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Researchers Raise Ear Bud Safety Concerns

The popular earphones may be a safety hazard, researchers warn

Researchers Raise Ear Bud Safety Concerns...

PhotoIn the 1960s, young people walked around with a transistor radio next to their ear. In the 1970s it was a boom-box on their shoulder. In the 80s, it was a Walkman on their belt with featherweight earphones.

While any prolonged, loud sounds in close proximity to your ears can be harmful, today's “ear buds,” the mini-earphones that connect media players and smartphones directly to your ear canals, are a growing cause of concern.

According to a Vanderbilt University-led study published in Journal of the American Medical Association, hearing loss is now affecting 20 percent of U.S. adolescents ages 12 to 19, which is a five percent increase over the past 15 years. Are ear buds to blame?

A separate study by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association found that teenagers typically listen to devices at a louder volume than adults, and that these same teenagers already have symptoms of hearing loss.

Kristina Rigsby, Au.D., a pediatric audiologist at the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center, says listening to devices with levels over 80 dB for extended periods of time may be dangerous.

The danger

Prolonged exposure to high volume exhausts the auditory system, she explains. Over time, the hair cells in the ear start to degenerate because they aren’t receiving proper blood flow and oxygen.

“When you are listening to these devices at high levels and for long periods of time, you are putting yourself at risk for hearing loss,” Rigsby said. “Hearing loss is permanent, so once you’ve done the damage, there’s no getting it back.”

How loud is too loud? If parents can hear sound coming from their child’s headphones while they are wearing them, it’s too loud, Rigsby said. A good rule of thumb is the “60/60 rule,” which means using only 60 percent of the device’s volume level for no more than 60 minutes at a time. After 60 minutes, give your ears a break for at least an hour, she said.

Courts have heard enough

PhotoThose who ignore the warnings and wind up damaging their hearing shouldn't expect too much sympathy from the legal system. A federal appeals court in 2010 unanimously tossed a class action alleging that Apple failed to warn consumers that using iPod earbud-style headphones at full volume can lead to hearing loss. The 3-0 ruling by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court's 2008 decision to dismiss the case.

The suit, filed by lead plaintiffs Joseph Birdsong and Bruce Waggoner in 2006, alleged that iPods' maximum volume of 115 decibels, equivalent to a helicopter taking off, puts users in danger of permanent hearing loss. Further, the plaintiffs said that Apple's signature earbuds the white-and-silver headphones that fit snugly inside users' ears provide less protection against hearing loss than traditional headphones.

In June 2008, Judge James Ware of the Northern District of California dismissed the suit, ruling that the plaintiffs failed to prove that they had suffered any actual harm as a result of the headphones' alleged defect. The Ninth Circuit upheld his ruling, with judge David Thompson writing that the suit suggest[s] only that users have the option of using an iPod in a risky manner, not that the headphones were inherently defective.

While Apple does alert consumers that continually playing music at a high volume can lead to hearing problems, the plaintiffs contended that this warning was too vague. They said that Apple had a responsibility to tell consumers the maximum safe decibel level, and to sell iPods with a device telling users how loud their music is at any given moment.

What to do

Rather than using ear buds, consider investing in high-quality, “noise cancelling” headphones that cover the entire ear. Ear buds allow more background noise to seep in, so users often turn up the volume to compensate.

But before you go for a stroll with your new noise-cancelling headphones, it might pay to listen to warnings from researchers at the University of Maryland Medical Center, who say distracted walking is becoming as dangerous as distracted driving.

With the proliferation of iPods and smartphones than can access music services, pedestrians often walk listening to loud music, and therefore can't hear trains, buses, trucks and cars around them.

Serious injuries to pedestrians listening to headphones have more than tripled in six years, according to their research. In many cases, the cars or trains are sounding horns that the pedestrians cannot hear, leading to fatalities in nearly three-quarters of cases.

“Everybody is aware of the risk of cell phones and texting in automobiles, but I see more and more teens distracted with the latest devices and headphones in their ears,” said lead author Richard Lichenstein, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and director of pediatric emergency medicine at the University of Maryland Medical Center. “Unfortunately as we make more and more enticing devices, the risk of injury from distraction and blocking out other sounds increases.”

The researchers looked at 116 accident cases from 2004 to 2011 in which injured pedestrians were found to be using headphones. Seventy percent of the 116 accidents resulted in death to the pedestrian.

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Dodge Presents New 2012 Challenger Model

New 2012 Dodge Challenger Rallye Redeye adds more style and presence to an already popular lineup

By rolling out products like the 2012 Challenger Rallye Redeye, Dodge caters to its fast-car customer base...

PhotoDodge, an auto maker that likes to think it's known for sporty, extravagant designs, unveiled yet another version of a new-wave muscle car at the recent Spring Festival of LXs in Irvine, California. The 2012 Dodge Challenger Rallye Redeye, which is due to hit stores later this spring, retails for under $30,000 and offers its own unique style and engineering for a specific kind of driver who values both performance and curb appeal.

Red striping on the outside and 20-inch pitch black wheels help make the 2012 Dodge Challenger Rallye Redeye look sharp, and a two-tiered contour design with a small rear spoiler helps to accent the kind of style that drives modern buyers to cars like the Dodge Charger and Challenger – new photos from InsideLine show more of the model’s interior and exterior style, like an ultramodern metal Mopar shifter (as well as die-cast zinc paddle shifters mounted on the steering wheel) and bar style brake lighting on the back of the car where the red stripe ends.

As for performance, Dodge endowed the 2012 Dodge Challenger Rallye Redeye with a 305 hp Pentastar V6 engine with VVT. This car also gets a performance-tuned suspension with innovative shocks, and sway bar design that helps with cornering, as well as top-of-the-line high-performance disc brakes with dual-piston front calipers and, of course, vented rotors.

Dodge jammed a lot of technology into this model; the Challenger Rallye Redeye model gets all of the conventional gear inside other Challenger models, including hands-free technology, premium auto, keyless entry and other conveniences along with serious ask them satellite radio and a wealth of drive technology.

The opportunity to gaze on this new Dodge Chrysler offer inspires a broader review of what our readers have to say about a line of cars that, if nothing else, will look terrific in your driveway. When it comes to consumer reviews of Dodge products like the new Charger and Challenger models, ConsumerAffairs has received some diverse complaints, many of them related to issues like VIN number and mileage exclusions for recalls of many Dodge models in years past. There’s also a single report of spontaneous combustion, and some complaints about local dealerships. As for the recalls, ConsumerAffairs covered some recall activity last year, and we also took a look at a new Dodge Dart model meant to garner some attention in the small car segment.

Since recent reports don’t indicate a lack of demand for these kinds of Dodge products, it’s likely that the new Challenger Rallye Redeye is one more step in the auto maker’s continuing strategy of supplying the gearheads of North America with products that, while they may sport direct injection systems instead of old-fashioned carburators, still look a little like the road-pounding machines of times past. When test driving these high-powered cars at your local dealer’s lot, be sure to ask about all current incentives and rebates, as well as insurance ratings for these flashy models.

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FDA Issues New Rules on Disclosing Harmful Substances in Tobacco

Agency's goal is to prevent misleading marketing about the risk of smoking

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration(FDA) is releasing what it says is previously unknown information about the chemicals in tobacco products, intend...

PhotoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration(FDA) is releasing what it says is previously unknown information about the chemicals in tobacco products, intended to help prevent misleading marketing about the risks associated with tobacco products. 

The first document released today provides guidance on how companies will comply with the requirement to report on the quantities of potentially harmful chemicals in tobacco products. The second provides guidance to companies that seek to advertise or market a tobacco product as less harmful or associated with reducing the risk of tobacco-related disease. 

"Today’s actions represent critical steps forward on providing Americans with the facts about the dangers of tobacco use and to stop children from smoking," said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. "We will continue to do everything we can to help smokers quit and prevent kids from starting this deadly addiction."

The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act requires tobacco product manufacturers and importers to report quantities of harmful and potentially harmful constituents (HPHCs) found in tobacco products or tobacco smoke by brand and sub-brand. These  are chemicals or chemical compounds in a tobacco product or tobacco smoke that cause, or could cause, harm to smokers or non-smokers. All of the chemicals included on the list cause or may cause serious health problems including cancer, lung disease, and addiction to tobacco products.

While there are more than 7,000 chemicals in tobacco and tobacco smoke, FDA has today established a list of 93 specific chemicals that tobacco companies will be required to report for every regulated tobacco product sold in the United States.

Time line

The FDA said it recognizes that industry may be unable to meet the deadline due to current testing limitations. In recognition of this, the draft guidance released today identifies 20 chemicals that are representative of the full list and for which testing methods are well established and widely available.

FDA intends to focus reporting enforcement on these 20 substances during 2012.

Modified risk

FDA also issued draft guidance today on submitting applications to sell modified risk tobacco products (MRTPs) -- tobacco products that are sold, distributed, or marketed with a claim to reduce harm or the risk of tobacco-related disease.

The Tobacco Control Act establishes rigorous scientific criteria an applicant’s tobacco product must meet before FDA can allow the applicant to sell that product with a claim to reduce harm. The draft guidance describes scientific studies and analyses an applicant should submit to demonstrate its product will, or is expected to, significantly reduce harm or exposure to individuals, and benefit the health of the population as a whole.

"We are  forging new territory to ensure that tobacco companies provide accurate information and do not mislead American consumers," said FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, M.D. "We are committed to stopping such practices that may cause people to start or continue using tobacco products that could lead to preventable disease and death."

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South Florida Produce Recalls Jalapeno Peppers

May be contaminated with Salmonella

South Florida Produce, LLC is recalling Jalapeno Peppers, because they have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella, an organism which c...

PhotoSouth Florida Produce, LLC is recalling Jalapeno Peppers, because they have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella, an organism which can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. 

Healthy persons infected with Salmonella often experience fever, diarrhea (which may be bloody), nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.  In rare circumstances, infection withSalmonella can result in the organism getting into the bloodstream and producing more severe illnesses such as arterial infections (i.e., infected aneurysms), endocarditis and arthritis. 

The recalled Jalapeno Peppers were distributed to Distributors in Oxford, NC, Lake Worth, FL, Washington, DC, Pompano Beach, FL, Fair Lawn, NJ, Toronto, Ontario, Canada via customer truck between March 5 through March 7, 2012.

The product comes in bulk 1 1/9 bushel cartons marked with the lot #’s J000010995, J000010996, J000010997, J000010998, J000010999, J000011000, J000020135, J000020136, J000020137, J000020138, J000020139 and J000030053.  These lots #’s appear on the pallet labels located on the front and back of each pallet. 

No illnesses have been reported to date in connection with this problem.  

The potential for contamination was noted during a routine testing by a retail store which revealed the possible presence of Salmonella in packs of 2, 10 and 40 count packages.

Customers that have inventory with the above lot numbers are urged to destroy the  product and contact Leslie DiStefano, Director of Sales & Food Safety at 954-459-0106 to verify receipt of this recall and destruction of the product.

Please refer customer or consumer questions or concerns that you might have in regard to this recall to the company's Director of Sales and Food Safety, Leslie DiStefano at (954) 459-0106 during the hours of 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM Monday through Friday. 

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Debt Collection Complaints Rose In 2011

Congress gets report on Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

Debt Collection Complaints Rose In 2011...

PhotoDebt collection is a growing industry and a growing source of complaints from consumers. Lately there has been a flood of complaints from former Hollywood Video customers who say they are being contacted about fees they say they do not owe.

There are also complaints from consumers who say they are being contacted about debts other people owe.

"I was awakened at 7 am by a person looking for a way to contact my brother about a private business matter," Virginia, of Peoria, Ariz., wrote in a post at ConsumerAffairs. "I have not spoken to my brother in at least eight months and didn't know of any other way to reach him. I looked up the caller's company and found it to be a debt collector. I called them back and ordered them to remove my phone number from their files. He told me he couldn't guarantee that my number would be removed."

As long as Virginia is not a party to her brother's debt, she is within her rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) in demanding that she not be contacted further.

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Takes Over

Responsibility for enforcing this important law has shifted from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). In its first report to Congress on the subject of the FDCPA, the new agency promised to step up efforts to end abusive behavior.

"Debt collection is a large, multi-billion dollar industry that directly affects many consumers," the CFPB said in its report. "In 2011, approximately 30 million individuals, or 14 percent of American adults, had debt that was subject to the collections process, averaging approximately $1,400."

The report notes there have been many changes in the debt collection industry since the FDCPA was passed in 1977. The FDCPA created parameters on debt collection activities such as the time and place collection calls could be made, restrictions on how and to whom debts are communicated, and prohibitions on deceptive, threatening, and abusive collection tactics.

Third-party debt collectors

The FDCPA’s prohibition of deceptive, unfair, and abusive practices applies to third-party debt collectors. For the most part, creditors are exempt when they are collecting their own debts.

"In 2011, consumer complaints to the FTC about third-party debt collectors (“FDCPA complaints”) increased in absolute terms and as a percentage of all complaints that consumers filed directly with the FTC," the report notes. "The FTC received 117,374 FDCPA complaints in 2011, representing 22.3% of all complaints it received directly from consumers. By comparison, in 2010, the FTC received 109,254 FDCPA complaints, representing 21.1% of the complaints it received directly from consumers.

Industry responds

The debt collection industry quickly fired back, saying an increasing number of consumer complaints does not necessarily indicate bad behavior.

"While the FTC simply tallies consumer complaints the agency admittedly does so without investigation into whether the complaint is actually illegal or a violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act," the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals said in a statement. "It therefore cannot be assumed that all complaints equate to actual bad behavior."

For its part, CFPB acknowledged third-party debt collectors play a legitimate role in the economy.

"Consumer debt collection is critical to the functioning of the consumer credit market," it said in its report. "By collecting delinquent debt, collectors reduce creditors’ losses from non-repayment and thereby help to keep consumer credit available and potentially more affordable to consumers."

That said, the new cop on the beat made clear that it will be diligently watching for abusive behavior.

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Feds Seek to Close California's Blue Ocean Smokehouse

Risk of botulism, other hazards is unacceptably high, FDA charges

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in a complaint filed by the Department of Justice, is seeking to stop the processing and distribution of fish produc...

PhotoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in a complaint filed by the Department of Justice, is seeking to stop the processing and distribution of fish products at a California company because of a risk of botulism and other food hazards.

If granted, the permanent injunction against Fujino Enterprises Inc., doing business as Blue Ocean Smokehouse, of Half Moon Bay, Calif., would stop the company from processing and distributing fish and fish products. Blue Ocean’s president Erika Fujino also is named in the government’s complaint.

Blue Ocean processes fresh and smoked fish and fish products including salmon, cod, halibut, Wild King Salmon Candy (a honey-glazed, cold-smoked salmon), hot-smoked tuna, sturgeon and hot-smoked fish cream cheese spreads. Blue Ocean receives fish for processing from outside California, including salmon from Washington state and sturgeon from Oregon. 

“This company has ignored warnings by FDA and the California Department of Public Health by continuing to sell seafood that puts consumers’ health at risk,” said Dara A. Corrigan, associate commissioner for regulatory affairs. “We are taking this action, in part, as a result of collaborative enforcement actions with our state partner and as part of our joint efforts to protect the public health.”

The complaint alleges that the company’s fish and fish products are adulterated, because they are processed under conditions that do not comply with the agency’s Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) regulations. HACCP is a science-based system of preventive controls for food safety that is used by commercial seafood processors to identify potential food safety hazards and take steps to keep them from occurring. 

The complaint also alleges that Blue Ocean’s fish are adulterated because the conditions under which they are prepared, packed, and held fail to conform to the Current Good Manufacturing Practice requirements for food established to ensure that food is processed in a safe and sanitary manner.

An FDA inspection in October 2011 found poor employee sanitation practices and showed that the company’s facility was not maintained in a manner that protected against food contamination.

Blue Ocean’s vacuum-packaged hot and cold smoked fish products may pose a risk for the development of Clostridium botulinum toxin that can cause botulism, a rare but serious illness that may result in paralysis, inhibited respiration, and death. This toxin cannot be removed by cooking or freezing.

Listeria

Investigators also found Listeria monocytogenes (L. mono) on food-contact and non-food-contact surfaces in the food processing areas of the company’s facility. Listeriosis, the illness caused by L. mono, can cause fatal infections in young children, the elderly, and individuals with weakened immune systems. Pregnant women may suffer miscarriages or stillbirths as a result of the infection.

In addition, Blue Ocean’s tuna products may pose a risk for the development of scombrotoxin (histamine), a toxin that also cannot be removed by cooking or freezing, and that can cause an illness known as scombrotoxin poisoning.

The company’s violations led to its voluntary destruction of almost 1,500 pounds of hot- and cold-smoked fish in October 2011, under the supervision of the FDA and the California Department of Public Health.

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Bogus BBB Email Contains a Dangerous Virus

Scam artists can get access to your bank account

Bogus e-mails claiming to be from the Better Business Bureau are notifying companies of supposed customer grievances. The e-mail recipient is asked to revi...

Bogus e-mails claiming to be from the Better Business Bureau are notifying companies of supposed customer grievances. The e-mail recipient is asked to review the attached “complaint,” which actually contains a virus.

One business lost nearly $100,000 when fraudsters electronically stole money from the company’s bank account after the virus enabled them to capture passwords and other important banking information.

Photo

This scam is among five featured in the latest report from the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). The IC3 is a partnership between the FBI and the National White-Collar Crime Center and gives victims of cybercrime a convenient reporting mechanism that alerts authorities of suspected criminal or civil violations.

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Florida Sues 'Christian' Debt Management Service

Suit charges company took consumers' money but did little else

Christian Crossroads, a so-called debt management service, lured customers with promises of a Bible-based "spiritual and lifestyle education," took money i...

Christian Crossroads, a so-called debt management service, lured customers with promises of a Bible-based "spiritual and lifestyle education," took money in advance and kept taking it, but failed to perform the most basic services, the Florida Attorney General claims in a lawsuit.

The suit, filed in Palm Beach County Court, alleges that Christian Crossroads and its manager, Lillian Morton, used Internet advertising to lure religious consumers who were looking for help with debt reduction services.

Consumers were told that they would receive services including "comprehensive spiritual and lifestyle education and coaching services, including but not limited to a thorough assessment of the member's current lifestyle goals and spiritual practices."

The company supposedly promised that its debt reduction program was "based upon Biblical principles."

Consumers who signed up were required to make monthly payments, which supposedly would be forwarded to the consumers' creditors. But, the suit charges, once Morton received the initial and monthly fees, they often failed to even contact the consumers' creditors to make arrangements for debt reduction.

Christian Crossroads also failed to pay refunds who asked that their services be canceled, the suit charges.

The state's lawsuit seeks injunctions and monetary relief, alleging that the comapny violated the Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. 

 

 

 

 

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Best Buy Will Close Some Stores, Shrink Others

Profits dip as Amazon, other online retailers take big bites out of Best Buy

Best Buy is hoping it can slim down its stores and tone up its finances, as Amazon and other online retailers continue cutting into its profit margins.Th...

PhotoBest Buy is hoping it can slim down its stores and tone up its finances, as Amazon and other online retailers continue cutting into its profit margins.

The company says it will close 50 of its big box stores this year while trying out branches that are 20% smaller.  Called "Connected Stores," the smaller outlets will concentrate on e-readers, tablet computers, cellphones and service plans.

Best Buy said it expects to open another 100 U.S. Best Buy Mobile small format stores in fiscal 2013 and continues to expect to have a total of 600 to 800 such stores by fiscal 2016 (from 305 today). 

In its quarterly report, Best Buy also said it will expand the benefits under its Reward Zone Silver loyalty program, whose members account for a significant percentage of the company's profit.

Reward Zone Silver customers will receive enhancements including free expedited shipping, premier access to many of the most popular products and major sales events, a free house call from the Geek Squad, and 60-day no hassle returns and price-match policy.

The company also said it is working on a new "labor model" that will be implemented in its big box stores before the 2012 holiday season. The idea is to provide better training and improved compensation for employees who hit specific goals.

The changes come after a bruising three months. The company today reported a net loss of ($1.7) billion for its fourth quarter ended March 3, 2012 compared to net income of $651 million for the prior-year period.

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Selecting a Prepaid Debit Card

Are more consumer safeguards needed?

Selecting a Prepaid Debit Card...

PhotoAs banks levy more fees on their customers, prepaid debit cards are beginning to look like a more viable alternative.

Prepaid cards are reloadable cards that can be used to make payments similar to debit cards and are becoming the foundation of a second-tier banking system.  Prepaid cards look like other plastic payment cards and bear the network logos of Visa, MasterCard or Discover along with the word "debit" on the front of the card.

The problem, of course, is that these cards carry a lot of fees of their own, which is what has made them less desirable in the past. But increasingly, competition within the industry has led to cards with fewer, and lower fees. The problem for consumers is to be able to more easily spot the cards that are most consumer-friendly.

Relying more on prepaid cards

"Now that so many households are relying on prepaid cards to manage their finances, it's time for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to take action to protect consumers," said Michelle Jun, senior attorney for Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. "We need new rules that require fees to be disclosed in a simple format so consumers know the costs before they purchase a card.

"Prepaid cards should get the same strong protections as debit cards so consumers have the peace of mind that their money is safe if their card is lost or stolen," Jun said.

Consumers can typically only find information about a few of the fees charged by card issuers before they purchase a card at a store. While some prepaid card issuers are providing direct links to fee schedules on their web sites, others make finding this information more difficult.

While most cards charge a fee to activate an account, that's not the fee consumers should worry about, since it's a on-time charge. Instead, focus on the monthly fee and the transaction fees. Some monthly fees are as low as $3, making them competitive with most bank accounts.

Fees quickly add up

But what will it cost you to use the card? This is where fees can quickly add up. Selecting "credit" instead of "debit" when making a purchase will often result in no fee. When you need cash, select "debit" and get cash back. The debit fee will, in most cases, be lower than the fee for using an ATM.

The Federal Reserve has found that prepaid cards are the fastest growing non-cash method of payment.  That growth is expected to continue as the prepaid card industry works to attract the business of the estimated 60 million adults with limited or no access to bank accounts.

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Did Social Media Smear 'Pink Slime?'

Scientists, consumer organizations say the product is safe and low in fat

The maker of “pink slime” has suspended operations at all but one plant where the beef ingredient is made, but says the social media uproar abo...

PhotoThe maker of “pink slime” has suspended operations at all but one plant where the beef ingredient is made, but says social media criticism of the company's product is badly mistaken -- and the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) agrees.

The product is known in the industry as "lean, finely textured beef" (LFTB) and is made from fatty bits of meat left over from other cuts. The bits are heated and spun to remove most of the fat. The lean mix then is compressed into blocks for use in ground meat. The product is exposed to ammonium hydroxide gas to kill bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella.

While this may not sound very appealing, it actually contributes to food safety.

"Their use of ammonia, while considered 'icky' by some consumers, was used to reduce the risk of pathogenic E. coli in their product. The levels used in the product did not pose a health risk to consumers," said Chris Waldrop, CFA's food safety director.

E. coli and other bacteria, on the other hand, do pose a safety risk and have been implicated in numerous outbreaks that have killed and sickened many over the years.

Industry leaders

Waldrop said Beef Products Inc. (BPI) and its founder, Eldon Roth, are "recognized as industry leaders in food safety." Waldrop said CFA is concerned that manufacturers of hamburger patties may replace LFTB with something that has not been processed to assure the same level of safety.

"We are also concerned about the potential chilling effect this recent controversy may have on companies who seek to apply innovative solutions
and new technologies to enhance food safety," Waldrop said.

Government officials are also defending the product.

"There's a firestorm with people misunderstanding the situation," said Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy USDA Secretary. "We are 100 percent behind the safety of this product. No question about it," she said in an interview at the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Phoenix, according to AZFamily.com"We would not be providing this product to schools if we thought it was unsafe, clearly." Merrigan said it's a lean product that helps lower the fat content of ground beef.

Substantial hit

Craig Letch, BPI's director of food quality and assurance for Beef Products Inc., said the business has taken a “substantial” hit since social media exploded with worry over the ammonia-treated filler and an online petition seeking its ouster from schools drew hundreds of thousands of supporters.

BPI said it will suspend operations at plants in Amarillo, Texas; Garden City, Kan.; and Waterloo, Iowa, Letch said. The company’s plant at its Dakota Dunes, S.D., headquarters will continue operations.

Letch said the company will be working on a strategy to rebuild its business and address what he said are misconceptions about the company's product. It has launched a new website -- http://beefisbeef.com -- that it hopes will help dispel myths about pink slime.

“We feel like when people can start to understand the truth and reality then our business will come back,” he said. “It’s 100 percent beef.”

“At a time when so many Americans struggle to put a healthy, nutritious meal on their family’s dinner table, the unfounded mischaracterization of Lean Finely Textured Beef as ‘pink slime’ is unconscionable,” Barry Carpenter, chief executive officer of the National Meat Association, said in a statement. “I am sure the public is not aware of how widespread and potentially devastating the consequences of allowing public misperception to trump sound nutritional science are.”

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Rising Gas Prices Alter Vacation Plans

Consumers may stay close to home this summer, survey shows

Rising Gas Prices Alter Vacation Plans...

PhotoDespite the rise in gasoline prices, consumer confidence remains higher than it has been in several months.

But confidence is one thing, economic reality is another. And when it comes to making vacation plans, consumers are scaling it back, according to the U.S. Travel Association. And there's one main reason for it.

"If travelers are spending more on gas, they are spending less on hotels, attractions, shopping and restaurants, which could have a negative impact on our overall economy," said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. "We need to find solutions that reduce the burden which rising gas prices are placing on everyday travelers."

For vacationers planning to travel by car this summer, more than half - 54 percent - said that an increase in gas prices would affect their summer leisure travel plans.

Even business travelers cutting back

And if gas prices keep going up, let's say by $0.26 to $1.25 a gallon, 57 percent of consumers questioned in the survey said they would alter travel plans. Even 26 percent of business travelers said they would cut back.

Almost half of vacationers traveling by car said that an increase in gas prices would cause them to take fewer trips this summer. Almost one-fifth of business travelers using a car would take fewer trips.

Air travel also impacted

High gasoline prices aren't affecting just highway travel. Forty-three percent of leisure travelers planning to fly this summer said that an increase in airfare due to higher oil prices would affect their summer plans, with one-quarter of business travelers planning to fly saying the same. This week a number of airlines announced what may be the first of a series of fuel-related fare hikes.

"It's important to remember that, along with the housing crisis, a surge in gasoline prices was one of the leading factors that pushed the economy into recession in 2008," said David Huether, senior vice president of economics and research at U.S. Travel. "There is a very real probability that if gas prices continue to climb, Americans will change and reduce their travel plans, which would work against the positive economic momentum that had been building in recent quarters."

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Feds Put Robocallers Out of Business

Defendants allegedly made billions of calls pushing car warranties, interest rate reduction

If you got any of the billions of annoying robocalls about your auto warranty supposedly expiring or you credit card interest rate going up, it may have be...

PhotoIf you got any of the billions of annoying robocalls about your auto warranty supposedly expiring or you credit card interest rate going up, it may have been SBN Peripherals calling.

Well, SBN won't be calling anymore. Under a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), SBN Peripherals, also known as Asia Pacific Telecom Inc., has agreed not to make any more telemarketing calls.

The FTC's complaint alleged that the defendants delivered illegal prerecorded phone calls falsely claiming the caller had urgent information about the consumer's auto warranty or credit card interest rate.

Consumers who pressed "1" for more information were transferred to telemarketers who used fraudulent practices to sell inferior extended auto service contracts or worthless debt-reduction services.

According to court papers filed by the court-appointed receiver, from January 2008 through August 2009, the defendants completed approximately 2.6 billion outbound robocalls that were answered by approximately 1.6 billion consumers, approximately 12.8 million of whom were connected to a sales agent.

As alleged in the complaint, the defendants violated the law by using robocalls to contact consumers without their written permission and called telephones listed on the National Do Not Call Registry.

To make it difficult for consumers to identify the seller, the FTC also alleged that the defendants' robocalls often transmitted caller ID information vaguely identifying the caller as "SALES DEPT" and displaying telephone numbers registered to an offshore company it controlled called Asia Pacific Telecom.

Under the proposed settlement order, the company and its principals are banned from telemarketing. The order also prohibits them from misrepresenting any good or service, and from selling or otherwise benefitting from customers' personal information, and requires them to properly dispose of customers' personal information within 30 days.

The order imposes a $5.3 million judgment that will be suspended, based on their inability to pay, when they have surrendered assets valued at approximately $3 million, including more than $1 million obtained from a bank account in Hong Kong, a $375,000 lien on a home, a 50 percent interest in an office building in Saipan, the defendants' interest in seven parcels of undeveloped land, as well as three cars and a recreational vehicle. The full judgment will become due immediately if the defendants are found to have misrepresented their financial condition.

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Popcorn: Great Source of Antioxidants

Properly prepared, popcorn can be a health food

Researcher says popcorn is a good source of antioxidants...

PhotoTurn up your nose at broccoli but still want to load up on healthy antioxidants? Try some popcorn instead.

Known mostly as a snack, popcorn turns out to contain more of the healthful antioxidant substances called "polyphenols" than most fruits and vegetables. Scientists who made this discovery delivered their findings this week at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

Joe Vinson, Ph.D., a pioneer in analyzing healthful components in chocolate, nuts and other common foods, explained that the polyphenols are more concentrated in popcorn, which averages only about 4 percent water, while polyphenols are diluted in the 90 percent water that makes up many fruits and vegetables.

In another surprising finding, the researchers discovered that the hull of the popcorn –– the part that everyone hates for its tendency to get caught in the teeth –– actually has the highest concentration of polyphenols and fiber.

Respect the hulls

“Those hulls deserve more respect,” said Vinson, a professor at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. “They are nutritional gold nuggets.”

Need another reason to pop a bowl? How's this? Popcorn is the only snack that is 100 percent unprocessed whole grain. All other grains are processed and diluted with other ingredients, and although cereals are called “whole grain,” this simply means that over 51 percent of the weight of the product is whole grain.

One serving of popcorn will provide more than 70 percent of the daily intake of whole grain. The average person only gets about half a serving of whole grains a day, and popcorn could fill that gap in a very pleasant way, Vinson says.

It's all in the preparation

The downside of popcorn, of course, is how some people prepare it. Cook it in a potful of oil, slather on butter or the fake butter used in many movie theaters, pour on the salt and you've got a nutritional nightmare loaded with fat and calories.

Vinson said the most healthy way to prepare popcorn is to air pop it. That has the lowest number of calories per serving. The next healthiest method is to microwave it. But that has about twice the calories of air popped corn.

Vinson pointed out that popcorn cannot and should not replace fresh fruits and vegetables in a healthy diet. Fruits and vegetables contain vitamins and other nutrients that are critical for good health, but are missing from popcorn.

But he says an occasional serving of popcorn, prepared with a minimum of oil, butter and salt, is a pleasant way to get some extra polyphenols in your body.

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Hell Hath No Fury Like a Consumer Scorned

When consumers feel wronged, they often take it personally

A bad experience can turn someone into a consumer crusader...

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Kristin Christian

Where do consumer advocates come from? They tend to be ordinary consumers who one day run into what they perceive as gross injustice at the hands of a business. Then, look out!

Last fall it was Kristin Christian, a Los Angeles businesswoman, who got so fed up with her bank's fees that she set in motion what became “National Bank Transfer Day,” when hundreds of thousands of consumers left their big national banks and opened accounts at smaller banks and credit unions.

Invalid charge

One sees budding consumer advocates daily in the pages of ConsumerAffairs. In a recent post, Vernon, of Houston, Tex., tells of receiving an invoice, marked as a “late notice,” from Progressive Business Publications. It was for an HR book and priced at $299.

“Of course nobody at my company ordered this book, plus it was never received,” Vernon wrote.

After some searching, Vernon said he tracked down a phone number for the company and called, speaking with a customer service rep.

“She tried to say someone ordered this book, and we owed this money,” Vernon said. “I decided to call my brother, who just happens to work for the Texas Attorney General's office. Guess what? This company has so many complaints and there is an ongoing investigation!”

Vernon said he called back and, when he pressed the issue, was assured he would receive no more bills.

Now, it's personal

“But that's not good enough,” Vernon writes. “I have a new goal in life now. They messed with the wrong guy.”

Vernon wants to spread the word that, when businesses receive invoices for something no one seems to know anything about, they should not be paid without further investigation.

Business employees should also be careful about taking telephone calls from unknown vendors who say they are taking a survey. The answers can be misconstrued and misrepresented to constitute a sale.

As for Progressive Business Publications, ConsumerAffairs has received a number of complaints that closely match Vernon's. The Better Business Bureau reports it has closed 1,797 complaints against the company in last 3 years, with 943 closed in last 12 months.

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Feds Ready to Dump Ally Financial

Treasury Department fears Ally will never be able to pay back its $17.2 billion

We've all seen the ads for Ally Financial, the "new" bank that wants to be our friend.  It is, of course, none other than the former GMAC operating un...

PhotoWe've all seen the ads for Ally Financial, the "new" bank that wants to be our friend.  It is, of course, none other than the former GMAC operating under a new name -- and doing so with $17.2 billion of taxpayers' money.

Now the U.S. Treasury would like to break up Ally and sell off its bits and pieces in hopes of getting its money back, according to Bloomberg News.

The big infusion of taxpayer money was part of the TARP bail-out and the hope was that, besides propping up the economy, Ally and the other banks rescued by taxpayers would become big, healthy businesses that would eventually pay back the loans, either from their profits or from a sale or initial public offering (IPO).

That's a good theory but the Treasury Department says it no longer thinks an Ally IPO would succeed and it would like to see General Motors take back at least parts of the business, according to sources quoted by Bloomberg. And unfortunately, consumers aren't feeling much better about Ally than the Treasury Department.  A sentiment analysis of about 14,000 consumer comments on social media over the last year finds Ally veering wildly from one ditch to another, winding up with a dismal 87% negative sentiment by March.

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A big part of the problem is that Ally is a bank without any branches. Traditionally, banks without branches have a hard time raising capital for the simple reason that it's not easy for consumers to drop in and leave their money behind. 

Ally is also saddled with a troubled mortgage unit and, according to Bloomberg, didn't exactly pass the recent stress tests with flying colors, indicating it may be too lightly capitalized to survive.

Bloomberg says Treasury would like to see Ally split into at least two pieces. One would handle auto finance, its traditional strong suit, and the other would operate as an online bank.

Consumers not thrilled

What would consumers say about this? Linda of Columbia, Tenn., probably wouldn't agree that Ally is very swift at operating an online bank. She posted on ConsumerAffairs about the trouble she had collecting her money when a CD matured.

"We have been on the phone every day since January 20, 2012, and we started requesting the funds to be transferred via wire transfer to our TD Ameritrade account on January 17 from our financial advisor's office," she said. "It is now January 30 in the evening, and both of our CD account funds are in limbo land somewhere in computer heaven?"

"We have also asked for interest due us, but now, they want to charge us $20.00 per account to do a wire transfer or to send us a check to us personally. Ally is the biggest joke. They might be open 24/7, but you can't get a decent or correct response," Linda fumed.

Linda is not alone. Other consumers have reported similar problems.

"Using the Ally internet banking for CDS has been a frustrating process," said a Holmdel, N.J., consumer. "After CDS matured, there were numerous delays transferring our money."

Ally's auto-finance customers also have a long litany of complaints.

"My husband and I purchased a car and financed through Ally a month ago. The first payment is due in 15 days, and we have not received a statement," said Kimberly of White Oak, Pa. "I decided to use their online payment option for fear that mailing a check will make the payment late. The website would not allow me to process the payment unless I agreed to give Ally access to process any payment in any amount in the future from my bank account. I am leery of giving such open access to my bank account to any company."

Jeff of Tomball, Texas, also complained of problems making payments to Ally.

"I was not allowed access, to be able for me to pay my monthly car payment account through the online feature offered by Ally Financial Inc.," Jeff said. "Ally did not offer any other ways or solutions to make my monthly car payment. Ally Customer Service stated that they did not control that access, so they were unable to assist me. The consequences is that this caused my payments to be late, and Ally charged extra penalty fees."

It is, perhaps, experiences like these that cause large numbers of consumers to reject the notion of befriending Ally.

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The biggest thorn in Ally's side, however, is its mortgage unit, now called Residential Capital.  It is expected to slide into bankruptcy in the next few months, according to Bloomberg.

Meanwhile, with Ally's problems mounting and its IPO looking unlikely, key executives are beginning to head for the exits, making it that much harder for the company to turn itself around, observers said.

---

Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase


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FTC: RockYou Game Site Exposed 32 Million Emails & Passwords

Site agrees to upgrade its security and pay $250,000 penalty

A social game site has agreed to settle charges that, while touting its security features, it failed to protect the privacy of its users, allowing hackers ...

PhotoA social game site has agreed to settle charges that, while touting its security features, it failed to protect the privacy of its users, allowing hackers to access the personal information of 32 million users.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also alleged in its complaint against RockYou that the company violated the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act Rule (COPPA Rule) in collecting information from approximately 179,000 children.

The proposed FTC settlement order with the company bars future deceptive claims by the company regarding privacy and data security, requires it to implement and maintain a data security program, bars future violations of the COPPA Rule, and requires it to pay a $250,000 civil penalty to settle the COPPA charges.

According to the FTC complaint, RockYou operated a website that allowed consumers to play games and use other applications. Many consumers used the site to assemble slide shows from their photos, using a caption capability and music supplied by the site. To save their slide shows, consumers had to enter their email address and email password.

