each set of defendants will pay $10,000. The Voice Marketing Defendants and the VoiceBlaze Defendants also agreed to the entry of civil penalty judgments of $2 million and $1 million, respectively, which are suspended based on representations that the defendants lack the ability to pay. If a defendant is found to have misrepresented his or its financial condition, the full penalty will become due immediately.

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Virtual Colonoscopy Suitable for Seniors, Study Finds

Virtual procedure doesn't require sedation

A new Mayo Clinic study published in Radiology finds that virtual colonoscopy isn't just for younger people but is comparable to standard colonoscopy ...

A new Mayo Clinic study published in Radiology finds that virtual colonoscopy isn't just for younger people but is comparable to standard colonoscopy for people better than 65 years old.

Colonoscopy is commonly performed for early detection of colon cancer in people over 50 years old. In the standard procedure, a long, flexible tube is used to view the lining of the colon. After prepping to cleanse the colon, the patient is sedated for the procedure and then generally goes home to rest for the remainder of the day.

Virtual colonoscopy, known more formally as computerized tomographic CT colonography, uses advanced imaging software to produce a three-dimensional view of the entire colon and rectum.

The virtual colonoscopy procedure involves insertion of a small enema tip into the rectum, accompanied by carbon dioxide gas to inflate the colon. No sedation is required. The procedure requires the same cleansing preparation as standard colonoscopy.

"The key is getting screened," said C. Daniel Johnson, M.D., Chair of the Department of Radiology at Mayo Clinic in Arizona, and coauthor of the study. "We hope that this additional, less-invasive option for cancer screening will lead more people to get screened and will ultimately result in fewer deaths from colorectal cancer."

Johnson said virtual colonscopies may be considered for patients who:

  • have had a difficult time with previous colonoscopy procedures;
  • are on anti-coagulant drugs;
  • have a colon obstruction; and
  • are unwilling to have a standard colonoscopy.

Despite the known benefits of colorectal screening, other studies indicate that the majority of Americans age 50 and older are not being screened for the disease. Colorectal cancer is the third most frequently diagnosed cancer and the second-leading cause of cancer death in the U.S.

Earlier study 

A Mayo Clinic study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2008 indicated that virtual colonoscopy is as good as standard colonoscopy, but the performance in medicare age patients was not specifically analyzed. Questions lingered by some about the effectiveness of virtual colonoscopies in older people because of the increased occurrence of colon polyps.

In the new study, data from the 2008 research study was used to evaluate the performance of CTC in patients over age 65 compared to those age 50-65. The study found no statistical significant difference in CTC effectiveness between the two patient groups.

Virtual colonoscopy was found to be highly accurate for detection of intermediate (6-9 mm) and large (greater than 1 cm) polyps. Because the vast majority of patients will not be found to have a polyp, no further workup is necessary. Only the 12 percent of patients identified with a polyp at CTC would need to undergo subsequent colonoscopy.

As most colon cancers arise from preexisting polyps, detection and removal of these lesions holds the promise of eradicating this important health menace.

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FDA Approves Helicobacter Pylori Breath Test for Children

Presence of the infection increases risk of gastric cancer and lymphoma

The first breath test for use in children ages 3 to 17 years to detect Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacterial infections, responsible for chro...

PhotoThe first breath test for use in children ages 3 to 17 years to detect Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacterial infections, responsible for chronic stomach inflammation and ulcers, has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The FDA first cleared the BreathTek UBT test for adults in 1996. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that approximately two-thirds of the world’s population is infected with H. pylori.

Most people with this infection never have any symptoms but have a two- to six-fold increased risk of developing gastric cancer and mucosal-associated-lymphoid-type lymphoma compared with uninfected people.

“Results from this test, when considered with a physician’s assessment of the patient’s history, other risk factors, and professional guidelines, can quickly indicate infection, which allows a physician to initiate appropriate health measures in a timely manner,” said Alberto Gutierrez, Ph.D., director of the Office of In Vitro Diagnostic Device Evaluation and Safety in FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health.

The FDA based its approval of the BreathTek UBT test for children on a multi-center study of 176 patients, comparing its performance to a composite reference method and demonstrating 95.8 percent sensitivity and 99.2 percent specificity. An additional study was done at 1 to 6 months after therapy to support use for post-treatment monitoring of patients.  The sensitivity was 83.3 percent and the specificity was 100 percent. 

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Slumping Sears Plans to Sell Off Stores

Company lost $3 billion last year, needs to raise cash

A few months ago, shoppers were shocked to learn that Sears Holdings Corp. planned to close as many as 120 Sears and Kmart stores. Now, the ailing chain sa...

PhotoA few months ago, shoppers were shocked to learn that Sears Holdings Corp. planned to close as many as 120 Sears and Kmart stores. Now, the ailing chain says it hopes to sell off more than 10 times that many stores to raise up to $770 million, money it needs to help cover more than $3 billion in losses last year.

Sears says it has already found a buyer for 11 of its stores -- General Growth Properties, the shopping mall owner where the stores in question are located.  It also intends to spin off a separate company to control about 1,250 small franchised stores that sell Sears products.

But what happens to the rest of the 126-year-old chain remains in doubt. The company could spin off other divisions, including the profitable Lands End, which Sears acquired before it was taken over by Edward S. Lampert, a hedge fund manager who critics say hasn't spent enough money to keep Sears stores attractive and competitive.

A particular sore point with many consumers is delays and misunderstandings surrounding in-home warranty and repair service.

"I am on my fifth week waiting for Sears to repair my GE washing machine under warranty," said Joan of Chester, Md. "They came out the first time one week and 2 days after my first call. Even though I told them the problem, they waited another week for a part to be delivered. Then, they said it was the wrong part and waited another week for a part to be delivered. Then, they said the two parts were defective because they were not new parts but Sears remanufactured parts, and had to order more parts, yes another week for delivery."

For all its business woes and all the complaints it generates to ConsumerAffairs and other online review sites, Sears has managed to maintain a relatively good standing with consumers.  A computerized sentiment analysis of about 1.2 million consumer comments on social media and blogs over the last year finds Sears maintaining a positive net sentiment that peaked at 52% in October before falling to the low 30s in November and December. 

Photo

Sears, an iconic name in retailing and still the nation's largest appliance retailer, has been steadily losing market share to Wal-Mart, Macy's and  Home Depot, not to mention Amazon and other online merchants who offer nearly everything you can -- or, often, can't -- find at a Sears outlet.

Photo

Lack of customer service remains the biggest dislike identified by consumers, a perceived failing that may be hard to overcome as the struggling chain tries to hold down expenses in its remaining stores. On the other hand, the number of consumers complaining about customer service is about the same as the number who list customer service in the "plus" column.

While Sears insists it is in no imminent danger of running out of cash, its credit rating has been downgrded to "junk" and one large lender, CIT Group, has stopped financing loans to Sears suppliers. 

Photo

But if Sears is having trouble keeping its shelves stocked, that doesn't show up in the comments analyzed in the ConsumerAffairs survey, which found relatively few complaints about items being out of stock. 

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Study: Calories On Fast-Food Menus Not Helping That Much

Columbia researchers suggest tweaking the guidelines

Calorie postings on fast food menus can be confusing...

PhotoHealth and nutrition advocates fought long and hard for federal labeling requirements for calorie listings on fast-food chain restaurant menus.

So, how's it working? Not as well as it should, says a study by the Columbia University School of Nursing.

The researchers studied the calorie counts for 200 food items on menu boards in fast-food chain restaurants in the New York inner-city neighborhood of Harlem. Since 2006, the City has had a standard menu labeling law that includes some, though not all, of the new federal requirements.

Legally compliant, but...

“Although most postings were legally compliant, they did not demonstrate utility,” the authors say. “Menu postings for individual servings are easily understood, but complex math skills are needed to interpret meals designed to serve more than one person. In some items, calories doubled depending on flavor, and the calorie posting did not give enough information to make healthier selections.”

The federal health reform law passed in March 2010 requires restaurants with 20 or more locations to provide calorie data and additional nutritional information for menu items and self-service foods. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now considering how best to guide chain restaurants in posting calorie counts on menu boards.

This is where it gets complicated

The study found that it was easy for consumers to figure out how many calories were in a sandwich and fries. It was more confusing, however, when a single order was being divided among a number of consumers.

For example, the study reports, a bucket of chicken was listed as 3,240 to 12,360 calories, but the menu board did not contain enough information to determine the number of pieces of chicken in a serving size. Specialty pizzas were offered in wide ranges without a clear explanation as to how they differed, since the calorie count was based on a standard size and standard set of toppings.

The researchers say the calorie listings must be easily understood in order for them to be helpful to consumers trying to make healthy food choices. There's growing emphasis on encouraging healthy choices, especially in light of the increasing prevalence of obesity among American adults and children.

The trend is a particular problem in low-income and inner-city neighborhoods, where sources of more healthful foods might not be as common as fast-food fare, the researchers said. Studies suggest that consumers are generally unaware of, or inaccurately estimate, the number of calories in restaurant foods.

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Florida Cracking Down On Companies Reselling Timeshares

Proposed law gives owners easier route to address abuses

The Florida House has passed the Timeshare Resale Fraud bill...

Photo
Pam Bondi

The Florida House of Representatives has approved the Timeshare Resale Fraud Bill, a measure that cracks down on companies that prey on consumers desperate to unload their timeshare properties.

There was no ambiguity about it - the measure passed unanimously and now goes to the Senate, where it is also expected to pass.

“This bill is essential in stopping unscrupulous individuals from misleading and defrauding our consumers who are attempting to sell their timeshares,” said Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. “I commend Representative Eisnaugle and the House of Representatives on their commitment to protecting Florida’s consumers.”

A new weapon

The proposed new law would give consumers in Florida a weapon against companies that use deceptive business practices when they approach timeshare owners with the promise to find a buyer. The measure would allow consumers to hold these companies accountable.

The legislation would provide greater transparency and would require, among other things, timeshare resale companies to disclose all terms and conditions of their business relationship with a consumer, provide for a right of rescission for consumers to cancel a contract for resale services, and impose penalties on companies who continue these deceptive practices.

ConsumerAffairs hears from lots of consumers who feel they were duped by various timeshare-reselling agents. M., of Bethpage, N.Y, reported a bad experience with Timeshare Solutions.

"I gave them $899 to sell my timeshare in Orlando," M. wrote. "Nothing happened; just another scam. These people should burn in hell for what they do to people. Do not give them money up front."

States crack down

In the last couple of years, various states have reached settlements with some companies in the business of reselling timeshares, especially those that demand a large upfront fee.

In an eight-month period, Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell settled with two time-share real estate firms he accused of ripping off consumers. Massachusetts and Missouri were also among the states reaching timeshare settlements in 2010.

In September 2010, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan warned timeshare owners in her state that scammers have moved into the space, collecting money but making no attempt to sell anything.

Now that Florida appears headed toward a law to bring timeshare reselling under more control, other states may not be far behind. In Texas, for example, the Better Business Bureau notes that timeshare resale fraud is on the rise.

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New Car Or Used? Depends On Your Credit Score

'Deep subprime' buyers will have a hard time financing a new car

Deciding whether to buy a new or used car...

PhotoNew car sales have been up significantly over the last few months, but some people paying for a new car might be better off making do with a used car.

If you can qualify for zero percent financing or other attractive loan rates, then buying a new car may be a good deal. But if your credit score puts you in the "subprime" classification of borrower, you would likely be better off taking the money you saved for a down payment and purchasing a used car instead.

Big disadvantage

Edmunds.com, an automotive information company, says buying used especially makes sense for "deep subprime" buyers with credit scores below 550. These consumers are more likely to turn to "Buy Here, Pay Here" lots that offer uncomfortably high interest rates.

According to Edmunds, an estimated 57 percent of deep subprime buyers make their vehicle purchases from these dealerships which are generally easily identifiable because they only sell used cars and often advertise the tag line "No credit? No problem!"

"Consumers with poor credit think that 'Buy Here, Pay Here' may be their only option, but this move often signs them up for a seemingly endless cycle of high interest payments," said Edmunds.com Consumer Advice Associate Ronald Montoya. "By purchasing a car outright, deep subprime shoppers won't be beholden to the dealership or creditors. And since inexpensive used cars are much more dependable now than they were 20 years ago, they can be a long-term transportation solution instead of just a short-term fix."

Can you buy anything for $2,500?

If they pay cash, most of these buyers will only be able to avoid something in the $2,500 and below range. Can you get anything decent at that price? Edmunds says yes, but be prepared to make some sacrifices.

"In this price range, you are not going to get a recent model with all the frills," said Montoya. "What you will find are a number of high-mileage cars with a few dents and dings. But as long as the car runs well and has been properly maintained, you will likely be better off than if you bought a nicer car that requires expensive financing."

When shopping for a car under $2,500 be suspicious of cars with unreasonably low mileage. Also, beware of "salvage titles." That means the car was in an accident and was totaled. Also, watch out for signs of snow and water damage.

An older vehicle will also require more attention to maintenance, but without monthly payments to worry about, there will be more money on hand for fix-ups.  

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IRS Has $1 Billion In Unclaimed Refunds From 2008

It's not too late to get your money

Many taxpayers are eligible for refunds from 2008...

PhotoYou may still be scrambling to file your 2011 federal tax return and hoping for a refund, but here's something to stop and consider: Refunds totaling more than $1 billion may be waiting for one million people who did not file a federal income tax return for 2008.

In making the announcement, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) estimated half of these potential 2008 refunds are $637 or more. To collect the money, a return for 2008 must be filed with the IRS no later than Tuesday, April 17, 2012.

There may be no penalty

Just because someone didn't file doesn't mean they're in trouble. Some people may not have filed because they had too little income to require filing a tax return even though they had taxes withheld from their wages or made quarterly estimated payments.

In cases where a return was not filed, the law provides most taxpayers with a three-year window of opportunity for claiming a refund. If no return is filed to claim a refund within three years, the money becomes property of the U.S. Treasury.

For 2008 returns, that window closes on April 17, 2012. The law requires that the return be properly addressed, mailed and postmarked by that date. There is no penalty for filing a late return qualifying for a refund, if the taxpayer was not required to file a return that year.

Make sure you filed the last two years

If you seek a 2008 refund, keep in mind that your check may be held if you have not filed tax returns for 2009 and 2010. In addition, the refund will be applied to any amounts still owed to the IRS, and may be used to offset unpaid child support or past due federal debts such as student loans.

By failing to file a return, people stand to lose more than refunds of taxes withheld or paid during 2008. Some people, especially those who did not receive an economic stimulus payment in 2008, may qualify for the Recovery Rebate Credit. In addition, many low-and moderate-income workers may not have claimed the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

The EITC helps individuals and families whose incomes are below certain thresholds. The thresholds for 2008 were:

  • $38,646 ($41,646 if married filing jointly) for those with two or more qualifying children,
  • $33,995 ($36,995 if married filing jointly) for people with one qualifying child, and
  • $12,880 ($15,880 if married filing jointly) for those with no qualifying children.

How do you start? Current and prior year tax forms and instructions are available on the Forms and Publications page of IRS.gov or by calling toll-free 800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676).  

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Internet Do-Not-Track Button Moves Closer to Reality

Internet giants say they'll respect do-not-track buttons, something they don't do now

After more than a year of foot-dragging, Google and other large Internet companies say they'll support a do-not-track button to be embedded in Web browsers...

PhotoAfter more than a year of foot-dragging, Google and other large Internet companies say they'll support a do-not-track button to be embedded in Web browsers. Details remain to be hammered out.

The pledge follows a White House call for Congress to pass a "consumer privacy bill of rights" that would give consumers more control over the personal data that Internet companies collect about them.

“American consumers can’t wait any longer for clear rules of the road that ensure their personal information is safe online,” said President Obama. “As the Internet evolves, consumer trust is essential for the continued growth of the digital economy.

"For businesses to succeed online, consumers must feel secure. By following this blueprint, companies, consumer advocates and policymakers can help protect consumers and ensure the Internet remains a platform for innovation and economic growth,” Obama said.

“It’s great to see that companies are stepping up to our challenge to protect privacy so consumers have greater choice and control over how they are tracked online. More needs to be done, but the work they have done so far is very encouraging,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz.

Doesn't work

PhotoSome browsers already have a do-not-track setting but since there is no widespread agreement to support it, it doesn't accomplish much. The non-profit Mozilla Foundation's Firefox was the first to offer a do-not-track button. Others followed along, more or less grudgingly.

Likewise, there will be loopholes in the plan announced today.  For one thing, Facebook will still be able to track its members through their use of "Like" buttons.  And, presumably, Google will retain information about its users clicks on the "+1" button.

What Internet companies won't do under the preliminary plan announced today is use tracking data to customize ads, but they'll still be able to use it for "market research" and "product development," however those may be defined.  

And, since the data will still be collected, it will be available to law enforcement and intelligence agencies, which may or may not need to use subpoena power to get their hands on the data. This is a potential sticking point; many privacy advocates want the companies to simply stop collecting data about individual users.

Alternatives

PhotoThere are already things consumers can do if they want to reduce the amount of information that's floating around about them, including:

  • Dump your "friends."  Facebook, Google+, Twitter and other social media scrape together all kinds of data.  If privacy really matters to you, get some real friends and drop out of the social sites.
  • Use alternative search engines.  Believe it or not, Google and Bing aren't the only search engines.  DuckDuckGo.com searches the Web quite adequately for most users and doesn't retain any user data. There are plenty of others
  • Don't take surveys or respond to online ads.
  • Use a fictitious name.  No one says you have to use your real name, as long as you're not stealing someone else's identity or committing fraud.
  • Set your browser and other other online tools to the maximum privacy settings. You will not be able to access some of the free services you now take for granted.
If you do all of this, you may find the Web is a duller but more private place. Privacy's not free, after all. Currently, news sites and other content providers dish up all kinds of free information and entertainment in exchange for displaying ads.  You cancel your side of the bargain and they'll cancel theirs.

Revelations

Today's preliminary agreement follows a number of embarrassing flubs by companies that are widely regarded as too big to be so sloppy.
 
Just last week, Google admitted it had been bypassing the privacy settings on Apple's Safari browser and Facebook settled federal charges it violated users' privacy.
 
"I'm the first to admit that we've made a bunch of mistakes," said Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a post on the company's blog last November. "In particular, I think that a small number of high profile mistakes ... and poor execution as we transitioned our privacy model two years ago, have often overshadowed much of the good work we've done." 
 
Google was not so forthcoming after the Wall Street Journal uncovered the Safari hijackings.
 
"The Journal mischaracterizes what happened and why. We used known Safari functionality to provide features that signed-in Google users had enabled. It's important to stress that these advertising cookies do not collect personal information," a Google spokesperson sniffed, further offending angry consumers.

Despite its denial that the "tricks," to use the Journal's term, it was using were wrong, Google nevertheless agreed to stop after being caught by the Journal and independent researchers.

White House version

The Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights is outlined in a report released today by the White House, which said it provides a baseline of clear protections for consumers and greater certainty for businesses. The rights are:
  • Individual Control:  Consumers have a right to exercise control over what personal data organizations collect from them and how they use it.
  • Transparency:  Consumers have a right to easily understandable information about privacy and security practices.
  • Respect for Context:  Consumers have a right to expect that organizations will collect, use, and disclose personal data in ways that are consistent with the context in which consumers provide the data.
  • Security:  Consumers have a right to secure and responsible handling of personal data.
  • Access and Accuracy:  Consumers have a right to access and correct personal data in usable formats, in a manner that is appropriate to the sensitivity of the data and the risk of adverse consequences to consumers if the data are inaccurate.
  • Focused Collection:  Consumers have a right to reasonable limits on the personal data that companies collect and retain.
  • Accountability:  Consumers have a right to have personal data handled by companies with appropriate measures in place to assure they adhere to the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

The Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights is one of four key elements of the report released by the White House today, which also includes a stakeholder-driven process to specify how these rights apply in particular business contexts;  strong enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC);  and greater interoperability between the United States’ privacy framework and those of our international partners.

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Advisory Panel Recommends Approving New Diet Drug

Another panel turned thumbs down on same drug in 2010

FDA panel recommends Qnexa but recommends close safety monitoring...

PhotoDespite reservations about issues with past drugs, a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory panel has recommended approval of the weight loss drug Qnexa. The vote was 20-2. The FDA does not have to follow an advisory panel's recommendation, but it usually does.

The panel said, if Qnexa wins FDA approval, it should be closely monitored in a clinical trial to make sure it is safe.

Many anti-obesity groups have pleaded with the FDA to approve a drug for use in weight control. It has been 13 years since there has been a new approved weight-loss pill on the market.

Second attempt at approval

Previously, the FDA rejected Qnexa, saying it had concerns about potential side effects, including heart problems and birth defects in children of women taking the drug during pregnancy. In July 2010, another FDA panel advised against approving Qnexa and the FDA followed the recommendation.

Some doctors who treat obesity complain that the FDA sets a higher standard for weight control drugs than it does for other types of pharmaceutical products. That may be because of past experience.

The last major weight control drug disaster was fen-phen, which was withdrawn from the market in 1997 after it was shown to cause heart valve damage. Qnexa includes phentermine, part of the phen-fen cocktail that was allowed to stay on the market. The drug company said people taking Qnexa in clinical trials reported success in losing weight.

Phentermine now used alone

Currently, some doctors are prescribing phentermine, which Emily, of Irvine, Calif., reported last December presented her with some negative side effects.

"The first 3 weeks, I dropped 20 pounds," Emily wrote in a post on ConsumerAffairs. "I was eating a regular based 1400 calorie diet with fruits and vegetables. In week 4, I was losing my hair. In week 5, my heart began racing even if I climbed a flight of stairs to go to my apartment. In week 6, my face was extremely pale. Looking back at photos, I looked very pale and almost gray."

In clinical trials, Qnexa helped patients lose about 10 percent of their body weight. While that might not be enough to make an obese person think, advocates say that small amount of weight loss could be helpful.

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What's The Deal With Microwave Ovens?

Why are so many causing problems these days?

A look at problem microwave ovens...

PhotoOver the last few years a number of consumers have reported all sorts of problems with their microwave ovens. It's somewhat surprising, since it isn't exactly a new technology. Most modern kitchens have had them since the early 1980s.

Byron, of Social Circle, Ga., reports his Maytag microwave started causing problems after about five months of use.

“Would not cook a complete cycle without error that door is open, needs to be closed,” Byron wrote in a review on ConsumerAffairs. “Repairman has been out five times already and the problem is still not corrected. Maytag/Whirlpool has said they will not replace item, then they decided they would possibly replace at a pro-rated amount. So, I have to purchase a microwave twice to have one that works? Hmmm, somewhere I feel I'm being taken for a ride in this deal.”

Scary kitchen

And he's not the only one. Virginia, of Glen Burnie, Md., reports her six-year old Magic Chef not only doesn't work properly, but is downright scary.

“Last night I was warming up a blueberry muffin for 15 seconds,” Virginia said. “ All of a sudden there was a big red flash, the flash was so strong and bright, that it looked as if it came out from around the door. The light would not work, the turn table would not turn, and it made a humming sound. I felt a tingling feeling over my face for about an hour last night. Today my face looks as if it was sunburned.

In fact, a number of microwave owners have complained lately that they believe their appliances are fire hazards.

“A fire began within the wall of the unit directly behind the control panel,” David, of Brooklyn, N.Y., reported about his GE. “No mistake, misuse or error on my part at all, it simply burst into flames! I did research on the matter, there are many similar scenarios around the country.”

Recall

From time to time, microwave ovens have been recalled because of potential fire hazard. In 2007, for example, GE recalled 92,000 microwave ovens because of potential fires. At the time, GE said it was aware of 35 incidents of minor property damage and one incident in which a fire damaged adjacent kitchen cabinets.

Complaints about microwave ovens are not limited to one brand, so when purchasing a new microwave, do plenty of research from a variety of sources to see which is least likely to give you problems. Consumers who have experienced a fire or other microwave safety issue should file a report with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

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CDC: Raw Milk the Culprit in Most Dairy-Related Diseases

Higher rates of milk-related diseases in states where raw milk is legal

A new study finds that the rate of disease outbreaks caused by unpasteurized, or "raw," milk and products made from it was 150 times greater than outb...

PhotoA new study finds that the rate of disease outbreaks caused by unpasteurized, or "raw," milk and products made from it was 150 times greater than outbreaks linked to pasteurized milk.

The 13-year review by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also revealed that the states where the sale of raw milk was legal had more than twice the rate of outbreaks as states where it was illegal.

The study, published Feb. 21 in the CDC journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, reviewed dairy product outbreaks from 1993 to 2006 in all 50 states. The authors compared the amount of milk produced in the United States during the study period (about 2.7 trillion pounds) to the amount that CDC estimates was likely consumed raw (1 percent or 27 billion pounds) to determine the 150 times higher rate for outbreaks caused by raw milk products.  Raw milk products include cheese and yogurt.

Three deaths

The study included 121 dairy-related disease outbreaks, which caused 4,413 illnesses, 239 hospitalizations and three deaths. In 60 percent of the outbreaks (73 outbreaks) state health officials determined raw milk products were the cause.

Nearly all of the hospitalizations (200 of 239) were in those sickened in the raw milk outbreaks.

These dairy-related outbreaks occurred in 30 states, and 75 percent (55 outbreaks) of the raw milk outbreaks occurred in the 21 states where it was legal to sell raw milk products at the time. The study also reported that seven states changed their laws during the study period.

Consumers can't tell if raw milk is safe to drink by looking at, smelling, or tasting it. Even under ideal conditions of cleanliness, collecting milk introduces some bacteria. Unless the milk is pasteurized, these bacteria can multiply and grow in the milk and cause illness. Pasteurization involves heating milk to kill disease-causing bacteria.

“This study shows an association between state laws and the number of outbreaks and illnesses from raw milk products,” said Robert Tauxe, M.D., M.P.H., deputy director of CDC's Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases (DFWED). “Restricting the sale of raw milk products is likely to reduce the number of outbreaks and can help keep people healthier. The states that allow sale of raw milk will probably continue to see outbreaks in the future.”

Younger victims

The study also found that the raw milk product outbreaks led to much more severe illnesses, and disproportionately affected people under age 20. In the raw milk outbreaks with known age breakdowns, 60 percent of patients were younger than age 20, compared to 23 percent in outbreaks from pasteurized products.

Children are more likely than adults to get seriously ill from the bacteria in raw milk.

“While some people think that raw milk has more health benefits than pasteurized milk, this study shows that raw milk has great risks, especially for children, who experience more severe illnesses if they get sick,” said study co-author Barbara Mahon, M.D., M.P.H. “Parents who have lived through the experience of watching their child fight for their life after drinking raw milk now say that it's just not worth the risk.”

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Some Income Does Not Have To Be Listed On Tax Return

Knowing what doesn't have to be listed can save you time and money

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) works very hard to make sure every taxpayer pays taxes on all eligible income. But some income, it turns out, does not h...

PhotoThe Internal Revenue Service (IRS) works very hard to make sure every taxpayer pays taxes on all eligible income. But some income, it turns out, does not have to be reported.

Knowing which income does, and does not have to be listed on your tax return can both save you money and keep you out of trouble.

Here's a quick overview of exempt income, according to the IRS:

If you are divorced and receive child support, that is not taxable income and does not need to be listed. Neither do welfare benefits.

Gifts, bequests, inheritances

You do not have to report gifts, bequests and inheritances, within certain guidelines. For example, there is not tax on a gift to your child if it is less than $13,000.

Life insurance may or may not be taxable income. If you surrender a life insurance policy for its cash value, that's reportable income. However, if you receive a death benefit from a life insurance policy, that is generally not reportable income.

Let's say you are injured on the job and receive worker compensation. That money is not considered income that must be reported. If you are awarded damages in a lawsuit to compensate your for an injury or illness, that too is tax-free income.

Education

Education grants are a little tricky. If you receive money from a scholarship or fellowship, it does not have to be reported as income, as long as the money is used to pay tuition and other direct education fees. However, any of the money used to pay room and board is taxable income and must be reported.

Some income can be in a form other than cash, and almost always that must be reported as income. For example, barter is a form of non-cash income. Though no cash has changed hands, the fair market value of goods and services exchanged is fully taxable and must be included as income on Form 1040 of both parties.

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Attorneys General Challenge Google's New Privacy Policy

New policy exposes users to identity theft and fraud, 36 AGs argue

The attorneys general of 367 states are challenging Google's new privacy policy, warning that it exposes users to identity theft and fraud. The po...

PhotoThe attorneys general of 36 states are challenging Google's new privacy policy, warning that it exposes users to identity theft and fraud.
 
The policy goes into effect on March 1 and allows Google to store richer personal information profiles and no longer allows consumers to keep various parts of their online experience separate.
 
“This is a major change and Google should give consumers the ability to opt out of a policy that could jeopardize their privacy,” Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said. “We believe consumers deserve a full accounting of how this new privacy policy may impact them and be given a meaningful opportunity to avoid it.”
 
Others expressing concerns about the new privacy policy include:
Google has also been taking heat after a Wall Street Journal story revealed that it used "tricks"to get around privacy controls in Apple's Safari browser, widely used on iPhones and Apple computers. Google's new "personalized search" has also raised privacy advocates' hackles.
 
The 36 attorneys general sent a letter to Google that oulines their concerns about the privacy policy. Under the new policy, Google gives itself the freedom to combine users’ personal information from services like Web History and YouTube with all other Google products.

Impossible to avoid

PhotoThe ramifications of the new privacy policy will be virtually impossible to avoid for millions of consumers who already use Android-powered smartphones, currently estimated to be 50 percent of the national smartphone market. 
 
Android users will have to log in to Google to activate most of the functions on their devices.  They will also have to choose between either frequently logging in and out to avoid Google’s consolidation of their data or replacing their smartphones at great personal expense.
 
The attorneys general fear the consolidated personal data profiles will be a tantalizing target for hackers and privacy thieves.
 
“Those consumers who remain in the Google ecosystem may be making more of their personal information vulnerable to attack from hackers and identity thieves," the AGs said in their letter to Google. "Our offices litigate cases of identity fraud with regularity and it seems plain to us that Google’s privacy policy changes, which suggest your company’s intent to create richer personal data profiles, pose the risk of much more damaging cases of identity theft and fraud when that data is compromised, a risk that will grow as instances of computer hacking grow."
 
The AGs say they recognize many consumers will welcome the consolidation and sharing their personal information and data across multiple platforms.  Unfortunately, many more consumers will either dislike the consolidation or not realize the potential harm that comes from it.
 
Given the serious concerns expressed on behalf of those consumers, the AGs have requested a meeting with Google Inc. CEO Larry Page as soon as possible.
 
The states and territories signing on to the letter are Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Guam, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Northern Mariana Islands, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virgin Islands, and Washington.
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Consumer Finance Bureau Launches Overdraft Inquiry

Agency looking at a prototype "penalty fee box" on checking account statements

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is launching an inquiry into checking account overdraft programs to determine how these practices are impac...

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is launching an inquiry into checking account overdraft programs to determine how these practices are impacting consumers.

As part of that inquiry, the CFPB is seeking public input on a prototype “penalty fee box” – a disclosure on a consumer’s checking account statement that would highlight the amount overdrawn and total overdraft fees charged. Something along these lines, perhaps:

Photo

“With today’s technologies, consumers have more opportunities to access their checking accounts and cause overdrafts,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “But overdraft practices have the capacity to inflict serious economic harm on the people who can least afford it. We want to learn how consumers are affected, and how well they are able to anticipate and avoid paying penalty fees.”

An overdraft occurs when a consumer spends or withdraws more money than is available in his or her checking account and the financial institution advances funds on the consumer’s behalf. Banks generally charge an overdraft fee for each transaction that they choose to cover.

