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Mortgage Modification Nightmares Continue

But New York's attorney general says more legal help could make a difference

Six years into America's giant wave of foreclosures, desperate homeowners continue to recite the same story in their effort to work out a mortgage modifica...

PhotoSix years into America's giant wave of foreclosures, desperate homeowners continue to recite the same story in their effort to work out a mortgage modification with their loan servicer.

The servicer requests documents from the homeowner. The documents are sent and several weeks go by. The homeowner calls and is told the servicer doesn't have the documents, they need to be sent again.

It's not just one company that has these problems, it's just about all of them. Abra, of Eugene, Ore., said she went through the ordeal with Bank of America.

“In September 2011 I got paperwork informing me that my three month trial modification was approved and that I should call in each payment during those months,” Abra wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “The first time I did, I immediately noticed the tone of the representatives had changed. They informed me that they are debt collectors! I asked what for, I wasn't behind in my payments and have a great credit score? They didn't seem to know why I was in collections.”

Wrong account

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Consumers rate Bank of America

Abra said it turned out the bank was applying her payments to the wrong account. She then applied for a second modification this past February.

“Sent all the paperwork in, twice, and keep getting requests for the same paperwork,” Abra wrote. I tried to call my 'Relationship Manager,' who never seems to know anything about her job or how to do it, and for weeks I've called multiple times a day leaving messages and no one ever calls me back!”

But then Abra found something that worked. She called the Making Home Affordable office, the program set up by the Obama Administration to facilitate mortgage modifications. While the program has come in for criticism for the small number of modifications it has achieved. Abra says it saved her home.

Finally, some help

“The man I spoke to was immediately responsive to what I had to say,” Abra writes. “He conference-called Bank of America and got someone on the line right away to explain the status of my modification. He accelerated my modification out of the collections department and assured me that he would be following up on my account and checking in with me in several days to ensure a resolution had been made. Finally! Someone who listens and helps!”

In all likelihood, having a powerful advocate made the difference for Abra. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says more struggling homeowners need an advocate in their corner.

“New York has a pretty good set of laws to protect against wrongful foreclosure. But those laws are of little use to the many New York homeowners — about half — who faced foreclosures in recent years without a lawyer,” Schneiderman wrote in a recent op-ed piece.

More legal help for homeowners

Schneiderman says when he worked on the multi-state and federal settlement with mortgage servicers, he pushed hard for funding to provide legal services for homeowners facing foreclosure. Schneiderman says it's already paying off for residents of his states.

“In one recent case, a grandmother and her five grandchildren in Brooklyn were facing foreclosure until a legal services agency negotiated a loan modification, reducing her interest rate from 9.55 percent to 2.13 percent,” Schneiderman writes. “This made the loan affordable enough for them to stay in their home.”

The lesson for homeowners is clear: there is a big difference in how a loan servicer responds when you call to plead your case and when an attorney or government official calls on your behalf.

Schneiderman said New York will use $15 million from the state's share of the recent mortgage settlement to fund legal services for struggling homeowners for the next three years.

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Barnes & Noble, Microsoft Plan Joint e-Book Venture

Primary focus is on the college textbook market

When it comes to the growing trend of e-books, electronic juggernauts Apple and Amazon have maintained a stronghold on both the sales and marketing of this...

PhotoWhen it comes to the growing trend of e-books, electronic juggernauts Apple and Amazon have maintained the lion's share of both the sales and marketing of this newly developed reading style.

Now book retailer Barnes & Noble is trying to level the playing field a bit, partnering with Microsoft to start a new subsidiary built around the Nook, GN's e-reader. The new venture will focus on educational texts for college.

Microsoft will be making a $300 million dollar investment to launch this new venture, which will allow Barnes & Noble to be major players in the e-book world, while at the same time ensuring company longevity, unlike their ex-competitors Borders, who failed to adjust to the changing book climate, and went out of business in 2011.

“Our complementary assets will accelerate e-reading innovation across a broad range of Windows Devices,” said Microsoft President Andy Lees in a statement. “We’re on the cusp of a revolution in reading.”  

The investment will give Microsoft a 17.6 percent ownership of the venture, and Barnes & Noble will retain 82.4 percent of the newly formed company.

Microsoft’s large investment will include the creation of a Nook application for Windows 8, that will allow several million Windows customers to take advantage of Barnes & Noble’s online store.  

William Lynch, CEO of Barnes & Noble called Microsoft “ideal partners” in a statement. “Few companies own more screens worldwide than Microsoft”, he explained.  

“Microsoft’s investment and our exciting collaboration to bring world-class digital reading technologies and content to the Windows platform and its hundreds of millions of users, will allow us to significantly expand the business,” Lynch added.

This new merger is in stark contrast to the previously contentious relationship between Microsoft and Barnes & Noble, as the two companies went through legal disputes over patent infringement involving Nook e-readers in March of 2011. The case was ultimately thrown out in January 2012 by an International Trade Commission (ITC) judge, which created the first steps in these two powerhouse companies joining forces.

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Koss Introduces Wireless Wi-Fi Headphones

The mouse and keyboard are wireless; why not the headphones?

Wireless headphones fall under that weird category of products that are seemingly oxymoronic, like fried ice cream or the waterless car wash (yes, there is...

PhotoWireless headphones fall under that weird category of products that are seemingly oxymoronic, like fried ice cream or the waterless car wash (yes, there is such a thing).

But now Koss, which has been in the headphone business since the 1950’s, says it has created the first headphone that pulls music directly from the Internet, without any cords or wires.

“People have complained constantly about wires. We’ve always wanted to get rid of wires.  We’ve been trying to get rid of wires since the 70’s,” said Michael Koss, president and chief executive officer of Koss, who took over the company from his father John C. Koss in 1991.

Named the Koss Striva, the new headphones contains a Wi-Fi component where one can stream music directly to the headphones, by accessing online radio stations by way of Koss’ MyKoss online portal.  Various radio stations can be searched for by a control located on the side of the headphones.  Customers can choose the in-ear version called the Stiva Tap, or the over-the-ear version named the Striva-Pro.

Wired or wireless

The Koss Striva allows you to stream music and other audio content directly from the internet, assuming there is a Wi-Fi signal available within a 300 foot range.  They can also be used as standard headphones, as they do come with an audio cable for those who are a bit freaked out by the wireless component and prefer things a bit more traditional.

The Striva is ideal for those who park themselves in coffee shops or plan to be stationary while listening to headphones.  A bigger challenge will be for those who typically use their headphones on the go, as different Wi-Fi signals will have to be accessed, which may give you an inconsistent amount of headphone play.

In addition, the revolutionary headphones comes with revolutionary costs at $500 a pair on the Koss website, which will probably scare away casual music listeners, and entice those who are serious about their sounds.

These new headphones have brought about some needed positive news, as Koss Corporation received some unwanted press back in December of 2009, when former vice president of finance Sujata “Sue” Sachdeva was accused in federal court of wire fraud, and embezzling $4.5 million from the company.

In a recent statement given to the press concerning the Striva, Micheal Koss spoke about the long journey his company has traveled since his parents started the business six decades ago.  

“60 years ago this month, my father and mother received $200 as a wedding gift from my grandparents to buy a living room set.  Instead my father convinced my mother to start a business with it.  Here we are 60 years later and we’re starting another revolution,” he said.




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Viagra, Levitra and Cialis Get Some Competition

FDA approves Stendra for erectile dysfunction

For Immediate Release: April 27, 2012Media Inquiries: Stephanie Yao,            &nbsp...

PhotoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved Stendra (avanafil), a new drug to treat erectile dysfunction. That's the condition when a man has trouble getting or keeping an erection.

An estimated 30 million men in the United States are affected by erectile dysfunction.

Stendra is a pill that patients take on an as-needed basis 30 minutes before sexual activity. Doctors should prescribe the lowest dose of Stendra that provides benefit.

“This approval expands the available treatment options to men experiencing erectile dysfunction, and enables patients, in consultation with their doctor, to choose the most appropriate treatment for their needs,” said Victoria Kusiak, M.D., deputy director of the Office of Drug Evaluation III in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

Stendra belongs to a class of drugs called phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5) inhibitors, which are used to help increase blood flow to the penis. As with other PDE5 inhibitors, Stendra should not be used by men who also take nitrates, commonly used to treat chest pain (angina), because the combination can cause a sudden drop in blood pressure.

Loss of vision

PDE5 inhibitors may rarely cause color vision changes. In rare instances, men taking PDE5 inhibitors have reported a sudden loss of vision in one or both eyes. Sudden loss or decrease in hearing has also been reported in patients taking PDE5 inhibitors. Patients who experience a sudden loss of vision or hearing should stop taking PDE5 inhibitors, including Stendra, and call a doctor right away.

The most common side effects reported in greater than 2 percent of patients in the clinical studies of Stendra include headache, redness of the face and other areas (flushing), nasal congestion, common cold-like symptoms and back pain. In rare cases, patients taking Stendra and other PDE5 inhibitors may get an erection lasting four hours or longer that will not go away (priapism). If this happens, patients should seek immediate medical care. 

Clinical studies

Stendra’s safety and efficacy were established in three double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical studies. A total of 1,267 patients were randomly assigned to take Stendra for up to 12 weeks at doses of 50 milligrams (mg), 100 mg or 200 mg, or a placebo as needed about 30 minutes before sexual activity.

At the start of the studies and every four weeks thereafter, patients completed questionnaires to evaluate erectile function, vaginal penetration and successful intercourse. Results showed patients taking Stendra experienced statistically significant improvement in all three endpoints for all three doses of Stendra studied.

To further evaluate Stendra’s safety, a subset of patients from two of the studies were enrolled in another trial to receive up to an additional 40 weeks of treatment.

Patients were initially given Stendra at the 100 mg dose, but could have their dose increased to 200 mg or decreased to 50 mg based on their individual response to treatment. Results showed that the side effects commonly reported in patients using Stendra did not worsen over time.

Stendra is marketed by Mountain View, Calif.-based VIVUS Inc.

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Kindle Fire Burning Up the Android Tablet Competition

Consumers obviously like the $200 price tag

Mirror, mirror, on the way, who's the hottest Andoid tablet out there? That would be the Amazon's Kindle Fire, according to a report by comScore, an IT mar...

PhotoMirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the hottest Andoid tablet of all? That would be the Amazon Kindle Fire, according to a report by comScore, a digital market research firm.

The report shows the Kindle Fire, Amazon's souped-up e-reader, had an astounding 54 percent of the Android tablet market just four months after its release. No one else was even close.

A ConsumerAffairs analysis of about 940,000 consumer comments on Facebook, Twitter and other social media finds a similarly meteoric rise in net sentiment, with a positive rating of 72 percent last month.

 

Emotions expressed by the comments we analyzed were almost uniformly positive.

 

Distant second

According to the data, the Samsung Galaxy Tab is second with a 15.4 percent market share. The Motorola Xoom is third with only seven percent.

“The Kindle Fire, introduced to the market in November 2011, has seen rapid adoption among buyers of tablets,” the authors write. “Within the Android tablet market, Kindle Fire has almost doubled its share in the past two months from 29.4 percent share in December 2011 to 54.4 percent share in February 2012, already establishing itself as the leading Android tablet by a wide margin.”

Low price

There's no question that the Kindle Fire's popularity is at least partly due to its low price. It costs $200, compared to $500 or more for other tablets. 

The Fire's low price draws consumers of limited means, like Marilyn, of New York, N.Y., who thinks $200 is a lot, especially if the product breaks.

“My daughter purchased a Kindle Fire for me for a Christmas gift,” Marilyn wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "By Feb. 18, it no longer worked. This cost $200! Of course, I threw out the box it came in.”

Hopefully someone informed Marilyn that the product was under warranty.

Content delivery system

While the Fire generally gets good reviews, consumers should understand that its main purpose is to sell you more Amazon content.

“A few weeks ago I was trying to view videos on my Kindle Fire when I saw that I couldn't get them unless I was a 'Prime' member,” Kelly, of Alexandria, Va., wrote to ConsumerAffairs. “I expected by clicking on the "Prime" icons on my Fire that I would not be charged for Prime membership as I was already a Prime member. When I realized I had in fact been charged $79 for Prime membership - turns out video membership is an upgrade I had to pay for though I didn't know this at the time - I called and canceled the paid membership and received a refund.”

ComScore notes that tablet adoption among U.S. consumers continues to climb as more devices appealing to various price and feature preferences are introduced to the market. Screen size is perhaps the most outwardly apparent differentiator between devices, with the market offering consumers a wide variety of options such as the 10" Apple iPad, 9" Sony S1, 7" Amazon Kindle Fire and 5" Dell Streak.

Analysis of page view consumption by screen size found a strong positive association between screen size and content consumption. Specifically, 10" tablets have a 39-percent higher consumption rate than 7" tablets and a 58-percent higher rate than 5" tablets.

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Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase

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Walmart Rolls Out In-Person Payment for Online Purchases

New process gives the "underbanked" the chance to shop online

In an effort to give non-credit and debit card holders an equal chance to buy products online, Walmart has created a new way for their customers to make pu...

PhotoIn an effort to give non-credit and debit card holders an equal chance to buy products online, Walmart has created a new way for their customers to make purchases.

Here’s how it works: Customers can go to Walmart.com, place an online order, then pay with cash at any Walmart store, after receiving an email and presenting their order number to a cashier 48 hours after purchase.

Since the online store theoretically has a wider range of products than the physical store, customers who typically make their purchases with cash, will have the same access to products as their plastic carrying counterparts.

“Many of our customers shop paycheck to paycheck and are looking for more ways to purchase items online but don’t have the means to a credit, debit or prepaid card,” Joel Anderson, president and CEO of Walmart.com, said in a press release.

“Our new ‘Pay with Cash’ offering is designed just for them.  It makes it easier for our customers to shop the way they want, where they have access to a broader product selection at Walmart.com coupled with the convenience of payment and shipping as they want,” he said.

Underbanked

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Consumers rate Walmart's customer service

Not only does this new method benefit those who simply prefer cash to plastic, it also better serves those Walmart customers that are of lower income or considered to be “underbanked” and may not have access to credit cards, or even a bank account.

With a strong desire to tap into the current online-shopping trend, the company's research shows that 81 percent of those customers without credit cards, or a bank account, still have a computer with internet access to make online purchases.

According to Walmart, two thirds of their customers considered to be “underbanked” desired a way to shop online but still be able to pay by cash. In one fell swoop Walmart has addressed this particular customer need, while simultaneously increasing their chances of selling more product and increase profit margins.

Obviously, from a public relations standpoint, it’s Walmart's best interest to market this new buying technique as a great benefit for the buying public, as opposed to a great monetary benefit for Walmart, which it truly is.

This new online cash option will be rolled out to all of Walmart’s 3,800 stores across the U.S., including their grocery store locations. It’s the first of its kind for any major retailer.

Impulse buys

While this does provide some convenience for the non-credit-card-customer in terms of variety, having to physically go to the store for payments dilutes some of that convenience, as an extra step is added to the sometimes hectic buying experience.

Convenient as it is, Walmart’s ‘Pay with Cash’ may negatively impact those “underbanked” households that will potentially spend more money than they normally would.  As current online shoppers can attest, it’s easier to spend and break the bank with an entire store and its products right at your fingertips.   

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Costco Gets Into the Mortgage Business

Lending Tree-type program matches lenders with applicants

Costco, which sells everything from gigantic tubs of peanut butter to funeral supplies, is getting into the mortgage business. The giant wholesale o...

PhotoCostco, which sells everything from gigantic tubs of peanut butter to funeral supplies, is getting into the mortgage business. 

The giant wholesale outlet has been testing the mortgage lending program for the last year, in partnership with First Choice Bank of New Jersey and ten other lenders.

It's a Lending Tree-type program that maches lenders with applicants, except that under the Costco program, the borrower's identity is revealed only after they have selected the lender, giving consumers an extra measure of privacy and protecting their credit reports from being dinged by lenders the consumer not even know about.

Costco says its lending partners have issued more than 10,000 mortgages under the program so far and expects that number to rise quickly when it starts promoting the program nationwide.

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Consumers rate Costco

This isn't Costco's first entry into financial services.  It already offers health and auto insurance, boat and RV loans and stock brokerage services.  It's planning to add auto loans soon and may also get into the student loan business, according to Lauren Kutschka, Costco's manager of financial services.

"We've always known that our members wanted more financial services," she said. "Right now, we offer recreational vehicle and boat loans and we're going to add auto loans to that. We're also looking to offer student loans."

Costco says it will be policing its lenders closely to ensure they provide accurate rates and terms and follow up promptly to consumer questions and requests.

Costco says it will be making no profit on the actual loans but is collecting a fee to market the service for the lenders.

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Plasma Flashlight May Prove To Be Bacteria Zapper

High-tech pocket tool kills bacteria and is completely portable

First, there was old fashioned soap and water. Lately, hand sanitizers have come into vogue. Now there is a new high-tech tool to eliminate bacteria.Its ...

PhotoFirst, there was old fashioned soap and water. Lately, hand sanitizers have come into vogue. Now there is a new high-tech tool to eliminate bacteria.

Its developers call it the plasma flashlight. It looks at lot like a regular flashlight, except that it emits a plasma jet that kills bacteria on the skin in an instant. Developed by a group of Chinese and Australian scientists, the flashlight is completely mobile, light, efficient, and works at room temperature, its sponsors say.

Due to its mobility it could be used in ambulance emergency calls, natural disaster sites, military combat operations and many other instances where treatment is required in remote locations.

Health care centers

“The plasma flashlight is an exciting development in potential health treatments,” said Kostya Ostrikov, one of the researchers who worked on the device. “It not only inactivates individual bacterial cells but also bacterial biofilms.”

Don't expect to see these devices in public restrooms, or even your home for that matter. At least not right away. Their anticipated use is in areas where bacteria has built up resistance to soap and other cleaning agents, like hospitals and dental offices.

Reearchers say the plasma flashlight effectively inactivated a thick biofilm of one of the most antibiotic and heat-resistant bacteria, Enterococcus faecalis, a bacterium which often infects the root canals during dental treatments.

10 seconds

“We used an extreme example to demonstrate that the plasma flashlight can be very effective even at room temperature,” Kostya said. "For individual bacteria, the inactivation time could be just tens of seconds.”