COPPA Rule

The FTC's COPPA Rule requires that website operators notify parents and obtain their consent before they collect, use, or disclose personal information from children under 13. The Rule also requires that website operators post a privacy policy that is clear, understandable, and complete.

The FTC alleged that RockYou knowingly collected approximately 179,000 children's email addresses and associated passwords during registration – without their parents' consent – and enabled children to create personal profiles and post personal information on slide shows that could be shared online.

The company asked for kids' date of birth, and so accepted registrations from kids under 13. In addition, the company's security failures put users' including children's personal information at risk, according to the FTC. The FTC charged that RockYou violated the COPPA Rule by:

  • not spelling out its collection, use and disclosure policy for children's information;
  • not obtaining verifiable parental consent before collecting children's personal information; and
  • not maintaining reasonable procedures, such as encryption to protect the confidentiality, security, and integrity of personal information collected from children.

The FTC has a new publication, Living Life Online, to help tweens and teens navigate the internet safely.

 

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Another Study Finds Too Much Sitting Down is Dangerous

Higher mortality rate among those who spend the most time sitting

Are you still sitting down on the job?  Might be time to get up and move around, or even to get a standing desk.Another study has found that prolong...

PhotoAre you still sitting down on the job?  Might be time to get up and move around, or even to get a stand-up desk.

Another study has found that prolonged sitting is a risk factor for all-cause mortality, independent of physical activity. Researchers at the Sydney School of Public Health in Sydney, Australia, linked questionnaire data from more than 222,000 individuals 45 years of age and older. The models examined all-cause mortality in relation to sitting time, adjusting for sex, age, education, urban/rural residence, physical activity, body mass index, smoking status, self-rated health, and disability.

Writing in the Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals, they reported finding 5,405 deaths among the group being studied, with higher death rates for those who spent more time sitting. The researchers said the higher mortality rate appeared consistent across the sexes, age groups, body mass index categories, and physical activity levels and across healthy participants compared with participants with preexisting cardiovascular disease or diabetes mellitus.

The conclusion? Prolonged sitting is a risk factor for all-cause mortality, independent of physical activity, and the researchers said that public health programs should focus on reducing sitting time in addition to increasing physical activity levels.

The findings are similar to those released last November by a group of Canadian researchers, who said a lack of physical activity -- especially sitting for long periods -- can lead to cancer. Presenting at the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) annual conference, the researchers said as many as 49,000 cases of breast cancer and 43,000 cases of colon cancer occurring in the U.S. every year are linked to a lack of physical activity.

"Taken together, this research suggests that every day, we're each given numerous opportunities to be active and protect ourselves from cancer, not one," said AICR spokesperson Alice Bender, MS RD. "We need to start thinking in terms of make time and break time."

According to the study, led by Christine Friedenreich, PhD, of Alberta Health Services-Cancer Care, getting a vigorous workout every day – while part of a healthy lifestyle – won't lessen what she sees as the cancer risk from prolonged sitting.

Her advice? Make time for physical activity and break every hour of sitting with one to two minutes of activity. These breaks can be as simple as walking to a colleague's office instead of sending an email or going to the kitchen to get a glass of water.


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Eat More Chocolate, Lose More Weight?

It's not quite that simple but the answer may be "maybe"

Eat chocolate and lose weight? Maybe, but it's not quite that simple. According to a research letter in the March 26 issue of Archives of Inter...

PhotoEat chocolate and lose weight? Maybe, but it's not quite that simple. 

According to a research letter in the March 26 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals, frequently eating chocolate was linked to lower body mass index (BMI), As other studies have suggested, the latest study finds that eating certain types of chocolate has been linked to some favorable metabolic associations with blood pressure, insulin sensitivity and cholesterol level. However, because chocolate can be a calorie-laden sweet there are concerns about eating it.

In February 2011, Japanese scientists followed up on earlier studies that have shown cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate, appears to reduce the risk of heart disease by boosting levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good" cholesterol, and decreasing levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad" cholesterol

In the latest study, Beatrice A. Golomb, M.D., Ph.D., and colleagues with the University of California, San Diego, studied 1,018 men and woman without known cardiovascular disease, diabetes or extremes of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) levels who were screened for participation in a clinical study examining noncardiac effects of statins. To measure chocolate consumption, 1,017 of the participants answered a question about how many times per week they ate chocolate. BMI was calculated for 972 of them. Of the participants, 975 completed a food frequency questionnaire. 

“Adults who consumed chocolate more frequently had a lower BMI than those who consumed chocolate less often,” the authors note.

Participants had a mean (average) age of 57 years, 68 percent were men and the mean BMI was 28. They ate chocolate a mean (average) of two times a week and exercised 3.6 times a week.

“In conclusion, our findings – that more frequent chocolate intake is linked to lower BMI – are intriguing,” the authors conclude. “A randomized trial of chocolate for metabolic benefits in humans may be merited.”

The study was funded by a grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health.

Japanese study

In their study, the Japanese researchers said that credit for those heart-healthy effects goes to a cadre of antioxidant compounds in cocoa called polyphenols, which are particularly abundant in dark chocolate.

The scientists analyzed the effects of cocoa polyphenols on cholesterol using cultures of human liver and intestinal cells. They focused on the production of apolipoprotein A1 (ApoA1), a protein that is the major component of "good" cholesterol, and apolipoprotein B (ApoB), the main component of "bad" cholesterol.

What they discovered was cocoa polyphenols increased ApoA1 levels and decreased ApoB levels in both the liver and intestine.

Additionally, the scientists discovered the polyphenols seem to work by enhancing the activity of so-called sterol regulatory element binding proteins (SREBPs).

SREBPs attach to the genetic material DNA and activate genes that boost ApoA1 levels, increasing "good" cholesterol. The scientists also found polyphenols appear to increase the activity of LDL receptors, proteins that help lower "bad" cholesterol levels.

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Gulf States Toyota Recalls 2012 4Runner, Sienna

Remote engine starter may malfunction, interfere with vital functions

Gulf States Toyota is recalling about 360 2012 4Runners and Siennas because of a problem with the remote engine starter.The company said that a malfuncti...

PhotoGulf States Toyota is recalling about 360 2012 4Runners and Siennas because of a problem with the remote engine starter.

The company said that a malfunction in the Audiovox brand remote starter module can prevent normal operation of the vehicle's onboard computer network, which could cause the antilock braking and stability controls to fail.

Gulf States Toyota will notify owners and dealers will replace the Audiovox starter with a new one free of charge. Owners may contact Toyota at 1-800-444-1074.

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New App May Make Mobile Data Safer

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon develop SafeSlinger

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University CyLab have developed a new smartphone app called SafeSlinger, that establishes a more secure basis for Internet c...

PhotoMore data is now being transmitted using mobile devices, but consumers, while diligent about keeping their PC's updated with the latest spyware, leave their mobile phones unprotected.

Now, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University CyLab have developed a new smartphone app that establishes a more secure basis for Internet communications. The app is called SafeSlinger.

"With SafeSlinger, users can gain control over their exchanged information through end-to-end encryption, preventing intermediate servers or service providers from reading their messages or other sensitive stored data in their smartphones," said Adrian Perrig, technical director of Carnegie Mellon CyLab and a professor of electrical and computer engineering at CMU.

Perrig along with Michael W. Farb, a CyLab research programmer, Jon McCune, a CyLab research systems scientist, and CMU students Gurtej Singh Chandok and Manish Burman developed SafeSlinger to help mobile phone users safely and privately retrieve information from trusted sources.

Who's who

SafeSlinger is designed to provide the user with the confidence that the person you are communicating with is actually the person they have represented themselves to be. Perhaps the most impressive feature is that SafeSlinger provides secure communications and file transfer even if the servers involved are tainted with malware.

As more and more consumers access the Internet from an ever-expanding pool of mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets, Web-based threats continue to become more frequent and increasingly sophisticated.

"We increasingly lose control over our data,” said Perrig. “But SafeSlinger's user-centric security design includes an advanced protocol, which incorporates elements of several cryptographic schemes and factors in the prevention of numerous types of attacks."

SafeSlinger is available for free download.

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FTC Calls for Far-Reaching Privacy Protection for Consumers

Agency wants data brokers to let consumers see the data that has been collected about them

After a two-year study, the Federal Trade Commission has issued a report calling on Congress to pass legislation protecting consumers' privacy and req...

PhotoAfter a two-year study, the Federal Trade Commission has issued a report calling on Congress to pass legislation protecting consumers' privacy and requiring data brokers to let consumers see the information that has been collected about them.

"If companies adopt our final recommendations for best practices – and many of them already have – they will be able to innovate and deliver creative new services that consumers can enjoy without sacrificing their privacy," said Jon Leibowitz, Chairman of the FTC. "We are confident that consumers will have an easy to use and effective Do Not Track option by the end of the year because companies are moving forward expeditiously to make it happen and because lawmakers will want to enact legislation if they don't."

The final privacy report calls on companies handling consumer data to implement recommendations for protecting privacy, including:

  • Privacy by Design - Companies should build in consumers' privacy protections at every stage in developing their products. These include reasonable security for consumer data, limited collection and retention of such data, and reasonable procedures to promote data accuracy;
  • Simplified Choice for Businesses and Consumers - Companies should give consumers the option to decide what information is shared about them, and with whom. This should include a Do-Not-Track mechanism that would provide a simple, easy way for consumers to control the tracking of their online activities.
  • Greater Transparency - Companies should disclose details about their collection and use of consumers' information, and provide consumers access to the data collected about them.

Self-regulation

PhotoWhile Congress considers privacy legislation, the Commission urges individual companies and self-regulatory bodies to accelerate the adoption of the principles contained in the privacy framework, to the extent they have not already done so. Over the course of the next year, Commission staff will work to encourage consumer privacy protections by focusing on five main action items:

Do-Not-Track - The Commission commends the progress made in this area: browser vendors have developed tools to allow consumers to limit data collection about them, the Digital Advertising Alliance has developed its own icon-based system and also committed to honor the browser tools, and the World Wide Web Consortium standards-setting body is developing standards. "The Commission will work with these groups to complete implementation of an easy-to-use, persistent, and effective Do Not Track system," the report says.

Mobile - The FTC urges companies offering mobile services to work toward improved privacy protections, including disclosures. To that end, it will host a workshop on May 30, 2012 to address how mobile privacy disclosures can be short, effective, and accessible to consumers on small screens.

Data Brokers - The Commission calls on data brokers to make their operations more transparent by creating a centralized website to identify themselves, and to disclose how they collect and use consumer data. In addition, the website should detail the choices that data brokers provide consumers about their own information.

Large Platform Providers - The report cited heightened privacy concerns about the extent to which platforms, such as Internet Service Providers, operating systems, browsers and social media companies, seek to comprehensively track consumers' online activities. The FTC will host a public workshop in the second half of 2012 to explore issues related to comprehensive tracking.

Promoting Enforceable Self-Regulatory Codes - The FTC will work with the Department of Commerce and industry stakeholders to develop industry-specific codes of conduct. To the extent that strong privacy codes are developed, when companies adhere to these codes, the FTC will take that into account in its law enforcement efforts. If companies do not honor the codes they sign up for, they could be subject to FTC enforcement actions.

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Senators Object to Employers Asking for Facebook Passwords

Employers' demands for a "grave intrusion into personal privacy," Senators charge

BlumenthalU.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) are calling for action against employers who demand tha...

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Blumenthal

U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) are calling for action against employers who demand that job applicants turn over their Facebook passwords and other private information, calling it "a grave intrusion into personal privacy that could set a dangerous precedent for personal privacy and online privacy, make it more difficult for Americans to get jobs, and expose employers to discrimination claims."

The senators want the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to launch a federal investigation into the trend, exposed in recent press reports. News stories have said that certain employers in New York and across the country are demanding the information from job applicants as part of the interview process – including photos and personal messages not shared with anyone else.  

"I am alarmed and outraged by rapidly and widely spreading employer practices seeking access to Facebook passwords or confidential information on other social networks,” said Blumenthal. “A ban on these practices is necessary to stop unreasonable and unacceptable invasions of privacy. An investigation by the Department of Justice and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will help remedy ongoing intrusions and coercive practices, while we draft new statutory protections to clarify and strengthen the law. With few exceptions, employers do not have the need or the right to demand access to applicants’ private, password-protected information.”

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Schumer

“Employers have no right to ask job applicants for their house keys or to read their diaries – why should they be able to ask them for their Facebook passwords and gain unwarranted access to a trove of private information about what we like, what messages we send to people, or who we are friends with?” said Schumer. “In an age where more and more of our personal information – and our private social interactions – are online, it is vital that all individuals be allowed to determine for themselves what personal information they want to make public and protect personal information from their would-be employers. This is especially important during the job-seeking process, when all the power is on one side of the fence. Before this disturbing practice becomes widespread, we must have an immediate investigation into whether the practice violates federal law – I’m confident the investigation will show it does. Facebook agrees, and I’m sure most Americans agree, that employers have no business asking for your Facebook password.”

According to recent reports, employers are beginning to ask prospective employees for their Facebook passwords as part of the interview process before they are hired. In one case, the Associated Press reported a New York City statistician was asked for his Facebook user name and password so that the employer could review private components of his profile as part of the interview process for the job he was applying for. At least two other cases were identified where individuals who were applying for jobs were required to turn over Facebook passwords and user names in order to be considered for the job they were applying for, as well as a city that, until recently, required job applicants to provide access to their email accounts.

Facebook itself came out against the practice on Friday. In a post on its website, the social networking site said it was a violation of Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities to share or solicit a Facebook password. Facebook noted that the practice “undermines the privacy expectation and the security of both the user and the user’s friends” and could expose employers to lawsuits by exposing themselves to claims of discrimination if the employer discovers the individual is a member of a protected group (e.g., over a certain age) and then don’t hire that person.

Unlawful discrimination 

In their letter to the EEOC, Blumenthal and Schumer specifically raised concerns that by requiring applicants to provide login credentials to social networking sites, employers will have access to private, protected information that may be impermissible to consider when making hiring decisions and may be used to unlawfully discriminate against otherwise qualified applicants. Blumenthal and Schumer both made clear that comprehensive background checks for individuals are sometimes needed when seeking employment in law enforcement, at highly sensitive infrastructure sites, and with jobs where there is significant access to vulnerable populations. The senators pointed out, however, that requiring prospective employees turn over Facebook and social media user names and passwords, essentially granting access to private information that is not otherwise made public, could very well give employers information they otherwise cannot ask about, such as religion, age, marital status, pregnancy status, and a host of other protected classes that employers are not permitted to ask about or make hiring decisions based on.  

In their letter to the Justice Department, Blumenthal and Schumer pointed out that two courts have found that when supervisors request employee login credentials, and access otherwise private information with those credentials, that those supervisors may be subject to civil liability. Although those two cases involved current employees, the courts’ reasoning does not clearly distinguish between employees and applicants. Pointing to Facebook terms of service and the civil case law, the senators urged DOJ to investigate and issue a legal opinion as to whether requesting and using prospective employees’ social network passwords violates current federal law.

Blumenthal and Schumer also announced that they are currently drafting legislation that would seek to fill any gaps in federal law that allow employers to require personal login information from prospective employees to be considered for a job. The senators noted they are seeking additional legal opinions, from both the EEOC and DOJ to determine what protections currently exist and what additional protections are necessary

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Report: Car Insurers Find Ways to Gouge Low-Income, Ethnic Minorities

Why should poor people pay more for auto insurance? Are they really a higher risk?

New reports explore how auto insurance companies may be marking up policy premiums for those who can least afford higher priced coverage...

PhotoJane of Woodruff, Wis., thinks auto insurance should be like peanut butter: if you have the money to buy it, your credit rating shouldn't affect the price.

"My credit rating is not correct. In any case it has nothing to do with my buying insurance, not any more than my going to the store and buying peanut butter. I get the peanut butter if I pay for it, the same with insurance," Jane said in a recent ConsumerAffairs posting about her insurer, Progressive. "It's distortion for a state to demand we have insurance and then companies like these profit without control."

Unfortunately, Jane is not alone. Millions of consumers pay more for their car insurance because of factors that consumer advocates say have nothing to do with actual risk factors.

It's mandatory

Since states require drivers to have insurance, consumers feel that the price of that insurance should be regulated so that it is fair for all.

Technically, that's how it's supposed to be. Auto insurance companies are required to sell policies to any driver without discrimination, at least, barring certain conditions where drivers with egregious offenses may need to purchase a policy through state programs. After all, auto insurance is mandatory for practically all U.S. drivers.

For their part, car insurance companies state flatly that race and income level play no part in policy premium valuations, but some consumer advocates are telling another story, one that is a bit more detailed and shows that there’s more than one way to block drivers from the auto insurance market.

Earlier this year, the Consumer Federation of America released an extensive study of what it calls “disparity” in auto insurance markets. What it found may be troubling to many who either struggle with high auto insurance costs, live in low income neighborhoods, or advocate for the working class American.

One thing that the CFA study points out is that many insurers lower their involvement in areas that they consider higher risk by clustering their offices in desirable neighborhoods, to the extent that some low income neighborhoods and zip codes suffer from the “desert and oasis” effect common to urban food distribution models and other retail placement systems.

That means residents in these communities have fewer choices for shopping around to get lower rates, but the issue of choice does not seem to be the primary problem.

The CFA study also cites a big difference in what the average low income driver will have to pay for a policy, a difference of up to $1,000 annually for a comparable policy. Citing annual premiums as high as $4,000 to $5,000, the study's authors suggest that many low income drivers are being priced out of the market.

Nuanced problem

In order to achieve this difference, according to the CFA report and other analysis, insurers use other demographic information that ties into the primary identifiers of race and income, making the disparity a very nuanced problem. One example is education: insurers use level of education as a risk factor, which obviously is going to result in higher premiums for lower-income drivers, since it requires a lot of capital to get an advanced degree, which in turn usually results in greater earning capacity.

The use of identifiers like level of education has sparked a hot  debate about whether it is fair to consider seemingly unrelated issues such as academic achievement and financial background in risk assessments; another very controversial practice is the use of a driver’s credit score.

Proponents of these practices would argue that a higher education encourages a driver to make smarter choices; the reasoning for using a credit score is more convoluted, where it might be suggested that a person with bad credit is “careless” and may be more inclined to cause an accident.

Other who oppose these data link-ups argue that they are discriminatory, not just because they punish low-income drivers disproportionately, but because they assume a level of knowledge about an individual that may not be founded in fact.

Regardless, insurers have been free to use these types of data in policy valuations, which is what leads some critics of the industry to claim that auto insurance rates are not only higher for low income drivers as a whole, but for some ethnic groups. African-Americans, say consumer advocates, tend to pay more for auto insurance as well, because of many of the same issues of data correlation.

State initiatives

For those who despair about the high rates that unfavored drivers may be asked to pay, there’s some light on the horizon in the form of new state programs. For example, in 1999, the state of California created the California Low Cost Auto Insurance program that subsidizes rates for some low-income households.

California’s State Department of Insurance says that the program was “designed to provide income eligible persons with liability insurance protection at affordable rates as a way to meet California's financial responsibility laws.” It helps many thousands of Californians to afford something that they need, and makes everyone on the state’s roads safer from the financial problems related to a collision with an uninsured driver.

Automakers occasionally try to make it easier for their customers to get insurance. Last year, on a test basis, General Motors offered detailed collections  to car buyers in Washington and Oregon but there has been little long-term help from the auto industry.

Are some companies better than others?  Maybe, although the state-by-state nature of insurance regulation makes it difficult to generalize. What is certain is that some states are more aggressive in protecting insurance customers than others. 

Find more information in our Auto Insurance section.

At ConsumerAffairs.com, we follow detailed collections in order to help individuals and families get the best policies for their needs. We also keep detailed collections of consumer complaints about the big auto insurers who use these kinds of tactics to drive up prices. Look for more on how the car insurance industry works and shop around for a reasonably priced policy.

 

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North Carolina Credit Union Closed

Shepherd's Federal liquidated after regulators find it insolvent

The National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) today liquidated Shepherd’s Federal Credit Union of Charlotte, N.C. NCUA made the decision to liquida...

PhotoThe National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) today liquidated Shepherd’s Federal Credit Union of Charlotte, N.C. NCUA made the decision to liquidate Shepherd’s Federal Credit Union and discontinue the credit union’s operations after determining the credit union was insolvent and had no prospect for restoring viable operations.

Member deposits at Shepherd’s Federal Credit Union are federally insured by the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund up to $250,000. NCUA’s Asset Management and Assistance Center will issue checks to members holding verified share accounts in the credit union within one week.
 
Members of Shepherd’s Federal Credit Union may contact NCUA’s Consumer Assistance Center hotline toll free at 800-755-1030 with any questions. The center answers calls Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Eastern time.
 
Shepherd’s Federal Credit Union served 1,397 members and had deposits of approximately $379,000. Chartered in 2010, Shepherd’s Federal Credit Union served members and employees of Unity, the Way of Holiness Christian Church in Charlotte and Clarkton, N.C.
 
Shepherd’s Federal Credit Union is the fourth federally insured credit union liquidation in 2012.
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Student Debt Hits $1 Trillion

College loans may trigger the next financial crisis

Student loans hit the $1 trillion mark. Is this the next financial crisis?...

PhotoStudent debt may be the new financial crisis. For years young people have headed off to college, paying the ever-rising tuition and fees with student loans. After graduation, in a tough job market, they find they can't repay the loans, or if they can, they can't afford anything else.

Jana, of Dorset, Vt., says her daughter left college with $150,000 in student loan debt that is now in default, and has impacted their entire family.

“My daughter, a new grad, asked for guidance from a representative of Sallie Mae and they suggested just paying the interest!” Jana wrote in a post at ConsumerAffairs.

Jana said she requested information from Sallie Mae about the loan so that new payment terms could be worked out but, even though she co-signed the loans, has been unable to get it.

“I do not understand why a bank will not follow through with such a request but only send intimidating billing material,” Jana wrote. “I find this to be harrassing. And they keep calling my parents that have also co-signed but are helpless at this point. This is very upsetting!”

Higher than anyone thinks

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) says student debt in the U.S. is actually higher than anyone thinks, putting the total at around $1 trillion. Rohit Chopra, the CFPB’s student loan ombudsman, says the bureau recently undertook an effort to determine the size of the student loan market that she says went through the same boom and bust cycle that played out in markets for mortgages and other credit products.

“Our initial findings on the size of the private student loan market are sobering,” Chopra said. “When we add in the outstanding debt in the federal student loan program, it appears that outstanding student loan debt hit the trillion dollar mark several months ago – much larger than estimates from other recent reports. It seems that this market is too big to fail.”

Fast-growing debt

Unlike other consumer credit products, Chopra says student debt keeps growing at a steady clip. Students borrowed $117 billion in just federal student loans last year. And students continue to borrow private student loans, which lack the income-based repayment and deferment options of federal student loans.

“If current trends continue, there will be consequences not just for young people, but for all of us,” she said.

According to data from the Department of Education, federal student loan debt isn’t growing just with new originations – with so many borrowers unable to keep up with interest payments, debt is growing even for many who have left school.

And it's not just students and their families who are affected, Chopra warns. Large levels of debt might also pose immediate problems for the rest of us.

Could affect housing recovery

“Excessive student debt can slow the recovery of the housing market,” she said. “Student loan borrowers are sending big payments every month to their loan servicers, rather than becoming first-time homebuyers. This debt can also put added stress on the borrowing capacity of the household and government sector.”

CFPB said it is working with the Department of Education to educated students about the dangers of racking up to much college loan debt. It's also supervising private student loan providers to ensure they comply with Federal consumer financial protection laws.

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Dog Owners Blame Jerky Treats for Their Pets' Health Problems

Animals, like people, need a well-balanced and nutritious diet

Any dog owner will tell you that dogs will eat just about anything. But that doesn't mean they should.  It's up to dog owners to be sure they're feedi...

PhotoAny dog owner will tell you that dogs will eat just about anything. But that doesn't mean they should.  It's up to dog owners to be sure they're feeding their furry friends a balanced, healthy diet. 

Just like humans, dogs shouldn't gorge themselves on treats and snacks at the expense of healtheir fare. 

Snacks are often blamed, fairly or not, for canine health problems. One brand that's currently taking heat from dog owners is Waggin Train, which makes chicken jerky and other snack products.

"After wondering why our dog was getting so sick, I started hearing about the Waggin Train Jerky Treats. I checked in her box of different treats and discovered that I have an almost empty bag of Waggin Train Jerky Tenders!" said Lucinda of Strasburg, Va., in one of many similar  ConsumerAffairs postings. "I am so upset and broken hearted because my dog is dying! ... Our sweet girl is dying because of this poison!"

Waggin' Train insists its snacks are "made of premium chicken breast fillets" and says the "high-protein, low-fat treats are slow-cooked to seal in the natural flavors for a healthy and wholesome snack."

FDA indecisive

But if the snacks are so healthy, why are dogs getting so sick? Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been studying the situation for years and still has not reached a conclusion.

The agency says it has been "unable to determine a definitive cause of reported dog illnesses or a direct link to chicken jerky products" and says that "extensive chemical and microbial testing ... has not uncovered a contaminant or cause of illness from any chicken jerky treat, including Waggin' Train treats."

The FDA does note that jerky and other snacks "should not be substituted for a balanced diet and are intended to be fed occasionally in small quantities."  

"It breaks my heart to know I was giving treats to my dog that killed him," said Vivian of Macomb, MI, who said her four-year-old Golden Retriever died after being fed Waggin Train treats.  "I took him to vet and liver enzymes were off the chart."

Unsympathetic

Many pet owners who've written to ConsumerAffairs have complained that Waggin' Train was unsympathetic to their complaints.

"I gave my Shih Tzu a Waggin Train' Big Blast Treat yesterday and this morning she was very sick. She trembled and cried for over an hour. When I called the complaint hotline, they acted like it was no big deal," said Marsha of Adrian, MI. 

Besides making sure their pets are eating a healthy and well-balanced diet and getting plenty of exercise, dog owners might want to scan the reviews about various pet foods in the ConsumerAffairs Pet Care section, where it quickly becomes obvious that some pet food companies are more responsive to consumer concerns than others.

More responsive

Tiffany of Marblehead, Ohio, recently complained that her dog had refused to eat her Natural Balance food. She complained to Natural Balance, which refunded her money and suggested she try another bag.

"I did receive an email from a representative at Natural Balance asking me to contact her, and did so today. The representative was very pleasant," Tiffany said. "She feels that my dog has decided she doesn't like this food any longer. She said no significant changes have taken place with the Natural Balance formula, and that she has not had any other complaints. She is mailing me a voucher of one of the different formulas to try, and we will try it."

A cat owner, David of Optional, Ohio, posted a ConsumerAffairs complaint saying his cats had gotten sick eating Natural Balance. 

"Natural Balance voluntarily contacted me to understand my issue. We discussed the situation and settled on the fact that the bag of food may have been expired as they had not had other complaints about any batches of the salmon formula being bad. I was impressed with the way they handled the issue. I'm now using Natural Balance again," David said.

Shirley of Rhinelander, WI said that after her complaint was posted, Natural Balance contacted her and sent her a voucher for another bag of dog food.
 
"They also sent a label to have the food shipped back to the company that I purchased for testing. They told me they would share the results when they had them," Shirley said. "The person I talked with was very pleasant and called and talked with my vet. She then called me back with inconclusive reports and said my vet could not pin it on the dog food that was making my Hannah sick."
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When Buying A Car, First Establish The Price

It seems elementary, but not everyone does it

When Buying A Car, First Establish The Price...

PhotoAll too often, car buyers focus first on the monthly payment or how much cash they have to add to their trade-in, when they should be bargaining on the cost of the vehicle.

In the case of Sylvia, of St. Albans, N.Y., she didn't learn that she had overpaid for her new Lexus until after she signed the papers.

“I purchased a car, the car that was presented to me did not have a listing of the standard equipment and installed options and price as the other cars in the showroom, but I was told that it had a similar price as the other models,” Sylvia wrote in a post at ConsumerAffairs.

Her story is pretty amazing. She says she traded in her old Lexus and received $21,558 credit. She then paid $4,614 for additional options, and then wrote a check for an additional $7,000. Still, she says she hadn't been told the price of the car.

"The sales person did not disclose the new price of $67,000 until after my old car had been traded in,” she wrote. “I asked on several occasions how the car came to be $67,000 and was told it was because of the options on the car. I returned to the dealer to get my paperwork and requested a copy of the options list and a breakdown of the charges for the car and was told that Lexus does not retain a copy of the breakdown once the car is sold.”

Car was actually $12,000 less

But Sylvia persisted and says she was finally given a copy of the breakdown and the car price was only $55,407.

“I then asked how did the car go from $55,507 to $67,000 and I was told that its a special formula in their system,” Slyvia said. “I challenged that further and was told by the sale manager that part of the price that I was given for my trade in was placed back on the new car, and that they decided to charge me $59,000 instead of $55,407 as listed on the breakdown.”

Sylvia should tell her story to someone in New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office. Meanwhile, the lesson for car shoppers is to establish the price of the vehicle before there is any discussion of a trade-in.

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Ohio Company Renovates Big-Brand Vehicles for an All-Electric Ride

AMP Electric offers an all-electric Jeep Grand Cherokee in 2012

The AMP company is developing the all-electric Jeep Grand Cherokee as a continuation of a plan to give electric car buyers more options...

PhotoAs more drivers get interested in the possibility of an all-electric plug-in vehicle, automakers are trying to position themselves for this future market. But meanwhile, some smaller companies are getting into the mix, with some creative strategies for making more of tomorrow’s vehicles less reliant on traditional fossil fuels.

One company, called AMP, is taking its own approach to offering consumers an all-electric ride.

AMP recently announced that it has been approved by federal regulators, meaning that purchasers of AMP vehicles are going to be eligible for the $7,500 electric-car tax credit. In addition to the federal tax credit, many buyers will be eligible for state incentives of up to $5,000. 

But unlike other companies offering these options, AMP is not selling its own vehicles. Instead it's converting other models that previously ran on gasoline.

Conventional body

While companies like Tesla and Fisker unveil their own exotic models running on high-power batteries, AMP is cutting costs by using a conventional auto body and adding its own proprietary technology.

“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” reads AMPs corporate mantra, “We want to power it differently.”

Some of the vehicles currently in the works are the AMP electric Jeep Grand Cherokee, which is going to represent AMP’s flagship model as the “first all-electric SUV.” AMP has received accolades from Consumer Reports and other venues as a major player in making all-electric power available for larger vehicles, not just small cars.

Reports from last year show that AMP has moved to a relationship with Chrysler from previous collaborations with General Motors; AMP is also credited with developing the first all-wheel drive electric vehicle with its Mercedes ML model. As for the AMP Grand Cherokee, it’s expected to have about a 100-mile range.

With a list price of around $50,000, minus the state and federal tax credits, the AMP Grand Cherokee becomes affordable for many drivers who can tolerate the relatively short range.

As for the timeline, customers who are interested can now reserve vehicles in key market areas, including Southern California and Seattle on the West Coast, New York City and the Washington DC metro area in the Northeast, and Cincinnati in the Midwest.

After its debut at the 2012 North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January, this new all-electric option is slowly making its way out into the American street. Think about how it stacks up against some of the “big seven” plug-ins if you’re interested in piloting a no-gas, zero-emission vehicle without sacrificing size.

 

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Fake News Sites Face $1.5 Million Penalty

Sites carried bogus stories about colon cleaners, acai berries

Two online marketers have agreed to settlements with the Federal Trade Commission that will permanently halt their allegedly deceptive practice of using fa...

PhotoTwo online marketers have agreed to settlements with the Federal Trade Commission that will permanently halt their allegedly deceptive practice of using fake news websites to promote acai berry supplements and so-called “colon cleansers” with deceptive claims that consumers could use them to lose weight.

In the first case, the FTC settlement with Intermark Communications, Inc., doing business as Copeac and several other defendants allegedly involved in the scheme results from the first FTC suit against an affiliate network. 

As an affiliate network, Copeac not only operated its own fake news sites, it also recruited an entire network of affiliates that used fake news sites to promote products with allegedly deceptive claims.

The FTC’s original complaint against the New York-based Copeac was part of a law enforcement sweep the agency conducted last year against 10 alleged operators of fake news sites.  The FTC charged all of them with deceptive advertising for portraying the sites as    legitimate news sites; making false and unsupported weight-loss claims; and failing to disclose that they were being paid by the merchants of their so-called weight-loss products. 

In settling with the Copeac defendants, the FTC amended its complaint by adding allegations that the operation developed an affiliate network, and by adding three individual defendants.

Under the settlement, the Copeac defendants will pay more than $1.3 million, which represents revenues they received from deceptive fake news site ads for acai berries, colon cleansers, and other supposed weight-loss dietary supplements; and revenues they received for other products marketed on fake news sites. 

The settlement also requires Copeac to monitor all its affiliate marketers when selling any good or service, obtain adequate information about the affiliate marketers it hires, approve their advertisements, and immediately stop processing payments generated by any affiliate marketer using deceptive advertisements.

Coulomb Media

Photo
The acai berry

In the second case, under the terms of the settlement with Coulomb Media, Inc., and Cody Low, also known as Joe Brooks, the defendants’ $2.7 million judgment will be suspended after they pay $170,000 in cash, proceeds from the sale of Low’s 2010 Chevrolet Tahoe, and a certificate of deposit.

As part of the FTC’s ongoing crackdown on bogus health claims, the proposed settlements with the Copeac and Coulomb defendants will require the operators to make clear when their commercial messages are advertisements rather than legitimate journalism, and will bar the defendants from further deceptive claims about health-related products such as the acai berry weight-loss supplements and colon cleansers they marketed. 

The defendants also are required to disclose any material connections they have with merchants, and will be barred from making deceptive claims about other products.

With these two settlements, eight of the 10 fake news site cases the FTC brought in 2010 have been resolved, and all the fake news sites affiliated with the eight operations have been permanently shut down.

Ads passing as news

When federal courts temporarily halted all 10 fake news operations last year at the FTC’s request, the agency alleged that their websites were designed to falsely appear as if they were part of legitimate news organizations, but were actually nothing more than advertisements deceptively enticing consumers to buy the featured acai berry weight-loss products from online merchants. 

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

In pitching the acai weight-loss products, the defendants posted attention-grabbing ads on search engines and high volume websites, such as “Acai Berry EXPOSED – Health Reporter Discovers the Shocking Truth,” driving traffic to the fake news sites and ultimately to the sites where merchants sell the products, according to the complaints. 

The FTC received numerous complaints from consumers who paid between $70 and $100 for weight-loss products after having been deceived by fake news sites.

Derived from acai palm trees that are native to Central and South America, acai berry supplements often are marketed to consumers who hope to lose weight.  In recent settlements with other online acai berry marketers, defendants in the Central Coast Nutraceuticals case were required to pay $1.5 million, and Jesse Willms was required to surrender corporate and personal assets, including bank account funds, a Cadillac Escalade, a fur coat, and artwork.  In 2011, the Commission brought a suit against another online acai berry marketer, LeanSpa, LLC, which the Commission sued in conjunction with the State of Connecticut.  In that case, the FTC obtained a preliminary injunction barring the defendants from engaging in the charged deceptive practices.

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U.S. Sues AT&T, Charges Fraud in Services for the Deaf

Company billed millions of dollars in false charges, complaint alleges

The United States has filed a complaint against AT&T alleging fraud in the company's services for the deaf, known as Internet Protocol (IP) Relay ser...

PhotoThe United States has filed a complaint against AT&T alleging fraud in the company's services for the deaf, known as Internet Protocol (IP) Relay services.

IP Relay is a text-based communications service designed to allow hearing-impaired individuals to place telephone calls to hearing persons by typing messages over the Internet that are relayed by communications assistants (CAs) employed by an IP Relay provider.   

IP Relay is funded by fees assessed by telecommunications providers to telephone customers, and is provided at no cost to IP Relay users.   The FCC, through the TRS Fund, reimburses IP Relay providers at a rate of approximately $1.30 per minute.   

In an effort to reduce the abuse of IP Relay by foreign scammers using the system to defraud American merchants with stolen credit cards and by other means, the FCC in 2009 required providers to verify the accuracy of each registered user’s name and mailing address.  

Fraudulent callers

The United States alleges that AT&T violated the False Claims Act by facilitating and seeking federal payment for IP Relay calls by international callers who were ineligible for the service and who sought to use it for fraudulent purposes. The complaint alleges that, out of fears that fraudulent call volume would drop after the registration deadline, AT&T knowingly adopted a non-compliant registration system that did not verify whether the user was located within the United States.   

The complaint further contends that AT&T continued to employ this system even with the knowledge that it facilitated use of IP Relay by fraudulent foreign callers, which accounted for up to 95 percent of AT&T’s call volume.   The government’s complaint alleges that AT&T improperly billed the TRS Fund for reimbursement of these calls and received millions of dollars in federal payments as a result.

“Federal funding for Telecommunications Relay Services is intended to help the hearing- and speech-impaired in the United States,” said Stuart F. Delery, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division of the Department of Justice.   “We will pursue those who seek to gain by knowingly allowing others to abuse this program.”

“Taxpayers must not bear the cost of abuses of the Telecommunications Relay system,” said David J. Hickton, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania.  “Those who misuse funds intended to benefit the hearing- and speech-impaired must be held accountable.”

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Record Pollen Counts May Cause Even More Misery

The pollen count didn't wait for the first day of spring

Record pollen counts are reported on the first day of spring...

PhotoNow that spring has officially arrived, so has allergy season. In fact, it arrived well ahead of schedule, thanks to the moderate temperatures that have prevailed this month over wide areas of the U.S.

In fact, the first day of spring brought record high pollen counts to the Atlanta area, beating Tuesday's record by 1,200 points.

