1. Home
  2. News
  3. 2012
  4. February

News in February 2012

Browse by year

2012

Browse by month

Get trending consumer news and recalls

    By entering your email, you agree to sign up for consumer news, tips and giveaways from ConsumerAffairs. Unsubscribe at any time.

    Thank you, you have successfully subscribed to our newsletter! Enjoy reading our tips and recommendations.

    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 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.

    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 ...
    Read lessRead more

    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 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.

    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...
    Read lessRead more

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

    Analysis shows web searches and filings reach peak in March

    Among 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.

    March appears to be the month most active for divorce...
    Read lessRead more

    Get trending consumer news and recalls

      By entering your email, you agree to sign up for consumer news, tips and giveaways from ConsumerAffairs. Unsubscribe at any time.

      Thank you, you have successfully subscribed to our newsletter! Enjoy reading our tips and recommendations.

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      Tax Refunds Slower Getting to Taxpayers This Year

      Some consumers are blaming their tax preparers

      If 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.

      Some tax refunds are slow to get to taxpayers...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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. 

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      States Taking On Unauthorized Charges For 'Memberships'

      Consumers complain they were unaware they were making a purchase

      For 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.  

      States are cracking down on unauthorized credit card charges...
      Read lessRead more

      Can A Credit Card Help You Save Money On Gas?

      Some cards provide cash back on gasoline purchases

      Prices 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.  

      How the right credit card can save money on gasoline...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

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

      Expert: Consumers Give Too Little Thought to Online Privacy

      Predicts Consumer Privacy Bill Of Rights won't work

      President 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."

      Expert casts doubts about Internet privacy proposal...
      Read lessRead more

      Buffet Calls Single-Family Home 'Attractive Investment'

      Legendary investor thinks residential real estate could beat stocks

      It'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.

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

      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 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

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

      Consumers Urged to Seek LCD Settlement Funds

      You might be entitled to compensation

      In 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.  

      Funds from LCD price-fixing settlement being distributed...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      Investigators Searching For 'Rachel' the Robo-Caller

      Indiana sues telemarketer allegedly tied to elusive caller

      Chances 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.

      Investigators Searching For 'Rachael' The Robo-Caller...
      Read lessRead more

      Simple Ways to Reduce Odds of an IRS Audit

      Follow these steps to avoid raising red flags

      No 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.

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

      Is It Time To Throw Away Your Checkbook?

      Writing checks may become a thing of the past

      In 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.

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

      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 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.

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