Kostya says tests suggest the device can be used to kill pathogens, such as bacteria, viruses, spores or fungi. In a hospital setting, it could be used to clean and sterilise medical equipment and wounds. It could also be used for plasma-assisted coagulation to help heal wounds, plus it could be used to treat cancers such as skin cancer.

But it doesn’t have to be restricted to medical use. It could end up in homes at some point in the future, incorporated into a variety of consumer products.

“This device could be miniaturized and used in hygiene treatments such as toothbrushes or chopping boards in the kitchen,” Kostya said.

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Exercise Could Reduce Sickle Cell Complications

Scientists find Sickle Cell Trait is cause for more concern than previously thought

Sickle cell disease (SCD)is an inherited condition that causes red blood cells to sometimes deform into a crescent shape. It affects an estimated 100,000 A...

Sickle cell disease (SCD) is an inherited condition that causes red blood cells to sometimes deform into a crescent shape. It affects an estimated 100,000 Americans, typically those of African descent.

However, doctors say far more people have sickle cell trait (SCT), caused when individuals carry just a single copy of the disease-causing mutation in their genes. Rather than all their red blood cells being affected, those with SCT carry a mix of affected red blood cells and normal ones.

Previously, researchers and physicians had assumed that those with SCT didn't have anything to worry about, that they were immune from the increased burden of sickness and death that those with SCD carry.

However, they may not be the case. Recent research suggests that the same problems that follow SCD patients at an increased rate also affect those with SCT to a lesser extent.

Oxidative stress

The problem is oxidative stress, a condition in which free radicals overwhelm the body’s natural antioxidants.

In healthy individuals, oxidative stress has been linked with conditions including cancer, heart disease, and simply aging; in sickle cell disease patients, oxidative stress is thought to play a role in causing the inflammation, problem with the linings of blood vessels, and blood cell blockages that cause complications from this disease.

French researchers now say regular exercise may be an effective way to minimize these adverse effects. Scientists have long known that exercise increases the level of antioxidants present in the body, defending against oxidative stress.

Regular exercise is the key

In a new study, researchers compare the effects of exhaustive exercise on people with SCT who exercise regularly with those who don’t. They found that training regularly seems to offset the burden of exhaustive exercise by lowering the levels of molecules associated with oxidative stress, increasing antioxidant molecules, and increasing nitric oxide, a molecule important for opening blood vessels which could play a role in preventing the blood vessel occlusion that sometimes occurs in SCD and SCT.

“We think that regular physical exercise that’s controlled by a physician and performed at low intensity could be a strategy to limit the disease burden in SCD patients,” said Dr. Vincent Pialoux, of the University of Lyon.

He and his colleagues are currently testing this strategy in animal models of the disease, with plans to eventually test human subjects.

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Berries May Reduce Cognitive Decline In Seniors

Bulking up on strawberries and blueberries can delay aging process, researchers say

If you're in your 50s and 60s and are concerned about staying mentally sharp as you age, you might consider adding blueberries and strawberries to your die...

PhotoIf you're in your 50s or 60s and are concerned about staying mentally sharp as you age, you might consider adding blueberries and strawberries to your diet. A new study suggests the flavonoids in them slow cognitive decline by two and a half years.

The study, published in the medical journal Annals of Neurology, say increasing your consumption of flavonoids have the potential to reduce inflammation in the body. The researchers believe that stress and inflammation contribute to cognitive impairment and that increasing consumption of flavonoids could mitigate the harmful effects. This isn't the first study to suggest the compound found in berries is good for the brain, but researchers say it's much larger and comprehensive that previous efforts.

Senior population growing quickly

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, elderly Americans — those 65 years of age and older — increased by 15 percent between 2000 and 2010, faster than the total U.S. population, which saw a 9.7 percent increase during the same time period.

"As the U.S. population ages, understanding the health issues facing this group becomes increasingly important," said Dr. Elizabeth Devore with Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, Mass. "Our study examined whether greater intake of berries could slow rates of cognitive decline."

The research team used data from the Nurses' Health Study—a cohort of 121,700 female, registered nurses between the ages of 30 and 55 who completed health and lifestyle questionnaires beginning in 1976. Since 1980 participants were surveyed every four years regarding their frequency of food consumption. Between 1995 and 2001, cognitive function was measured in 16,010 subjects over the age of 70 years, at 2-year intervals. Women included in the present study had a mean age of 74 and mean body mass index of 26.

Findings show that increased consumption of blueberries and strawberries appear to slow cognitive decline in older women. A greater intake of anthocyanidins and total flavonoids was also associated with reduce cognitive degeneration.

Slowed cognitive aging

Researchers observed that women who had higher berry intake delayed cognitive aging by up to 2.5 years. The authors caution that while they did control for other health factors in the modeling, they cannot rule out the possibility that the preserved cognition in those who eat more berries may be also influenced by other lifestyle choices, such as exercising more.

Flavonoids found in berries have recently been touted for other health benefits. A 2011 study found they are effective in reducing the risk of Parkinson's disease. A 2006 study found blueberries, in particular, are an effective mood enhancer.

Just keep in mind that it's always best to eat the fresh fruit itself and not rely on packaged extracts or supplements. In 2005 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned 29 manufacturers of berry supplements about their health claims.

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Feds Seize 36 Websites Involved in Selling Stolen Credit Card Numbers

Sites were "automated vending carts" for crooks, prosecutors allege

Seizure orders have been executed against 36 domain names of websites engaged in the illegal sale and distribution of stolen credit card numbers, Assistant...

PhotoSeizure orders have been executed against 36 domain names of websites engaged in the illegal sale and distribution of stolen credit card numbers, Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride of the Eastern District of Virginia, and Acting Executive Assistant Director Kevin Perkins of the FBI’s Criminal, Cyber, Response, and Services Branch, announced.

The seizures are the result of Operation Wreaking hAVoC, an FBI and Justice Department operation targeting the sale of stolen credit card numbers via the Internet. The operation was coordinated with international law enforcement, including the United Kingdom’s Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA).

The 36 seized domains are in the custody of the federal government. Visitors to the sites will now find a seizure banner that notifies them that the domain name has been seized by federal authorities.

“The websites we are targeting today were commercial outlets for stolen credit card information,” said Assistant Attorney General Breuer. “By making this information available on the Internet, these websites facilitated fraud on credit card holders around the world. The actions announced today are the result of extraordinary coordination with our international law enforcement partners and reflect our commitment to use every tool at our disposal to shut down fraudulent, criminal enterprises.”

“Countless lives are thrown into financial turmoil because of these websites,” said U.S. Attorney MacBride. “With a few simple clicks, thousands of stolen credit card numbers can be bought or sold to fraudsters anywhere in the world. Today’s seizures are part of an ongoing campaign to disrupt this online market regardless of where it operates.”

“By seizing the websites the criminal underground uses to blatantly sell stolen personal information, Operation Wreaking hAVoC shows that we are committed to protecting individuals online and preventing criminals from using the Internet to line their pockets,” said FBI Acting Executive Assistant Director Perkins. “The FBI and our partners around the world are committed to disabling these criminal networks. No single law enforcement agency can fight cyber crime on its own, and the FBI is proud to be a part of such an outstanding effort by all of the participating agencies.”

Automated Vending Carts

The websites of the seized domain names are commonly referred to as Automated Vending Carts (AVCs). An AVC is a website that functions as an open-ended invitation to any visitor to purchase stolen credit card numbers. AVCs allow a user to buy stolen credit card data over the Internet, even using an online shopping cart, just like a traditional online retailer. Some AVC sites allow a buyer to select which type of credit card number to purchase, the account’s country of origin, and, in some cases, the state in which the account holder lives. AVCs allow sellers to traffic stolen credit card data without communicating directly with buyers.

During this operation, law enforcement officials made undercover purchases of credit card numbers, including credit card numbers issued by Bank of America, SunTrust, and Capital One. The banks confirmed that the sites were not authorized to sell the credit card numbers. Seizure orders were obtained from a federal magistrate judge in the Eastern District of Virginia.

This U.S. operation was led by FBI’s Washington Field Office; the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property and Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Sections of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division; and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia. The FBI’s Pittsburgh Field Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Pennsylvania also assisted in the investigation.

The international operation was led by the United Kingdom’s SOCA. The Australian Federal Police (AFP); German Bundeskriminalamt (BKA); United Kingdom’s Dedicated Cheque and Plastic Crime Unit (DCPCU); Macedonian Ministry of Interior Cyber Crime Unit (MOI); Ukraine Ministry of Internal Affairs; Romanian Ministry of Interior; and the Dutch High-Tech Crimes Unit (KLPD) provided assistance. Activities conducted by these international law enforcement agencies included arrests of AVC operators and purchasers, additional domain seizures, and data seizures.

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Green Consumers Deluge Kellogg's Kashi With Pesticide Concerns

Controversy erupted when health food store removed Kashi from its shelves

Consumers review Kellogg's productsYou might call it a tempest in a cereal bowl.  Green consumers are feeling betrayed following r...

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Consumers review Kellogg's products

You might call it a tempest in a cereal bowl.  Green consumers are feeling betrayed following reports of genetically-modified grains (GMO) and pesticide residues in Kashi cereal products.

Kashi, a division of Kellogg's, has a hugely loyal following among the Birkenstock set and its products can be found lining the shelves of Trader Joe's, Whole Foods and nearly every other organically-aware store.

Except, that is for the Green Grocer, a Portsmouth, R.I., store that cleared its shelves of Kashi products and posted a sign quoting a report, Cereal Crimes,  by The Cornucopia Institute, a non-profit advocacy group, that alleged that Kashi and some other cereals packaged as "natural" nevertheless contain genetically-modified grains and pesiticide residues. 

The explosion of consumer outrage is still echoing around the blogosphere and social media.

Lost all faith

Photo"I have lost all faith in Kellogg's and the food industry in general," said Joe of Westerly, R.I., in a ConsumerAffairs posting

As images of the Green Grocer sign spread across the Web, one Facebook page collected more than 11,000 "shares" and angry consumers began calling and writing Kashi and posting comments on the company’s Facebook page expressing their outrage at being misled by the company’s marketing spin. 

"Had I known I was buying a product that was like all the others in the "normal" cereal aisle....I would have never purchased it and I certainly would not have paid the high prices!!!!!  It disgusts me," wrote one consumer, on Kashi’s Facebook page

Tepid response

Kashi's response has been tepid at best. It has issued nothing on its media relations page, cited no expert opinion and so far put forth no top executives to defend the company.

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Kashi's "Keegan"

In a posting on its Facebook page, Kashi says seven of its products are certified by the USDA as organic.

"We believe the credible way to provide information about GMOs is through USDA Organic certification and Non-GMO Project Verification. On store shelves now you can find seven of our foods with Non-GMO Project Verification, several others are USDA Organic certified and many more that contain organic ingredients," the company's statement said.

Also on its Facebook page, a person identified only as "Keegan," who says she is a nutritionist, discusses the "inaccurate information being circulated online" stumbling haltingly through an obviously-scripted video. She does not cite any academic credentials other than to claim to be a nutritionist.

In the video, the person who calls herself Keegan concedes that some Kashi products may contain GMOs but basically says it is not the company's fault, since so much of the grain grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. She said the company has a "longstanding commitment" to producing organic foods and repeats the assetion that seven products are now certified organic.

As for pesticide residues, Keegan says in the video that all Kashi products meet USDA guidelines. 

Keegan claims the information being circulated is "inaccurate and misleading" because, she says, it was not based on actual testing of Kashi products but was instead USDA data.

Blatantly false

"This characterization of our work by Kashi is blatantly false," said Will Fantle, Cornucopia’s Research Director.  "We purchased a readily available box of Kashi’s GoLean cereal from a Whole Foods store.  We then sent a sample to an accredited national lab for testing, finding that the soy in the natural cereal was 100% GMO."

"Committed organic companies that source wholesome ingredients free from synthetic pesticides and GMOs are competing in the marketplace with giant multinationals such as Kraft Foods (Back to Nature), Pepsico (Mother’s) and Kellogg’s (Bear Naked/Kashi) and their misleading natural marketing claims," said Fantle.  "When marketers intentionally mislead consumers with their ‘natural’ products, they are taking business away from those companies providing truly safe and healthy food and supporting certified organic farmers."

"We hope that companies like Kashi, marketing what they call natural foods, will instead choose to meet their consumers’ expectations by sourcing truly organic ingredients," Fantle added.

Below is a short video provided by Cornucopia. The Kashi video featuring "Keegan" does not contain the embed code or permissions required to display it here.

 

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Seniors Often Confused About Life Insurance Policies

"Guaranteed coverage" doesn't always mean what they think it does

When people reach a certain age, they begin to ponder the end of life and what they will pass on to their children. If they don't have many assets, they lo...

PhotoWhen people reach a certain age, they begin to ponder the end of life and what they will pass on to their children. If they don't have many assets, they look to life insurance as a quick way to build an estate, or at least cover their funeral expenses.

But for people 70 and over, getting reasonably priced life insurance isn't always as simple as the TV commercials make it seem. Paul, of Yorktown, Ind., found that out when he learned the premiums on the life insurance policy he had been paying on for years were about to rise dramatically.

"I took what remaining cash value I had and as a AARP member applied to New York Life," Paul wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "I was honest and supplied my medical information with the application."

Paul says he has Type II diabetes which is controlled with medication but is otherwise an active, healthy 72-year-old. He was angry when New York Life turned him down for coverage.

Coverage might not start right away

Alta, of Manassas, Va., says her parents signed up for AARP's New York Life policy, which had a two-year waiting period.

"My mother passed away five days before a two-year waiting period for her life insurance policy," Alta writes. "She and my dad took out a small policy each of $5000 to cover their funeral. They were told they were getting the guaranteed life that AARP and NY Life advertise in the mail, email and on TV. What NY Life gave them was a group life and because my mom signed the paper, they now will not pay her life insurance -- leaving my dad to pay the funeral cost that he cannot afford."

Currently, AARP offers four different life insurance products for seniors and they are very different. The lowest level, for example, is limited to a $50,000 death benefit but will be cancelled when the policyholder turns 80, or perhaps even sooner. It starts with low premiums that rise as the policyholder gets older.

Lifetime coverage, or maybe not

The two higher levels offer protection that can last a lifetime, in some cases. The benefit is limited to $50,000 in one case but only $15,000 in the other. The latter is the only policy that does not base acceptance on existing health issues.

All four of the products have no requirement for a physical exam, which is featured prominently in marketing materials. It might lead some seniors believe that life insurance at an advanced age is easy to get and affordable. It rarely is ... for obvious reasons.

Life insurance companies always play the odds. They are betting that you will live long enough to pay them enough to more than offset what benefits they have to pay out. If you don't look like a good bet, they will either pass or price the product they sell to you accordingly.

Many consumers who have reviewed the AARP policies advise others to read all the policy material carefully and talk to a trusted financial adviser before making a decision.

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Gerber Legendary Blades Recalls Instant Knife

The blade can fold up during use

Gerber Legendary Blades is recalling about 3,000 Instant Knives. The locking mechanism on the spring-assisted blade can fail to engage properly, ...

Gerber Legendary Blades is recalling about 3,000 Instant Knives. The locking mechanism on the spring-assisted blade can fail to engage properly, causing the blade to fold during use, posing a laceration hazard.

Photo

The recalled knives are spring-assisted clip knives with a black retractable 3.18" blade which can be folded into the textured black handle when the knife is not in use. The black handle has four diagonal slots on both sides. When closed, the knife measures 4.57" in length and when open, it measures 7.75". The Gerber "sword and shield" trademark appears in silver, on one side of the blade, close to the handle. The name "Gerber" is written in silver on the knife's pocket clip.

This recall involves model numbers 30-000435 and 31-001101. The different model numbers refer to the same knife sold in a box (30-000435) and in a blister pack (31-001101). The model number is printed on the original packaging underneath the barcode. It is not printed on the knife.

Sporting goods stores sold the knives nationwide from February 2012 through March 2012 for about $50. They were made in China.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled Instant Knives and contact Gerber Legendary Blades to receive a free replacement.

For additional information, please contact Gerber Legendary Blades toll-free at (877) 314-9130 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. PT, Monday through Friday, or visit the firm's website at www.gerbergear.com

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Mayo Clinic Researchers Link Obesity, Rheumatoid Arthritis

Both conditions have risen in women in recent years

When you stop and think about it, it seems logical. With obesity on the rise, more people are putting extra weight on sensitive joints. An increase in rheu...

PhotoWhen you stop and think about it, it seems logical. With obesity on the rise, more people are putting extra weight on sensitive joints. An increase in rheumatoid arthritis shouldn't come as a surprise.

For women, at least, it appears there is a link, Mayo Clinic researchers say. They studied hundreds of patients and found a history of obesity puts women at significant risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.

Their findings are published online in the American College of Rheumatology journal Arthritis Care & Research.

In rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system attacks tissues, inflaming joints and sometimes also affecting other organs and causing fever and fatigue. Rheumatoid arthritis usually shows up first in the hands and feet and then spread to the knees, ankles, hips and shoulders. It is more common in women than in men.

Complications can include heart problems, lung disease, osteoporosis and carpal tunnel syndrome.

The study

To examine a potential link with obesity, researchers pulled medical records covering 1980-2007 from the Rochester Epidemiology Project and studied 813 adults with rheumatoid arthritis and 813 adults as the control group, matched by age, gender and calendar year.

Height, weight and smoking status also were noted; roughly 30 percent of the patients in each group were obese and 68 percent were women.

Rheumatoid arthritis cases rose by 9.2 per 100,000 women from 1985-2007, the study found. Obesity accounted for 52 percent of the increase.

Smoking also is a substantial risk factor for developing rheumatoid arthritis, but smoking's prevalence remained constant over the years studied, ruling it out as an explanation for the rise in rheumatoid arthritis, the study found.

Researchers say more research is needed to determine how obesity may lead to rheumatoid arthritis. The exact nature of the link between obesity and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis is not clear, the researchers say.

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FTC Bans Bogus Timeshare Resellers

Consumers paid their money but got no help selling their timeshares

A telemarketing operation that allegedly deceived consumers who were trying to sell their timeshare properties is permanently banned from the timeshare res...

A telemarketing operation that allegedly deceived consumers who were trying to sell their timeshare properties is permanently banned from the timeshare resale and rental business, and from all telemarketing, under settlements with the Federal Trade Commission. 