The March 21 pollen count was 9,369 particles of pollen per cubic meter of air. That's 55 percent higher than the old record prior to this week of 6,013, set on April 12, 1999.

Anything more than 1,500 is considered "extremely high.” Last year, the highest pollen count measured in the Atlanta area was 3,939 on March 24.

“Weather conditions are particularly favorable for this ‘perfect storm’ of pollen, which is making an already extended allergy season even worse,” said allergist Stanley Fineman, MD, president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. “We are seeing patients with allergy symptoms much worse than usual for this time of year.”

Allergies usually produce cold-like symptoms, including a runny nose, watery eyes, and sneezing. While a number of over-the-counter remedies may provide some relief, it's helpful to know what exactly is triggering the symptoms.

“Allergy skin tests can be very helpful to identify triggers,” said Fineman.

The most common outdoor airborne allergens are grass, tree and weed pollens, all of which are plentiful right now because of the mild weather.  

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Feds Seek Cause of Sudden-Onset OCD in Children

NIH immune-based treatment study gets underway

A researcher at the National Institute of Health is proposing new criteria for a broadened syndrome of acute onset obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in c...

PhotoA researcher at the National Institute of Health is proposing new criteria for a broadened syndrome of acute onset obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in children. 

The syndrome describes children and teens who suddenly develop on-again/off-again OCD symptoms or abnormal eating behaviors, along with other psychiatric symptoms — without any known cause. In a world where everything must have a formal name and an acronym, the syndrome is known officially as Pediatric Acute-onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome (PANS).

Some instances of the syndrome can be traced to an autoimmune process triggered by a strep infection. A clinical trial testing an immune-based treatment is currently underway.

Ferocious onset

"Parents will describe children with PANS as overcome by a 'ferocious' onset of obsessive thoughts, compulsive rituals and overwhelming fears," said Susan Swedo, M.D., of the NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), who first described the syndrome two decades ago. 

Swedo and other researchers propose working criteria for the syndrome in the open source journal Pediatrics & Therapeutics.

"As the field moves toward agreement on this broadened syndrome, affected youth will be more likely to receive appropriate care, regardless of whether they are seen by a neurologist, pediatrician or child psychiatrist," said NIMH Director Thomas R. Insel, M.D.

Clinicians reported that evaluations of more than 400 youth diagnosed with the problem confirmed that affected boys outnumbered girls 2-1, with psychiatric symptoms, always including OCD, usually beginning before 8 years.

Fine points

Although debate continues about the fine points, the field is now of one mind on the core concept of "acute and dramatic" onset of a constellation of psychiatric symptoms. There is also broad agreement on the need for a "centralized registry" that will enable the research community to analyze evidence from studies that will eventually pinpoint causes and treatments.

The syndrome will "likely turn out to include a number of related disorders with different causes that share a common presentation," explained Swedo.

Among the wide range of accompanying symptoms, children may appear terror stricken or suffer extreme separation anxiety, shift from laughter to tears for no apparent reason, or regress to temper tantrums, baby talk or bedwetting. In some cases, their handwriting and other fine motor skills worsen dramatically. Leckman's team at the Yale Child Study Center is in the process of developing assessment tools for diagnosing the syndrome.

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Study: Most Sinus Infections Caused by Viruses

No need for antibiotics in vast majority of cases

The vast majority of sinus infections are caused by viruses and should not be treated with antibiotics, suggest new guidelines released by the In...

The vast majority of sinus infections are caused by viruses and should not be treated with antibiotics, suggest new guidelines released by the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA).

Nearly one in seven people are diagnosed with a sinus infection each year. Although sinus infections are the fifth-leading reason for antibiotic prescriptions, 90 to 98 percent of cases are caused by viruses, which are not affected by antibiotics. Used inappropriately, antibiotics foster the development of drug-resistant superbugs.

“There is no simple test that will easily and quickly determine whether a sinus infection is viral or bacterial, so many physicians prescribe antibiotics ‘just in case,’” said Anthony W. Chow, MD, chair of the guidelines panel and professor emeritus of infectious diseases at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. “However, if the infection turns out to be viral – as most are – the antibiotics won’t help and in fact can cause harm by increasing antibiotic resistance, exposing patients to drug side effects unnecessarily and adding cost.”

Guidelines

The guidelines – the first developed by IDSA on this topic – provide specific characteristics of the illness to help doctors distinguish between viral and bacterial sinus infections.

A sinus infection, called acute rhinosinusitis, is inflammation of the nasal and sinus passages that can cause uncomfortable pressure on either side of the nose and last for weeks. Most sinus infections develop during or after a cold or other upper respiratory infection, but other factors such as allergens and environmental irritants may play a role.

The guidelines recommend treating bacterial sinus infections with amoxicillin-clavulanate versus the current standard of care, amoxicillin. The addition of clavulanate helps to overcome antibiotic resistance by inhibiting an enzyme that breaks down the antibiotic. The guidelines also recommend against using other commonly used antibiotics, including azithromycin, clarithromycin and trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, due to increasing drug resistance.

The recommendation to use amoxicillin-clavulanate instead of amoxicillin is a major shift from older guidelines developed by other organizations. Dr. Chow notes that this recommendation was made due to increases in antibiotic resistance as well as the common use of pneumococcal vaccines, which have changed the pattern of bacteria that cause sinus infections.

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Illinois Close to Ban on Phone Bill 'Cramming'

Legislation would prevent most third-party billing on phone bills

Illinois Close To Ban On Phone Bill 'Cramming'...

After years of consumer complaints, one state - Illinois - is close to outlawing a practice known as "cramming," which results in unauthorized charges being placed on consumers' phone bills.

Illinois' House of Representatives voted 105-0 to ban third-party companies from placing charges for services, many of them non-existent or unwanted, on consumers' bills. The measure next goes to the Illinois Senate where passage is expected.

“Phone cramming is a multibillion-dollar business for con artists who sneak unauthorized charges onto unsuspecting customers’ bills, affecting everyone from residential users to small business owners, even nonprofit organizations and government agencies,” said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. “The only way to put an end to this scam is by instituting a ban on third-party charges on our phone bills.”

Conflict with the feds?

While Madigan may be right, the legislation, if passed, is almost certain to be challenged in court, since it would undo a feature of federal legislation. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 allows third-party service providers to market their services to consumers and place the charge for those services on the consumers' residential phone bill.

Congress intended the legislation to promote competition for services, which it expected to be good for consumers. But like much of what Congress does, there have been unintended consequences.

Scam operators have used the law to charge consumers for voice mail service, website design and hosting, and other services they neither want nor agreed to.

"I received a bill for $12.95 with $.81 taxes from I Tech PC Support for a monthly fee on Feb 19,2012, on my Frontier phone bill. I never requested this or know this company," Tom, of Hamilton, Ohio, wrote in a post on ConsumerAffairs.

Ban on third-party billing

The Illinois legislation seeks to end the practice of "cramming" by banning all billing by a third-party company. It hopes to avoid a conflict with the federal statute by allowing for limited, common sense exceptions for legitimate services.

Madigan says estimates indicate that telephone companies place at least 300 million third-party charges on their customers’ bill each year. According to a U.S. Senate Commerce Committee report, third-party billing generates at least $2 billion annually.

Phone cramming scams originally were perpetrated primarily through telemarketers, especially before the Do Not Call registry was established. More recently, however, the scam has flourished online.

Online cramming

Internet users report simply submitting their phone number, among other personal information, for online prize drawings, surveys or free recipes. Weeks or months later, consumers find charges on their phone bills for unauthorized services.

To date, Madigan says she has filed 30 lawsuits against crammers, representing more than 200,000 Illinois businesses and residences who were victim to these phone billing schemes. Among the most glaring of targets for these scams was cited in Madigan’s 2009 lawsuit against US Credit Find Inc., a Venice, Calif.-based operation, which crammed a Springfield public library’s dial-a-story telephone line.

Madigan has testified before Congress, urging federal legislation to ban cramming. Congress, however, has failed to amend the law that allows it. Illinois is now attempting to hang up on crammers at the state level.

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Investors Continue to Buy Up Houses

Investors are providing critical support to a slowly recovering market

Investors continue to buy up real estate...

PhotoIf the housing market is slowly beginning to recover from the devastation of the bubble years, you can probably thank investors.

Month after month investors - most of whom pay with cash and don't have to jump through mortgage company hoops - have bought homes that homeowners either don't want or can't afford. Without them, housing would likely be in a depression.

In February, sales of existing homes were were down 0.9 percent from January but were 8.8 percent higher than February 2011, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR). All-cash sales rose to 33 percent of transactions in February from 31 percent in January. They were 33 percent in February 2011.

Who is it that is buying homes without having to borrow money? NAR says for the most part, it's investors who either plan to fix up the houses and flip them or rent them.

Competition

“The bottom line is investors and first-time buyers are competing for bargain-priced properties in much of the country, with home prices showing signs of stabilizing in many areas,” said NAR President Moe Veissi. “People realize that homeownership is an investment in their future. Given an apparent over-correction in most areas, over the long term home prices have nowhere to go but up.”

The fact that one-third of buyers each month do not need bank financing has provided consistent support for the market. Now that the employment situation is improving, more owner occupiers are entering the market, which should provide increased stability.

Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said underlying factors are much better compared to one year ago.

Trending higher

“The market is trending up unevenly, with record high consumer buying power and sustained job gains giving buyers the confidence they need to get into the market,” he said. “Although relatively unusual, there will be rising demand for both rental space and homeownership this year. The great suppression in household formation during the past four years was unsustainable, and a pent-up demand could burst forth from the improving economy.”

The fact that rents are rising should also help. It is now cheaper to buy than rent in many cities. Part of it is the price of the real estate and part is due to rock bottom interest rates.

According to Freddie Mac, the national average commitment rate for a 30-year, conventional, fixed-rate mortgage was a record low 3.89 percent in February, down from 3.92 percent in January; the rate was 4.95 percent in February 2011.

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$5 Gas by Spring and Other Myths Debunked

AAA says there's enough misinformation about gas prices to fuel an army

Nationwide gas prices will hit $5 by spring, supply and demand will keep prices high and only a change in the occupant of the Oval Office will bring back t...

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Senate Subcommittee Delves Into For-Profit College Debt

Witnesses says students are being over-burdened with debt

Senate Subcommittee Delves Into For-Profit College Debt...

PhotoThe Internet has allowed creation of a number of for-profit colleges that offer most of their courses online. While attending class online is convenient, it's not cheap.

The cost of attending a for-profit college is the same as some private colleges and universities, and is paid for in much the same way, with student loans and grants.

But is the value of the eduction and the degree the same? Many who attend for-profit colleges say they aren't, despite claims made by admissions officers. A Senate Judiciary subcommittee this week began looking into the debt for-profit college students incur and what they get for their money.

Enormous debt

“We’ve seen first-hand the damage done to the lives of students burdened with enormous debt from for-profit schools," said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who testified before the subcommittee. "These students wanted nothing more than to go to school and better their lives, but too many of them end up struggling to pay for an expensive education with few job prospects in their chosen field.”

Madigan singled out Westwood College, which she sued earlier this year. The lawsuit alleges Westwood used deceptive marketing that left students with thousands of dollars of debt and limited job opportunities.

Madigan’s lawsuit alleges, for example, that through marketing its criminal justice program, Westwood falsely convinced students they could pursue a law enforcement career with such agencies as the Illinois State Police and suburban police departments, even though those employers don’t recognize a Westwood degree due to its lack of regional accreditation.

Students' stories

A number of former students back her up. In a detailed posting at ConsumerAffairs, LeRoy, of Chino Hills, Calif., describes how he was led to believe a Westwood Degree in IT security would help him advance up the career ladder.

"But there were doubts about what I was learning," LeRoy wrote. "I asked several of the instructors why we were reviewing outdated technology in some of the classes. I was told that the information in the class is on the certification exams that you can take after you successfully completed the course. Being gullible, I took that as a good explanation."

After graduation, LeRoy said he took certification tests and, relying on what he had studied, failed. Meanwhile, he says his monthly payments to Sallie Mae for his student loans is nearly $750.

Since filing the Westwood suit, Madigan said her office has received 1,007 calls from students with similar stories of taking out private loans for degrees that failed to qualify them for careers in criminal justice. She vows to maintain a crackdown on what she sees as abuses within the system.

“The abuses in the for-profit schools industry are rampant," Madigan told the subcommittee. "Left unchecked, I fear this troubling trend will produce a generation of students saddled with crushing debt and years of financial insecurity."

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Economists Expect Home Prices to Keep Falling

Zillow survey finds less optimism about a housing recovery

Economists Expect Home Prices To Keep Falling...

PhotoA survey of economists shows a less optimistic forecast for housing this year than previous estimates. The survey of 104 economists, real estate experts and investment and market strategists shows an expectation that home prices will fall another 0.7 percent in 2012.

The survey, sponsored by real estate information marketplace Zillow, Inc. and conducted by Pulsenomics LLC, is based on the projected path of the S&P/Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index during the coming five years.

The latest survey shows that economists now expect U.S. home prices to begin to rise in 2013, although expectations for how much they would rise were tempered when compared to their responses in the December survey. For example, economists now predict home prices will rise 1.4 percent in 2013, compared to their previous prediction of 1.8 percent.

December dip

"The fourth quarter drop in the national Case-Shiller Index was sharper than some expected and is the likely reason so many of the economists in the survey revised their forecasts downward," said Zillow Chief Economist Stan Humphries. "Looking at the longer history of these forecasts by top economists, the bottom in home prices always seems just around the corner but never quite here. Conditions across the country vary considerably. Some markets have already hit bottom and are experiencing tight inventory and multiple offers, while foreclosures and negative equity continue to pull down the housing market in many other parts of the country."

True, all real estate is local and local conditions drive the price. In markets where jobs pay high salaries and are plentiful, home prices are nearly back to their bubble levels. Washington D.C. and its suburbs are an example.

But in other areas, prices are down and still falling. Another real estate site, Trulia, reports that buying a home in the New York City borough of Queens is now cheaper than renting it, because home prices are falling and rent is rising.

Varied views

The economists surveyed by Zillow varied widely in their expectations for 2012. The most optimistic quartile of panelists predict a one percent increase, on average, in home prices during the full year, while the most pessimistic predict an average decline of 2.8 percent.

Of the individual economists, the most bullish, Susan Sterne of Economic Analysis Associates Inc., predicts home prices will climb five percent during the year while Gary Shilling of A. Gary Shilling & Company, Inc. expects prices to fall eight percent.

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) says the major factor holding back the housing recovery is the difficulty many credit-worthy borrowers experience in obtaining a mortgage. Part of the problem is a tightening of lending standards. Another is an appraisal process that routinely values a house less than the purchaser has agreed to pay.

A majority of the economists surveyed by Zillow believe adoption of a large-scale, bulk sales program of foreclosed properties by the federal government would help the market recover, but might drive down prices more in the short-term.

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Easter Candy & Apparel Sales Expected to Hit $16 Billion

High gas prices can't scare off the Easter bunny

Sure, gas prices are high and many consumers are still feeling economically queasy but if surveys are to be believed, that won't keep them from blowing $16...

Sure, gas prices are high and many consumers are still feeling economically queasy but if surveys are to be believed, that won't keep them from blowing $16 billion on Easter candy and spring apparel.

The National Retail Federation's Easter spending survey, conducted by BIGinsight, predicts Americans will shell out an average of $145.28 on everything from apparel and candy to food and decorations this year, up 11 percent from $131.04 last year. 

Photo

“Though the price of gas is on everyone’s mind, Easter is one of the few holidays when some consumers are willing to stretch their budgets, especially because many children look forward to treats and new outfits on Easter morning,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “Retailers will make sure to offer plenty of promotions on candy, apparel, food and decorations in the coming weeks for eager holiday shoppers.” 

Candy & clothes

According to the survey, those celebrating Easter have a hefty appetite for candy and new spring clothes. Nearly half (48.5%) will head to the stores to take advantage of retailers’ spring sales on colorful fashions and accessories, with total spending on those items expected to reach $3.0 billion. Most though, will head straight to the candy aisle (89.3%), shelling out more than $2 billion on traditional favorites such as chocolate eggs and jelly beans.

The average person will spend more on these items as well: $26.11 on apparel, up from $21.51 last year, and $20.35 on candy, up from $18.55 last year. 

Holiday feasts

Americans are also set to fork over more on their Easter meals with the average person expected to spend $44.34, up from $40.05 last year for a total $5.1 billion. Additionally, consumers will spend an average of $20.57 on gifts for their friends and family, $10.50 on flowers and $9.07 on decorations for their home and office. Half (53.6%) will buy greeting cards, spending an average of $7.04. 

Though most people will shop at their local discount store (63.5%), department stores can expect a nice treat this Easter as well. Four in 10 (42.6%) – and the highest percent in the survey’s history - will shop at a department store for gifts and other holiday merchandise.

Online retailers will see the biggest jump in traffic this year, however. Nearly two in five (18.7%) will shop online, up from 14.8 percent last year and just 11.1 percent in 2008. Others will shop at specialty stores (25.4%) such as a jeweler, electronic store or florist, or a specialty clothing store (9.7%). 

“Beautiful weather conditions coupled with a slight lift in consumer confidence will likely be a boon to the Easter holiday this year as consumers begin to seek out new spring merchandise for their home or garden, and even their wardrobe,” said BIGinsight Consumer Insights Director Pam Goodfellow. “It remains to be seen though, if this spending momentum will carry into the coming months with the cost of fueling up on the rise.”

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Why Does Anesthesia Put You to Sleep?

It sounds like a simple question but the answer researchers are only now finding the answer

NIST Findings Awaken Age-Old Anesthesia QuestionFrom NIST Tech Beat: March 20, 2012Contact: Chad Boutin 301-975-4261Why does in...

PhotoWhy does inhaling anesthetics cause unconsciousness? It sounds like a simple question but, believe it or not, researchers are only starting to awaken to the answer.

Scientists from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have found hints that anesthesia may affect the organization of fat molecules, or lipids, in a cell’s outer membrane—potentially altering the ability to send signals along nerve cell membranes.

“A better fundamental understanding of inhaled anesthetics could allow us to design better ones with fewer side effects,” says Hirsh Nanda, a scientist at the NIST Center for Neutron Research (NCNR). “How these chemicals work in the body is a scientific mystery that stretches back to the Civil War.”

At the turn of the 20th century, doctors suspected inhaled anesthetics had some effect on cell membranes, an animal cell’s outer boundary. Despite considerable investigation, however, no one was able to demonstrate that anesthetics produced changes in the physical properties of membranes large enough to cause anesthesia. But eventually, understanding of membrane function grew more refined as scientists learned more about ion channels.

Ion channels

Ion channels—large proteins embedded in the relatively small lipid molecules forming the membrane—are responsible for conducting electrical impulses along nerve cells in the brain and throughout our body. By a few decades ago, the prevailing theory held that inhaled anesthetics directly interacted with these protein channels, affecting their behavior in some fashion. But no one could find a single type of ion channel that reacted to anesthetics in a way pivotal enough to settle the matter, and the question remained open.

“That’s where we picked up the thread,” says Nanda. “We had been looking at how different types of lipid molecules affect ion channels.”

While a cell membrane is a highly fluid film made of many different kinds of lipid molecules, the region immediately surrounding an ion channel often consists of a single type of lipids that form a sort of “raft” that is more ordered and less fluid then the rest of the membrane. When the team heard other researchers had found that disrupting these lipid rafts could affect a channel’s function, they put to work their own previous experience working with the channels.

“We decided to test whether inhaled anesthetics could have an effect on rafts in model cell membranes,” Nanda says. “No one had thought to ask the question before.”

Using the NCNR’s neutron and X-ray diffraction devices as their microscope, the team explored how a model cell membrane responded to two chemicals—inhaled anesthetic, and another that has many of the same chemical properties as anesthetic but does not cause unconsciousness.

Their finding showed a distinct difference in the way the lipid rafts responded: Exposing the membranes to an anesthetic caused the rafts to grow disorderly, freely mixing its lipids with the surrounding membrane, but the second chemical had a dramatically smaller effect.

While Nanda says the discovery does not answer the question definitively, he and his co-authors are following up with other experiments that could clarify the issue. “We feel the discovery has opened up an entirely new line of inquiry into this very old puzzle,” he says.

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Watch Out For Vacation Scams

Don't let a scammer trick you out of this year's vacation money

Early spring weather in many parts of the country has consumers starting early on vacation plans. Keep in mind that travel is a lucrative area for scammers...

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Appeals Court Upholds Graphic Cigarette Warnings

Tobacco companies claim the warnings violate their First Amendment rights

A federal appeals court has held that graphic warnings on cigarette packs violate tobacco companies' First Amendment rights.The U.S. Court of Appeals for...

PhotoA federal appeals court has held that graphic warnings on cigarette packs do not violate tobacco companies' First Amendment rights.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld most provisions of the new law giving the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the power to regulate tobacco products, including the requirement for large, graphic warnings on cigarette packs. 

The court majority found that the law's requirement for large, graphic cigarette warning labels "are reasonably related to the government's interest in preventing consumer deception and are therefore constitutional." The court found that the warnings "do not impose any restriction on Plaintiff's dissemination of speech, nor do they touch on Plaintiffs' core speech. Instead, the labels serve as disclaimers to the public regarding the incontestable health consequences of using tobacco."

Key provisions

The court also upheld key provisions of the law that:

  • Prohibit tobacco companies from making health claims about tobacco products without FDA review;

  • Ban several forms of tobacco marketing that appeal to children, including brand name sponsorships, tobacco-branded merchandise such as caps and t-shirts, and free samples of tobacco products; and

  • Prohibit tobacco companies from making statements implying that a tobacco product is safer because it is regulated by the FDA.

The ruling for the most part affirms an earlier decision by Judge Joseph H. McKinley in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky. Judge McKinley's decision upheld the cigarette warning labels requirement and most other provisions of the law.

Photo

Separate case

In a separate, narrower case, Judge Richard Leon, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, struck down the new cigarette pack warnings. That ruling is on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, with oral arguments scheduled for April 10.

In addition to finding that the warning requirement is constitutional, the ruling strongly supports Congress' findings in enacting the requirement and finds the warnings are supported by the scientific evidence and the tobacco industry's long history of deception regarding the health hazards of its products.

"Tobacco manufacturers and tobacco-related trade organizations knowingly and actively conspired to deceive the public about the health risks and addictiveness of smoking for decades," the majority opinion states. "In addition to this decades-long deception by Tobacco Companies, their advertising promoting smoking deceives consumers if it does not warn consumers about tobacco's serious health risks…

"Faced with evidence that the current warnings ineffectively convey the risks of tobacco use and that most people do not understand the full risks, the Act's new warnings are reasonably related to promoting greater public understanding of the risks. A warning that is not noticed, read, or understood does not serve its function. The new warnings rationally address these problems by being larger and including graphics."

In addition, the appeals court majority countered Judge Leon's argument that the proposed labels are meant to incite an emotional response and therefore constitute 'opinions' that don't pass legal scrutiny. "Facts can disconcert, displease, provoke an emotional response, spark controversy and even overwhelm reason, but that does not magically turn such facts into opinions," the Sixth Circuit opinion states.

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California Toughens Rules for Dating Sites

eHarmony, Match.com and Spark Networks sign on to new rules

California is strengthening consumer protections for users of online dating sites, including the requirement that sites checking subscribers against nation...

PhotoCalifornia is strengthening consumer protections for users of online dating sites, including the requirement that sites checking subscribers against national sex offender registries.

Attorney General Kamala D. Harris said three of the nation's leading online dating providers have issued a joint statement of business principles that online dating providers should follow to help protect members from identity theft, financial scams and sexual predators. 

The agreement between the Attorney General and online dating providers eHarmony, Match.com and Spark Networks (operator of such websites as JDate and ChristianMingle), states that the companies will protect their members through the use of online safety tools, including checking subscribers against national sex offender registries and by providing a rapid abuse reporting system for members. 

The websites also agreed to educate members about safe online dating practices, and will supply members with online safety tips, including fraud prevention guidance and tips for safely meeting people offline. These tips and financial scam warnings will be issued on an ongoing basis to registered members. 

"Consumers should be able to use websites without the fear of being scammed or targeted. It is a priority for this office to ensure consumers are protected online, and companies who are creating in the Internet space have a continued opportunity to innovate and thrive," Harris said.

Screen members

PhotoProviders will continue their efforts to screen members for safety threats, whether financial or physical, using a number of protective tools, including looking for fake profiles and checking sex offender registries to prevent registered sex offenders from using their fee-based services. Any member who is identified as a registered sex offender will not be allowed to use these services. 

This joint statement also ensures that the online dating service providers have rapid abuse reporting systems, which give members access to a website, email address and/or phone number to report any suspected criminal activity, including physical safety concerns and fraud. This agreement reflects best practices that these industry leaders are following. 

"In the interest of protecting and educating users, I strongly encourage all online dating companies to adopt the same principles as these industry leaders," Attorney General Harris said. 

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Citi Fined $600,000 for Excessive Markups on Bond Transactions

Bank is ordered to pay more than $648,000 in restitution to 3,600 customers

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) has fined Citi International Financial Services LLC, a subsidiary of Citigroup, Inc., $600,000 and orde...

PhotoThe Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) has fined Citi International Financial Services LLC, a subsidiary of Citigroup, Inc., $600,000 and ordered more than $648,000 in restitution and interest to more than 3,600 customers for charging excessive markups and markdowns on corporate and agency bond transactions, and for related supervisory violations.

"FINRA is committed to ensuring that customers who purchase and sell securities, including corporate and agency bonds, receive fair prices," said Thomas Gira, Executive Vice President, FINRA Market Regulation. "The markups and markdowns charged by Citi International were outside of appropriate standards for fair pricing in debt transactions, and FINRA will continue to identify and address transactions that violate fair pricing standards, regardless of whether a markup or markdown is above or below 5 percent."

FINRA found that from July 2007 through September 2010, Citi International charged excessive corporate and agency bond markups and markdowns. The markups and markdowns ranged from 2.73 percent to over 10 percent, and were excessive given market conditions, the cost of executing the transactions and the value of the services rendered to the customers, among other factors.

In addition, from April 2009 through June 2009, Citi International failed to use reasonable diligence to buy or sell corporate bonds so that the resulting price to its customers was as favorable as possible under prevailing market conditions. 

Supervisory deficiencies

During the relevant period, Citi International's supervisory system regarding fixed income transactions contained significant deficiencies regarding, among other things, the review of markups and markdowns below 5 percent and utilization of a pricing grid for markups and markdowns that was based on the par value of the bonds, instead of the actual value of the bonds.

Citi International was also ordered to revise its written supervisory procedures regarding supervisory review of markups and markdowns, and best execution in fixed income transactions with its customers.

Investors can obtain more information about, and the disciplinary record of, any FINRA-registered broker or brokerage firm by using FINRA's BrokerCheck. FINRA makes BrokerCheck available at no charge. In 2011, members of the public used this service to conduct 14.2 million reviews of broker or firm records. Investors can access BrokerCheck at www.finra.org/brokercheck.

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New York Tries to Close Cigarette Tax Loophole

Sues store that allows smokers to roll their own onsite

New York Tries To Close Cigarette Tax Loophole...

PhotoStates like New York have very high taxes on cigarettes, both to raise revenue and to discourage smoking. But there are ways around the tax.

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman says one retailer -- Tobacco House C.C.W., Inc., in Dewitt, N.Y. -- has found a way around the tax. According to Schneiderman, consumers can purchase loose tobacco, tubes of cigarette paper and access to machinery that instantly produces assembled cigarettes onsite.

The customer leaves the store with cigarettes that were purchased without paying federal or state cigarette taxes. But Schneiderman says this "roll your own" business sells cigarettes in violation of tax and other regulatory statutes applicable to cigarettes by selling the components of cigarettes and facilitating customers' production of untaxed and unsafe cigarettes.

The lawsuit

Schneiderman has sued the business, its owner, and its employees, saying they are in violation of the Federal Contraband Cigarette Trafficking Act, the New York State Cigarette Marketing Standards Act, and New York State tax law, for selling cigarettes on which the required taxes have not been paid.

The lawsuit also charges the defendants with violating New York’s Cigarette Fire Safety Act by selling cigarettes that have not been certified as “fire-safe” to extinguish more quickly than standard cigarettes, and which bear no health warnings, both of which are required by New York State law.

“Rather than playing by the rules, this store and others like it are cheating the state out of millions of dollars per year in legitimate tax revenue and endangering public health and safety while they’re doing it,” Schneiderman said.

'Illegally low prices'

Schneiderman says the business charges “illegally low prices" for their store-made machine-rolled cigarettes, encouraging people to take up smoking and to discourage smokers from quitting.

"Additionally, because cigarettes are the number one cause of deaths by fire in this country, New York State has long required that all cigarettes sold in the state be fire-safe; these cigarettes are not,” Schneiderman said.

Tobacco House advertised “All Cigarettes $28.99 per Carton,” and sometimes even advertised a $3.00-off-per-carton coupon, bringing the price down to $25.99 per carton, prices which fall well below the amount of the taxes alone on a carton of cigarettes.

The state's lawsuit against Tobacco House seeks an injunction to stop the defendants from continuing their sale, distribution, and advertisement of non-taxed cigarettes, as well as compensation for the tax revenue lost by the state as a result of defendants’ activities.

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FDA Approves First Boniva Generics

Popular drug is used to treat and prevent osteoporosis

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the first generic versions of Boniva (ibandronate) tablets, a once-monthly product to treat or pre...

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the first generic versions of Boniva (ibandronate) tablets, a once-monthly product to treat or prevent osteoporosis in women after menopause.

The most common type of bone disease, osteoporosis, is characterized by low bone mass and structural deterioration of bone tissue, leading to bone fragility and an increased risk of fractures of the hip, spine, and wrist. Ibandronate is in a class of medications called bisphosphonates that help increase bone mass and reduce the chance of having a spinal fracture.

According to the National Institutes of Health, in the United States more than 40 million people either already have osteoporosis or are at high risk due to low bone mass.

“Men as well as women are affected by osteoporosis, a disease that can be prevented and treated,” said Keith Webber, Ph.D., deputy director of the Office of Pharmaceutical Science in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “For people who must manage their health conditions over time, it is important to have affordable treatment options.”

Generic drugs approved by FDA have the same high quality and strength as brand-name drugs and provide a lower cost alternative. The generic manufacturing and packaging sites must pass the same quality standards as those of brand name drugs.

Apotex Inc., Orchid Healthcare, and Mylan Pharmaceuticals Inc. are the manufacturers that have gained FDA approval to make generic 150 milligram ibandronate tablets. 

Medication guide

An FDA-required Medication Guide will be given to patients and caregivers when ibandronate is dispensed, describes the risks and adverse reactions people should be mindful of when using the drug. Ibandronate can cause serious side effects including: esophagus problems; low calcium levels in the blood; bone, joint, or muscle pain; severe jaw bone problems; and unusual thigh bone fractures.

In the clinical trials for Boniva, the most commonly observed adverse reactions were:  back pain, indigestion (dyspepsia), pain in extremity, diarrhea, headache, and muscle pain (myalgia).

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Suit Claims Vacation Travel Club Defrauded Consumers

Firm allegedly failed to deliver on its many promises

Suit Claims Vacation Travel Club Defrauded Consumers...

Being invited to attend a presentation on vacation travel packages is like being invited to a presentation on timeshares. Chances are you're going to be sold something you don't really want that doesn't turn out nearly the way it's presented.

A five-count complaint alleges that Global Travel Solutions, LLC, and its owner, Jason A. Krieck, violated the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act and the Advertising Regulations, among other laws, by committing "unconscionable commercial practices and deception, making false promises or misrepresentations, and engaging in the knowing omission of material facts in their advertisement and sale of memberships."

“We allege the defendants’ deceptive business practices began with postcards the company mailed offering complimentary cruises and roundtrip airfare, and continued right through their sales presentations,” Chiesa said. “Rather than getting away on a vacation, these consumers ended up stuck at home, dealing with the loss of their hard-earned money.”

Complaints

To date, the Division has received complaints from 54 New Jersey consumers, the majority of whom paid between $995 to $8,500 for the membership, plus a $29.95 monthly fee. After discovering that the memberships did not provide the represented deep discounts and availability of accommodations and other travel services, consumers attempted to cancel their memberships but were unable to do so for varying reasons.

Some consumers who contacted the company said were told cancellation papers would be mailed to them but no papers were received. Others went to the company’s Montvale, N.J., location during listed business hours but found the office was closed.

Empty promises

“According to our lawsuit, the defendants lured consumers into purchasing memberships through empty promises of discounted vacation services and free cruises and airfare, all with the purpose of defrauding consumers and enriching themselves,” said Thomas R. Calcagni, Director of the State Division of Consumer Affairs. “We allege that consumers paid significant money for sham memberships that were essentially worthless. In fact, consumers could find lower vacation travel prices through free internet sites.”

The alleged violations of the Consumer Fraud Act include inducing consumers to attend presentations for memberships by offering a complimentary cruise and airfare that are, in fact, not complimentary. The suit also charges the company failed to book the complimentary cruise and airfare even after the consumer submitted the requisite paperwork and paid the requisite deposits.

With vacation season approaching, consumers should be on the lookout for vacation deals that sound too good to be true. Unfortunately, most of them are.

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Is the Rental Market the Next Big Thing?

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac may be about to jump into the market

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac may begin to rent out foreclosed homes...

PhotoMany of those abandoned foreclosed houses blighting neighborhood streets could soon have "for rent" signs in front of them. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are considering a proposal to stop selling and start renting many of those homes.

The reason is very simple: an eight percent cap rate.

According to a new and much-publicized Federal Reserve white paper, eight percent is the return which could result from renting foreclosed housing units now owned by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The catch is that the 8 percent capitalization rate is hardly a sure thing — it takes a lot of financial twists and turns to justify the 8 percent figure. No less important, it may be that 8 percent is actually a low estimate — logic suggests that savvy investors may do far better.

For example, an investor might pay $100,000 for a house that could be rented for $1,200 a month. After spending $20,000 on improvements, the total investment would be $120,000 and the annual rent $14,400 - a return of 12 percent before taxes.

Rents are rising

Rents also continue to go up, mainly because so many people can no longer qualify for a mortgage to buy a home. Rents have risen 10 percent or more in many markets in the last year.

In January Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke sent a white paper to Congress describing some of the strategies which could be used to ease the foreclosure crisis. One idea is to rent empty homes now held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Such a move would would help reduce the inventory of foreclosures on the market. There are other advantages to renting repossessed homes. The properties would be occupied and by itself that would mean less vandalism and decay, fewer neighborhood eyesores and actual cash flow to offset ownership costs until the properties can be sold off.

If Fannie and Freddie do decide to start renting homes, they will be following, rather than setting a trend. Individual investors have been buying up distressed properties for more than a year. In the last 12 months, National Association of Realtors sales data show that investors have made up nearly one third of the buyers every month.

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Study: Even Med Students Underestimate Skin Cancer Risks

Researchers say new strategies are needed to raise public awareness

Skin cancer is not only one of the most prevalent forms of cancer, it's also the most preventable.So why do so many people get it? A team of Texas...

PhotoSkin cancer is not only one of the most prevalent forms of cancer, it's also the most preventable.

So why do so many people get it?  

In a study reported in Online First by Archives of Dermatology, one of the JAMA/Archives journals, a team of Texas researchers tackled that question. They assembled a group of 20 medical students from the University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio.

Interviews with the group demonstrated that they understood the causes of skin cancer but -- perhaps surprisingly -- had less understanding about sun protection factor (SPF) and the proper use of sunscreen.

Not only were they light on their knowledge of sunscreen, but most of them tanned themselves in tanning beds or in the sun.

SPF what?

PhotoThe researchers concluded that the med students did not know the meaning of SPF numbers, did not know which sunscreen would be most appropriate for them, did not know how to reapply sunscreen and did not know whether sunscreen was immediatelly effective or whether it takes time for it to activate.

The most common reason for ignoring skin cancer risks was, as one student put it, skin cancer "is not as scary as other cancers," like breast or lung cancer.

Some of the students were also skeptical that the preventive efforts would pay off. 

One student said, "People have the perception they can fix their skin later because companies sell products for age reversal, so people think they can fix the problem later and not worry about it now."

The students suggested that celebrities be used in media campaigns to raise awareness about skin cancer and how to prevent it.  The researchers agreed that "new strategies to persuasively communication information and warnings about skin cancer are needed."

What to do

For more information about sunscreen, see:

  • Not All Sunscreens Are Created Equal
  • Don't Leave the Sunscreen at Home
  • Four Sunscreens Outshine the Rest
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Don't Believe in Evolution? Starbucks Does

Coffee chain unpeels its first Evolution Fresh juice store today

Astronomers scanning distant planets say life can't evolve on those planets without water. Starbucks would perhaps add coffee and juice to that list of evo...

PhotoAstronomers scanning distant planets say life can't evolve on those planets without water. Starbucks would perhaps add coffee and juice to that list of evolutionary necessities.

To keep thing evolving smoothly here on Earth, Starbucks is opening its first Evolution Fresh juice store today in Bellevue, Wash. The coffee chain purchased the California-based juice company last November for $30 million.

"Starbucks has seen success with expanded healthier menu items to deliver the nutritious, on-the-go options consumers are seeking," the company said in a prepared statement. "With this acquisition, Starbucks will reinvent the $1.6 billion super-premium juice segment, its significant next step in entering the larger $50 billion Health and Wellness sector."

"Our intent is to build a national Health and Wellness brand leveraging our scale, resources and premium product expertise. Bringing Evolution Fresh into the Starbucks family marks an important step forward in this pursuit,” said Howard Schultz, Starbucks chairman, president and CEO. 