For point-of-sale debit card and ATM transactions, regulations by the Federal Reserve Board that became effective in 2010 prohibit a bank from charging the overdraft fee unless the consumer has opted-in. For check and online bill payments, as well as recurring debits, banks can charge an overdraft fee without any affirmative request from the consumer.

$30-$35

According to various industry sources, the average overdraft fee ranged from $30-$35 in 2011 and has increased by 17 percent over the past five years. A study by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation published in 2008 found that consumers who overdrew 20 or more times per year paid an average of $1,610 in overdraft fees annually.

The inquiry the CFPB is launching today will provide insight into overdraft practices. The inquiry is focused on four main areas:

  • Transaction Re-ordering that Increases Consumer Costs: The CFPB is concerned that overdraft practices employed by some financial institutions increase consumer costs. One such practice is commingling of all checks, bill payments, debit card transactions, and ATM withdrawals each day and processing the largest transactions first. This maximizes the number of transactions that will trigger an overdraft fee. The CFPB will examine how prevalent this practice is and how it impacts consumers.
  • Missing or Confusing Information: The CFPB is exploring whether consumers can anticipate and avoid overdraft fees. The CFPB will examine how clearly overdraft terms are disclosed and the extent to which consumers are made aware of, qualify for, and take advantage of, alternative means of covering overdraft transactions.
  • Misleading Marketing Materials: The Bureau is looking into reports that consumers are receiving misleading marketing materials about overdrafts. Initial data suggests that opt-in rates differ widely among institutions. The CFPB seeks to understand how differences in the way institutions explain and promote overdraft programs may affect opt-in rates.
  • Disproportionate Impact on Low-Income and Young Consumers: The Bureau is revisiting the 2008 FDIC study that found that 9 percent of checking account customers bear about 84 percent of overdraft fees. Evidence suggests that overdraft programs disproportionately impact low-income and young consumers. According to this study, 46.4 percent of young adult accountholders incurred overdraft fees, and of those, 15 percent recorded more than ten overdrafts in one year.

To submit comments to CFPB on the overdraft inquiry, visit the CFPB's website.  

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Little Mini Cooper Racks Up Big Sales in U.S.

More models planned for U.S. as Euro sales are cut back

Americans seemingly can't get enough of the Mini Cooper. The sporty little cars are also selling well throughout Asia. Seems like U.S. and Asian drivers li...

PhotoAmericans seemingly can't get enough of the Mini Cooper. The sporty little cars are also selling well throughout Asia. Seems like U.S. and Asian drivers like the European styling, the European handling and the European durability that's built into the sturdy sportsters built by BMW. 

There's only one area where Minis aren't selling well: Europe.

BMW blames it on the sovereign debt crisis. But whatever the reason, BMW will be cutting back its dealerships and sales efforts in Europe while it expands throughout the U.S. and Asia, Automotive News reports.

The trade publication quotes BMW chieftain Key Segler as saying last year's record growth came from increased sales in China, Korea and the United States, while European markets like Spain and Italy were lagging.

Mini sold 285,000 cars last year, a whopping 21.7 percent increase from 2010. And Segler says he expects the sales growth to continue this year in the U.S., Mini's biggest single market. It sold 57,000 cars here last year and plans to add 15 new dealerships this year to the 110 it already has.

More models

Besides adding dealerships, Mini has been steadily adding models. Besides the base and the S models, which come as both hatchbacks and convertibles, it now makes a sort-of station wagon and even has something that passes for an SUV if you don't look too closely.

The most recent addition is a Mini coupe – a two-seater that is basically a pocket rocket for those whose greatest desire is to travel at great speeds, comfort be damned.

Of course, there are those who would say the Mini hatchbacks are hardly worth of the sedan title, the back seats being about as cramped as your average Manhattan apartment. The coupe takes that to new extremes; it has just enough room for two, assuming they're friends.

But never mind that. The little car has lots of fans, mostly younger, and BMW's thinking is that as those fans age they will need a little more room for such things as strollers and the critters that sit in strollers, booster seats and so forth. Thus the newer models, which are what a soap or soup marketer would call brand extensions.

Mini has currently worked itself up to six models but Segler says it hasn't maxed out, not by any means. He sees the brand having 10 models in the semi-near future.

What's not in store, according to Segler, are more plants. He says Mini can produce 400,000 cars a year at its plants in Oxford, England, and Graz, Austria, which should be more than adequate for the next few years.

Why?

Why do so many people like the Mini so much? Good question. For urbanites, the tiny cars are easy to maneuver and park, which is no small consideration. Many owners will tell the they're a blast to drive and they welcome being thrown about in hairpin curves just as much as cars costing four or five times as much.

They're also cute, which has its advantages.  Seasoned Mini drivers will tell you that if they miss a turn on a crowded Los Angeles street, they can whip a U just about anywhere and slip back into traffic, often with a smile and a wave from the drivers they've just cut off.  Try doing this in a Mercedes and see what happens.

Maybe it's because, while a Porsche or big BMW screams "I'm the 1%," the Mini tweets, "Hey, we're all in this together. Thanks for sharing!"

Or something like that.

---

The author, who used to have one Porsche, now has two Mini Coopers. Twice the fun, he says.

 

 

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Consumer Finds Guilt By Association At U-Haul

Forced to pay friend's debt before he could rent a truck

consumer forced to pay friend's debt as condition for renting truck...

PhotoMoving day is never fun, but Avii, of San Francisco, says he encountered another problem when he went to U-Haul to pick up a truck for the day.

“I had a friend reserve a truck for me for day use, and she had an unresolved dispute with U-haul with a $110 balance from years ago that she did not know about,” Avii writes in his post on ConsumerAffairs. “When we arrived at the office to pick up the truck, she was blocked from renting.”

Avii said he did what seemed logical. He told the clerk the truck was really for him anyway, so he asked that the reservation be switched to his name. What happened next stunned him

“U-Haul actually linked the debt to MY name and information and blocked me from any further rentals as well until the debt was paid,” Avii said. “Since my friend had no money, and I was the one paying and needed to move that day, I was forced to pay her debt with my credit card. They actually told me the debt was MY responsibility. This sounds completely illegal to me!”

Not only is it not legal, it sounds like something a U-Haul employee dreamed up on the spot to try and get a debt off the books. Unless Avii happened to be married to his “friend,” it's hard to see how responsibility for someone's debt could be so simply transferred to another individual.

Avii should have refused to pay his friend's bill and instead should have gone to another truck rental agency. By agreeing to pay it he will have a very difficult time now getting the refund he is clearly owed.

As a last resort, he should at least tell his story to California Attorney General Kamala Harris' office.

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Some Medicines Promote Weight Gain

That pill you're taking could be packing on the pounds

It's hard to lose weight this time of year. Those New Year's resolutions may be going unfulfilled, not because you lack willpower, but because of the presc...

PhotoIt's hard to lose weight this time of year. Those New Year's resolutions may be going unfulfilled, not because you lack willpower, but perhaps because of the prescription medication you are taking.

Surprisingly, certain medicines can cause significant weight changes, which can be challenging for anyone wanting to shed pounds or maintain weight.

Weight side-effects are common in medicines used for diabetes, high-blood pressure and mental health conditions. Big gainers are likely for users of steroids for cancer treatment and women on birth control, while some antidepressants like Prozac and Wellbutrin are known for weight losses.

“Because of the stigma of weight gain, patients may tend to stop taking their medicines or decrease their dosage without talking to their physician,” said Ryan Roux, chief pharmacy officer, at Houston's Harris County Hospital District. “Doing this is a bad thing. It can affect your health in a number of negative ways.”

Talk to your doctor

Roux says patients should tell their physicians about any weight changes. The weight gains or losses could mean reassessing types of medicine or dosages taken. Additionally, gaining weight could increase the chances of developing diabetes, hypertension or high cholesterol.

Your healthcare provider should advise you of any potential side effects associated with your medication.

Is your medication one that promotes weight gain? Take a look at the list below, provided by the Harris County Health District.

Diabetes:

  • Actos (pioglitazone) 
  • Amaryl (glimepiride)
  • Insulins

Hypertension:

  • Actos (pioglitazone)
  • Amaryl (glimepiride)
  • Insulins

 

Hypertension:

  • Lopressor (metoprolol)
  • Tenormin (atenolol)
  • Inderal (propranolol)
  • Norvasc (amlodipine)
  • Clonidine

Antidepressants:

  • Paxil (paroxetine)
  • Zoloft (sertraline)
  • Amitripyline
  • Remeron (mirtazapine)

 

Antipsychotic:

  • Clozaril (clozapine)
  • Zyprexa (olanzapine)
  • Risperdal (risperidone
  • Seroquel (quetiapine)
  • Lithium
  • Valproic Acid
  • Carbamazepine

Antiepileptic Drugs:

  • Carbamazapine
  • Neurontin (gabapentin)
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Riddex Plus Pest Repeller -- The 21st Century Bug Zapper?

Not just infomercials but Google, Amazon, Walmart, Walgreens and other reputable outlets are selling a supposed pest-killing nightlight

Hey, Reagan had Star Wars, why shouldn't you have Riddex? If you believe Google Product Search -- which will mindlessly lead you to just about anythin...

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Ballys-LA Fitness Deal Doesn't Always Work Out So Well

Consumers surprised when their Bally's membership didn't transfer

The deal between Bally's and LA Fitness has a few snags for consumers...

PhotoLast year Bally's Total Fitness sold many of its health clubs to LA Fitness. According to the plan, consumers who were members of one of the purchased facilities were supposed to become LA Fitness members.

While the deal might have been good for the two companies, some consumers say it hasn't worked out that well for them. Some have sued while others are still exploring their options.

“I purchased a Bally's Life Membership for $3,000.00 back in 1993,” Jose, of Rosewell, Ga., wrote in a post on ConsumerAffairs. “Well, I called up Bally's a week ago since a colleague of mine informed me about the LA Fitness acquisition of Bally's here in GA. When I called them up, they identified my membership number and immediately told me that all my info has been transferred over to LA fitness and advised me to go to the nearest LAF to my home address. I did that and they couldn't find me in their system and referred me back to Bally's. I have been back and forth with Ballys and LA fitness for the last 5 or 6 days without any resolution.”

Margie, of Elkins Park, Pa., is another life member of Bally's whose membership should have transferred to LA Fitness.

“I went to LA Fitness in January 2012 only to find out my membership was not transferred,” Margie wrote. “I called Bally's from the gym and was told that they were going to research and all my information would be available in four to five days. Needless to say this didn't happen.”

December deal

In early December, LA Fitness took over more than 170 Bally's Total Fitness locations in 17 states. LA Fitness didn't just want the facilities – they wanted the members as well. But a number of consumers writing to ConsumerAffairs say there is no record of their membership at LA Fitness.

Consumers who receive no satisfaction should probably contact their state attorney general's office. At least one state – North Carolina – has taken a tough stand toward health clubs that close or change ownership, leaving members who paid their dues high and dry.

“My office hears every week from people whose gym shut down, leaving them in the lurch,” North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said last April. “Fortunately, North Carolina law requires health clubs to set aside money for refunds and we want to make sure that businesses are following the law so consumers are protected.”  

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Where Can You Get A Free Credit Report?

The truly free place is www.annualcreditreport.com

Freecreditreport.com is not the government's free credit report site...

PhotoConfusion still exists over where consumers can go once a year to obtain copies of the credit reports at no charge.

Congress passed a law several years ago establishing a way for consumers to obtain a free copy of the credit report from all three credit reporting agencies once a year. The website where you gain access is www.annualcreditreport.com. It is completely free and you are not asked for a credit card.

The website for the government free credit report is not FreeCreditReport.com, as some consumers mistakenly believe. They are understandably confused when the request ends up costing money.

“I tried to get the free credit score for $1 from freecreditreport.com but they charged me $29.95 plus the $1 and told me that was because I chose to see all three credit scores,” Koya, of Gardena, Calif., wrote in a review on ConsumerAffairs. “I asked them to show me where it said that I would be charged the $29.95 no one could tell me.”

Credit monitoring

FreeCreditReport.com is, and always has been, a commercial credit monitoring service. In it's defense, it was around before the government established AnnualCreditReport.com, so the potential for confusion is understandable. While consumers can get a free copy of their credit report from Experian, which owns FreeCreditReport.com, you will be signed up in a credit monitoring service. Very often, consumers like Kara, of Fredericksburg, Va., miss that detail.

“I recently went on Freecreditreport.com to get a free credit report and paid $1.00 for a credit score as well,” Kara wrote. “After clicking on the link for getting your free credit report and score for $1.00, the site directed me to the checkout. Unbeknownst to me, I was also signing up for a membership with them. Seven days later, my credit card was charged $16.95. When I saw the charge on my card, I called them and cancelled the membership and requested a credit back. I explained to them that I did not know that I was signing up for a membership. They reluctantly agreed to credit back half of the fee. I am really upset and don't believe this is appropriate.”

Go to annualcreditreport.com

Unless you want a credit monitoring service, there is no reason to request a credit report through FreeCreditReport.com, when credit reports from all three agencies are available at no charge, through the government-sanctioned www.annualcreditreport.com.

The tip off should be a request for your credit card. If you are asked for a credit card when you are obtaining something that is supposed to be free, charges are very good you are signing up for something.

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Fuji Recalls Women's Cruiser Bicycles

The frame can break

Fuji is recalling about 10,500 Saratoga Women's Bicycles. The bicycle's frame can break in the center of the downtube during use, causing the rider to...

PhotoFuji is recalling about 10,500 Saratoga Women's Bicycles. The bicycle's frame can break in the center of the downtube during use, causing the rider to lose control and fall.

The company is aware of 12 reports of bicycle frames breaking, including two injuries, a head laceration requiring 20 stitches and scrapes and bruises.

The recalled bicycles are Fuji women's cruiser bicycles. The 2008 through 2010 models Saratoga 1.0, Saratoga 2.0, Saratoga 3.0 and Saratoga 4.0 are included. The bicycles are various colors. "Fuji" and "Saratoga" alone or "Saratoga" along with the model number is printed on the frame of the bicycle. Serial numbers beginning with ICFJ7, ICFJ8, ICFJ9, ICFJ10 and ICFJ11 are included in this recall. The serial number is located on the bottom of the frame near the crank:

Specialty bicycle stores sold the bikes nationwide from November 2007 through December 2011 for between $300 and $500. They were made in China.

Consumers should stop riding the recalled bicycle immediately and return it to any authorized Fuji Bicycle dealers for a free replacement frame.

For additional information, consumers should contact Advanced Sports Inc. toll-free at (888) 286-6263 between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. ET Monday through Friday or visit the company's website at www.fujibikes.com



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White House Hiding Its Push for Genetically-Engineered Foods?

That's what a public employees group is charging

The Obama White House’s work to push regulatory approvals behind the scenes for genetically-engineered (GE) crops should be publicly known, according...

The Obama White House’s work to push regulatory approvals behind the scenes for genetically-engineered (GE) crops should be publicly known, according to legal briefs filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). 

For the past five months, PEER has been litigating to force release of documents detailing the activities of a White House-led “Agriculture Biotech Working Group” consisting of officials from ten agencies dedicated to promoting GE agriculture.  

The Working Group is chaired by the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) which has only released tiny fragments of materials to PEER in its Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, PEER charged.  OSTP still refuses to divulge lists of agenda items, schedules and other indications of its work on GE issues.

Monsanto

While not a member of the Working Group, the Biotechnology Industry Association (BIO), whose most prominent member is Monsanto, the world’s leading GE seed company, appears to be intimately aware of the White House actions, as indicated by snippets of correspondence surrendered by OSTP, PEER charged.

Indeed, PEER alleges the White House is withholding a portion of an email it received from a BIO lobbyist on the grounds that it would reveal “trade secrets” and confidential business information.

PEER became involved because the White House Working Group was pressuring the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to plant GE crops on scores of national wildlife refuges, as part of an effort to rebut foreign government concerns about planting these crops.  PEER and other groups are now suing to block these plantings.

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New Ethanol Blend Puts Engine Warranties at Risk

EPA moving ahead with 15% ethanol blend despite risk of severe engine damage

The Environmental Protection Agency’s decision last week to pave the way for the sale of gasoline blended with up to 15 percent ethanol is likely to ...

PhotoThe Environmental Protection Agency’s decision last week to pave the way for the sale of gasoline blended with up to 15 percent ethanol is likely to prove a nightmare for car owners who improperly fuel their gas tanks, the Environmental Working Group warns.

The EPA took its action even though every major automaker has warned that millions of vehicle warranties will be voided if drivers fill up with E15.

If the EPA proceeds, it means consumers will pull into gas stations that could have as many as four pumps with different kinds of fuel:

  • one for E10 (up to 10 percent ethanol); 
  • one for E15; 
  • possibly one for E85 (between 70 and 85 percent ethanol); and 
  • maybe one for old-fashioned gasoline.

Some stations will also have diesel and natural gas, although they use different-sized nozzles to help eliminate fueling errors.

The EPA intends to approve E15 only for vehicles manufactured after 2000. But some gas station pumps may not even have labels specifying which ethanol blend is which, because not every state requires them.

Extremely confusing

Photo
Ethanol

"It is going to be extremely confusing and dangerous for consumers," said Sheila Karpf, a legislative analyst at the Environmental Working Group. "If they make a mistake and put E15 into an older car or small engine, there's a good chance they'll ruin their engine and the manufacturer's warranty won't cover the damage."

To advance consumer safety, EWG analysts have created an Ethanol Blends Guide and Fact Sheet to help drivers choose the right fuel for their vehicles. The analysis provides more information about the new E15 label requirements.

Ethanol is more corrosive and burns hotter than gasoline, properties that could cause some engines to stall, misfire and overheat. Fuel with higher ethanol blends emits more nitrous oxide and formaldehyde than gasoline, lowers mileage and damages fuel tanks and pumps.

"Instead of approving a fuel that will pose health and safety hazards and damage engines, the U.S. should invest in energy efficiency measures and research and development for truly sustainable biofuels," said Karpf. "The high cost of replacing or repairing engines will be tacked onto corn ethanol's other costs -- including higher food prices, increased soil erosion and polluted water supplies."

Stick with E10 or regular

To be safe, EWG recommends that consumers stick with E10 or regular unleaded gasoline if they can find it. If gas pumps are not labeled, consumers should ask a service station employee for more information about the fuel and the amount of ethanol it contains. Consumers should check with their engine manufacturers or mechanics to find out if their cars or small engines can safely run on E15 or other ethanol blends.

Here are other tips for consumers to cut the economic and environmental costs of driving:

  • Maintain your vehicle properly: 
    - Keep tires inflated to the recommended pressure.
    - Use the right grade of motor oil (check the manual).
    - Replace air filters when you change oil (your engine will run more efficiently).
    - Replace worn spark plugs.
    - Repair leaks from engine oil or other fluids.
  • Drive the speed limit and don't accelerate too fast or brake too hard.
  • Minimize air conditioner use.
  • Turn your engine off when idling for long periods.
  • Get rid of excess weight in your vehicle.
  • Drive less.
  • Walk, run, or bike.
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Inhalable Caffeine Gets FDA's Attention

Agency says it will investigate AeroShot to be sure it's safe

The latest buzz in convenience store circles is something called AeroShot Pure Energy -- an inhalable caffeine product that its enthusiasts say makes Red B...

PhotoThe latest buzz in convenience store circles is something called AeroShot Pure Energy -- an inhalable caffeine product that its enthusiasts say makes Red Bull look like ginger ale.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Food and Drug Administration is not as enthusiastic and says it will investigate the product to see if it's safe for consumers.  Word of the probe came after Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote to FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, urging her to review AeroShot’s safety and legality.

“We will cooperate fully with the FDA’s review to address the issues raised by Sen. Schumer and are confident that it will conclude that AeroShot is a safe, effective product that complies with FDA regulations," said Tom Hadfield, CEO of Breathable Foods, the Cambridge, Mass., company that makes AeroShot.

In a prepared statement, Hadfield said:

• When used in accordance with its label, AeroShot provides a safe amount of caffeine and B vitamins for ingestion.
• AeroShot does not contain common additives used to enhance the effect of caffeine in energy drinks.
• Each AeroShot contains B vitamins, plus 100 milligrams of caffeine, about the equivalent of the caffeine in a large cup of coffee.
• AeroShot is not recommended for those under 18 years of age, and it is not marketed to children.
• Unlike energy drinks that can be easily mixed with alcohol, AeroShot is not designed to have its contents poured into alcoholic beverages, and it is not intended for mixing with any liquids.
• AeroShot should be used in moderation. Do not exceed three per day.

Photo
David Edwards

The product is the brainchild of Dr. David Edwards, a Harvard professor who has also developed inhaled insulin and vaccine products.

Edwards has also been promoting WikiCells -- edible food packaging. 

AeroShot is so far available only in Massachusetts, New York and France.  It sells for $2.99 and is classified as a dietary supplement, a classification the FDA is also likely to investigate.

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Used Car Buyers Flooded With Warranty Offers

Many are worthless, so be careful

When you buy a used car, it results in a new title and vehicle registration. That's a public document, meaning companies that sell automotive service contr...

PhotoWhen you buy a used car, it results in a new title and vehicle registration. That's a public document, meaning companies that sell automotive service contracts, also known as "extended warranties," can and do get access to the information.

As a result, a few weeks after you buy a car, you can expect to find many offers - some legitimate some not - from companies that want to sell you an extended warranty. Some of these are made to look like an official document, and these pitches are the ones you should avoid.

Looks official

One recent warranty offer arrived in an envelope that, in the space where a return address is normally posted, simply read "Personal & Confidential," followed by "FIRST CLASS MAIL." At the bottom right of the envelope was a box with the words "Deliver Directly to Addressee - SEE TITLE 18 SEC. 1702 - US CODE."

Title 18, Sec. 1702 of the U.S. Code simply requires the person taking mail out of a mailbox to give it to the person it's addressed to. By putting that meaningless phrase on the envelope, however, it appears somewhat official.

Make no mistake -- it isn't. The contents of the envelope consists of a "government green" single sheet of paper with a watermarked logo that looks for all the world like the official U.S. government seal. Just above the name of the recipient are the words "IMMEDIATE RESPONSE TO THIS NOTICE REQUIRED."

Scary language

It lists the make and model of the just-purchased vehicle and contains this ominous message:

"This letter is to inform you that your factory warranty will expire or may have already expired, based on the mileage and age of your vehicle. Our records show that you have not contacted us to get your vehicle service agreement up-to-date."

Lots of loopholes

Nothing in the letter is untrue, but some recipients might be alarmed and call the toll-free number listed in the letter. In nearly every case, that would be a big mistake. While there are legitimate automotive service contracts, some are expensive and hardly ever pay. Others have many loopholes and requirements - such as keeping meticulous service records, before paying a claim.

"I was sold a Mechanical Repair Agreement or extended auto warranty on my car through Suncoast Schools Federal Credit Union," John, of Ft. Myers, Fla., posted in a review on ConsumerAffairs. "I had a warranty claim submitted and was denied due to the tires on my auto."

Consumers often purchase service contracts on used cars because they are worried they could face costly repairs. But remember, the contract itself can easily cost between $2,000 and $3,000. In most cases you are better off keeping that money in a savings account and using it to pay for a repair, when and if you need it.

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Class Action Claims Chain Store Sells Puppy Mill Dogs

"Happiness Is Pets" stores deceive consumers, mistreat animals, suit alleges

A class-action lawsuit charges that the Happiness Is Pets chain store misrepresents that its puppies come from small-scale breeders, though they actually c...

PhotoA class-action lawsuit charges that the Happiness Is Pets chain store misrepresents that its puppies come from small-scale breeders, though they actually come from "some of the most despicable and horrendous puppy mills in the Midwest."

Lead plaintiff Jane Clifford seeks punitive damages from 18 Happiness Is Pets branches in the Chicagoland area, and their owner Ronald Berning, Courthouse News Service reports.

"Plaintiffs purchased sick puppies sold by Happiness which falsely represented that its puppies were healthy and came from private and reputable breeders. In fact, the puppies at Happiness are often sick and come from some of the most despicable and horrendous puppy mills in the Midwest," the complaint states.

That's similar to the experience Ida of Lombard, Ill., recounted in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs.

"I adopted a dog from a couple who bought her at Happiness is Pets in Orland Park four years ago. The store told them she came from a reputable breeder. Big lie," Ida said. "Since then, she has had so many problems, I decided to research her breeder. I found out that her breeder was Marty who runs puppy mills."

Ida said that she researched the matter and found that her dog and others sold by the store come from a puppy mill in Iowa.

"My dog, a cockapoo that I adopted from the couple, could not drink her water when she was a puppy. She would gag and start coughing every time," Ida said. "I found out they use hamster tubes for the puppies to drink from. I literally had to teach her to use a bowl!"

Severe allergies

Ida said her dog also has severe allergies and constantly licks and grooms herself.

"Now she is 4 and I have her on 2 pills daily and two baths every week due to allergies. The only time my poor dog is at peace is when she is asleep. No dog should have to live that way," she said.

The class action lawsuit charges that many puppies are sick when they get to the stores.

"On information and belief, many puppies, no more than 8 weeks old, arrive at Happiness in crowded vans, packed in crates covered with feces and urine, shaking and visibly stressed, many sick," the suit charges. "Happiness employees are directed to bathe and groom the puppies and administer antibiotics and deworming treatments daily, in an effort to mask the unhealthy condition of the puppies.

"These deceptions are perpetrated so as to prevent plaintiffs from realizing the obvious - that purchasing a puppy from Happiness is a terrible idea and is financially and emotionally burdensome," the suit alleges.

The plaintiffs seek punitive damages for fraud, negligent misrepresentation, and breach of implied warranty, and want Happiness enjoined from continuing its allegedly deceptive practices. They also seek refunds of the price of the puppies, including all items associated with the purchases, and veterinary expenses.

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Some Consumers Report Cipro Side Effects

Antibiotic has been know to cause pain in some people

Medical conditions can sometimes be caused by the food you eat and the drugs you take. Stacy, of Smiths Falls, Ontario, has linked her pain to Cipro....

PhotoMedical conditions can sometimes be caused by the food you eat and the drugs you take. Stacy, of Smiths Falls, Ontario, has linked her pain to Cipro.

"I have been suffering for over four months," Stacy wrote in a review on ConsumerAffairs. "Severe, debilitating pain in both my shoulders, preventing me from performing everyday activities and preventing me from sleeping at night. Although the pain started in my shoulders, it quickly began to also affect my left wrist, both hands and most of my fingers. Initially my knees and feet ached as well but that has since subsided.

"Until last night I had no idea what was happening to me. I've been seen by 3 ER doctors, an orthopedic surgeon, an internist, a rheumatologist, spent the night in a sleep lab, and had countless blood tests, all which turned up nothing," she said. "I began taking various vitamins and started on a gluten-free and sugar free diet praying that this may help my pain. Last night I stumbled upon an article about Cipro and it's connection with tendon damage. I was shocked. I take that antibiotic very frequently and never knew this. Although I have yet to discuss this possibility with any doctor, I am nearly certain this is the root of my pain. I suppose I am somewhat relieved to finally have an answer however disappointed to know that I could have prevented this had I of known."

Stacy should immediately discuss this with her doctor. And she may comfort in the fact that she isn't the only one having the reaction.

"Just finished a seven-day course of Cipro," Abigail, of Manchester, N.H. reported to ConsumerAffairs. "Been feeling like I have the flu, achy joints and constant nausea. My elbow felt like it was going to break, carrying in groceries. Everything tastes bad, including water. I knew antibiotics could cause nausea, but I didn't know about the joint problems."

The consumer group Public Citizen was among the first to sound warning about Cipro reactions. Back in 2006 the group asked the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to warn the public about the risks of tendon rupture by using Cipro. 

If your doctor prescribes Cripro, discuss with her or him the possibility of side effects and any concerns you might have.

Read more about Cipro

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Wisconsin Credit Union Placed in Conservatorship

A M Community CU serves Chrysler employees, among others

The National Credit Union Administration (NCUA), working with the Wisconsin Office of Credit Unions, has assumed control of service and operations at A M C...

PhotoThe National Credit Union Administration (NCUA), working with the Wisconsin Office of Credit Unions, has assumed control of service and operations at A M Community Credit Union headquartered in Kenosha, Wis.

Deposits at A M Community Credit remain protected. Administered by NCUA, the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund (NCUSIF) continues to insure individual accounts at A M Community Credit Union up to $250,000. The NCUSIF, like the FDIC’s Deposit Insurance Fund, has the backing of the full faith and credit of the U.S. government.

A M Community Credit Union is a state-chartered, federally insured credit union that serves anyone who lives or works in Wisconsin’s Kenosha and Racine counties, as well as any employee of Chrysler Corporation. It reported assets of $125 million and 16,000 members.

NCUA did not publicly say why it had taken control of the credit union. It is authorized by law to appoint itself conservator when necessary to conserve the assets of a federally insured credit union, protect members’ interests, or protect the NCUSIF.

While continuing normal member services, NCUA will work to resolve issues affecting the institution’s safety and soundness, the agency said. During conservatorship, members can continue to conduct normal financial transactions—deposit and access funds, make loan payments, and use shares—at the credit union.

A M Community Credit Union is the second federally insured credit union placed into conservatorship during 2012. 

More information for depositors is available on the NCUA Web site.

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Consumer Finds She Is Able To Repair Refrigerator Herself

Sometimes, you might not need a repair person

Some people feel comfortable trying to repair their own appliances and some don't. Perhaps most don't, and for good reason. Some of these appliances are co...

PhotoWe often hear from consumers upset that their expensive new refrigerators have multiple problems. One consumer tells us she did a little investigation and was able to resolve her problem herself.

"It appears, according to my repairman, Frigidaire SS side by side PHSC239DSBO has a wiring harness issue," Rebecca, of Milton, Fla., wrote in a review on ConsumerAffairs. "It falls into the drip pan shorting it out, which could cost $300 for a circuit board if that would correct the problem. He states Frigidaire knows of the problem but refused to do a recall. My neighbor and husband rewired the harness and strapped it up so that it will not fall into the drip pan again. Presto I have power to freezer side."

Some people feel comfortable trying to repair their own appliances and some don't. Perhaps most don't, and for good reason. Some of these appliances are complex machines, with advanced electronics.

Obviously, if your unit is still under warranty you should only have an approved repair person work on it. Otherwise, you will void the warranty.

But if the machine is older and you are an experienced home handyperson, it may be possible to do the work yourself. 

Read more about Frigidaire

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People for People Credit Union Sold

TruMark Financial CU takes over failed Philadelphia CU's accounts

The National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) has announced the liquidation of People for People Community Development Credit Union (CDCU) of Philadelp...

PhotoThe National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) has announced the liquidation of People for People Community Development Credit Union (CDCU) of Philadelphia. TruMark Financial Credit Union of Philadelphia immediately purchased and assumed People for People CDCU’s members and loans.

The accounts of the new TruMark Financial Credit Union members remain federally insured by the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund up to $250,000. The new TruMark Financial Credit Union members will also experience no interruption in services. TruMark Financial Credit Union is a federally insured credit union with $1.35 billion in assets and 96,134 members.

No prospects

NCUA made the decision to liquidate People for People CDCU and discontinue its operations after determining the credit union was insolvent and had no prospect of restoring viable operations on its own. At the time of liquidation and subsequent purchase by TruMark Financial Credit Union, People for People CDCU served approximately 1,600 members and had assets of approximately $635,000.

Chartered in 1999 by the Pennsylvania Department of Banking, People for People Community Development Credit Union served an underserved community located in north central Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania Department of Banking concurred with the decisions to liquidate People for People CDCU and to transfer the former credit union’s members and loans to TruMark Financial Credit Union.