According to the FTC's complaint against Vacation Property Sellers Inc., Vacation Property Services Inc., Higher Level Marketing Inc., Frank M. Perry, Jr., David S. Taylor, and Albert M. Wilson, the defendants deceived consumers who were trying to sell their timeshare properties into paying an upfront fee ranging from $200 to more than $8,000, claiming they had buyers lined up or would find buyers for consumers' properties.

When consumers realized they had been duped, the defendants allegedly ignored their phone calls and denied refund requests. The FTC charged the defendants with misrepresenting their refund policies and the existence of potential buyers, and calling consumers whose phone numbers were on the FTC's Do Not Call Registry.

In addition to the timeshare and telemarketing bans, thesettlement order prohibits the defendants from misrepresenting material facts about any goods or services, and selling or otherwise benefitting from consumers' personal information.

The order imposes a $23.5 million judgment that was suspended when Perry and the companies surrendered almost all of their assets. The settlement order against Taylor contains the same conduct prohibitions and imposes a $3.7 million judgment, which was suspended based on his inability to pay. The full judgments will become due immediately if the defendants are found to have misrepresented their financial condition. Litigation continues against the remaining defendants, Vacation Property Services Inc. and Albert M. Wilson.

To avoid pitfalls when selling a timeshare unit, read the FTC's Selling a Timeshare Through a Reseller: Contract Caveats.

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Mad Cow Discovery Puts Consumers Off Their Feed

It's the latest in a long series of safety scares affecting ground beef

It's been six years since mad-cow disease made its last documented appearance in the United States, but that's small comfort to consumers who were already...

It's been six years since mad-cow disease made its last documented appearance in the United States, but that's small comfort to consumers who were already worried about the safety and general healthfulness of the American food supply.

A ConsumerAffairs sentiment analysis of about 240,000 comments on Facebook, Twitter and other social media finds attitudes about ground beef only slowly recovering from the "pink slime" scare of a few weeks ago.

 

The U.S. Agriculture Department is saying that the California dairy cow that tested positive for the brain-wasting disease doesn't pose a health threat since the disease wouldn't be transmitted through the animal's milk. But the discovery that the disease is still lurking in American cattle won't do much to improve public confidence.  

 

The latest case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), as mad-cow disease is formally known, is the fourth to be documented in the U.S. since 2003.

PhotoThe discovery of the sick cow's carcass at a rendering plant was just the latest piece of bad news for the cattle industry.  A few weeks ago, social media whipped up a frenzy of near-hysteria over a ground beef ingredient that has come to be known as "pink slime." The filler material has been in use for two decades and is actually considered by most experts to increase, not decrease, the safety of ground beef but alarmist news reports further depressed consumer demand for beef, already depressed by consumer resistance to higher prices and continuing concerns over the health effects of a meat-heavy diet.

Encouraging words

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today assured consumers the food supply was safe, as did consumer activists who are not always so supportive.

“We have a good surveillance system and have been successful in reducing the number” of cases of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, Vilsack said. “We’re very confident in the sampling we currently do.”

Supporting Vilsack's view was Sarah Klein, an attorney specializing in food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington non-profit that is often sharply critical of government agencies' handling of food safety issues.

Photo"A case of a single cow with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy is not a reason for significant concern on the part of consumers, and there is no reason to believe the beef or milk supply is unsafe," Klein said. "If the cow were exposed to the typical strain of BSE via animal feed—and the government says that’s not the case here—that would have represented a significant failure. The government’s ability to track down other cattle that may have been exposed via feed would have been hampered without an effective animal I.D. program," Klein said.

But Klein said that while the U.S. may have dodged the bullet this time, it may not always be so lucky.

"The United States has first-world resources and technology but a third-world animal identification system. In fact, some third-world countries do a better job of tracking livestock than America does. Botswana, for one, uses RFID microchips to track its animals up and down the supply chain. If American cattlemen suffer economic losses at the news of this discovery of BSE, they should blame only themselves and other opponents of a mandatory animal identification system," she said. 

About BSE

BSE is a degenerative brain disease that is thought to be spread through infected meat. Cattle can be infected by eating protein supplements made with the ground-up remains of other animals, a practice now outlawed in most countries. The human variant of BSE is Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), which the National Institutes of Health describes as a rare, degenerative, invariably fatal brain disorder. There are three major categories of CJD: sporadic CJD, hereditary CJD, and acquired CJD.

CJD is characterized by rapidly progressive dementia. Initially, patients experience problems with muscular coordination; personality changes, including impaired memory, judgment, and thinking; and impaired vision. People with the disease also may experience insomnia, depression, or unusual sensations. CJD does not cause a fever or other flu-like symptoms.

As the illness progresses, the patients mental impairment becomes severe. They often develop involuntary muscle jerks called myoclonus, and they may go blind. They eventually lose the ability to move and speak and enter a coma. Pneumonia and other infections often occur in these patients and can lead to death.

In the case of hereditary CJD, onset of symptoms occurs at about age 60. For other forms, there can be an incubation period of many years.

How Is It Contracted?

CJD cannot be transmitted through the air or through touching or most other forms of casual contact. Spouses and other household members of sporadic CJD patients have no higher risk of contracting the disease than the general population. However, exposure to brain tissue and spinal cord fluid from infected patients should be avoided to prevent transmission of the disease through these materials.

In some cases, CJD has spread to other people from grafts of dura mater (a tissue that covers the brain), transplanted corneas, implantation of inadequately sterilized electrodes in the brain, and injections of contaminated pituitary growth hormone derived from human pituitary glands taken from cadavers.

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Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase

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How To Select Tires For Your Car

A lot of considerations go into making the right choice

Tires are probably the most important, but under-appreciated part of your vehicle. They are literally where "the rubber meets the road," the only part of y...

PhotoTires are probably the most important, but most under-appreciated part of your vehicle. They are literally where "the rubber meets the road," the only part of your car that makes contact with the highway. You tend not to think much about them, until something goes wrong.

Robert, of Cottonwood Falls, Kan., said he purchased four Yokohoma tires for his truck in February 2011. Upon checking them this month he reports what he considers excessive wear.

"The mileage on the tires from purchase date is 26,000 miles," Robert wrote to ConsumerAffairs. "I'm very dissatisfied and angry that the tires cost over $750 and did not last longer than 14 months."

Paul, of Hicksville, N.Y., reports what he considers a more serious problem with the tires he purchased at Pep Boys three years ago. He said he made a disturbing discovery when he had a flat tire.

"On changing the tire I found the tire delaminated," Paul wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "To a trained person, it is clear the tire is defective. Upon looking at the other tire, it is clear it is beginning the same delamination."

Should be defect-free

Photo
Consumer comments about Pep Boys

Obviously, new tires should not contain defects and should not wear out after a year of use. Sometimes, however, it's not the tires that cause the wear but an improper installation or alignment. But there's no question that getting the right set of tires for a vehicle is the starting point for satisfaction and safety.

If it's time to replace you tires, you have several options. You can replace your tires with the same brand and size that came with the vehicle. Or, you could move up to better quality tires - ones that promise more miles or an added measure of safety.

Considerations

Choosing the right tire involves knowing how you expect to drive the vehicle. Do you drive long distances for your work? Do you have to navigate mountainous back roads? Do you in an area that gets lots of rain or snow? Or, will you rarely drive at highway speeds?

It also involves what's most important to you about tires? Do you want tires that will last longer? Ones that enhance the comfort of your ride? Do you want tires that minimize road noise?

Where you buy is important too

Photo
Read consumer comments about Just Tires

Once you have figured out how you will drive and what's most important to you, find a store that you trust to recommend a tire that fits you needs. A good sales person will ask a lot of questions before recommending a tire.

A good tire store will also stand behind their work, so that if you experience problems like Paul and Robert did, they'll help you resolve it.

While the technology behind tires is a lot better than it used to be, tires are also more expensive than they once were. That's why it's important to shop carefully, buying the right tires for you vehicle from the right store.

What's the right store?

How do you decide what store is right for you.  A good place to start is the ConsumerAffairs Tire Department. There you'll find consumers reviewing -- and often lamenting -- their experiences with various stores and tire brands. Keep in mind that reviews tend to focus on the negative, but at the same time, watch out for patterns.  If tons of consumers complain that a certain tire brand delaminated or didn't wear well, that should be a cautionary note.

The problem with many tire stores is that they tend to push certain brands. In other words, they sell you want they want to sell you, not what's best for you. One way around this is to shop online at a site that walks you through the process and displays as many or as few options as you specify.

Photo
Just a few consumer comments about TireRack

TireRack.com, a favorite of ConsumerAffairs editors, has a well-designed website that basically "interviews" you about your vehicle and your driving preferences. You can, for example, specify your model and ask to see only all-weather tires made by certain companies. The prices are competitive -- usually $10 to $30 less per tire than you would pay locally.  If you're not up for installing tires yourself, TireRack will ship your tires to a local service station or tire store that will install them for you.

Ironically, the tires may wind up being shipped to one of the local tire stores you initially avoided.

A ConsumerAffairs editor had this experience recently when buying new tires for a MiniCooper. He initially visited a Just Tires store in his neighborhood but found only a few tires in the right size. He ordered from TireRack instead and had the tires shipped to -- guess who? -- Just Tires. By the time he paid Just Tires $20 or so per tire to install the tires, he wound up paying about what he would have paid if he had bought the tires at Just Tires but he got the specific tires he wanted, which Just Tires didn't have in stock.

Good margins

While waiting around Just Tires, our editor made small talk with the store manager, who groused about all the online orders the store was now installing.

"Well, you're making $20 a tire for the installation with no inventory cost, no long-term storage and no sales expense.  That sounds pretty good to me," the editor said.

"Yeah, you're right.  I hadn't really thought about it that way," the manager said, though he still didn't seem very happy about it as he slouched back to his office.

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Credit Card Companies Still Heavily Target Young Consumers

Study finds new law has done little to change marketing to students

The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure (CARD) Act of 2009 was designed to end a number of credit card industry abuses, among them t...

PhotoThe Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure (CARD) Act of 2009 was designed to end a number of credit card industry abuses, among them the heavy marketing of credit cards to college students.

While some of the reforms in the law may have been effective, a study by University of Houston Law Center Professor Jim Hawkins finds college students still are getting nearly the same number of credit offers, despite their inability to repay.

An expert in consumer credit, Hawkins said he surveyed more than 500 students and examined 300 agreements between issuers and colleges and alumni associations over the past two years.

Little effect

"Based on this survey and study, I found that many of the CARD Act's student and young consumer provisions have not affected credit markets in the ways the Act's proponents had hoped," Hawkins said.

The CARD Act took effect in February 2010 and was designed to prevent student over-indebtedness, to end aggressive marketing to college students, and to reveal and change agreements between credit card issuers and colleges.

According to the study, 68 percent of students under 21 reported receiving credit card offers in the mail during the preceding year, a practice the Act's sponsors hoped to curtail. Also, 40 percent of students reported seeing credit card companies giving gifts to students while the Act was in effect.

Under the Act, banks and card issuers were also banned from offering credit cards to anyone under the age of 21, unless they have a qualified co-signer or proof of sufficient income to repay the debt. Hawkins says he found little evidence of that change.

Troubling

"Most troubling, students are still qualifying for credit cards without demonstrating an ability to repay the debt," Hawkins said. "My study found that 27 percent of students under 21 who were applying by themselves for credit cards listed loans as part of their income to qualify for the card."

Hawkins also said he found that the requirement that credit card companies disclose previously secret agreements between issuers and colleges has caused virtually no change in the number of these agreements or their terms. Approximately 64 percent of the 300 agreements studied remained exactly the same in 2010 as they were in 2009.

"Some agreements were terminated, but almost all of them appear to have been terminated in the ordinary course of business," Hawkins said. "In only two cases in all of the 300 agreements that I reviewed did I observe any mention of regulation as influencing the decision to end the arrangement."

Loopholes

Part of the problem, says Hawkins, may lie in loopholes in the law. The Act does not explicitly ban sending people under 21 credit card offers in the mail; it just makes it more difficult to get their addresses. The Act also does not ban credit card marketing on colleges; it just prevents one narrow type of advertising, Hawkins notes.

"If Congress was concerned about people under 21 receiving credit card offers in the mail, it could directly prevent that conduct by making it illegal to mail anyone under 21 a credit card offer," Hawkins said. "Similarly, if Congress was concerned about abusive terms in the agreements between credit card companies and colleges, it could directly forbid those abusive terms instead of just requiring companies disclose the agreements."

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For Seniors, Giving Up Car Keys Can Be Traumatic

Families should face it early, and with sensitivity

Its an issue every aging person faces, sooner or later. Has disease, or age itself made them unsafe behind the wheel?At that point, they have to stop dri...

PhotoIt's an issue every aging person faces, sooner or later. Has disease, or age itself made them unsafe behind the wheel?

At that point, they have to stop driving for their own safety and that of others. But geriatric specialist Dr. Kavon Young of the Harris County, Tex., Hospital District, says loved ones should approach the matter compassionately to preserve the person’s dignity and keep them and others safe.

“Aging is a process where so many things are lost," Young said. "Part of what seniors try to hold onto is their independence — the independence to make decisions about their health, their future and their driving. To them, driving is more than a way to get from one place to another.”

Big blow to self-esteem

Young says losing the ability to drive can be a big blow to self-esteem to a senior and could trigger depression, anxiety and loneliness. In some cases, seniors may feel isolated and not want to keep up with their medical care.

It's an issue that will become more important in the years ahead because seniors are one of the fastest growing segments of America’s population. Making a decision to limit or restrict driving should not be taken lightly.

“A lot of factors and family participation go into discussing driving with seniors because the goal is maintain their dignity in the process. These are adults and should be treated as such,” said Young, who is also an assistant professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center (UTHealth) at Houston.

Embrace the issue early

If worried about the ability of a loved one to drive safely, the ideal situation is to talk to them early about driving and safety concerns. Young suggests being open and honest to help when decisions like driving are determined. While most seniors will limit their driving if they don’t feel safe, some may not be aware of deficits in vision or memory and will not self-limit.

How do you know when it's time to consider giving up the car keys? Here are some signs:

  • Longer drive times for short distances
  • Not obeying traffic signs
  • Forgetting destinations or locations
  • Hitting curbs
  • Being angry or anxious when driving

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System, a total of 4,139 people ages 70 and older died in motor vehicle crashes in 2010, representing a 4 percent increase from the previous year.

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Google, Microsoft Hope to Box In Dropbox & Box

File lockers under assault by Internet gargantuas

Build a better mousetrap and ... what? The world beats a pathway to your door? Maybe that was true once but what happens today is taht Microsoft and Google...

PhotoBuild a better mousetrap and ... what? The world beats a pathway to your door? Maybe that was true once but what generally happens today is that Microsoft and Google duplicate your mousetrap, slap their logo on it and leave you wondering where all the mice and cheese went.

Such is the fate of Dropbox, a very clever and useful file hosting service that uses the Internet to enable its users to store and share files and folders across the Internet.

It's not just a storage system, it also provides very sophisticated file synchronization -- so that your laptop, desktop, iPad and other devices all stay up to date as files are changed and deleted. Founded in 2007 by MIT graduates Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowsi, Dropbox now has millions of individual and enterprise customers using free and premium versions. 

It's also extremely popular with its users, with a positive net sentiment of more than 80% over the last year, according to a ConsumerAffairs sentiment analysis of about 950,000 comments on Twitter, Facebook and other social media. 

 

What does everyone like about Dropbox?  It might be more illustrative to ask what they don't like. The answer is: almost nothing, as this chart illustrates.

 

No snooping

Among its advantages is that Dropbox is independent and, as the techies say, platform-agnostic. It is not tied to your Google profile, your Microsoft profile or any other profile.  It simple stores your stuff without nosing around to see what ads, offers and promotions might be floated by you. It works with Windows, Mac, Linux and all kinds of smartphone and tablet systems.

Of course, Dropbox could see its popularity erode now that Microsoft and Google are on the Dropbox beat -- Microsoft with its SkyDrive and Google with a new service reportedly known as Google Drive -- although Dropbox is not sitting still. The company announced yesterday that it was offering a new service that enables Dropbox clients to share documents, photos and videos with non-Dropbox clients.

"We're always looking for ways to make life easier and solve the basic problems people face everyday," said Drew Houston, CEO and co-founder of Dropbox. "Sending files has always been a painful process, but now with Dropbox, sharing with friends, family, and colleagues is effortless."

Business presentations, home movies, and even entire folders can be opened and viewed instantly without having to sign in, download anything, or open files separately, Houston said.     

 

"One-stop shop"

Dragging out the oldest and most anachronistic metaphor it could think of, Microsoft says it's hoping to make SkyDrive a "one-stop shop" (clever, no?) for file syncing and remote file access. On the software side, there are new clients for Windows and Mac OS X to sync files with the cloud, and updated versions of the Windows Phone and iOS clients. Of course, there's nothing for Linux users and at least for now, no Android or Blueberry support.

As for storage, users will get 7 GB of synced storage, with options to buy more space, starting at $10 for 20 GB per year, up to $50 for 100 GB per year.

Google Drive

Details of Google's new offering aren't yet known but it will include both free and for-pay versions, sources say. And of course, it will include search capabilities so you (and Google?) can rummage around in your files. 

Reports say you'll get 5 GB of storage for free with Google Drive, while various versions with incrementally more storage capacity, topping out at about 100 Gigabytes, will be available for monthly fees, the source said.

How does all this compare with Dropbox? Well, you can get up to 18 GB free, although you start out at 2 GB and get 500 MB for each person you refer. Paid plans include 50 GB for $99 per year or 100 GB for $199 annually.

Box not dropping out

Another established service, known simply as Box, established six years ago, provides cloud storage as well as enterprise collaboration tools and says it is relying on its focus on large corporate and institutional customers to survive the new competitive challenges.

"We think the enterprises are going to value platform-agnostic players that are very, very, very focused on security and the enterprise depth that we offer,” said co-founder Aaron Levie in a video provided by the company. "We think that our level of focus is going to be the huge competitive advantage that we have against any player in the space, whether it’s Google, or Microsoft, or Apple or IBM or anyone… they’re going to be competing with one company that is just entirely focused on this proposition.”


 

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Gift Card Issuers Flee New Jersey

Too hard to comply with new law, card issuers say

Gift cards have been one of retailers’ most popular items for many years now, and sales continue to grow every year. But a controversial new law in...