Evolution juices are already carried in Whole Foods, Safeway, Costco and many Trader Joe's stores, thus clearing a major obstacle in establishing a new or rebranded product line.

Yeah, so?

PhotoWhat's so evolutionary about Evolution Fresh?

Well, as Starbucks tells it, it's putting evolution into reverse, returning to the days when juice was made on the spot from fresh fruits and vegetables, not from a bunch of concentrate delivered in 50-gallon drums.

Of course, those with long, caffeinated memories may recall that when Starbucks started its chain of coffee shops, it roasted its coffee beans on the spot.  That lasted a decade or two until roving bands of MBAs decreed it would be more efficient to do what everyone else does -- roast the beans at a central processing plant and ship them around the country to local outlets.

Starbucks' baked goods and sandwiches also leave some customers feeling that they bought an antique.

"I ordered a lemon cake. I sat down and discovered it was hard and old, said MaryJane of Santa Ana, Calif.  "I went back to return it and the girl said, 'All the cake is the same.'" MaryJane asked for a different slice anyway

"She got mad and took the tongs, scraping off the frosting, and stuffed the cake in the bag. Then, she began to talk about me to another employee. Bad customer service. Very rude."

And speaking of fresh, Vicki of Portland, Ore., complains that the employees at the Starbucks she's been frequenting for seven years spend their idle moments laughing at their customers.

"At one point, I walked up to the counter and the manager said, 'Here's a case in point,' and the employee at the counter still laughed," Vicki said. "I have been laughed at and teased all life and I resent having my one time of during the day ruined. I felt like I was on stage each time I went in. The last time I was in there, the manager couldn't see me, and I heard him talking about me again.

"The sad thing is that before this guy was promoted manager, I was treated with respect."

This is perhaps the fatal flaw of chain stores. Try as they may to channel locally-owned businesses, chains can't replicate the oversight provided by fully evolved humans whose livelihood depends on treating their customers with respect.

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Car-Buyers Should Beware of 'Spot Delivery'

Don't allow dealers to treat you like a yo-yo

Car buyers sometimes face what's called spot delivery...

Kelli, of Los Alamitos, Calif., negotiated a price for a car and left the dealership to drive it home. Four days later, she says, the salesman called with some bad news. She wasn't approved for financing after all.

"They had also added two extended warranties on the contract that I did not see when I signed the contract; I agreed to only purchase one extended warranty," Kelli wrote in a post at ConsumerAffairs. "I was told I needed a co-signer or would need to return the car. I asked if they could remove the two warranties would bring the price down by $5,000 and maybe the bank would then approve the loan."

But Kelli says the dealer said no.

"They did not want to help me get the financing worked out and I returned the car," Kelli said. "They lied to me stating I was approved when I had not been and then tried to make me purchase two extended warranties adding $5000 to my purchase price, stating the bank required them which is not only false but an illegal practice. I returned the car at their request and told them what day I would be there and asked them to have a check ready for me for my original $4,072 deposit."

No check

But when Kelli returned the car, she said there was no check waiting for her. She was told she would have to return the following week to get it.

Kelli experienced a practice called "spot delivery." It's when a dealer makes a deal "on the spot" and you leave with the car. It's only later that you learn there is a problem with the financing, or you need a co-signer, or must pay a higher rate. By that time you have already "bonded" with the car and don't want to return it.

According to attorneys who prosecute auto dealer fraud, if Kelli signed purchase documents and registration applications and if she obtained insurance for the vehicle, had a new license plate put on the car or had her old plate transferred, the car belonged to her and she should not have returned it.

Kelli may find that getting all of her deposit back from the dealer might not be easy. If she can't afford an attorney, she should consider talking with someone in California Attorney General Kamala Harris' office before having further contact with the dealer.

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Audi, Chevy Earn Biggest Fuel Economy Improvement Honors

Many carmakers have improved fuel economy since 2008

Audi, Chevy, Earn Biggest Fuel Economy Improvement Honors...

PhotoNow more than ever, it's important to drive a car that gets good fuel economy. Fortunately, there is an increasing number to choose from.

Even cars that historically didn't get great mileage are recording much better results now. Automotive information site Edmunds.com has singled out the Audi A3 and Chevy Equinox as the two models that have made the biggest strides in fuel economy since 2008, when gasoline prices hit $4 a gallon for the first time.

The A3 has increased its fuel economy 38.5 percent, from 21.0 mpg in its 2008 model year, to 29.1 mpg in its 2012 model year. The Chevy Equinox is a close second with a 32 percent growth in fuel economy in the last four years. That compares to an industrywide increase of 16.4 percent over the same period.

Wake-up call

Photo"The 2008 spike in gas prices served as a wake-up call for manufacturers whose fleets just weren't cutting it for consumers who were demanding vehicles with better fuel economy," said Edmunds.com Analyst Ivan Drury. "Automakers responded by de-emphasizing fuel-chugging V6 and V8 engines and turning their focus to fuel-sipping four-cylinder and diesel engines."

The new car registration data since 2008 bears out that trend. Car-buyers appear happy to purchase a four-cylinder powered vehicle if it results in fewer trips to the gas pump. And the new four-cylinder engines seem to be getting better all the time, in terms of both performance and fuel economy.

In December 2008 — when gas prices were $1.69 per gallon — four-cylinder engines were found in 36.7 percent of all new cars registered in the U.S. By December 2011 — when gas prices stood at $3.27 — the share of four-cylinders had increased to 44.4 percent.

Significant savings

Now that gas prices are soaring again, improved fuel economy is a welcome relief for the average consumer's gas budget. Based on today's gas prices, calculated at $3.79 a gallon, the owner of a 2012 model year vehicle is saving about $400 per year, on average, compared to the owner of a 2008 model year vehicle, according to Edmunds' estimate.

Edmunds also points out that many gasoline-powered four-cylinder vehicles are a more economical choice than high-mileage hybrids, which tend to cost thousands of dollars more. The slight savings on gas with a hybrid probably won't offset the initial extra cost to buy the vehicle.

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Mild Winter Could Mean More Pests This Spring

Ants, mosquitoes, cockroaches, stink bugs, you name it - they'll be out in force

Mild winter may lead to more and earlier insect pests...

PhotoThe late-winter springlike temperatures that have prevailed in much of the U.S. this year may have one very negative side effect. Pests may show up earlier, and in greater numbers.

"The mild winter weather could have a ripple effect on pest activity," said Jim Warneke, Southeast division technical services manager for Orkin Pest Control. "Insects stay in a hibernation-like state during the winter since cold temperatures slow down their metabolism and reproduction cycles. But with the season's above-average temperatures, we could have larger numbers of ants, termites, cockroaches and mosquitoes this spring."

While most ants don't bite, they can be just as big a nuisance as mosquitoes. There are about 50 different ant species in the U.S. While many are just a nuisance, carpenter ants can infest homes and cause expensive structural damage.

Similar to termites

"Another common sign in the spring is a group of ants with wings which can be confused with termite swarms," said Warneke. "It's a common misconception because of their similar appearance. Correctly identifying an ant infestation determines the best treatment method."

When the temperature rises above 60 degrees, termites often swarm inside homes before moving outdoors to search for food and water. Termites are found in every state except Alaska and thrive in warm and humid climates.

Signs of an infestation can include termite swarms, mud tubes and piles of discarded wings. After the termites swarm — usually during warm spring days — they can shed their wings and leave behind piles of them.

Termites are attracted to light, so swarms are typically found around lighting fixtures and windowsills. Mud tubes act as a protective tunnel and provide moisture for the termites. The mud tubes are about the size of a pencil and usually run vertically on the inside or outside of a building's foundation.

Cockroaches

Cockroaches are a hardy pest and therefore, hard to get rid of. They pick up germs on their legs and bodies and can spread disease, contaminate food and cause allergies and asthma. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cockroaches can also carry organisms that cause diarrhea, dysentery, cholera, typhoid fever and viral diseases.

"Cockroaches burrow in mulch or bark for the winter," said Warneke. "But since the ground temperature has been warmer, cockroaches probably stayed near the ground's surface, and we could possibly have larger numbers this spring."

Because cockroaches are nocturnal, if you see one during the day, that means they were likely forced out by overcrowding—a possible sign of a severe infestation.

Preventive measures

There are things you can do to make your home a less-attractive target for insect pests. Remove all unnecessary food and water sources. Seal cracks and crevices around doors and windows. Clean up spilled food and drinks immediately.

Outside, keep gutters clear, and direct water from downspouts away from your home.

Thin out vegetation and do not pile mulch or allow soil to accumulate against your home's siding. This could provide a breeding ground for mosquitoes and access for ants, cockroaches and termites to enter your home.

Pay close attention to dirt-filled porches and crawlspaces. Termites could have easy access to wood through cracks in foundation walls or if wood is in contact with the soil.

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Tax Filing Deadline Now Less Than a Month Away

But don't wait until the last minute to file

Tax filing deadline now a month away...

PhotoTaxpayers have two extra days to file their income tax returns this year, but just because you have the extra time, doesn't mean you have to use it. In fact, there's something to be said for not putting it off to the last minute.

Even though over 75 percent of taxpayers who filed last year received a tax refund -- and the average refund is nearly $3,000 --many chose to wait until the tax filing deadline. to tackle this important annual task.

The 2012 filing deadline is now less than a month away, so if you haven't started preparing your return, you shouldn't put it off much longer, tax professionals say.

No advantage to waiting

"There is no real advantage to waiting to file a tax return because, even if you owe taxes, you can delay making a payment until April 17," said Mark Steber, chief tax officer, Jackson Hewitt Tax Service Inc. "The top advantage of filing now, assuming you have a refund coming to you, is to receive your refund sooner, rather than later. Early filing has the added advantages of discouraging identity theft and avoiding the last minute crunch."

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has spent more time and effort this year dealing with cases of identity theft. Criminals who obtain a taxpayer's Social Security number can file a phony return early in the tax year and claim a refund. When the taxpayer finally gets around to filing their real tax return, they learn that someone has already filed using their money and collected their refund.

Refund delays

The IRS' crackdown on identity theft has resulted in delays in getting out many refunds, another reason to file as soon as possible.

Another reason to not wait until the last minute is to avoid the bottleneck created by all those other procrastinaters. Every year, thousands of taxpayers wait until the last minute to file. Making an appointment with an accountant or professional tax preparer now ensures that you have the chance to complete your return without being rushed.

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Cell Phone Use in Pregnancy May Cause Behavior Disorders in Children

Yale researchers suggest pregnant women limit their exposure

Cell Phone Use In Pregnancy May Cause Behavior Disorders In Children...

PhotoAs mobile phones have become a universal accessory of modern life, concerned researchers look for possible harmful health effects. There is already a growing body of study on cell phones' potential impact on tumor development.

Now, researchers at the Yale School of Medicine have determined that exposure to radiation from cell phones during pregnancy affects the brain development of offspring, potentially leading to hyperactivity.

The study was based on mice and the results are detailed in the latest issue of Scientific Reports.

Affects behavior

“This is the first experimental evidence that fetal exposure to radiofrequency radiation from cellular telephones does in fact affect adult behavior,” said senior author Hugh S. Taylor, M.D., professor and chief of the Division of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences.

Taylor and co-authors exposed pregnant mice to radiation from a muted and silenced cell phone positioned above the cage and placed on an active phone call for the duration of the trial. A control group of mice was kept under the same conditions but with the phone deactivated.

Exposed mice were hyperactive

The team measured the brain electrical activity of adult mice that were exposed to radiation as fetuses, and conducted a battery of psychological and behavioral tests. They found that the mice that were exposed to radiation tended to be more hyperactive and had reduced memory capacity.

The theory goes that the behavioral changes result from an effect during pregnancy on the development of neurons in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a relatively new developmental disorder that predates the proliferation of cell phones. But the researchers think its growth might have something to do with so many mobile phones now in use.

“We have shown that behavioral problems in mice that resemble ADHD are caused by cell phone exposure in the womb,” said Taylor. “The rise in behavioral disorders in human children may be in part due to fetal cellular telephone irradiation exposure.”

While he agrees that further research is needed, Taylor has no qualms about recommending pregnant women limit their exposure to cell phones.  

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What To Do When You Inherit Money

Don't blow it; invested prudently, that inheritance will help finance your retirement

Aging Baby Boomers are beginning to inherit money in increasing numbers as members of the "greatest generation," who have worked hard & saved all their liv...

PhotoAging Baby Boomers are beginning to inherit money in increasing numbers as members of the "greatest generation," who have worked hard and saved all their lives, pass from the scene.

What becomes of the money? A new study shows that half of it gets spent, and only half gets saved. The findings may be good news for retailers, restaurant owners and people in the service industry who will receive that spillover from that windfall, but not so good news for personal finance advisers who continually urge their clients to save more.

Disappointing

“I came into this study thinking that people would save more of their inheritance than what I found,” said Jay Zagorsky, author of the study and research scientist at Ohio State University’s Center for Human Resource Research. “The fact that people spent about half is disappointing in some ways, but not shocking.”

The findings are significant because, over the next 10 years, elderly Americans are expected to transfer almost $4 trillion to their heirs.

“If these findings are correct, this means about $2 trillion will be saved and $2 trillion spent,” Zagorsky said.

Overall, more than one-third of all inheritors saw a decline or no change in their wealth after getting an inheritance. Among baby boomers who inherited less than $1,000, slightly more than 40 percent spent their entire gift.

The more you inherit, the more you keep

The more someone inherited, the less likely they were to spend or lose it all, but according to Zagorsky's data, it happens. For those who received $100,000 or more, more than 18 percent either spent it, lost it, or gave it away.

“This means that almost one in five young baby boomers who inherited a significant amount of money spent or lost all of it. That’s pretty amazing,” Zagorsky said.

How do you make sure you aren't one of those 20 percent who spend or lose it all? Financial advisers say it starts with a plan.

Make a plan

Spend a significant amount of time thinking about your goals for your inheritance. Do you want to use it to support yourself in your old age, or perhaps grow it and pass it on to other family members?

As soon as you receive the money, it is important to segregate it from your other finances. Open a new bank or brokerage account and set aside the portion you want to save. If it is kept separate from the rest of your money, you will be less tempted to spend it.

Talk to a trusted and objective financial adviser about your goals for the money and how the money should be invested.

Most inheritances are tax-free, and because of that provide real opportunities to build wealth and increase financial security. Capitalizing on those opportunities requires some discipline and a plan.

Whatever you do, you don't want to wind up facing retirement with virtually no assets, like the 60 percent of prospective retirees studied in a recent survey.

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Imported Food Causing More Illness

As food imports have increased, so have illnesses

CDC report says imported food causing more illness...

PhotoFoodborne disease outbreaks are a growing problem in the U.S. and it appears a growing part of that problem is imported food.

A new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control shows foodbourne illnesses related to imported food rose in 2009 and 2010, and nearly half of the outbreaks implicated foods imported from areas which previously had not been associated with outbreaks.

"It's too early to say if the recent numbers represent a trend, but CDC officials are analyzing information from 2011 and will continue to monitor for these outbreaks in the future," said Hannah Gould, Ph.D., an epidemiologist in CDC's Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases and the lead author of the study.

Outbreaks tied to imports

CDC experts went back to 2005, looking for outbreaks that could be tied to imports. During the five year period from 2005 through 2010, 39 outbreaks and 2,348 illnesses were linked to imported food from 15 countries.

Of those outbreaks, nearly half - 17 - occurred in 2009 and 2010. Overall, fish were the most common source of implicated imported foodborne disease outbreaks, followed by spices. Nearly 45 percent of the imported foods causing outbreaks came from Asia.

"As our food supply becomes more global, people are eating foods from all over the world, potentially exposing them to germs from all corners of the world, too," Gould said. "We saw an increased number of outbreaks due to imported foods during recent years, and more types of foods from more countries causing outbreaks."

Tighter inspections

Congress has approved an expansion of Food and Drug Administration enforcement authority, and part of that expansion includes wider inspections of U.S. port facilities where food enters the country. While the U.S. is a major agricultural exporter, it has also begun to import greater quantities of food in recent years.

A recent Department of Agriculture report shows U.S. food imports grew from $41 billion in 1998 to $78 billion in 2007. Much of that growth has occurred in fruit and vegetables, seafood and processed food products.

The report estimated that as much as 85 percent of the seafood eaten in the United States is now imported, and depending on the time of the year, up to 60 percent of fresh produce is imported.

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Sears Closing 62 More Stores

The latest closings are in addition to about 120 previously announced

Sears says it will close 62 more stores in the first half of this year. The stores targeted for closing include 43 Hometown Stores, 10 hardware stores and ...

PhotoSears says it will close 62 more stores in the first half of this year. The stores targeted for closing include 43 Hometown Stores, 10 hardware stores and all nine of its Great Indoors stores, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Sears Holdings earlier announced plans to close about 120 poorly performing stores.

Last month, the ailing chain said it hopes to sell off 1,000 or more stores to raise up to $770 million, money it needs to help cover more than $3 billion in losses last year.

The company did not identify the latest stores on the choppng block but said that employees of the stores have been notified.

A complete list of the closings is available here

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Retirement a Frightening Prospect for Vast Majority of Americans

The only ones not petrified are those who've already taken the plunge

Retirement is, perhaps, like jumping out of an airplane. It's a lot scarier for those who haven't yet tried it than it is for old hands. Or so a recent sur...

PhotoRetirement is, perhaps, like jumping out of an airplane. It's a lot scarier for those who haven't yet tried it than it is for old hands. Or so a recent survey finds.

In fact, the Employee Benefits Research Institute (EBRI) and Matthew Greenwald & Associates' 22nd annual Retirement Confidence Survey finds fully 86 percent of not-yet-retired Americans less than confident they'll be able to live comfortably in retirement.

Those already in retirement, however, tend to express higher levels of confidence than current workers about several key financial aspects of retirement, even though current retirees report they are significantly more reliant on Social Security as a major source of their retirement income than current workers expect to be.

The survey doesn't provide much guidance on why this might be so, although retirees often report that their cost of living declines more sharply than they had anticipated once they abandon the daily grind.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a ConsumerAffairs analysis of consumer sentiment about retirement finds generally strong support for the idea of lolling around and not working all day. 

Photo

However, lest anyone draw false confidence from these warm and fuzzy feelings, the financial condition of American workers is downright alarming, with 60 percent reporting they have virtually no savings and investments.

In total, 60 percent of workers report that the total value of their household’s savings and investments, excluding the value of their primary home and any defined benefit plans, is less than $25,000.

Job fears

PhotoSo does this mean today's workers, lacking savings and pension plans and with a net worth of nearly zero, plan to continue working well into their old age?

Apparently not. Twenty-five percent of workers in the 2012 Retirement Confidence Survey say the age at which they expect to retire has changed in the past year. In 1991, 11 percent of workers said they expected to retire after age 65, and by 2012 that has grown to 37 percent. Forty-two percent, meanwhile, say job uncertainty is their most pressing issue.

Regardless of what consumers may plan, fully half of current retirees say they left the work force unexpectedly due to health problems, disability, or changes at their employer, such as downsizing or closure. Planning to work into one's 80s is one thing; actually managing to do so is something else.

No plan

PhotoIt might come as a shock to Ron Paul and other libertarians who espouse the fervent belief that Americans are rugged individualists who are ready and able to look out for themselves without help from the government, but that doesn't appear to be the case.

For whatever reason, many Americans seem to throw up their hands at the idea of taking their fate into their own hands.

In the ConsumerAffairs sentiment analysis of comments in social media over the last year, we found a whopping 3.9 million people waxing on about retirement in general, but only 200,000 had much to say about retirement planning, lending credence to EBRI's findings.

 Consider:

  • More than half of those surveyed (56%) said they have never bothered to calculate how much money they will need to save for retirement.
  • Only a minority of workers and retirees feel very comfortable using online technologies to perform various tasks related to financial management. 
  • Relatively few use mobile devices such as a smart phone or tablet to manage their finances.
  • Just 10 percent say they are comfortable obtaining advice from financial professionals online.

These findings should scare the socks (or flip-flops) off anyone worried about the solvency of Medicare and Social Security, but before packing up and moving to Costa Rica, pay heed to those current retirees who say they are muddling through somehow and express confidence that they will continue to do so.

Fully 63 percent of current retirees are somewhat or very confident that they'll be able to live comfortably throughout their retirement years. 

Here's hoping they're right.

---

Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase

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Are You Sharing Too Much on Facebook?

Frictionless sharing means sharing more than you think

Frictionless sharing gives friends access to more of your online habits...

PhotoFacebook is all about sharing, but things may be getting out of hand.

Facebook has developed an Open Graph platform for apps, to facilitate "frictionless sharing." That means we can share whatever has captured our attention on the web with our friends.

Social media apps take the multimedia content we access online and publish the information to our Facebook profiles without the need to click on anything, such as the "Like" button.

But many users aren’t even aware what these new social apps are posting to their profiles. These apps are busy broadcasting your content without your ever being aware of it.

The folks at Facebook claim to think they are doing their members a favor. As they claim to see it, they are making it easier to share information, assuming the things you access online were going to be shared anyway. They've just saved you a step.

Privacy

Privacy advocates look at it a little differently. If you are researching "How to find a new job in three weeks or less" or "Five steps to an amicable divorce," you might not want your network of friends to know.

If this sort of things gives you pause, you need to know how to avoid "frictionless sharing." A number of sites now have a social reader function. All you have to do is enable it once. From then on, anything you access on that site gets shared with your network.

But if you aren't keen on the idea of sharing everything in your life, just don't enable the apps.

"Frictionless sharing" has its advocates, however, who suggest it's the wave of the future. If you want to guard your privacy, they say, just be selective about the apps you enable. After all, they say, you are still in control of what gets shared and what stays private.

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Ford Trucks Fuel Tanks Are Defective, Suit Claims

Class action says Ford has kept the problem secret

Multiple year models of Ford E-Series and F-Series pickups have defective fuel tank linings that flake off and clog the fuel system, causing sudden loss of...

PhotoMultiple year models of Ford E-Series and F-Series pickups and vans have defective fuel tank linings that flake off and clog the fuel system, causing sudden loss of power, according to a federal class action.

The suit, filed in federal court in New Jersey, charges that Ford has known of the problem for at least ten years but has neither recalled the trucks nor offered to repair them for free.

Instead, the suit alleges, Ford issued a technical service bulletin in 2007 advising dealers of the problem.  

The lawsuit says the problem affects fuel tank linings on 10 E- and F-series truck models made between 1999 and 2008 and that "hundreds, if not thousands" of drivers have encountered the problem, Courthouse News Service reported.

The F-series pickup is the best-selling U.S. car or truck. The E-Series is a truck-based full-size van.


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Too Little Sleep Can Mean Too Many Pounds

Study finds lack of sleep can lead to over-eating and weight gain

If you don’t get enough sleep, you may also eat too much — and thus be more likely to become obese. That is the finding of researchers...

PhotoIf you don’t get enough sleep, you may also eat too much — and thus be more likely to become obese.
 
That is the finding of researchers who presented their study at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology and Prevention/Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism 2012 Scientific Sessions.
 
“We tested whether lack of sleep altered the levels of the hormones leptin and ghrelin, increased the amount of food people ate, and affected energy burned through activity,” said Virend Somers, M.D., Ph.D., study author and professor of medicine and cardiovascular disease at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.. Leptin and ghrelin are associated with appetite.
 
The researchers studied 17 normal, healthy young men and women for eight nights, with half of the participants sleeping normally and half sleeping only two-thirds their normal time.
 
Participants ate as much as they wanted during the study.
 
Researchers found:
  • The sleep-deprived group, who slept one hour and 20 minutes less than the control group each day consumed an average 549 additional calories each day.  
  • The amount of energy used for activity didn’t significantly change between groups, suggesting that those who slept less didn’t burn additional calories.
  • Lack of sleep was associated with increased leptin levels and decreasing ghrelin — changes that were more likely a consequence, rather than a cause, of over-eating.
“Sleep deprivation is a growing problem, with 28 percent of adults now reporting that they get six or fewer hours of sleep per night,” said Andrew D. Calvin, M.D., M.P.H., co-investigator, cardiology fellow and assistant professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic.
 
The researchers noted that while this study suggests sleep deprivation may be an important part and one preventable cause of weight gain and obesity, it was a small study conducted in a hospital’s clinical research unit.
 
“Larger studies of people in their home environments would help confirm our findings,” Calvin said.
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Trails, Parks, Nearby Stores Mean Healthier Residents

Neighborhoods that encourage walking promote public health

If you live in neighborhoods with access to grocery stores, healthy food, parks and a pleasant walking environment, you’re more likely to be in ideal...

PhotoIf you live in neighborhoods with access to grocery stores, healthy food, parks and a pleasant walking environment, you’re more likely to be in ideal cardiovascular health.
 
That’s the finding of research reported at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology and Prevention/Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism 2012 Scientific Sessions. The findings echo those reported in a public television documentary series, Designing Healthy Communities
 
“The most significant neighborhood factors that lead to ideal health were access to recreational resources like parks and trails where people can walk in safety and comfort, and the availability of healthy foods,” said Erin Unger, study author and medical student at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. “These are some of the first findings showing that your neighborhood influences your overall cardiovascular health.”
 
The study included 6,047 participants in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA), with baseline measurements of cholesterol, body mass index, diet, physical activity, fasting glucose, blood pressure and smoking.
 
Participants were determined as having poor, intermediate or ideal levels of seven risk factors and an overall score was determined that described their cardiovascular risk profile according to the American Heart Association’s definition of ideal cardiovascular health.
 
Study participants with ideal cardiovascular health were more likely to be under age 55, male, Caucasian and highly educated, researchers said.

Ideal neighborhoods

Neighborhood characteristics included favorable food stores (grocery stores and fruit/vegetable markets), unfavorable food stores (fast food restaurants, liquor stores and convenience stores) recreational facilities and resources, census measures of socioeconomic status and residents’ ratings of aesthetic quality, walking environment, healthy food availability, safety and sense of community.
 
“This study demonstrates the importance of where we live. Our neighborhood can play a significant role in our health,” Unger said. Physical activity in neighborhoods could be improved with community gardens, healthier school lunches, parks, lights and sidewalks, she said.
 
 
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Researchers: Menopause's 'Brain Fog' Is Real

Menopausal women who complain of memory problems aren't imagining it

Researchers study Menopause brain fog...

Besides hot flashes, many women entering menopause complain of memory problems, including bouts of forgetfulness and struggles with “brain fog.”

Researchers writing in the journal Menopause says it's not their imagination. The results of the study, by scientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center and the University of Illinois at Chicago who gave women a rigorous battery of cognitive tests, validate their experiences and provide some clues to what is happening in the brain as women hit menopause.

Cognitive changes

“The most important thing to realize is that there really are some cognitive changes that occur during this phase in a woman’s life,” said Miriam Weber, Ph.D., the neuropsychologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center who led the study. “If a woman approaching menopause feels she is having memory problems, no one should brush it off or attribute it to a jam-packed schedule. She can find comfort in knowing that there are new research findings that support her experience. She can view her experience as normal.”

The study is one of only a handful to analyze in detail a woman’s brain function during menopause and to compare those findings to the woman’s own reports of memory or cognitive difficulties.

Difficulty in processing new information

In the study, women who had memory complaints were much more likely to do poorly in tests designed to measure what is called “working memory” – the ability to take in new information and manipulate it in their heads. Such tasks in real life might include calculating the amount of a tip after a restaurant meal, adding up a series of numbers in one’s head, or adjusting one’s itinerary on the fly after an unexpected flight change.

Scientists also found that the women’s reports of memory difficulties were associated with a lessened ability to keep and focus attention on a challenging task. That might include doing the taxes, maintaining sharp attention on the road during a long drive, completing a difficult report at work despite boredom, or getting through a particularly challenging book.

Advice

For women who feel they are having memory problems, Weber has some advice.

“When someone gives you a new piece of information, it might be helpful to repeat it out loud, or for you to say it back to the person to confirm it – it will help you hold onto that information longer,” Weber said. “Make sure you have established that memory solidly in the brain.

Also, you need to do a little more work to make sure the information gets into your brain permanently. It may help to realize that you shouldn’t expect to be able to remember everything after hearing it just once.

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Low-Cost Jewelry Still Ranks High for Toxic Chemicals

Feds have known of problems for years; changes in regulations needed

New research on toxic chemicals in low-cost children’s and adult jewelry found that more than half of the products containg high levels of hazardou...

PhotoYears after the problem first came to light,  research on toxic chemicals in low-cost children’s and adult jewelry finds that more than half of the products contain high levels of hazardous chemicals.

The latest findings are contained in a study released by the Michigan Network for Children’s Environmental Health and the Ecology Center.

Researchers tested for chemicals -- including lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury, bromine and chlorine (PVC) – which have been linked in animal and some human studies to acute allergies and to long-term health impacts such as birth defects, impaired learning, liver toxicity, and cancer.

More than half (57 percent) of the products tested had a “high” level of concern due to the presence of one or more hazardous chemicals detected at high levels. Four products contained over 10 percent cadmium, a known carcinogen.

Five years earlier ...

ConsumerAffairs reported in 2007 that sample testing by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) revealed that 20 percent of children's jewelry contained unsafe levels of lead. Other tests by state officials in Maryland, Ohio and Massachusetts suggested that the percentages must be even higher.

In the latest tests, 50 percent of the jewelry tested contained lead, with over half containing more than 300 ppm of lead in one or more components, exceeding the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) limit of lead in children’s products.

“There is no excuse for jewelry, especially children’s jewelry, to be made with some of the most well-studied and dangerous substances on the planet,” said Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center and founder of HealthyStuff.org. “We urge manufacturers to start replacing these chemicals with non-toxic substances immediately.”

14 retailers

Ninety-nine pieces of jewelry were tested from 14 different retailers, including Walmart and other major nationwide retailers:

  • Ming 99 City,
  • Burlington Coat Factory,
  • Target,
  • Big Lots,
  • Claire's,
  • Glitter,
  • Forever 21,
  • Walmart,
  • H&M,
  • Meijers,
  • Kohl's,
  • Justice,
  • Icing and
  • Hot Topic.

Samples were predominantly collected from retailers in Michigan, along with five other states including Ohio, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York and Vermont.

HealthyStuff.org measured the presence of these chemicals with an X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyzer – a proven, accurate indicator of elements in products.

Findings

Highlights of the findings:

  • OVERALL -- 59 percent (58) of products tested were rated as having HIGH level of concern due the presence of one or more hazardous chemical detected at high levels.
  • LEAD -- 27 of 99 (27 percent) of jewelry contained greater than 300 ppm lead in one or more components. 300 ppm is the CPSC limit of lead in children’s products.
  • CADMIUM -- 10 of 99 (10 percent) of jewelry contained greater than 100 ppm cadmium in one or more components.
  • CHROMIUM -- 92 of 95 (93 percent) of jewelry contained greater than 100 ppm chromium.
  • NICKEL -- 30 of 95 (30 percent) of jewelry contained greater than 100 ppm nickel.
  • BROMINATED FLAME RETARDANTS -- 7 of 95 (7 percent) of jewelry contained brominated flame retardants (greater than 1,000 ppm bromine).
  • CHLORINE -- One-third, 11 of 95 (12 percent) of jewelry contained PVC (greater than 25,000 ppm chlorine).

Other chemicals analyzed include mercury and arsenic.

Feds warn of risks

According to the CPSC, parents and caregivers should not allow young children to be given, or to play with, cheap metal jewelry, especially when unsupervised. The CPSC states that: “Swallowing, sucking on or chewing a metal charm or necklace could result in exposure to lead, cadmium or other heavy metals, which are known to be toxic at certain levels of exposure.”

In 2010, however, the CPSC declined to regulate cadmium in children’s products, and instead has supported an industry-developed voluntary standard.

In response, and in the absence of federal leadership, six states have moved to regulate cadmium, including California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington. Legislation to restrict cadmium in children’s products has been introduced in Michigan, but the legislature has failed to schedule a hearing for the bill (SB 764).

Federally, a wave of consumer pressure is pushing a rewrite of the Toxics Substance Control Act (TSCA), the federal law that regulates chemicals in commerce. The TSCA reform bill, the Safe Chemicals Act (S. 847), was introduced by Senator Richard Lautenburg in 2011 and now has 15 co-sponsors.

"Toxic jewelry is a symptom of the complete failure of our federal chemical regulatory system,” said Alexis Blizman, legislative and policy director for the Michigan Network for Children’s Environmental Health. “Downstream companies like jewelry retailers, and downstream users like our children, will never be safe until we reform our chemicals laws to ensure products are safe before they arrive on store shelves.”

Since 2007 researchers at the Ecology Center have performed more than 20,000 tests on 7,000 consumer products, including pet products, vehicles, women's handbags, jewelry, back-to-school products, children's toys, building products and children's car seats.

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Car Dealers Agree to Cancel Deceptive Ads

Settlement with FTC bars dealers from similar stunts in the future

So let's say you see a car dealer's ad promising to pay off your trade-in no matter ho much you owe on it.Sound too good to be true?  Of course it d...

PhotoSo let's say you see a car dealer's ad promising to pay off your trade-in no matter ho much you owe on it.

Sound too good to be true?  Of course it does.  And of course it isn't.  True, that is.

The Federal Trade Commission objected to the ads and now five dealers have agreed to stop running them.  They're also barred from running similar deceptive ads in the future.

The dealers are:

  • Billion Auto, Inc., in Sioux Falls, South Dakota;
  • Frank Myers AutoMaxx, LLC, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina;
  • Key Hyundai of Manchester, LLC and Hyundai of Milford LLC, in Vernon and Milford, Connecticut, respectively, and which advertise jointly; and
  • Ramey Motors, Inc., in Princeton, West Virginia.

The FTC charged that the ads, which ran on the dealers' websites and on sites such as YouTube.com, deceived consumers into thinking they would no longer be responsible for paying off the loan balance on their trade-in, even if it exceeded the trade-in's value (i.e., the trade-in had "negative equity"). Instead, the dealers rolled the negative equity into the consumer's new vehicle loan or, in the case of one dealer, required consumers to pay it out of pocket.

Examples of the allegedly deceptive advertisements include:

  • "Credit upside down? Need a new car? Go to Billionpayoff.com. We want to pay off your car." The advertisement depicts a car moving, inverts the video to depict it upside down, and then turns it right-side up again. (Billion Auto)
  • "Uncle Frank wants to pay [your trade] off in full, no matter how much you owe." (Frank Myers AutoMaxx)
  • "I want your trade no matter how much you owe or what you're driving. In fact I'll pay off your trade when you upgrade to a nicer, newer vehicle." (Key Hyundai and Hyundai of Milford)
  • "Ramey will pay off your trade no matter what you owe . . . even if you're upside down, Ramey will pay off your trade." (Ramey Motors)

In addition, the complaints in three of the cases allege violations of the Truth in Lending Act (TILA) and its implementing Regulation Z for failing to disclose certain credit-related terms, and the complaints in two of the cases allege violations of the Consumer Leasing Act (CLA) and its implementing Regulation M for failing to disclose certain lease related terms.

The proposed settlements, reached as part of the FTC's ongoing efforts to protect consumers in financial distress, bar all of the dealers from making similar deceptive representations in the future. The cases are the first of their kind brought by the FTC. The Commission also issued a new consumer education publication titled "Negative Equity Ads and Auto-Trade-ins" to help consumers understand these types of ads.

"Buying a new car or truck is a major financial commitment, and the last thing consumers need is to be tricked into thinking that a dealer will 'pay off' what they owe on their current vehicle, when they really won't," said David Vladeck, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "The Federal Trade Commission is constantly on the lookout for potentially deceptive ads, and brings actions to stop them when appropriate."

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Dealer Group Adds Sirius/XM Package to Pre-Owned Sales

Deal garners additional new subscribers for a company that struggles to maintain growth

Sirius/XM is partnering with Asbury to provide satellite radio as a feature on pre-owned cars...

PhotoThe newly merged Sirius/XM satellite radio company has found a new audience with a recent deal to partner with auto retail group Asbury Automotive Group; according to a March 12 press release, Asbury has agreed to throw in a 3-month satellite radio subscription for all pre-owned car buyers who sign with its dealerships.

In some ways, the move represents a substantial increase in Sirius/XM’s new business, since Asbury, based in Atlanta, GA, has over 70 retail locations. Some might still say that the new agreement is a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated 20 million current subscribers, but many who scrutinize the radio monopoly’s business plan would say that, when it comes to adding Sirius/XM radio to more cars, every bit of new business helps.

Part of the debate around the satellite radio company relates to the fact that, up until recent years, XM and Sirius were competitors. A 2008 merger raised questions about anti-trust issues, as covered by ConsumerAffairs at the time, and according to industry sources, the U.S. government only approved the merger with certain restrictions, which included price caps and other restrictions meant to prevent unfair use of a monopoly on the satellite radio market.

Price caps

After the merger, ConsumerAffairs has continued to track issues related to the company’s ongoing operations, including a class-action suit by consumers alleging that Sirius/XM violated the spirit of its price cap agreement with small incremental new fees and charges.

In addition, it can be hard to cancel the service. Customers report a lot of coercive activity on the part of company reps when they contact Sirius/XM to cancel, and some have also reported bills coming in after they have expressed their desire to quit the service.

New deals with pre-owned auto retailers -- also known as used car dealers -- can help Sirius/XM get more new subscribers to grow its bottom line, though according to other analyses, the company will still have to focus on reducing “churn” by keeping more subscribers for a longer time, and not by blocking attempts to cancel, but through making its services more genuinely appealing to a larger set of customers.