People for People CDCU is the second federally insured credit union liquidated in 2012.

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WSJ: Google Bypassed Apple Safari Privacy Settings

"Google lied," consumer advocacy group charges as it calls for immediate FTC action

Google Inc. and other advertising companies have been bypassing the privacy settings of millions of people using Apple Inc.'s Web browser on...

PhotoThe Wall Street Journal reports today that Google and other advertising networks have used "tricks" to get around privacy controls in Apple's Safari browser, widely used on iPhones and Apple computers -- and a consumer group that has been sharply critical of Google is calling for a federal investigation.

The Journal says that by using special code, the companies were able to monitor users who had set their controls to block such monitoring. The newspaper said Google disabled the code after it was contacted by the Journal reporters working on the story.

The Consumer Watchdog group asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether Google violated a previous privacy agreement with the FTC by tracking cookies in a way that circumvents default privacy settings in Apple's Safari browser.

In a letter to the FTC, the group said the FTC should take "immediate action against Google for using unfair and deceptive practices in violation of Section Five of the Federal Trade Commission Act in the way that it has violated peoples online privacy choices and falsely advised them about how to make opt-out choices."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation called the relevation "bad news for the company" and said, "It’s time for Google to acknowledge that it can do a better job of respecting the privacy of Web users.

"One way that Google can prove itself as a good actor in the online privacy debate is by providing meaningful ways for users to limit what data Google collects about them," EFF said in a blog posting on its site. "Specifically, it’s time that Google's third-party web servers start respecting Do Not Track requests, and time for Google to offer a built-in Do Not Track option," .

Contradicted instructions

PhotoThe Journal said the use of the code "appeared to contradict some of Google's own instructions to Safari users on how to avoid tracking."

"Google was lying," said John M. Simpson, privacy policy director for Consumer Watchdog. "It was in fact circumventing the privacy choice and setting ... tracking cookies.

"Until recently, one Google site told Safari users they could rely on Safari's privacy settings to prevent tracking by Google. Google removed that language from the site Tuesday night," the Journal said.

Google disputed the Journal's report.

"The Journal mischaracterizes what happened and why. We used known Safari functionality to provide features that signed-in Google users had enabled. It's important to stress that these advertising cookies do not collect personal information."

The Journal said the Google code was initially spotted by Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer. The Journal said it hired an independent technical adviser, Ashkan Soltani, who it said "found that ads on 22 of the top 100 websites installed the Google tracking code on a test computer, and ads on 23 sites installed it on an iPhone browser."

Once the code was activated, it could reach beyond those Web sites and enable Google to track users across the "vast majority" of sites.

The other advertising companies using the code were Vibrant Media Inc., Media Innovation Group LLC and PointRoll Inc., the Journal said.

Children endangered

PhotoThe latest charges come just one day after the Federal Trade Commission said a survey found children's privacy was being endangered by lax oversight of mobile apps provided through Google's Android Apps Store and Apple's App Store.

FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said it was time for the apps industry to "wake up" and act responsibly.

The study found that online app stores are providing almost no information about what information is gathered from children, how it is used, who has access to it and what steps parents can take to keep their children safe.

The report found that in 2008, smartphone users could choose from about 600 available apps. Today there are more than 500,000 apps in the Apple App Store and 380,000 in the Android Market.

"Consumers have downloaded these apps more than 28 billion times, and young children and teens are increasingly embracing smartphone technology for entertainment and educational purposes" but neither the app stores nor the app developers provide the information parents need to determine what data is being collected from their children, how it is being shared, or who will have access to it, the survey found.

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Bath Fitter: One Size Doesn't Always Fit All

Consider using a local contractor instead of a franchisee

Because of all the moisture in a small space, bathrooms need "refreshing" more often than most of the other rooms in our homes. If you're selling or rentin...

Photo
"Before and after" photos from BathFitter.com

Because of all the moisture in a small space, bathrooms need "refreshing" more often than most of the other rooms in our homes. If you're selling or renting your property, sprucing up the bathroom can improve the market value quickly and relatively inexpensively, assuming you have the right contractor.

Hiring a franchisee who uses cookie-cutter solutions and marketing spiels dictated by the company whose name he's licensing can work out but it can also backfire, as John of Port Richey, Fla., learned.

"I had Bath Fitter do two bathrooms in my home. The main bathroom walls are coming loose and bubbling. They do not return a phone call and I am extremely upset with them. The tape they use does not adhere," John said. "Never in my life have I seen a company that will not return a phone call and back up their product that cost a lot of money and misery to a consumer."

Unfortunately, John's experience is fairly typical of the complaints consumers -- and former employees -- write to us about.

"As a former employee, I would like to say watch out for people you hire to perform work in your home. As you are likely to be beat out of your money by salesmen who are trying to get the most they can for their services," said a Charleston, W.V., man who asked that his name not be used. "They will install the same tub or shower down this street for more money if they can get it out of you. Be careful. Don't be fooled by the offer of a free accessory. They are never free."

Now or never

That's the experience David of Kansas City, Mo., reported. 

"The original price quote was around $4,300 but when we balked, he said he could reduce it to $4,000. Then we said we weren't interested, the price suddenly was reduced by $1,000. His whole approach was the 'hard sell,' David said. "He never showed us a detailed price list for each item on what we wanted. He did all his figuring in an old spiral notebook with a calculator. He did not leave any paperwork of the prices he quoted and said it was now or never to buy."

Richard of Waltham, Mass., found the facelift he paid for to be just that -- a surface job.

"It may look pretty, but beware of what is behind the walls! We had a double sized shower stall installed in 2005 to replace a bathtub. The shower looks beautiful. About three months ago, water started to drip from our kitchen ceiling under the shower. Then one day, a chunk of the ceiling fell down along with chunks of old tiles and debris," Richard said.

"I had the plumbing repaired by my own plumber as it was an emergency situation.  When Bath Fitters came out, they ruled that they would not pay for the plumbing repairs since I did not use their plumbers," Richard said.

What to do

What's a homeowner to do?  

Research.  As with any home improvement project, the most essential step is to do your research upfront, before you sign anything or get out the crowbar. We found lots of good information at About.com and ConsumerReports.org.  Ripping everything out and covering the walls with plastic shower liners is not always the best way to go. Check out Ask Jim to get the unvarnished opinion of a Northern Virginia contractor. 

Interview.  The next step is to find a couple of local contractors who are recommended by your friends and acquaintances.  Ask the contractors for references who can vouch for their work.  Any good contractor should have a photo album of his work or an iPad stuffed with images. Ask the contractors to give you a proposal.  You can then make final decisions about what to include, what to downgrade, etc. See Hey Jim for more advice on picking a contractor. 

Get a written contract. The contractor should present you with a complete contract that outlines the work to be done, specifies how your home will be protected from dust, chemicals, etc., during the process, what materials will be used and the approximate timeline.

Be wary of franchisees.  Sure, some people have a good experience with Bath Fitter but many don't. When you hire a local contractor, you are talking to the person who will actually do, or at least supervise, the work.  When you are dealing with a franchisee, you are dealing with a salesman whose job is to make the sale and move on. His or her hands will not be sullied by epoxy or paint.

Also, if a job goes bad, the local contractor is a lot easier to track down and is more likely to negotiate a settlement that will make you at least somewhat happy. Franchise operations tend to rely on the legal advice of the franchisor's legal department, which is often best defined in one word: stonewall.

Franchises work fairly well for hamburger joints. But remodeling a bathroom isn't flipping a burger and the quality control is not what consumers have come to expect in a mass-market food franchise.

If you want to consider a franchise, that's fine, but ask for references and check them out.  Read the contract carefully before you sign it. 

Buyer beward. If that Big Mac isn't done to your liking you can pitch it and forget about it. If your bathroom remodel goes south, it's another story.

More consumer reviews of Bath Fitter   

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Martin H. Bosworth Consumer Journalism Award Established

Annual award will recognize outstanding reporting on consumer topics

The Media Policy Center, a Santa Monica non-profit, today announced establishment of the Martin H. Bosworth Award for Consumer Journalism, an award to be g...

PhotoThe Media Policy Center, a Santa Monica non-profit, today announced establishment of the Martin H. Bosworth Award for Consumer Journalism, an award to be given annually to the individual or organization whose work in the preceding year best exemplifies consumer-centered news reporting.

The award is named for Martin H. Bosworth, the late managing editor of ConsumerAffairs and is funded by a grant from James R. Hood, the founder and editor of the consumer Web site.

“Martin was a tireless and fearless crusader for the everyday consumer. His outstanding work benefited millions of individuals and lives on to this day in ConsumerAffairs' reporting and consumer empowerment efforts,” Hood said. “He was a big guy with a big voice and consumers lost a real champion when he was taken from us long before his time.”

Bosworth was 35 when he died at his Los Angeles home two years ago of a circulatory disorder. A graduate of Boston University, he joined ConsumerAffairs as a free lance reporter in Washington, D.C., in 2005, later becoming a fulltime staff member. He was named Managing Editor in 2008 and in 2009 led the transfer of the Web site's editorial operations to Los Angeles.

One of the first peer review sites on the Web, ConsumerAffairs, founded in 1998, publishes consumer reviews that empower consumers to collaboratively find the products and services that best suit their needs and helps them identify shoddy practices and outright scams. Its news reports deal with automotive, personal finance, health, travel and other consumer issues.

The Media Policy Center addresses issues of social welfare, public policy, education, the environment, and health care. Its primary goal is to inform, challenge, and ultimately engage a responsive citizenry and to encourage full and meaningful debate and participation across the political, social, and economic spectrum.

Media Policy Center co-CEOs Harry Wiland and Dale Bell said the first Bosworth award will be presented in February 2013 at a dinner ceremony in Santa Monica. Details and nomination forms will be available later this year.

 

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Gasoline Prices Push Inflation Higher Last Month

Inflation at 2.9 percent over the last 12 months

Consumer prices rose again in January 2012...

PhotoThe U.S. Labor Department reports the Consumer Price Index (CPI), the government's main inflation gauge, rose 0.2 percent in January. But as motorists are all too aware, most of that is due to gasoline prices.

Inflation over the past 12 months has increased at a rate of 2.9 percent. Inflation is at its highest level since September 2008. While it might seem low, economist Joel Naroff, of Naroff Economic Advisors, in Holland, Pa., says it's enough to wipe out a worker's increase in earnings.

“Households have been battered by weak growth and rapidly rising prices but, it looks like inflation is moderating to some extent,” Naroff said.

Good news, bad news

From an economist's perspective, there is both good and bad news in the report. January's increase in gasoline prices has continued into February, and will likely continue into the spring. At least, that's what happened last year.

Also, food prices continue to rise. But at least the pace of food price increases slowed last month.

“Indeed, supermarket prices were largely flat, though restaurants are pushing things up,” Naroff said.

While inflation, on the surface, still appears tame, it's still rising faster than paychecks. Wages rose at the same pace in January as did inflation so consumer spending power was flat.

“That does not bode well for consumption,” Naroff said. “Over the year, inflation adjusted earnings were down one percent and that was for all workers. When you only look at production and nonsupervisory employees, earnings fell by 1.7 percent, which explains why consumers have not been shopping.”

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Parents Warned About Sexual Predators On Facebook

Pennsylvania case reveals alleged elaborate scheme

Why parents should talk to their kids about Facebook...

PhotoA Pennsylvania case has emerged as a teaching moment for parents whose children use social networking sites, such as Facebook. People aren't always who they seem to be.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly has filed a series of felony charges against a Butler County, Pa., man accused of using Facebook to operate an elaborate and disturbing false identity scheme that was used to solicit young girls for explicit photos or meetings for sex.

The man, 53-year old William Ainsworth, was arrested last September at the home of a 14-year old girl. But Kelly said the investigation quickly expanded as investigators realized there was more to the case than the solicitation of one girl.

'Intricate web'

"What we found was an intricate web of false Facebook identities that were used to establish online relationships with vulnerable girls, who were then manipulated into sending nude photos to Ainsworth , believing he was a young surfer living in Florida - or physically meeting Ainsworth for sex - under the impression that those sexual encounters would help raise money so the girls could run away to Florida to be with their new online friend," Kelly said.

Kelly urged parents to use this case as a reason to have serious conversations with their children about online social networking sites like Facebook, especially concerning predators who may manipulate these sites to victimize children.

"It is important to emphasize that the people you meet online may not always be who they say, and may actually be looking for something far more than just 'friendship'," Kelly said. "The things you say, the photos you post and your other online activities may be twisted against you in a sinister manner."

Multiple Fake Facebook Personas

Kelly said that Ainsworth is accused of fabricating the Facebook personas of two young men, "Bill Cano" and "Anthony 'Rip' Navari," who were both supposedly living in Florida as surfers after dropping out of high school and running away from their families. Kelly said Ainsworth may have copied numerous photos of young men and surfers from other social networking sites in order to support these fake Facebook profiles.

As part of the scheme, Kelly said that Ainsworth allegedly used "Bill" and "Rip" to initiate online friendships with young people from throughout the greater Pittsburgh area, nearly all of them female. She said that Ainsworth accumulated more than 600 Facebook "friends" using the bogus profiles. The false accounts were removed at the request of the Attorney General's Office during this investigation, Kelly said.

Initially, Ainsworth is accused of using the "Bill Cano" profile to identify vulnerable girls. In some cases, Ainsworth's victims believed that "Bill" had attended their school before running away, while in other cases the victims responded to his online invitations because of multiple overlapping friends.

Intricate plan

Kelly said the plan was very involved and highly detailed. She contends that Ainsworth allegedly used Bill to "groom" potential victims; asking about their interests, complimenting them about their physical appearance and discussing problems with school or family members in order to establish an emotional relationship. "Bill" would then convince the victims to send him nude or sexually explicit photos.

In a bizarre turn, Kelly says Ainsworth then “killed off” Bill, creating grief among the community of young girls who had befriended him. A new character, “Rip,” then moved in to console the girls and eventually let them know that they could raise money to run away and join him in Florida by having sex with an older man in the Pittsburgh area.

Online safety

Kelly urged parents to be aware of a number of online safety issues that were identified during this investigation:

  • Several of the victims indicated that their parents had little or no awareness of their activity on Facebook or did not closely monitor their online communication with others.
  • Many victims regularly accessed Facebook outside their homes, away from any possible oversight by parents, using cell phones and other portable devices.
  • All of the victims had been experiencing stresses at home or school, ranging from parental custody disputes to substance abuse and/or harassment by peers.  Those issues appear to have been used by Ainsworth to develop closer online relationships.

 Kelly encouraged parents to stress the importance of not sharing personal information online, like full names, ages, addresses, phone numbers and school information.

She added that children should always be especially cautious about strangers who approach them online.

Finally, she encouraged parents to take time to closely review how their children are using social networking sites and to monitor their communication with others, especially with young teens who may not yet be sensitive to deceptive or predatory behavior involving online "friends."

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Food Safety Experts Decry MoveOn.org "Smear"

Organization is accused of using "character assassination" against deputy FDA commission

A petition attacking Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration, “represents the baldest sort of cha...

Photopetition attacking Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration, “represents the baldest sort of character assassination” and is full of factual misstatements, according to an open letter written by food safety experts to MoveOn.org, whose SignOn.org site hosts the petition.

The food safety experts, and the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, are calling on MoveOn to send an email to its members correcting the petition’s errors and offering instructions to people who may want to remove their names from the petition.

The petition, created by an Atlanta financial advisor, Frederick Ravid, criticizes Taylor for having worked at the controversial biotechnology company Monsanto.

But MoveOn.org defended its position.

"Michael Taylor is just another example of the revolving door between lobbyists and government that has made the American people so distrustful of Washington politics," said Steven Biel, Director of SignOn.org. "Mr. Taylor went from working at the FDA to working at Monsanto and back to the FDA. Of course this back and forth raises questions about his ability to remain impartial regarding decisions that impact Monsanto's bottom line."

"The American people deserve an unbiased approach to protecting our food. That's why the nearly 500,000 people who signed the petition on SignOn.org urge President Obama to seek a qualified replacement with no such conflicts of interest."

Diversity of views

The signatories to the open letter to MoveOn.org write that they have a “diversity of views” on genetically engineered foods but are “unanimous in our belief that Taylor is a valued deputy commissioner, and we regret that a factually untrue Internet smear campaign has attracted so much support.”

“All of us have known Michael Taylor for many years, including when he occupied previous high-level positions in the federal government, taught at George Washington University School of Public Health, and even when he worked at Monsanto,” the food safety experts write. “We acknowledge that Monsanto symbolizes a lot of things that many people (including some of us) don’t like about modern, industrial agriculture. But Mr. Taylor’s résumé is not reducible to his work at that company.”

The letter goes on to praise Taylor’s work in the Clinton Administration fighting for pathogen controls for meat and poultry producers, and for his current work in the Obama Administration reforming the FDA.

"No basis in fact"

The letter to MoveOn also says that some of Mr. Ravid’s statements in the petition about genetically engineered foods are without basis in fact.

The petition blames skyrocketing diagnoses of chronic disease on genetically engineered foods, and says that the biotech industry’s products “may also be contributors to colon, breast, lymphatic, and prostate cancers.” Despite the controversy over genetically engineered crops, no evidence supports those claims, according to CSPI.

“Reasonable people can disagree about Monsanto’s corporate policies (often bad), or the quality of government oversight of GE foods (inadequate), or the appropriateness of genetically engineering food crops in the first place,” the open letter reads. “But all of us agree that there is no foundation for the outlandish statements made in the petition.”

The open letter notes that far from being a food safety authority, the petition’s author, Mr. Ravid, believes himself to be “the 21st generation descendent from father-to-son of the famous 12th century Kaballistic [sic] Master Rabbi Abraham ben David, of Posquierres, known as the RaVaD.”

Ravid’s web site indicates that he believes President Obama is the reincarnation of a Civil-War-era Senator, Lyman Trumbull, and that various world events, such as the earthquake in Haiti or the founding of the League of Nations, are related to solar eclipses.

“We mean no disrespect for Mr. Ravid’s religious beliefs but we do question his respect for science,” the food safety experts wrote to MoveOn.org.

Besides CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson, other signatories to the letter include Carole Tucker Foreman, a former Assistant Secretary for Food Safety affiliated with Consumer Federation of America, food safety lawyer William D. Marler, STOP Foodborne Illness chief executive officer Deirdre Schlunegger, J. Glenn Morris of the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, Michael Rodemeyer of the University of Virginia and the former executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, National Center for Food Protection and Defense director Shawn Kennedy, and Donald W. Schaffner, director of the Center for Advanced Food Technology at Rutgers. 

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How Safe Is That App Your Child Is Using?

FTC warns Apple, Android app developers and stores to "wake up"

A study by the Federal Trade Commission finds that online app stores are providing almost no information about what information is gathered from children,...

PhotoA study by the Federal Trade Commission finds that online app stores are providing almost no information about what information is gathered from children, how it is used, who has access to it and what steps parents can take to keep their children safe.

The report found that in 2008, smartphone users could choose from about 600 available apps. Today there are more than 500,000 apps in the Apple App Store and 380,000 in the Android Market.

"Consumers have downloaded these apps more than 28 billion times, and young children and teens are increasingly embracing smartphone technology for entertainment and educational purposes" but neither the app stores nor the app developers provide the information parents need to determine what data is being collected from their children, how it is being shared, or who will have access to it, the survey found.

"At the FTC, one of our highest priorities is protecting children's privacy, and parents deserve the tools to help them do that," said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. "Companies that operate in the mobile marketplace provide great benefits, but they must step up to the plate and provide easily accessible, basic information, so that parents can make informed decisions about the apps their kids use.

"Right now, it is almost impossible to figure out which apps collect data and what they do with it," Leibowitz said. "The kids app ecosystem needs to wake up, and we want to work collaboratively with industry to help ensure parents have the information they need."

Lots of data

PhotoThe report notes that mobile apps can capture a broad range of user information from a mobile device automatically, including the user's precise geolocation, phone number, list of contacts, call logs, unique identifiers, and other information stored on the device. At the same time, the report highlights "the lack of information available to parents prior to downloading mobile apps for their children, and calls on industry to provide greater transparency about their data practices."

While there was a diverse pool of kids apps created by hundreds of different developers, there was almost no information about the data collection and sharing on the Apple App store promotion pages and little information beyond general permission statements on the Android Market promotion pages.

"In most instances, staff was unable to determine from the information on the app store page or the developer's landing page whether an app collected any data, let alone the type of data collected, the purpose for such collection, and who . . . obtained access to such data."

The report recommends:

  • All members of the "kids app ecosystem" – the stores, developers and third parties providing services – should play an active role in providing key information to parents.
  • App developers should provide data practices information in simple and short disclosures. They also should disclose whether the app connects with social media, and whether it contains ads. Third parties that collect data also should disclose their privacy practices.
  • App stores also should take responsibility for ensuring that parents have basic information. "As gatekeepers of the app marketplace, the app stores should do more." The report notes that the stores provide architecture for sharing pricing and category data, and should be able to provide a way for developers to provide information about their data collection and sharing practices.

The FTC enforces the Children's Online Privacy Protection Rule. The Rule requires operators of online services, including interactive mobile apps, to provide notice and get parental consent prior to collecting information from children under 13. The report says in the next 6 months, FTC staff will conduct an additional review to determine whether some mobile apps were violating COPPA.

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Feds Want Less Social Media & Fewer Gadgets Behind the Wheel

Transportation Department proposes distraction guidelines for automakers

It's great having the Internet, DVD and CD players, navigation systems and smartphones in our cars, except for one thing -- the potential for disaster rise...

Photo
LaHood

It's great having the Internet, DVD and CD players, navigation systems and smartphones in our cars, except for one thing -- the potential for disaster rises exponentially with the degree of distraction, several studies have shown. 

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has sometimes been out on the bleeding edge of the issue, today announced the first-ever federally proposed guidelines to encourage automobile manufacturers to limit the distraction risk for in-vehicle electronic devices. 

“Distracted driving is a dangerous and deadly habit on America’s roadways – that’s why I’ve made it a priority to encourage people to stay focused behind the wheel,” said Secretary LaHood. “These guidelines are a major step forward in identifying real solutions to tackle the issue of distracted driving for drivers of all ages.”

The proposed voluntary guidelines would apply to communications, entertainment, information gathering and navigation devices or functions that are not required to safely operate the vehicle. 

And even though they're voluntary, automakers who choose to ignore the guidelines will be leaving themselves open to litigation and possible regulatory backlash when future accidents occur.

$330 million

PhotoIssued by the Department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the guidelines would establish specific recommended criteria for electronic devices installed in vehicles at the time they are manufactured that require visual or manual operation by drivers.  The announcement of the guidelines comes just days after President Obama’s FY 2013 budget request, which includes $330 million over six years for distracted driving programs that increase awareness of the issue and encourage stakeholders to take action. 

Geared toward light vehicles (cars, SUVs, pickup trucks, minivans, and other vehicles rated at not more than 10,000 pounds gross vehicle weight), the guidelines proposed today are the first in a series of guidance documents NHTSA plans to issue to address sources of distraction that require use of the hands and/or diversion of the eyes from the primary task of driving.

In particular, the proposed guidelines released today recommend criteria that manufacturers can use to ensure the systems or devices they provide in their vehicles are less likely to distract the driver with tasks not directly relevant to safely operating the vehicle, or cause undue distraction by engaging the driver’s eyes or hands for more than a very limited duration while driving.

Electronic warning system functions such as forward-collision or lane departure alerts would not be subject to the proposed guidelines, since they are intended to warn a driver of a potential crash and are not considered distracting devices.

“We recognize that vehicle manufacturers want to build vehicles that include the tools and conveniences expected by today’s American drivers,” said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. “The guidelines we’re proposing would offer real-world guidance to automakers to help them develop electronic devices that provide features consumers want—without disrupting a driver’s attention or sacrificing safety.”

The proposed Phase I distraction guidelines include recommendations to:

  • Reduce complexity and task length required by the device;
  • Limit device operation to one hand only (leaving the other hand to remain on the steering wheel to control the vehicle);
  • Limit individual off-road glances required for device operation to no more than two seconds in duration;
  • Limit unnecessary visual information in the driver’s field of view;
  • Limit the amount of manual inputs required for device operation. 

The proposed guidelines would also recommend the disabling of the following operations by in-vehicle electronic devices while driving, unless the devices are intended for use by passengers and cannot reasonably be accessed or seen by the driver, or unless the vehicle is stopped and the transmission shift lever is in park.

  • Visual-manual text messaging;
  • Visual-manual internet browsing;
  • Visual-manual social media browsing;
  • Visual-manual navigation system destination entry by address;
  • Visual-manual 10-digit phone dialing;
  • Displaying to the driver more than 30 characters of text unrelated to the driving task.

NHTSA is also considering future guidelines that might address devices or systems that are not built into the vehicle but are brought into the vehicle and used while driving, including aftermarket and portable personal electronic devices such as navigation systems, smart phones, electronic tablets and pads, and other mobile communications devices.

A third set of proposed guidelines may address voice-activated controls to further minimize distraction in factory-installed, aftermarket, and portable devices.  

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Consumer Agency Wants New Rules for Debt Collectors, Credit Reporting Agencies

30 million Americans are the targets of most-unregulated debt collectors

Debt collectors and consumer credit reporting agencies are among the few largely unregulated segments of the financial services industry. But, perhaps, not...

PhotoDebt collectors and consumer credit reporting agencies are among the few largely unregulated segments of the financial services industry. But, perhaps, not for much longer.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) today announced a proposed rule to include debt collectors and consumer reporting agencies under its nonbank supervision program -- the first time they would be subject to federal supervision.

“Consumer financial products and services have become more complex over the years and they have expanded well beyond traditional banks,” said Richard Cordray, CFPB Director. “Our proposed rule would mean that those debt collectors and credit reporting agencies that qualify as larger participants are subject to the same supervision process that we apply to the banks. This oversight would help restore confidence that the federal government is standing beside the American consumer.”

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which created the CFPB, authorizes the CFPB to supervise nonbanks in the specific markets of residential mortgage, payday lending, and private education lending.

In addition, for other nonbank markets for consumer financial products or services, the CFPB has the authority to supervise “larger participants.” As directed by Dodd-Frank, the Bureau must define such “larger participants” by rule, and an initial such rule must be issued by July 21, 2012.

Last summer, the CFPB sought public comment about possible markets to include in the initial rule and available data sources the Bureau could use to define larger participants in nonbank markets.

30 million

Debt collectors and consumer reporting agencies touch millions of American consumers. About 30 million Americans have debt under collection. For these consumers, the average amount under collection is $1,400.

Three main kinds of debt collection firms dominate the market: firms that collect debt owned by another company in return for a fee; firms that buy debt and collect the proceeds for themselves; and debt collection attorneys and law firms that collect through litigation. A single company may collect through any or all of these activities.

Under the proposed rule, debt collectors with more than $10 million in annual receipts from debt collection activities would be subject to supervision. Based on available data, the CFPB estimates that the proposed rule would cover approximately 175 debt collection firms — or 4 percent of debt collection firms — and that these firms account for 63 percent of annual receipts from the debt collection market.

Credit reporting agencies

The consumer reporting market plays a critical role in the consumer financial services marketplace and in consumers’ financial lives. It includes the largest credit bureaus selling comprehensive consumer reports, consumer report resellers, and specialty consumer reporting agencies.

According to the Consumer Data Industry Association, each year there are 36 billion updates to consumer files, and three billion reports are issued. The three largest consumer reporting agencies alone maintain information on 200 million American consumers.

Lenders use consumer reports, which are commonly called credit reports, when evaluating applications for credit cards, home mortgage loans, automobile loans, and other types of credit. Specialty consumer reporting agencies collect and provide information used to make eligibility decisions for a variety of products, such as checking accounts.

Under the proposed rule, consumer reporting agencies with more than $7 million in annual receipts from consumer reporting activities would be subject to supervision. This would include approximately 7 percent of consumer reporting agencies based on available data. The proposed threshold would allow the CFPB to cover about 30 consumer reporting agencies. The CFPB estimates that these 30 companies account for about 94 percent of the annual receipts from consumer reporting.

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FCC Hands Telemarketers A Setback

Ruling virtually eliminates the marketing robo-call

FCC clamps down on robo-callers...

PhotoThe Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is making it virtually impossible for telemarketers to reach out and touch consumers with pre-recorded marketing pitches, also known as “robo-calls.”

By a unanimous vote, the FCC adopted rules to require telemarketers who use automated calling systems to get permission from a consumer before they contact them. And not just permission – written permission!

Death knell

Since telemarketers in general and robo-calls in particular are a widespread source of consumer complaints, it's highly unlikely many consumers would provide such consent. Given the fact that obtaining that written permission would be an extremely expensive undertaking, the ruling appears to be a death knell for robo-calls.

The ruling only covers robo-calls in which the telemarketer is trying to sell something. Informational robo-calls, like reminders of a dentist appointment, and political messages, are exempt from the rule.

“Consumers by the thousands have complained to us, letting us know that they remain unhappy with having their privacy invaded and their time wasted by these unwanted calls,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement.

How about debt collectors?

It isn't immediately clear if the new ruling will apply to debt collectors that use automated calling systems. Jannette, of Garden Grove, Calif., has to hope it does.

“They are robo-calling my cellphone number several times a day without my request to track down another member of my family,” Jannette told ConsumerAffairs. “I have called them several times and asked them to cease and desist, but they keep calling.”

Texts are covered

The ruling does, in fact, apply to cellular text messages, also a source of widespread complaints. The wireless industry strongly supported the ruling.

"With 80 percent of wireless-related complaints coming from third parties sending unwanted text messages and making unsolicited phone calls, consumers are the winners from the FCC's re-affirmation today,” said Christopher Guttman-McCabe, an executive with CTIA – The Wireless Association. “As CTIA had requested this January, any autodialed text message sent to a wireless device without prior written or oral consent violates the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.”

Guttman-McCabe said there has been an increase in consumer complaints and inquiries made to carriers' customer call centers in recent months regarding unwanted text messages sent by political campaigns.

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Scammers Move In On Mortgage Servicers Settlement

Callers tell consumers they're eligible for money from the settlement

Consumer protection officials say scam artists have discovered the recent $25 billion federal-state settlement with mortgage servicers and using it to...

PhotoConsumer protection officials say scam artists have discovered the recent $25 billion federal-state settlement with mortgage servicers and using it to defraud consumers. 

In Virginia, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli warned consumers to be cautious of scam phone calls or e-mails related to the settlement. There have been numerous reports of citizens receiving scam phone calls, where the caller claims to possess a list of citizens who are eligible for money from the mortgage settlement, Cuccinelli said.

The caller requests the consumer's bank account number and alleges that he will direct deposit settlement money into the consumer's bank account.  This is a scam, Cuccinelli warned. 

Mortgage borrowers should contact their mortgage servicers directly to obtain more information about specific loan modification programs and whether they qualify under terms of this settlement (phone numbers are below).

It is unclear if these scammers are posing as bank associates or as a third party company claiming to be working with the settlement.

"I cannot stress this enough:  Never give out your bank account information-or any personal information for that matter--to someone who calls you.  Instead, call a known number for your financial institution, so you are sure you are reaching a legitimate contact," said Cuccinelli. 

For eligibility questions

Borrowers should contact their mortgage servicer to obtain more information about specific loan modification programs and whether they qualify under terms of this settlement. The toll free numbers for the settling servicers are:

Bank of America: (877) 488-7814
Citigroup: (866) 272-4749
J.P. Morgan Chase: (866) 372-6901
GMAC: (800) 766-4622
Wells Fargo: (800) 288-3212

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Understanding Your Rights When It Comes To Old Debts

If debts are too old, a debt collector can't sue

Explanation of time-barred debts...