PhotoHey, if you're not going to use that gift card, New Jersey will take it off your hands.

A new law that's about to take effect in the Garden State provides that retailers must collect Zip codes from gift card purchasers and -- even worse -- turn over unused balances to the state after two years.

Howzzat again?

You heard correctly. Buy a gift card in New Jersey and you will be required -- not asked, required -- to provide your Zip code. That's so New Jersey can defend its right to seize your money if the card isn't used after two years.

Unclaimed property

It's not that unusual for states to seize unused gift card balances as unclaimed property but the Zip code requirement is something new and if retailers and bankers were the types to take it to the streets, New Jersey would be even more unruly that it already is.

American Express is leading the exodus, pulling its gift cards after saying it couldn't guarantee that third-party retailers would be able to comply with the Zip code requirement. Two card networks that distribute more than 175 brands of gift cards to 3,800 New Jersey stores are right behind Amex in heading for the exits.

The state, of course, says it has your interests at heart. The New Jersey Treasury Department says it wants to claim unused funds so the money can be returned to consumers rather than be kept by card issuers.

But card issuers say the law isn’t necessary. Under federal law, gift cards cannot expire in less than five years, and most major gift cards no longer have expiration dates.

So far the dust-up is limited to New Jersey but retailers say they're afraid other states will pick up on the idea. Some states, of course, currently prohibit gathering Zip codes and other personal information on customers but with millions of unclaimed dollars at stake, those privacy laws could quickly become history. 

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Payday Lenders Ready to Fight Off More Regulation

Industry is prepared to spend millions to defeat consumer advocates, regulators

There's talk of more legislation to restrict payday lending abuses, but don't expect the payday loan interest to stand idly by while it's being enacted. Pa...

PhotoThere's talk of more legislation to restrict payday lending abuses, but don't expect the payday loan interest to stand idly by while it's being enacted. Payday lenders have already spent millions on lobbying and campaign contributions and they're ready to dig even deeper to maintain their right to charge obscene interest rates.

And, sure enough, research by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) finds the payday loan industry is on course to donate more than ever to federal candidates this election cycle.

Unfortunately, voters seem inclined to sympathize with payday lenders' claims that they are performing a public service when they loan money at interest rates that can approach 1,000 percent. Consumers who have fallen into the payday loan trap know better -- but not until it's too late.

 

If consumers are inclined to think that payday loans are a good thing, it takes just a little extra persuasion from the industry's lobbyists to win support from wavering lawmakers. Without enraged consumers demanding tighter regulation, it's hard for groups representing consumer interests to get much traction on Capitol Hill. And currently, there is a lot of support for the payday loan industry among consumers who think the short-term, high-interest loans provide a good value to cash-strapped consumers, as a ConsumerAffairs analysis of about 1.2 million comments on Facebook, Twitter and other social media demonstrates.

 

Cash in hand 

The payday loan industry is ready to rumble as the election season shifts into high gear. Payday lenders’ political action committees (PACs), trade associations, and employees have contributed at least $1.32 million so far, according to campaign contributions tracked by Political Moneyline. That is already almost equal to the $1.5 million payday lenders contributed over the course of the entire 2010 election cycle.

So how, exactly, are payday lenders expecting to collect interest on this investment?

In Payday Lenders Pay More, a 2011 report on the payday lending industry’s influence efforts, CREW showed how the biggest players in the payday loan industry ramped up lobbying spending and campaign contributions during the 2008 and 2010 election cycles. Payday lenders waged a multi-million-dollar war to beat back federal regulation of their predatory industry.

The effort was partly successful, but payday lenders lost a key battle. Congress gave the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) jurisdiction over payday lenders, and key players at the bureau have signaled plans to actively regulate the payday lenders.

 

Congress ready to help

Now, payday lenders think they can elect a president and a Congress who will help them ward off the CFPB after all. Filings by Restore Our Future, a super PAC that has already spent millions of dollars supporting Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, show at least $162,500 in contributions from payday lenders and their parent companies. Romney has promised to repeal the legislation creating the CFPB.

So far this cycle, the top three recipients of campaign contributions from payday lenders are Republicans with key roles in regulating the financial services industry who have demanded changes to the CFPB that consumer advocates say could weaken the new regulator. Rep. Jeb Hensarling(R-TX), the vice chair of the House Financial Services Committee, has received $36,500 in donations so far. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), the ranking member of the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, took in $32,000. Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL), chair of the House Financial Services Committee, got $29,000.

Campaign contributions aren’t the only way payday lenders are attempting to slip the regulatory yoke, CREW notes. Payday lending companies and industry trade associations reported spending roughly $4.46 million lobbying the federal government in 2011, mainly lobbying over how the CFPB would be set up. The industry hasn’t forgotten about the role states play in regulating it, either. Payday lenders appear to be actively courting state legislators through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate front group that pushes business-friendly bills on state legislators.

Earlier this month, the Columbus Dispatch reported that payday lender Cash America was among companies secretly contributing to an ALEC “scholarship fund” used to pay expenses for Ohio legislators traveling to ALEC conferences. The Arizona Republic last year reported that payday lender ACE Cash Express fed legislators a “posh” dinner at a fancy French restaurant while they were attending an ALEC conference in New Orleans.

Read more about Payday Loans

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Avoiding the Payday Loan Trap

Many consumers get caught because they don't understand how it works

By some estimates, about 12 million U.S. consumers each year get caught up in long-term debt with a payday loan. But it hardly ever starts out that way, an...

PhotoBy some estimates, about 12 million U.S. consumers each year get caught up in long-term debt with a payday loan. But it hardly ever starts out that way, and it certainly isn't their intention.

Most, like Marvelle, of Lowell, Mass., who visited Payday Loans, Yes, believed they would be able to pay the money back quickly, and while the fee was steep, it seemed to be worth it.

“I was given a $300 loan, and according to the statement on the website, I would owe $150 in addition to the $300 that was loaned to me,” Marvelle wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post.

$300 becomes $600

But that quickly ballooned to $600, especially after Marvelle switched bank accounts, causing the payday loan company's automatic withdrawal to over-draft her account.

Lorraine, of Philadelphia, Pa., is another payday loan customer. She said she took out a $450 loan in December from Cashjar.com.

“I have no problem paying this back but so far this company has taken $135 out of my bank account bi weekly,” Lorraine wrote in her ConsumerAffairs post. “I thought I was almost done paying these monies back but 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.

Didn't understand

It seems as though Lorraine and Marvelle didn't really understand the terms of their loans, or overestimated their ability to repay the loans. Most consumers turn to payday lenders because they are in an immediate need of cash and have no savings. They don't think about how, if they have no money, they are going to pay the money back in two weeks.

And that's how these loans are structured. The fees that are quoted are for a two week loan. At the end of two weeks, the entire balance is due. If you are unable to pay the entire amount, a new loan is made with a whole new set of fees. That's how the fees quickly mount up.

Repeat loans

“Strategically located in low-income neighborhoods, payday loan stores reap millions in profits from a product designed to force borrowers into repeat loans,” the Center for Responsible Lending says in a statement on its website. “With each loan renewal or flip, borrowers become unable to both repay the lender and have enough money left until the next payday arrives. The trap of recycled debt is also how billions are taken each year from poor people.”

“What typically happens is they will go in the store and they will renegotiate the loan,” said Paheadra Robinson, of the Mississippi Center for Justice. “They pay that one off and immediately get a new loan, or they get a loan from another store to pay off the first loan.”

The Center for Responsible Lending and others are pushing for a 36 percent interest rate cap they say will stop payday loan abuses. Currently 17 states and the District of Columbia have enacted double-digit interest rate caps. Efforts continue to expand these caps to other states.

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Chicken Checkers Cluck Over Privatization Plan

Food safety not a good place to save money, unions and consumer groups argue

Corporations and governments are always trying to save money and a convenient way to do that is to "privatize" -- or outsource -- tasks normally handled by...

PhotoCorporations and governments are always trying to save money and a convenient way to do that is to "privatize" -- or outsource -- tasks normally handled by fulltime employees.  Sometimes this works well but quite often it doesn't.

Not surprisingly, federal poultry inspectors are not very happy about the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) plan to partly privatize the poultry inspections process, while also drastically increasing the number of birds inspectors must examine.

“Budget cuts are driving the USDA to take this drastic step, which would reduce our highly trained teams of federal food safety inspectors to a skeleton crew who would have to review three birds every second – a humanly impossible task,” American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) National President John Gage said. “This is a recipe that appears to be putting diseased chickens right on our kitchen tables, and we are urging the USDA to reconsider this foolish and dangerous proposal.”

On Thursday, the day after ABC World News broadcast a story on the controversial proposal, FSIS announced it would extend the comment period on the proposed rule by an additional 30 days. The original deadline was April 26; nearly 600 comments have been submitted on the rule so far.

The USDA proposal would extend nationwide a pilot project that has allowed some poultry companies to inspect their own chickens. But an analysis released last month by the nonprofit Food & Water Watch revealed that large numbers of defects are routinely being missed when inspection tasks are performed by company employees instead of USDA inspectors.

FSIS data obtained by AFGE under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that company inspectors operating under the pilot project remove far fewer diseased birds than federal inspectors operating under the traditional process. At one company, Pilgrim’s Pride, the condemnation rate for diseased birds is twice as high at the traditional plant as compared to the privatized plant.

150,000 petitions

The AFGE and consumer groups last week delivered nearly 150,000 petitions to the U.S. Department of Agriculture opposing proposed changes to the poultry inspections process that will impact the health and safety of the American public.

Delivering petitions were representatives from AFGE, AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Food & Water Watch, American Rights at Work and the Government Accountability Project.

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Grandparents Not Always Careful With Prescription Meds

Poisonings of young children are on the rise; more adult caution needed

The years that pass between parenthood and grand-parenthood may change how consumers handle prescription medicine, especially around small children.A Uni...

PhotoThe years that pass between parenthood and grandparenthood may change how consumers handle prescription medicine, especially around small children.

A University of Michigan poll, conducted by Mott Children's Hospital, found that one of every four grandparents admitted to storing medicine for convenience, not for safety. Parents, especially new parents, tend to be much more safety-conscious.

The relaxed attitude at grandma's house may be one reason, health officials say, that poisonings from prescription medicine are on the rise.

“Every 10 minutes a young child in the U.S. is taken to the emergency room because of possible poisoning from swallowing a prescription medicine or over-the-counter medicine,” said Dr. Matthew M. Davis, director of the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health.

“Emergency room visits for accidental poisonings among young children have become much more frequent in the last decade. We hope the results of this poll are a reminder to parents, grandparents and all those who care for young children: check around your homes to make sure that medicines are safely stored out of reach.”

Easy access

The poll results showed 23 percent of grandparents and five percent of parents reported storing prescription medicine in easy-to-access places, including daily-dose boxes that children can open. Eighteen percent of grandparents and eight percent of parents said they store over-the-counter medicines in easily accessible spots.

The most common type of prescription in an accidental ingestion for young children is an opiate medicine, such as a morphine-related painkiller. The most common types of over-the-counter medicines that prompts emergency room visits for possible poisonings among young children include acetaminophen, used to reduce fever.

How to keep children safe when they visit grandma and grandpa? The general rule is to keep medicine safely out of reach of young children, in child-proof containers.

The poll found that about two-thirds of adults say they would support new laws that would require companies to create single-dose packages of tablets, capsules and liquid medicines that would make it harder for young children to ingest large quantities.

“The support for potential new requirements for single-dose dispensing of medicine in solid and liquid format is quite strong,” Davis said. “However, there may be barriers to passage of such legislation – not the least of which are environmental concerns about increasing packaging.”

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Walgreens Fined $7.9 Million for Being Nice to Poor People

$25 gift cards to Medicare, Medicaid recipients were bribes, feds claim

Not too long ago, Walgreens was giving consumers a $25 gift card if they transferred a prescription from another pharmacy.  Nice, no?  Not accord...

PhotoNot too long ago, Walgreens was giving consumers a $25 gift card if they transferred a prescription from another pharmacy.  Nice, no?  Not according to the U.S. Justice Department, which announced today that Walgreens has paid $7.9 million to resolve allegations that it violated the False Claims Act, meanwhile giving two whistleblowers $2.5 million for their trouble.

And just how did it Walgreens violate the public trust? Why, by bribing Medicare, Medicaid and other federal health care beneficiaries with those gift cards and other goodies. See, it's illegal to offer a financial incentive that would influence a healthcare buying decision when the health care in question is federally funded. If this sounds outlandish to you, it seems right on target to the prosecutors who burned through taxpayers' time and money pursuing the case:

  • "This case vindicates and protects the interests of consumers throughout the nation by ensuring that they remain free from undue influence by large retail chains when making decisions about which pharmacies to entrust their own individual health care,” said André Birotte Jr, U.S. Attorney for Central District of California. 
  • “The law prohibits pharmacies from using their retail clout to lure patients whose prescriptions are subsidized by the government,” said Barbara L. McQuade, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan.  “Continuity with a pharmacist is important to detect problems with dosages and drug interactions.  Patients should make decisions based on legitimate health care needs, not on inducements like gift cards.” 
  • “This case represents the government's strong commitment to pursuing improper practices in the retail pharmacy industry that have the effect of manipulating patient decisions,” said Stuart F. Delery, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division of the Department of Justice. 

The government doesn't deny that Walgreens' advertisement cautioned that the $25 gift offer was not valid with Medicare, Medicaid or any other government program but argued with a straight face that pharmacy employees sometimes let elderly, disabled and poor people make off with the $25 anyway.

Whistleblowers get a gift

But while the feds are determined to stamp out those $25 gifts to healthcare recipients, they happily awarded $1,277,172 each to two whistleblowers -- Cassie Bass, a pharmacy technician formerly employed by Walgreens, and Jack Chin, an independent pharmacist. That two and a half million is in addition to the $7.298,124 that Walgreens must pay the government.“ 

“This settlement makes clear that corporations seeking increased profits over their patients' needs will pay a substantial price,” said Daniel R. Levinson, Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services.  “Violating Federal health care laws, as Walgreens allegedly did by offering incentives for new business, cannot be tolerated.”

The Justice Department proudly stated that the take-no-prisoners action against Walgreens is "part of the government's emphasis on combating health care fraud and another step for the Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Team (HEAT) initiative, which was announced by Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius in May 2009."

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Gas Prices Fall Another Two Cents

The average pump price is off a nickel from its peak two weeks ago

President Obama this week called for a crackdown on oil market manipulation as a way to control rising gasoline prices. But prices, this week, at least, ar...

PhotoPresident Obama this week called for a crackdown on oil market manipulation as a way to control rising gasoline prices. But prices, this week at least, are already heading lower, if only by a bit.

The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.881 per gallon, down from $3.901 last Friday, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. Pump prices are now down five cents a gallon from their peak two weeks ago.

The average price of diesel fuel today is $4.130 per gallon, down from $4.153 a week ago.

Although gas prices are still running quite a bit above last year, consumers seem to have grudgingly accepted the situation, according to a ConsumerAffairs analysis of about 1.6 million consumer comments on Twitter, Facebook and other social media.

 

 Little influence

There was little during the week to influence energy prices one way or the other. The prospect of hostilities with Iran, which had driven prices higher over the course of the winter, continued to appear slightly more muted. Elsewhere, economic data continued to suggest a slowing in the economy.

The Energy Information Administration reported Wednesday that U.S. crude oil supplies grew by 3.9 million barrels last week, much more than what analysts expected. The agency's weekly report also noted that consumers continue to buy less fuel. U.S. gasoline demand fell 2.8 percent compared with a year ago.

 

 

For the most part, pump prices were fairly stable across the U.S. during the week, neither rising nor falling very much. Wyoming lost its position as the state with the cheapest gas, falling to number three, displaced by Missouri and Oklahoma.

 

 

The states with the most expensive gas this week are:

  • Hawaii ($4.615)
  • Alaska ($4.361)
  • California ($4.202)
  • Connecticut ($4.159)
  • Washington, DC ($4.146)
  • New York ($4.143)
  • Washington State ($4.118)
  • Oregon ($4.066)
  • Illinois ($4.048)
  • Maine ($3.981)
The states with the least expensive gas this week are:
  • Missouri ($3.632)
  • Oklahoma ($3.643)
  • Wyoming ($3.648)
  • Kansas ($3.675)
  • South Carolina ($3.700)
  • Iowa ($3.706)
  • Utah ($3.717)
  • Minnesota ($3.726)
  • Ohio ($3.738)
  • Montana ($3.775)
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FCC Launches 'Bill Shock' Website

Online tool helps consumers track wireless carriers' billing plans

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has launched a new ‘bill shock’ website, an online tool to help consumers track implementation of r...

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Verizon Wireless consumers' comments

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has launched a new ‘bill shock’ website, an online tool to help consumers track implementation of recent commitments by wireless carriers to provide usage alerts before and after consumers exceed their plan limits.

The action is certainly timely. Consumers complain daily to ConsumerAffairs about billing problems with their cell phones. A typical comment came from Basilio of Valdese, N.C., a Verizon Wireless customer: "I just don't know how they calculated the usage per minute. The plan says 25 cents per minute, but when you call, say 10 times within a minute, the actual equivalent is already 10 minutes. At the start of your call, that's already a minute even when you have not used a minute."

Nancy of Hazen, Ark., is unahppy about the bills she's run up using her AT&T Wireless data plan: "For the past 6 months, I have been getting notices that I was going over my data usage plan, being charged an extra $10 each month plus having my service slowed down. So last month, I called into AT&T to get my data usage increased to 3GB instead of the 2GB I had. After getting this increased, I got an email from AT&T telling me I have used 65% of my usage, just like when I had the 2GB. I know I haven't overused 3GB yet."

They're not alone. A ConsumerAffairs analysis of about 79,000 comments on Facebook, Twitter and other social media finds consumer sentiment about their cell phone bills solidly in negative territory.

 

Bill shock

Bill shock is a sudden and unexpected increase in monthly wireless bills that happens when consumers’ unknowingly exceed plan limits for voice, data and text. Bill shock can also happen when consumers travel abroad and get hit with unexpected international roaming charges. A recent FCC survey found that 30 million Americans – or one in six wireless users – have experienced bill shock.