The decreasing quality of some free radio stations can help, along with the Sirius/XM's success in acquiring broadcast rights for high-profile sporting events. Sirius/XM has also rolled out a set of “a la carte” options for subscribers who want just a specific part of what the radio service offers.

Consumer advocates say the continued growth of the company and improvement of its bottom line will depend on whether a company without a lot of direct competition pays attention to feedback from its subscribers and creates a high customer service standard.

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FDA Approves First Generic Lexapro for Depression, Anxiety

Teva gets 180 days of generic exclusivity for widely-used drug

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today approved the first generic Lexapro (escitalopram tablets) to treat both depression and generalized anxiety diso...

PhotoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration today approved the first generic Lexapro (escitalopram tablets) to treat both depression and generalized anxiety disorder in adults.

Teva Pharmaceutical Industries/IVAX Pharmaceuticals gained FDA approval to market generic escitalopram in 5 milligram, 10 mg, and 20 mg strengths.

Teva has been granted a 180-day period of generic drug exclusivity, which means that FDA cannot approve another generic version of escitalopram tablets before the end of that period.

Generic drugs approved by FDA have the same high quality and strength as brand-name drugs. The generic manufacturing and packaging sites must pass the same quality standards as those of brand-name drugs.

About depression

Depression is characterized by symptoms that interfere with a person's ability to work, sleep, study, eat, and enjoy once-pleasurable activities. Episodes of depression often recur throughout a person's lifetime.

Signs and symptoms of major depression include: depressed mood, loss of interest in usual activities, significant change in weight or appetite, insomnia or excessive sleeping (hypersomnia), restlessness/pacing (psychomotor agitation), increased fatigue, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, slowed thinking or impaired concentration, and suicide attempts or thoughts of suicide.

People with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) are filled with exaggerated worry and tension, even though there is little or nothing to provoke it. They anticipate disaster and are overly concerned about health issues, money, family problems, or difficulties at work. GAD is diagnosed when a person worries excessively about a variety of everyday problems for at least six months. People with GAD can’t relax, startle easily, and have difficulty concentrating.

“These psychiatric conditions can be disabling and prevent a person from doing every-day activities,” said Janet Woodcock, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “This medication is widely used by people who must manage their condition over time, so it is important to have affordable treatment options.”

Side effects 

In the clinical trials for Lexapro, the most commonly observed adverse reactions were: sleeplessness (insomnia), ejaculation disorder, nausea, increase in sweating, fatigue and drowsiness, and low sex drive (decreased libido). 

Escitalopram and all other antidepressant drugs have a boxed warning and a patient medication guide describing the increased risk of suicidal thinking and behavior in children, adolescents, and young adults ages 18 to 24 during initial treatment.

The warning also says data did not show this increased risk in those older than 24 years and that patients ages 65 and older who take antidepressants have a decreased risk of suicidal thinking and behavior. The warning says depression and other serious psychiatric disorders themselves are the most important causes of suicide and that close monitoring of patients starting these medications is necessary.

Information about the availability of generic escitalopram can be obtained from Teva. 

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Judge Orders BurnLounge to Refund $17 Million to Consumers

Music-marketing "opportunity" was a pyramid scheme, judge rules

At the request of the Federal Trade Commission, a U.S. district court judge has ordered the operators and top promoters of a deceptive pyramid scheme to pa...

PhotoAt the request of the Federal Trade Commission, a U.S. district court judge has ordered the operators and top promoters of a deceptive pyramid scheme to pay a total of $17 million to refund consumers who were burned by the scam. 

The court order permanently halts marketing methods used by the operation known as BurnLounge, which lured more than 56,000 consumers from around the country by masquerading as a legitimate multi-level marketing program and making misleading claims about earnings to be made.

The FTC filed a complaint against BurnLounge in 2007. BurnLounge had touted itself as a cutting-edge way to sell digital music through multi-level marketing, but music sales accounted for only a small percentage of its sales.

The agency charged that BurnLounge recruited consumers from across the country by telling them that participants earned huge incomes. Investors could buy into the BurnLounge organization for prices ranging from $29.95 to $429.95, plus monthly fees. While participants were compensated for music and album sales, most compensation came from recruiting others into the plan.

The FTC charged the defendants with operating an illegal pyramid scheme, with making deceptive earnings claims, and with failing to disclose that most consumers who participated in pyramid schemes wouldn't receive substantial income, but instead would lose money. The agency charged that the practices violate federal law.

The court's final judgment and order bars the defendants from engaging in pyramid, Ponzi, or chain letter schemes or any schemes in which compensation for recruitment is unrelated to the sale of product to customers who are not participants.

The order bars misrepresentations about multi-level marketing operations or business ventures, including misrepresentations about sales, income, profitability, or legality of the operations. If the defendants make claims about earnings, sales, or profits, the order requires them to disclose the number and percentage of participants in the business venture who have earned, sold or profited that much.

Finally, the court ordered the defendants to pay, collectively, close to $17 million for consumer redress. BurnLounge, Inc., and Juan Alexander Arnold were ordered to pay $16,245,799. John Taylor was ordered to pay $620,138 and Rob DeBoer was ordered to pay $150,000. Standard bookkeeping and record keeping requirements in the order will allow the FTC to monitor compliance.

In June 2007, another defendant in the pyramid scheme, Scott Elliott, settled the FTC's charges against him. The settlement barred him from participating in any pyramid scheme or other prohibited marketing scheme, barred false earning claims, and required him to give up $20,000 in ill-gotten gains.

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Retail Sales Up In February

But much of the extra spending was for gasoline

Retail sales rose in February...

PhotoThe Commerce Department reports consumers spent more money in February, a sign many economists suggested showed a steadily improving economy.

However, a closer look at the numbers shows a lot of that increase was spent at gas stations for more expensive fuel.

According to the government's data, retail and food services sales were $407.8 billion, up 1.1 percent from the previous month and up 6.5 percent from one year ago. This was consistent with private-sector forecasts. Excluding autos, retail and food services sales in February exceeded private sector expectations, coming in at $335.3 billion—up 0.9 percent from January and up 6.4 percent from February 2011.

“Retail sales showed continued progress last month, and sales in December and January were higher than previously estimated,” said Commerce Secretary John Bryson. “Gains were seen in virtually all retail categories, but work remains to ensure we’re supporting an economy that’s built to last. The U.S. economy has added private sector jobs for 24 straight months, creating more than 3.9 million payroll jobs. We must redouble our efforts to help American businesses and workers build their goods here and sell them everywhere.”

Despite the unwelcome extra spending for fuel, building materials and garden equipment and supplies dealers sales were up 13.8 percent from February 2011. Sales at gasoline stations were up 10.3 percent from last year.

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Five Debit Card 'Don'ts'

When possible, there are times you should use a credit card

Five ways not to use your debit card...

PhotoWith credit cards harder to get and keep these days, more consumers are relying on their debit cards for purchases. But consumers should understand the differences between these two forms of plastic and use them appropriately.

The editors at ShopSmart have identified five scenarios that can put consumers at risk when using their debit cards and suggest ways consumers can protect themselves from common debit card dangers.

Sneaky

"Debit cards are sneaky – they are extremely convenient but can get you into a lot of trouble if your information winds up in the wrong hands," said Lisa Lee Freeman, editor-in-chief of ShopSmart, a Consumers Reports publication. "Some simple precautions can save you a lot of trouble and protect you and your account from danger."

First, don't use your debit card for big purchases or when you shop online. Unlike debit cards, credit cards may add a year to manufacturer warranties. What's more, if you buy something online that's defective or damaged during shipping, you can dispute the charge and ask your credit card company to intervene.  You might miss that leverage with debit cards.

Leave debit cards at home

Don't take your debit card on trips. If you have a credit card, it may have some level of travel insurance and auto-rental insurance. It may also come with concierge services that could help you out in sticky situations.

If you are worried about possible risk relating to a purchase, don't use your debit card. Under federal law, your liability for fraudulent charges on a debit card can be greater than it is for a credit card.

With a credit card, you're only responsible for up to $50 in unauthorized purchases. But with a debit card, you can lose up to $500 if you don't report the theft or loss of your card or PIN within two business days of discovering the problem.

Don't rely on a debit card if you want to raise your credit score. When you use debit cards, you're not building a credit history. But well-managed credit cards, with the balances paid off completely on a regular basis, can help boost scores.

No rewards

Don't use your debit card if you want to earn money on purchases. A recent federal law cut the amount that banks can make on debit-card transactions, so they scaled back their rewards. If you have a good cash-back or rewards credit card, use that instead.

The danger of using a credit card, of course, is that balances accumulate to the point that it's hard to pay them off, resulting in a continuing debt cycle. But if you use a credit card the way you would a debit-card, paying the balance down to zero each month, you'll stay out of trouble.

Meanwhile, here are five ways to protect yourself against debit-card dangers:

  1. Save receipts and check them against your monthly statement. Make sure all the charges are correct and there are no errors on the statement or any unauthorized charges.
  2. Don't use a PIN that is too obvious, like your date of birth, and change it regularly.
  3. Sign up for online banking if you haven't yet so that you can check your account often.
  4. Reduce your risk of ATM "skimming," in which a device electronically swipes your data and PIN. Use machines at banks rather than in convenience stores, airports, gas stations, or any isolated locations, which can be riskier.
  5. Use your debit card to make purchases only with trusted merchants, and don't give your card number to anyone you don't know over the phone or by e-mail.
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Convert Your DVD Movies to Online Streaming

Walmart partnering with Hollywood to change your existing movies to new format

Walmart's new service will allow you to access your DVDs online...

PhotoIf you have a collection of movies and TV series on DVD, but find you hardly ever watch them anymore, you might consider converting them to streaming files you can access online.

Walmart has started a new service - with the full cooperation of Hollywood - in which it is giving physical DVD/Blu-ray collections across the country a second life by turning them into digital movies.

Starting April 16th, in more than 3,500 stores, Walmart customers will be able to bring their DVD and Blu-ray collections to Walmart and receive digital access to the content from the partnering studios.

The cost for standard DVDs and Blu-ray discs will be $2. Standard DVDs can be upgraded to High-Def (HD) for $5.

Walmart said it is partnering with the major Hollywood studios: Paramount Home Media Distribution, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, Universal Studios Home Entertainment and Warner Bros, to provide the new service.

Accessing movies in a different way

“Walmart is helping America get access to their DVD library,” said John Aden, executive vice president for general merchandising, Walmart U.S. “Walmart Entertainment’s new disc-to-digital service will allow our customers to reconnect with the movies they already own on a variety of new devices, while preserving the investments they’ve made in disc purchases over the years. We believe this revolutionary in-store service will unlock new value for already-owned DVDs, and will encourage consumers to continue building physical and digital movie libraries in the future.”

Watching movies on physical media can be slow and cumbersome for some consumers, who have grown accustomed to instant access to content via their smartphones. Walmart says the new service will make it unnecessary to load discs into players to watch a movie.

“Consumers want value and convenience and Walmart’s disc-to-digital service will deliver both while helping consumers realize the benefits of digital ownership,” said Ron Sanders, president, Warner Home Video. “Between the heavy foot traffic in-store and the aggressive educational campaign Walmart is planning, this partnership is the perfect opportunity for us to reach a mainstream audience much sooner than by more traditional means, while making the process as quick and easy for consumers as possible.”

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Survey Identifies Shortcomings in Identity Theft Process

Credit reporting agencies could do more to help victims, report finds

A survey finds that more than two-thirds of identity theft victims responding to the survey were somewhat or very satisfied with the way the national credi...

PhotoA survey finds that more than two-thirds of identity theft victims responding to the survey were somewhat or very satisfied with the way the national credit reporting agencies handled their situation.

Many complained, however, that it was difficult to reach a live person. And some said they felt pressured to buy identity theft monitoring products when they called the credit agencies.

The survey, conducted by the Federal Trade Commission, also found that fewer than half of the respondents were aware of all their rights under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA).

Congress established several rights under FACTA to help identity theft victims protect themselves from, and recover from, identity theft.

These rights enable victims to place fraud alerts on their credit report with the consumer reporting agencies, request a free credit report from the three national consumer reporting agencies when placing a fraud alert, block fraudulent information from appearing in their credit report, and receive a notice of these and other rights from the consumer reporting agencies.

The FTC's staff report concluded that:

  • The consumer reporting agencies may need to make it easier for consumers to reach a live person;
  • The FTC and other enforcement agencies should do more to educate the public about their rights under FACTA; and
  • The FTC and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau should use their respective authorities to address the consumer reporting agencies' practices related to selling identity theft monitoring products or services when they are contacted by identity theft victims.

The full text of the report is available online. 

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Cub Cadet, MTD Gold, Troy-Bilt Lawn Tractors Recalled

Tractors have faulty hydro-gear transaxle

About 2,700 lawn tractors are being recalled. A drive gear in the lawn tractor's hydrostatic transaxle can fail causing brake failure, posing a crash ...

About 2,700 lawn tractors are being recalled. A drive gear in the lawn tractor's hydrostatic transaxle can fail causing brake failure, posing a crash hazard to consumers.

Photo

This recall involves Cub Cadet, MTD Gold and Troy-Bilt lawn tractors sold with Hydro-Gear model 618-0319 and 618-04270B transaxles. Cub Cadet and Troy-Bilt tractors included in this recall have dates of manufacture (DOM) ranging from December 2010 through March 2011. The DOM can be found on a label on the underside of the seat. MTD Gold can be identified by serial numbers starting with 1L15 or 1L16. Affected transaxles have serial numbers with the first four digits ranging between 0333 and 0348. Transaxle model and serial numbers are printed on a label on the transaxle.

Cub Cadet lawn tractors with the recalled transaxles are:

Mower BrandMower TypeMower Model No.Hydro-Gear
Transaxle Part No.
Transaxle Serial No.
(1st four digits)
Cub CadetLTX 104513WX91AT010
13WX91AT056
618-03190333 thru 0348
Cub CadetLTX 1046KW13WG91AT010618-03190333 thru 0348
Cub CadetLTX 1046M13WP91AT009618-03190333 thru 0348
Cub CadetLTX 1050KH13WQ91AP009618-03190333 thru 0348
Cub CadetLTX 1050KW13WF91AP010
13WF91AP056
618-03190333 thru 0348
Cub CadetSLTX 105013WQ92AP010618-04270B0333 thru 0348
Cub CadetSLTX 105413WK92AK009
13WK92AK010
13WK92AK056
618-04270B0333 thru 0348

MTD Gold brand tractors with the recalled transaxles are:

Mower BrandMower TypeMower Model No.Hydro-Gear
Transaxle Part No.
Transaxle Serial No.
(1st four digits)
MTD GoldHydro13AP925P004618-04270B0333 thru 0348

Troy-Bilt brand tractors with the recalled transaxles are:

Mower BrandMower TypeMower Model No.Hydro-Gear
Transaxle Part No.
Transaxle Serial No.
(1st four digits)
Troy-BiltTB245013WQ92KP066618-04270B0333 thru 0348

Lawn and garden retailers sold the tractors nationwide from January 2011 through January 2012 for about between $1,900 and $2,800. They were made in the U.S.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled lawn tractors and contact the firm for instructions on obtaining a repair from an authorized service provider.

For additional information, please contact the firm's toll-free at (888) 848-6038 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or visit the firms' websites at www.cubcadet.comwww.troybilt.com orwww.MTDproducts.com. Consumers can also visit Hydro-Gear's website at www.hydro-gear.com

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Survey: Physicians Worry About Quality of Colonoscopies

92 percent say they feel pressure to perform more procedures

Survey shows doctors worry about quality of colonoscopies...

In recent years, people past the age of 50 have been urged to get a colonoscopy, perhaps the best tool for early detection of colon cancer. Undoubted this new emphasis has saved lives.

But for the gastroenterologists performing this procedure, there are increasing demands that they worry could affect the quality of their work. There's a survey to back that up.

Pressured to increase volume

Researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine have found that 92 percent of more than 1,000 responding to a survey believed that pressures to increase the volume of colonoscopies adversely impacted how they performed their procedures, which could potentially affect the quality of colon cancer screening.

The findings, based on responses from members of the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy (ASGE), are published in the March 2012 issue of Gastrointestinal Endoscopy.

Dramatic increase in numbers

“The number of colonoscopies has risen dramatically over the past fifteen years, but it is imperative that an increase in volume not occur at the expense of quality and safety,” said Lawrence B. Cohen, MD, lead study author and an Associate Clinical Professor of Gastroenterology at Mount Sinai. “Balancing quantity and quality is an issue that needs to be addressed in order to ensure the continued success of colon cancer prevention programs.”

Overall, 92.3 percent of survey respondents indicated that production pressures, such as heightened demand for the procedure, rising overhead or shrinking reimbursement rates, resulted in physicians postponing, aborting or reducing the extent of a colonoscopy procedure.

For example, 7.2 percent of participants said production pressures made them reduce the time examining the colon wall, 5.3 percent of participants said these pressures made them abort a difficult colonoscopy, and 69 percent said they performed a colonoscopy on a patient with an unfavorable risk/benefit ratio.

Early detection

A colonoscopy is used to look for early signs of cancer in the colon and rectum. It is also used to diagnose the causes of unexplained changes in bowel habits. Colonoscopy enables the physician to see inflamed tissue, abnormal growths, ulcers, and bleeding.

If a polyp, inflamed tissue, or anything else out of the ordinary turns up in the screening, the physician can remove all or part of it using tiny instruments passed through the scope. This allows the doctor to remove tissue from the colon wall that could eventually become a tumor.

While no one is debating the value of the procedure for patients at risk for colon cancer, some doctors are clearly worried they are not given enough time to examine each patient. Thirteen percent of respondents indicated that they have insufficient time for a pre-procedure assessment, 7.7 percent believed they routinely had inadequate time to complete an examination and 5.5 percent believed that patients were discharged from the unit prematurely. A majority, 77.8 percent, said they believed their caseload was excessive.

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Don't Rent a Car With Existing Damage

Chances are, you'll get stuck with the repair bill

Avoid renting a car with existing damage...

PhotoSome rental car customers call it the “ding-and-dent scam.” They rent a car and when they return it, the agency goes over it with a fine-tooth comb, locating small dings and scratches that result in an additional bill.

Maybe the blemishes were there before and maybe they weren't. If the consumer didn't notice, she will be on the hook.

Mark, of Corona, Calif., thought he was prepared for that when he rented a car from Enterprise in his home town. He and an Enterprise employee conducted an inspection and Mark pointed out some minor damage to the car's front and rear bumpers.

“Upon my return on March 12 I was questioned about the rear bumper,” Mark wrote in a post at ConsumerAffairs. “I told them that we looked at the damage together before I left with the car. They submitted a claim saying that I am responsible for the damage. I appealed to them as we had acknowledged the damage prior to the trip. They gave me no sympathy or recourse. The bumper was damaged before I took custody of the car, there is no question about that. What is a customer to do at this point?”

It has to be documented

Unfortunately, there isn't a lot Mark can do at this point. It's one thing to point out the pre-existing damage before taking the car, but you must insist that the attendant document that damage on the rental car agreement. Obviously, in this case the attendant did not so Mark is exposed.

Even if the damage is documented on the form, if its description is vague and non-specific, it could result in an argument.

Rental car agencies seem to be more aggressive lately in finding damage after a vehicle has been returned and charging the consumer for it. Consumers must remain on guard against it.

First and foremost, consumers these days should simply refuse to accept a vehicle with existing damage. As in Mark's case, one never knows how that will work out, even if both the consumer and the check-out attendant agree that it's there.

A picture's worth a thousand words

It's also wise to photograph the car from all four sides with a camera that has a time stamp. Make one set of photos when picking it up and another when dropping it off.

Also, avoid dropping off a vehicle without an employee checking it in. We have heard from many consumers who did that and were later socked with a repair bill.

In Mark's case, he should respond in writing to Enterprise, disputing the charge and informing them that he will file a complaint with the California Insurance Commission if the claim is not dropped. Since Mark knows the name of the employee who he says documented the damage, he should include the name in his letter.

If the claim is less than $1000, Mark might also consider suing in small claims court. Large companies normally settle rather defending themselves in court for such a small amount.

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West Virginia Sues Major 'Debt Buyer'

Claims consumers wrongfully sued for old debts

West Virginia sues a major debt collector...

Photo
Darrell McGraw

Midland Funding is one of the nation’s largest “debt buyers,” having purchased approximately $54.7 billion in old consumer debt in recent years.

Specifically, Midland buys debt that has been charged off by the original creditor, usually old credit card debt, for approximately three cents on the dollar. If they can collect a portion of that old debt, it can be a profitable business.

But Midland, along with its affiliate Midland Credit Management, has run afoul of West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw. McGraw has sued the companies, accusing them of using false affidavits when obtaining default judgments against West Virginia consumers and for failing to include information required by law when suing a consumer in magistrate or circuit court for an alleged debt.

Because debt buyers typically only acquire an electronic file about the debt and not actual copies of the underlying documents, McGraw says consumers regularly are hounded by debt buyers for payment of bills they do not owe.

In some cases, debt buyers sue people solely because they have the same or similar name or address as the real debtor, while in other cases they pursue people for bills repaid long ago.

McGraw charges Midland frequently will use false and unreliable mass-produced affidavits as supposed “proof” of consumer debts in lawsuits against individual citizens. He says the company does this in order to obtain judgments against or extract payments from mostly unrepresented consumers, some of whom had no knowledge of any alleged debt.

Incorrect information

The National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) has estimated that one out of ten lawsuits filed by debt buyers are premised on bad or incorrect information.

McGraw says he began his investigation into Midland’s business practices upon receiving complaints from consumers that they had received repeated telephone calls from the company's representatives, attempting to collect debts they did not owe. Some consumers also complained they had been sued for debts they did not owe on credit cards they never had.

“Unfortunately, many consumers are frightened or unaware of their rights when they are sued and fail to respond to these groundless lawsuits, leaving them subject to judgments on debts that cannot be proved,” McGraw said. “Companies such as Midland rely upon this fear and typically drop their lawsuits if consumers know their rights.”

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Red Meat Linked to Higher Risk of Death

Lower mortality rate associated with fish and poultry, study finds

Eating more red meat appears to be associated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality and death from cardiovascular disease and cancer, but substitut...

PhotoEating more red meat appears to be associated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality and death from cardiovascular disease and cancer, but substituting other foods including fish and poultry for red meat is associated with a lower mortality risk, according to a study published Online First by Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

“We found that a higher intake of red meat was associated with a significantly elevated risk of total, CVD and cancer mortality, and this association was observed for unprocessed and processed red meat, with a relatively greater risk for processed red meat,” the authors said. “Substitution of fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy products and whole grains for red meat was associated with a significantly lower risk of mortality.”

Meat is a major source of protein and fat in many diets and previous studies suggest that eating meat is associated with increased risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease (CVD) and certain cancers, the authors write in their study background.

An Pan, Ph.D., of the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, and colleagues analyzed data from two prospective cohort studies with repeated measures of diet and up to 28 years of follow-up. Data from 37,698 men and 83,644 women were used. Researchers documented 23,926 deaths, including 5,910 from CVD and 9,464 from cancer.

The elevated risk of total mortality in the pooled analysis for a one-serving-per-day increase was 12 percent for total red meat, 13 percent for unprocessed red meat and 20 percent for processed red meat, the results indicate.

Good for the planet

In an invited commentary, Dean Ornish, M.D., of the University of California, San Francisco, writes: “In addition to their health benefits, the food choices we make each day affect other important areas as well. What is personally sustainable is globally sustainable. What is good for you is good for our planet.”

“More than 75 percent of the $2.6 trillion in annual U.S. health care costs are from chronic disease. Eating less red meat is likely to reduce morbidity from these illnesses, thereby reducing health care costs,” he comments.

Substitution analysis

In their substitution analyses, the authors estimated that replacing one serving of total red meat with one serving of fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy products or whole grains daily was associated with a lower risk of total mortality: 7 percent for fish, 14 percent for poultry, 19 percent for nuts, 10 percent for legumes, 10 percent for low-fat dairy products and 14 percent for whole grains.

“We estimated that 9.3 percent in men and 7.6 percent in women of total deaths during follow-up could be prevented if all the participants consumed fewer than 0.5 servings per day of total red meat in these cohorts,” they comment.

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What About Gas Prices?

Gallup poll shows consumers expect leaders to act

Poll shows consumers want leaders to do something about gas prices...

PhotoIt's fair to say gasoline prices have reached the “ouch” level, as far as consumers are concerned. Prices are at a record high for mid-March and are on pace to eclipse an average of $4 a gallon nationwide by Memorial day.

A new Gallup Poll shows consumers want Congress and the White House to do something – anything – to bring prices down. When asked “do you think the president and Congress should or should not take immediate action to try to control rising prices, 85 percent of adults said they should.

Interestingly, that sentiment is pretty much shared on a bipartisan basis. Ninety percent of Republicans and Republican leaners answered yes, along with 81 percent of Democrats and Democrat leaners.

Political football

Still, gasoline prices and the government's energy policy have become part of the political mix in an election year. Republicans have criticized President Obama's opposition to the Keystone pipeline, which would carry Canadian oil across the U.S. The also point out that gasoline prices were well under $2 a gallon when Obama took office in January 2009.

However, in fairness to the President, it should be noted that gas prices averaged over $4 a gallon six months earlier. They only went down because the price of oil plunged over fears the global economy was headed for a depression. They began rising again once it was clear a depression was off the table.

But getting back to the Gallup poll – what, in fact, could the government do to bring down the price of gasoline? Back in 1973, President Richard Nixon imposed price controls on gasoline in the wake of the Arab oil embargo, resulting in shortages, that in turn resulted in gas lines. The U.S. is unlikely to return to such a system.

Speculators under fire

PhotoDemocrats in Congress are targeting speculators in the oil futures market, blaming them for driving up the price of oil. While Wall Street reports that it's simply a case of market forces at work, and that traders are reacting to very real fears of a future supply disruption, there can be little argument that the massive flow of money, much of it from large hedge funds, into the oil futures market bids up the price of oil futures, much as enthusiasm for Internet stocks in the late 1990s fueled the dot-com bubble.

There is a natural tendency among those who have invested in the market to want oil prices to go even higher, because they make money when they do. When oil prices plunged from $147 a barrel to below $40, it was great for consumers but many traders lost millions.

Federal commodities regulators could require larger margin holdings for oil traders to discourage speculators. Congress could pass a large tax on profits from the sale of oil futures. How either would affect the markets and the price of gasoline is a subject for debate.

Influencing the market

However, trying to influence the oil futures market might be a viable way to benefit consumers in the long run.

Traders are investing because they believe oil prices will continue to go up. Once they believe prices have a ceiling, they will be less likely to invest because the risk will be greater. So, how to raise the risk for oil traders?

Once answer might be in plain sight. In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama embraced the idea of converting part of America's transportation fleet to run on plentiful and cheap natural gas. Republicans are generally in favor of this idea as well.

How would traders react?

Photo
Burbank, CA, 3/9/2012

It would be interesting to observe how oil traders would react if the government announced a serious program of natural gas conversion, with realistic benchmarks and time tables. The message to the oil markets would be the U.S., at least, is serious about weening itself from oil.

As natural gas as a motor fuel began to come online, U.S. oil demand presumably would begin to fall. Since markets are focused on the future, the outlook for increasingly higher oil prices would be less certain, so less money might flow into the market. With less money flowing into the market, the price might fall.

Consumers expect action

Regardless whether any of these suggestions would work, the Gallup poll makes clear U.S. consumers expect their leaders to try something. The poll found that 65 percent of Americans believe there is some action that Congress and the president can take to control rising prices.

The national average price of gasoline, as measured by the daily AAA Fuel Gauge survey, has exceeded $4 a gallon only once – in July 2008. It came within one and a half cents last year – peaking at $3.985 per gallon – during the first week of May 2011.

It began to fall only because of mounting evidence that a U.S. economic recovery had stalled, most likely due to rising gasoline prices. Consumers and economists are hoping history doesn't repeat itself this year, but are worried that it will.

On the other hand ...

Consumers can complain all they like but it may be time to wake up and smell the gas fumes.  Whether you're a Tea Partier who thinks government should stay out of private markets or an earnest liberal who champions a global economy, it's clear that oil and gas are commodities traded on the gobal market.  The U.S. is competing with other countries for this precious commodity.  

What's the best way to bring down the price of a commodity? That's right: buy less of it.  Consumers should self-insured by buying energy-efficient cars and modifying their lifestyles to conserve energy.

The days of cheap energy are gone. Get used to it.

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Consumers Wary of Search Engines' Use of Personal Information

Survey finds 73% oppose a search engine keeping track of their searches

Search engines remain popular — and users are more satisfied than ever with the quality of search results — but many are anxious about the coll...

PhotoSearch engines remain popular — and users are more satisfied than ever with the quality of search results — but many are anxious about the collection of personal information by search engines and other websites and say they do not like the idea of personalized search results or targeted advertising.

On personalized search:

  • 73% of search users supported a statement that they would not be okay with a search engine keeping track of their searches and using that information to personalize future search results because they feel it is an invasion of privacy; 23% supported a statement that they are okay with a search engine keeping track of their searches and using that information to personalize future search results, even if it means they are gathering information about users.
     
  • 65% of search users supported a statement that it’s a bad thing if a search engine collected information about their searches and then used it to rank future search results, because it may limit the information they get online and what search results they see; 29% backed a statement that it is a good thing if a search engine collected information about their searches and then used it to rank future search results, because it gives results that are more relevant.

On targeted advertising:

  • 68% of internet users agree with a statement that they are not okay with targeted advertising because they don’t like having their online behavior tracked and analyzed; 28% backed a statement that they are okay with targeted advertising because it means they see advertisements and get information about things they are really interested in.

These findings come from a February 2012 Pew Internet Project survey, which finds that 91% of online adults use search engines to find information on the web, including 59% of those who do so on any given day.

Search results OK

Though they generally do not support targeted search or ads, these users report very positive outcomes when it comes to the quality of information search provides, and more positive than negative experiences using search:

  • 91% of search engine users say they always or most of the time find the information they are seeking when they use search engines
  • 86% of search engines users learned something new or important that really helped them or increased their knowledge
  • 73% of search engine users say that most or all the information they find as they use search engines is accurate and trustworthy
  • 66% of search engine users say search engines are a fair and unbiased source of information
  • 50% of search engines users found a really obscure fact or piece of information they thought they would not be able to find

'Generally uncomfortable'

“Search engines are increasingly important to people in their navigation of information spaces, but users are generally uncomfortable with the idea of their search histories being used to target information to them,” said Kristen Purcell, Pew Internet associate director for research and author of the report. “A clear majority of searchers say that they feel that search engines keeping track of search history is an invasion of privacy, and they also worry about their search results being limited to what’s deemed relevant to them.”

The Pew Internet survey finds that 38% of online adults say they are aware of ways to limit how much personal information websites can collect about them. Of those who are aware of ways to limit data collection, some of the popular tactics include: 81% delete their web history, 75% use the privacy settings of websites to control what’s captured about them, and 65% change their browser settings to limit the information that is collected.  

“Many people express concerns about targeted search and ads, but most internet users don’t have a sense that they can take steps to limit the amount of personal information that is captured and used by search engines and websites,” said Joanna Brenner, Pew Internet web coordinator and report co-author.

Other key findings in the report:

  • Asked which search engine they use most often, 83% of search users say Google
  • Half of adult search users (52%) say search results have gotten more relevant and useful over time
  • 56% of searchers say they are very confident in their search abilities
  • Younger search users (age 18-29) tend to view the practice of search engines collecting information about them more favorably than older search users
  • Online men are significantly more likely than women to report knowing ways to limit how much personal information websites can collect about them (42% vs. 35%)
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How to Remove Inaccurate Information From a Credit Report

Fortunately, it's easier than it used to be

removing wrong information from your credit report...

PhotoMistakes happen. Through not fault of your own, you may discover that your credit report contains inaccurate information.

If the inaccuracy details an open debt that is closed, or was never yours in the first place, this information can be a problem. Sharon, of Greensboro, N.C., ran into just such a problem.

“The University of Phoenix sent me a bill for classes that I took for one semester and I paid the bill off,” Sharon wrote in a post at ConsumerAffairs. “They sent me a receipt saying I had paid in full, which I still have in my possession. Now I get a credit report saying that I owe the University of Phoenix again. I have called the school and they have concurred with my having paid them but still haven't taken the default off of my financial record. What else can I do to resolve this injustice?"

Fixing the problem

There are steps consumers can take to correct their credit report. Sharon's case should be relatively easy, since she possesses a paid receipt and University of Phoenix acknowledges her payment. According to personal finance experts, here's what Sharon should do:

First, she should obtain copies of her credit report from all three credit reporting bureaus – Experian, Trans Union and Equifax. To do that, she should go the completely free Annual Credit Report Request Service at www.AnnualCreditReport.com. She will not have to provide a credit card number or sign up for any kind of service. She may obtain copies of her credit report from each bureau for free once every 12 months.

Next, she should locate the erroneous information on all three reports. It's possible that the inaccurate entry shows up on only one or two of the bureaus' reports. If so, she only has to dispute it with those bureaus.

Filing a dispute

To dispute the entry, Sharon may call the credit bureau, send a certified letter, or even do it at the credit bureau's website. She'll have to provide her personal identification and a description of what is wrong, and what the correct information is. This is where her paid receipt comes in handy. She can provide a copy to bolster her case.

After she files her dispute, the bureau has 30 days to investigate the matter, and a dispute notation will show up on her credit report. The University of Phoenix will have this time to verify the information, and if it can’t prove it’s accurate, the bureau will stop reporting it.

Updated report

When the credit bureau completes the process, it will Sharon a written report covering what it found, and an updated copy of her credit report if it resulted in any change.

It's a good idea to check your credit reports once a year, looking for inaccurate information that could lower your credit score. Just make sure, when you obtain your reports, you use the official, truly free site, www.AnnualCreditReport.com.

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Honda, Hyundai, Porsche Top February TrueCar Rankings

New consumer report shows winners, losers in American auto market

A new TrueCar report is showing prospective car buyers up to date information on the track record of individual car makers...

PhotoJapanese heavyweight Honda, as well as the emerging South Korean Hyundai company and Porsche, the ever-popular German maker of high-end specialty cars, took top marks in TrueCar's February rankings.  

TrueCar gave its top brand marks to Hyundai and its sister company Kia, and Toyota’s Scion brand.

TrueCar gets its data directly from a network of dealers, and the monthly  Performance Scorecard looks at how manufacturers and makes of vehicles are doing in terms of pricing incentives, as well as customer loyalty and other criteria.

Other companies didn’t fare so well: Volvo, Suzuki and Saab got the lowest manufacturer scores, with the Suzuki, Smart and Saab brands at the bottom of the list. Saab, for its part, has hugged the bottom for many consecutive quarters, and in a December story, we reported on the final demise of the quirky Swedish car maker.

Volvo and Suzuki both got rather low marks on customer loyalty without winning any accolades for concessions on overall average pricing.

Another thing that the TrueCar report shows is who is moving ahead, and who’s dropping back. In February’s report, Honda moved from an A- to a solid A, and Jaguar/Land Rover, newly acquired by Indian Tata Motor Company, moved from a B+ to an A-. Subaru and Nissan each moved up incrementally, to B+ and C+ respectively, while Toyota and Chrysler each moved from a C+ to a B-.

In other news, Daimler fell a solid letter grade (from A to B) while Mitsubishi slid from a B- to a C- and Mazda slipped from a B- to a C+.

In terms of Daimler’s lower marks, the full text of the TrueCar report shows that the auto maker got its lowest scores on discounts from MSRP and overall pricing, while ConsumerAffairs has also gotten quite a few complaints about customer service related issues, some having to do with Daimler's Global Electric Motorcar or GEM.

Meanwhile, Mitsubishi scored zeros on both customer loyalty and inventory management, while Mazda took a hit on pricing.

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Florida Takes Tougher Line Against Timeshare Fraud

State sues timeshare resellers for fraud

Florida sues two timeshare resellers...

 

Photo
Pam Bondi

Some consumers who bought Florida timeshares when times were good are now desperate to unload them. So desperate that they fall for timeshare resale scams, which promise they have a buyer but first demand an upfront fee.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi says she teamed with the Delray Beach Police Department to arrest two people she accuses of running just such a scheme. Bondi has sued William Clarke, P.A., and its owner, Gerald W. Clarke; and Provident Choice, LLC, and its owner, Nicholas Paul. Bondi says both individuals have been arrested.

The suit charges that G. William Clarke, P.A., Provident Choice, LLC, Gerald W. Clarke, and Nicholas Paul were operating  as  unlicensed telemarketers,  targeting  consumers who were previous victims of timeshare resale  fraud. Bondi says the defendants collected up-front fees ranging from $400 to$4,000  and  promised  to  assist  consumers  with obtaining refunds from a non-existent state restitution fund. Additionally, the companies claimed to be  working  with  various state agencies, including the Attorney General’s Office.

Second suit

In a second case, Bondi has filed suit against TS Luxury Group, Inc., another timeshare resale company, and its owner, Mary Filocomo. According to the lawsuit, the company also promised timeshare owners they would sell their property in exchange for an upfront fee.

The Attorney General’s Office is seeking more than $550,000 in restitution for consumers, and ultimately a permanent injunction prohibiting TS Luxury and Filocomo from engaging in similar business practices.

Bondi says an investigation determined that TS Luxury Group, Inc. allegedly marketed its services by making false and fraudulent misrepresentations. Specifically, the company contacted consumers and falsely claimed that it had procured interested or actual buyers for the consumers’ timeshares.

The company also required an up-front fee for its services and often provided written contracts to consumers which contained language that was completely different from the oral representations made earlier by company representatives.