It's hard enough keeping up with current debts without old debts raising their ugly head. Often consumers get a call out of the blue from a debt collector seeking payment for some long-forgotten debt.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently published a brochure to help consumers understand their rights when it comes to old debts. It explains, among other things, that if you have old debts, collectors may not be able to sue you to collect on them.

Time-barred debt

That's because debt collectors have a limited number of years — known as the statute of limitations — to sue you to collect. After that, your unpaid debts are considered "time-barred." According to the law, a debt collector cannot sue you for not paying a debt that's time-barred.

How old does a debt have to get before it's time-barred? There's no easy answer because each state has its own statute of limitations.

It is also tricky because, under certain circumstances, the clock can be reset, and the time period can be started fresh.

Under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), a debt collector is someone who regularly collects debts owed to others. This includes collection agencies, lawyers who collect debts on a regular basis, and companies that buy unpaid debts and then try to collect them. The term 'debt collector' doesn't include original creditors who collect their own debts.

When is an old debt too old for a collector to sue?

Typically, state law determines how long the statute of limitations lasts. Usually, the clock starts ticking when you fail to make a payment; when it stops depends on two things: the type of debt and the law that applies either in the state where you live or the state specified in your credit contract.

For example, the statute of limitations for credit card debt in a few states may be as long as 10 years, but most states impose a period of three to six years. To determine the statute of limitations on different kinds of debts under each state's law, check with a legal aid lawyer, another attorney, or your State Attorney General's Office.

Disclosure

If a debt is time-barred, a debt collector is supposed to tell you. Unfortunately, not all do. Ask the collector if the debt is beyond the statute of limitations. If the collector answers your question, the law requires that his answer be truthful. Some collectors may decline to answer, however.

Another question to ask a collector if you think that a debt might be time-barred is what their records show as the date of your last payment. This is important because it helps determine when the statute of limitations clock starts ticking.

Should you pay a time-barred debt? The decision to pay a time-barred debt is up to you. You have options, but each one has consequences. For example, whether you pay the debt and how much you pay will affect your credit rating.

Consider this: Many of us reach a point in life where we frankly no longer care much about our credit rating.  If you are not expecting to buy a house, a car or some other big-ticket item, you may be ahead to let old debts and sleeping dogs lie.

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What's On Your Mind? 1-800-Flowers, Maytag, Sprint

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: 1-800-Flowers inconvenient services, Maytag, Sprint's unannounced increase in fees, not so lonely anymore, tale o...

PhotoJack, of Palmdale, California, may still be in the doghouse after he ordered a dozen long stem roses for his wife for Valentine's Day from 1-800-Flowers and they never arrived.

“I tried to contact 1800flowers again by phone several time till one time I was put on hold for 20 minutes then a guy came on the phone and I was about to give him order number when he said to wait a second and the phone was again cut off,” Jack told ConsumerAffairs. “I have also tried emailing 1800flowers via its own website and again no response.”

As we've said in the past, you tend to come out better by ordering flowers directly from a local florist. Jack said his wife was not happy with him and he had to show her the email confirmation for his undelivered order before she forgave him.

Not so lonely anymore

It's no fun when your washing machine breaks down. Gillian, of Beverly, Mass., says her new Maytag Bravo broke down after only six months and she's having trouble getting it repaired.

“It's now taken over a month to get a repair person in to fix it,” Gillian said. “From the time we called Maytag, to the referral to the service person, to the service appointment, to waiting over two weeks for the part to come in it's been over a month with no washer. This is unacceptable!”

Gillian says she thinks Maytag should be reimbursing their customers who've been spending money at the laundromat after spending between $700 and $900 on a washing machine.

Tale of two fees

LaVerne, of Washington, DC, recently cancelled cell phone service with Sprint to sign up with AT&T;.

“I understand the early termination fees, but they increase the price from $200.00 to $350.00 without notification,” LaVerne said. “Before I terminated my service the fees were only $200.00 per phone. Now its $200.00 for one phone and $350.00 for another phone.”

LaVerne simply needs to consult the contract, or contracts, if each phone has its own agreement. The Early Termination Fees should be spelled out in the agreement.  Unfortunately, cell phone companies change the terms of their contracts frequently, using micro-text in the monthly bills and their customer service reps are some of the nastiest, most unbending you're liable to find.

We'd say LaVerne should head over to 441 4th St., NW and seek assistance from the DC Attorney General, who has been quite active in other cell phone disputes over the years. 

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Apple: 'Mountain Lion' Will Be Ready to Take On Windows 8

Latest generation of Mac OS X takes cues from the iPad

Apple today revealed the next generation of Mac OS X, to be known as "Mountain Lion," and released it to developers. The software, which takes many of its ...

PhotoApple today revealed the next generation of Mac OS X, to be known as "Mountain Lion," and released it to developers. The software, which takes many of its cues from the iPad, will take on Microsoft's Windows 8 when it arrives later this year.

The software, version 10.8, will arrive via download. Like its predecessor, Lion, Mountain Lion will further shrink the gap between Mac OS and iOS, incorporating more iOS features into the Mac interface. 

New features include "Messages," which will replace iChat, as well as further integration with iCloud.

“The Mac is on a roll, growing faster than the PC for 23 straight quarters, and with Mountain Lion things get even better,” said Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing. “The developer preview of Mountain Lion comes just seven months after the incredibly successful release of Lion and sets a rapid pace of development for the world’s most advanced personal computer operating system.”

The developer preview of Mountain Lion introduces Gatekeeper, a revolutionary security feature that helps keep consumers safe from malicious software by giving them complete control over what apps are installed on their Mac.

The preview release of Mountain Lion is available to Mac Developer Program members starting today. Mac users will be able to upgrade to Mountain Lion from the Mac App Store in late summer 2012.





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Chocolate Bars Will Soon Be Shrinking

Mars wants to get its chocolate bars under the 250-calorie mark

Yes, chocolate is good for you ... but only up to a point.  And Mars Inc. has decided that point falls right at 250 calories.The candy giant says th...

PhotoYes, chocolate is good for you ... but only up to a point.  And Mars Inc. has decided that point falls right at 250 calories.

The candy giant says that by the end of next year, all of its chocolate products will contain no more than 250 calories.  The king-sized Snickers bar will be among the targets of the slimdown. 

The calorie limit is part of the company's "broad-based commitment to health and nutrition," said spokeswoman Marlene Machut.

Mars, which makes a great deal of its environmental, social and health commitment, previously announced it would reduce sodium levels in all its products by 25 percent by 2015.

In 2007, the company promised not to buy advertising if more than one quarter of the audience was expected to be under 12 years old.

Based in McLean, Virginia, Mars has net sales of more than $30 billion and six business segments including Petcare, Chocolate, Wrigley, Food, Drinks and Symbioscience. 

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FBI: Crooks Took World's Largest Mined Ruby in Delaware Heist

The ruby, in the shape of the Liberty Bell, has been missing since November

The FBI is looking for four suspects who allegedly stole the largest mined ruby in the world, which is sculptured into an image of the Liberty Bell. The me...

The FBI is looking for four suspects who allegedly stole the largest mined ruby in the world, which is sculptured into an image of the Liberty Bell. The men made off with the ruby Liberty Bell during an armed robbery at Stuart Kingston Jewelers in Delaware on November 1, 2011.

The suspects forced one employee to open and empty the jewelry store vault. The four suspects fled in a U-HAUL cargo style van with stolen New York license plates. 

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Capital One Gets Approval to Take Over ING Bank

Is Cap One getting too big to fail?

Capital One has received federal approval to complete its purchase of ING Bank, although the Federal Reserve attached some conditions to the transaction....

PhotoCapital One has received federal approval to complete its purchase of ING Bank, although the Federal Reserve attached some conditions to the transaction.

Hoping to avoid creating the next "too-big-to-fail" institution, the Fed  directed McLean, Va.-based Capital One to take specific steps to ensure that its risk-management functions, including compliance, are commensurate with its new size and complexity.

"We are very pleased that the Federal Reserve has approved our acquisition,” Capital One said in a statement.  It said it hopes to close the deal in the next few days.  It will have 90 days to outline its plan to strengthen its compliance and other risk-management controls.

Capital One for years was a "credit card bank," meaning it did nothing but issue credit cards. But in 2006, it acquired  New York's North Fork Bancorporation in a stock and cash transaction valued at approximately $14.6 billion, making it one of the 10 largest banks in the United States, based on deposits and managed loans, and the third-largest retail bank in the New York region, the nation's largest deposit market.

In 2008,  it bought Chevy Chase Bank for $520 million, gaining the No. 1 position in the Washington, D.C., market and — not coincidentally — giving it control of Chevy Chase's $11 billion in deposits. Capital One said at the time that Chevy Chase's cash cache would help it ride out the deepening recession, along with $3.6 billion in TARP funds. CitiGroup had also been bidding on Chevy Chase.

ING is a global financial institution of Dutch origin offering banking, insurance and asset management to over 85 million private, corporate and institutional clients in more than 50 countries. The Capital One deal affects only U.S. banking operations.

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Whole Foods Tries to Shed 'Whole Paycheck' Reputation

But at the same time, it would like for new customers to spend more

Whole Foods helped pioneer the organic, fresh food trend but in the process, its large, trendy stores -- located mostly in cities and close-in suburbs -- a...

PhotoWhole Foods helped pioneer the organic, fresh food trend but in the process, its large, trendy stores -- located mostly in cities and close-in suburbs -- acquired a reputation for high prices and the chain now finds itself trying to live down its "Whole Paycheck" reputation as it builds smaller stores in more distant suburbs.

It may not be easy.  Competitors, including the behemoth Walmart, have discovered the fresh food market while the funky but beloved Trader Joe's is expanding inward from the coasts. Trying to present a fresher face, Whole Foods is building smaller stores and holding the line on prices even as its costs rise.

But it may be hard to counter the high-price perception, as a ConsumerAffairs.com computerized sentiment analysis of about 220,000 consumer comments on Twitter, Facebook and other blogs and social media found.

Photo

Fully 83% of consumers voicing dislikes said they found Whole Foods expensive, while 84% of those citing what they liked about Whole Foods said it "helps you live." While positive enough, that sentiment's possibly not specific enough to entice suburban shoppers who may have lower incomes and bigger families than the hipper urbanites who are the stereotypical Whole Foods clientele.

Photo

Wealthy whites

Whole Foods may also need to make a greater effort to welcome ethnic and racial minorities to counter the perception that it is a store that caters to wealthy whites.

"I went to my local whole foods in Vienna, Va. I thought to get my usual favorite coffee and head home. While I was getting coffee I decided to test out a new coffee type," said Karina in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com. "As I was doing that a sales person, who has been very rude to me, gives me the feeling as if I’m not a wanted customer because I am a Hispanic woman.

"As I was at the coffee section I was approached by the store manager, and at first I thought he was just asking how things were but as the conversation continued he came out and said I get samples from here every week. I feel very offended because I felt as if I was being discriminated against. I am a hard working single mother who has never stolen from anyone," Karina said.

Adam, who said he is a cashier at a Whole Foods in Atlanta, complained about what he called "Whole Foods' horrible treatment of people."

"They routinely follow minorities around and I was told I was only hired because the other black male cashier had just quit," Adam said.

That's the experience Stacie of Houston had: "The store workers  followed me around the store, interrogating me about the choice of snacks I picked. Ted was rude to me and insulted me because I am black."

Lynne of Natick, Mass., complained that Whole Foods does not welcome disabled shoppers.

"Whole Foods in Framingham, MA does not provide motorized shopping carts for mobility challenged guests! No excuse! If you have crutches or need other mobility aids, you are not welcome to shop independently at Whole Foods," she said. "Team members told me there are daily requests for these carts. Apparently, WF doesn't care about their customers! I had to flop myself over a cart and hobble around the store while other shoppers looked at me oddly. I felt foolish and left with just a few items."

Big spenders?

Beyond the challenge of appealing to customers who don't fit its stereotypical profiles is the challenge of getting those customers to loosen their purse strings.

Core customers at Whole Foods spend, on average, nearly three times more than new customers, the company said, according to the Wall Street Journal

If Whole Foods can figure out how to attract customers who are convinced its prices are too high and then get them to spend more, it will perhaps have qualified for a place in retailing history.

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Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase


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Allegiant Air Fined for Violating Disability, Advertising Rules

Airline must pay $100,000 in fines

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) today fined Allegiant Air $100,000 for violating rules protecting air travelers with disabilities, as well as t...

PhotoThe U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) today fined Allegiant Air $100,000 for violating rules protecting air travelers with disabilities, as well as the Department’s rule for full-fare advertising.           

“We adopted our rules on reporting of disability complaints and advertising of airfares to protect consumers,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.  “Protecting the rights of airline passengers is a high priority for DOT, and we will take enforcement action when our rules are violated.”

Under DOT’s rule, carriers must sort disability-related complaints into categories based on the type of disability and nature of the complaint and submit an annual report to the Department on disability complaints received the previous year.  Each issue raised in a complaint must be recorded separately to account for the total number of complaints a carrier receives. 

The Department compiles carrier reports, publishes them on the Internet for consumers to compare, and submits them to Congress as required by law.  In addition, if an airline receives a written complaint alleging a violation of the Department’s disability rules, the carrier must provide a written response within 30 days that specifically discusses the complaint, gives the carrier’s view of whether a violation occurred, and states that the complaint may be referred to DOT for an investigation.

The Department’s Aviation Enforcement Office reviewed a sample of the disability-related complaints that Allegiant received directly from passengers in 2009 and 2010, as well as disability complaints against Allegiant that the Department received directly from passengers during 2009 and 2010. 

The Department found that in a number of instances, Allegiant responded to the complaints through a telephone call rather than in writing as required by the rule, and that the carrier both failed to record all of the disability complaints it received and to properly categorize and account for all the issues that were raised in the complaints. 

Advertising

In addition, the Enforcement Office found that Allegiant violated DOT’s price advertising rule by posting offers on its homepage for free flights to Las Vegas and Tampa Bay, Fla.   The banner for the Las Vegas ads did not indicate that taxes and fees would be extra.  Although an asterisk appeared after the words “Fly Free,” there was no information on taxes and fees on the page where the asterisk appeared, and there was no hyperlink that took consumers to a description of required taxes and fees. 

Instead, once consumers clicked on the link, they were taken to a page where they could see the amount of taxes and fees only after scrolling to the bottom of the page.  For the Las Vegas and Tampa ads, Allegiant also failed to include its fee of $14.99 for tickets purchased anywhere except at one of the carrier’s airport ticket offices in the initial fare quote provided on the website as required by DOT. 

These ads violated the Department’s rule requiring ads for airfares to identify the existence and amount of government-imposed taxes and fees at the first point a fare is displayed and to include in the initial fare quotes appearing on the website all carrier-imposed fees that passengers must pay to make on-line bookings. 

Until Jan. 26, 2012, government-imposed taxes and fees assessed on a per-passenger basis, such as passenger facility charges, could be stated separately from the advertised fare but had to be clearly disclosed in the advertisement so that passengers could easily determine the full price to be paid.  Internet fare listings were permitted to disclose these separate taxes and fees through a prominent link next to the fare stating that government taxes and fees were extra, and the link had to take the viewer directly to information where the type and amount of taxes and fees were displayed. 

Under DOT’s new advertising rule, which became effective on Jan. 26, 2012, carriers and ticket agents must show the total price, including all government taxes and fees, in every advertised fare.  

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'Cow-Sharing' Plan a Subterfuge, Court Rules

Pennsylvania dairy farmer sold raw milk across state lines

A federal judge has found that a Pennsylvania dairy farmer has been packaging unpasteurized milk, also known as "raw" milk, in unlabeled containers and d...

PhotoA federal judge has found that a Pennsylvania dairy farmer has been packaging unpasteurized milk, also known as "raw" milk, in unlabeled containers and distributing it for human consumption.
 
The court found Daniel Allgyer, operating as Rainbow Acres Farm and Rainbow Valley Farms, violated the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and the Public Health Services Act.
 
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had warned Allgyer, of Kinzers, Pa., that he was violating federal law.  But instead of stopping, the government charged, Allgyer tried to get around the law by creating a private membership organization that entered into "cow-sharing" arrangements with his milk-loving customers.
 

In the order granting summary judgment in the government’s favor, the court found that the cow-sharing agreements were “merely a subterfuge” and issued an order enjoining Mr. Allgyer and his associates from distributing unlabeled or unpasteurized milk for human consumption in interstate commerce.    

While some states, including Pennsylvania, permit the sale of unpasteurized milk, it is illegal to transport unpasteurized milk across state lines.   Unpasteurized milk can contain a wide variety of harmful bacteria, including Listeria, E.coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter, Yersinia and Brucella.  

“The FDA has determined that drinking raw milk can cause significant harm,” said Tony West, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “Working with our federal partners, we will bring enforcement actions like this one to ensure that the American food supply is safe and consumers are not exposed to such risks.   We are pleased that the court has ordered Mr. Allgyer to stop distributing unpasteurized milk across state lines.”  

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Feds Deep Six LightSquared Broadband Network

Proposed network could interfere with GPS devices

A start-up called LightSquared has been promising to build a nationwide wireless network that would bring high-speed broadband to areas that are not now ad...

PhotoA start-up called LightSquared has been promising to build a nationwide wireless network that would bring high-speed broadband to areas that are not now adequately served.

But the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has bowed to objections from the military and other government agencies which argued that LightSquare posed an unacceptable risk to Global Positioning System (GPS) devices, which use adjacent frequencies.

LightSquared has blamed GPS receivers, saying they're too sensitive.

“LightSquared’s proposal to provide ground-based mobile service offered the potential to unleash new spectrum for mobile broadband and enhance competition. [But] the Commission clearly stated from the outset that harmful interference to GPS would not be permitted," said FCC spokeswoman Tammy Sun.

“NTIA, the federal agency that coordinates spectrum uses for the military and other federal government entities, has now concluded that there is no practical way to mitigate potential interference at this time. Consequently, the Commission will not lift the prohibition on LightSquared," she said.

LightSquared said it "profoundly disagrees" with the conclusion, saying the decision disregards "more than a decade of regulatory orders, and in doing so, jeopardize[s] private enterprise, jobs and investment in America's future," the company said in a statement.

Backed by hedge-fund manager Philip Falcone, LightSquared has promised to "unleash the boundless opportunity of wireless broadband connectivity for all."

"We believe that it is time to transform the broadband industry to one that truly fosters innovation, creativity, and freedom of choice—with limitless and unimaginable possibilities," the company said in a statement on its Website.

But the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA) said in a letter to the FCC yesterday that there was "no practical way to mitigate the potential interference at this time." The FCC issued its statement this morning.

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Counterfeit Versions Of Cancer Drug Avastin Found In U.S.

Drug maker not sure how much is out there or where it came from

Drug maker Roche and its U.S. unit Genentech are warning that counterfeit versions of Roche's blockbuster cancer drug Avastin have shown up in the U.S....

PhotoCounterfeit drugs are always dangerous, but a counterfeit cancer drug is especially dangerous. Drug maker Roche and its U.S. unit Genentech are warning that counterfeit versions of Roche's blockbuster cancer drug Avastin have shown up in the U.S.

The companies provided few details, saying their were informed by an unnamed health agency and that the drugs originated outside the U.S. The companies said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is taking the lead in the investigation to determine where the drugs came from.

“We are working with the F.D.A. and law enforcement to aid their evaluations, determine the source of the counterfeit drug, and prevent its further distribution,” Roche and Genentech said in a statement. “The counterfeit product is not safe or effective and should not be used.”

How to tell the difference

Fortunately, there are some striking differences between the real and counterfeit versions. The real version's label is says Genentech and is all in English. The counterfeit label says Roche and includes some words in French.

If you check the lot numbers of actual Avastin, you'll find they are six digits with no letters. The counterfeit lot numbers begin with a letter.

The counterfeit Avastin is a cause for concern because the real Avastin is a highly successful cancer drug. It works by slowing the spread of cancer cells.

Last fall the FDA removed Avastin as an approved treatment for breast cancer, saying there was no evidence it was effective for treating that illness. The drug remains on the market, since it is used primarily to treat colon cancer. It is still approved for that use.

The discovery of counterfeit Avastin comes at a time of reported shortages of many cancer drugs in the U.S.

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Missing Out On The Earned Income Tax Credit?

Many eligible taxpayers are passing up big refunds

An explanation of the earned income tax credit...

PhotoThe Earned Income Tax Credit(EITC) is the U.S.' largest anti-poverty programs for working families, bringing an estimated $2 billion in refunds to qualified taxpayers nationwide. These refunds help to subsidize family income and often help drive the local economy in both rural and urban areas.

The credit can be claimed by taxpayers who owe no taxes. It can amount to a refund of up to $5,751 for low and moderate-income families with three or more children – a figure equal to nearly two months of income for many families.

Here are some of the ways working families can benefit from the EITC:

  • Families with three or more qualifying children who earn less than $49,078 (or $43,998 for a single parent) are eligible for up to $5,751;
  • Families with two qualifying children who earn less than $46,044 (or $40,964 for a single parent) are eligible for up to$5,112;
  • Families with one qualifying child who earn less than $41,132 (or $36,052 for a single parent) are eligible for up to$3,094; and
  • Married workers between the ages of 25-64 who earn less than $18,470 (or $13,660 for single) and have no children are eligible for up to $464

Many fail to file

Surprisingly, many people who are eligible for the EITC never file for it, and thus never receive it.

"The EITC is a vastly underutilized benefit, with up to 20 percent of eligible taxpayers leaving $300 million in credits left on the table. Costs for basic needs like housing and food are on the rise, and wage growth is virtually non-existent," said Elise Buik, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Los Angeles. "Last year our goal was to increase participation in EITC by ten percent, and we succeeded, helping residents claim over $38 million in total refunds. This year, we want to again increase participation in the program by another ten percent, which means almost 50,000 residents would get free tax assistance and help to claim money that is rightfully theirs, and back into our local economy."

This year, EITC has been expanded to help qualifying families with three or more children with a larger credit worth up to $5,751. Those who qualify, but have failed to claim the credit in prior years, may also apply for the EITC retroactively for a period of up to three years, making for an even larger check.

Qualifying for the EITC

To qualify for the EITC, claimants must be qualified working U.S. citizens and individuals with valid Social Security numbers. If a U.S. resident meets all of the qualifications, they are also able to retroactively claim the EITC for a period of up to three years.

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Harris Poll: Apple Is 'Most Reputable' Brand

Facebook pretty much a no-show on list

Harris Interactive releases most reputable companies poll...

PhotoConsumers have been in a somewhat cranky mood lately as they deal with expensive TV sets that break just out of warranty and cope with bank fees.

But it turns out there are companies that earn consumers' trust, giving them a high Reputation Quotient (RQ) rating in Harris Interactive's annual survey. This year, the top five are:

  • Apple
  • Google
  • Coca-Cola
  • Amazon.com
  • Kraft Foods

"We are seeing the emergence of a group of companies that garner reputation equity by being positively associated with multiple industries," said Robert Fronk, executive vice president and Global Corporate Reputation Practice Lead for Harris Interactive. "Companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon.com combine innovation and leadership across multiple business areas, giving them true competitive advantage."

Could be, but a ConsumerAffairs.com computerized sentiment analysis of 28 million -- that's 28 million -- consumer comments in social media found opinion hovering in the high 40% positive range over the last year. Not bad, but not as great as the hosannahs produced by Harris' much smaller but more methodical sample.

Photo

In terms of year-over-year change, only Toyota, General Motors, BP, and Apple enjoy significant improvement in their RQ scores while one quarter of companies saw drastic declines. Among those with the most significant declines, five were financial institutions, including the 2010 top scorer, Berkshire Hathaway.

Again, could be, but our analysis found a surprisingly high ratio of negative-to-positive attributes expressed by consumers posting to Twitter, Facebook and other social media and blogs.

Photo

Where's Facebook?

While Facebook is a hot topic on Wall Street these days as it prepares for an initial public offering of stock that could, by some estimates, raise as much as $100 billion, it didn't even make the list. In fact, the survey found that Facebook's standing dropped since last year, now bordering between fair and good when it comes to reputation.

We looked at comments from 72 million consumers over the last year and also found net sentiment dropping from a rather anemic 31% a year ago to 24% now, dipping as low as 11% in September. 

Photo

While Facebook has grappled with privacy issues over the last year or so, many of the users who post comments at ConsumerAffairs.com take issue with the company over a lot of other, less-reported, issues.

“Why is it that Facebook can shut down sites which publish photos of mothers breastfeeding but allows publishing of photos of brutal and violent acts towards animals published in abundance,” asked Cheryll, of Ravensbourne, New Zealand. “A pathetic attempt to control this by reliance on users of Facebook to report such photos and videos is not good enough. Facebook has become nothing more than an electronic record of just how brutal and violent humans can be.”

She said, he said

More common are complaints about what one user posts about another on Facebook.

“A person that I am familiar with but do not know personally has posted a very hateful and distasteful comment about me on their Facebook,” said Deborah, of Byron, Ga. “This comment has defamed me as a person! The comment is also showing up on Google for anyone and everyone to see. This is not right!”

With more than 850 million members, nearly three times the U.S. population, Facebook might argue that it's impossible to police pages to the extent some users might like. Chances are, those policing efforts would elicit complaints from other users, who believe they're not justified.

What an RQ means

RQ measures six dimensions that comprise reputation and influence consumer behavior. Apple has the greatest score overall. In fact, despite today's challenging environment, Harris said Apple records the highest score in the RQ's history, and is top-ranked in four of the six key dimensions of reputation:

  • Social Responsibility - Whole Foods
  • Emotional Appeal - Amazon.com
  • Financial Performance - Apple
  • Products & Services - Apple
  • Vision & Leadership - Apple
  • Workplace Environment - Apple
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Watch Out For These Two Credit Card Fees

Both are assessed by the same credit card issuer, First Premier Bank

Credit card companies increasingly make their money on various fees, in addition to the interest rates they charge on balances. While new regulations have...

PhotoCredit card companies increasingly make their money on various fees, in addition to the interest rates they charge on balances. While new regulations have made some fees less onerous for consumers, there are others that can sock unsuspecting customers.

Card Hub, a company that analyzes the credit card industry, says it has completed an evaluation of over 1,000 credit card offers and focused on two fees in particular that it says should be “alarming” to consumers. The fees are assessed by the same credit card issuer, First Premier Bank.

The first is a 25 percent fee on credit limit increases. First Premier charges customers who ask for and receive a credit line increase a fee equal to 25 percent of the amount by which their credit limit rose.

$50 for a $200 increase

For example, a customer receiving a $200 credit limit increase will get charged a $50 fee. This fee, of course, is on top of any annual fee the customer pays. The fine print dictates that this fee will not be refunded unless the customer notifies the bank that they do not wish to keep the higher limit within 30 days of the date of the periodic statement on which it appears.

The second fee amounts to $170 in first-year fees for a $300 credit limit. The main card displayed on the company's website charges $170 in first-year fees, which is equivalent to 56.6 percent of its credit line. The recently passed CARD Act limits first year fees to 25 percent of the card's initial credit line. Card Hub points out that, with just an extra $30, a consumer could instead use that $170 fee to put $200 in cash toward a secured card's security deposit, which is completely refundable.

Complaints

Consumers have often complained about First Premiers fees and policies.

“First we had to pay over $130 to get the card and activate it in hopes to help our credit,” Lindsey, of Aurora, Colo., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Then we found out we have to pay to access the account online, make a payment, and you can never talk to a live representative. The fees and rates are astronomical and for what? There is no benefit to owning this card.”

Lindsey said she would like to close the account once she finishes, but worries there will be a fee for that too.

Card Hub CEO Odysseas Papadimitriou notes First Premier successfully went to court to expect a portion of its initial fees from CARD Act limits. He says it's in the industry's best, long-term interests to try and help consumers.

“I think it’s time for credit card companies to really get on board with working together with regulators to do what’s right for their customers and the economy,” Papadimitriou said.

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Many Consumers Wait Too Long To Seek Bankruptcy Help

Legal expert says more can be done if you act quickly

Too many people wait too long to file for bankruptcy protection...

PhotoWhen the University of Arkansas School of Law set up a program for law students to work with consumers who have filed for bankruptcy protection, one fact quickly became clear. These consumers waited too long to act.

“It’s very sad,” said Tim Tarvin, associate professor and supervising attorney in the student-staffed Federal Practice Clinic. “It's not unusual for people to break down in the interview setting with the student attorneys who are representing them. These families have been working so hard trying to figure out how to pay off their debt, and it’s just not working. The cash just doesn’t flow. The money isn’t there, and in most cases, it hasn’t been there for a long time.”

Tarvin cites statistics in The Two Income Trap, a book written by Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren and published in 2003. According to Warren half of all bankrupt families were unwilling to admit, even in an anonymous survey, that they had filed for bankruptcy. She went on to say that as many as 18 million households – compared to the 1.5 million that actually filed in 2003 – would have seen a significant improvement in their balance sheets if they were only willing to sign a bankruptcy petition.

Shame

Why do people wait? Tarvin says is all comes down to shame. This single trait sometimes forces people to go “underground,” meaning they work for cash only, purchase with cash only and then cannot borrow money for any reason or even open a bank account. This usually comes after there has been some kind of legal judgment against them.

“Very often and for whatever reason, there is tremendous shame,” Tarvin says. “For many of our clients, it’s against the tenets of their religion.”

He says it's part of the culture in the state to pay your debts and be self-reliant. When you can't meet those standards, it's hard to accept. Tarvin said he stresses that the real purpose of bankruptcy is not to punish the consumer, but to get them back on their feet and make them productive again. To accomplish that, he says, the consumer has to be willing to consider bankruptcy sooner, before their financial situation becomes even worse.

Real purpose of bankruptcy

The real purpose of bankruptcy, according to Tarvin, is not to shame the debtor but rather to simply determine whether he or she can pay. It is a process designed to determine whether the debtor can pay all debts and still have enough money for the basic necessities for living.

“To blame bankruptcy for the debtor’s insolvency and non-payment to the creditor is like blaming the coroner for the death,” Tarvin says. “He – the coroner – is simply pronouncing that the person is deceased. Likewise, a bankruptcy discharge issued by the judge is merely a determination that the debtor is financially unable to pay his debts.”

Causes

In her book, Warren found that 87 percent of families with children cite only three reasons for bankruptcy: job loss, family breakup and medical problems. Bad investment and credit card overspending are included with “all other reasons” within the remaining 13 percent.

Tarvin admits that some clients who come into the federal clinic have reached a financial condition that necessitates bankruptcy because they were irresponsible with credit cards, but these people, he says, are a minority.

By far, individuals rather than businesses file the greater number of bankruptcies in federal courts each year. In 2010 there were nearly 1.6 million total filings. Only 3.5 percent of these were business filings.

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Kia Plans a Rear-Wheel-Drive 'Halo' Car

Hopes to build on Hyundai's success with the Equus

Rear-wheel-drive cars have come to mean big-bucks models from Europe, with an occasional Japanese model thrown in. But now Kia is gearing up to launch...

PhotoRear-wheel-drive cars have come to mean big-bucks models from Europe, with an occasional Japanese model thrown in. But now Kia is gearing up to launch its first-ever rear-wheel-drive sedan,Automotive News reports. 

The auto industry trade magazine says the top-of-the-line "halo" car -- code-named "KH" -- will launch in Korea in the first half of this year, but there's no word on when it will come to the U.S.

Not surprisingly, the KH will share a platform with the Equus, Hyundai's RWD sedan, which launched in late 2010 with a base price of $58,900. The Equus sold a little more than 3,000 vehicles in the U.S. ini 2011. The slightly less elegant Genesis sold about 33,000, proving that Korean models can compete in the luxury segment.