 

In October 2011, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced a new program that would provide free alerts for wireless consumers as they approach monthly voice, data and text limits, and after those limits have been exceeded. Chairman Genachowski was joined by CTIA-The Wireless Association, whose members provide service to approximately 97% of U.S. wireless consumers.

“Using technology to empower consumers with information has been among the top priorities of the Commission," Genachowski said. "Last October, we were pleased that CTIA-The Wireless Association and Consumers Union joined us to announce new commitments to provide free alerts to consumers before they approach limits and incur fees. We also promised an online resource with information about when carriers begin providing these alerts. Today, we deliver on that promise.” 

 

The new website is available at http://fcc.us/billshocks. The Commission will regularly update the table to reflect each carrier’s progress in providing the bill shock alerts, based on information provided by CTIA-The Wireless Association, and in partnership with Consumers Union.

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High Prices, Shoddy Work Irk Car Repair Customers

Consumer Reports finds women feel they are treated differently from men

See how consumers rate Sears Tire & AutoGetting your car worked on is about as enjoyable for most consumers as a root canal, and an...

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See how consumers rate Sears Tire & Auto

Getting your car worked on is about as enjoyable for most consumers as a root canal, and an annual Consumer Reports subscriber survey finds no signs the experience is getting any better.

Prices that are too high and the inability to perform repairs properly are the main reasons that car owners become dissatisfied with auto repair shops, this year's survey found.

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Consumers rate their Pep Boys experience

Every year, the Consumer Reports Annual Auto Survey asks car owners how satisfied they were with auto repairs performed by dealerships and independent shops in the previous 12 months. This year, the findings on repair service are based on more than 67,000 reports on service visits to independent mechanics and 101,000 service visits to new car dealerships by CR subscribers.

As in past years, most car owners prefer taking their vehicles to independent shops rather than dealerships for repair work. But for the first time, Consumer Reports also re-contacted 5,400 of the respondents and asked about their specific repair gripes. Of that group, about three-quarters were either completely or very satisfied with their repair shop. But of the 27 percent who weren’t, 38 percent cited high prices as a reason. This is a more common complaint for dealerships (42 percent) than for independent shops (32 percent).

The second most-common complaint among the re-contacted respondents is even more troubling: more than a quarter of the unsatisfied group said their car’s problem wasn’t fixed properly, this gripe was reported at the same rate at dealers and independent shops.

Other gripes: Twenty-one percent of the re-contacted subscribers said it took longer than expected to complete the work, and 18 percent said they had to bring the car back because the repair did not “hold up.” Again, dealers and independents shared the blame for these complaints almost evenly. There was a slight difference between the two types of repair shops among owners who felt the staff had treated them poorly, with 8 percent citing dealerships and four percent citing independents.

Sometimes, this dissatisfaction prompted owners to switch shops. Of the re-contacted subscribers, almost a quarter revealed that in the past five years they’d had a vehicle repaired at a shop they no longer use because of problems with their service experience. Almost half of that group cited that negative experience was at a dealership, a third saying it was an independent shop, and a fifth citing a franchise chain similar to Midas or Sears.

Grizzel of Miami recently told ConsumerAffairs about her problems at a Sears Tire & Auto Center, a chain that generates a hefty payload of complaints.

"My mother is elderly and was having problems with her AC. My husband and I recommended she take it to Sears and it has been the biggest mistake ever!" Grizzel said. "She was overcharged and has had to return to the shop on about five additional occasions and the problem still persists. I have had to accompany her on several occasions and escalate the problem and not only does Sears not take any responsibility, they just patch the problem up with freon, until the problem surfaces again."

Gender gap

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Consumers rate their experience at Midas

One other red flag for repair shops: A sizeable 30 percent of female respondents who stopped using a shop said they felt the staff tried to take advantage of them because of their gender.

Even when a woman is the service manager, women customers often feel mistreated.

"Being a woman, I feel that going to auto repair shops, the mechanics or people who work there will take advantage of me because I am a woman and don't know anything about cars," said ConsumerAffairs reader Elaine of Hawaii, who took her car to a Goodyear store for tire repairs and encountered a service rep named Whitney.

"So, with another female working there, I would expect her to be more accommodating and friendly towards me being that we're both of the same gender. She rolled her eyes at me and didn't give a care in the world. When my vehicle was ready for pick up, I asked what was done to my vehicle, and she would not give me an explanation as to what was done."

The top reasons for switching shops: Half of the group said the shop didn’t fix the problem properly. About a third said the price was too high. Almost a quarter reported they had to bring the car back or that the shop sold them unnecessary parts or service. And one fifth said the staff treated them poorly, the shop took longer than expected to complete the work, or the price was more than originally estimated.

Tips for getting a repair performed properly:

  • Describe the problem fully. Give the shop as much information as possible. Write down the symptoms and when they occur. If possible, talk directly to the mechanic who will be working on your car.
  • Don’t offer a diagnosis. Avoid saying what you think is causing the problem. You may be on the hook for any repairs the shop makes at your suggestion, even if they don’t solve the problem.
  • Request a test drive. If the problem occurs only when the car is moving, ask the mechanic to accompany you on a test drive.
  • Ask for an estimate. And have them contact you for approval if the repair will cost more than the estimate.
  • Ask for evidence. If you’re not comfortable with the diagnosis, ask the shop to show you the problem parts. Worn brake pads or rusted exhaust pipes are easy to see. Don’t let the mechanic refuse your request by saying that his insurance company doesn’t allow customers into the work area.

ConsumerReports.org/carrepair offers car repair information service that can help drivers understand common problems, learn how components work, and receive a service estimate that reflects local prices. This special section includes a Car Repair Estimator and a Car Repair Encyclopedia, which can answer many common questions. For more information regarding Consumer Reports’ survey on car repair shops visit www.ConsumerReports.org.  For more information about specific auto service centers, see the ConsumerAffairs Auto Service section.

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Identity Theft Services: How Do They Measure Up?

Report: Less hype, clearer information is what's needed

We see the ads all the time -- identity theft prevention services that promise to "stop fraud before it starts," "stop identity theft in its tracks" and "p...

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Read consumer reviews of Lifelock

We see the ads all the time -- identity theft prevention services that promise to "stop fraud before it starts," "stop identity theft in its tracks" and "prevent identity theft." But can these services really do that? The answer is a definite "maybe sometimes," according to a new study by the Consumer Federation of America.

“We found that most of the services’ websites did a fair job of complying with the best practices but there is need for improvement,” said Susan Grant, CFA’s Director of Consumer Protection. The study is based on CFA’s Best Practices for Identity Theft Services, voluntary guidelines that CFA developed with the help of identity theft service providers and consumer advocates. Released last year, the best practices resulted from CFA’s first study of identity theft services in 2009, which raised concerns about misleading claims about the ability to protect consumers from identity theft, lack of clear information, and other troublesome practices.

One of the larger identity-protection services is Lifelock, which has not been without controversy but, according to a ConsumerAffairs sentiment analysis, has both fans and detractors, in about equal measure:

 

 Here's a sampling of what consumers are saying about Lifelock, including those who object to the company advertising on Rush Limbaugh's show:

 

 

The new report examined the websites of 20 identity theft services and also looked at Internet complaints about identity theft services.  It focused on the how the services did in these categories:

  • Don’t misrepresent protection
  • Provide clear information about how they protect/help consumers
  • Use statistics accurately
  • Don’t misrepresent risk or harm of identity theft
  • Provide basic company information
  • Clearly disclose refund and cancelation policies
  • Provide a clear privacy policy
  • Provide clear, complete cost information
  • Don’t request consumers’ free credit reports
  • Clearly describe fraud assistance
  • Cleary describe insurance and guarantees

“Now that we have examined identity theft services’ websites through the lens of these best practices, we’ve identified improvements that identity theft services need to make to meet the goals they set,” said Ms. Grant.

What CFA found:

  • Some of the hype goes over the line. Statements such as “stop fraud before it starts,” “stop identity theft in its tracks,” and “prevent identity theft” imply that identity theft services can do more than they really can. While these services may alert consumers about possible identity theft quicker than they would discover it themselves, they can’t prevent consumers’ personal information from being stolen or detect identity theft in all instances. It’s not always possible to stop identity theft, especially if someone’s Social Security number has been compromised.
  • There is some sloppy use of statistics. Statistics about the number of identity theft victims, the rate of identity theft, and the amount of time it takes to resolve problems are frequently used as marketing tools. In some cases the statistics used are out of date. Also, complaint statistics are sometimes used to indicate the incidence of identity theft, which is inappropriate since complaint data are not representative of the population as a whole.  Another problem is with id theft services that claim to be “#1” or “top-ranked” without providing the source or date. 
  • Information about the features that services offer and how they work could be improved.  In some cases to find the details of features such as monitoring and alerts, CFA had to hunt through FAQs, terms of service, and other less obvious places.  Sometimes it was never found. Some descriptions were unclear and key information was sometimes lacking. For instance, if a credit score is provided, some services don’t explain that it is an educational score, which is not the same score that lenders use. 
     
  • Refund and cancelation policies aren’t always adequately disclosed; on disclosing the cost, services did better. Some services provide the refund and cancelation policy on the main product page and others have a link to it at the bottom of every web page. But in many cases it is buried in an FAQ, in the terms of service, or on the enrollment page.  Sometimes the policies are unclear. While most services did better on price disclosure, in one case CFA couldn’t find any information about the cost after the free trial offer, and in another it was only on the enrollment page.  
  • In many cases the assistance provided to identity theft victims isn’t clearly described. This problem, noted in CFA’s first study, continues.  Some identity theft services act on behalf of customers if they become victims to resolve their problems, but most only provide advice and counseling. Vague descriptions such as “a trained specialist will guide you through the process of recovering your credit and good name,” and 24/7 access to helpful identity theft specialists, do not tell consumers what to expect and may lead them to expect more than they’ll actually get. Sometimes the details are only found in the terms of service or insurance policy. 
  • Details about insurance are much easier to find. While CFA believes that identity theft insurance is of little value, it is frequently touted as a feature of identity theft services and consumers need to know what it does and does not cover. In CFA’s first study it was difficult to find the insurance details.  While this time it was easier, there were still cases where the detailed information was not easily accessible or even provided at all. 

More about Identity Theft 

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Study: Vitamin C May Help Lower Blood Pressure

But Johns Hopkins researchers stop short of endorsing supplements

There are several things, besides medication, that can help you control your blood pressure. You can reduce sodium intake, get plenty of exercise and maint...

PhotoThere are several things, besides medication, that can help you control your blood pressure. You can reduce sodium intake, get plenty of exercise and maintain a healthy weight.

There may be another, say researchers at Johns Hopkins: an increased intake of vitamin C. But while taking large doses of vitamin C may moderately reduce blood pressure, the researchers stopped short of suggesting people load up on supplements.

Modest effect

“Our research suggests a modest blood pressure lowering effect with vitamin C supplementation, but before we can recommend supplements as a treatment for high blood pressure, we really need more research to understand the implications of taking them,” said Edgar “Pete” R. Miller III, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor in the division of general internal medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and leader of the study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Roughly 30 percent of adults in the United States have high blood pressure, or hypertension, an important risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Any new method of reducing, or moderating blood pressure would be viewed as a significant contributor to improved health. Randomized, controlled dietary intervention studies — the gold standard of nutrition research — have produced mixed results.

Reviewed 29 randomized trials

Miller and his colleagues reviewed and analyzed data from 29 randomized, controlled, trials that measured vitamin C's impact on blood pressure. What they found is that taking an average of 500 milligrams of vitamin C daily — about five times the recommended daily requirement — reduced blood pressure by 3.84 millimeters of mercury in the short term. Among those diagnosed with hypertension, the drop was nearly 5 millimeters of mercury.

Five hundred milligrams of vitamin C is the amount in about six cups of orange juice. The recommended daily intake of vitamin C for adults is 90 milligrams.

“Although our review found only a moderate impact on blood pressure, if the entire U.S. population lowered blood pressure by 3 milliliters of mercury, there would be a lot fewer strokes,” Miller said.

Controversy

The findings are not without some controversy. Nutritional supplements are a $28 billion-a-year industry, and marketing claims, newspaper stories and testimonials often make them hard to resist, Miller says.

People often view supplements as a “natural alternative” and preferable to drugs for high blood pressure or other ailments, he adds, despite mounting evidence that many supplements don’t work and in some cases may cause harm.

That's why Miller and his colleagues are advocating a cautious approach, with additional research to explore just how effective loading up on vitamin C really is.

“People love to take vitamins regardless of the evidence or lack of it,” Miller said. “We’re trying to raise the bar and provide evidence-based guidance about whether supplements help or actually do harm.” With respect to vitamin C, he says, the jury is still out.

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Batteries Add More Than Weight to All-Electric Cars

Ford's Mulally quotes $12,000 to $15,000 as the cost of a battery

Everybody knows all-electric cars are expensive but few realize how much the battery contributes to that cost.  Would you believe $12,000 to $15,000?...

Photo
Consumers rate the gas-powered Ford Focus

Everybody knows all-electric cars are expensive but few realize how much the battery contributes to that cost.  Would you believe $12,000 to $15,000?

That's the figure Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally quoted earlier this week at a technology conference sponsored by Forbes. 

"When you move into an all-electric vehicle, the battery size moves up to around 23 kilowatt hours, [and] it weighs around 600 to 700 pounds," Mulally said at Fortune magazine's Brainstorm Green conference in California, the Wall Street Journal reported.

When you consider that the types of cars that get equipped with batteries tend to be subcompacts that would sell for $22,000 or so with an ordinary gasoline engine, it's obvious the battery becomes an economic hurdle.

Ford has been promoting its Focus Electric lately and it will be the pace car at the Richmond 400 NASCAR event April 28. The Focus EV is priced at $39,200, compared to a gas-powered Focus, which starts at $16,500, according to CarPrice.com. The gas-powered Focus, by the way, gets an overall satisfaction rating of just two stars in 770 reviews submitted by ConsumerAffairs.

The Focus Electric is being built on the same assembly line as the gas-powered Focus, Ford has noted.  That means that even if Ford doesn't sell many of the all-electric models, it won't take a financial beating. But Nissan and other companies that are building models that are exclusively electric face much higher cost barriers, since sales of the electric models must bear the entire manufacturing cost.

The U.S. Department of Energy, hoping to jump-start electric-car sales, has been funding research to lower the cost of batteries and maybe even improve their range, since range anxiety -- or propulsion envy, as it's known in some quarters -- keeps many potential buyers on the sidelines. 

Racing fever

PhotoOne thing many consumers don't realize about electric cars is that they're fast.  Electric motors get up to speed instantly, unlike gas engines which must overcome the inertia of their pistons and other components to produce the torque that makes the wheels go round.

That's perhaps the message behind the Focus Electric's appearance at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at the Richmond 400 later this month.

“Ford research shows the majority of Americans would consider buying an electrified vehicle but do not yet understand the different technologies,” said Mark Fields, president of The Americas. “Highlighting the Focus Electric as a pace car is a fun way to educate consumers about the kinds of benefits our electrified vehicles deliver and show people our commitment to provide Ford customers the power of choice for leading fuel economy in the vehicle that best meets their needs – from EcoBoost®-powered gasoline vehicles and hybrids to plug-in hybrids and full electrics.”
 
Approximately 35 percent of new car intenders are motorsports fans and 78 percent of them support NASCAR, according to Ford research. Additionally, Ford race fans are 67 percent more likely to consider Ford products than general market consumers.
 
This marks the latest in a line of groundbreaking moments for Ford in NASCAR. In addition to being the first manufacturer to compete with a four-door sedan as its flagship model in 1998, Ford was also first to use a hybrid to start a NASCAR event when the Fusion Hybrid served as pace car for the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2008.
 
In January, Ford became the first manufacturer to show off its 2013 NASCAR race car when it unveiled the new 2013 Fusion racer to media in Charlotte, N.C.
 
The Focus Electric pace car will be unveiled for the public at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond on April 25. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling will deliver the Focus Electric to Richmond International Raceway, where it will serve as pace car for that weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event.
 
“Our fans are customers," said Jamie Allison, director, Ford Racing. “And just like in racing, they expect both fuel economy and performance from their daily drivers, and that’s what Ford is delivering.”
 
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Cigarette Butts the Most Common Piece of Litter

Butts are not only unsightly and a fire hazard, they're also toxic

 Last year, according to 2011 The Tax Burden on Tobacco report, Americans purchased more than 287 billion cigarettes. A vast number of those cigarette...

PhotoWhat's the most common piece of litter being flicked onto the ground, into lakes, parks, beaches and roads? Yep, it's the cigarette butt. 

According to environmental cleanup reports, nearly 2 million cigarettes or cigarette filters and butts were picked up internationally from beaches and inland waterways as part of the annual International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) in 2010, including more than one million from the United States alone. Cigarette butts account for more than three times the number of any other item found over the past 25 years of ICC cleanups, according to Legacy, a public health organization.

Besides being unsightly and, for at least a few minutes, a fire hazard, cigarette butts have potentially toxic effects on ecosystems. In one laboratory test, one cigarette butt soaked in a liter of water was lethal to half of the fish exposed.

In observance of Earth Day on April 22, Legacy is working to raise awareness about the negative impact cigarette filters and discarded cigarette butts have on the environment. Cigarette butts contain heavy metals that can leach into waterways, posing a lethal threat to aquatic life. They are costly to local communities to clean up and dispose of as well.

Cigarette butts are made mostly of plastic, which can take years to decompose in the marine environment and down into smaller pieces. While a majority of the respondents surveyed nationally (78 percent) know that cigarette butts are not typically biodegradable and recognize their toxicity (89 percent), tobacco products are still the most prevalent type of litter collected along U.S. roadways and on beaches. These toxic pieces of trash are only biodegradable under ideal conditions and in “real world” conditions, they merely break up into small particles of plastic.

“If more than 287 billion cigarettes were sold last year, where did all those butts go?” said Cheryl G. Healton, DrPH, President and CEO of Legacy. “Cigarette manufacturers acknowledge that there is no such thing as a safe cigarette and have long known that cigarette filters don’t reduce health consequences of smoking and are a major source of coastal litter.” Cigarettes and their butts contain carcinogenic chemicals that make tobacco use the leading cause of preventable death in the United States and globally.

Cigarette litter clean-up costs can be substantial to local authorities. The Legacy poll also found that the majority (73 percent) of those surveyed believe that smokers should be responsible for cleaning up and disposing of cigarette butts after they smoke.