Unresolved issues

This isn't the first time the company has had a scrape with the state of Florida. In August, 2010, TS Luxury and its owner entered into a binding settlement agreement with the Office of the Attorney General. TS Luxury and its owner, Mary Filocomo, were required to resolve and/or to pay more than $110,000 in initial consumer claims and to thereafter to pay any new claims against the company which arose within a certain time frame. Neither the company nor its owner resolved and/or paid the consumer claims as required, Bondi says.

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Car Renters Get a New Option

RelayRides says it covers insurance and liability issues, but use caution

A new announcement shows that peer-to-peer car sharing company RelayRides is setting its sights on a nationwide customer base...

PhotoRenting a car used to mean finding the nearest location of a big national rental chain and being prepared to pay big bucks. Now, a peer-to-peer service called RelayRides promises to change all that.

The way RelayRides tells it, would-be renters can just get on the Internet, input their location, and rent a nearby car from a neighbor.

RelayRides says it's the first company to offer this kind of car rental service, not just in big cities, but across the U.S., through a process that the firm calls “key-exchange” where renters just log in and sign up to rent a set of wheels owned by a local title-holder, by the hour.

“Sign up to request a car you like, or get an ‘Instant Reservation’ on the car of your dreams.” prompts the RelayRides web site in a tutorial for renters. “When it’s time for your trip, simply meet the owner to pick up the keys.”

Type in a location on the site, and you’ll be greeted with a list of offers with titles like “Dave’s 2011 Toyota Camry,” “Sharon’s Jeep,” or “Vinny’s Nissan.” Another click, and you’ll see photos and a detailed description of the ‘rental car’, along with more photos and info about the driver.

Insurance questions

The benefits of this kind of system are evident: Rather than the effort and additional cost of getting to a single point of service, renters can find cars near them for informal rental, which can be much less expensive than going the legacy route with standard contracts from rental shops.

Owners, for their part, can rent out their vehicles for a steady stream of revenue.

As for the downsides, some of those are pretty intuitive as well. Forums on new advances in this kind of car-sharing service are packed with comments on the insurance liabilities involved, with a basic question coming up again and again: Who covers these additional drivers?

The short answer, according to RelayRides, is that the P2P company does. In a telephone interview, RelayRides representatives confirmed that renting drivers are covered by a policy taken out by the company, not by the vehicle owner’s policy.

However, outside reports are more circumspect. A recent article on Bankrate urges vehicle owners contemplating these arrangements to take out additional uninsured driver coverage and pursue a “caution-yellow” approach, without specifying what liability might come back on the vehicle owner in a crash.

For its part, RelayRides cites a “$1 million insurance policy and market-leading security safeguards” meant to put all parties at ease. But for those who really understand America’s state-by-state auto insurance system, a collision scenario is just the beginning: what about state legislation on P2P car sharing? What about mechanical breakdowns, broken accessories, or even the chance that some driver will try to pass off damage as happening on someone else’s watch?

Legal challenges

PhotoA cursory look at state legislation shows that, while many states may be loosening their standards on car sharing, these arrangements have only recently been approved in states including Oregon, while car-sharing companies in states like California have faced legal challenges.

That’s not to mention other kinds of issues where a renter might not get the kind of environment they were expecting. One would assume that personal loaners aren’t sanitized the way traditional rental cars are, and that car sharing firms might find themselves in the middle of debates on anything from gum in the ashtrays to stains on the seats.

Regardless, the enthusiasm for this kind of informal rental is evident -- Zipcar and lesser-known competitors have been growing quickly. Then there's the grudge many consumers harbor for traditional car rental companies. While business travelers -- the mainstay of legacy car rental companies -- aren't like to switch to peer-to-peer, it's hard to imagine consumers won't give it a try.

 

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Ford Sends USB Fixes to Car and SUV Owners

Ford owners will get a flash drive with data to repair malfunctioning touch-screen systems

New efforts by Ford are addressing glitches in their dashboard controls and automatic transmissions...

PhotoFor drivers who never thought fixing a car would mean debugging software code, recent news from Ford might be a bit of a wake-up call.

Bloomberg BusinessWeek reports that Ford is issuing owners of Explorer, Edge, Focus and Lincoln vehicles a USB flash drive meant to solve issues with some of the computerized on-board systems that have been giving drivers problems.

Many of these fixes are for Ford’s MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch touch-screen systems meant to control audio, navigation and other features. Drivers are reporting serious malfunctions of these features, including blank screens, errors in calculating mpg, and other big glitches.

But Ford is also looking at fixing the new PowerShift transmission on some of its Fiesta models and other vehicles; a New York Times report from late last year shows drivers are also experiencing problems with improper shifting.

Harsh criticism

PhotoMeanwhile, both Consumer Reports and J.D. Power and Associates have slammed Ford in recent reports, citing the infotainment and transmission issues. Both of these top consumer rating venues dropped Ford more than a few slots in the most current review of auto makers, mentioning these high-tech errors.

For its part, Consumer Reports has been reviewing the Ford touch-screen for months. A video from the site shows auto engineer Tom Mutchler pointing out some of the inherent problems with these systems early in the game. Among them: the buttons on the touch screen are small, and there are a lot of them. Using them while driving is difficult, even if everything is working smoothly. And if you’re wearing gloves, changing settings this way can be an exercise in frustration.

To be fair, there are alternatives for controlling items like the cabin temperature and audio settings, including other dashboard controls, steering wheel mounted controls and even Ford’s voice-recognition SYNC system. However, Ford is taking the criticism of its touch-screen design seriously and promising to both work out bugs and increase the size of future touch controls.

The Bloomberg report and other coverage reveals that Ford owners can use the USB drive themselves to update the technology, or less tech-savvy drivers can take the drive to a dealership for new software installation.

This kind of nuts-and-bolts administration of a car repair based solely on software programming represents part of a quick and extensive sea change in automotive technology.

For many years now, vehicles have had computerized diagnostic systems for engines, but we’re just starting to see other parts of a car move from being manual to being controlled by software (think Toyota’s "computerized throttle" and its role in the massive recalls of the past few years). Ford’s efforts to re-invent its touch-screens are a preview to a time when more of your auto repairs will get delivered in the mail, or even by email.

 

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Apple, Book Publishers Facing Justice Department Anti-Trust Suit

Did Apple and the publishers conspire to drive up e-book prices?

In its latest anti-trust crackdown, the Justice Department has officially warned Apple and five of the biggest American publishers that it plans to sue the...

PhotoIn its latest anti-trust crackdown, the Justice Department has officially warned Apple and five of the biggest American publishers that it plans to sue them for allegedly colluding to drive up the price of electronic books, the Wall Street Journal reports today.

Based on early reports, the Justice Department's case is similar to an anti-trust suit filed last August by by attorney Jeff Friedman of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP, a Berkeley, Calif., law firm.

Friedman's suit claims Apple conspired with five major publishers to raise the price of e-books, dominate the market and force Amazon to stop selling at a discount. The conspiracy worked so well that e-books now cost as much or more than paperbacks, the suit alleges.

Although the Justice Department has not commented publicly, the allegations in its pending action are thought to follow the same general theory.

Reports say at least some of the potential targets of the suit -- Apple and the publishers -- have asked to open settlement talks to avoid litigation.

A little history

Friedman's suit traces the history of e-books, noting that when Amazon introduced the Kindle back in November 2007, its “electronic ink” technology was such a hit that supplies of the original Kindle sold out in less than six hours.

Besides portability and instant delivery, e-books greatly reduce the costs associated with brick-and-mortar publishing. But the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, says large publishing houses quickly realized that e-publishing also represented a huge threat to their profit margins.

Amazon was selling Kindle e-books for $9.99 or less, while hardcover editions of the same books sold for more than $20. Faced with this threat to their business model, the suit says, publishers teamed up with Apple to “fight back in an effort to restrain trade and retard innovation.”

“Given Amazon’s first-mover advantage and ever growing installed user base, publishers knew that no single publisher could slow down Amazon and unilaterally force an increase in e-book retail prices. If one publisher acted alone to try and raise prices for its titles, that publisher would risk immediately losing a substantial (and growing) volume of sales,” the suit charges.

“Not wanting to risk a significant loss of sales in the fastest growing market (e-book sales), the publishers … solved this problem through coordinating between themselves (and Apple) to force Amazon to abandon its pro-consumer pricing.”

Support from Apple

The suit says the conspiracy would not have succeeded without Apple's support.

“Apple had strong incentives to help the [publishers] restrain trade and increase the price of eBooks. If Amazon continued to solidify its dominant position in the sale of eBooks, strong network effects would make it difficult to dislodge Amazon. Moreover, Amazon’s pro-consumer pricing meant that to enter the e-books market Apple would likely be forced to sell at least some e-books near or below its wholesale costs for an extended period of time.”

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Consumers Ran Up $48 Billion in New Credit Card Debt Last Year

The increase is 424% larger than 2010 -- a figure that scares economists

We've all read the stories about consumers cutting back on spending, paying down credit card debt and generally trying to conserve cash. It sounds good, bu...

PhotoWe've all read the stories about consumers cutting back on spending, paying down credit card debt and generally trying to conserve cash. It sounds good, but is it true?
 
A study released today by CardHub.com finds U.S. consumers incurred nearly $48 billion in new credit card debt during 2011, driven in large part by a fourth-quarter spending spree during which roughly $44.2 billion was added to the overall tab.  
 
The 2011 credit card debt increase is especially worrisome given that it is 424% larger than the 2010 increase and 577% greater than the amount accrued in 2009.
 
Nevertheless, it’s inevitable that some will reach the conclusion that 2011 was an altogether healthy year as far as credit card debt is concerned, seeing as outstanding credit card debt rose only $3.6 billion and defaults actually decreased by 40%.  
 
The truth, however, CardHub.com said, is that most of the real debt increase is masked by the value of the defaults that did occur – $44.2 billion.  While this debt is off the credit card companies’ books and therefore brings down outstanding credit card debt, consumers are still liable for it for 3-15 years, depending on their state’s statute of limitations.
 

Other findings

Some of the other key findings of this study include:
  • The Q4 credit card debt increase was 30% larger than what we saw in Q4 2010 and 101% greater than the Q4 2009 buildup.
  • As was the case in 2009 and 2010, the only quarter in 2011 that Americans actually paid down debt was the first quarter of the year.
  • Looking back two years, with the exception of a single quarter, U.S. consumer debt management has consistently worsened.  In other words, our first-quarter pay-downs have become less significant and the amount of new debt added in each subsequent quarter has grown compared to its respective counterparts in the previous two years.

What to do

There are a few things consumers can and must do to address credit card debt, according to Card Hub CEO and personal finance veteran Odysseas Papadimitriou.
  
“First of all, consumers need to get a better perspective on their spending in order to avoid incurring debt on everyday expenses.  The best way to do that is to isolate spending and debt on separate credit cards because the presence of any finance charges on one’s everyday spending card will clearly indicate that it’s time to cut back,” Papadimitriou said.  
 
“In addition, people with excellent credit – a FICO score above 720 – can and should take advantage of the return of the free balance transfer credit card.  The ability to garner a 0% interest rate on transfers for 15 months without having to pay a 3% fee enables indebted consumers to use every penny of their payments toward principal repayment.  
 
"Finally, it’s critical that people make a budget and in doing so remember that, if their spending was at all tied to the housing market prior to the Great Recession, the fact that the bubble has burst means it cannot return to pre-recession levels no matter how much the economy recovers.”
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10 Tips For Cutting Sodium Intake

You can eat better and healthier and still cut back on salt intake

With the rise in restaurant dining and processed food, more consumers have suffered from rising blood pressure, a key risk factor for heart attack and stro...

PhotoWith the rise in restaurant dining and processed food, more consumers have suffered from rising blood pressure, a key risk factor for heart attack and stroke.

The reason? Both restaurants and food manufacturers go heavy on the salt, in an effort to enhance the flavor of their products. Unfortunately, salt is a major source of sodium in the diet, one of the key contributors to high blood pressure.

But another trend may be helping the situation. Renewed interest in home cooking, aided by cooking shows and celebrity chefs on cable TV, is leading to more home-cooked meals, where it is much easier to control the sodium content of food.

“As dietitians we often tell people to take things away from their diet,” said culinary dietitian Gavin Pritchard, RD, from Greenwich Hospital’s Weight Loss & Diabetes Center. “I like to tell people they don’t have to eliminate things they like, but back off on the amount you use. I prefer to emphasize adding things, in this case – herbs and spices.”

Spices are the key

If you enjoy cooking, or want to learn how to do it better, Pritchard suggests putting down the saltshaker and adding spices to improve flavor and health. Here are his 10 tips for making food better tasting and more healthy:

  1. Treat yourself to fresh herbs, readily available in supermarkets, on occasion, and keep a good assortment of dried spices on hand for convenience.
  2. Replace your dried herbs and spices every six months for most robust flavor. Mark spice bottles with the purchase date so you know when to replace them.
  3. Be generous with herbs. It’s hard to add too many fresh herbs like parsley, dill, tarragon, basil or rosemary. However, it’s easy to overpower a dish with too many fresh spices like cloves or nutmeg.
  4. Let your taste buds be your guide. When adding herbs and spices, add gradually and taste as you go. You’ll know when it’s to your liking. This prevents you from overdoing it.
  5. If you’re using dried herbs, add them early in the cooking process so they reconstitute. If using fresh herbs, add a little in the beginning, and then add a big bunch toward the end of cooking to get a boost of both flavor and color.
  6. Use different types of wine (including rice wine) and vinegars (including flavored vinegars.)A reduction of vinegar, wine or a combination makes a powerfully tasty sauce without the need to add salt or fat.
  7. Shop for garlic powder rather than garlic salt, onion powder rather than onion salt, and read the ingredients when you buy dried spices to make sure there is no added salt in the product.
  8. Make your own blends of seasoned salt, using the flavors you like the most. Add salt if you like, but not enough to dominate the ingredient list. Crush dried herbs between your palms before adding to spice mixes. This will release the oils to produce more flavor.
  9. For more intense flavor, toast whole spices over high heat in a dry, heavy skillet before grinding them into a powder. This helps to release more flavor. Heat, while stirring, until you can smell the spice. Let cool before grinding.
  10. If possible, buy whole spices and grind as you need them for more potent flavor. Purchase an inexpensive coffee grinder to use strictly for grinding spices, making sure to clean the grinder well after each use.
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Chrysler Diversifies Its Certified Pre-Owned Selection

New plan could offer bigger selection of certified used cars to shoppers

A new program from Chrysler shows how the company is pursuing more pre-owned customers through certifying CPO vehicles of competing brands...

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Fiat 500

A new initiative by Chrysler will allow the car maker’s dealerships to sell certified pre-owned cars from competing companies. Chrysler says its Fiat dealerships will now back a used vehicle of various non-Chrysler brands. Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram dealerships are expected to follow suit in 60 days.

Chrysler dealers won’t just be slapping a certification on any pre-owned car or truck; reports from CNN Money and other sources show that vehicles meeting Chrysler’s criteria will need to be late-model buys newer than the 2008 model year, with less than 48,000 miles on the odometer. After a full inspection, Chrysler will give passing vehicles a 5-year, 60,000-mile warranty.

Though hawking competitors’ wares might not make sense on its face, industry analysts suggest that the program can help Chrysler in two main ways -- first, by allowing dealers to offer more for trade-in values on Chrysler-certified models, and also by keeping more used vehicles coming back to the dealer for routine maintenance, accessories, and everything else related to typical costs of ownership for a late-model vehicle.

Also, media releases cite Eric Swanson, Head of Certified Pre-Owned Vehicles at Chrysler Group, as saying this program gives customers “another option to consider.”

Anemic sales

Reports suggest Chrysler is pursuing other avenues to help offset flagging sales for its new Fiat 500 product, though some recent months have seen growing sales numbers for this small, Euro-styled car that Chrysler/Fiat is now promoting as the new American ride.

Review of marketing strategies for this car shows that the new partnership has put a lot of effort into celebrity-driven marketing for the Fiat 500, with a heavily promoted ad campaign showing Jennifer Lopez piloting one of these mini-cars around New York City. Still, a current report from Auto News indicates Fiat 500 sales leave something to be desired, leaving execs scrambling for other ways to increase revenue.

Other recent projects include the development of a “Mopar e-Store” to promote the Chrysler-owned catalog of accessory products, and FlexTech, a makeover for dealer offices that’s meant to contribute to better branding.

Freeing dealers to sell a greater diversity of pre-owned vehicles might be one way to ramp up revenue, especially for dealers with a deliberate focus on maintenance and repair, where shops that have invested heavily in promoting their services need a longer roster of returning customers.

However, critics might point to the extra responsibility of vouching for non-house brand vehicles, and the potential for customer confusion, since traditionally, dealerships were a fortress for a particular brand, and customers looking for a wider variety of pre-owned cars scoured the lots of independent sellers.

If everything pans out the way the top brass at Chrysler are hoping, this new program could become an example for other manufacturers trying to compete in the North American market. Look for more on this program as the broader community of Chrysler dealerships add non-Chrysler vehicles to their lots during the spring.

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California Attorneys Arrested in Alleged Loan Modification Scam

Law firm charged thousands for services that were never performed, state alleges

Greg & Cynthia FlahiveCalifornia Attorney General Kamala D. Harris today announced the arrests of the owners and managing attorney ...

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Greg & Cynthia Flahive

California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris today announced the arrests of the owners and managing attorney of a law firm that took thousands of dollars in up-front loan modification fees for services that were never performed for homeowners, many of whom ended up losing their homes. 

Gregory Flahive of El Dorado Hills, 39, Cynthia Flahive of Folsom, 41, and Mike Johnson of Elk Grove, 42, were arrested on 19 felony counts, including grand theft by false pretense, conspiracy and false advertising. They were booked at the Sacramento County Jail with bail set at $50,000 bail each. 

"Homeowners facing foreclosure are being targeted by predators, including those who use their law license to gain credibility and scam innocent Californians," Harris said. "My office's Mortgage Fraud Strike Force is dedicated full-time to cracking down on these deceptive practices and protecting homeowners from fraud like this." 

Gregory and Cynthia Flahive, ex-spouses and owners of Flahive Law Corporation, and Johnson, the firm's managing attorney, took up-front fees of up to $2,500 from homeowners in Placer, Sacramento, Butte and Yuba counties for loan modification services that were never performed, Harris said. In California, it is illegal for foreclosure consultants to collect money for services before they are performed. 

Infomercials

The Folsom-based law firm advertised their services on flyers, radio and televised infomercials, offering to provide loan modification services and help clients with bankruptcy, IRS tax relief and credit card modification. 

In a 2010 infomercial, the Flahives said that, as a law firm, they had "extra leverage" with the banks. They described one of their unique services as a "mortgage violation audit" in which they reviewed a client's loan documents to find bank violations that could be used as leverage to modify a client's home loan. 

In fact, the investigation revealed that, in some instances, the client's lender had no record of contact with the Flahive Law Corporation. 

Former clients of the Flahive Law Corporation filed complaints with the Attorney General's office, as well as with the Better Business Bureau and the State Bar of California. 

The State Bar of California launched an investigation, which was turned over to the Attorney General's Mortgage Fraud Strike Force in summer 2011. 

In one example of the firm's deceptive practices, a victim who sought to lower his mortgage payments was told by Gregory Flahive to reject his lender's offer of modification. The homeowner was told the Flahive Law Corporation could secure a better interest rate, reduce his principal, and possibly get his second mortgage eliminated. Four months later, the victim lost his home to foreclosure. 


Agencies that assisted in serving today's search and arrest warrants include the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP), the Folsom Police Department, the Rancho Cordova Police Department and the El Dorado Sheriff's Department. 

"SIGTARP and its law enforcement partners are shutting down mortgage modification fraud, and holding a degree in law will not be a sufficient defense against prosecution," said Christy Romero, Deputy Special Inspector General for SIGTARP. 

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Heart Attacks Rise After Daylight Savings Time

Losing an hour of daylight has negative health effects

The Sunday morning of the time change doesn’t require an abrupt schedule change, but, Young says, heart-attack risk peaks on Monday when most people rise e...

PhotoThe clocks move forward one hour on March 11, as most of the U.S. goes on Daylight Savings time. In addition to arriving early at appointments if you forget to reset your clocks, you could be at greater risk for a heart attack.

“The Monday and Tuesday after moving the clocks ahead one hour in March is associated with a 10 percent increase in the risk of having a heart attack,” said Martin Young, an associate professor at the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB). “The opposite is true when falling back in October. This risk decreases by about 10 percent.”

The Sunday morning of the time change doesn’t require an abrupt schedule change, but, Young says, heart-attack risk peaks on Monday when most people rise earlier to go to work.

A number of theories

“Exactly why this happens is not known but there are several theories,” Young says. “Sleep deprivation, the body’s circadian clock and immune responses all can come into play when considering reasons that changing the time by an hour can be detrimental to someone’s health.”

Why is losing an hour of sleep risky? Young says people who are sleep-deprived also tend to suffer more from diabetes and heart disease.

“Sleep deprivation also can alter other body processes, including inflammatory response, which can contribute to a heart attack,” Young said.

And, your reaction to sleep deprivation and the time change also depends on whether you are a morning person or night owl. Night owls have a much more difficult time with springing forward.

Circadian clock

You says every cell in the body has its own clock that allows it to anticipate when something is going to happen and prepare for it. When there is a shift in one’s environment, such as springing forward, it takes a while for the cells to readjust.

“It’s comparable to knowing that you have a meeting at 2 p.m. and having time to prepare your presentation instead of being told at the last minute and not being able to prepare,” he said. “The internal clocks in each cell can prepare it for stress or a stimulus. When time moves forward, cell clocks are anticipating another hour to sleep that they won’t get, and the negative impact of the stress worsens; it has a much more detrimental effect on the body.”

Preparation

Fortunately, there are ways to counterbalance the negative aspects of the time change. Young suggests waking up earlier on Saturday and Sunday than you need to in preparation for the early start on Monday. Eat a good-sized breakfast and get exposure to sunlight early in the day. If healthy enough to exercise, do so over the weekend.

“Doing all of this will help reset both the central, or master, clock in the brain that reacts to changes in light/dark cycles, and the peripheral clocks — the ones everywhere else including the one in the heart — that react to food intake and physical activity,” Young said. “This will enable your body to naturally synch with the change in the environment, which may lessen your chance of adverse health issues on Monday.”

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PayPal Urged to Back Off Book Censorship

Online publishers, bookstores, authors threatened by PayPal

Information technology can be a powerful tool for free expression but it can also be a mighty weapon for suppression of expression, as a recent controver...

PhotoInformation technology can be a powerful tool for free expression but it can also be a mighty weapon for suppression of expression, as a recent controversy involving PayPal shows.

A coalition of civil liberties organizations and publishers is calling on PayPal to reverse a policy that shuts off payment services to publishers of certain forms of erotic literature. 

Under the policy, PayPal has threatened to shut down the accounts of online publisher Smashwords and others, unless they eliminate erotica featuring incest, rape, and bestiality. As scholars and booksellers can attest, these are themes prevalent in many forms of literature, from Grecian myths to the Bible.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) joined ACLU of California, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, Authors Guild, National Coalition Against Censorship, and others in sending a joint letter to PayPal condemning this policy as contrary to free speech. 

"Unfortunately, this is not the first time we’ve seen a payment services provider interfering with access to lawful speech," said Rainey Reitman, activism director for EFF, in an EFF blog posting. "As we saw when Mastercard, Visa, and PayPal created a financial blockade against the whistleblower website WikiLeaks, financial service providers are an important part of the chain of intermediaries upon which online communication depends.

"When even one of those intermediaries caves to pressure or takes on a censorial role, our rights to read and speak freely are jeopardized. We need to send a signal to all back-end service providers that they have no business interfering with the distribution of lawful content," Reitman said.

PayPal recently gave online publishers and booksellers, including Book Strand, Smashwords, and eXcessica, an ultimatum: it would close their accounts and refuse to process all payments unless they removed erotic books containing descriptions of rape, incest, and bestiality.

"The result would severely restrict the public's access to a wide range of legal material, could drive some companies out of business and deprive some authors of their livelihood," said a letter sent by the coalition to PayPal.

"Financial services providers should be neutral when it comes to lawful online speech.  PayPal’s policy underscores how vulnerable such speech can be and how important it is to stand up and protect it," the letter said.

As the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression explained in a recent public letter:

The policy positions PayPal as contemporary exponent of its own Index Librorum Prohibitorum. The Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books, like the Hays code in the film industry, has long since lost favor with the American public, and there is no reason to think that they would welcome PayPal in a similar role. The commitment to free speech is firmly embedded in our society, legally and culturally.

And as the ACLU of Northern California explained in their statement against this form of censorship, "Free speech isn't so free when booksellers have to choose between hosting legitimate content and earning a living."

 

 
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AARP: Prescription Drug Prices Outpacing Inflation

Increases are almost entirely in brand-name drugs, not generics

If it seems like prescription drug prices are rising rapidly, it's because they are.  In fact, a survey by AARP finds that the cumulative change ...

PhotoIf it seems like prescription drug prices are rising rapidly, it's because they are.  In fact, a survey by AARP finds that the cumulative change in retail prices for a combined set of prescription drugs widely used by Medicare beneficiaries was almost double the rate of inflation between 2005 and 2009.

For a consumer who takes a prescription drug on a chronic basis, this translates into an increase in the annual cost of therapy of more than $1,000 over the same time period.

“At a time when our country is contracting economically and inflation is really, really low, inflation in the cost of prescription drugs is going in the other direction,” said Cheryl Matheis, senior vice president for policy strategy at AARP. “The word we use is relentless because it just doesn’t seem to abate.”

AARP said the increases were attributable entirely to drug price growth among brand and specialty drugs, which more than offset substantial price decreases among generic drugs.

The pharmaceutical industry criticized the report, saying the expanded availability of generic drugs has slowed the increase in drug prices in recent years.

“AARP has released yet another misleading pricing report that ignores key facts about the marketplace for prescription medicines and paints an inaccurate picture of prescription drug spending in the U.S.,” the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the industry trade and lobbying group, said in a statement.

AARP's Rx Watchdog report series has been tracking manufacturer price changes for widely used prescription drugs since 2004. 

The reports compare retail price changes with the rate of inflation.  They also present differences in average price changes by manufacturer and by major theraputic category. 

The sample of drugs studied was identified using 2006 data from a Medicare Part D plan provider, and changes in prices were measured using changes in the retail prices charged to consumers ages 50 and older enrolled in employer-sponsored health plans, as reported by the Thomson Reuters Marketscan® Research Databases.

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Consumers Cautioned About 'Free' Credit Reports

Official credit report site is completely free with no strings attached

consumers should always use annualcreditreport.com for free credit reports...

It's a good idea to check your credit reports once a year, to guard against identity theft.

The government even makes it easier, mandating that all consumers be allowed access to their credit reports from all three credit reporting agencies – Experian, TransUnion and Equifax – once a year.

The feds set up a special website for consumers to gain this access: www.annualcreditreport.com. That site – and only that site – provides the free access to credit reports. All others carry a fee or commitment.

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Why, you might ask, didn't the feds use the ".gov" domain suffix, which woud have it made it crystal-clear that the consumer was on the right site?

Good question.  Maybe someone thought it would be "cool" to have a .com name.

Whatever the reason for the feds' foolishness, Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto is advising consumers to avoid companies that advertise "free" credit reports but require consumers to purchase products or services to access their annual credit report.

Just use the official site

Even though consumers can get free credit reports through the government-mandated site, Masto says many companies claim to offer free credit reports – and some actually do.

However, consumers should know that other companies may give them a report only if they buy other products or services. Still others say they are providing consumers a “free” report and then bill consumers for services such as credit monitoring, that they have to cancel, sometimes within a 7-day trial membership to avoid any fees.

Tammy, of Fox Lake, Ill., went for an offer like that.

“Well, we needed a credit report to move so I thought I would just use the trial and end membership last September 2011,” Tammy wrote in a post at ConsumerAffairs. “I called spoke with someone they said they would take care of it for me and send me an email. Well, I did not think of it much after until today when I started going through my bank statements. so I called them they said I never cancelled my husband's account. I did, but they are telling me I did not. I asked for a refund they gave me one month back but charged me since September.”

Asking for a credit card is red flag

Tammy would not have incurred that expense had she gone to the official site, which is completely free and requires no commitments of any kind. The tip-off for consumers is when a supposedly free service asks for a credit card number. Once you supply billing information, you can expect to get a bill.

“A cautious consumer is a smart consumer,” said Masto.

A federal law requires commercial websites that advertise that they offer free credit reports to include a box letting consumers know they can get a free credit report at www.AnnualCreditReport.com or by calling 877-322-8228. This notice is designed to protect consumers from deceptive and misleading “free” credit report ads.

Official site provides all three reports

By visiting the official website, consumers can ensure the reports they receive are free. Consumers have the option to request all three reports at once or to order one report at a time.

Federal and state laws provide consumers with a variety of tools to help protect themselves against identity theft. Consumers who have a reasonable suspicion that they are or are about to become victims of identity theft can place free fraud alerts on their credit reports by contacting one of the three major credit reporting agencies.

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Consumer Group Calls Drug Coupons Illegal

Suit accuses eight drug makers of steering consumers to higher-priced drugs

Consumer group sues eight drug companies over coupon policy...

PhotoThree health plans in Community Catalyst's Prescription Access Litigation coalition have filed class action lawsuits in four federal courts against major drug manufacturers.

They claim the companies are illegally subsidizing co-payments for expensive brand-name prescription drugs such as Lipitor and Nexium through the promotion of co-pay coupons.

The lawsuit alleges that the payments by eight drug makers -- Abbott, Amgen, AstraZeneca, Bristol-Meyers-Squibb, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Novartis, and Pfizer -- are illegal under a federal statute that prohibits commercial bribery because the undisclosed payments to patients and pharmacies are made through a ‘shadow claims system' designed to keep information about the presence or amount of these payments from health plans.

Not really savings, suit claims

Community Catalyst, a national consumer advocacy organization, warns that while prescription drug coupons appear to save consumers money by reducing or eliminating co-payments, in reality they dramatically increase the cost of health care by driving up health insurance premiums and potentially causing consumers to hit benefit caps or lose coverage altogether.

"Pharmaceutical corporations are duping consumers with misleading coupons that are more about increasing corporate profits than actually reducing the cost of drugs for consumers" said Wells Wilkinson, director of the Prescription Access Litigation project at Community Catalyst. "If not stopped, the use of these deceptive coupons will increase costs for consumers' health plans by billions of dollars, contributing to higher premiums and the increasing loss of coverage and benefits for Americans."

Steering consumers to higher priced drugs

The suit contends that the drug companies are combining direct-to-consumer marketing and supermarket coupon clipping to steer consumers toward higher-priced name brand drugs. By subsidizing all or the majority of a consumer's co-payment, drug companies are alleged to promote the sale of these expensive products over less expensive, equally effective generics.

Community Catatyst says federal government health plans like Medicare consider these coupons kickbacks and have banned them. It says they are also banned in Massachusetts under an anti-kickback law.

The lawsuits were filed in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Newark by the AFSCME District Council 37 Health & Security Plan Trust, Sergeants Benevolent Association, the New England Carpenters, and the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 572 Health and Welfare Fund.  

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Apple's Latest iPad Features a Sharper Screen, Faster Chip

The new iPad also runs on faster LTE wireless networks

Dubbing it "resolutionary," Apple today unveiled its latest iPad, featuring a 9.7-inch screen with more pixels than traditional high-definition televisons,...

PhotoDubbing it "resolutionary," Apple today unveiled its latest iPad, featuring a 9.7-inch screen with more pixels than traditional high-definition televisons, producing an ultra-sharp image.

Not just sharper, the new iPad has a faster chip and runs on high-speed LTE wireless networks, including AT&T and Verizon's 4G networks. The device will cost $399 to $829.

What it doesn't have is Siri, so if you want someone to talk to you, you'll need to find a human, if any are available.

What it also doesn't have is a new name.  It's still just the iPad, not the iPad3, the iPadHD or any of the other names that had been floating around.

Apple is taking pre-orders today and it will arrive in stores on March 16 in the U.S., Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Puerto Rico, Singapore, Switzerland, UK and the US Virgin Islands.

Giants struggle

It's the latest entry in the intensifying struggle for dominance among Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Samsung and other players, each hoping that sales of their devices will tie customers to their online storehouses of movies, music, books, games and other software.

“The new iPad redefines the category Apple created less than two years ago, delivering the most amazing experience people have ever had with technology,” said Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing. “The new iPad now has the highest resolution display ever seen on a mobile device with 3.1 million pixels, delivering razor sharp text and unbelievable detail in photos and videos.”

The new iPad’s Retina display delivers four times the number of pixels of iPad 2, so dense that the human eye is unable to distinguish individual pixels when held at a normal distance, making web pages, text, images and video look incredibly sharp and realistic, the company said.

The 3.1 million pixels in the Retina display are more than one million more pixels than an HD TV, and with 44 percent increased color saturation the new iPad displays colors that are richer, deeper and more vivid. Movies are now capable of playing at full 1080p HD-resolution.

The new iPad also supports dictation. Instead of typing, tap the microphone icon on the keyboard, then say what you want to say and the new iPad listens. Tap done, and iPad converts your words into text. You can use dictation to write messages, take notes, search the web and more. Dictation also works with third-party apps, so you can update your Facebook status, tweet, or write Instagram captions, Apple said.

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FDA Issues Warning Letter to AeroShot Makers

Inhalable caffeine's label makes false, misleading statements, agency charges

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued a warning letter to Breathable Foods Inc., makers of AeroShot, for alleged false or misleading statements ...

PhotoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued a warning letter to Breathable Foods Inc., makers of AeroShot, for alleged false or misleading statements in the labeling of the "caffeine inhaler."

The agency said it also has questions about the safety of the inhaler and expressed concern about the use of AeroShot by children and adolescents and in combination with alcohol. The company claims AeroShot is designed to provide “breathable energy, anytime, anyplace.” The company also claims on its website that its product is intended to be ingested by swallowing.  

The company’s labeling is false or misleading because these two claims contradict each other, the FDA said. A product cannot be intended for both inhalation and ingestion because the functioning of the epiglottis in the throat keeps the processes of inhaling and swallowing separate.      

Safety questioned

FDA is also concerned about AeroShot’s safety because label statements such as “breathable energy” may confuse consumers about the proper use of AeroShot and encourage them to try to inhale it into their lungs. 

Caffeine is not normally inhaled into the lungs and the safety of doing so has not been well studied.   While the company claims on its website that decades of research have established that the particles in AeroShot are too big to enter the lungs, the company does not point to any specific research in support of this claim, the FDA said.

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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.

Available to minors

In addition, the company’s website indicates that AeroShot is “not recommended for those under 18 years of age,” and the product label states that it is “not intended for people under 12.” But the website also appears to target these age groups by suggesting it be used when studying.

The AeroShot website also includes links to news articles and videos that refer to use of the product in conjunction with drinking alcohol.  Although these news items do not advocate taking AeroShot while drinking alcohol and express health concerns about such use, the presence of the news items on the AeroShot promotional website publicizes and therefore may encourage the use of AeroShot with alcohol.

While using caffeine when drinking may lead consumers to feel “less drunk,” it does not reduce blood alcohol levels.

FDA regulations require manufacturers to ensure that a product is safe and properly labeled before being brought to market. FDA has instructed Breathable Foods Inc. to correct the violations cited in the warning letter and provide information on research the company cites so the agency can evaluate the research. The company has 15 business days to respond to the agency with a plan to bring the product into compliance with FDA regulations.

The warning letter also charges that the product label does not include contact information for consumers to report any adverse events to the company, as required under federal law. Consumers who believe they have suffered illness or injury from using AeroShot should also report those events to their regional FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinators

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Direct-To-Consumer Prescription Drug Ads Still Draw Fire

FDA, however, says the ads can serve a useful purpose

If you watch television at all, you can't help but see a large number of commercials for prescription medications. But since doctors are the only ones who ...

PhotoIf you watch television at all, you can't help but see a large number of commercials for prescription medications. But since doctors are the only ones who can really decide whether that medication is used, isn't spending millions of dollars on TV ads a waste of money?

Apparently not, or else they wouldn't be doing it. So what's the real motivation? Obviously it is to prompt consumers to mention specific drugs to their doctors.

In 2009 Congressional Democrats tried to place some restrictions on direct-to-consumer prescription drug advertising. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) called on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to bar prescription drug ads until they have been proved safe in real world use.

A consumer’s take

Dee, a consumer from Playa Del Ray, Calif., thinks the ads are harmful.

"Not only are the drug companies instilling psychosomatic symptoms in many Americans, they are unnecessarily educating our children on prescription drug availability and usage," Dee wrote in a post on ConsumerAffairs. "Fifty million of us do not even have access to medical insurance, so who are they really pushing their drugs to? And why not OxyContin and Cocaine? This is an issue of greed and ego. Depression, erectile dysfunction, sleep aids, RA, etc, etc should all be discussed on an individual basis in the privacy of your doctor’s office, and NOT on national television."

It's a debate that isn't likely to go away anytime soon, as pharmaceuticals are a multi-billion dollar industry, and the U.S. is one of only two nations that allows direct-to-consumer prescription drug advertising.

FDA's position

The FDA's position is different from Dee's. The agency sees some benefits from the ads.

"Prescription drug advertisements can provide useful information for consumers to work with their health care providers to make wise decisions about treatment.," the FDA said on its website.

For example, a product claim ad names a drug, the condition it treats, and talks about both its benefits and risks. A reminder ad gives the drug's name but not the drug's use.