Kia has been pinning the sales needle in the U.S. of late, selling nearly half a million cars last year, a gain of 36 percent. The KH would presumably be slotted in about the Optima, currently Kia's most expensive and luxurious model.

Kia says the car will "definitely become the leading model of our lineup around the world, showcasing the best of the best of Kia," but reports from Australia say it will be manufactured only in left-hand drive, meaning it won't be available Down Under or in other locales where right-hand drive is the norm.

Kia says the new model unites "innovative design with high-tech features" and can be expected to be packaged will a veritable cornucopia of radars, proximity sensors and touch screens.

It's expected that a selection of gas and turbodiesel engines, as well as the V8 engine from the Hyundai Genesis.

Why RWD?

Why is rear-wheel-drive so important?  Well, it's much more expensive to build, which restricts it to upmarket models but more important is the driving experience. Basically, RWD provides weight balance and better handling at very high speeds while eliminating the unpleasant and dangerous torque steer phenomenon that limits the off-the-line performance of FWD cars.

To a certain type of car enthusiast, a front-wheel-drive car is just a transport unit. Listen to Wall Street Journal columnist Dan Neal describe the 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S after a recent romp: "a ripping, scalping, torque-wrenching, swivel-hipped snake of a car."  

Nobody ever said that about a Kia. But check back in a year or two. 

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Privacy Group Sues FTC Over Google Privacy Changes

FTC isn't doing its job, public interest group claims

The Federal Trade Commission dropped the ball by letting Google amend its privacy policy, a public interest group claims in a federal lawsuit.The Electro...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission dropped the ball by letting Google amend its privacy policy, a public interest group claims in a federal lawsuit.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) claims the government failed to enforce its 2011 consent order that barred Google from "misrepresenting the company's privacy practices, requires the company to obtain users' consent before disclosing personal data, and requires the company to develop and comply with a comprehensive privacy program," Courthouse News Service reported.

"In 2012, Google announced that it would change its terms of service for current users of Google services and consolidate users' personal information across more than 60 Google services in clear violation of its prior commitments to the Federal Trade Commission," the group argues.

The mounting opposition to Google's new privacy policy is taking a toll on consumers' opinion of the once universally admired company, according to a ConsumerAffairs.com sentiment analysis of about 270,000 consumer comments on the topic.

Net positive sentiment hasn't exceeded mid-40% territory during the last year and has dipped to nearly 0 at times.  Most recently, it is hovering around 20%. 

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Blue line shows net sentiment

Buzz

Those commitments stemmed from concern over Google's privacy policy after the widely-panned 2010 launch of Google's social network, Buzz. EPIC complained then that Google was using information from its Gmail users "to populate Buzz, a separate and discrete social network service."

EPIC charged in the 2010 case that Google linked users' Gmail data to their Buzz accounts without clearly communicating that the company was making certain personal information public.

Eventually, the FTC found that Google "had launched Buzz through Gmail, and that 'options for declining or leaving the social network were ineffective.'"

Consent order

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The FTC also found that Google "failed to disclose adequately that consumers' frequent email contacts would become public by default," and that it violated the Safe Harbor Framework between the United States and European Union by "failing to give consumers notice and choice before using their information for a purpose different from that for which it was collected."

The FTC's consent order bars Google from misrepresenting how it maintains personal information and requires the company to get consent before sharing the information. It also requires Google to implement a comprehensive privacy program, submit to independent assessments, and make its privacy-related documents available to the FTC.

EPIC contends that Google's recent announcement of its plan to create a single profile for users of all its services violates the FTC order, but the agency "has thus far failed to take any action regarding this matter, placing the privacy interests of literally hundreds of millions Internet users at grave risk," the group says.

EPIC wants an injunction forcing the FTC to enforce its own consent order.

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FDA Warns Handheld Dental X-Ray Units May Be Unsafe

Could expose user and patient to harmful levels of radiation

The U.S Food and Drug Administration is warning dental and veterinary professionals to not purchase or use certain potentially unsafe hand-held dental X-ra...

PhotoThe U.S Food and Drug Administration is warning dental and veterinary professionals to not purchase or use certain potentially unsafe hand-held dental X-ray units. The FDA is concerned that these devices may not be safe or effective and could expose the user and the patient to unnecessary and potentially harmful X-rays.

The units, sold online by manufacturers outside the United States and directly shipped to U.S. customers, have not been reviewed by the FDA and do not meet FDA radiation safety requirements. 

The Washington State Department of Health alerted the FDA after tests on a device purchased online revealed it did not comply with X-ray performance standards.

As a result, FDA is investigating the extent of the problem and notifying state regulatory authorities, dental professional organizations and other health organizations about the safety risks. To date, no adverse events have been reported.

A hand-held dental X-ray unit is a small, portable device that is intended for dental X-ray examinations. All units that have been cleared by the FDA bear a permanent certification label/tag, a warning label, and an identification (ID) label/tag on the unit.  Use of these devices requires a prescription from a licensed practitioner.

“Health care professionals using these devices should verify they are purchasing and using those that have been reviewed and tested to meet FDA’s standards,” said Steve Silverman, director of the Office of Compliance in the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health.  

To ensure this, users should:

• Verify the presence of required labels on the device.
• Ask vendors whether the device has been reviewed and cleared by the FDA.
• Access the FDA Medical Device Approvals and Clearances searchable database to verify that the X-ray unit has been cleared by the FDA. 
• Contact their state regulatory agency if they become aware of a device that may be hazardous or does not meet the FDA’s requirements. 

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Businesses Worry About Employee 'Sweethearting'

But consumers say they don't see it and complain employees are hard-hearted

Many consumer complaints focus on dealings with a company's employee. The consumer feels the employee is rude, or in some cases inflexible and unable to cu...

Businesses are complaining that their employees are giving away the store, but many consumers say they aren't seeing it.

In fact, many consumer complaints focus on dealings with a company's employee. The consumer feels the employee is rude, or in some cases inflexible and unable to cut them some slack.

A case in point is a complaint from Nancy, of Bellrose, N.Y., unhappy with the clerk at a Comfort Inn, where she had checked in on a trip to visit her mother in a nursing home.

“I checked in at 11:00 am,” Nancy said. “I just looked at the room and didn't even bring up my bags because I wanted to get to the nursing to meet my mother for her birthday luncheon.”

Change in plans

Nancy said she was at the nursing home when she received a call that her son was taken to the hospital. She returned to the motel to say she had to return immediately to New York and wanted to cancel the room.

“The receptionist said that I had had the room for five hours and I would not be able to receive a refund,” Nancy said. “I told her that I had not even brought my bags up to the room because I had to go to the nursing home. She didn't care and charged me $80.00.”

Nancy thinks the motel employee should have shown some compassion and refunded her money, but it probably wasn't that easy. Employees are under increasing pressures to account for every dime of revenue. Once a check-in has taken place, it's very hard to remove it without a lot of questions being asked.

Employees under pressure

Despite such incidents, many businesses think employees are giving away too much stuff to consumers. A recent study found that nearly 70 percent of the nation’s service employees give away free goods and services – from hamburgers to cable TV – costing companies billions of dollars a year.

Clay Voorhees, study co-author and marketing expert at Michigan State University, said one of the best ways to combat this illegal practice – called “sweethearting” – is through better screening of job candidates.

“Our results show that by adding a few screening questions that focus on the potential employee’s risk-taking, ethics and need for social acceptance, employers could identify ‘bad apples’ up front and simply avoid hiring them,” Voorhees said. “In the long run, this approach would address the issue.”

All this means that current employees are coming under closer scrutiny from their bosses, and are held more accountable. That means the clerk at the Comfort Inn might have felt she could not give Nancy a break without getting a reprimand or even losing her job.

Consumers like Nancy might argue that “sweethearting” isn't nearly the problem businesses think it is. But in this business climate, there seems to be growing pressure to play it by the book.

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Researchers Link Overeating With Memory Loss

The higher the daily calorie count, the higher the dementia risk

There are many good reasons to push yourself away from the table before you overdo it, but here may be another. New research suggests that consuming betwee...

PhotoThere are many good reasons to push yourself away from the table before you overdo it, but here may be another. New research suggests that consuming between 2,100 and 6,000 calories per day may double the risk of memory loss, or mild cognitive impairment (MCI), among people age 70 and older.

The study will be presented in April at the American Academy of Neurology’s 64th Annual Meeting in New Orleans.

It could be significant, because MCI is the stage between normal memory loss that comes with aging and early Alzheimer’s disease. With the large Baby Boom generation entering their senior years, Alzheimer's disease is a growing health threat.

High calories equal MCI

“We observed a dose-response pattern which simply means; the higher the amount of calories consumed each day, the higher the risk of MCI,” said study author Yonas E. Geda, MD, MSc, with the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona and a member of the American Academy of Neurology.

To reach their conclusions, the researchers studied 1,233 people between the ages of 70 and 89 and free of dementia residing in Olmsted County, Minn. Of those, 163 had MCI.

Participants reported the amount of calories they ate or drank in a food questionnaire and were divided into three equal groups based on their daily caloric consumption. One-third of the participants consumed between 600 and 1,526 calories per day, one-third between 1,526 and 2,143 and one-third consumed between 2,143 and 6,000 calories per day.

Double the odds

The evidence was pretty clear. The odds of having MCI more than doubled for those in the highest calorie-consuming group compared to those in the lowest calorie-consuming group.

The results were the same after adjusting for history of stroke, diabetes, amount of education, and other factors that can affect risk of memory loss. There was no significant difference in risk for the middle group.

The bottom line?

“Cutting calories and eating foods that make up a healthy diet may be a simpler way to prevent memory loss as we age,” said Geda.

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Selling Doom In 2012

There's no shortage of companies trying to prepare you for catastrophe

How doom scenarios are driving some products...

PhotoIf you surf the Internet or watch much cable TV, you can't have missed the dire warnings of what is about to befall us in the near future. Warnings of economic and societal collapse seem to be everywhere.

It started a couple of years ago with the proliferation of ads for gold. Companies selling physical gold – bullion and coins – lit up the airwaves with suggestions that gold is the only way to protect wealth from a dollar that is on its way to being worthless.

There are also ads for free online videos with the ominous titles “End of America” and “New America,” warning that a sudden event this year will change our lives forever. Both are the products of two separate financial experts who warn of the same event – the default of the U.S. government and the inability to repay debt. That's pretty much what's trying to be avoided in Greece at the moment.

Video pitches

The free videos are, in fact, pitches for products – financial advice and investments designed to make money if the U.S. economy does, in fact, drive over a cliff.

Watching the videos isn't exactly easy, either. There are few visual elements to make them interesting and it is impossible to skip ahead to get to the end to hear the pitch – you have to listen to the whole thing.

Doomsday preppers

On cable, the National Geographic Channel has entered the doom market with its new show, “Doomsday Preppers.” It's a reality series that profiles a number of people who are making preparations to live after the collapse of society. A panel of judges then offers opinions about whether the subjects' doomsday plans are adequate.

If all of this sounds vaguely familiar, it means you are old enough to have lived through the late 1970s. That was an era of despair over lines at gas stations, inflation and potential nuclear war. It spawned a similar “survivalist” movement and gold rose to a record high that stood until about five years ago.

Mayan calendar

A subplot to the growing focus on doom may be the fact that the Mayan Calendar ends on December 21, 2012, an indicator to some that the world will meet its fate on that date. When Hollywood made a movie two years ago about a small, undiscovered planet crashing into the earth on December 21, it prompted NASA to publicly dispute the idea. Dr. Robert Stencel, an astronomy professor at the University of Denver, found he was called upon to field a number of media questions about a possible end of the world event.

“This is not the first time, and it probably won't be the last, we've been promised something would happen,” Stencel said at the time. “I suspect it would be a safe bet that 2012 will come and go and it will be the least of our worries that the Mayan calendar flips over.”

Meanwhile, consumers should carefully assess any and all investments. While the U.S., and world economies have very real and significant challenges, it's always wise to be wary of investments that are being marketed solely on the basis of fear.

Just as you would with a doctor consulting about a health issue, it's smart to sample a variety of opinions, and doing independent research, before investing money.

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It's Payback Time For Some Who Took Homebuyer Tax Credit

Those who claimed credit in 2008 have to start paying it back

How to pay back the homebuyer tax credit...

PhotoThe homebuyers' tax credit, enacted in 2008, was designed to jump start the rapidly declining housing market. It offered first-time homebuyers a refundable $7,500 tax credit if they bought a home.

But the tax credit isn't like ordinary credits. It must be refunded to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) over a 15-year period. The law was amended in 2009 so that those who purchased homes that year and in 2010 don't have to return the money. But if you claimed the tax credit for a 2008 purchase, it's time to start paying it back.

You fall into this category if you claimed the credit for a home purchased that occurred after April 8, 2009 but before January 1, 2009. If you are in this category, you must make a payment to the IRS on your 2011 return.

How do you know what you need to pay? It's going to vary for each taxpayer. That's why the IRS has set up this online tool to help you determine the repayment amount for the current tax year.

Generally, there is no requirement to pay back the credit for a principal residence purchased in 2009, 2010 or early 2011. The obligation to repay the credit arises only if the home ceases to be your principal residence within 36 months from the date of purchase. The full amount of the credit received becomes due on the return for the year the home ceased to be your principal residence.  

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What's On Your Mind? Government Grant Scam, Dermitage Anti-Aging, Verizon Wireless

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Government Grant Scam, Dermitage Anti-Aging, Verizon Wireless, information on being followed and bad timing. ...

PhotoThe Government Grant Scam has been around a long time, and apparently, has a new wrinkle or two. Alicha Burlson, of Lincoln City, Ore., reports receiving a call from a woman telling her she had been awarded a grant of $8,400 to further her education. It just so happens that Alicha had, indeed, applied for an education grant a month earlier.

“She told me the information on my address and made sure it was correct,” Alicha told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Then she said I needed to call a number and talk to another person. When I called the number, the gentleman said that he received the information and wanted my bank's routing number and checking account. I feel silly but I did give it to him, then he said to receive the money I needed to donate 155 dollars to a charity. I told him I would not donate because I have no money and he said you must have cash to get grant. I repeated that I would not donate.”

Alicha should immediately contact her bank's fraud department since the man has her bank information. Any money she had in the account is probably gone. It's disturbing that the scammers had her address, suggesting they are taking more care in selecting their victims and not choosing them at random. The charitable donation demand is a new wrinkle. Chances are, the “charity” is one operated by the scammer.

Being followed

Mary Beth, of Rosamon, Calif., felt she had plenty of Dermitage Anti-Aging System product and cancelled her prescription when she moved at the end of December. But Dermitage followed her to her new address.

“I received the product at my new address in February, unopened, and I was going to send it back and request a return mailing slip,” Mary Beth said. “They automatically had charged me and refused to take back the product because they had 'notified me by e-mail' and therefore I could not return the product I did not request and they continue to charge me for the following month.”

Mary Beth should contact her credit card company and report it as an unauthorized charge. Unless the company can provide a proof of purchase, it will have to return the money.

Bad timing

Amanda, of Manteca, Calif., says she switched cell phone carriers from Verizon Wireless to Virgin Mobile last week. Everything was smooth, she said, expect the final bill.

“I called today to find out the balance due, and they told me I had to pay my entire bill; including all taxes and fees,” Amanda said. “I have used the service for approximately days out of the month and 10 minutes of use this billing period. My bill was $44.02 so that comes out to $4.40 per minute!”

Most cell phone companies do not prorate their bills, even though Amanda thinks that was the fair thing to do. If she didn't want to pay the overlap, she should have timed her move to Virgin Mobile near the end of the billing cycle.

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FDA Urged to Make Oysters Safer

Gulf Coast oysters can carry dangerous bacteria

Mark your calendar: Between April and November, about 30 Americans will get seriously sick and approximately 15 will die after eating raw oysters or other ...

PhotoMark your calendar: Between April and November, about 30 Americans will get seriously sick and approximately 15 will die after eating raw oysters or other shellfish contaminated with deadly Vibrio vulnificus bacteria.

These contaminated oysters are mainly harvested from the Gulf Coast region, especially during the warmer summer months -- and the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) wants the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to set a performance standard for the shellfish industry that would reduce this threat to consumers.

CSPI says FDA should act now, before the increase in Gulf Coast water temperatures creates a more hospitable environment for the naturally occurring but deadly contaminant.

Raw or undercooked oysters are the primary Vibrio culprits. Symptoms include the classic signs of foodborne illness but for some consumers, the illness can progress to ulcerous skin lesions and septicemia. Almost half of those reporting these more serious infections die and those that survive can suffer lifetime infirmities.

Those most at risk include consumers with diabetes, hemochromatosis, compromised immune systems or liver disease. While the shellfish industry resisted a 2009 FDA attempt to require mandatory post-harvest processing of contaminated oysters, the new food safety law signed by President Obama in January 2011 requires the FDA to set performance standards for significant foodborne contaminants like Vibrio vulnificus.

“If we knew a serial killer were going to kill a dozen people like clockwork each year, the police would spring into action to stop it,” said CSPI senior food safety attorney David W. Plunkett. “We know Vibrio vulnificus strikes like clockwork. FDA should use its authority to keep seafood lovers safe from this hazard.”

Petition denied

In 2002, the FDA denied a CSPI regulatory petition calling for a performance standard for Vibrio, citing a voluntary plan to reduce the rate of illnesses coordinated by an Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (ISSC).

The regulatory petition CSPI filed yesterday cites the new authority given to the agency by the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, and the fact that the ISSC’s voluntary plan to reduce illnesses failed to achieve its goals. California, meanwhile, adopted the approach advocated by CSPI in its earlier petition and illnesses and deaths in that state were virtually eliminated.

“Consumers have waited long enough,” CSPI wrote in a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg that accompanied the petition. “In the nine years since FDA denied our original petition, 262 people have suffered serious illnesses including 121 people who died—all of which could have been averted.”

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Pennsylvania Man Charged in Facebook Sex Scams

Man from Mars impersonated young surfers to lure girls for sex

AinsworthPennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly today announced the filing of a series of felony charges against a Butler County man...

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Ainsworth

Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly today announced the filing of a series of felony charges against a Butler County man accused of using Facebook to operate an elaborate and disturbing false identity scheme that was used to solicit young girls for explicit photos or meetings for sex.

Kelly identified the defendant as William R. Ainsworth, 53, of Mars, Pa.

Kelly said the investigation by the Attorney General’s Child Predator Unit began in September 2011, after agents received information that Ainsworth had traveled to the home of a 14-year old girl in Butler County in order to engage in various sex acts. Ainsworth was arrested at that time and held on numerous criminal charges related to that alleged meeting.

 “We quickly discovered that there was much more to this case than the sexual solicitation of one girl,” Kelly said. “What we found was an intricate web of false Facebook identities that were used to establish online relationships with vulnerable girls, who were then manipulated into sending nude photos to Ainsworth – believing he was a young surfer living in Florida – or physically meeting Ainsworth for sex – under the impression that those sexual encounters would help raise money so the girls could run away to Florida to be with their new online friend.” 

Kelly urged parents to use this case as a reason to have serious conversations with their children about online social networking sites like Facebook, especially concerning predators who may manipulate these sites to victimize children.

“It is important to emphasize that the people you meet online may not always be who they say, and may actually be looking for something far more than just ‘friendship’,” Kelly said. “The things you say, the photos you post and your other online activities may be twisted against you in a sinister manner.”

Multiple personas 

Kelly said that Ainsworth is accused of fabricating the Facebook personas of two young men, “Bill Cano” and “Anthony ‘Rip’ Navari,” who were both supposedly living in Florida as surfers after dropping out of high school and running away from their families.  It is believed that Ainsworth copied numerous photos of young men and surfers from other social networking sites in order to support these fake Facebook profiles.

As part of the scheme, Kelly said that Ainsworth allegedly used “Bill” and “Rip” to initiate online friendships with young people from throughout the greater Pittsburgh area, nearly all of them female. She noted that Ainsworth accumulated more than 600 Facebook “friends” using the bogus profiles (The false accounts were removed at the request of the Attorney General’s Office during this investigation).

Initially, Ainsworth is accused of using the “Bill Cano” profile to identify vulnerable girls. In some cases, Ainsworth’s victims believed that “Bill” had attended their school before running away, while in other cases the victims responded to his online invitations because of multiple overlapping friends.

Kelly said that Ainsworth allegedly used Bill to “groom” potential victims; asking about their interests, complimenting them about their physical appearance and discussing problems with school or family members in order to establish an emotional relationship.  “Bill” would then convince the victims to send him nude or sexually explicit photos.
  

A death foretold

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"Glenn Keefer's" Facebook page

Kelly noted that after establishing connections with many young people as “Bill Cano,” Ainsworth enhanced the emotional manipulation of this scheme by orchestrating Cano’s death.

Using the persona of Anthony or “Rip” Navari – supposedly a step-brother or fellow surfer/friend of Bill Cano – Ainsworth concocted a story that Cano had been attacked by a group of people, was hospitalized in a coma, and eventually died as the result of his injuries.

“This fake death triggered an outpouring of sympathy and grief within the group of young Facebook users who believed that ‘Bill Cano’ was their friend,” Kelly said. “Ainsworth allegedly fueled this grief with posts on Cano’s Facebook page and using it as a mechanism to help his new persona establish even deeper connections with the victims.”

Kelly said that Ainsworth used “Rip” to introduce the girls to another fictitious character, known as “Glenn Keefer.”  Keefer was supposedly an adult from the Pittsburgh area who identified himself online as a “Sugardaddy looking for Sugarbabies.”

According to the criminal charges, Ainsworth – posing as “Rip” – solicited potential victims to meet with Keefer for anything from stripping to sex.  Supposedly, “Glenn” would send money to “Rip” if the girls would meet him, either to help Rip with his living expenses or to help the girls run away to Florida to be with Rip.

Kelly said that Ainsworth is charged in connection with alleged indecent contact involving seven different victims, ranging in age from 13 to 15.  In five of the cases, Ainsworth requested and received nude photos of the girls and in two of the cases he allegedly met with the victims for the purpose of committing sex acts. 

Kelly noted that some of the intended victims were as young as 12 when they were initially contacted. 

Kelly said the criminal charges announced today are the result of an extensive investigation that involved interviews with more than 30 children, the execution of 18 search warrants and the review of thousands of pages of communications between Ainsworth and his alleged victims.

68 felonies

Ainsworth is charged with 68 felony counts including involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, criminal attempted unlawful contact with a minor, criminal solicitation to commit unlawful contact with a minor, sexual abuse of children (possession of child pornography), and criminal use of a communications facility.

Additionally, Kelly said that Ainsworth is currently awaiting trial in Butler County on 13 other felony counts related to his initial arrest in September 2011.

Online safety

Kelly urged parents to be aware of a number of online safety issues that were identified during this investigation:

  • Several of the victims indicated that their parents had little or no awareness of their activity on Facebook or did not closely monitor their online communication with others.  
  • Many victims regularly accessed Facebook outside their homes, away from any possible oversight by parents, using cell phones and other portable devices.
  • All of the victims had been experiencing stresses at home or school, ranging from parental custody disputes to substance abuse and/or harassment by peers.  Those issues appear to have been used by Ainsworth to develop closer online relationships.


Kelly encouraged parents to stress the importance of not sharing personal information online, like full names, ages, addresses, phone numbers and school information

She added that children should always be especially cautious about strangers who approach them online. 

She also encouraged parents to take time to closely review how their children are using social networking sites and to monitor their communication with others, especially with young teens who may not yet be sensitive to deceptive or predatory behavior involving online “friends.” 

Kelly recommended that parents take the time to learn and understand the technology involved in social networking and online communications so they can properly screen these services.

Additionally, Kelly urged parents to frequently discuss Internet safety and security issues with their children, including the importance of telling a trusted adult if someone engages in inappropriate online activity, such as:

  • Sexual discussions.
  • Sending or requesting nude photos or explicit videos.
  • Sending pornography or links to pornographic websites.
  • Trying to arrange face-to-face meetings.
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It Pays To Carefully Read Your Bank Statements

Ask questions when there are fees and transactions you don't understand

How bank fees can go by unnoticed...

PhotoBanks rely more on automation to save money these days, but when machines begin making account calculations instead of humans, a growing number of customers have begun to question the results.

The New York Times reports some customers using an Apple iPad to access Citibank's online bill pay are being charged twice for some transactions, essentially paying the same bills twice. It apparently stems from a bug in the bank's iPad app, according to a bank official interviewed by the Times.

The problem began as early as the summer though Citibank wasn't made aware of it until December.

Mysterious fees

Meanwhile, other customers are increasingly questioning the way Citibank - and other banks - determine fees. For example, Latasha, of Farmington Hills, Mich., said she recently closed her Citibank account.

"Citibank charged me $25 in fees," Latasha told ConsumerAffairs.com. "The first $15 was a general account fee, after the account was closed, and the second was the automatic 10 dollars for the overdraft protection because the accounts were empty at the time."

Keep in mind Latasha didn't overdraw her account. She took her money out of her account and closed it. It isn't clear what the $15 fee was for, but because she had emptied her account in order to close it, it triggered an overdraft fee.

Questions

"If the account were closed, then how could they deduct $15 plus the $10 from my final check from the bank," Latasha said. "It's a bug in their system."

It does seem perplexing that the fees were deducted from the money the bank gave Latasha when she closed her account. That suggests there was money still in the account when the overdraft fee was assessed. Otherwise, how could it be deducted from the account balance Latasha received in the form of a check?

Latasha said she questioned the teller about the fees as she withdrew her money and was told "the account was empty, so they had to activate the overdraft." It might pay Latasha to seek a more detailed explanation from the branch manager.

Overdraft fees are definitely a sore spot for many consumers. Customers at other banks have long complained that they were assessed multiple overdraft fees when only one transaction placed them in a negative balance.

At Citibank, meanwhile, officials say they have fixed the glitch that caused the double payments and the bank will reimburse any fees charged customers due to the double payments.

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Bank of America Fined $1 Billion for Mortgage Fraud

Feds charged bank defrauded the FHA by underwriting loans to unqualified borrowers

Bank of America has agreed to pay $1 billion for "fraudulently and recklessly" underwriting loans to unqualified borrowers, thereby defrauding the Federal...

PhotoBank of America has agreed to pay $1 billion for "fraudulently and recklessly" underwriting loans to unqualified borrowers, thereby defrauding the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).

The wrongdoing was uncovered during the Justice Department's investigation of Bank of America and its Countrywide Financial subsidiary, said Loretta E. Lynch, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York.

“We announce today the largest ever False Claims Act settlement relating to mortgage fraud," Lynch said yesterday. "Through their underwriting and origination of tens of thousands of government-insured loans to unqualified borrowers, Countrywide Financial subsidiaries systematically abused the Federal Housing Administration and became some of the main players in this country’s financial crisis."

Lynch said the settlement "puts lenders on notice that they will face serious financial consequences for violating their obligations under the FHA’s programs.”

Lynch said that since 2009, her office has been investigating the Bank of America’s lending practices to determine whether the bank, through Countrywide, which the bank acquired in 2008, knowingly made loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to unqualified home buyers.

To date, the FHA has incurred hundreds of millions of dollars in damages as a result of this conduct, she said. The investigation also encompassed allegations that the bank and Countrywide defrauded the FHA insurance fund by originating mortgage loans that were based upon inflated appraisals.

Loan modification fund

As part of the settlement, Bank of America will pay $1 billion to resolve the wrongdoing uncovered during the office’s investigation. The settlement will entail an immediate payment of $500 million to provide a recovery for the harm done to the FHA by Countrywide’s conduct. Payment of the second $500 million will be deferred to fund a loan modification program for Countrywide borrowers across the nation with underwater mortgages.

Under the terms of the program, Bank of America will solicit all potentially eligible borrowers and provide a loan modification to anyone with an eligible mortgage who accepts the offer. If, after the expiration of three years, the bank has not met its obligation to apply the full $500 million to provide such relief, any remainder will be paid directly to the United States.

“It is fundamental that lending institutions that earn the authority to directly endorse FHA-insured mortgages apply our standards,” said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. “This is the largest false claims act settlement related to mortgage fraud and will not only compensate FHA but will also ensure assistance for homeowners who have been harmed by Countrywide.”

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Nissan Recalls 2012 Versa Models

May be shifted out of Park without depressing the brake pedal

Nissan is recalling about 37,000 2012 Versa models because of a problem with the shift pattern indicator.The company said that, due to interference betwe...

PhotoNissan is recalling about 37,000 2012 Versa models because of a problem with the shift pattern indicator.

The company said that, due to interference between the shifter rod and the shift knob, the vehicles may be shifted out of the "park" position without depressing the brake pedal, increasing the risk of a crash or injury to a pedestrian.

Nissan dealers will replace the assembly, as needed, at no charge. Owners may contact Nissan at 1-800-647-7261.

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Heart Disease May Be a Risk Factor for Prostate Cancer

May be common causes for the two conditions

Researchers at Duke University say they have found a "significant correlation" between coronary artery disease and prostate cancer, suggesting the two co...

Researchers at Duke University say they have found a "significant correlation" between coronary artery disease and prostate cancer, suggesting the two conditions may have shared causes.

If confirmed that heart disease is a risk factor for prostate cancer, the malignancy might be combated in part by lifestyle changes such as weight loss, exercise and a healthy diet, which are known to prevent heart disease.

"What's good for the heart may be good for the prostate," said Jean-Alfred Thomas II, MD, a post-doctoral fellow in the Division of Urology at Duke and lead author of the study, which appears online this month in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.

Coronary artery disease kills more adults in the United States than any other cause, accounting for one in four deaths. Risk factors include inactivity, obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol, cigarette smoking, and diabetes.

Similarly, prostate cancer is a common killer. It's the second-most lethal cancer for U.S. men, behind lung cancer, with about 240,000 new cases diagnosed a year, and 34,000 deaths. Previous studies exploring the relationship between coronary artery disease and prostate cancer risk have found conflicting results, making it difficult to determine whether the malignancy is fueled by poor lifestyle choices.

Randomized trial

In the current study, the Duke team used data from 6,390 men enrolled in a large study called REDUCE, a four-year, randomized trial to test the prostate cancer risk reduction benefits of a drug called dutasteride.

All the study participants had a prostate biopsy at the two- and four-year marks, regardless of their PSA levels. They also provided a detailed medical history that included their weight, incidence of heart disease, alcohol intake, medication use, and other factors.

Among the men in the study, 547 reported a pre-enrollment history of coronary artery disease. This group of men tended to be older, heavier and less healthy, with higher baseline PSA levels, plus more diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol. The men were also much more likely to develop prostate cancer, even after accounting for all the baseline differences.

Having coronary artery disease increased the men's risk of prostate cancer by 35 percent, with the risk rising over time. The group was 24 percent more likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer within the first two years of the study than men who reported no heart disease, and by four years into the study, this group's prostate cancer risk was 74 percent higher.

"We controlled for a number of risk factors, including hypertension, taking statins, or aspirin," Thomas said. "We don't have a good grasp on what's causing the link, but we are observing this association."

 

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Scammers Now Using Pre-Paid Cards Instead Of Moneygrams

But the scheme still leaves victims holding the bag

When a scammer hooks a victim, they need a way to get money from the unfortunate person without it being traceable or retrievable. For years, Western Union...

PhotoWhen a scammer hooks a victim, they need a way to get money from the unfortunate person without it being traceable or retrievable. For years, Western Union filled that need.

Victims were instructed to wire the money to the scammer and, once they did, the money was gone. In recent years, however, Western Union and a number of law enforcement agencies have taken steps to educate consumers about this danger. As a result, some scammers are looking for new ways to move money.

In Fairfax County, Va., recently, a 70-year old woman fell victim to a sweepstakes scam in which the scammer used pre-paid debit card. Here's how it worked.