“Cigarette butts are commonly, unconsciously and inexcusably dumped into the global environment every year,” said Dr. Holly Bamford, Deputy Assistant Administrator for the National Ocean Service at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. “Once these filters make their way into our oceans, they could be mistaken for food and ingested by birds and marine life, which could cause them to choke or starve to death. We have to begin to change social norms so that just like every other form of litter, it is unacceptable to drop plastic cigarette butts anywhere other than proper receptacles,” she said.

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Stouffer's Frozen Lasagna Recalled

Stuffed peppers contain Worestershire sauce, an allergen

Nestlé Prepared Foods Company, a Gaffney, S.C. establishment, is recalling approximately 16,890 pounds of Stouffer's lasagna frozen entrées t...

PhotoNestlé Prepared Foods Company, a Gaffney, S.C. establishment, is recalling approximately 16,890 pounds of Stouffer's lasagna frozen entrées that may instead contain stuffed peppers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced today.

The stuffed peppers contain Worcestershire sauce made with anchovies, a known allergen that is not declared on the lasagna labels. 

The following products are subject to recall: 

  • 19 1/8-oz (542-g) cartons of "Stouffer's Lasagna Italiano" with a "best before" date of "JAN 2014"
  • Shipping cases of "Stouffers DS STFD Peppers," each containing 12 cartons that may be labeled with "Stouffer's Lasagna Italiano"


Each carton and case bears the establishment number "EST. 7991." The cartons and cases also bear the package code "1349595513R" or "1349595513S." No other package codes are affected by this recall. Additionally, each 19 1/8-oz. carton contains an identifying retail UPC code "13800 44709." The products subject to recall were produced on Dec. 15, 2011, and were shipped to retail establishments east of the Mississippi River. 

The problem was brought to the company's attention by two consumer complaints. The problem may have occurred when the lasagna packaging materials remained in the packaging machinery when the company began packaging stuffed pepper entrées. FSIS and the company have received no reports of adverse reactions associated with consumption of these products. Individuals concerned about a reaction should contact a healthcare provider. 

FSIS routinely conducts recall effectiveness checks to verify that recalling firms notify their customers of the recall and to ensure that steps are taken to make certain that the product is no longer available to consumers. 

Consumers with questions about the recall should call Nestlé Consumer Services at 1-800-392-4057. Media with questions regarding the recall should contact Roz O'Hearn, Manager, Nestlé Division and Brand Affairs, at (440) 264-5170. 

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Non-Stick Chemical Linked to Kidney, Testicular Cancer

PFOA found in the bodies of 99% of Americans

An independent scientific panel approved by the DuPont company as part of a class action lawsuit has linked an industrial chemical known as C-8 or PFOA to&...

PhotoA chemical once used to produce non-stick coatings has been linked to kidney and testicular cancer in humans, sparking renewed calls for government action to ban the substance, known as C-8 or PFOA. The finding comes from an independent scientific panel approved by the DuPont company as part of a class action lawsuit.

“Widespread pollution by PFOA should be a wake-up call that our chemical regulation system is severely broken,” said Olga V. Naidenko, Ph.D., a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group (EWG). “It is particularly urgent for the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a legal limit for drinking water pollution by PFOA, which is currently unregulated and never should have come to market.”

EWG has campaigned for nine years to curb the use of PFOA, a toxic perfluorinated chemical whose full name is perfluorooctanoic acid, and to impose a strict cap on its presence in drinking water. As well, EWG has advocated reforms to the federal Toxic Substances Control Act that would require pre-market safety testing of all chemicals.

EPA, though concerned about the presence of PFOA in the environment, said in 2005 that it "does not believe there is any reason for consumers to stop using any consumer or industrial related products" because of PFOA. If cooking doesn't cause the harmful PFOA escape from Teflon pots or pans, there is no health risk.

Emissions of PFOA, once manufactured by DuPont to produce non-stick coatings, have polluted the water of at least nine states and the District of Columbia. As a result of widespread pollution, PFOA and related chemicals are now found in the bodies of more than 99 percent of Americans. Pollution has been particularly pronounced around Parkersburg, W.Va., where a DuPont plant emitted PFOA into the air and Ohio River from the 1950s until recently. Emissions from the plant have been largely eliminated over the past several years under a phase-out agreement between the Environmental Protection Agency and DuPont.

In 2002, communities whose drinking water was polluted with PFOA emissions from the Parkersburg DuPont plant filed a class action lawsuit against the company for contaminating ground water. Two years later, DuPont agreed to a settlement that created a scientific panel to conduct comprehensive detailed studies on PFOA and human health by analyzing data from nearly 70,000 people who live or have lived in six water districts in Ohio and West Virginia in the vicinity of the DuPont plant.

Latest data

The scientific panel’s latest data, made public on Monday, associated the chemical with kidney and testicular cancer and possibly thyroid cancer. In earlier years, the panel linked PFOA to pregnancy-induced hypertension and preeclampsia. With this new finding, DuPont could be forced to spend more than $200 million on medical monitoring programs for current and former residents of the area.

EWG’s review of water pollution studies published in the open scientific literature and government dockets has determined that PFOA pollution in water has been reported not only in West Virginia and Ohio, but also New Jersey, Minnesota, Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Virginia, New York and the District of Columbia.

Although the levels of PFOA found in people’s blood have declined recently as the chemical is phased out of use in the U.S., people can be exposed to perfluorinated chemicals by using a variety of consumer products, including grease-resistant food packaging and furniture, carpets and clothing treated with stain-resistant coatings. When ingested or inhaled, these chemicals can be converted into PFOA in the human body.

DuPont, the only current American maker of PFOA, has committed to phase out manufacture, purchase and use of the chemical by 2015. But companies overseas continue to produce and use it. U.S. law does not require that that its replacements be screened for safety for the environment and human health. In the case of PFOA and other toxic perfluorinated chemicals, only a global phase-out can protect public health and the environment, EWG said.

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Seafood Fraud Is Widespread, Report Finds

More than half of seafood sampled in Los Angeles was mislabeled

A new study finds that more than half the seafood sold in Los Angeles was mislabeled. Oceana, an international advocacy group, said that DNA testig co...

PhotoA new study finds that more than half the seafood sold in Los Angeles was mislabeled. Oceana, an international advocacy group, said that DNA testig confirmed that 55 percent of the seafood sampled by Oceana was mislabeled based on federal law.

“It is disheartening to know that consumers are not getting wait they pay for,” said Beth Lowell, campaign director at Oceana. “Seafood fraud is not only ripping off consumers, but it is putting their health at risk and undermining their efforts to eat sustainably.”

In May and December of 2011, Oceana staff and supporters collected 119 seafood samples from grocery stores, restaurants and sushi venues in Los Angeles and Orange counties. The targeted species included those that were found to be mislabeled in previous studies as well as those with regional significance such as wild salmon, Dover or other regional soles, red snapper, yellowtail and white tuna.  

Among the report’s other key findings include:

  • Fraud was detected in 11 out of 18 different types of fish purchased.
  • Every single fish sold with the word “snapper” in the label (34 out of 34) was mislabeled, according to federal guidelines.
  • Nearly nine out of every ten sushi samples was mislabeled.
  • Eight out of nine sushi samples labeled as “white tuna” were actually escolar, a species that carries a health warning for it purgative effects.

“Consumers are being asked to guess what they are eating,” said Dr. Kimberly Warner, senior scientist at Oceana. “The public should be provided with more information about the food they are purchasing. With such high levels of mislabeling, it is more important than ever for the government to increase inspections and require traceability of our seafood.”

Earlier this year, California State Senator Ted W. Lieu (D-Torrance) introduced legislation (SB 1486), sponsored by Oceana, that would require large restaurant chains to accurately label their seafood by species, country of origin and whether it is farmed or wild.

“The extent of seafood fraud found in California should be shocking to consumers, especially those that are paying extra for seafood they think is healthier and more sustainable,” said Geoff Shester, California program director at Oceana. “If enacted, this bill would provide a powerful first step to help turn the tide on seafood fraud.”

In late-October of 2011, Oceana also found mislabeling of nearly one in five fish fillets sampled in Boston-area supermarkets.


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'Certified' Used Cars, Trucks an Alternative for Thrifty Buyers

BMW, Honda, Toyota among the pre-owned brands generating the most interest

CPO cars and other vehicles offer a solid manufacturer warranty along with cheaper sale prices...

PhotoAs we've reported earlier, smaller used cars are currently enjoying big gains in value for a range of used cars and other vehicles that are offering today’s American consumer a way to get what they want in an auto purchase without taking on the MSRP for a model just out of the factory.

Now AutoTrader is reporting that a particular kind of used vehicle -- certified pre-owned, or CPO -- represents the best of both worlds for many buyers; these autos come with the more reasonable price tags of a used car, but with the quality warranties and manufacturer backing provided by specific certification programs.

To offer a CPO vehicle, the automaker typically employs certified technicians to make sure that a pre-owned car is up to factory specifications. The automaker can then stand behind the vehicle, offering the same kind of comprehensive warranty that a new car buyer would expect. For buyers used to seeing a local used car dealer’s 60 day/300 mile offer in the window, or just the chillingly succinct phrase, “as is,” a CPO buy can be a way to get more peace of mind about buying a car that’s been on the road for a year or two.

In releasing actual numbers on the most desirable CPO models, AutoTrader uses the interesting method of recording “views” of a model online for a list of “most viewed” vehicles. This firm, a company with a wide reach and subsidiaries including Kelley Blue Book, offers April buyers more data about what’s currently trending. AutoTrader top brass note that the down economy has a lot of buyers looking for lower prices, and that’s where CPO programs can generate a lot of interest at local lots.

Top views

One car that’s getting a lot of attention is the BMW 3. This car has topped the list of AutoTrader’s most viewed CPO vehicles two months in a row, followed by the Honda Accord. Honda has two models on the list, with the Honda Civic at #4, while Toyota has three. The rest of the slots are split between American makers Ford and Chevrolet, the German Volkswagen, and luxury brand Audi.

Ford and Chevy’s slots go to trucks: the Chevrolet Silverado 1500 at #3 and the best-selling Ford F-150 at #5. The Toyota Tacoma and Toyota Tundra both make the list, too, at #7 and #10 respectively. While AutoTrader execs note that interest in trucks is “declining slightly” due to a current obsession with fuel economy, it’s clear that the work truck still commands a relatively large customer base in the CPO market.

If you’re a little indecisive about whether to spring for a new car, take a look at some of the CPO programs available from various car makers, like Toyota’s certified initiative offering buyers a 12-month/12,000-mile Comprehensive Warranty and a 7-year/100,000-mile Limited Powertrain Warranty, along with extras like roadside assistance and a full quality assurance inspection.

For those who want a domestic CPO choice, Ford and Chevrolet offer many of the same benefits in their respective CPO offers; Ford promotes a “172-point” check and 12-month, 12,000-mile comprehensive limited warranty that covers “more than 500 components” of a vehicle. For its part, GM offers 12 months, 12,000 miles on its “Bumper to Bumper” warranty, a maintenance plan, and more to attract customers to Chevrolets, Buicks and GMCs carrying the GM seal of approval. Look for select vehicles available at local lots.

 

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Visa Cautions Timeshare Owners About Reseller Fraud

Teaming up with the FTC to educate consumers

Visa is getting more involved in raising awareness of timeshare resale fraud because, typically, payments for this so-called service are made on credit car...

PhotoVisa is getting more involved in raising awareness of timeshare resale fraud because, typically, payments for this so-called service are made on credit cards. It sites Federal Trade Commission (FTC) statistics showing the number of consumer complaints about timeshare resalehas more than doubled in recent years.

Timeshares are generally condominium properties that are sold to a number of different “owners.” The owners take turns using the properties, usually for one or two weeks per year.

In addition to the purchase price, owners also have to pay monthly maintenance and management fees. These purchases are often made in the heat of the moment and after a high-pressure sales pitch. Only later do the owners realize they don't have time to use the property and can't afford the fees. As a result, they are highly motivated to sell their timeshare. But without another high-pressure sales pitch, there just aren't that many eager buyers.

Effective scam

That's what makes timeshare resale scams so effective. A timeshare property owner gets a phone call with an offer to sell a vacation property to a waiting buyer. The timeshare owner is asked to sign a contract and pay a transaction fee – usually with a credit or debit card.

But after the contract is signed and the fee collected, the timeshare owner rarely is contacted again by the reseller. In most cases, the buyer never existed, and the contract was for advertising services only.

When the timeshare owner realizes this and calls to get the fee refunded, the fraudulent reseller typically ignores the phone calls, denies any refund requests, or stalls to go beyond chargeback timeframes and evade acquirer and Visa risk controls.

That's why Visa says it is teaming up with the FTC to help timeshare owners avoid these schemes in the first place.

Two-pronged approach

"We're taking a two-pronged approach to tackling timeshare reseller fraud by working with organizations such as the FTC to help alert consumers to this emerging scam and working with financial institutions to heighten monitoring of timeshare resale merchants," said Martin Elliott, Head of Americas Acceptance Risk and Global Brand Protection, Visa Inc. "We know that there are many legitimate timeshare resellers out there. Our goal is to weed out the fraudulent ones for the benefit of merchants and consumers."

The FTC, of course, is well aware of the problem.

"If you own a timeshare, chances are you will hear from fraudsters pretending to be resellers, promising a ready buyer, top dollar, or a quick sale. This is timeshare hot air," said David C. Vladeck, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "The more pressure you get to pay fees before your timeshare is sold, the more likely it's a scam. Check out the reseller, and get all the details of the contract in writing. That includes the fees, costs, and services you'll get for your money. If the contract you get isn't what you expected, don't sign it and don't pay any money."

A number of states have also been active on the timeshare resale scam front, notably Florida, where many timeshares are located.

The Florida Attorney General's Office reported receiving nearly 9,000 consumer complaints about timeshare resale fraud in 2011, representing the highest complaint category. On April 6, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed into law the Timeshare Resale Fraud Bill, which is intended to protect the many timeshare property owners in the state from unscrupulous merchants.   

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e-Cigarette Exploded in Man's Face, Suit Charges

Victim was hospitalized for eight days after the incident

A man was hospitalized for eight days after an electronic cigarette exploded in his face, sending "burning debris and battery acid into his mouth, face, an...

PhotoA man was hospitalized for eight days after an electronic cigarette exploded in his face, sending "burning debris and battery acid into his mouth, face, and eyes," the e-smoker claims in a federal lawsuit.

In the suit, Phillip and Theresa Hahn of Greeley, Colo., say that in November 2011, they bought a Prodigy V3.1 electronic cigarette device from Pure Enterprises’ online store, at the website address of puresmoker.com. He purchased an Enercell battery from Radio Shack to power the device.

Hahn said that on January 12, he was using the device when the Enercell battery exploded, injuring Hahn and damaging his home. He was hospitalized for eight days.

The suit charges that Pure Enerprises Inc., failed to adequately warn purchasers of the dangers of using the electronic cigarette

Hahn seeks economic and non-economic damages for past, present and future medical care and treatment, caretaking expenses, lost wages, pain, suffering, disability, disfigurement, anxiety, depression, loss of enjoyment of life, property damages for fire damage and loss of use of his residence.

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Is Your Flash Drive a Security Risk?

Drives are easily lost and infected with malware

A flash drive, smaller than a package of chewing gum, has made it much easier to move computer files around. These inexpensive drives can hold dozens of gi...

PhotoA flash drive, smaller than a package of chewing gum, has made it much easier to move computer files around. These inexpensive drives can hold dozens of gigabytes of data, more capacity than a standard computer hard drive a decade ago.

But with this convenience comes risk. Because these drives are so small, and are normally carried in a pocket or purse, they can be easily lost. If they happen to contain sensitive files – personnel information, for example – they can pose a data breach.

Flash drives can also be infected with malware, and evidence suggests many are. Paul Ducklin, of Sophos Security, reports his firm recently purchased the USB flash drives sold at a rail company's lost property auction. Two-thirds, Ducklin reports, contained Windows malware.

“Not one file on any of the keys was encrypted, even though many of the files contained personal or business information,” Duckin wrote in his blog.

Encryption tool

There are a number of free encyption tools to allow consumers to encrypt the files on their flash drives, protecting them in the event the drive is lost or stolen.

A drive with a virus, or malware, is a problem because they tend to get used on a number of different computers, passing the virus along to each one. One way in which it does this is with the autorun feature.

You may have noticed that when you plug a flash drive into a PC's USB port, you get the autorun prompt. Autorun resides in the flash drive's root director and contains a reference to programs and files that should be run as soon as the drive is installed.

Spreading the virus

A number of bugs exploit this file. As soon as the device is installed in an infected PC, the malware is copied to the flash drive. When the now-infected flash drive is plugged into a clean PC, it runs the script and infects the once-clean computer.

Security experts suggest installing an anti-spyware portable scanner on your flash drives as a way to keep them free of malware. The program resides on the portable drive and can be run from time to time to find and elminate malware they may have picked up.

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Dole Fresh Vegetables Recalls Salads

May be contaminated with Salmonella

Dole Fresh Vegetables is voluntarily recalling 756 cases of DOLE Seven Lettuces salad with Use-by Date of April 11, 2012, UPC code 71430 01057 and Product ...

PhotoDole Fresh Vegetables is voluntarily recalling 756 cases of DOLE Seven Lettuces salad with Use-by Date of April 11, 2012, UPC code 71430 01057 and Product Codes 0577N089112A and 0577N089112B, due to a possible health risk from Salmonella. Dole Fresh Vegetables is coordinating closely with regulatory officials.  No illnesses have been reported in association with the recall.

The Product Code and Use-by Date are in the upper right-hand corner of the package; the UPC code is on the back of the package, below the barcode. The salads were distributed in fifteen U.S. states (Alabama, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin). 

No illnesses have been reported in association with the recall. This precautionary recall notification is being issued due to an isolated instance in which a sample of Seven Lettuces salad yielded a positive result for Salmonella in a random sample test collected and conducted by the State of New York.

No other Dole salads are included in the recall. Only the specific Product Codes, UPC codes and April 11, 2012 Use-by-Date of Seven Lettuces salads identified above are included in the recall. Consumers who have any remaining product with these Product Codes should not consume it, but rather discard it. Retailers and consumers with questions may call the Dole Food Company Consumer Response Center at (800) 356-3111, which is open 8:00 am to 3:00 pm (PDT) Monday - Friday. 