However, if you think a prescription drug ad violates the law, contact FDA's Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising, and Communications.

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College Grads Struggling with Student Loan Payments

Are student loans the next credit crisis?

College Grads Struggling with Student Loan Payments...

PhotoHere's some sobering news: one in four consumers with student loan balances were late on at least one payment in the third quarter of last year.

The report from the New York Federal Reserve Bank showed a dramatic increase in past dues because the bank, for the first time, excluded students still in school and exempt from making payments.

No surprise

This perhaps isn't news for regular readers of ConsumerAffairs. In the last few years consumers have increasingly reported the burden of paying back loans - many times used to pay for for-profit colleges - in a soft economy.

"My son enrolled at this school (ITT Technical) in their multi-media course," Peggy, of Clarkston, Mich., posted at ConsumerAffairs. "They promised help with obtaining a job, which they haven't done. He has been out of school for two years and can't find a job. I believe that they oversold their school. Some of his classes didn't even have a qualified teacher, and he became frustrated with them. Now he owes so much money for student loans and can't find a job."

Others, like Holly, of Sound Beach, N.Y., report difficulty in making payments for the loans they accumulated as they sought an education, even when they do find employment.

"I am a 26 year old female who has had the run around with Citibank for two years now," Holly wrote. "I have called numerous times trying to set something up, seeing as I was making under $25,000 a year. They want me to pay $600 a month minimum. Yeah, okay, who can do that nowadays?"

Be realistic

Stories abound of students graduating with six-figure loans but with relatively low-paying jobs. Guidance counselors repeatedly stress the need to be realistic, matching your student loan requirements with your employment prospects upon graduation.

For example, a large number of consumers writing to ConsumerAffairs have revealed they enrolled in a for-profit college to obtain a two-year associates degree. While the for-profit institutions charged as much as $40,000, the same degrees are available at state-supported community colleges at a fraction of the cost.

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Are You Cashing In On All Available Tax Credits?

Professor and former IRS agent offers tips

Tips for taking advantage of deductions and tax credits...

PhotoApril's tax-filing deadline is closing in. While major reforms are out of the taxpayer’s control, staying informed and using a tax preparation service are two simple ways to make filing your taxes as stress-free as can be.

“Stay informed and you won’t leave money on the table,” said Saint Joseph's University professor and former Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent Dennis Raible, C.P.A. “There are broad deductions that apply to many people. Tax credits and deductions run the gamut from childcare costs — if they enable an individual to go to work — to energy savings credits for approved windows, doors, or energy-efficient heaters.”

Education expenses

If you've spent money on education in 2011, don't overlook the American Opportunity Tax Credit and the Lifetime Learning Credit as two ways to alleviate the cost of higher education. Other ways to earn a break include charitable contributions, retirement planning and logging mileage — whether it is for a personal business, commute or a job search.

If you plan on preparing your taxes yourself, Raible suggests using a tax preparation software because it will help you stay on top of available credits and deductions. He likes Turbotax, as well as TaxACT, H&R Block and esmarttax.com. Some are free, he says, while others require the user to pay a nominal fee each year.

Professional help

How much should you pay to have your taxes professionally prepared. It's all going to depend on how simple or complex your tax situation is. Taxpayers who opt to have their taxes prepared by a professional can expect to spend upwards of $150 to $250 dollars. For seniors and taxpayers with a low income, free professional tax preparation services are offered.

“Services like Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) are in place to help the people who often depend on a tax refund, but can least afford the tax preparation fees" Raible said.

Saint Joseph’s VITA program, ran in cooperation with the IRS and the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue, is offered during the Spring Semester of each Academic Year. The program trains Saint Joseph’s students in tax return preparation and then allows them to connect with members of the community who are in need of their services.

“Tax reform comes very slowly if it comes at all,” says Raible, “so taxpayers need to take advantage of the different ways they can make tax season easier for themselves.”

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Missouri Sues Six Companies For Cramming

Seeks restitution for thousands of consumers

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster has filed consumer fraud suits against six nationwide companies he says have been 'cramming' consumers' telephone bi...

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Chris Koster

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster has filed consumer fraud suits against six nationwide companies he says have been 'cramming' consumers' telephone bills.

Cramming is the practice of placing charges on a phone bill without the consumer's consent. Named in Koster's lawsuit are:

  • Coast to Coast Voice of Concord, N.H.
  • Green Certification of Miami, Fla.
  • Family Contact 911 of Clearwater, Fla.
  • SBO Online of Los Angeles, Calif.
  • Odyssey Communications of Tenafly, N.J.
  • ID Life Guards, Inc. of Glendale, Calif.

 The lawsuits charge the companies have placed unauthorized charges on thousands of consumers’ telephone bills for products and services they did not purchase, want, or use.

“Telephone cramming costs Missouri consumers tens of thousands of dollars each year and something must be done to stop this abuse,” Koster said. “Disregard for the consumer protection laws and regulations of the state of Missouri will not be tolerated.”

Restitution

The suits seek restitution for consumers and a permanent injunction against the defendants to stop the unfair practices and return to Missouri consumers the money that was unlawfully charged.

Telephone cramming is an unfortunate byproduct of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. In an effort to spur competition, the legislation allows third-party providers to place charges on a consumers telephone bill. Of course, these providers are first supposed to sell these services to the consumers. In many case, they overlook that detail.

A consumer’s telephone bill can operate much like a credit card. Thus, companies can charge consumers monthly for services unrelated to their telephone subscription. The crammer, or “content provider,” will repeatedly bill the consumer through his or her telephone bill, even in cases where the consumer did not actually sign up for the crammer’s purported service.

These charges generally appear on the last page of the consumer’s bill as “enhanced services” or in the name of the billing aggregator, such as OAN, ILD, or ESBI. Many consumers do not realize that they are being charged, or they believe it is from their telephone provider.

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Consumer Group Finds Carcinogen in Coke and Pepsi

Ammoniated "caramel coloring" contaminated with 4-methylimidazole

New chemical analyses have found that Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Diet Coke, and Diet Pepsi contain high levels of 4-methylimidazole (4-MI), a known animal carc...

PhotoNew chemical analyses have found that Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Diet Coke, and Diet Pepsi contain high levels of 4-methylimidazole (4-MI), a known animal carcinogen, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the nonprofit watchdog group that commissioned the tests. 

The carcinogen forms when ammonia or ammonia and sulfites are used to manufacture the “caramel coloring” that gives those sodas their distinctive brown colors. CSPI first petitioned the FDA to ban ammonia-sulfite caramel coloring in February 2011.

CSPI today reiterated its call to the Food and Drug Administration to revoke its authorization for caramel colorings that contain 4-MI, and in the interim to change the name of the additive to “ammonia-sulfite process caramel coloring” or “chemically modified caramel coloring” for labeling purposes.

“Coke and Pepsi, with the acquiescence of the FDA, are needlessly exposing millions of Americans to a chemical that causes cancer,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “The coloring is completely cosmetic, adding nothing to the flavor of the product. If companies can make brown food coloring that is carcinogen-free, the industry should use that. And industry seems to be moving in that direction. Otherwise, the FDA needs to protect consumers from this risk by banning the coloring.”

15,000 cancers

CSPI collected samples of Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi, Dr Pepper, Diet Dr Pepper, and Whole Foods 365 Cola from Washington, D.C.-area stores. Pepsi’s products had 145 to 153 micrograms (mcg) of 4-MI in two 12-ounce cans. Regular Coca-Cola had 142 mcg per 12 ounces in one sample and 146 mcg in another. Diet Coke had 103 mcg per 12 ounces in one sample and 113 mcg in another.

To put those levels into context, the state of California has a 29-microgram benchmark for 4-MI. Levels above that in a serving of food or beverage may be required to bear a warning notice. Based on California’s risk model, CSPI estimates that the 4-MI in the Coke and Pepsi products tested is causing about 15,000 cancers in the U.S. population.

While federal law bans food additives that cause any number of cancers, the FDA has an exception for contaminants of food additives, for which it tolerates a lifetime risk of one cancer in one million people.

Three of four samples of Dr Pepper or Diet Dr Pepper that CSPI tested had low levels of 4-MI, with about 10 mcg per 12 ounces. But even those levels pose a cancer risk of seven in one million—seven times greater than what FDA allows. The lower levels in those three samples indicate that it is possible to lower, if not eliminate, the amount of 4-MI.

Pepsi told CSPI that it has switched to a coloring in California that contains much less 4-MI and plans to do the same in the rest of the country.

Big difference

“When most people see ‘caramel coloring’ on food labels, they likely interpret that quite literally and assume the ingredient is similar to what you might get by gently melting sugar in a saucepan,” Jacobson said. “The reality is quite different. Colorings made with the ammonia or ammonia-sulfite process contain carcinogens and don’t belong in the food supply. In any event, they shouldn’t be obscured by such an innocuous-sounding name as ‘caramel coloring.’”

As troubling as the new test results are, CSPI says soda drinkers should be much more concerned about the high-fructose corn syrup or other sugars used in soft drinks.

Soda drinkers are much more likely than non-soda drinkers to develop weight gain, obesity, diabetes, and other health problems. 

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'Save the Plastic Bag Coalition' Sues San Francisco

Suit claims plastic bag ban hurts the environment, violates state law

The Save the Plastic Bag Coalition is trying to fight its way out of a plastic bag ban in San Francisco.The coalition, which includes packaging manufactu...

The Save the Plastic Bag Coalition is trying to fight its way out of a plastic bag ban in San Francisco.

The coalition, which not surprisingly includes packaging manufacturers, contends a San Francisco law prohibiting restaurants and retailers from using plastic bags is unconstitutional, and will actually hurt the environment, claiming that paper bags take more energy to produce than plastic ones, Courthouse News Service reported.

They claim that a report from Los Angeles County found that a reusable bag must be used at least 104 times before it offsets its greater negative environmental impacts than a plastic bag.

Could be, but public opinion is pretty solidly wrapped up against plastic bags, according to a ConsumerAffairs sentiment analysis of about 740,000 consumer comments on blogs and social media over the last year.

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Paper bags, on the other hand, have a positive sentiment rating Mitt Romney can only envy.  We found about 300,000 consumers raving about their love affair with paper, with only a few scattered complaints having to do with cost and, in one case, lack of handles. (Hint: Trader Joe's bags have handles).

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If, in fact, there is a vast left-wing conspiracy whose goal is to poison the well of consumer sentiment against plastic bags, it has done its job well.  It's hard to find anyone who'll say anything good about them, except that they're free and are a handy way to scoop up dog poop.

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Ordinance No. 33-12 bans plastic carryout bags at retail stores, restaurants and other food establishments, and requires that consumers pay a 10-cent fee for each paper or compostable carryout bag.

The coalition says it asked the city to prepare an environmental impact report on the different bags, to which the City and County of San Francisco did not respond. 

No doubt this is an issue of the greatest possible importance but some skeptics might say the bagmen would be well advised to, well, bag it.

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Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase

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Consumer Sentiment Drops After Three Months of Improvement

Americans cut spending sharply after holidays as financial difficulties mount

It was just a week or so ago that the Consumer Confidence Index issued by the Conference Board was rising in lockstep with gasoline prices, causing more th...

PhotoIt was just a week or so ago that the Consumer Confidence Index issued by the Conference Board was rising in lockstep with gasoline prices, causing more than a little head-scratching.

We don't know about the Conference Board but the Consumer Reports Index, a measure of overall consumer financial health, showed that the confidence of the American consumer is waning, with signs of mounting financial difficulty emerging.

After three months of improvement, the Consumer Reports Sentiment Index fell this month to 46.1, from 49.6 last month. Further challenging consumer confidence, The Trouble Tracker Index increased slightly this month to 52.2 from 49.1 in February, and is now at its highest level since August 2011.

The impact of financial troubles is very different across income levels. The Trouble Tracker Index for those living in households earning less than $50,000, about half of all American adults, stands at 73.9, nearly four times as great as those in households earning $100,000 or more (18.9).

Retail lagging

Since the holidays, retail has yet to regain its footing with Americans continuing to pull back on spending. Consumer Reports Past 30-Day Retail Index fell slightly to 11.5 from 11.8 last month, a pattern similar to last year. Planned purchasing over the next 30 days, reflecting anticipated March activity, is 8.7, up from 7.1 the prior month, seeding hopes for an upturn in the near term.

“Consumers are not yet comfortable in their financial situation as the country limps into its fifth year of near-recessionary times,” said Ed Farrell, director of the Consumer Reports National Research Center. “Weak retail is the symptom, not an underlying cause. Consumers will need a clear signal led by a greatly improved jobs outlook to resume spending.”

The Consumer Reports Employment Index this month (49.9) is once again approaching positive territory, but is little changed from February (49.5). In the past 30 days, roughly the same proportion of Americans reported starting a new job (5.8%) as losing a job (6.0%).

The complete Consumer Reports Index report is available at www.ConsumerReports.org.

Hoots of derision

The Conference Board report was issued at the end of February with gasoline prices are at a record high for this early in the year but nevertheless found folks downright cheerful. Its Consumer Confidence Index jumped from from 61.5 in January to 70.8 in February. The index is at its highest level in 12 months.

That report brought hoots of derision from ConsumerAffairs readers.   

"This report is just another example of how media wants manipulate people's thoughts in to believing it's a majority," said Donna DeShon Phillips. 

"Who is the ultimate moron who came up with this bucket of horse manure?" asked Taipan Lam in a posting on ConsumerAffairs' Facebook wall. "This is insulting our intelligence."

That's not the only evidence of growing confidence, either. Last week, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed above the 13,000 level for the first time since well before the financial meltdown of October 2008 and the start of the Great Recession.

 
 
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Skin Products Linked to Mercury Poisoning

FDA warns consumers cosmetics and skin care products may contain toxic metal

Federal health officials are warning consumers not to use skin creams, beauty and antiseptic soaps, or lotions that might contain mercury.The products ar...

PhotoFederal health officials are warning consumers not to use skin creams, beauty and antiseptic soaps, or lotions that might contain mercury.

The products are marketed as skin lighteners and anti-aging treatments that remove age spots, freckles, blemishes and wrinkles, says Gary Coody, national health fraud coordinator in the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Regulatory Affairs. Adolescents also may use these products as acne treatments, adds Coody. Products with this toxic metal have been found in at least seven states.

The products are manufactured abroad and sold illegally in the United States — often in shops in Latino, Asian, African or Middle Eastern neighborhoods and online. Consumers may also have bought them in another country and brought them back to the U.S. for personal use.

“If you have a product that matches these descriptions (and others listed below), stop using it immediately,” says Coody.

“Even though these products are promoted as cosmetics, they also may be unapproved new drugs under the law,” says Linda Katz, M.D., director of FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors. FDA does not allow mercury in drugs or in cosmetics, except under very specific conditions, which these products do not meet.

“Sellers and distributors should not market these illegal products and may be subject to enforcement action, which could include seizure of the products and other legal sanctions,” says attorney Brad Pace, J.D., of the Heath Fraud and Consumer Outreach Branch within FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

Dangers of mercury

“Exposure to mercury can have serious health consequences,” says Charles Lee, M.D., a senior medical advisor at FDA. “It can damage the kidneys and the nervous system, and interfere with the development of the brain in unborn children and very young children.”

You don’t have to use the product yourself to be affected, says FDA toxicologist Mike Bolger, Ph.D. “People—particularly children—can get mercury in their bodies from breathing in mercury vapors if a member of the household uses a skin cream containing mercury.” Infants and small children can ingest mercury if they touch their parents who have used these products, get cream on their hands and then put their hands and fingers into their mouth, which they are prone to do, adds Bolger.

How to Protect Yourself

  • Check the label of any skin lightening, anti-aging or other skin product you use. If you see the words “mercurous chloride,” “calomel,” “mercuric,” “mercurio,” or “mercury,” stop using the product immediately.
  • If there is no label or no ingredients are listed, do not use the product. Federal law requires that ingredients be listed on the label of any cosmetic or drug.
  • Don’t use products labeled in languages other than English unless English labeling is also provided.
  • If you suspect you have been using a product with mercury, stop using it immediately. Thoroughly wash your hands and any other parts of your body that have come in contact with the product. Contact your health care professional or a medical care clinic for advice.
  • If you have questions, call your health care professional or the Poison Center; it is open 24 hours a day.
  • Before throwing out a product that may contain mercury, seal it in a plastic bag or leak-proof container. Check with your local environmental, health or solid waste agency for disposal instructions. Some communities have special collections or other options for disposing of household hazardous waste.

Tracking Skin Products Containing Mercury

Investigations in the past few years by FDA and state health officials have turned up more than 35 products that contain unacceptable levels of mercury. FDA continues to add mercury-containing skin products to its import alerts, which authorize the agency’s field staff to refuse admission of shipments of these products.

But this is only a partial solution, says Coody. “Many of these products are coming into the country through channels we can’t easily track, such as international mail and personal baggage. That’s why it’s so important for consumers and sellers to know about the dangers of possible mercury poisoning associated with the use of these skin products.”

Texas health officials say samples of face cream they tested contained mercury up to 131,000 times the allowable level. And a teenager in southern Texas who used a mercury-containing skin cream was recently hospitalized for mercury poisoning.

In Northern California, a 39-year old woman had more than 100 times the average amount of mercury in her urine and had symptoms of mercury poisoning, according to the California Department of Public Health. For three years, the woman and her husband had been using an unlabeled mercury-containing face cream that was brought into the U.S. from Mexico by a relative. Several other family members who did not use the cream, including a four-year-old child, also had elevated levels of mercury in their bodies.

Virginia, Maryland, and New York have also seen cases of elevated mercury levels in people exposed to skin products containing mercury. In Minnesota, 11 of 27 imported skin products taken from store shelves contained mercury.

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Consumers' Complaints Getting Attention in High Places

State attorneys general actively seeking consumer input

State attorneys general want to hear from consumers...

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Eric Schneiderman

It seems consumers have finally gotten the ears of some powerful advocates. A number of state attorneys general used the occasion of National Consumer Week to issue compilations of the top consumer complaints in their states in the last year, and what they've done about it.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, for example, reports that Internet-related complaints topped the list in his state in 2011. Close behind on the list were credit issues, including complaints about credit card billing and debt settlement companies. Complaints about auto dealers and particular brands also garnered a number of complaints from New York consumers.

Crime scene

“The crime scene of the 21st century is the Internet, and it is important for consumers to not only know their rights online, but how to seek justice,” Schneiderman said. “In addition to taking action against those who cheat New Yorkers, our office is always a resource to stop scams before they start.”

In New Jersey, meanwhile, complaints about home improvement services and contractors generated the largest category of complaints filed by consumers last year with the State Division of Consumer Affairs, representing 7.7% of all consumer complaints received. Motor vehicles was the second largest category of complaints, followed by credit issues. 

Surge in debt collection complaints

“Debt collection complaints rose from 8th place in 2010 to 3rd place last year, likely reflecting the difficult economy we’re in,” said Thomas R. Calcagni, Director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs. “Home improvement and motor vehicles complaints switched positions but continued as the two top complaint categories in the last two calendar years.”

In North Carolina, Attorney General Roy Cooper reports that, for the first time, complaints about lenders topped the list in 2011.

A total of 3,998 consumers filed complaints about interest rate hikes, charges for late payments, foreclosure relief scams and other lending related issues in 2010, compared to 3,909 complaints in 2011. Complaints about health care, the second leading source of complaints, were down sharply, with 3,271 complaints in 2011 compared to 4,605 in 2010. At number three, complaints about Do Not Call violators were up to 2,933 in 2011 compared to 2,514 in 2010.

Attorneys general seek input

The attorneys general went out of their way to encourage consumers who have experienced a consumer problem to contact their office. New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa said consumer complaints are “key tool” used by investigators. Cooper agrees.

“If you didn’t get what you paid for or think you’ve been scammed, we want to know about it,” Cooper said. But we’d rather help you avoid trouble in the first place by warning you about common problems,” Cooper said.

So, in addition to posting your complaint at ConsumerAffairs, it's a good idea to also send a copy to your state attorney general's office. You can find your state attorney general here.

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NYC Declares Predatory Schools the Top Consumer Fraud

Consumers must do their homework before taking on debt to enroll in a for-profit school

Jonathan MintzThis is Consumer Protection Week, when you'll hear all kinds of somber pronouncements about identity theft, bogus Web sit...

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Jonathan Mintz

This is Consumer Protection Week, when you'll hear all kinds of somber pronouncements about identity theft, bogus Web sites and so forth. But in New York City, Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) Commissioner Jonathan Mintz has declared predatory schools the top fraud of the year.

Unlicensed and unaccredited schools and some GED, certificate and associate degree programs lure potential students by making false promises such as guaranteed job placement or internships, and six-figure incomes, while few deliver, Mintz warned. Some also fail to disclose whether or not credits will transfer or that the financial aid that students receive are actually loans, which and can total tens of thousands of dollars and must be paid back with interest.

"In these difficult economic times, many New Yorkers are returning to school to acquire new skills to help them gain employment and unfortunately there are also predatory schools trying to take advantage of them," Mintz said. "In November, the city launched a public awareness campaign to highlight the dangers of wasting hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars for degrees that prove useless and don’t prepare New Yorkers for jobs, rather than accessing options that offer high-quality instruction and support services that lead to employment.

"Since then we have heard from many New Yorkers who are angry about their experience and are in dire financial straits as a result of loans they took out to finance worthless degrees. The combination of false promises and the overwhelming debt accrued puts predatory schools at the top of our list this year," Mintz said.

Many schools market their services through subway and bus ads, community newspapers, TV and radio, ethnic media, and community-based outreach mechanisms. Many students are unaware of free and low-cost education and training programs.

More than 500

Mintz said there are more than 500 licensed for-profit, non-degree-granting proprietary schools in New York State. More than 300 of these are in the five boroughs of New York City, as well as several dozen for-profit degree-granting schools.

Schools offer various courses of study, from air conditioning repair and cosmetology to medical technician training and English language courses. An estimated 200,000 students attend for-profit schools throughout the state, and at least half of those -- more than 100,000 -- live in New York City.

One of the ads produced by Mintz's department features Garvin, a 26-year-old resident of Brooklyn, who completed a two-year Associate’s degree at a school that he saw advertised on television.

After completing his Associate’s degree and attempting to transfer to the City University of New York (CUNY) for his bachelor’s degree, he discovered that his degree was not transferable and, despite owing $25,000 in student loans, he will have to start college over and enter CUNY as a freshman.

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Car Sales Surge In February

Consumers flood showrooms despite fewer incentives

Car sales rose sharply in February...

PhotoDespite high fuel prices and concerns about the economy, U.S. consumers flooded new car showrooms last month, handing most carmakers a banner month. Audi, Acura, Mazda and several other brands scored double-digit sales gains

Audi reported its 14th straight record-setting month of sales with 8,531 luxury vehicles sold in February 2012. The results surpassed the prior February record set in 2011 by 778 vehicles. Closing in on a promising first quarter, year-over-year vehicle sales increased 10% over February 2011, and recorded 14.9% year-to-date growth compared to 2011.

Acura's line of sedans again led overall sales in February with 6,612 units sold, up 26.0 percent based on Daily Selling Rate (DSR). While the TL performance luxury sedan was up 26.0 percent, the TSX sports sedan edged out the TL as Acura's top selling car.

Mazda North American Operations (MNAO) reported strong February U.S. sales of 25,651 vehicles, representing an increase of 32.3 percent versus last year and best February total sales since 1994. On a Daily Selling Rate (DSR) basis, Mazda's February 2012 sales were up 27.0 percent.

American Honda Motor Co., Inc., reported February new-vehicle sales of 110,157, an increase of 7.8% over February 2011, based on the daily selling rate. The Honda Division posted February 2012 sales of 98,899, an increase of 8.8 percent year-over-year.

Fewer February incentives

While many dealers offered traditional Presidents Day sales in February, manufacturers were offering very little in the way of incentives. Automotive site Edmunds.com suggests that's a sign sales were robust across the entire industry.

Edmiunds reports that the average incentive per vehicle in February was $2,193, up 2.4 percent over January, but down 14.5 percent from February of last year.

"The decreased incentives spending across the industry so far in 2012 really underscores the healthy performance we've been seeing at dealerships nationwide," said Edmunds.com Senior Analyst Jessica Caldwell. "Car manufacturers know that consumers who deferred purchases in 2011 are still coming back to the market and by stepping back the discounts, they stand to pocket bigger profits. The first quarter of 2012 is shaping up quite well for automakers."

Of the top six automakers, only Ford Motor Co. increased its incentives spending year over year in February. Ford's incentives spend climbed 1.8 percent in February to $2,827. Toyota, meanwhile, boasted the biggest year-over-year drop in spending, cutting incentives by nearly one-third to $1,431 per vehicle.

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Campbell's Will Phase Out BPA From Soup Cans

Chemical has been linked in some studies to cancer, diabetes and other illnesses

Campbell's Soup Company has announced that it will phase out the use of the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) in its can linings....

PhotoCampbell's Soup Company has  announced that it will phase out the use of the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) in its can linings.

"Campbell's decision to move away from BPA is a victory for consumers, who have been demanding this change," said Gretchen Lee Salter, Policy Manager at the Breast Cancer Fund. "To truly be an industry leader, the company now needs to fully disclose the timeline for the phase-out and the alternatives that will be used."

Campbell's Chief Financial Officer Craig Owens revealed the company's plans last month in a conference call with financial analysts but it did not receive widespread public attention until the Environmental Working Group issued a press release earlier this week. 

"As you know, Bisphenol-a, or BPA, is widely used in metal food packaging to help preserve and protect food and to maintain its nutritional value and quality," Owens said in the conference call. "We believe that current can packaging is one of the safest options in the world; however, we recognize that there is some debate over the use of BPA.

"The trust that we have earned from our consumers for over 140 years is paramount to us and we have been monitoring and working on the issue for several years. Because of this, we have already started using alternatives to BPA in some of our soup packaging and we are working to phase out the use of BPA in the lining of all of our canned products," Owens said.

Exposure to BPA, used to make the epoxy-resin linings of metal food cans, has been linked in lab studies to breast and prostate cancer, infertility, early puberty in girls, type-2 diabetes, obesity and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Childhood exposure is of concern because this endocrine-disrupting chemical can affect children's hormonal systems during development and set the stage for later-life diseases, critics argue.

Found in soup

In November 2011, Harvard researchers found that a group of volunteers who consumed a serving of canned soup each day for five days had a more than 1,000 percent increase in urinary BPA concentrations compared with when the same individuals consumed fresh soup daily for five days.

Last September the Breast Cancer Fund released a report that found BPA in canned food marketed to children; Campbell's Disney Princess and Toy Story soups tested the highest.

November Breast Cancer Fund report found BPA in Campbell's turkey gravy and cream of mushroom soup. Both reports, as well as the growing consumer pressure on Campbell's to get BPA out of its products, are part of the Breast Cancer Fund's Cans Not Cancer campaign

In the last six months, more than 70,000 letters were sent to Campbell's by supporters of the Cans Not Cancer campaign - including nearly 20,000 from the non-profit Healthy Child Healthy World, which for 20 years has been empowering parents to protect children from harmful chemicals.

"Parents want to be sure when they serve Campbell's Soup to their kids that it is free of toxic chemicals that contribute to disease," said Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff, Executive Director of Healthy Child Healthy World. "I commend Campbell's for taking this first step - as well as the concerned parents and consumers who made their voices heard in the boardroom and at the checkout counter."

No significant cost

In a February shareholder meeting, Campbell's Chief Financial Officer Craig Owens reported that the shift to BPA-free cans has begun, and would not impose a significant cost to the company. "We recognize that there is some debate over the use of BPA," he said. "The trust that we've earned from our consumers for over 140 years is paramount to us. And we've been monitoring and working on the issue for several years. Because of this we've already started using alternatives to BPA in some of our soup packaging. And we're working to phase out the use of BPA in the lining of all of our canned products. The cost of this effort is not expected to be material."

Campbell's has yet to release any details on which products currently contain BPA alternatives, which BPA alternatives are being and will be used, or the proposed timeline for completion of the phase-out.

"Consumers aren't just concerned about BPA. They are becoming increasingly savvy about the chemicals used in their food packaging and are demanding transparency from manufacturers," said Salter. "We want to make sure that any alternatives that are being used are actually safer for consumers, and the best way to ensure that safety is through full disclosure."

"We call on Campbell's Soup to set a clear timeline with benchmarks for success," said Sarnoff. "We understand that this transition cannot happen overnight, but a timeline is necessary so that consumers can hold Campbell's accountable for their progress."

Eleven states have restricted BPA in infant food containers over the past four years. The FDA is currently considering a BPA ban and there is legislation before Congress that would ban the use of BPA in all food and beverage containers.

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Editor's note: Earlier versions of this story stated that Campbell's had made the change in response to "pressure from consumer and public health groups." The company disputes that assertion.

 

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Student Says Unauthorized Charges Prevalent On Campus

But source really isn't a mystery and it isn't only students at risk

Bridget, of Champaign, Ill., is a student at the University of Illinois. It sounds like she and others are getting an education in unauthorized credit card...

PhotoBridget, of Champaign, Ill., is a student at the University of Illinois. It sounds like she and others are getting an education in unauthorized credit card charges.

“There is an unauthorized $19.95 charge from Experian on my credit card,” Bridget wrote in a post on ConsumerAffairs.” I have not checked my credit score (ever) nor have I signed up for anything from this company.”

Bridget says she knows of other students who have had the same experience, and most recently she said, faculty and staff at the university have voiced the same complaint.

“Perhaps there was a glitch in a store on campus and our information was compromised,” Bridget wrote. “I am not sure who or how they got my information but this is an unauthorized charge that my credit card company is dealing with as we speak. This company should be looked at and investigated carefully by consumers before signing up for any of its services!”

It happens a lot

Bridget is not alone. Many of the complaints ConsumerAffairs receives about Experian have to do with unauthorized charges. And the complaints come from everywhere.

“They took money in the amount of $39.90 without my permission,” Diana, of Brawley, Calif., wrote in a recent post. “I don't remember giving my account number to them. Can they hack into my computer and do this?”

They didn't hack into Diana's computer – or anyone else's – because they didn't have to. Some companies maintain third party marketing relationships with other companies. When a consumer makes a credit card purchase with one company, without their knowledge that company shares their credit card information with another company, who then offers to sell the same consumer a recurring service.

Beware the negative option

But in many cases, the offer is written is such small print, and contains a “negative option” clause – such as “unless you tell us not to, we're enrolling you in this membership program and charging your credit card $39.95 a month – the computer doesn't notice it and, therefore, is surprised and angry when the charge shows up on their credit card.

Experian owns FreeCreditReport.com which offers free and low cost services, in exchange for enrolling in a “trial” of their credit monitoring service. It sounds like that could be the source of the widespread unauthorized charges on campus.

Diana said she is contesting the charges though her credit card company and that is the correct course of action. Arguing with the company that placed the charge on your account is usually unproductive. Credit card companies, on the other hand, argue with them every day, and have a lot more leverage that an individual consumer.

To avoid these traps, always decline “free” or “trial” offers. They always end up costing money. And if you want a free copy of your credit report, go to the government-maintained site www.annualcreditreport.com. It really is free.  

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Lawsuit Claims Kim Kardashian Weight Loss Claims Are Bogus

Class action says QuickTrim claims are false and misleading

Would the Kardashian sisters lead you astray?  A proposed class action lawsuit says the reality TV star and two of her sisters have made false claims ...

PhotoWould the Kardashian sisters lead you astray?  A proposed class action lawsuit says the reality TV star and two of her sisters have made false claims about QuickTrim diet pills.

The lawsuit says the pills amount to little more than caffeine with a few herbal ingredients thrown in and says the claims made by the Kardashians are "false, misleading, and unsubstantiated."

The plaintiffs in the case live in New York, California and Florida and alleged that they purchased the diet pills because of the Kardashians' endorsements.

The suit, filed in federal court in New York, seeks over $5 million in damages.  It was filed by the law firm of Bursor & Fisher.

Kim Kardashian, 31, made an estimated $65 million in 2010 from her TV shows, clothing line and numerous endorsements of fitness, beauty and weight-loss products.

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Lawsuit Challenges Skechers 'Shape-Up' Shoes

Class action charges deceptive advertising, says shoes have no health benefits

A class-action lawsuit filed in Kentucky seeks money damages for consumers who paid a “premium price” for Skechers “Shape-Ups”...

PhotoA class-action lawsuit filed in Kentucky seeks money damages for consumers who paid a “premium price” for Skechers “Shape-Ups” based on TV, print and Internet ads that touted the toning shoes’ health benefits.

In reality, the complaint alleges, the shoes provide no additional health benefits. Instead, they pose a risk of injury due to their pronounced rocker bottom sole, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit seeks money damages and an order that would stop Skechers from “deceptive and unlawful advertising.”

According to the lawsuit, the shoes are marketed, sold and promoted by Skechers, U.S.A., Inc., and its subsidiaries.

“If you’ve bought a pair of Skechers ‘Shape-Ups shoes for the health benefits, you’ve been misled,” attorney Robert K. Jenner said in a statement. “You deserve not only to get mad, but to get your money back.”

Jenner is a Baltimore attorney who has been involved in previous toning shoe injury cases. 

The complaint states that Skechers is currently being investigated for its toning shoes marketing claims by the Federal Trade Commission. In September, the FTC reached a $25 million settlement with Reebok for making similar fitness claims about its own brand of toning shoes, the lawsuit states. 

No evidence

In particular, the lawsuit alleges that Skechers promoted that its “Shape-Ups” would provide health benefits “without setting foot in a gym.”

However, the plaintiffs claim, the company has produced no valid scientific proof that the toning shoes provide any greater benefit than regular athletic shoes.

The complaint cites an American Council on Exercise study that concluded, “There is simply no evidence to support the claims that these shoes will help wearers exercise more intensely, burn more calories or improve muscle strength and tone.”

However, the lawsuit alleges, the shoes do pose health risks. Because the rocker bottom soles create instability and change gait mechanics, they can trigger chronic injuries and cause wearers to fall and suffer injuries, the plaintiffs claim.

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IRS Warns of Fraudulent Schemes Targeted at Low-Income Consumers

Schemes promise refunds to people who have little or no income

The Internal Revenue Service is warning senior citizens and other taxpayers to beware of an emerging scheme tempting them to file tax returns claiming frau...

PhotoThe Internal Revenue Service is warning senior citizens and other taxpayers to beware of an emerging scheme tempting them to file tax returns claiming fraudulent refunds. The scheme carries a common theme of promising refunds to people who have little or no income and normally don’t have t file a tax return.

Promoters claim their victims can get a tax refund or nonexistent stimulus payment based on the American Opportunity Tax Credit, even if the victim was not enrolled in or paying for college.

In recent weeks, the IRS has identified and stopped an upsurge of these bogus refund claims coming in from across the United States. The IRS is actively investigating the sources of the scheme, and its promoters may be subject to criminal prosecution.

False hopes

“This is a disgraceful effort by scam artists to take advantage of people by giving them false hopes of a nonexistent refund,” said IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman. “We want to warn innocent taxpayers about this new scheme before more people get trapped.”

Typically, con artists falsely claim that refunds are available even if the victim went to school decades ago. In many cases, scammers are targeting seniors, people with very low incomes and members of church congregations with bogus promises of free money.

The IRS has also seen a variation of this scheme that incorrectly claims the college credit is available to compensate people for paying taxes on groceries.

The IRS has already detected and stopped thousands of these fraudulent claims. Nevertheless, the scheme can still be quite costly for victims. Promoters may charge exorbitant upfront fees to file these claims and are often long gone when victims discover they’ve been scammed. 

The IRS is reminding people to be careful because all taxpayers, including those who use paid tax preparers, are legally responsible for the accuracy of their returns, and must repay any refunds received in error. 

Get the facts

To get the facts on tax benefits related to education, go to the Tax Benefits for Education Information Center on IRS.gov.

To avoid becoming ensnared in this scheme, the IRS says taxpayers should beware of any of the following:

  • Fictitious claims for refunds or rebates based on false statements of entitlement to tax credits.
  • Unfamiliar for-profit tax services selling refund and credit schemes to the membership of local churches.
  • Internet solicitations that direct individuals to toll-free numbers and then solicit social security numbers.
  • Homemade flyers and brochures implying credits or refunds are available without proof of eligibility.
  • Offers of free money with no documentation required.
  • Promises of refunds for “Low Income – No Documents Tax Returns.”
  • Claims for the expired Economic Recovery Credit Program or for economic stimulus payments. 
  • Unsolicited offers to prepare a return and split the refund. 
  • Unfamiliar return preparation firms soliciting business from cities outside of the normal business or commuting area.
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Internet Access Bandit Convicted of Wire Fraud

"Coax Thief" helped consumers steal Internet service from cable companies

A Redmond, Ore., man who marketed a "Coax Thief" program has been convicted of seven counts of wire fraud by a federal jury in Boston.Ryan Harris, 26, ...

PhotoA Redmond, Ore., man who marketed a "Coax Thief" program has been convicted of seven counts of wire fraud by a federal jury in Boston.

Ryan Harris, 26, was the owner of TCNiSO, a company that distributed products enabling users to steal Internet service.  From 2003 through 2009, Harris developed and distributed hardware and software tools that allowed his customers to modify their cable modems so that they could disguise themselves as paying subscribers and obtain Internet service without paying. 

The products included a “packet sniffer,” which Harris dubbed “Coax Thief.”  It surreptitiously intercepted (or “sniffed”) Internet traffic so that the user obtained the media access control addresses and configuration files of surrounding modems. 

Despite the conviction, the software was still available for download at http://www.coaxthief.com/ as recently as March 4, 2012, with a note saying it was "presented by (the late) TCNiSO."