The pitch

According to Fairfax County Police, the woman received a telephone call, congratulating her on winning the sweepstakes and telling her she won $3.5 million and a brand new Mercedes Benz. This particular scam usually includes a Mercedes in the phantom winnings - apparently it becomes more real for the victim if it's more than just a large amount of money.

Up until now, this particular incident has been exactly like countless others. But instead of instructing his victim to send money in the form of a Moneygram - for "taxes" of a "processing fee" - the scammer told the woman to purchase $13,000 worth of Green Dot payment cards and give him the account numbers. He could then obtain the money, even though he did not have the cards themselves.

For good measure, the scammer requested the woman's Social Security number, date of birth and other sensitive information, and unfortunately, she complied. By the time a relative intervened, it was too late - the money was gone.

Don't fall for it

It should go without saying that you do not send money, or give information to a stranger, just because they say you have won a prize. You do not have to pay a fee to receive a prize and you cannot win a contest that you did not enter.

And just because you aren't asked to wire money - but instead are asked to transfer money using a pre-paid card - doesn't mean it isn't a scam. It is.

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Trans-Fatty Acid Levels Down Markedly, CDC Reports

58% decline follows requirement that food manufacturers disclosure TFA content

Blood levels of trans–fatty acids (TFAs) in white adults in the U.S. population decreased by 58 percent from 2000 to 2009 according to a Centers for ...

PhotoBlood levels of trans–fatty acids (TFAs) in white adults in the U.S. population decreased by 58 percent from 2000 to 2009 according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study published in the Feb. 8 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

This is the first time CDC researchers have been able to measure trans fats in human blood.

Unlike other dietary fats, trans fats are not essential to human health and do not promote good health. Research has indicated that high consumption of trans–fatty acids is linked to cardiovascular disease in part because TFAs increase LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol).

Changing to a diet low in TFAs may lower LDL cholesterol levels, thus decreasing the risk for cardiovascular disease.

CDC researchers selected participants from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) years 2000 and 2009 to examine trans–fatty acid blood levels before and after the Food and Drug Administration′s 2003 regulation, which took effect in 2006, requiring manufacturers of food and some dietary supplements to list the amount of TFAs on the Nutrition Facts panel of the product label.

During this period, some local and state health departments took steps to help consumers reduce their daily consumption by requiring restaurants to limit their use of TFAs in food and increase public awareness campaigns about the health risks associated with TFAs.

“The 58 percent decline shows substantial progress that should help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease in adults,” said Christopher Portier, Ph.D., director of CDC′s National Center for Environmental Health. “Findings from the CDC study demonstrate the effectiveness of these efforts in reducing blood TFAs and highlight that further reductions in the levels of trans fats must remain an important public health goal.”

The current study provides information for white adults only, and additional CDC studies are under way to examine blood TFAs in other adult race/ethnic groups, children, and adolescents, Dr. Portier added.

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Social Media Enhancing Family Ties, Study Finds

Grandparents, teens say social media help them understand each other

Some of the most enthusiastic users of social media are also some of the oldest ... and some of the youngest. And now a study from AARP and Microsoft Corp....

Some of the most enthusiastic users of social media are also some of the oldest ... and some of the youngest. And now a study from AARP and Microsoft Corp. finds that online communication is helping to bridge the generation gap.

The report cites three key findinsgs:

  • 83 percent of those surveyed (ranging in age from 13 to 75 years old) consider going online to be a “helpful” form of communication among family members.
     
  • 30 percent of grandparents of teens/young adults agree that connecting online has helped them better understand their teen/young adult grandchildren, and 29 percent of teens/young adults say the same about their grandparents.
     
  • Teens agree that the computer increases both the quantity (70 percent) and quality (67 percent) of their communication with family members living far away.

“For decades, baby boomers and other older Americans have valued computers and mobile devices as tools for work, but technology is now playing an increasingly vital role in helping the 50+ population communicate and stay connected to their children, aging parents and other family members,” said Jody Holtzman, Senior Vice President, AARP Thought Leadership. “By enhancing communication across all generations, technology is improving the quality of life for people of all ages.”

Safer surfing

The report also confirms the need for educating all consumers, from teenagers to grandparents, about Internet safety and the steps they can take to help protect themselves online. 

While most respondents — teens, parents and grandparents — wish they knew more about how to keep personal information private (58 percent), and how to safeguard their devices (50 percent), the younger generation wants more information than older respondents about using social networks more safely (38 percent compared to 27 percent). 

There is also a disconnect between how teens deal with online content that makes them feel uncomfortable and their parents’ perception of how they are dealing with such images and information.  Nearly half of parents (49 percent) say their teens know to come to them when they see something online that makes them uncomfortable, yet less than a third of teens (29 percent) say they actually would know to go to their parents to talk about it.

And while 49 percent of parents say the lines of communication between them and their teenage children remain open, only 37 percent of teens agree. 

“Teenagers and young adults are very knowledgeable about technology, but their parents and grandparents often have better judgment and greater wisdom born of experience,” said Jacqueline Beauchere, Director, Trustworthy Computing for Microsoft. “Together, AARP and Microsoft are helping generations of Americans stay connected, and are providing the tools and guidance they need to help each other have safer online experiences.”

Safety tips

AARP and Microsoft offer these tips to help families connect the generations when it comes to online safety:  

1) Use social networks more safely

  • Look for Settings or Options in services like Facebook and Twitter to manage who can see your profile or photos tagged with your name, how people can search for you and make comments, and how to block people. 
  • Don’t post anything you wouldn’t want to see on a billboard. 
  • Be selective about accepting friends; regularly reassess who has access to your pages, and review what they post about you.

2) Help protect sensitive personal information 

  • Before you enter sensitive data, look for signs that a webpage is secure — a web address with “https” and a closed padlock beside it. 
  • Never give sensitive info (like an account number or password) or call a number in response to a request in email or IM or on a social network. 
  • Think carefully before you respond to pleas for money from “family members,” deals that sound too good to be true, or other scams.

3) Parents and grandparents should have regular conversations with kids, keeping communications open: 

  • Negotiate clear guidelines for web, mobile and online game use that fit your children’s maturity level and your family values. 
  • Watch your kids for signs of online bullying, such as being upset when they are online or a reluctance to go to school. 
  • Be the administrator of your home computer; use age-appropriate family safety settings to help you keep track of what your kids are doing online. For example, in all editions of the Windows 7 operating system, you can create separate accounts for each family member. Using Parental Controls (found in Control Panel), you can: 
    • Specify the exact days and times when children can use the computer.
    • Prevent kids from playing certain games, based on title, content, or age-rating.
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Are You Eligible for Assistance Under the Mortgage Servicers Agreement?

The deal is complicated and will take several years to be completed

Who May be Eligible for Assistance Because of the complexity of the mortgage market and this agreement, which will be performed over...

PhotoThe federal-state mortgage servicers agreement announced today is complex and will be carried out over a three-year period. This means that you will not immediately know if you are eligible for relief under the deal.

Oklahoma did not participate in the settlement, so Oklahoma homeowners are not eligible for any of the benefits.

The settlement provides assistance for:

  • Homeowners needing loan modifications now, including first and second lien principal reduction.  The servicers are required to work off up to $17 billion in principal reduction and other forms of loan modification relief nationwide.

    State attorneys general anticipate the settlement’s requirement for principal reduction will show other lenders that principal reduction is one effective tool in combating foreclosure and that it will not lead to widespread defaults by borrowers who really can afford to pay.
  • Borrowers who are current, but underwater.  Borrowers will be able to refinance at today’s historically low interest rates.  Servicers will have to provide up to $3 billion in refinancing relief nationwide.
     
  • Borrowers who lost their homes to foreclosure with no requirement to prove financial harm and without having to release private claims against the servicers or the right to participate in the OCC review process.  $1.5 billion will be distributed nationwide to some 750,000 borrowers.

Timeline

  • Over the next 30 to 60 days, settlement negotiators will be selecting an administrator to handle the logistics of the settlement and monitor compliance.
  • Over the next six to nine months, the settlement administrator, attorneys general and the mortgage servicers will work to identify homeowners eligible for the immediate cash payments, principal reductions and refinancing. Those eligible will receive letters.
  • This settlement will be executed over the next three years.


Where to go 

For loan modifications and refinance options, borrowers may be contacted directly by one of the five participating mortgage servicers. Keeping in mind the timeline above, you may contact the banks directly if you need additional information:

Loans owned by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac are not impacted by this settlement.  You may visit the following websites to learn if your loan is owned by either Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac:

These sites will also include links to information about mortgage and foreclosure programs you may be eligible to access.  You may also call 1-888-995-HOPE (4673)

For borrowers who lost their home to foreclosure between Jan. 1, 2008 and Dec. 31, 2011, a settlement administrator designated by the attorneys general will send claim forms to persons eligible for cash restitution.

If you believe you are eligible for relief under this settlement but are concerned you will be difficult to locate, please contact your Attorney General’s Office

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Feds, States Reach $25 Billion Settlement With Mortgage Servicers

Deal includes restitution and reforms in lending and servicing practices

Federal and state officials have finalized a landmark $25 billion  agreement with the nation’s five largest mortgage servicers over foreclosure ...

Photo
Attorney General Eric Holder

Federal and state officials have finalized a landmark $25 billion  agreement with the nation’s five largest mortgage servicers over foreclosure abuses and fraud, and unacceptable nationwide mortgage servicing practices.

The deal represents the largest government-industry settlement since a multistate deal with the tobacco industry in 1998. Under the agreement, Bank of America, Citibank, JP Morgan Chase, GMAC and Wells Fargo, have agreed to pay a combined $25 billion.

Are you eligible for assistance? More information is available here.

“I helped to negotiate and strongly support the bipartisan settlement reached with the nation’s largest mortgage servicing companies over their widespread and improper foreclosure practices," said Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen. "There are many reasons why I believe this settlement is good for Connecticut, but the most important reason is this: it provides immediate help to thousands of Connecticut homeowners at a time when they can still use that help to save their homes."

Oklahoma was the only state that did not participate in the settlement.

Jepsen was among a bipartisan group of state attorneys general in Washington D.C. participating in the announcement Thursday with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan.

“This agreement – the largest joint federal-state settlement ever obtained – is the result of unprecedented coordination among enforcement agencies throughout the government,” said Attorney General Holder.  “It holds mortgage servicers accountable for abusive practices and requires them to commit more than $20 billion towards financial relief for consumers. 

"As a result, struggling homeowners throughout the country will benefit from reduced principals and refinancing of their loans.  The agreement also requires substantial changes in how servicers do business, which will help to ensure the abuses of the past are not repeated,” Holder said.

Robo-signing

The joint federal-state agreement requires servicers to implement comprehensive new mortgage loan servicing standards and to commit $25 billion to resolve violations of state and federal law. 

These violations include servicers’ use of “robo-signed” affidavits in foreclosure proceedings; deceptive practices in the offering of loan modifications; failures to offer non-foreclosure alternatives before foreclosing on borrowers with federally insured mortgages; and filing improper documentation in federal bankruptcy court.

Under the terms of the agreement, the servicers are required to collectively dedicate $20 billion toward various forms of financial relief to borrowers.  At least $10 billion will go toward reducing the principal on loans for borrowers who, as of the date of the settlement, are either delinquent or at imminent risk of default and owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. 

At least $3 billion will go toward refinancing loans for borrowers who are current on their mortgages but who owe more on their mortgage than their homes are worth.  Borrowers who meet basic criteria will be eligible for the refinancing, which will reduce interest rates for borrowers who are currently paying much higher rates or whose adjustable rate mortgages are due to soon rise to much higher rates. 

Up to $7 billion will go towards other forms of relief, including forbearance of principal for unemployed borrowers, anti-blight programs, short sales and transitional assistance, benefits for service members who are forced to sell their home at a loss as a result of a Permanent Change in Station order, and other programs.  Because servicers will receive only partial credit for every dollar spent on some of the required activities, the settlement will provide direct benefits to borrowers in excess of $20 billion.   

Three years

Mortgage servicers are required to fulfill these obligations within three years.  To encourage servicers to provide relief quickly, there are incentives for relief provided within the first 12 months.  Servicers must reach 75 percent of their targets within the first two years.  Servicers that miss settlement targets and deadlines will be required to pay substantial additional cash amounts.

In addition to the $20 billion in financial relief for borrowers, the agreement requires the servicers to pay $5 billion in cash to the federal and state governments.  $1.5 billion of this payment will be used to establish a Borrower Payment Fund to provide cash payments to borrowers whose homes were sold or taken in foreclosure between Jan. 1, 2008 and Dec. 31, 2011, and who meet other criteria. 

This program is separate from the restitution program currently being administered by federal banking regulators to compensate those who suffered direct financial harm as a result of wrongful servicer conduct.  Borrowers will not release any claims in exchange for a payment. 

The remaining $3.5 billion of the $5 billion payment will go to state and federal governments to be used to repay public funds lost as a result of servicer misconduct and to fund housing counselors, legal aid and other similar public programs determined by the state attorneys general. 

Bank of America

The $5 billion includes a $1 billion resolution of a separate investigation into fraudulent and wrongful conduct by Bank of America and various Countrywide entities related to the origination and underwriting of Federal Housing Administration (FHA)-insured mortgage loans, and systematic inflation of appraisal values concerning these loans, from Jan. 1, 2003 through April 30, 2009. 

Payment of $500 million of this $1 billion will be deferred to partially fund a loan modification program for Countrywide borrowers throughout the nation who are underwater on their mortgages.  This investigation was conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, with the Civil Division’s Commercial Litigation Branch of the Department of Justice, HUD and HUD-OIG. 

The settlement also resolves an investigation by the Eastern District of New York, the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP) and the Federal Housing Finance Agency-Office of the Inspector General (FHFA-OIG) into allegations that Bank of America defrauded the Home Affordable Modification Program. 

Loan servicing 

The joint federal-state agreement requires the mortgage servicers to implement unprecedented changes in how they service mortgage loans, handle foreclosures, and ensure the accuracy of information provided in federal bankruptcy court. 

The agreement requires new servicing standards which will prevent foreclosure abuses of the past, such as robo-signing, improper documentation and lost paperwork, and create dozens of new consumer protections.  The new standards provide for strict oversight of foreclosure processing, including third-party vendors, and new requirements to undertake pre-filing reviews of certain documents filed in bankruptcy court. 

The new servicing standards make foreclosure a last resort by requiring servicers to evaluate homeowners for other loss mitigation options first.  In addition, banks will be restricted from foreclosing while the homeowner is being considered for a loan modification. 

The new standards also include procedures and timelines for reviewing loan modification applications and give homeowners the right to appeal denials.  Servicers will also be required to create a single point of contact for borrowers seeking information about their loans and maintain adequate staff to handle calls.

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TSA Expands Pre-Check Program to More Airports

Pre-approved passengers can save a few minutes in the security line

Tired of shrugging off your shoes and belt each time you slog through the airport security line?  The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is...

PhotoTired of shrugging off your shoes and belt each time you slog through the airport security line?  The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is expanding PreCheck program, which lets pre-approved travelers move through security more quickly.

“TSA PreCheck moves us closer to our goal of delivering the most effective and efficient screening by recognizing that most passengers do not pose a threat to security,” said TSA Administrator John S. Pistole. “We are pleased to expand this important effort, in collaboration with our airline and airport partners, as we move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to a more intelligence-driven, risk-based transportation security system.”

Pistole and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano said the program has screened 336,000 passengers so far at seven pilot locations around the country and is now being expanded to 28 airports in major cities.

They said the concept enhances security by enabling TSA to focus its efforts on passengers the agency knows less about while providing expedited screening for travelers who volunteer information about themselves prior to flying. Also, it means prescreened passengers can avoid taking their shoes off and may even be able to keep their belts on.

Program members’ bags are still run though the x-ray conveyer belt and they are still required to go through a metal detector, but they are not subject to shoe or coat removal requirements and don’t have to remove their laptops or liquids packed in carry-on bags.

Initially, the program will only be available to passengers traveling on US Airways, United Continental, Alaska, American and Delta Airlines.

Eligible participants include some frequent fliers from participating airlines as well as members of the Customs and Border Protection’s Trusted Traveler programs. Those travelers who apply for the program and are approved will get special barcodes on their boarding passes that tell TSA screeners to move them to an expedited screening line.

Frequent travelers can apply through the TSA’s Global Entry program here.

Airports that will be added this year include:

  • Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI)
  • Boston Logan International Airport (BOS)
  • Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT)
  • Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG)
  • Denver International Airport (DEN)
  • Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL)
  • George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH)
  • Honolulu International Airport (HNL)
  • Indianapolis International Airport (IND)
  • John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK)
  • LaGuardia Airport (LGA)
  • Lambert-St. Louis International Airport (STL)
  • Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY)
  • Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU)
  • Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR)
  • O’Hare International Airport (ORD)
  • Orlando International Airport (MCO)
  • Philadelphia International Airport (PHL)
  • Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX)
  • Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT)
  • Portland International Airport (PDX)
  • Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA)
  • Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC)
  • San Francisco International Airport (SFO)
  • Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA)
  • Tampa International Airport (TPA)
  • Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC)
  • Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD)
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Title Company Sued In Foreclosure Probe

States continue to put probe allegations of foreclosure irregularities

The result is a suit by the state against Nationwide Title Clearing (NTC), that accuses the company of filing faulty documents with Illinois county recorde...

PhotoWhen investigators in Illinois began looking into allegations of wrongful foreclosures, they focused on how documents were handled. The result is a suit by the state against Nationwide Title Clearing (NTC), that accuses the company of filing faulty documents with Illinois county recorders.

NTC is a Florida-based company that prepares documents for mortgage servicers to use against borrowers who are in default, foreclosure or bankruptcy.

“The practices that NTC used were a key contributor to the mortgage crisis by undermining the integrity and accuracy of the mortgage servicing and foreclosure process,” Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said.

Serves eight of the top 10 lenders

NTC provides a range of mortgage loan services to eight of the top 10 lenders and mortgage servicers in the country. It specializes in creating, processing and recording mortgage assignments, which are often used for a lender to foreclose on a borrower.

The lawsuit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, alleges numerous violations of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Practices Act and the Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act. Madigan is asking the court to require NTC to review and correct all documents it unlawfully created and recorded in Illinois, and pay back all revenues, profits and gains achieved in whole or in part due to unlawful practices.

The suit also asks the court to impose civil penalties against the company.

Criminal charges in Missouri

The action by Illinois comes as 40 states reached a settlement this week with five major lenders, resolving allegations that “robo-signers” were illegally employed to sign foreclosure documents. In Missouri, a county grand jury has returned a criminal forgery indictment against DocX, a company that prepares foreclosure documents for major banks.

The indictments were the result of months of investigation by the Missouri Attorney General’s Office into the robo-signing scandal that injected thousands of questionable mortgage documents into the market. When the practice began to come to light, several major lenders temporarily suspended foreclosures in 2010.

DOCX’s role in the robo-signing process came to national attention when 60 Minutes reported that Linda Green, an employee of DOCX, purportedly signed thousands of mortgage-related documents on behalf of several different banks and in multiple handwritings.  The 68 documents on which the indictments are based were purportedly signed by Linda Green, but were allegedly signed by someone else.  

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Video: The New Droid 4

Latest Droid smartphone debuts Friday at Verizon

A preview of the Driod 4...

Motorola's latest smartphone, the Droid 4, goes on sale at Verizon Wireless stores tomorrow (Friday) after turning heads at January's Consumer Electronics Show. The phone has a lot of the same things as other top of the line smartphones, but something extra as well – a real keyboard.

 

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Beware Of Tax Preparation Scams

New York attorney general warns complaints are on the rise

How to avoid tax scams...

PhotoAs taxpayers begin to receive W-2 forms, Internal Revenue Service (IRS) impersonation schemes tend to flourish. For example, scammers prey on seniors or college students by impersonating tax authorities, solicit follow up information on a tax form, and collect identification numbers and social security information, which is then used to steal people’s money or identities.

Some scammers have even gone to the extreme of using spoofing technology to make their caller ID numbers come up to look like they are from the IRS. The New York Attorney General’s regional offices report multiple complaints from consumers about tax preparation schemes like these.

The good news is that you can help shut down these schemes and prevent others from being victimized. If you receive a suspicious e-mail that claims to come from the IRS, you can relay that e-mail to a new IRS mailbox, phishing@irs.gov.

Follow instructions in the link for sending the bogus e-mail to ensure that it retains critical elements found in the original e-mail. The IRS can use the information, URLs and links in the suspicious e-mails you send to trace the hosting Web site and alert authorities to help shut down the fraudulent sites. Unfortunately, due to the expected volume, the IRS will not be able to acknowledge receipt or respond to you.

Deceptive practices

In addition to these scams, there are tax preparation businesses that take advantage of consumers through a variety of other deceptive practices. One common tactic is to advertise low fees to get the customer in the door, only to increase the final fee by hundreds of dollars, claiming the tax return was more complicated.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says there are also offers of "instant cash" to help a consumer pay bills while waiting for their refund, but they can come with undisclosed fees and high interest rates. In addition, some business are just not equipped to handle the volume of business they take in, resulting in delays in getting the refund that one paid a premium to get "fast."

“Preying on the desperation of people in a tough economy is unconscionable,” Schneiderman said. “While there are plenty of legitimate and law-abiding tax preparers doing business, there are some who use the allure of fast cash to take advantage of unsuspecting consumers. When hiring tax preparation services, consumers must have as much information as possible to protect themselves from fraud, and should file a complaint if they feel they've been victimized.”

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What's On Your Mind? AOL, Budget Rent-A-Car, Skype

Our daily look at consumer reviews

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

PhotoSome services are notoriously hard to cancel. AOL is one, according to the many complaints received by ConsumerAffairs.com.

“I found out in December of 2011 that AOL was taking funds from my account,”Craig, of Pasadena, Md., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I cancelled my service over eight years ago. So I called many times to tell them this was cancelled but I got nowhere. I just received a bill for December and January because I had my bank block them. What can I do!

Craig should write a letter to AOL at this address: AOL, P.O. Box 65100, Sterling, VA 20165-8800

Specify that you're cancelling, give your full name, phone number, address and signature, and either the primary billing contact's AOL screenname or the last four digits of the current payment method. It's a good idea to send it registered or certified, and retain a copy for your file.

Keep a copy of the letter and, when you get the delivery receipt, keep that together with the letter. If that doesn't do the trick, you can sue the company in small claims court, complain to your state's attorney general and to the Federal Trade Commission.

Always check the paperwork

At the rental counter, a clerk may ask you a series of questions and then fill in the form with your answers. Or at least, you hope they are your answers.

“I was careful to verbally decline the LDW coverage at the Budget Rent-A-Car counter when renting a car for one day in in Las Vegas recently. I was also careful to return the car within the 26 hour timeframe that the paperwork clearly stated was allowed, including a 26 hour grace period,” said Mark, of Madison, Wisc. “However, when I returned the car the next day, I was unpleasantly surprised to notice that not only had they deceptively charged me for the declined LDW coverage, they actually charged me for TWO days of coverage. Apparently somewhere in the fine print it notes there is no grace period for LDW coverage. When I raised the issue, they pointed out that I had initialed a box indicating acceptance of LDW coverage. Shame on me for not reading the paperwork carefully enough - I guess I trusted the woman at the counter to fill in the form based on my verbal responses to her questions.”

Most of us don't both to read the rental car agreement, but with the increased possibility of extra charges these days, it's wise to make the time.

Unwelcome calls

In late January, Randy, of Mississauga, Ontario said he received two strange calls on his Skype app., both from women in Ghana, Africa.

“The first female was begging me for money, told me her parents were dead and she had no job,” Randy said. “The second call was also a female who told me she needed a husband and could I help her with money problems. She also asked for my Skype password, and when I refused she was upset and changed her attitude toward me!”

Randy is wondering if his account has been hacked. He says he's changed his credit cards and his passwords. Anyone else having this experience?

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Property Tax 'Consultants' Thrive in a Gloomy Market

Connecticut is the latest to question mass mailings by out-of-state firm

Connecticut is the latest state to look into services that claim they can help homeowners save money on their property taxes.Connecticut Attorney Gener...

PhotoConnecticut is the latest state to look into services that claim they can help homeowners save money on their property taxes. Companies that claim to be expert property tax consultants have been doing quite nicely in an era of plunging real estate values but consumer protection officials in several states warn that many of the services do little or nothing to earn their fee.

Texas, California and other states have also cracked down on mass mailings and Internet ads claiming that consumers are guaranteed to save big bucks on their taxes.

Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen is asking ValueAppeal LLC, of  Seattle, for more information about the property tax appeal services it has been offering to Connecticut consumers after complaints were raised about the company in New Britain.

New Britain officials challenged the accuracy of the information in the letters ValueAppeal LLC purportedly sent to local property owners. The letters represented that consumers' properties were over-assessed, calculated the amount of the over-assessment and any tax overpayment and offered to process an appeal of the assessment for a one-time fee of at least $99.

Jepsen wrote yesterday to ValueAppeal’s chief executive officer asking for information about any business it has done in Connecticut since Jan. 1, 2011. Among other questions, the Attorney General asked the company to explain how it determines that properties are over-assessed, as well as to fully describe the services it provides in exchange for payment.

The Attorney General also asked about the number of Connecticut residents solicited, the number of residents who used the service and the number who successfully appealed their local tax assessments.

“This information is important to help my office evaluate whether Connecticut residents are being offered valid business services for the fees charged or, instead, are being deceived,” Jepsen said. The company was asked to respond before the end of the month.

Caution urged

Jepsen's concerns are similar to those voiced last year by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who noted that while some municipalities were still valuing property for tax purposes at bubble levels, that doesn't mean homeowners should rush out and hire a property tax consultant.

In a 2009 case, Texas investigators found that O'Connor's representatives routinely - and improperly - filed property tax protests without the actual homeowners' consent. Sometimes, O'Connor representatives failed to appear on their clients' behalf at scheduled tax protest hearings.

As a result, property owners who thought O'Connor & Associates was formally representing them at appraisal district hearings lost valuable tax protest rights.

California in 2009 sued two brothers who authorities say "ripped off homeowners" seeking help in reducing their property tax assessments are in hot water. California filed suit against Sean and Michael McConville and their businesses, "Property Tax Reassessment" and "Property Tax Adjustment Services," seeking an end to the scam and at least $2.5 million in civil penalties.

What to do

What should you do if you think your property tax bill is too high?  Some jurisidctions adjust assessments every year but many do not. That could mean your home is worth less than the local tax assessor believes.

However, unless the assessor takes it upon himself or herself to update property values, against which taxes are typically levied, it's up to you to appeal your tax bill.  This is something you can do yourself -- and it is most assuredly not something you should hire an out-of-state company to do for you without going through some very rigorous investigation of the company's credentials and track record.

Keep in mind that the property tax procedure is strictly local, administered by your town, city, county, township or whatever jurisdiction may apply in your area. There is no one-size-fits-all procedure. 

The best way to start is to visit your local town hall or county building to learn the local system, its rules and your rights to appeal. Don't assume the assessor isn't already at work for you, but also don't assume he or she is. In many areas, assessors are elected, so they're motivated to be responsive to homeowners.  Even if they're not elected, their bosses -- the city or county council -- are looking over their shoulder, so you shouldn't have too much trouble getting answers.

The Federation of Tax Administrators can point you to your property tax assessor or administrator where you can get all the details you need for appealing your property tax.

Many are behind

Keep in mind also that, with all the turmoil in the real estate market the last few years, many assessors are having trouble keeping up, so even with the best intentions they may not have reassessed your property as often as they should have. 

Be polite and factual in your dealings.  Browbeating the assessor and his or her staff isn't likely to produce a good outcome. 

Assessments are based on the value of the property and the buildings that sit on that property.  One way that value is determined is by the sales price of other, similar properties in your neighborhood.

So, if you're surrounded by new McMansions that are selling for $700,000 and up, don't expect your assessment to be $150,000, even if your house is older and smaller than the new ones.  By the same token, if sales prices have plummeted in your area, your assessment should reflect that. You can request that the assessor survey recent prices in your neighborhood if he hasn't already done so.

Don't bother pointing out that your garage needs a new roof.  That's your problem, not the tax assessor's.

 

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Walmart Adds Icon to Help Shoppers Choose Healthier Foods

"Great For You" icon identifies low-fat, high-fiber products

Walmart is adding an icon to its private label food products to help shoppers pick healthier foods, the company announced at an event in Washington, D.C., ...

PhotoWalmart is adding an icon to its private label food products to help shoppers pick healthier foods, the company announced at an event in Washington, D.C., today. The "Great For You" icon will initially appear on select Walmart Great Value and Marketside items, as well as on fresh and packaged fruits and vegetables at Walmart U.S. stores nationwide this spring.

“Walmart moms are telling us they want to make healthier choices for their families, but need help deciphering all the claims and information already displayed on products,” said Andrea Thomas, senior vice president of sustainability at Walmart. “Our ‘Great For You’ icon provides customers with an easy way to quickly identify healthier food choices. As they continue to balance busy schedules and tight budgets, this simple tool encourages families to have a healthier diet.”

“Today’s announcement by Walmart is yet another step toward ensuring that our kids are given the chance to grow up healthy,” said First Lady Michelle Obama. “Just over a year ago, Walmart committed to save shoppers a billion dollars in their cost of fruits and vegetables and the fact that Walmart exceeded this number is a real accomplishment and a milestone in our efforts to support families eating better. In addition, the healthy seal will be another tool for parents to identify the best products for their kids. Giving parents the information they need to make healthy choices is a key piece of solving childhood obesity.”

Walmart, the nation's largest grocer, said Items with the “Great For You” icon must meet rigorous nutrition criteria informed by the latest nutrition science and authoritative guidance from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Institute of Medicine (IOM).

Developed in consultation with food and nutrition experts from the public and private sectors as well as leading health organizations, the “Great For You” nutrition criteria are available to the public on the web (www.walmartgreatforyou.com), representing a collaborative and transparent effort to develop a trusted and reliable system for consumers. The icon will also be made available to national brand products that qualify and can be complementary to other nutrition labeling systems being used by the food industry.

“Walmart’s effort to bring healthier food to kitchen tables nationwide was inspired by our customers and informed by the latest food science and policy,” said Leslie Dach, executive vice president of corporate affairs at Walmart. “Last year we stood with the First Lady and showed how Walmart, working with its suppliers, the public sector and non-governmental organizations, can truly make a difference in people’s lives.”

Two-step process

The icon serves as a guide to help people make incremental changes to their diet by encouraging more nutritious food choices. The science-based criteria use a two-step process: Step one focuses on encouraging people to eat more fruits, vegetables, fiber-rich whole grains, low-fat dairy, nuts and seeds and lean meats.

Examples of these items include brown rice, 1 percent milk, raw almonds and 93 percent lean ground beef. Step two limits the amount of total, trans and saturated fats, sodium and added sugars that can be found in items such as sweetened oatmeal, granola bars, flavored yogurt and frozen meals.

“When it comes to food, our customers want a variety of choices, but they also want help identifying healthier options. Customers asked us to make healthier food choices easy while keeping prices low,” said Jack Sinclair, executive vice president of grocery for Walmart. “The nutritionists we engaged told us to make the criteria tough and significant. We feel confident the ‘Great For You’ icon balances those objectives, and will become an important tool Walmart shoppers can use to fill their pantries with healthier food at prices our customers can afford.”

The development of the “Great For You” icon is part of an initiative Walmart launched in 2011 to make food healthier and healthier food more affordable. The initiative includes reformulating packaged food to reduce sodium and added sugars and eliminate industrially produced fats by 2015; making healthier food more affordable by providing savings on produce and reducing the price premium on better-for-you food items; developing solutions for food deserts; and increasing charitable support for nutrition education programs.