Retailers should check their inventories and store shelves to confirm that none of the product is mistakenly present or available for purchase by consumers or in warehouse inventories. Dole Fresh Vegetables customer service representatives are already contacting retailers and are in the process of confirming that the recalled product is not in the stream of commerce. 

Salmonella is an organism that can cause foodborne illness in a person who eats a food item contaminated with it. Symptoms of infection may experience fever and gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, vomiting or abdominal pain. The illness primarily impacts young children, frail and elderly people and those with weakened immune systems. Most healthy adults and children rarely become seriously ill.

 

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Green Millionaire to Pay $2 Million in Refunds

Caught up in FTC 'negative option' crackdown

Same tactics are used by dozens of other marketers to sell other types of products to unsuspecting consumers. It's possible this is the first of other simi...

PhotoThere's no free lunch. Haven't we all been told that time after time? So when marketers offered a “free” book telling consumers how to fuel their cars and power their homes at no cost, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was more than a little dubious.

The catch, the FTC says, was consumers who requested the book got a bill for an online magazine they never ordered. In a settlement, Green Millionaire LLC has agreed to pay almost $2 million in refunds and not make misleading product claims in the future.

Negative option

The FTC says the case is an example of its effort to end abuses associated with “negative option” marketing, in which the seller interprets consumers' silence or inaction as permission to charge them. In particular, regarding Internet-based negative-option offers, the order requires the defendants to provide a check box disclosing the most critical terms of the negative-option program: all costs associated with it, that consumers are agreeing to pay the costs, the length of any trial period, and that consumers must cancel to avoid the charges. Consumers must then affirmatively select the check box for the defendants to process any billing information.

That's very different, the FTC complaint says, from the way the defendants marketed the Green Millionaire Book in television and Internet ads. The ads falsely claimed the book would describe "how to get free gas for life," "how to put solar panels on your roof for free," and "how to make your electricity meter go backwards paying you," with phony testimonial statements such as "I don't pay for electricity" and "I don't have car payments, and I don't pay for fuel."

'Just pay a small shipping charge'

The Green Millionaire websites allegedly asked consumers to provide their credit card or bank account number to pay a small shipping and handling fee, without clearly disclosing that they would be charged $29.95 for a two-month subscription to an e-magazine, or $89.95 for a one-year subscription.

The defendants allegedly violated the FTC Act by failing to disclose the subscription program, that customers would have to cancel it to avoid additional charges, the program's cost and how to cancel it, and when they must cancel to avoid charges. They also allegedly debited or charged consumers' bank or credit card accounts without their consent, misrepresented the book's contents, and used unsubstantiated endorsements.

Green Millionaire not alone

These same tactics are used by dozens of other marketers to sell other types of products to unsuspecting consumers. It's possible this is the first of other similar settlements to come.

In an encouraging sign for consumers, the settlement order also prohibits the defendants from using consumers' billing information to obtain payment without first getting their consent, as well as failing to clearly disclose the terms of any refund or cancellation policy and failing to promptly honor a consumer's request for a refund or cancellation.

If other marketers are also required to meet these standards, it could well reduce the number of consumers complaining they are being billed for products and services they don't want and never ordered.

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How Green Is Your Electric Vehicle? It Depends Where You Live

Cars charged with electricity from coal-fired plants are still better than gas-powered

Electric vehicles, like the Nissan Leaf, are gaining popularity among green consumers, those who want to live lightly on the earth, because they burn no ga...

PhotoElectric vehicles, like the Nissan Leaf, are gaining popularity among green consumers, those who want to live lightly on the earth, because they burn no gasoline and emit no tailpipe fumes. But just how much better for the environment electric cars actually are depends on where they get plugged in at night, according to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). 

The UCS report, “State of Charge: Electric Vehicles’ Global Warming Emissions and Fuel Cost Savings Across the United States,” is a first-of-its-kind analysis of the emissions EVs create from charging on an electric grid and how the cost of that charging compares to filling up a gasoline-powered vehicle. 

Photo
Regional differences

Broken down by category and divided by electric grid regions, the analysis concludes that in every part of the country, EVs outperform most gasoline-powered vehicles when it comes to global warming emissions. The analysis breaks the country into regions that are good, better or best for an EV. 

In fact, nearly half (45 percent) of Americans live in ‘best’ regions where an EV has lower global warming emissions than a 50 mile per gallon (mpg) gasoline-powered vehicle, topping even the best gasoline hybrids on the market. In places like California and most of New York, EV’s environmental performance could be as high as an 80 mpg gasoline-powered vehicle.

Photo

 “This report shows drivers should feel confident that owning an electric vehicle is a good choice for reducing global warming pollution, cutting fuel costs, and slashing oil consumption,” said Don Anair, the report’s author and senior engineer for UCS’s Clean Vehicles Program. “Those in the market for a new car may have been uncertain how the global warming emissions and fuel costs of EVs stack up to gasoline-powered vehicles. Now, drivers can for the first time see just how much driving an electric vehicle in their hometown will lower global warming emissions and save them money on fuel costs.” 

Even in regions where coal dominates the electricity grid, EVs are still “good” when it comes to global warming emissions. In parts of the Rocky Mountain region, where much of the electricity comes from coal-burning plants, driving an EV produces global warming emissions equivalent to a gasoline vehicle with a fuel economy rating of 33 mpg, similar to the best non-hybrid compact gasoline vehicles available today – all while cutting our nation’s oil consumption.

While the environmental benefits of driving an EV vary depending on where the driver charges the EV, electric grids across the country are getting cleaner. In fact, 29 states and the District of Columbia are implementing renewable electricity standards while a greater number of older and dirtier coal plants are retired. 

“The good news is that as the nation’s electric grids get cleaner, consumers who buy an EV today can expect to see their car’s emissions go down over the lifetime of the vehicle,” said Anair.

More economical

Wherever EV owners charge their vehicles, they will also save money. Based on electricity rates in 50 cities across the United States, the analysis found drivers can save $750 to $1,200 dollars a year compared to operating an average new compact gasoline vehicle (27 mpg) fueled with gasoline at $3.50 per gallon. Higher gas prices would mean even greater EV fuel cost savings. For each 50 cent increase in gas prices, an EV driver can expect save an extra $200 a year.

In some cases, especially in California, switching to a Time-Of-Use (TOU) electricity rate from a standard residential rate plan is necessary to save the most money, amounting to hundreds of dollars per year. TOU electricity rates allow consumers to access cheaper electricity when vehicles are being charged overnight. Consumers will need to educate themselves about the different kinds of rate plans their local utility has to offer when plugging in their vehicle at home.

With more than 10 new electric vehicle models expected from automakers in 2012, and even more models on the drawing board, consumers will have more alternatives that can help reduce oil consumption and improve America’s energy security.

But to fully realize the benefits of EVs will require changing not just the kind of vehicles people drive, but also the power that drives them, the report concludes. Electric drive vehicles can be zero emission today, when powered by renewables like solar and wind. But it will take continued steps to ramp down coal and ramp up renewables so that every region can enjoy clean energy and the best benefits EVs have to offer. 

“As consumers get more electric vehicle choices over the coming years, it will be increasingly important to change how we generate our electricity,” said Anair. “These vehicles can play a central role in a clean transportation future, and as we move to a cleaner electric grid, we will see that future move closer to reality.”


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More Pressure On Fannie and Freddie to Write Down Mortgages

State attorneys general say it could ease foreclosure crisis

More Pressure On Fannie and Freddie to Write Down Mortgages...

PhotoIowa Attorney General Tom Miller has joined those who are urging the overseer of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which own a majority of the nation’s home loans, to reverse his refusal to implement loan principal forgiveness in the agencies’ loan modification programs.

In a letter to Edward DeMarco, Acting Director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), Miller and a coalition of 11 state attorneys general argue that the failure to offer underwater borrowers principal write-downs obstructs the effective resolution of the nation’s foreclosure crisis and harms struggling homeowners and investors.

Goal is to lower re-defaults

“We think that it’s pretty clear that when principal reduction is used in the right circumstances, the re-default rate will be very low. I feel strongly that it’s one more tool needed to help rebuild our economy through addressing the foreclosure crisis,” Miller said.

Miller is no stranger to the issue. Last year he chaired the task force of 50 state attorneys general who negotiated a settlement with five major loan servicers implicated in the the robo-signing scandal.

Given Demarco’s recent acknowledgment that principal forgiveness may be beneficial to both homeowners and investors, Miller says the letter advocates for swift implementation of principal forgiveness in federal loan modification programs.

“FHFA's continued position that principal forgiveness conflicts with its goal of asset preservation is not supported by real data,” the attorneys general write.

Incentive

The state officials argue that principal forgiveness restores a borrower’s status as a stakeholder and provides them a stronger incentive to maintain payments.

In the letter, the attorneys general argued that the increase of incentive payments to investors for allowing forgiveness under the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) should also reduce concerns regarding the potential impact on the financial stability of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as either owner or guarantor of these loans.

The letter also says that reluctance to engage in principal forgiveness based on the inability of internal computer systems to handle new programs is not an excuse as the nations’ largest banks overcame similar concerns after the national mortgage servicing settlement just finalized.

“More than five million people have lost their homes due to foreclosure in the past five years, with millions more on the brink of foreclosure,” the letter points out. “Effectively resolving this foreclosure crisis is a key to restoring a healthy economy for our entire country.”

Because Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac own a majority of the nation’s home loans, Miller says they must be a leader in the arena of loan modification best practices, and not an obstruction.

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Best Buy Identifies Stores Being Closed

Giant electronics retailer struggles to compete effectively against Amazon, other online stores

Best Buy has identified the 50 "big box" stores that will be closed as the company tries to shrink its footprint of about 1,100 big-box locations in the U....

PhotoBest Buy has identified the 50 "big box" stores that will be closed as the company tries to shrink its footprint of about 1,100 big-box locations in the U.S.

The company said it has already closed two stores this year (one in Kansas City, Mo., and one in Scottsdale, Ariz.), and has notified five Twin Cities stores and one San Antonio store that they will close later this year. Employees of the 42 remaining stores were notified over the weekend that their stores would be closing.

Best Buy has been struggling for the last few years to compete effectively against Amazon and other online retailers, who often undercut in-store prices and, in many cases, do not charge sales tax.

"This was not an easy decision to make," the company said in a prepared statement. "We chose these stores carefully, and are working to ensure the impact to our employees will be as minimal as possible. ... But we also recognize the impact this news has on the people who deserve respect for the contributions they have made to our business.

The announcement from Best Buy said that most of the doomed stores will permanently close by May 12. Three additional locations are expected to permanently close later this summer. 

Here is the list of store closings, as provided by Best Buy: 

Store Name

Address

City

State

Casa Grande

1004 N Promenade Pwy

Casa Grande

AZ

Lake Pleasant

10134 W Happy Valley Rd

Peoria

AZ

East Palo Alto

1751 E Bayshore Rd

East Palo Alto

CA

Westwood

10861 Weyburn Ave

Los Angeles

CA

Manteca

934 Perimeter Dr

Manteca

CA

Moreno Valley East

27220 Eucalyptus

Moreno Valley

CA

Ontario

4120 E 4th St

Ontario

CA

Pittsburg

4405 Century Blvd

Pittsburg

CA

Jamboree

2857 Park Ave

Tustin

CA

Arapahoe & Parker

15800 E Briarwood Cir

Aurora

CO

The Forum

9370 Dynasty Dr

Fort Myers

FL

Oldsmar

11655 W Hillsborough Ave

Tampa

FL

Fayetteville

128 Pavilion Pkwy

Fayetteville

GA

Loganville

4014 Atlanta Hwy

Loganville

GA

Addison

1038 N Rohlwing Rd

Addison

IL

87th & Dan Ryan

8900 S Lafayette Ave

Chicago

IL

Deerfield

200 S Waukegan Rd

Deerfield

IL

Matteson

4707 Lincoln Mall Dr

Matteson

IL

Mundelein

1100 N Rt 83

Mundelein

IL

West Dundee

979 W Main St

West Dundee

IL

Speedway

10500 Parallel Pkwy

Kansas City

KS

Back Bay

360 Newbury St

Boston

MA

Wareham

2421 Cranberry Hwy

Wareham

MA

Inner Harbor

600 E Pratt St

Baltimore

MD

Hunt Valley

118 Shawan Rd

Hunt Valley

MD

Biddeford

405 Mariner Way

Biddeford

ME

*Brooklyn Center

5925 Earle Brown Dr

Brooklyn Center

MN

*Edina

3200 Southdale Cir

Edina

MN

*Hutchinson

1350 Hwy 15 S

Hutchinson

MN

*Lakeville

18350 Orchard Trl

Lakeville

MN

Rochester South

4540 Maine Ave Se

Rochester

MN

*Rogers

20870 Rogers Dr

Rogers

MN

Ellisville

15678 Manchester Rd

Ellisville

MO

Monroe

3151 W Highway 74

Monroe

NC

Rocky Mount

1100 N Wesleyan Blvd

Rocky Mount

NC

Millard

12210 K Plz

Omaha

NE

East River Plaza

517 E 117th St

New York

NY

Steelyard Commons

3506 Steelyard Dr

Cleveland

OH

Salem Mall

5031 Salem Ave

Dayton

OH

Caguas

Las Americas Expry PR52 Zafiro

Caguas

PR

Middletown

890 W Main Rd

Middletown

RI

Hickory Hollow

5255 Hickory Hollow Pkwy

Antioch

TN

Techridge

12901 North I-35

Austin

TX

*Woodlake Parkway

6218 Woodglen

San Antonio

TX

Landmark Mall

5901 Stevenson Ave

Alexandria

VA

Cosner's Corner

9745 Jefferson Davis Hwy

Fredericksburg

VA

East Richmond

4410 S Laburnum Ave

Richmond

VA

Mill Plain

16611 Se Mill Plain Blvd

Vancouver

WA

* indicates stores notified March 29, 2012 of closure plans

Note: Two stores in Kansas City, MO (Metro North) and Scottsdale, AZ (Shea) permanently closed in February 2012.


 

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Despite Weak Economy, Prom Spending Surges

Spiraling out of control, Visa warns

Times are still tough, gasoline is expensive, and families everywhere are having to tighten their belts. Except, it appears, for families this time of year...

PhotoTimes are still tough, gasoline is expensive, and families everywhere are having to tighten their belts. Except, it appears, for families this time of year with teenagers who have a date for the prom.

Despite continuing economic sluggishness, a survey by Visa shows that when it comes to high school proms, Americans are partying like it's 1999. This year, Visa says it appears that families with teenagers will spend an average of $1,078 each on the prom, a 33.6 percent increase over the $807 spent in 2011.

Out of control

"Prom season spending is spiraling out of control as teens continuously try to one-up each other," said Jason Alderman, Senior Director of Global Financial Education, Visa Inc. "It's important to remember that the prom is a high school dance, not a wedding, and parents need to set limits in order to demonstrate financial responsibility."

The survey also revealed some interesting regional and income level disparities. Families in the Northeast will spend twice as much as every other region of the country. Regionally, the survey found:

  • Northeastern families will spend an average of $1,944
  • Southern families will spend an average of $1,047
  • Western families will spend an average of $744
  • Midwestern families will spend an average of $696

Low income families spend the most

Unfortunately, Alderman says, the data shows parents in the lowest income brackets plan to spend more than the national average on their children's big night, usually going into debt. Families that earn between $20,000 and $30,000 plan to spend the most – an average of $2,635.

How could you possibly spend that much on a teen-age party? Well, there's a dress or a tuxedo, limousine rental, flowers, food, accommodations, and parties after the party.

To save on prom costs, here are a few ideas:

  • Shop for formal wear at consignment stores or online. As with tuxedos, many outlets rent formal dresses and accessories for one-time use.
  • Have make-up done at a department store's cosmetics department or find a talented friend to help out.
  • Split the cost of a limo with other couples, or drive yourselves.
  • Take pre-prom photos yourself and have the kids use cell phones or digital cameras for candid shots at various events.
  • Work out a separate prom budget with your child well in advance to determine what you can afford. Set a limit of what you will contribute and stick to it. If teens want to spend more than that, encourage them to earn the money to pay for it or decide which items they can live without.
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Michigan Repeals Motorcycle Helmet Law

Safety and insurance groups not pleased

Michigan Repeals Motorcycle Helmet Law...

PhotoMichigan has become the 31st state to repeal its law requiring adult motorcycle riders to wear a protective helmet. Motorcycle enthusiasts hailed the move as long overdue, saying adults should have the right to decide whether or not they should wear a helmet.

But not everyone is cheering. Insurance and safety advocates call it a step backward. Even AAA Michigan issued a statement saying it is extremely disappointed that Michigan Gov. Rich Snyder chose to sign the bill into law. It said Public Act 98, which took effect Friday, is poor public policy and will increase motorcycle fatalities and injuries.

30-year old law

The repeal erases more than three decades of Michigan's mandatory helmet law. The new law allows motorcyclists to ride without a helmet if they have a $20,000 medical policy, have had the cycle endorsement for at least two years, or completed a motorcycle safety course.

The governor had earlier indicated he would not be supportive of the helmet law unless it was tied to some form of no-fault auto insurance reform.

“Because the repeal will result in additional injuries -- which will ultimately be paid for by all Michigan motorists -- the need is even more critical for changes in the state's current no-fault system,” AAA Michigan said in a statement.

According to AAA, the repeal of the motorcycle helmet law will result in at least 30 additional motorcycle fatalities each year, along with 127 more incapacitating injuries and $129 million in added economic costs to Michigan residents. The group sites an analysis by the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning, which it said was based on the experience of other states where similar measures have been enacted.

Higher insurance costs?

Pete Kuhnmuench, executive director of the Insurance Institute of Michigan, joined AAA in expressing his disappointment.

"It is disappointing that a law that saved lives and reduced injuries in the Great Lakes State has been repealed,"Kuhnmuench said in a statement.

He said motorcyclists who are injured in a crash with a motor vehicle are able to collect no-fault auto insurance benefits through the vehicle driver’s auto insurance policy. That means that all auto insurance policyholders pay for motorcyclists’ injuries, Kuhnmuench said.