TCNISO and Harris also offered ongoing customer support, primarily through forums that it hosted on the TCNISO website, to assist customers in their cable modem hacking activities.

“Mr. Harris tried to hide behind the banner of freedom of access to the Internet, but the evidence established that he built a million dollar business helping customers steal Internet service,” said Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer.  

The U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, Carmen M. Ortiz, said, “The Internet is an incredible resource that has transformed the way we conduct business.   Unfortunately, it has also become a breeding ground for criminals.   We will continue to prioritize the prosecution of those who wish to utilize our communication systems to conduct illegal activity and inflict harm on others.” 

Each count carries a maximum prison term of 20 years and a fine of up to $250,000.  Sentencing has been scheduled for May 23, 2012, at 3 p.m. before Chief District Court Judge Mark Wolf, who presided over the trial.

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Feds Recovered Nearly $1 Billion in Consumer Protection in 2011

Justice Department reorganized in 2010 to address growing problems

The Justice Department’s Consumer Protection Branch recovered more than $913 million in criminal and civil fines, penalties, and restitution in 2011,...

PhotoThe Justice Department’s Consumer Protection Branch recovered more than $913 million in criminal and civil fines, penalties, and restitution in 2011, according to a report released today by Tony West, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division. In addition, West said the branch secured convictions of 37 defendants, obtained prison sentences totaling more than 125 years against 32 individuals, and recorded a 95 percent conviction rate last year.  
 
Since 2009, the consumer protection efforts of the Civil Division, working with U.S. Attorneys’ Offices around the country, have led to recoveries of more than $3.72 billion, over 115 criminal convictions, and total prison sentences exceeding 295 years.    

“As scams targeting consumers grow and becomes more sophisticated, those in law enforcement charged with combating such schemes must do the same,” West said. He said the division was reorganized to sharpen its focus in traditional areas, such as ensuring the safety of drugs, medical devices, food and dietary supplements, and maintaining a level playing field for those seeking to purchase small business opportunities. The branch also expanded its footprint to cover areas like mortgage fraud, immigration services fraud, and new forms of telemarketing abuse, thus bringing its criminal and civil enforcement resources to bear against a wide range of practices that harm consumers.   

Health care fraud and food safety cases were the sources of the Consumer Protection Branch’s largest recoveries in 2011.   The branch brought enforcement actions in response to a number of violations, including unlawful promotion of pharmaceuticals, misleading statements made to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about medical devices, the sale of adulterated food and unsafe food, and drug manufacturing practices.  

The branch recovered more than $842 million in criminal fines and forfeiture and $40,372 in restitution, secured 12 convictions, and obtained sentences totaling 220 months in prison against 11 individuals.   In addition, the branch recovered $35 million in civil penalties and won 14 civil injunctions against defendants that failed to manufacture food or drug products safely.  

Financial fraud 

West said the Consumer Protection Branch has responded to the financial crisis by aggressively pursuing various forms of financial fraud, including the sale of bogus reverse mortgages to elderly homeowners, the sale of phony business franchises to budding entrepreneurs trying to earn an honest living and telemarketing operations that “cram” false charges on consumers’ telephone bills.   In 2011, the branch secured 19 convictions, with prison sentences totaling more than 100 years, and recovered more than $30 million in civil penalties and restitution – including more than $22 million that went back to victims.  

In 2011, the Consumer Protection Branch promoted product safety by prosecuting individuals and companies for making false statements concerning safety testing, illegally selling explosives (such as fireworks), and importing products that do not meet the nation’s safety standards.   In addition, the branch investigated and prosecuted individuals who deceived used car buyers through odometer rollback scams.   In these two areas, the branch won multiple criminal convictions, obtained prison sentences totaling more than 10 years, and recovered more than $5 million.    

The Consumer Protection Branch complimented its affirmative criminal and civil enforcement work in 2011 by defending the decisions of government agencies charged with protecting consumers.   The branch successfully defended cases involving, for example, the FDA’s rejection of an unsafe drug and approval of a generic drug to increase consumers’ market choices; the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) approval of a regulation to shield consumers from unfair business practices; and the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) recall of an unsafe product.  

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Maclaren USA, Smarting from Massive Recall, Files for Bankrtupcy

Parents of injured children are among the firm's creditors

The United States subsidiary of the company that makes Maclaren strollers has filed for bankruptcy, although affiliated companies outside the U.S. are appa...

PhotoThe United States subsidiary of the company that makes Maclaren strollers has filed for bankruptcy, although affiliated companies outside the U.S. are apparently unaffected.

The high-priced strollers have been popular with upscale parents for years despite problems you'd normally expect from lower-priced merchandise: wheels breaking, strollers tipping over and, most notably, not one but two recalls because of fingertip amputations that occurred when infants' fingers became trapped in the hinge mechanism.

In the Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing, Maclaren USA lists liabilities of $15.9 million against assets of just $45,413.  Included among the creditors are at least seven families whose children suffered fingertip amputations and who were awarded damages in court, The New York Times reported.

The rest of Maclaren's global operations are apparently unaffected by the bankruptcy filing and, the Times noted, some of the liabilities listed in the filing are debts to other Maclaren entities.

A black eye

The Maclaren recalls were a black eye for the company.  The first recall, in 2009, affected more than one million strollers and was announced after 15 incidents, including 12 fingertip amputations in the U.S.

The recall was repeated in May 2011. By that time, the total number of incidents had grown to 149, including 37 additional injuries, five involving fingertip amputations.

Recalls are sometimes repeated when incidents continue to occur after an initial recall, as was the case with Maclaren.  This often happens when consumer products -- particuarly baby gear -- are donated or sold when a family's children outgrow them and the second generation of owners don't hear about the recall.

But in Maclaren's case, even consumers who tried to follow up on the recall were frustrated.

"I tried the link from the ConsumerAffairs website, consumer safety website, and the Maclaren USA website for recall. None of these links worked," Tim of North Hollywood, Calif., said last January. "Maclaren USA should be responsible for providing information about the recall to the public. How am I to get information about the recall and if my stroller is part of the recall if their website and recall tab is not working?"

Evette of North Brunswick, N.J., had a similar experience: "I have been trying to contact Maclaren concerning the hinge recal at there tool free number and their website. I cannot get through on either. How are we supposed to get the kit for the stroller? I cannot use a stroller that I paid almost $200 for."

Status symbol 

Maclaren was founded in Britain by Owen Maclaren in the 1960s.  The lightweight, collapsible baby buggies quickly became something of a status symbol in New York City and elsewhere despite complaints that they were prone to tip over and that the wheels weren't sturdy enough to stand up to New York's mean streets.

"I have a chocolate/pink Maclaren stroller and I have just about had it with it tipping over backwards with my 2 year-old in it," said Veronica of Chino, Calif. "I am confused and freaked out."

Jo of Brooklyn experienced the flimsy wheels problem fisthand. "Stroller back wheels became like hard flat bricks after one year of regular use toting my son his first year," she said.

Things turned out even worse for Caroline of New York.

"I was walking down the street with my two-year-old in his Quest and wheel snapped off! We fell down. Could not believe it. Nobody badly hurt but shocked. Carried toddler home with shopping -- had to leave stroller on sidewalk!"

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High-End Technology Spreading to Lower-Priced Cars

Sophisticated safety & performance systems no longer limited to luxury cars

While the federal government delays and dithers about rear-view cameras, the cameras and many other safety and performance systems are no longer limited to...

PhotoWhile the federal government delays and dithers about rear-view cameras, the cameras and many other safety and performance systems are no longer limited to high-end luxury cars.

Many 2012 model cars and trucks include as options or standard equipment sophisticated technology that just a few years ago was available only on high-end luxury cars.

The rear-view cameras are a perfect example.  Intended to reduce tragic "backover" accidents that often involve children, the cameras are available as standard equipment on 45 percent of 2012 models, according to automotive research site Edmunds.com. The cameras are an optional feature on 23 percent of models.

“Technologies like anti-lock braking and stability control were once seen as pioneering innovations and are now either required or come as standard features on new cars,” said Martha M. Meade, Manager of Public and Government Affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “Once these safety and performance technologies are developed and the costs for them continues to decline, it is our hope that they will be included on as many vehicles as possible.”

AAA cited the following features as ones which are now often included as standard on 2012 model vehicles:

Brake Assist This feature, now standard equipment in some vehicles, recognizes when a driver has just instituted an emergency stop. The system then applies full braking power, even if the driver has not pressed the brake pedal hard enough to do this. If the driver backs off the brakes, the system steps out of the picture.

This feature was first offered in some vehicles in the mid-90s after studies showed that even experienced drivers were reluctant to use all the braking power built into their vehicles during an emergency.

Parking Proximity Warning Systems and Backup Cameras These features let a driver know when he or she is getting close to an object and/or show the path the car is taking. Using sensors, the warning system identifies items, animals or people, including small children that the driver cannot see because his or her view is blocked by parts of the vehicle. The backup camera shows the area directly behind the vehicle when in reverse.

Originally a luxury car exclusive, today parking sensors and back up cameras are far more common, even on popularly priced vehicles.

PhotoLane Departure Warning Systems A safety feature that lets a driver know they have begun to cross over lane markers without signaling, lane departure warning systems use cameras to sense the lane markings on pavement. It will issue a warning that can be audible or take the form of a vibration in the steering wheel. Originally offered on top Infiniti models, lane departure warning systems are now more widely available.

Active Cruise Control This feature, once a luxury car exclusive, uses radar or laser to maintain a set distance from the car ahead. If a driver using such a system encounters slower traffic, the cruise control will automatically reduce speed by backing off the throttle. If the traffic clears or speeds up, the active cruise control will return to the driver’s original speed.

Newer systems can also apply the brakes when needed to maintain a safe following distance. In some cases the active cruise control system will actually bring the car to a stop if the traffic ahead stops. Active cruise control is now offered as an option on a wide range of vehicles, including those that cost less than $30,000.

Driver Alert Warning System Originally introduced on costly luxury models, this system looks for signs of an inattentive or tired driver.  There are several ways to monitor the alertness or attention of a driver that range from lane departure to monitoring the driver’s movements via cameras. Despite differences in monitoring technology, when the vehicle senses drowsiness or inattention it warns the driver to take a break.

Blind Spot Warning Systems This warning system uses a radar or camera to detect and warn a driver that another vehicle is lurking just out of view in an adjacent lane. Often, an amber light on the appropriate mirror is illuminated when a vehicle is in the driver’s blind spot. If the driver signals to move in that direction, an audible alert or flashing light is activated as a warning.

First seen in costly vehicles, it is now standard equipment is some family vehicles, including several Mazda models.

Weight Reduction Weight reduction is an important feature for all automakers regardless of make or model. This is one area in which lower-priced cars were the pioneers while many luxury car makers and buyers stuck to the theory that heavier is better.

Today, luxury cars from makers such as Audi and Jaguar have adopted aluminum and other lightweight materials to reduce weight. The benefit of lower vehicle weight is better performance from the same engine and suspension package and increased fuel economy in all driving conditions. 

Stop-Start This is a feature that is well known to any hybrid vehicle owner and drivers in Europe. This technology automatically stops the gasoline engine while the driver waits for a red light to turn green. It saves fuel while reducing emissions. Kia may soon bring this technology to non-hybrid applications in two of their low-priced cars, the Soul and Rio. 

Expect expanded use of this technology in the next few years as vehicle manufacturers work to meet the higher Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards set for 2016.

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Departure warning system photo credit: Edmunds.com

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Colorado Will Vote on Legalizing Marijuana

Measure will appear on the November ballot; no organized opposition yet

Colorado voters will have a chance to largely decriminalize marijuana when they go to the polls this November.A statewide proposal that would eliminate...

PhotoColorado voters will have a chance to largely decriminalize marijuana when they go to the polls this November.

A statewide proposal that would eliminate civil and criminal penalties for limited possession and cultivation of marijuana by adults was certified by the Colorado Secretary of State's office this week, as state officials certified that the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol had collected sufficient signatures from registered voters to qualify the measure for the 2012 ballot.

If passed by voters this fall, the measure would immediately allow for the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and/or the cultivation of up to six cannabis plants by those age 21 and over. Longer-term, the measure seeks to establish regulations governing the commercial production and distribution of marijuana by licensed retailers.

While the initiative is said to be popular in Colorado, it's not clear that a similar proposal would fare well nationally.  ConsumerAffairs conducted a computerized sentiment analysis of more than 3.3 million consumer comments on social media and blogs over the last year and found overall sentiment on something of a roller coaster.

Photo

"Marijuana is safer than a Big Mac," tweeted one enthusiast.  "Marijuana is better than boys," said another.  "William Randolph Hearst is a HUGE reason why marijuana is illegal," said an anonymous poster from Oklahoma, offering no historical background for the claim.

Quite a few individuals credited marijuana with keeping them sane and motivated. "I'm thankful for marijuana for giving me piece of mind & good sleep," said one.

Overall, we found that the primary objection to marijuana is that it's illegal.

Photo

Of course, the fact that something is illegal doesn't have much to do with whether or not it should be legal, although it's a pretty good argument against using it, at least among those who worry as much about their criminal record as about their credit score.

We found only about 140 comments about Colorado's marijuana initiative, too few to be useful. Press reports indicate a notable lack of hysteria about the issue, however.

Former state House Majority Leader Paul Weissmann endorsed the initiative, saying the proliferation of medical-marijuana patients and businesses has not damaged the state.

"The world hasn't come to an end," Weissmann said, according to the Denver Post, which reported that there is so far no organized opposition to the measure.

Backers spent more than $200,000 to get the measure on the ballot and are expected to put at least that much into advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts, the Post reported.

Medical cannabis

The initiative does not change existing medical cannabis laws for patients, caregivers, and medical marijuana businesses. The measure also prohibits the imposition of an excise tax on any retail sale of medical marijuana.

By contrast, the general assembly would be required to propose "an excise tax of up to 15 percent on the wholesale sale of non-medical marijuana applied at the point of transfer from the cultivation facility to a retail store or product manufacturer." This proposed tax must be approved by a majority of voters in a statewide general election before it could be implemented.

Non-commercial transfers of cannabis would not be subject to taxation. In other words, you could get high with a little help from your friends without being required to pay tax on the transaction.

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Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase

 
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Payday Lender Complaints Surged In 2011

BBB says complaints against banks go down

payday lender complaints rise in 2011...

PhotoComplaints about payday lenders more than doubled in 2011, while complaints about banks actually went down, according to a report by the Better Business Bureau.

The study found bank complaints fell 30 percent from 2010, in all probability because more consumers began moving their accounts in response to growing fees, well before November's “national bank transfer day.”

On the other hand, many consumers of modest means found themselves caught between hard times and declining credit availability, perhaps increasing the number of consumers who turned to payday lenders.

Costs pile up

“I took a small payday loan back in December 2011 for $450,” Lorraine, of Philadelphia, Pa., wrote in a post on ConsumerAffairs. “I have no problem paying this back but so far this company (Cashjar.com) has taken $135 out of my bank account bi-weekly since I thought I was almost done paying this money back. “I got an e-mail stating they are going to take $185.00 dollars this time and who knows how much next. So far they have taken $655.00.”

If Lorraine's experience ends up being typical, she will pay a lot more than that. Robert, of El Paso, Tex., reports taking a $400 payday loan with Ameriloan. He said the company emailed documents that he said showed a payoff total of $520.

“They even listed the next four payment dates on the emails that were sent,” Robert told ConsumerAffairs. Then, after making four payments for a total of $480 dollars, with what I am thinking is a $40 balance, I get a reminder for a $170 payment! When I call I find out that the $480 paid for the last 4 paydays has been a finance charge and from here forward I now owe eight more payments of $170 dollars, which is a $50 principal payment and another $120 finance charge. This is a total of $1840 dollars paid over six months for a simple $400 payday loan! Over $1400 in finance charges for a staggering 995 percent APR. How can they get away with this?”

Banks getting into the act

In a few states, they can't. A handful of states have capped interest rate charges at 36 percent, which payday loan companies consider far to low to operate. At any rate, consumer advocates say payday loans should be avoided at all costs, because they begin a spiral of increasing debt.

Now, it appears payday lenders are getting some competition from large national banks.Last month the Center for Responsible Lending sent a letter to federal financial regulators “to take immediate action to stop banks from making unaffordable, high-cost payday loans.”

“Non-bank payday borrowers routinely find themselves unable to repay the loan in full plus meet their expenses for the next month without taking out another payday loan,” the letter said. “A recent analysis of actual checking account activity by the Center for Responsible Lending finds the same is true with bank payday loans.”

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Getting New Tires? Here's What to Look For

New report helps customers figure out which tires provide the best overall value

A recent survey of new tires by Consumer Reports contains critical tips for car owners...

PhotoFor drivers who are searching for the right set of new tires for their vehicle, a new release from Consumer Reports magazine shows how the company rates over 150 tires now on the market. Consumer Reports scores tire models on the following criteria:

  • Wet and dry performance
  • Performance on the ice
  • Handling
  • Hydroplaning
  • Performance in snow
  • Noise
  • Rolling resistance
  • Longevity of tire tread

The report also tests tires according to their ability to provide a comfortable ride. Consumer Reports tested tires for all sorts of vehicles, including cars, trucks and SUVs, as well as different seasonal and high-performance tire types.

In a preview of the full report, which gets published in Consumer Reports magazine and accessed by subscription online, the company provided some helpful tips for consumers, as well as some additional caveats related to auto shopping.

One recommendation from top staffers is that consumers should look for tires that can last a long time while still providing good traction on the road. CR also advised customers to think about the higher cost of  run-flat tires, which lessen the inconvenience of a flat, but generally end up costing drivers more in total costs of ownership for a vehicle.

Right type

Consumer Reports also suggests that drivers choose the right type of tire from the following:

  • All-season tires that have overall good tread and allow for a comfortable ride, but less performance in inclement weather
  • All-terrain tires for off-roading
  • High-performance tires that help with handling but don’t last as long
  • Winter tires that provide better traction on snow and ice

Tire shoppers should also review the laws on winter tires, including tire studs and chains, in their state of residence.

Consumer warnings

PhotoOne additional point that CR is making is that some car companies are now skimping on the basic equipment needed to actually change a flat.

The report names Hyundai and its top-selling Accent model as a  model that comes factory-equipped with only an air compressor and sealant kit, rather than the traditional spare tire and jack.

Another car buying issue that drivers may want to look out for is “locking lugs.” This is another fancy feature on new cars that can actually be a frustrating barrier to changing a spare. Locking lug nuts are specialty bolts for tires that can only be removed with a special manufacturer’s tool.

Although these features are promoted as a theft deterrent, many consumers feel that unless their vehicle is parked in an extremely high-crime area, these specialty lugs are unnecessary. As for the disadvantages of locking lug nuts, ConsumerAffairs has received various complaints from consumers that feature some of the problems with these items, including:

  • Inability to change or rotate tires when the original tool is lost
  • Damage to locking lugs or specialty tool at a place of service
  • Problems securing a spare tire with locking lug nuts

Drivers can ask questions at the dealership about whether locking lug nuts will really help them to secure their vehicle, or whether these specialty bolts will make it necessary to return to the dealership for even minor service in the future.

Whether you’re headed to the dealer’s lot or to the tire store, keep these helpful tips in mind to get the purchases that are right for you.

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New Criteria Identify Drugs Dangerous to Seniors

Older adults at higher risk of adverse effects from commonly-used drugs

A wide range of medications—some relatively new and others long available—can cause serious side effects and other adverse events in people 65 ...

PhotoA wide range of medications—some relatively new and others long available—can cause serious side effects and other adverse events in people 65 and older if not prescribed with care.

A new edition of the Beers Criteria published by the  American Geriatrics Society helps identify the most dangerous ones.

More than 40% of people aged 65 and older take five or more medications according to a 2008 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and each year more than a third of them will suffer a drug side effect or other adverse drug event (ADE). 

“Older adults run a particularly high risk of ADEs, in part because age-related physiological changes and multiple health problems can make them more vulnerable to such reactions,” says Jennie Chin Hansen, CEO of the American Geriatrics Society (AGS). 

For example, a commonly used category of pain relievers known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may worsen heart failure in those with this condition. Older adults are also at increased risk of ADEs because many take multiple medications, which can interact, causing potentially dangerous “drug-drug interactions.”  

The late Mark H. Beers, MD, a geriatrician and editor of The Merck Manuals and The Merck Manual of Geriatrics, first published the Beers Criteria in 1991. In 2011, the AGS convened a panel of experts in geriatrics and pharmacotherapy to revise and expand the criteria, based on the latest research. The society plans to update the AGS Beers Criteria every three years. 

53 medications

Fifty-three medications and classes of medications are among those listed as potentially problematic in the 2012 AGS Beers Criteria, which group medications that may be harmful to older adults into three categories.

The first category includes 34 medications that are potentially inappropriate because they either pose high risks of side effects or may have limited effectiveness in older adults, and because alternative treatments are available. New entries include “sliding scale insulin.” 

The second category includes 14 medications that are potentially inappropriate for older people with certain diseases, risk factors, or disorders because they may exacerbate these conditions. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which may increase risks of falling in some older adults, are among the new entries in this category. 

A third, new category added to the Beers Criteria includes 14 medications to be used with caution in older adults. These medications may be associated with more risks than benefits in older people in general, but nonetheless may be the best choice for a particular individual if administered with caution. Vasodilators are listed as they may increase episodes of syncope -- or fainting -- in older adults with a history of this condition, and contribute to greater risks of falling. 

“These are drugs that studies suggest are potentially inappropriate for older people or should be used with caution in older adults with specific health problems. But responses to drugs vary significantly among older people. And, for some individuals, medications on these lists may be the best and only choice. The Beers Criteria alone should never dictate prescribing, nor should they be used punitively. They are intended to inform thoughtful prescribing decisions,” says Todd Semla, PharmD, MS, co-chair of the panel that the AGS convened to update and expand the criteria.

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Say 'No Thanks' When Offered 'Free Month' of Service

Accepting the offer cancels your cancellation

Don't accept a free month of service when you call to cancel...

PhotoIn a tough economy, Diana, of Sunnyvale, Calif., was looking for expenses to cut. Last October, she decided she could get along without her ADT security system and called to cancel the service.

“The person on the phone said they would give me two months free to get through the holidays,” Diana wrote to ConsumerAffairs. “I said that I would only agree if I didn't have to call back and cancel again. The gentleman assured me that yes, indeed the account would be cancelled if I didn't call back to let them know. I agreed to the free two months.”

Diana said she received bills for the two “free” months but ignored them, something she says she now realizes was a mistake.

“I called today to straighten out the situation and was told that if I didn't pay for the two months my account would go into collection,” Diana said. “I never would have agreed to the free two months had I known that I had to call back!”

Cancelling the cancellation

It is not uncommon for businesses that sell subscriptions to offer an extra free month of service when customers call to cancel. Consumers, however, should always firmly and unequivocally decline the offer. Here's why:

Once you agree to accept an additional month of service, even if you aren't being charged for it, it negates your cancellation. To really cancel the service, you would need to call back during the free month and cancel again. Almost no one does that.

By the time the consumer figures out what has happened, they've been charged for additional months beyond their “free month.” If they don't pay, it gets turned over to collections.

Diana made a mistake in believing the customer service rep when he told her she didn't have to call back. Verbal declarations by company employees are pretty meaningless, compared to a company's written policy.

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Young People Still Bear Brunt of Unemployment

Experts say it could take years for younger generation to recover

Although the nation's unemployment rate has trended down in recent months in both the U.S and elsewhere, a high percentage of young people continue to stru...

PhotoThe nation's unemployment rate has trended down in recent months as confidence builds that the economy is on the road to recovery. But in both the U.S. and elsewhere, younger people appear to be lagging behind.

In the U.S., jobseekers between the ages of 16 and 24 are struggling against a jobless rate that's twice as high as the 8.3 percent rate for the nation as a whole.

The situation is even worse in Europe. New research from a study of more than 40,000 UK household has examined what is driving this uneven employment pattern and finds that young people suffer from a 'double-penalty' in their attempts to find and keep a job.

Last in, first out

The data show that young people are more likely than older workers to be laid off and less successful than older workers in finding new employment.

The rise in youth unemployment figures is due to young people being more likely than older workers to be laid off, thus swelling the unemployment figures. But they are also less likely than older people to successfully find a new job, and so the average time they spend in unemployment has increased.

Double penalty

"Young people are particularly suffering in this recession, with unemployment currently even higher than when this survey was conducted,” said Dr. Mark Taylor, a labor analyst at the University of Essex. “The double-penalty faced by young people is due to them falling victim to the 'last-in, first-out' policies that are used in practice by many employers. Then, on the other hand, young people tend to have accumulated fewer job-specific skills. Employers may feel that they lose less by letting young workers go and may also choose not to hire them because of the costs associated with training them.”

While there are a number of efforts to assist young people in dealing with their short-term situation, the Economic Policy Institute warns there are also long-term implications.

“Evidence from past recessions of the effect on young workers who entered the labor market during a downturn shows that the impact is severe and long-lasting,” the group said on its website. “In particular, entering the labor market in a severe downturn can lead to reduced earnings for up to 10 to 15 years. Young workers at all levels of educational attainment who enter the labor market during a downturn face higher rates of unemployment.”

With fewer job openings, it's harder to find a food entry level job that will lead to advancement. As a result, young people who have the misfortune to be young during a period of high unemployment could have future instability in employment and earnings as they get older.

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Beware Fake Mortgage Settlement Calls

Scammers are trying to exploit foreclosure settlement

Millions of homeowners will be affected by the recent foreclosure settlement with major lenders. Scammers know that and will try to use that to trick unsus...

PhotoMillions of homeowners will be affected by the recent foreclosure settlement with major lenders. Scammers know that and will try to use that to trick unsuspecting consumers.

“Unfortunately, scammers are trying to use this landmark settlement to line their own pockets,” said North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper.

Cooper says fraud artists are using the recently announced national foreclosure settlement to try to get people to divulge their bank account information. The objective is to trick consumers into revealing personal information that can be used to steal their identities.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli says his office has received a number of reports from consumers who have received these calls.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,” Cuccinelli said. “Instead, call a known number for your financial institution, so you are sure you are reaching a legitimate contact."

Consumers who are eligible for direct relief from the foreclosure settlement will be contacted by their mortgage servicer or the settlement administrator in coming months. Consumers can also contact their mortgage servicers directly for more information:

Bank of America: 1-877-488-7814
Citi: 1-866-272-4749
Chase: 1-866-372-6901
Ally (formerly GMAC): 1-800-766-4622
Wells Fargo: 1-800-288-3212

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Bank of America Eyes New Fees

It's those darned consumers again -- using too many services, not paying enough

Bank of America learned a bitter lesson last year when it tried to impose a $5 monthly fee on its debit card users. Or did it?Maybe the lesson the...

PhotoBank of America learned a bitter lesson last year when it tried to impose a $5 monthly fee on its debit card users. 

Or did it?

Maybe the lesson the bank learned isn't the one all those outraged consumers thought it learned.  Maybe the real lesson was that banks need to find a way to blame the fees on the consumer.

AT&T has always been pretty good at this.  It blames consumers for using too much of their "unlimited" smartphone data plans and then imposes limits.  

Bad consumer.

Bank of America thinks this might work in the banking realm as well.  For example, what if consumers were told their checking account was "free" as long as they maintained a certain balance or agreed to take out a car loan or credit card account?  

That's good, right?  Free is good. So the customer opens the checking account, then lets the balance drop and is told she doesn't qualify for the car loan or credit card.  Whose fault is that?  Certainly not the bank's.

Bad consumer.

Not their fault

Well, you know, you can't blame them though.  Banks just aren't making as much as they're used to, not since they made all those bad loans and had to eat all those rotten mortgages and especially since the feds came along and put limits on overdraft fees and other splendidly profitable plunder.

Take Bank of America.  Its 2011 revenue dropped by $26 billion, or 22%, from its 2009 level. Think the Board of Directors likes that? Not likely.

Of course, there are banks that still offer free checking with no strings attached.  The list is long and most, but not all, of them are smaller. TD Bank, for example, is a big bank but it didn't write all those bad mortgages, didn't take any bail-out money and it offers several types of free personal and business checking accounts. Heck, they're even open weekends.

But the big guys -- you know, the ones too big to fail, like BA, Chase and Wells Fargo -- they're having a hard time getting by so they're all nosing around looking for fees and charges that can either raise more revenue or encourage (i.e., intimidate) customers into doing more business with them.

Bank of America has been trying various plots -- uh, pilot -- programs in Arizona, Georgia and Massachusetts, where it's charging customers anywhere from $6 to $9 for stripped-down checking account. Basically, they're trying to find the pain point, the point at which consumers stand up and say no.

For obvious reasons, BA and the other banks aren't saying much about these plans.  But when they do, you can be sure they'll leave no doubt about whose fault it is.

Bad consumer.

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AT&T Ends Unlimited Data Plans

Will start throttling heavy users at pre-set limits

OK, it's great that AT&T, Verizon and their competitors have been pushing everyone into upgrading to smarter, faster, snazzier 3G and 4G smartphones wi...

PhotoOK, it's great that AT&T, Verizon and their competitors have been pushing everyone into upgrading to smarter, faster, snazzier 3G and 4G smartphones with all kinds of data-hungry features.

So, now the logical next step is -- you guessed it -- data caps.

AT&T broke the news today, saying it will no longer let its customers use more than a predetermined amount of data and will begin throttling heavy users' download speeds. 

For 3G users with unlimited data plans, the new limit is 3 gigabytes per month and for 4G LTE users, it's 5 gigabytes.

So how can an "unlimited" data plan have limits?  It's comparable to an all-you-can-eat buffet that forces you to eat with one hand after you've consumed so many drumsticks.  No one says you can't keep eating, but it will take you a lot longer.  

AT&T says -- what else? -- the measures are necessary because customers are using too much data, which is exactly what AT&T, Apple and Samsung have been urging them to do with all the glitzy ads showing happy smartphoners talking with Siri, watching videos and studying maps.

Apple's iPhones are notorious for hogging bandwidth but other smartphones are close behind.

AT&T and other carriers bemoan the billions they are spending to upgrade their networks so they can handle more traffic.  The logical question consumers might ask is: when all that extra capacity comes on line, will the data limits go away?

Actually, the data limits aren't new.  AT&T has been throttling the heaviest 5% or so of users for quite somet time but it has never specified exactly what constituted "heavy."

So now we know what's heavy.  The next question is, what's slow? How slow will those "throttled" speeds be?  

No word on that from AT&T.  Maybe the answer is working its way through a throttled circuit somewhere. 

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Kelly Blue Book Picks VW Passat as Top Family Car

This year's top 10 list emphasizes fuel economy

The car you might choose for yourself as a single person might not be the same car you would choose for your family. Families demand certain things in a ve...

PhotoThe car you might choose for yourself as a single person might not be the same car you would choose for your family. Families demand certain things in a vehicle, so which 2012 models are best-equipped to provide them?

Kelly Blue Book is out with its list for 2012, with Honda making a strong showing. This year, fuel economy was a strong influence in the editors' choices.

Kelly Blue Book's top 10 family cars for 2012 are:

  1. Volkswagen Passat
  2. Honda Odyssey
  3. Ford Flex
  4. Suburu Outback
  5. Honda CR-V
  6. Kia Sorento
  7. Chevrolet Suburban
  8. Honda Civic
  9. Chrysler 300
  10. Toyota Prius V

Transportation cost during the ownership period is important for families trying to get by on tight budgets, so a vital part of the selection process is identifying vehicles that have low cost of ownership in the initial five-year ownership period, the editors explained. Total Cost of Ownership information examines depreciation, expected fuel costs,finance and insurance fees, maintenance and repair costs, and state fees for new models.

“Kbb.com’s 10 Best Family Cars of 2012 helps busy parents navigate a hectic, confusing automotive market, offering suggestions for all types of families,” said Jack R. Nerad, executive editorial director and executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book’s kbb.com. “After driving and evaluating nearly all of the new cars available on the market today, we identified the vehicles that offer the greatest combination of features and value for everyday families.”

The top choice, the VW Passat, is both larger and cheaper than the model it replaces, according to the editors. But the European driving dynamics and interior feel remain, making the new Passat a uniquely well-rounded, high-value family sedan.

The Toyota Prius V is the only hybrid making the list. Kelly Blue Book points out it's a bigger, roomier and more family-friendly version of the Prius. It's MPG rating is 42 highway, about the same as many non-hybrid sub-compacts.

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What Does Google's New Privacy Policy Really Mean?

A communications expert weighs in

Google's new privacy policy...

PhotoFor weeks now Google has displayed a link on its pages to its new privacy policy, urging people to read it, adding “this stuff matters.”

Whether you've read it or not, the new policy goes into effect today and some privacy advocates are not at all happy about it. In a nutshell, the new policy means Google will track your activity across all of its services – Gmail, YouTube, Picasa, and Google Search.

“The goal for the new Google privacy policy is to have one policy to cover all of Google’s products and services, rather than separate policies for varying services,” said Lee Humphreys, Cornell assistant professor of communication. “Google’s intention is to create a more integrated user experience and to simplify their privacy policy for their products. Under the new system, Google will be combining user data across their various services, whereas before certain data was kept separate."

Skeptical?

It all sound harmless enough. But should consumers feel skeptical about the new rules?

“Maybe,” Humphreys said. “The biggest concern about the privacy changes is that it will not be clear to users exactly what kinds of data are collected and integrated, and what their options are for opting-out of having their information collected and tracked."

Humphreys has her own reservations about the new policy. She said she understands that Google's objective is to refine the data about individual users so that ads can be more directly targeted. But she would like consumers to be able to control the personal data that any company collects about them.

She says Google may give a consumer the means to opt out, but they have to secretly be hoping that most people don't use it – otherwise Google won't be able to deliver the targeted ads it has promised advertisers.

How to protect yourself

Fortunately there are ways consumers can protect themselves online.

“Users should sign out of services and websites when they’re done, particularly if they’re using a public computer,” Humphreys said. “Another thing users can do is to clear their history and cookies, a technology that websites use to track where we go on the web, on their Internet browsers like Internet Explorer, Chrome and Firefox. Users should also be aware that what they do on the web is tracked.”

Humphreys concedes that tracking often makes the web more useable and navigable. We find what we're looking for faster. The trade off, of course, is that your information is collected.

“If we don’t want our information collected, we need to educate ourselves about how to opt-out of these systems,"Humphreys said. 

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Some Netflix Customers Complaining About Selection

Company is, in fact, transitioning to new types of content

Complaints about Netflix selections...

PhotoNetflix was the company that could seemingly do no wrong, until last July. Then, a series of business missteps alienated customers who were especially unhappy when the company began charging separately for its DVD and streaming services.

These days we hear complaints about the content.

“I can no longer find any of the movies I would like to view using the Netflix search command,” Doug, of San Diego, Calif., wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post.

"It stared a few months ago when there was an update to the 360 home page. I realized afterwards that the Netflix had been significantly downgraded, being most noticeable in the search feature."

More of the same?

Gillian, a Netflix subscriber from Northumberland, UK, is unhappy with the selection, calling it “the same old rubbish.”

“It was the same, nothing I want or not what was advertised,” Gillian wrote. 

Jay, of New Canaan, Conn., said he recently cancelled his DVD account and went to streaming. He says he's disappointed.

“I now notice that more and more of my choices are only available on DVD,” Jay wrote. “This is driving me to purchase from Amazon, and recently Hulu Plus more often than using Netflix.

Shooting Starz

The content on Netflix may, in fact, be changing a bit. Netflix's key content contract with Starz Entertainment expired this week, meaning Starz content is no longer available. But consumers shouldn't blame Netflix for that. Starz announced last year it was refusing to renew the contract because it did not believe Netflix was charging consumers enough money to view the content.

Netflix has indeed changed its emphasis and is becoming primarily a provider of TV shows rather than feature films. Many of the new additions are highly acclaimed series, including Mad Men, Arrested Development and Breaking Bad.

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Study: Vitamin D Shrinks Fibroid Tumors in Rats

Study suggests possible treatment for common condition

Treatment with vitamin D reduced the size of uterine fibroids in laboratory rats predisposed to developing the benign tumors, reported researchers funded b...

PhotoTreatment with vitamin D reduced the size of uterine fibroids in laboratory rats predisposed to developing the benign tumors, reported researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Uterine fibroids are the most common noncancerous tumors in women of childbearing age. Fibroids grow within and around the wall of the uterus. Thirty percent of women 25 to 44 years of age report fibroid-related symptoms, such as lower back pain, heavy vaginal bleeding or painful menstrual periods. Uterine fibroids also are associated with infertility and such pregnancy complications as miscarriage or preterm labor.

Other than surgical removal of the uterus, there are few treatment options for women experiencing severe fibroid-related symptoms and about 200,000 U.S. women undergo the procedure each year. A recent analysis by NIH scientists estimated that the economic cost of fibroids to the United States, in terms of health care expenses and lost productivity, may exceed $34 billion a year.

Fibroids are three to four times more common in African-American women than in white women. Moreover, African-American women are roughly 10 times more likely to be deficient in vitamin Dthan are white women. In previous research, the study authors found that vitamin D inhibited the growth of human fibroid cells in laboratory cultures.

"The study results provide a promising new lead in the search for a non-surgical treatment for fibroids that doesn't affect fertility," said Louis De Paolo, Ph.D., chief of the Reproductive Sciences Branch of the NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which funded the study.

Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and tuna are the best natural sources of the vitamin. Very few foods naturally contain vitamin D. Fortified milk and other fortified foods provide an additional source of the vitamin. Vitamin D is also produced when ultraviolet rays from sunlight strike the skin.

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