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Mitsubishi Electric i-MIEV Takes "Greenest Car" Title

Ousts eight-time winner Honda Civic Natural Gas model

With the auto industry back on its feet and fuel economy standards shifting into high gear, automakers provided American consumers with...

PhotoNatural gas is starting to capture public attention as an alternative fuel for cars but that didn't help the Honda Civic Natural Gas model, which lost its eight-year hold on the "Greenest Car" list compiled by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE).

Replacing the Honda NG is the Mitsubishi i-MIEV battery electric vehicle, which earned a score of 58, the highest since the rankings began in 1998. With a combined city and highway fuel economy of 112 miles per gallon equivalent, the i-MIEV outpaces all other vehicles currently sold in United States.

“Even taking into account the emissions generated from the electricity used to power the i-MIEV, it still handily outscores other vehicles on the market today,” said ACEEE lead vehicle analyst Shruti Vaidyanathan.

The Honda Civic Natural Gas, despite its improved fuel economy this year, appears in second place, tied with the Nissan Leaf. Rounding out the top six are the Toyota Prius, the Honda Insight, and the Smart ForTwo.

Photo

Hybrids top the list

This year, hybrids dominate the “Greenest” list occupying half of all spots. Highly efficient conventional gasoline vehicles also continue to have a presence on the “Greenest” list, claiming three of the top twelve spots.

“It’s increasingly obvious that automakers are fully invested in providing consumers with the widest possible array of vehicle choices. Earning a spot on the “Greenest” list is proving to be a real challenge for automakers given the variety of vehicle technologies on the market and the proliferation of highly efficient conventional vehicles. Just using the latest technology does not guarantee a top spot,” said Vaidyanathan. This year saw the arrival of a number of new hybrid options for drivers from Hyundai, Kia, and Infiniti, but none broke into the top twelve.

Greenercars.org analyzes vehicles on the basis of a “Green Score,” a singular measure that incorporates unhealthy tailpipe emissions, fuel consumption, and emissions of gases that contribute to climate change. 

This year, a number of updates were made to the Green Book methodology to more accurately estimate vehicles’ environmental impacts. These include improved emissions estimates for the vehicle manufacturing process, changes reflecting current natural gas extraction practices, and consideration of upcoming shifts in the generation mix for the electricity used to power electric cars.

Greenest & meanest

The greenercars.org website also identifies top, widely-available models in each vehicle class. This “Greener Choices” list includes trucks and SUVs such as the Chevrolet Equinox, GMC Canyon, Honda Odyssey, and the Ford F-150. Cars such as the Chevrolet Sonic-5 and Hyundai Sonata top their respective classes. As the list demonstrates, consumers can make “greener choices” whatever their vehicle needs may be. Domestic manufacturers claimed five of the twelve spots.

The “Meanest” list this year sees a number of heavier light-duty vehicles, pushing out European sports cars as the highest emitters. The dirtiest vehicles for 2012 are the twin Chevrolet G3500 Express and GMC G3500 Savana cargo vans, followed by the Ford E-350 Wagon and the Bugatti Veyron sports car.

 

 
 
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Who Is Eligible To Use Tax From 1040EZ?

Using the short form can save time and money

Using the Form 1040EZ...

PhotoAs you prepare to file your 2011 federal tax return, you must first decide which form to use. While every taxpayer may use Form 1040, there are advantages to using Form 1040EZ, also known as “the short form,” if you qualify.

The advantage lies in the ease of filling it out. It doesn't require as much information and can be completed in a shorter amount of time.

Because it's so simple, you may be able to fill it out yourself, saving the cost of a tax preparer. If you pay to have your taxes prepared anyway, it will take less time and should cost less than a regular Form 1040 return.

Generally, you may use the short form if you are single, or married filing jointly; you do not claim any dependents; and you do not claim any adjustments to your income.

While there are benefits to Form 1040EZ, the Internal Revenue Service points out there can be disadvantages too. Some tax benefits can only be accessed by using Form 1040 or Form 1040A, so if you fall in certain categories, it may pay you to go to the extra time and expense of using those forms.

For example, you might be able to claim a bigger refund under the Earned Income Credit (EIC) if you file using Form 1040 or Form 1040A. This tax year, the maximum adjusted gross income you can have and still get the credit has increased.

Form 1040EZ is best used when you have salary from one or more jobs, taxable interest that is less than $1,500, or unemployment compensation. You may also claim the EIC using the short form, but the credit is computed on a separate worksheet.  

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Top 10 Sources Of Sodium In Your Diet

CDC urges consumers to watch the salt

Health experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are sounding the alarm over sodium. Almost all Americans, they say, consume more of ...

PhotoHealth experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are sounding the alarm over sodium. Almost all Americans, they say, consume more of it in their diets than they should.

Too much sodium increases a person's risk for high blood pressure. High blood pressure often leads to heart disease, stroke, and other vascular diseases.

Most consumers don't coat their food with salt and therefore, are not aware of how much sodium they are consuming. Most of our daily sodium intake comes from processed foods and meals served in restaurants.

What are the biggest sources of excess sodium? The CDC counts 10.

  • Bread and rolls
  • Luncheon meat
  • Pizza
  • Poultry
  • Soup
  • Cheeseburgers and other sandwiches
  • Cheese
  • Pasta dishes
  • Meat dishes such as meat loaf
  • Snack foods such as chips and popcorn

Bread can be a killer

Some foods that are consumed several times a day, such as bread, add up to a lot of sodium even though each serving is not high in sodium.

“Too much sodium raises blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke,” said CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “These diseases kill more than 800,000 Americans each year and contribute an estimated $273 billion in health care costs.”

The report notes that the average person consumes about 3,300 milligrams of sodium per day, not including any salt added at the table. That's twice the recommended daily limit for about 50 percent of the population.

The recommendation is 1,500 milligrams per day for people aged 51 and older, and anyone with high blood pressure, diabetes, and chronic kidney disease, and African Americans. The CDC has a special section of its website that can help you reduce sodium in your diet.

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Seniors Group Opposes Pharmacy Merger

Worries that it will impact older consumers

60 Plus opposes merger of Express Scripts and Medco...

PhotoPhotoThe 60 Plus Association, a conservative advocacy group, is asking the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to block the proposed merger between Express Scripts, Inc. (ESI) and Medco Health Solutions, two pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) that administer prescription benefits for many health plans, including some Medicare Part D plans.

In a letter to the FTC, the group outlined its concerns about the impact of an approved merger on seniors, in particular.

"Seniors tend to have more chronic conditions and take more medication than other age groups, and are especially sensitive to changes in the pharmaceutical-drug sector of the health market," the letter states. "When seniors lose access to community pharmacies because they are no longer part of a PBM network or go out of business, or when they are forced into a mail-order program, their health and safety is at risk.”

Concerns about impact

Seniors rely on local pharmacists for information, advice and counseling about their medications and possible side effects and drug interactions. Without this one-on-one counseling from a trusted pharmacist, some seniors will experience adverse drug reactions and health complications."

60 Plus said it is concerned that more seniors will be forced into the mail-order programs and lose access to local pharmacies, on whom they rely for information and advice. Some are already expressing frustration.

“I am a caregiver of my parents, who do not have or understand the Internet yet Medco wants them to go online to pay their bill so their much needed medication will not be held up any longer than necessary,” Gail, of Milwaukee, Wis., told ConsumerAffairs.com. It seems Medco will not send out any meds if their balance reaches $100? What? Excuse me? Never have they ever been behind in any kind of payment ever! Dad is fresh out of the hospital, after a three month stint from a bout of pancreatitis. That was when the doctors weren't sure he'd survive, yet, as stubborn as he is, he is still with us, but not through any help or concern of Medco.”

Too much control?

If the merger is approved, 60 Plus says the combined ESI/Medco will control prescription drug benefits for more than 100 million Americans, and more than 50 percent of several important components of the pharmacy market, including specialty pharmaceuticals and mail-order. The group calls that “monopolistic control,” and says it will eventually result in higher prices for all consumers.

"For seniors, the ESI/Medco merger will mean higher prescription prices, fewer choices in pharmacy care, and lower-quality health services than are currently available," said Jim Martin, 60 Plus Association Chairman. "This merger is anti-competitive, anti-consumer and anti-senior, and should not be allowed to proceed."

Noting that it is politically conservative and supports free enterprise, 60 Plus nonetheless says is also supports consumer choice and the well-being of seniors. The ESI/Medco merger, it says, would give two players in the PBM industry an unfair advantage in market share and setting prices. The result: higher prices, loss of pharmacy choices and lower-quality services for seniors.

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Free Online Course Helps Students Plan College Financing

Course also offers financial literacy instruction

New website helps students plan for college financing...

PhotoA big hurdle to getting a college education is finding a way to pay for it. It also helps if you choose the right school. Where do you turn to for advice?

Wichita State University has launched a free online course for prospective students that teaches personal financial management topics for students who are new to college and or considering college. 

Choosing the right college

Part one of the course helps students and families make wise decisions about which college to attend and how to pay for it. Lisa, of Owensboro, Ky., might have benefited from such a course.

“I had talked to an advisor that sugar coated everything to do with University of Phoenix,” Lisa told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Once I started taking the classes on line, if I needed help, the instructors weren't there to help. I had a sick granddaughter I was raising. It got to the point where I couldn't get on line to take the classes. I've ended up with $11000 in student loans.”

Luana, of Newark, N.J., enrolled in a for-profit college to pursue an associates degree, when a community college would have been a fraction of the cost.

“I was happy looking forward to get my associates degree with a technical course and avoided the idea of going to a regular county college for the same credits,” Luana said. “Turns out, no institution accepts my credit and at 24 I have to start over, from scratch, as if I had just graduated high school and attend a county college which is something I should have done from the get-go and saved $35,000 tuition that I paid to attend Gibbs College.”

Using money wisely

Part two of the free website helps students wisely manage money while in college and beyond. The course includes "game-ification" features and also allows users to post status updates about their progress in the course to Facebook and Twitter.

Money for the website comes from the federally funded College Access Challenge Grant, the purpose of which is to promote college completion by providing financial literacy education.

"Given the growing public concern with the cost of attending college and the fact that financial difficulties force many students to discontinue their studies, financial literacy education is critical to national efforts to educate more students," said Keith Pickus, interim provost at Wichita State.

Financial literacy is key

Liz Weston, a nationally syndicated personal finance columnist, agrees that financial literacy is necessary for a student's future. She says a college education is an essential first step for a person who wants to build a secure future.

"But the value of that degree is undermined when students and their families go too far into debt to get it," Weston said. "Students and their families need to make smart choices about getting an education they can afford. Students also need to make sure they manage their money wisely while they're in college so they don't graduate with piles of credit card or other debt. Financial literacy courses can help people make good decisions in college and afterward."

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Natural Gas Becoming Popular Among Oklahoma Motorists

Clean-burning and cheap, CNG is hard to find in most of the country

A CNG pump at a Love's Travel Stop in OklahomaAmidst all the talk and campaign promises about clean energy, not to mention federal gran...

Photo
A CNG pump at a Love's Travel Stop in Oklahoma

Amidst all the talk and campaign promises about clean energy, not to mention federal grants and tax breaks for hybrid cars, solar plants and wind farms, compressed natural gas (CNG) has been proving itself a workable alternative in one state where it's been widely adopted.

For a variety of local reasons, Oklahoma has become the poster child for CNG, which is available at many of the truck stops, service stations and convenience stores in the state. 

"A retailer today in Oklahoma can sell CNG for $1.39 a gallon," said Norman Herrera, Chesapeake Energy's director of market development, according to Convenience Store News. "The gasoline price may be $3.50. CNG compares really favorably to gasoline."

Environmentalists aren't sold on natural gas because it is a fossil fuel and the environmental cost of extracting it can be high. But it's clean-burning and cheap for those who are able to use it.

No cars

But the biggest barrier to widespread adoption of CNG to fuel consumers' cars is its limited availability in much of the country, followed by a lack of cars equipped to burn it. Though it's increasingly used by buses, trucks and other fleet vehicles, CNG is not yet a common option on passenger cars.

The Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana vans accept natural gas and are affordable, with price tags starting at $24,985 and $28,940, respectively. But consumers may not be interested in purchasing vans that look like commercial vehicles.

General Motors will produce a natural gas-accepting Chevy Silverado later this year, Herrera said.  It will be equipped to handle both gasoline and CNG. The sticker price is not yet known.

Honda's Civic NG has been available for 13 years and gets an estimated 27/38 mpg rating.  But only 13,000 have been sold in all 13 years. Many of those are used by meter maids and other fleet users.

Few options

So, for now, consumers searching for higher mileage and lower fuel costs have a choice: they can buy one of the few CNG-equipped vehicles or convert their own car to run on CNG.  Then there's the problem of finding CNG pumps. For that, you may have to get a job as a meter maid.

Or maybe you'd sooner move to Oklahoma.

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Men Who Smoke Face More Rapid Cognitive Decline

Smoking increasingly recognized as a risk factor for dementia in men

Smoking in men appears to be associated with more rapid cognitive decline, according to researchers in London....

PhotoSmoking in men appears to be associated with more rapid cognitive decline, according to researchers in London.
 
Smoking is increasingly recognized as a risk factor for dementia in the elderly and the number of dementia cases worldwide, estimated at 36 million in 2010, is on the rise and is projected to double every 20 years, the authors write in their study background, published Online First by Archives of General Psychiatry, one of theJAMA/Archives journals.

Séverine Sabia, Ph.D., of University College London, and colleagues used the Whitehall II cohort study, which is based on employees of the British Civil Service. The authors examined the association between smoking history and cognitive decline in the transition from midlife to old age. Data were obtained from 5,099 men and 2,137 women in the Whitehall II study, with a mean (average) age of 56 years at the first cognitive assessment.

In the current study, researchers analyzed data using six assessments of smoking status over 25 years and three cognitive assessments over 10 years.

The authors note their analysis presents four key findings. They suggest smoking in men is associated with more rapid cognitive decline and that men who continued to smoke over the follow-up experienced greater decline in all cognitive tests.

May be underestimated

In addition, men who quit smoking in the 10 years preceding the first cognitive measure were still at risk of greater cognitive decline, especially in executive function (an umbrella term for various complex cognitive processes involved in achieving a particular goal). However, long-term ex-smokers did not show faster cognitive decline.

"Finally, our results show that the association between smoking and cognition, particularly at older ages, is likely to be underestimated owing to higher risk of death and dropout among smokers," the authors comment.

The authors also note that their results show no association between smoking and cognitive decline in women, although the underlying reasons remain unclear. They suggest one explanation for the sex difference they observed might be the greater quantity of tobacco smoked by men. 

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$1 Million Fine for False Seafood Labeling

Was it grouper or was it catfish?

California Seafood Corporation Sentenced to Pay $1 Million for False Labeling of Seafood Products WASHINGTON – Seafood Solutions Inc.,...

PhotoSeafood Solutions Inc., a California corporation, was sentenced in federal court in Los Angeles to pay $1 million in fines and community service payments for its role in the false labeling of frozen fish fillets.  
 
The corporation was fined $700,000 and ordered to make a community service donation of $300,000 to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.   The money is to be used to fund projects related to methodologies, databases and other research into the identification of marine organisms.   
 
In addition, the company was sentenced to three years of probation, was ordered to forfeit all remaining inventory of the falsely labeled fish and to develop and implement a corporate compliance plan.

The sentence stemmed from the conviction of Seafood Solutions on July 25, 2011, on a single count of trafficking in fish knowing that the fish had been transported and sold in violation of the U.S. Lacey Act.  Specifically, the fish was Pangasius hypophthalmus, a species in the catfish family that were misleadingly labeled as “Paradise Grouper” and “Falcon Baie Grouper.”   Seafood Solutions was one of three defendants named in the same charging document.   

According to the plea agreements, in approximately June 2004, Seafood Solutions began to sell a fish it declared to customs as “ponga.”   The fish being imported as ponga was Pangasius hypophthalmus, a species in the catfish family.   The fish was then sold under the brand names, and in boxes labeled in part as, “Paradise Grouper” and “Falcon Baie Grouper.”

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Study Finds Soy Supplements Did Not Protect Against Breast Cancer

Findings consistent with earlier studies, researchers say

Soy isoflavone supplements did not decrease breast cancer cell proliferation in a randomized clinical trial, according to a study published in Cancer ...

PhotoSoy isoflavone supplements did not decrease breast cancer cell proliferation in a randomized clinical trial, according to a study published in Cancer Prevention Research.

Lead researcher Seema A. Khan, M.D., professor of surgery at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, said the results of this study are consistent with the findings of previous studies that were designed to test cancer prevention benefits of dietary supplements.

"Simply put, supplements are not food. Although soy-based foods appear to have a protective effect, we are not seeing the same effect with supplementation using isolated components of soy, so the continued testing of soy supplements is likely not worthwhile," said Khan.

Khan said that beta-carotene and selenium supplementation have also been shown to lack benefit in lung cancer prevention studies.

Complex foods

"Foods are very complex and there are likely traveling companions that we haven't identified that are protecting against cancer," said Khan.

For the current study, Khan and colleagues randomly assigned 98 women to receive a mixed soy isoflavones supplement or placebo. Isoflavones are components of soy foods that were expected to have anti-estrogen activity.

These women had more than 4,000 breast cancer epithelial cells identified by fine needle aspiration biopsy. At six months, researchers evaluated the levels of Ki-67, an established protein marker of cancer cell growth. In the overall population, no difference was seen after six months in either group.

However, among pre-menopausal women, the level of Ki-67 increased from 1.71 to 2.18, suggesting a negative effect of the supplementation.

"This was a small finding, but one that should suggest caution," said Khan.

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Report: Little Science Behind Online Dating Sites

Researchers say dating sites could be a lot better

Researchers find little science behind online dating services...

PhotoUnheard-of just twenty years ago, online dating is now a billion-dollar industry and one of the most common ways for singles to meet potential partners. There are now hundreds of dating sites, all promising to help their clients meet the person of their dreams.

While some people find happiness with an online romance, many more do not.

“My sister paid for a three-month membership for me as birthday gift,” Mary, of Denver, Colo., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I was contacted by a gentleman from another state who really put on the pressure for me to meet him in a grocery store parking lot. I felt extremely unsafe, so I discontinued the conversation. The next day, the account he used came up as a woman from another state.”

In a report to be published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of researchers takes a look at online dating sites, identifying the ways in which online dating may benefit or undermine singles’ romantic outcomes.

Beware of pitfalls

Lead author Eli Finkel, Associate Professor of Social Psychology at Northwestern University, says that online dating is a “marvelous addition to the ways in which singles can meet potential romantic partners,” but he warns that users need to be aware of its many pitfalls. Falling victim to a scam is one of those pitfalls.

Scammers increasingly use online dating sites to establish an emotional link with someone, often spending weeks cultivating the relationship before requesting money.

“I have been scammed by someone on Match.com,” said Stephanie, of Covington, Va. “I met this 'man' online. I never met him in person, but fell for his lies completely and was scammed out of thousands of dollars.”

Some online dating sites claim that they possess an exclusive formula, a so-called “matching algorithm,” that can match singles with partners who are especially compatible with them. But, after systematically reviewing the evidence, the authors conclude that such claims are unsubstantiated and likely false.

No compelling evidence

“To date, there is no compelling evidence that any online dating matching algorithm actually works,” Finkel said. “If dating sites want to claim that their matching algorithm is scientifically valid, they need to adhere to the standards of science, which is something they have uniformly failed to do. In fact, our report concludes that it is unlikely that their algorithms can work, even in principle, given the limitations of the sorts of matching procedures that these sites use.”

eHarmony.com promotes its personality questionnaire, designed to match couples for compatibility. But it, too, has its share of doubters.

“The matches weren't based on the profile and there were a lot of days when there were no matches at all,” Nanette, of Scottsdale, Ariz., said.

Harry Reis, another of the five co-authors of the study and professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, says any dating site's scientific claims “should be given little credence.” At the same time, though, he thinks the concept just needs more work.

Just a few tweaks?

“Online dating is definitely a new and much needed twist on relationships,” Reis said. “The Internet holds great promise for helping adults form healthy and supportive romantic partnerships, and those relationships are one of the best predictors of emotional and physical health.”

Given the potentially serious consequences of intervening in people’s romantic lives, the authors said they hope that their report will push companies to build a more rigorous scientific foundation for online dating services. It recommends the creation of a panel that would grade the scientific credibility of each online dating site.

“Thus far, the industry certainly does not get an A for effort,” said Finkel. “For years, the online dating industry has ignored actual relationship science in favor of unsubstantiated claims and buzzwords, like ‘matching algorithms,’ that merely sound scientific.”

The 64-page analysis reviews more than 400 psychology studies and public interest surveys, painting what the authors call a full and fascinating picture of an industry that, according to one industry estimate, attracted 25 million unique users around the world in April 2011 alone. The report was commissioned by the Association for Psychological Science.

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FTC Warns Mobile Apps May Violate Credit Reporting Laws

Agency writes to marketers of six background-screening apps

The Federal Trade Commission has warned marketers of six mobile applications that provide background screening apps that they may be violating th...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission has warned marketers of six mobile applications that provide background screening apps that they may be violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

The FTC warned the apps marketers that, if they have reason to believe the background reports they provide are being used for employment screening, housing, credit, or other similar purposes, they must comply with the FCRA.

The agency did not reveal the names of the apps or their marketers.

According to the FTC, some of the apps include criminal record histories, which bear on an individual's character and general reputation and are precisely the type of information that is typically used in employment and tenant screening.

"If you have reason to believe that your background reports are being used for employment or other FCRA purposes, you and your customers who are using your reports for such purposes must comply with the FCRA," the letters say.

The FCRA is designed to protect the privacy of consumer report information and ensure that the information supplied by consumer reporting agencies is accurate. Consumer reports are communications that include information on an individual's character, reputation, or personal characteristics and are used or expected to be used for purposes such as employment, housing or credit.

Under the FCRA, operations that assemble or evaluate information to provide to third parties qualify as consumer reporting agencies, or CRAs. Mobile apps that supply such information may qualify as CRAs under the Act.

CRAs must take reasonable steps to ensure the user of each report has a 'permissible purpose' to use the report; take reasonable steps to ensure the maximum possible accuracy of the information conveyed in its reports; and provide users of its reports with information about their obligations under the FCRA.

In the case of consumer reports provided for employment purposes, for example, CRAs must provide employers with information regarding their obligation to provide notice to employees and applicants of any adverse action taken on the basis of a consumer report.

According to the letters, the agency has made no determination whether the companies are violating the FCRA, but encourages them to review their apps and their policies and procedures to be sure they comply with the FCRA.

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Verizon, Redbox Team To Take On Netflix

Companies separately off video content online and DVD

Netflix is getting another competitor...

PhotoRedbox has DVDs for rent. Verizon has plenty of bandwidth. Put the two companies together and you have a competitor to Netflix, which provides DVD rentals and streaming video on demand.

The two companies are joining forces to form a company that will rent DVDs and stream video, just as Netflix does. Verizon will own 65 percent of the venture while Coinstar, parent of Redbox, will own 35 percent. The announcement came in a conference call Monday by Biob Mudge, president of Verizon consumer and mass business markets.

"Verizon is embracing streaming, a platform that many view as a disruptive force in our industry, as a great opportunity for innovation and leadership," Bob Mudge, president of Verizon consumer and mass business markets, said during the call. "By teaming with Redbox, we deliver the kind of consumer-empowering service that customers expect from companies like ours."

Details under wraps

While putting the announcement out there, Mudge provided little in the way of details, saying the service won't start until mid-2012 and he doesn't want to give competitors any advantage with detailed information.

For example, it's not clear how the venture would be monetized. Redbox currently charges consumers a fee per DVD rented from its network of vending machines at retail locations. Verizon provides video service through Fios, it's fiber optic system.

Netflix charges its members an $8 monthly fee, for either its DVD rentals or its streaming service. Presumably, any joint venture aimed at competing with Netflix would have a similar price structure.

Devil's in the details

While Verizon Fios has access to plentiful video content, it would have to work out separate arrangements with distributors before it could make the programming available on a streaming service. Last year Netflix lost it's contract with Starz Entertainment, which declined to renew its agreement, saying Netflix did not charge consumers enough for the content. The company also supplies content to cable and satellite services, which charge much more than Netflix.

Netflix appears to have recovered much of its mojo after a trouble-plagued second half of 2011. The company announced it was splitting its DVD rental and streaming businesses, in effect raising the price by 60 percent for members who wanted to continue access to both. It also announced it was splitting into two separate companies – one to be called Qwickster – only to walk that back under consumer protest.

As a result, Netflix stock plummeted from $304 a share to $74. The stock is now back to $128.

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States Reach Agreement With Debt Collector NCO Financial

Company agrees to change its policies and provide restitution to some consumers

Debt collector NCO Financial Systems, Inc. (NCOF) has agreed to change certain collections practices as part of a settlement announced today by Ohio Attorn...

PhotoDebt collector NCO Financial Systems, Inc. (NCOF) has agreed to change certain collections practices as part of a settlement announced today by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and 18 other states. The settlement resolves concerns about NCOF's debt collection practices.

"We believe this is a fair settlement that will help uphold consumers' rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act," Attorney General DeWine said. "NCOF is agreeing to provide restitution for eligible consumers, to provide stronger notifications to credit reporting agencies and consumers, and to implement policies to ensure compliance with federal and state law."

Since 2008, Ohio has led a multi-state working group that investigated allegations of misleading and deceptive debt collection practices by NCOF.

In the settlement, NCOF agrees to:

  • Comply with the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, and all applicable state laws.
  • For debts reported to the credit reporting agencies, notify the credit reporting agencies within 30 calendar days of (1) any verbal or written consumer dispute or (2) receiving the results of an investigation into the accuracy or completeness of previously reported information.
  • Provide notice to consumers about their debt collection rights under federal and state law.
  • Monitor compliance, including training and monitoring its representatives and independent contractors, creating written policies and procedures for handling consumer complaints, and submitting compliance reports to the states every 6 months for 18 months.

Additionally, consumer restitution will be available for three years following the effective date of the agreements. NCOF will set aside $950,000, or $50,000 for each of the 19 participating states, for consumers who have valid claims that meet one of the following criteria:

  • Consumer paid NCOF a third party debt that the consumer did not owe; 
  • Consumer overpaid interest on a third party debt that was not supported by the underlying agreement between the debtor and the original holder of the debt or as otherwise permitted by law; or 
  • Consumer paid more on a third party debt than the amount NCOF agreed to settle the account. 

NCOF also has agreed to pay $575,000 for the states' consumer protection enforcement efforts. As the lead of the group, Ohio will receive $76,562.50 of the payment.

Joining Ohio in the multi-state working group were the following states: Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

 
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Do Smartphones Make Shoppers Smarter?

Survey shows shoppers rely on their devices

Smartphones assume bigger role in shopping...

PhotoLooking for a reason to upgrade your old cell phone to a smartphone? Here's one. A marketing survey suggests smartphone owners are smarter shoppers.

The study, by Perception Research Services International (PRS), found that 83 percent of smartphone owners use the devices while shopping. And not just for big ticket items like you would expect. The study found 49 percent of smartphone users use them to check prices while grocery shopping.

Price comparisons

The study found that smartphone owners use their phones during the decision making process, comparing prices, gathering product information, searching for sales/coupons or reading reviews/opinions. About one-third make actual purchases with their phones.

Importantly, Hispanics and African-Americans are more apt than Caucasians to use their smartphones while shopping.

Younger users

Further, smartphone owners, who use their phones to shop tend to be under 35 years old, are employed full-time and are better educated than the average consumer.

"Marketers would do well to ensure that they understand the role of smartphones and digital content – relative to packaging and POS materials – in the shopping process within their categories," said Jonathan Asher, Executive Vice President at PRS. "They need to ensure that all their communications are complementing each other and working together. And retailers should now consider how they set their shelves and create merchandising that is smartphone-friendly."

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Five Ways Car Ads Mislead Consumers

Ads may be technically true but vital details may be missing

If you watched last night's Super Bowl, you saw some pretty clever car commercials. But before you rush off to a dealership, understand that even the slick...

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What's On Your Mind? State Farm, J.C. Penney, Primatene Mist

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: State Farm, J.C. Penney, Primatene Mist, Misstep and No more Primatene Mist....

PhotoEvery day consumers go up against companies who seem to have the upper hand. But if you think you are right, it pays to challenge the company's position. Chris, of Solon, Iowa, is a good case in point. She said her family had coverage from State Farm Insurance for over 30 years when the company denied her claim.

"Recently we did a whole house remodel. Since contractors were in our house while we weren't there, personal items were stored at a relative's," Chris told ConsumerAffairs.com. "The personal items included my jewelry which was scheduled under a separate personal articles policy. When unpacking, I couldn't locate the jewelry."

Chris said she contacted State Farm, who said they couldn't cover the loss since it was over a year sine she had actually seen the jewelry. Case closed? Not for Chris.

"Only problem was the letter clearly stated that my policy considered the jewelry lost upon discovery," Chris said. "This meant that the date of loss was the day when I unboxed everything and realized that the jewelry was missing, not the last known time I saw my jewelry which was the date State Farm considered the items lost. I contacted the state insurance commissioner. State Farm was reprimanded by the insurance commissioner and ordered to pay my claim."

The moral of the story is to contact state or local officials when you think a company is wrong. It could turn out you're right.

Misstep?

First, J.C. Penney alienated many customers with its TV commercial featuring screaming women. The commercials were designed to promote the retailer's new pricing policy, doing away with periodic sales in favor of "everyday low pricing." But Steve, of Ooltewah, Tenn., says "not so fast."

"Just a note to let you know that after being a satisfied J.C. Penney customer for over 40 years, I am through," Chris said. "Your new pricing policy is deceptive. For example, the t-shirts I purchased for $9.99 at Christmas are now $12 each. I noticed similar pricing situations. Great for JCP, not so good for me."

J.C. Penney's makeover is the brainchild of new CEO Ron Johnson, a former executive at Target and Apple. Industry analysts generally applaud his moves, but we can't help noting that a lot of consumers are unhappy.

No more Primatene Mist

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has responsibility for protecting consumers from dangerous, unapproved drugs. But one consumer, Christopher, from Virginia, is not happy the FDA has removed Primatene Mist from the market.

"The FDA has left millions of asthma suffers in limbo over the removal of Primatene Mist and no one cares," Christopher said. "People are having all kinds of problems; in and out of hospitals; attacks; can't afford the high priced replacements that don't work. We need someone to help now."

The FDA removed Primatene Mist from the market December 31 because it contains chlorofluorocarbons as a propellant.  The agency earlier removed prescription-strength albuterol inhalers.   

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Sierra Club's Role in Natural Gas, Solar Projects Raises Questions

Group took $26 million from natural gas industry to finance anti-coal campaign

You've seen the ads criticizing coal-fired power plants, the ones placed by the Sierra Club, which fashions itself as a protector of the natural environmen...

PhotoEnvironmental organizations portray themselves as being single-minded in their quest to defend the natural environment against harm from human development, but the reality is often far more complex, as recent disclosures about the Sierra Club make clear.

Critics -- and many club members -- are fuming over the disclosure that the Sierra Club took more than $26 million from natural-gas giant Chesapeake Energy Corp. to help fund its campaign against coal-fired power plants at the same time that the Sierra Club was lining up to support large-scale solar power developments that endanger fragile desert ecosystems.

The gas-funding disclosure comes as environmentalists are turning their attention to hydraulic fracturing, the controversial natural-gas production method that Chesapeake and other gas producers are using to fuel the country's sudden hunger for gas.

The funding deal was disclosed last week by Time magazine. Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune then came forward to say that he had learned of the funding shortly after he took the job in 2010 and started working to end it.

"Turn away millions?" 

"Have you ever had to turn away millions of dollars? It sounds crazy, but here's why the Sierra Club chose to do exactly that," said Brune in an artfully-crafted blog posting, not explaining until a subsequent paragraph that Brune "turned away millions" only after the $26 million had already been received. 

Brune said nothing in his blog about why he didn't return the $26 million the club had already received.  Nor did he explain why he kept quiet about the deal he supposedly was working so hard to end. Meanwhile, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and other pro-coal organizations are stoking their public relations furnaces.

“They’ve cynically put people at risk for years to come with this campaign, and made themselves little more than tools of an energy industry competitor in the bargain," said UMWA President Cecil E. Roberts. "Let’s get real here: Just like any business, the gas companies are about selling gas, period. And they will gladly funnel cash to any organization that will help them do it."

Roberts said the disclosure destroys the Sierra Club's reputation as an independent environmental protection advoce.

“The Sierra Club used secret gas industry funding to actively work to suppress the building of hundreds of next-generation coal-fired power plants across the country, plants which would significantly reduce emissions of mercury and other harmful substances."

Solar plants

Photo
A giant "power tower" sits amid a near-infinity of mirrors in the Mojave Desert.

Coal industry payoffs aren't the only controversy facing the Sierra Club. In California and the Southwest, questions are being raised about massive solar power plants being built in desert areas, many with the approval of the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations whose own members decry the harm the huge solar installations will inflict on animal and plant life.

The Los Angeles Times reported Sunday that 21 million acres of public land is being used for solar plants in the American West and that conservation organizations have signed off on many of the projects in confidential documents even though many of the environmental protection measures promised by the plant developers are "complete nonsense," in the words of Larry LaPre, a Bureau of Land Management wildlife biologist. 

"What troubles me is that the public has bought the whole solar expansion hook, line and sinker because it's 'renewable,'" said former Mojave National Preserve superintendent Dennis Schramm, according to the Times

Not only the Sierra Club but also the Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife and the National Resources Defense Council have been largely mute on the subject, trading their usual public protests for a role in planning the projects.  In some cases, the groups' national headquarters have ignored protests from local chapters.

The Times said the Sierra Club sent out a 42-page directive telling local chapters that the organization's national policy goals supersede local groups' objections.  

In an odd twist, federal agencies have raised more objections to the solar projects than environmental organizations. Even the Defense Department has expressed concerns about the glare from huge arrays of mirrors and the danger posed by 400-foot-high "power towers" in areas where the military conducts low-flying training missions.

Photo
Desert tortoise (USGS photo)

Desert vegetation that takes 100 years or more to grow to maturity is being trimmed or removed to make room for the giant mirrors and tortoises are being relocated to areas where they may or may not survive.  Eagles and other giant predatory birds will be at risk of being burned by the mirrors.

Google and other investors in the huge projects are receiving tax credits and other incentives that greatly reduce their financial risk, while leaving taxpayers on the hook if the projects fail. 

In his soliloquy on the Sierra Club's $26 million windfall, Michael Brune repeats the mantra that is used to justify ripping up the fragile desert ecosystem by claiming it is a "clean" process: "Ultimately, the only safe, smart, and responsible way to address our nation's energy needs is to look beyond coal, oil, and gas, and focus on clean, efficient energy sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal."

But Jeffrey Lovich, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist, says no one knows what  effect the giant solar projects will have on desert wildlife: "This is an experiment on a grand scale. ... Science is racing to catch up," he told the Times.

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'Fresh Garden' Cobb & Spinach Salads Recalled

May be contaminated with Listeria

 F&S Produce Company Inc., a Deerfield, N.J. establishment, is recalling approximately 389 pounds of Cobb and spinach salads. The salads contain e...

PhotoF&S Produce Company Inc., a Deerfield, N.J. establishment, is recalling approximately 389 pounds of Cobb and spinach salads. The salads contain eggs that are the subject of a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recall due to concerns about contamination with Listeria monocytogenes, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced today.

The following products are subject to recall:

  • 10-oz. plastic containers of “Fresh Garden Highway Spinach Salad with Bacon”
  • 10.75-oz plastic containers of “Fresh Garden Highway Cobb Salad”

The products subject to recall have a “Sell By” date through 2/8/2012, and bear the establishment number “Est. 39897” as well as the USDA mark of inspection The products were distributed to a warehouse in Pennsylvania for further distribution to retail locations.

The problem was discovered when F&S Produce Company Inc.was notified by one of its suppliers that hard-cooked eggs (a product inspected by the FDA) had tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes, and are being recalled by Michael Foods Egg Products Co. The salads contain the recalled eggs and are the subject of this FSIS recall. FSIS, FDA, and the company have received no reports of illnesses associated with consumption of these products. 

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

Consumption of food contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes can cause listeriosis, an uncommon but potentially fatal disease. Healthy people rarely contract listeriosis. However, listeriosis can cause high fever, severe headache, neck stiffness and nausea.

Listeriosis can also cause miscarriages and stillbirths, as well as serious and sometimes fatal infections in those with weakened immune systems, such as infants, the elderly and persons with HIV infection or undergoing chemotherapy. Individuals concerned about an illness should contact a health care provider.

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J.C. Penney Refuses to Fire Ellen DeGeneres

Turns aside complaints from anti-gay hate group which demanded her ouster

  GLAAD, the nation’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) media advocacy and anti-defamation organization, today appl...

PhotoJ.C. Penney has refused to fire Ellen DeGeneres as its spokesperson, turning aside demands from an anti-gay hate group, OneMillionMoms.com, which objected to the choice of Ms. DeGeneres.

In an emailed statement yesterday, J.C. Penney said it "stands behind its partnership with Ellen DeGeneres.”

“This week Americans spoke out in overwhelming support of LGBT people and J.C. Penney’s decision not to fire Ellen simply for who she happens to love,” said Herndon Graddick, Senior Director of Programs and Communications at GLAAD, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) media advocacy and anti-defamation organization.

A ConsumerAffairs.com sentiment analysis of about 200,000 consumer comments on social media confirmed DeGeneres' popularity, with a net positive sentiment in the 70%-90% range over the last year.

Photo

“But while Ellen has the nation on her side, in 29 states today, Americans can still be legally fired just for being gay," Graddick said. "Our elected officials should use this incident as yet another example of the support for legal protections for all hard working employees.”

Today, Americans can be fired in 29 states because of their sexual orientation, and in 34 states because of their gender identity.

Anti-gay group

OneMillionMoms.com is a project of the American Family Association, which has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

"Degeneres is not a true representation of the type of families who shop at the retailer. The small percentage of customers they are attempting to satisfy will not offset their loss in sales by offending the majority," the group said on its Web site. "Funny that JC Penney thinks hiring an open homosexual spokesperson will help their business when most of its customers are traditional families."

A poll on the Los Angeles Times site shows 94% of readers polled agree that DeGeners should not only maintain her post as J.C. Penney’s spokesperson, but call her “a symbol of equality.”

Photo

"Ellen DeGeneres is one of the most fun and vibrant people in entertainment today, with great warmth and a down-to-earth attitude. The millions who watch her on television and follow her through social media relate to her and trust what she has to say," said Michael Francis, president of J. C. Penney Company, Inc., as he announced her appointment last week.

"Importantly, we share the same fundamental values as Ellen," Francis said. "We couldn't think of a better partner to help us put the fun back into the retail experience."

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Sentiment analysis by NetBase

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FTC: Telemarketers Sold Bogus Credit Cards

"Platinum Trust" allegedly charged illegal upfront fee, took money without consent

At the request of the Federal Trade Commission, a federal judge has temporarily halted a telemarketing operation that allegedly sold bogus credit cards and...

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Rely Dried Yellow Croaker Recalled

Product is uneviscerated

W & C International Import Inc. is recalling “Rely” Dried Yellow Croaker because the product was found to be un-eviscerated.The recalled...

W & C International Import Inc. is recalling “Rely” Dried Yellow Croaker because the product was found to be un-eviscerated.

The recalled “Rely” Dried Yellow Croaker was distributed nationwide in bulk cardboard boxes. The “Rely” Dried Yellow Croaker is a product of China.

The “Rely” Dried Yellow Croaker was sampled by a New York State Department of Agriculture Food Inspector during inspection. Subsequent analysis of the product by New York State Food Laboratory personnel confirmed that the “Rely” Dried Yellow Croaker was not properly eviscerated prior to processing.

The sale of un-eviscerated fish is prohibited under New York State Agriculture and Markets regulations because Clostridium Botulinum spores are more likely to be concentrated in the viscera than any other portion of the fish. Uneviscerated fish have been linked to outbreaks of botulium poisioning.

This product may be contaminated with Clostridium botulinum spores, which can cause Botulism, a serious and potentially fatal food-borne illness. Symptoms of botulism include blurred or double vision, general weakness, poor reflexes, difficulty in swallowing and respiratory paralysis.

No illnesses have been reported to date in connection with this problem.

Consumers that have purchased “Rely” Dried Yellow Croaker are advised not to eat it and should return it to the place of purchase. Consumer with questions may contact the company at (718) 381-2932.

 

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Rely Sardine Anchovies Recalled

Product is uneviscerated

 W & C International Import Inc. is recalling “Rely” Sardine Anchovies because the product was found to be un-eviscerated.The recall...

 W & C International Import Inc. is recalling “Rely” Sardine Anchovies because the product was found to be un-eviscerated.

The recalled “Rely” Sardine Anchovies were distributed nationwide in 7.0 oz. plastic packages.  The “Rely” Sardine Anchovies are a product of China.

The “Rely” Sardine Anchovies were sampled by a New York State Department of Agriculture Food Inspector during inspection.  Subsequent analysis of the product by New York State Food Laboratory personnel confirmed that the “Rely” Sardine Anchovies were not properly eviscerated prior to processing. 

The sale of un-eviscerated fish is prohibited under New York State Agriculture and Markets regulations because Clostridium Botulinum spores are more likely to be concentrated in the viscera than any other portion of the fish.  Uneviscerated fish have been linked to outbreaks of botulium poisioning.

This product may be contaminated with Clostridium botulinum spores, which can cause Botulism, a serious and potentially fatal food-borne illness.  Symptoms of botulism include blurred or double vision, general weakness, poor reflexes, difficulty in swallowing and respiratory paralysis.

No illnesses have been reported to date in connection with this problem.

Consumers that have purchased “Rely” Sardine Anchovies are advised not to eat it and should return it to the place of purchase. Consumers with questions may contact the company at (718) 381-2932.

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Morton's Steakhouse Too Big to Swallow?

New owner shutters restaurants in several prime locations

Morton's steakhouses are known for serving large chunks of animal protein but the new owner of the chain may be finding he bit off more than he can chew....

PhotoMorton's steakhouses are known for serving large chunks of animal protein but the new owner of the chain may be finding he bit off more than he can chew.

On the same day he completed acquisition of the Chicago-based nationwide chain, Texas billionaire Tilman J. Fertitta closed locations in Boston, Phoenix, Miami Beach, Jacksonville, Atlanta, Denver, Brooklyn and Tysons Corner, Va, according to published reports.

As of late last month, the company owned and operated 77 Morton’s steakhouses located in 64 cities across 26 states, Puerto Rico and six international locations, according to Morton's.

Fertitta, who also owns the Landry’s chain, paid about $179 million for Morton's, which bills itself as the "world’s largest operator of company-owned upscale steakhouses."

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Victoria's Secret Commercials Draw Complaints

Women object their husbands are "practically hypnotized"

“I am disgusted with the Victoria's Secret commercials,” said Lily, of Chino, Calif. “Practically porn! My kids are watching a family show then the stupid ...

PhotoVictoria's Secret has always been a sexy brand. A lot of women, it appears, think it's just too sexy.

“I am disgusted with the Victoria's Secret commercials,” said Lily, of Chino, Calif. “Practically porn! My kids are watching a family show then the stupid commercial comes on! I'm with my husband watching TV then he starts ignoring me because he is practically hypnotized by those Victoria's Secret models!”

Lily says the commercials have gone too far, making women feel ashamed of their bodies. That sentiment is echoed by others writing to ConsumerAffairs.com, including Brionna, of Bonifay, Fla., who says she struggles every day to feel pretty like the Victoria's Secret models.

“The thing is, I'm gorgeous too,” Brionna told ConsumerAffairs.com. “It still sucks when you're with your boyfriend and they come on and he stares. I'm not married, and I'm glad. With such lack of respect in society from women and these kinds of companies, what's the point? It makes me feel horrible about myself. I'd also like to add that I'm only 20 years old. There are only a few women born with unnaturally long, lean, beautiful legs. And trying so hard to make myself look like that so I can strive to be sexually attractive to a male, is killing me! I'm tired of it.”

Victoria's Secret isn't likely to change their ads in response to complaints. After all, they're in this to sell sexy underwear.

But with Valentines Day coming up, maybe men could make the women in their lives feel a little better if they weren't so obviously entranced when the Victoria's Secret commercials come on.

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What's On Your Mind? Expedia, Hollywood Video, Eden Pure

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Expedia unauthorized purchases, Hollywood Video debt collectors, Eden Pure heaters, will this movie ever end and ...

PhotoPaula, of Jackson, N.J., has an expensive problem. She says she was booking flights for her parents on Expedia when the transaction failed to complete. When she called customer service, she said she was told the transaction was suspended because the price of the tickets had just gone up. She said the representative asked if she wanted to confirm the flights and she said she told him no, and later booked reservations on another site.

“One week later on my credit card statement I see a charge for that Expedia flight - never received a confirmation email concerning the flight, no documentation whatsoever,” Paula told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I called them again to get this straightened out and the rep said it was some sort of 72 hour authorization thing - he said no to worry. So I didn't.”

Turns out, she should have. She says the purchase is still on her card and Expedia tells her they have no record of any of her calls to customer service.

“They said that the airline is not going to refund the ticket - a ticket I never confirmed,” she said. If anyone has any ideas, please contact me. I have till the middle of the month to get the charge dispute settled or else I am stuck paying it.”

Paula might try calling her credit card company's fraud department. Technically, she can argue that the charge is “unauthorized,” since she says she specifically did not confirm it. It will be up to Expedia to provide the authorization proof. The stakes are pretty high, since Paula said the charge is for $3,000.

Will this movie ever end?

Consumers are still getting collection notices from the now-defunct Hollywood Video. Jeff, of Martinez, Calif., is one of the most recent to file a complaint.

“I'm receiving collections notices from ARM solutions about a past account with Hollywood Video,” Jeff said. “Our account was in good standing when the local store closed. Collections company does not answer calls and has failed to provide documentation that debt is actually owed. This is a fraudulent attempt to collect money based on poor accounting practices and corporate greed.”

Since Hollywood Video closed its doors, several debt collectors have been involved in contacting its former customers with claims of past due amounts. At the time of its closing, Hollywood Video contracted with Credit Control Services to collect an estimated $244 million. Last May the liquidating trust for Hollywood Video settled with a number of states, reacting to consumers like Jeff. Within five days after Jeff was first contacted, the collector was required to send a written notice telling him the amount owed; the name of the creditor ; and what action to take if he believes he does not owe the money.

Satisfied, sort of

Beth, of Jacksons Gap, Ala. wants us to know that, despite earlier problems getting satisfaction from Eden Pure, the company has agreed to a full refund.

“We would not buy another one but are happy we did not have to eat the $400 we paid,” Beth said.

Beth says she knows people who have been happy with their Edenpure heaters, but she's among the consumers who found the space heater unsatisfactory.

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Unhappy Honda Owner Gets $9,867 Judgment After Opting Out of Class Action

Civic Hybrid didn't deliver the 50 mpg it promised, suit charges

A Los Angeles lawyer who opted out of a class-action settlement has won a small claims court lawsuit against Honda Motor Co. that will pay her roughly 100 ...

PhotoA Los Angeles lawyer who opted out of a class-action settlement has won a small claims court lawsuit against Honda Motor Co. that will pay her roughly 100 times what the class action would have.

"I am absolutely thrilled at the reports that I won, even though I won't see the actual judgment until it comes in the mail.  It's a victory for Civic Hybrid owners everywhere!  Sometimes big justice comes in small packages," Heather Peters said in an email to ConsumerAffairs.com.

Peters sued Honda alleging that the automaker exaggerated the fuel efficiency of her 2006 Civic Hybrid.  

Although it could not be immediately confirmed, Peters said she won $9,867 in Los Angeles Small Claims Court. She would have been eligible to receive about $100 in cash and a $500 coupon towards a new car under the class-action settlement, Peters said.

Peters was miffed after she determined her Civic Hybrid didn't get the 50 miles per gallon the carmaker claimed.  After rejecting the class-action settlement, she filed her own suit in Small Claims Court, which allows citizens to file cases without a lawyer.

Small claims advantage

Consumer advocates have long pointed consumers towards the small claims courts as a way to settle disputes with companies and other individuals. Laws vary from state to state but in general, the damages sought must be below a set amount, often around $10,000.  ConsumerAffairs.com publishes a state-by-state guide to small claims courts around the country.

In many cases, when consumers sue large corporations, the companies do not bother to send a representative and the consumer wins by default. On the other hand, businesses are increasingly turning towards small claims courts in many states to sue consumers in disputes over payments, refunds and other issues.

Not done fighting

Peters, meanwhile, is not done with her crusade against Honda. Last week, she submitted evidence to all 50 state attorneys general urging them to look into whether they can bring action against Honda on behalf of consumers in their states.  She said last week that AGs from California, Iowa, Michagan, Ohio and Washington contacted her to confirm they are looking into the case. 

Peters has also started an online petition a tchange.org urging all 50 states attorneys general to object to the class action settlement.  Within the first 24 hours, 126 people from 28 states had signed her petition and the following comments were posted:
 
  • "This car is dangerous!  The amount of power is unpredictable"
  • "Getting 30 mpg at best plus with the software update, this car is not safe to drive"
  • "I sold my HCH last year because it became too frigthening to drive"
  • "I can't even trade it in, nobody wants it"
  • "Going from standstill on a hill is very dangerous"
"Unfortunately these comments are just the tip of the iceberg," Peters said. "Hundreds and hundreds of Civic Hybrid owners have reached out to me through www.dontsettlewithhonda.org with similar complaints, yet Honda is still telling them the cars are 'performing as designed'".
 
 
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Dealing Directly With Florist May Avoid Valentines Glitches

Do you really want to trust your love life to a middleman?

Dealing with a local florist directly usually yields better results...

PhotoA big day is coming up. No, not the Super Bowl. The other big day in February, Valentines Day.

This year, as in years past, consumers will order flowers for their sweeties and hope they arrive on time, without incident. The question is, will you order them directly from a florist or use one of the web-based third party floral marketing companies?

Doing business with one company, and having it turn around and do business with another company to fill your order, is a classic middleman situation. With more people involved in a transaction, more things can go wrong. Just ask Shauger, of Morris, Minn., who placed an order with 1-800-Flowers.

Opening night disappointment

“I ordered flowers to be delivered for the opening night for a friend's high school play, her first time as a teacher and director,” Shauer told ConsumerAffairs.com. “No flowers were delivered. No contact made to me to tell me they couldn't find a florist in the area. So, no flowers. When the recipient didn't mention the flowers at all, I contacted 1-800-flowers. I was told they couldn't deliver them due to a failure to find an appropriate florist. Again, these are no good late. They offered to refund half my money. Half? They didn't deliver anything!”

Other floral sites, including JustFlowers.com, also draw similar consumer complaints. Bob, of Hamilton, Ohio, says he works for a florist and contacted ConsumerAffairs.com after reading some of the complaints.

“I'll explain to all of you complaining about how it works with Just Flowers,” Bob said. “They take your order and send it to a real local florist. Just Flowers has never ever delivered one arrangement to anyone. Everyone of their orders is sent to some florist that's local to the delivery address, even if it's near their own physical location. There is absolutely zero of a business connection between them and the florist they use.”

Sometimes such an arrangement works out fine, but as the complaints suggest there's plenty of room for error. So, what's the alternative?

An alternative

The alternative is to do exactly what these companies would do, find a local florist in the delivery area and deal directly with them. As a first step, go to Google or one of the other search engines and enter “florist” and the town or city where the delivery is to be made.

You'll find a list of florists, possibly laid out on a map, so you can see which local florists are close to your point of delivery. By going to the local florist's website, you can get a feel for the kinds of products they provide.

Talk to the florist

By clicking on the “contact” tab, you'll get an email or phone number. It's usually a good idea to call, so you can talk to the florist directly and ask questions. If they can't make the delivery, they'll tell you. You won't find out later in an email.

You can pay the local florist right over the phone, by giving your credit card information. So really, ordering the flowers locally is much like using a national, third party site - except that you are dealing directly with the florist.

Third party websites for flowers and travel sprang up in the early days of the Internet, when many local businesses did not have an Internet presence. Today, almost all local businesses do, and some of their websites are quite sophisticated.

It might take a little more effort on your part, but dealing directly with the florist who will make the flower arrangement and deliver it to your sweetie might yield better results. After all, Valentines is a big day. You don't want to take unnecessary chances.

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Study Links Potatoes To Lower Blood Pressure

Could the lowly spud be a health food?

Many diets urge followers to avoid potatoes, but a new study suggests the spud could actually be a health food.Researchers writing in the  Journal o...

PhotoMany diets urge followers to avoid potatoes, but a new study suggests the spud could actually be a health food.

Researchers writing in the  Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry say two small helpings of purple potatoes (Purple Majesty) a day decreases blood pressure by about 4 percent without causing weight gain. That may not sound like much, but the researchers say the decrease is sufficient to potentially reduce the risk of several forms of heart disease.

Researcher Joe Vinson and colleagues point out that people in the U.S. eat more potatoes than any other vegetable. Purple-skinned potatoes, a boutique variety increasingly available in food stores, are noted for having high levels of healthful antioxidant compounds.

In Korea, purple potatoes are renowned in folk medicine as a way to lose weight. Vinson's team decided to investigate the effects of eating 6-8 small microwaved purple potatoes twice a day on 18 volunteers, most of whom were overweight with high blood pressure.

The volunteers ate potatoes or no potatoes for four weeks, and then switched to the opposite regimen for another four weeks while researchers monitored systolic and diastolic blood pressure, body weight and other health indicators.

Average diastolic blood pressure dropped by 4.3 percent and systolic pressure decreased by 3.5 percent. The majority of subjects took anti-hypertensive drugs and still had a reduction in blood pressure.

Nobody gained weight

As a bonus, none of the study participants gained weight. Vinson said that other studies have identified substances in potatoes with effects in the body similar to those of the well-known ACE-inhibitor medications, a mainstay for treating high blood pressure. But he suspects that the effects may be due to other substances in potatoes.

The scientists do not know yet whether ordinary white potatoes have the same beneficial effects. And chances are, French fries don't either.

Potatoe are part of the Solanaceae or nightshade family, along with tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. Potatoes provide a wide range of important nutrients to the diet and are a particularly good source of complex carbohydrates, potassium, vitamin C, folic acid and iron.  

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Feds Get $10 Million Settlement in Bruce Moneymaker Case

Company allegedly targeted payday loan seekers and charged them without their consent

The Federal Trade Commission has stopped an operation that targeted payday loan seekers and charged them for worthless programs without their consent. A se...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission has stopped an operation that targeted payday loan seekers and charged them for worthless programs without their consent. A settlement order requires the defendants to pay more than $9.9 million and bans them from marketing negative-option programs, which charge recurring fees until a consumer cancels.

According to the FTC's complaint, Michael Bruce Moneymaker, Daniel de la Cruz, and their companies obtained consumers' personal information from websites that claimed to match consumers with payday lenders.

Then, without consumers' consent, they enrolled them in negative-option programs that cost an initial fee of up to $49.99, plus weekly or monthly recurring fees of up to $19.98, and did not provide promised refunds. The court subsequently halted the allegedly illegal practices and froze the defendants' assets, pending trial.

The settlement order also bans the defendants from marketing secured loan products, and permanently prohibits them from:

  • obtaining consumers' account information from third parties;
  • charging consumers without clearly disclosing all material terms before consumers provide account information;
  • charging consumers without their consent;
  • disclosing consumers' account information for any commercial purpose other than the transaction for which it was obtained;
  • failing to disclose clearly the seller's name, a product/service description, the fact that the consumer will be charged and the amount, the terms of any refund or cancellation policy, and all material terms of any loan, credit, or credit improvement product.

In addition, the order bars the defendants from making the following misrepresentations:

  • that they will use consumers' authorizations to further consumers' payday loan applications;
  • the purpose for which consumers' account information will be used;
  • any material aspect of any refund or cancellation policy, including that consumers provided their consent to buy something and would pay, that consumers are entitled to a refund only if they ask for a refund during a trial period, and that the defendants will provide a refund;
  • the benefits of a product or service unless substantiated;
  • that the consumer has contacted a third-party customer service, call center, or consumer rights organization;
  • any affiliation with a bank or bank processing center, or with a customer of a financial institution;
  • the status of any user or endorser of a product or service;
  • any material terms of a credit-related good or service, or that a loan or credit-related good or service will increase a consumer's credit score or credit worthiness; and
  • any other material facts, such as the total costs, the timing or manner of any charge, any restrictions or limitations, or any material aspects of a product's benefits.
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White House Proposes Easing Mortgage Refinance Rules

Administration seeks to reduce foreclosures

The White House has elaborated on a plan to assist homeowners...

PhotoPresident Obama today elaborated on his plan, announced in his State of the Union message, to help American homeowners with high mortgage rates refinance to a lower rate.

“While the government cannot fix the housing market on its own, the President believes that responsible homeowners should not have to sit and wait for the market to hit bottom to get relief when there are measures at hand that can make a meaningful difference, including allowing these homeowners to save thousands of dollars by refinancing at today’s low interest rates,” the White House said in a statement.

Creditworthy homeowners

The President’s plan would provide borrowers who are current on their payments with an opportunity to refinance and take advantage of historically low interest rates, cutting through red tape. To take advantage of the plan, borrowers would have to be current on their mortgage payments. According to the White House, it would simplify the process, provide a full disclosure of fees and protect against unwarranted foreclosure. It's designed to help homeowners like Damaris, of San Antonio, Tex.

“I'm a first time homebuyer, but when the market dropped so did the value of my home,” Damaris told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I was planning to refinance so I decided to go with the bank who I had my original loan with, which was Bank of America. After numerous hours spent on the phone with the loan officer, my loan was denied without explanation. After two months of going through the process, the day we were supposed to sign, the auditor tells us it was canceled.”

The plan would also attempt to turn some properties already in foreclosure into rental housing, taking them off the real estate market where they are driving down prices. Officials say it would also help stabilize neighborhoods. The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), in conjunction with Treasury and HUD, is announcing a pilot sale of foreclosed properties to be transitioned into rental housing.

Aid to the unemployed

The plan is also designed to provide assistance to homeowners who are out of work. The Administration is calling on major banks and Government Sponsored Enterprises (GSE) like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, to provide up to 12 months of forbearance to unemployed borrowers.

The refinancing plan is also aimed at helping homeowners whose mortgages are “under water,” meaning they owe more than the home's current market value. Sometimes homeowners with good credit and clean payment histories are rejected because their mortgages are underwater. In other cases, they are rejected because the banks are worried that they will be left taking losses, even where Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac insure these new mortgages.  In the end, the White House says, these responsible homeowners are stuck paying higher interest rates, costing them thousands of dollars a year.

Under the proposal, borrowers with loans insured by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac will have access to streamlined refinancing through the GSEs. Borrowers with standard non-GSE loans will have access to refinancing through a new program run through the FHA.  

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Humane Society: Walmart Pork Producer Mistreats Pigs

Organization files complaints with federal agencies

Pigs are being mistreated at two Oklahoma facilities that are major suppliers ot pork to Walmart, the Humane Society of the United States charges.  Th...

PhotoPigs are being mistreated at two Oklahoma facilities that are major suppliers ot pork to Walmart, the Humane Society of the United States charges.  The group has filed legal complaints with the U.S. Securities and Exchange and Federal Trade Commission alleging false and misleading statements about animal care by one of the producers.

The videos, shot in late 2011, were taken at two Goodwell, Okla. pig breeding facilities — one owned by Seaboard Foods and the other by Prestage Farms—and allegedly show animals suffering inside cramped gestation crates and, in some cases, at the hands of abusive employees. 

The group says its graphic videos document prolonged suffering of pigs used for breeding who are confined in cages so small the animals can't even turn around, rendering them virtually immobilized for their entire lives.

Seaboard disputed the allegations and Prestage said it has launched an internal investigation. Seaboard is the nation's third-largest pork producer, and a supplier to Walmart. Prestage is the nation's fifth-largest pork producer.

"We’ve reviewed documented employee actions alleging abuse and listened to the recent discussions questioning U.S. industry practices of sow gestation, swine tail cutting (or docking) and swine castration, and strongly dispute any allegations of abuse," the company said in a prepared statement. "We are committed to the proper and humane treatment of animals, and we believe animals can and should be raised, transported and processed using procedures that are safe and free from cruelty and neglect."

"We have already initiated an internal investigation to assure that company policies and procedures are being followed, said Prestage Farms’ Ron Prestage, DVM. "If a determination is made that any employee of the company engaged in activities contrary to the policies they agreed to follow, we will take disciplinary action as appropriate, including termination of employment, as is provided in our animal welfare policy. This has been done before when a violation of our policies has been identified."

Out of step

"The pork industry's notorious disregard for animal welfare is perhaps greater than in any other sector of the meat industry," said Paul Shapiro, HSUS senior director of farm animal protection. "Permanently cramming pigs into cages so small they can barely move is simply out of step with mainstream American values about the proper treatment of animals."

Seaboard Foods' own animal welfare advisor, Temple Grandin, Ph.D. has stated, "I feel very strongly that we've got to treat animals right, and the gestation stalls have got to go." Grandin has also stated, "Confining an animal for most of its life in a box in which it is not able to turn around does not provide a decent life."

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Facebook Can Get You Fired

Teachers, especially, are being haunted by social media postings

Facebook postings can affect your professional life...

PhotoIn today's world of social media, job applicants have been cautioned about what they put on Facebook, since employers often search applicants' names online. Embarrassing photographs and postings might prevent you from getting the job you want.

But can what's on Facebook also get you fired? Janet Decker, a University of Cincinnati assistant professor in UC's Educational Leadership Program, says it can, especially if you are a teacher.

Though she does not cite specific numbers, Decker says that a “large number” of educators have been fired for Internet activity. She says that some teachers have been dismissed for behavior such as posting a picture of themselves holding a glass of wine.

Technology outpacing the law

"Despite the evolving issues, the courts have not provided extensive guidance for administrators," Decker wrote in an article for the January issue of Principal Navigator, an education journal. "Part of the difficulty is that technology advances at a quicker pace than legal precedent, leaving school employees and administrators unsure of their legal responsibilities."

Decker's article highlights cases that have landed in court as a result of school policies on social networking that "were not clear or effective." The article also examines the law surrounding sexual harassment or abuse of students and freedom of speech for public employees and employee privacy.

"In general, it is important to understand that school employees are expected to be role models both inside and outside of school – even while on Facebook," concludes Decker.

What school boards should do

Decker says it's not enough for schools to have written policies; schools should also offer professional development about these issues. By doing so, she says, staff is notified about the expectations and they have a chance to digest and ask questions about the content of the policies.

She also says school boards should create separate student and staff policies. Much of the law pertaining to students and staff is different. School boards must also be sure than their policies conform to state and federal law.

As for personnel, give some thought to what you post on Facebook and other social media sites. Once it's out there, it's out there. It can potentially affect your profession life, not just your private life.

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