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Implantable Device Could Warn of Impending Heart Attack

Researchers believe heart attack victims could get advance warning

It's a stark statistic. More than one million people in the United States suffer a heart attack every year and more than 30 percent of them die before they...

PhotoIt's a stark statistic. More than one million people in the United States suffer a heart attack every year and more than 30 percent of them die before they can receive medical attention.

One big reason for that, doctors say, is that most victims are unaware that they are suffering a life-threatening attack until it is too late. The average time from the onset of symptoms to when a victim arrives at a hospital is about three hours.

What if your heart had an alarm that could sound when it was about to go into arrest? That may not be so far-fetched.

AngelMed Guardian

Clinical trials are now underway for an implantable device called the AngelMed Guardian. It is designed to alert users about a potential heart attack through a combination of vibrations, audible tones, and visual warnings.

The concept stemmed from the hospital environment itself. Vibrotactile, or vibrating alarms are sometimes used to warn medical personnel in operating rooms or ICUs of an emergency. Now, research is focusing on their use as a means to warn patients that something in their body is going wrong.

Auditory alarms are provided with selected implantable heart defibrillators, but research indicates that some patients - particularly the elderly - are unable to hear the alarms.

Dual advantages

“A vibrotactile alarm provided by the implanted device has two major advantages,” said Mary Carol Day, a researcher who has studied the device. “First, the implanted device can’t be left behind like a portable device. Second, a vibrotactile alarm from the implanted device is more likely to be felt than an auditory alarm is to be heard because, for example, the patient may be wearing heavy clothing, has hearing loss, or is in a noisy environment.”

The device offers two levels of alarm urgency: a high-priority alarm indicates that the patient may be having a heart attack and should call 911, and a low-priority alarms indicates that a condition has been detected that requires a doctor visit within 48 hours.

The alarms are provided by an implanted medical device, similar in size to a pacemaker, that is placed in the upper left chest, plus an external device, similar to a pager, that emits an auditory alarm and flashes a red or yellow warning light.

The device is not yet available for consumers, but might be in the future, depending on the results of the clinical trials.

“If the Guardian is approved for sale by the FDA, it might be extended in ways that will change the way the patient interacts with the system as a whole,” Day said. “This would require more research and simulated-use studies to refine and validate the new interactions between the patient and the system.”

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Nevada Man Arrested In Alleged Mortgage Modification Scheme

Desperate homeowners cautioned about offers of help that require an advance fee

Nevada Man Arrested In Alleged Mortgage Modification Scheme...

Police in Nevada have arrested a 46-year old businessman accused of defrauding desperate homeowners with a mortgage modification scheme.

Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto says Stephen Vitalich, doing business as Consumer Loan Excellence of America, LLC or NBMS of America, LLC, faces charges of theft.

The criminal complaint alleges Vitalich promised clients he would obtain mortgage loan modifications that would substantially reduce clients’ monthly mortgage payments. The complaint further alleges that after collecting large advance fees, Vitalich performed no substantive work on his clients’ behalf and eventually disappeared with their money.

Since Nevada is ground zero in the nation's foreclosure crisis, Masto said Vitalich didn't have to look hard to find victims.

“Nevadans continue to struggle with the economic downturn which has wreaked havoc on our state’s housing market,” said Masto. “Some homeowners will do anything they can to stay in their home, including unknowingly turning to predators. I hope this prosecution serves as a warning to other would be predators to think twice taking advantage of Nevada homeowners.”

2010 investigation

In early 2010, Masto launched an investigation of Consumer Loan Excellence of America in response to numerous consumer complaints filed with her office. The case was investigated and is being prosecuted by the Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Justice Fraud Unit.

Nevada is not the only state struggling to protect homeowners for abusive mortgage modification schemes. Illinois and Indiana have, in recent months, sued various companies charging advance fees and then offering little or no help to struggling homeowners.

Masto says homeowners should never pay up front fees to reduce their loans. Help is free and generally speaking, no one should pay for assistance.

Homeowners who face mortgage difficulties should instead contact a non-profit housing counselor, either through www.HUD.gov or a local non-profit housing clinic, to learn about the mortgage process and their rights as homeowners.

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FCC: Google 'Deliberately Impeded' Spy-Fi Probe

Agency staff, exasperated with foot-dragging, proposes a $25,000 fine

If this were a movie, Google would be the Nixon White House and intrepid Federal Communications Commission (FCC) staffers would be the guys holding clandes...

PhotoIf this were a movie, Google would be the Nixon White House and intrepid Federal Communications Commission (FCC) staffers would be the guys holding clandestine meetings in Washington parking garages, trying to find out what the big secret is. 

But it's not. At least not yet. However, the FCC's investigation into Google's collection of sensitive personal information from wireless networks is starting to closely resemble the kind of political drama that involves stonewalling, witnesses taking the Fifth Amendment and press secretaries releasing innocuous statements. A review of recent history finds such incidents usually end badly for the stonewallers.

This particular epic started a few years ago when Google revealed that cars it was using to map streets for its Street View project were also inadvertently eavesdropping on unencrypted personal and commercial wireless networks, scooping up all kinds of dirt on individuals great and small.  

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigated and accepted Google's explanation that the eavesdropping was accidental. Google even said it was "mortified."

But when the FCC tried to follow up on the FTC probe, it was the FCC that was soon mortified -- mortified by how slow Google was to respond to requests for the names of the employees involved and for copies of emails surrounding the incident.

The New York Times reported yesterday that Google at one point said it was be too "time-consuming and burdensome" to find the emails the FCC wanted to see. Since Google operates the world's biggest search engine and routinely scans billions of email messages to match them up with advertisements, the FCC found this explanation particularly unconvincing, according to the Times.

The FCC was again stymied when it asked for the identity of the engineer who was responsible for the Street View project. Sorry, said Google, the employee wanted to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

And besides, said Google, making the employees available would "serve no useful purpose," the Times reported.

Google's response

In a masterpiece of non-responsive rhetoric, worthy of being tagged as "inoperative" by onetime Nixon aide Ron Nessen, a Google spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal: "We worked in good faith to answer the FCC's questions throughout the inquiry, and we are pleased that they have concluded that we complied with the law." 

The FCC has said that so far it has not found that Google did anything illegal in collecting the information. The proposed $25,000 fine is simply for impeding the investigation, but it doesn't do much to dispel a growing feeling in Washington that the online privacy issue may be worthy of more investigation.

Google has said it is "profoundly sorry" for having mistakenly collected payload data from unencrypted wireless networks. "As soon as we realized what had happened, we stopped collecting all Wi-Fi data from our Street View cars and immediately informed the authorities," a company spokesman said back in 2011. "We did not want and have never used the payload data in any of our products and services.”

In January 2011, Google reached an agreement with a 40-state coalition over a subpoena for the so-called "payload" data. The company had said then that it wanted to delete the data but was barred from doing so by the subpoena issued by then-Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, now a Democratic Congressman. 


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More From Downton Abbey ... After This

Appeals court tosses rules against commercials on public TV

If you're eagerly awaiting the next season of Downton Abbey, you may be dismayed to learn that political and "public-interest" ads may soon be coming to a ...

PhotoIf you're eagerly awaiting the next season of Downton Abbey, you may be dismayed to learn that political and "public-interest" ads may soon be coming to a public television station near you. 

In one of two decisions not likely to be popular with those who dislike advertising, a federal appeals court in California has overturned a federal law barring public broadcast stations from accepting political and public-issue ads (you know, the ones about how great oil drilling is), saying the restriction is unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, a federal judge has ruled that Worcester's ban on outdoor tobacco ads is also unconstitutional, saying it bars tobacco companies from advertising their products -- which are legal, after all -- to adults who may legally purchase them.

What's next? Ads on Cuban TV?  

Perhaps ironically, here in the Land of the Free, the advertising that supports the free press that underpins democracy is reviled on every hand, while "public" television -- which is what foundation- and government-supported TV calls itself -- is somehow seen as inhabiting a higher plane.

But this holier-than-thou attitude cut no ice with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which reversed 2-1 a decision by a lower court that upheld the federal advertising ban.

What? You think there's already advertising on public television? No, no, those are just underwriting announcements from public-spirited corporations and foundations that are strictly interested in uplifting public culture, educating the teeming masses and so forth. You know, the oil and drug companies.

The way the Ninth sees it, ads that push ideas -- like political and public-interest ads -- are protected by the First Amendment while ads that try to sell something, like cars or soap, are "commercial" speech, which has always been accorded less protection than the ravings of the nearest zealot on a soapbox.

Whether public TV and radio stations decide to hire flotillas of advertising salespeople remains to be seen, but it's hard to see how the tide can be held at bay for too long, given the rather threadbare condition of many public stations, set upon by the likes of YouTube and Vimeo, not to mention Hulu and Netflix and the dread gargantua Amazon. 

Public outcast

The case before the Ninth involved a relative outcast of the self-consciously patrician public broadcasting world -- KMTP, a San Francisco station operated by the nonprofit Minority Television Project.  It doesn't receive funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and subsists entirely on what it is able to scrape together from donations, corporate sponsorships and the occasional grant. 

It broadcasts a hodge-podge of programming, everything from what appears to be a wedding channel to German, Russian and Italian programming.  

In 2002, the Federal Communications Commission fined the station $10,000 for airing commercials. For whatever reason, the Ninth didn't see fit to return the $10,000, even though little KMTP could probably use the money.

Blunt bans

In the Worcester case, U.S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock found that, however much it may wish its residents didn't smoke, "Worcester may not prohibit tobacco advertisements in order to prevent adults from making the choice to legally purchase tobacco products."

The judge also snuffed out Worcester's banning of ads for "blunt wraps," rolling papers generally used to assemble marijuana joints. 

Even though Worcester has outlined the sale of blunts, they are legal in neighboring Fitchburg and, therefore, can be advertised in Worcester, the court held.

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New Sony CEO Vows to Improve TV Business, Restore Quality

Company faces big challenge in its TV unit, which draws consumer complaints

Sony, which once dominated the consumer electronics business, is now fighting for survival. New CEO Kazuo Harai says the company will eliminate 10,000 jobs...


Photo
Consumers rate Sony TVs

Sony, which once dominated the consumer electronics business, is now fighting for survival. New CEO Kazuo Harai says the company will eliminate 10,000 jobs worldwide as it tries to regain profitability.

Sony announced this week that its annual net loss would be approximately double its earlier projection. The company has lost money four straight years and has lost money on its television division for the last eight years, partly due to expensive recalls. And as ConsumerAffairs readers well know, it's Sony's televisions that seem to draw the most consumer complaints.

The company still has its fans, though, as our sample of about 37,000 consumer comments on social networks like Twitter and Facebook shows:

 

Complaints

"Less than two years after purchasing a Sony Bravia 52BR 9 TV, the LCD panel went bad," Joan, of Palm Gardens, Fla., wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "Sony refuses to acknowledge this as a recall problem and read their script every time I called, which was maddening! I spent $2,200 on this TV which gave me 11 months of service."

 

Michelle, of Norfolk, Va., says she bought a 46 inch Bravia in February 2011. One day before the warranty expired, she says she began having problems.

"Sony said it was probably our cable connection and confirmed it was not the TV," Michelle wrote. "Not long afterward, our picture became worse. We now had horizontal lines through the screen; on the left hand side, there was an egg-shaped discoloration. I felt because our initial call was prior to the expiration on the limited warranty, they should have been more than happy to replace our TV as it the right thing to do. Boy, was I wrong!"

Sony has long had a reputation for quality in the consumer electronics industry. While all flat screen TVs have issues. consumers, like Norm, of Alberta, Canada, get particularly angry when they encounter quality problems with their Sony TV.

"I have bought Sony electronics for 30 years, always thought they were the top shop," Norm writes. "It adds insult to injury for them to require you to spend $120 for them to tell you they won't help you."

Glory days

At a news conference in Tokyo, Harai said he is committed to reversing Sony's fotunes and restoring the brand to its former glory.

Efforts in the TV business will focus first on stopping the red ink on the ledger sheet. Harai said he hopes to make the unit profitable again by 2014 by cutting fixed and operating costs.

But until Sony and other TV manufacturers address what appear to be quality issues - many of these expensive sets don't last six years - they may face strong headwinds. Not to mention a new level of competition when and if Apple follows through on rumored plans to move deeper into the TV set space.

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Is Your Pre-Owned Small Car Value Spiking?

New NADA Report Shows Big Gains for Fuel Efficient Small Cars in 2012

All evidence from today's market is that Americans are willing to pay top prices for small cars with high mpg...

PhotoThe National Automobile Dealers Association or NADA is alerting American vehicle owners that the slightly used models in their driveways could be worth more than they think; in an April 10 notice, NADA cited swift increases in the values of a range of used cars, particularly small and compact cars that get good fuel mileage.

According to NADA’s numbers, an increase of 2.6% in prices of compact and mid-size segments throughout the past month means that many pre-owned cars of these model types have now gained around $300 in value. For the year, NADA claims the same values have gone up over 4%, an average increase of $500.

Trade now?

NADA executive automotive analyst Jonathan Banks is urging drivers to take advantage of current high trade-in values.

“The most advantageous time this year to trade in a used car will be April through May because values will be higher," said Banks, adding that values of compact and mid-size cars will continue to rise faster than the market average.

According to Banks and many others who look closely at the auto industry, the simple fact is that, though domestic and foreign auto makers are quickly building dazzling fuel efficient technologies into modern designs, there’s a hunger for high-mpg cars that is still not sated, and a buying public that is still on the hunt for a good, fuel-efficient small vehicle.

Rising gas prices, say analysts, are only part of the equation. Banks cites “shortage of inventory” and “strong consumer demand for fuel-efficient vehicles.” North American car buyers seem to have their minds made up, settling in on fuel economy as a must-have for the road ahead.

Most sought-after models

Topping the list of rapidly appreciating high-mpg cars is the 2011 Kia Rio, with an estimated four-month increase in 2012 of 15%, or $1400. At ConsumerAffairs, we recently took a look at awards and consumer attention for new Kia Rio models, where fuel efficiency and more are making these Korean offerings popular stateside.

Also, 2009 Toyota Prius and Toyota Camry hybrid vehicles also gained 12% and 11% respectively, according to NADA, along with the 2011 Mazda3 and the 2009 Nissan Altima. Another big gainer is a bit older; NADA estimates an 11% increase for the 2007 Honda Civic, showing that although the Civic brand may have lost a bit of its luster in recent years, this early-2000s favorite is still enjoying a significant following.

With an estimated average increase of 10%, the relatively obscure and kind of odd-looking 2010 Dodge Caliber shares the stage with the popular 2010 Ford Focus, the 2010 Chevrolet Aveo, and the 2009 Chevy Cobalt.

A word on trade-ins

While it may be solid advice to look at trade-in values as some prices rise, it should be said that some dealers will blanket consumers with aggressive trade-in promotions without really offering the on-lot values that their customers are entitled to.

If you get a flyer from your dealer saying that the lot “must have” your pre-owned car, do the research. A trade-in may be in your favor, but without some careful analysis of current blue book values, it may be hard to know whether you’re getting a good deal or not.

Keep in mind that the best way to get top dollar for your pre-owned car is to sell it yourself.  Cars.com and AutoTrader.com are just a few of the sites that do a brisk business in putting buyers and sellers together.

In the end, if you are the proud owner of one of the cars on NADA’s list, you could upgrade your ride this spring at a distinct advantage.

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Mayo Clinic Offers New Treatment for Acid Reflux

FDA approved the new treatment device last month

You can call it heartburn, acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). But whatever you call it, it can lead to serious health issues.The U.S....

PhotoYou can call it heartburn, acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). But whatever you call it, it can lead to serious health issues.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has just approved a new device to treat the condition and the Mayo Clinic in Florida says it will be one of the first health care institutions in the U.S. to use it.

“Mayo has been a leader in the treatment of esophageal diseases, especially GERD, and we are pleased to be offering this new treatment to our patients immediately,” said C. Daniel Smith, M.D., chair of the Surgery Department at Mayo Clinic in Florida.

Took part in clinical trials

Mayo Florida is quick to ramp up on the treatment because it was one of only 14 U.S. medical centers that took part in clinical trials for the device. Previously, treatments for GERD were either medication of surgery.

The device offers a middle alternative; more powerful than medication but not as invasive as the complex surgery.

GERD is a condition in which liquid, or food, in the stomach flows back up into the esophagus due to the inability of a ring of muscle between the lower esophagus and the top of the stomach to close properly.

If drugs aimed at neutralizing the acid in the stomach fails to prevent GERD, Smith estimates as many as two million patients might benefit from the new treatment.

Long-needed option

“The new system will offer a long-needed treatment option for a large group of underserved patients,” he said.

The implanted device is a ring of tiny magnetic titanium beads that is wrapped around the junction between the stomach and esophagus, serving as a mechanical augmentation of the lower esophageal sphincter. The magnetic attraction between the beads is strong enough to keep the sphincter closed to refluxing acid, but weak enough so that food can pass through it into the stomach.

The device can be implanted using minimally invasive surgery methods.

“The system offers effective control of GERD with limited side effects and thus far an excellent safety record,” Smith said.

If it's not controlled, acid reflux or GERD can result in serious problems, including esophagitis, esophageal bleeding and ulcers,Barrett's esophagus, strictures, and an increased risk of esophagealcancer.  

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Feds Propose Remedy for Unintended Acceleration

"Brake-Throttle Override" would stop the car when both brake and accelerator are depressed

Federal safety regulators are proposing a "brake-throttle override" requirement for cars, hoping to reduce the number of unintended acceleration incidents....

PhotoFederal safety regulators are proposing a "brake-throttle override" requirement for cars, hoping to reduce the number of unintended acceleration incidents. 

“America’s drivers should feel confident that anytime they get behind the wheel they can easily maintain control of their vehicles—especially in the event of an emergency,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “By updating our safety standards, we’re helping give drivers peace of mind that their brakes will work even if the gas pedal is stuck down while the driver is trying to brake.”

The proposal grows out of research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which has been looking for ways to reduce the risks of high-speed unintended acceleration and prevent crashes involving a stuck or trapped accelerator pedal by allowing the driver to maintain control through normal application of the vehicle’s brakes.   

The NHTSA proposal aims to minimize the risk that drivers will lose control of their vehicles as a result of either accelerator control system disconnections or accelerator pedal sticking or floormat entrapment.  The proposal would amend federal standards by updating the throttle control disconnection test procedures for all passenger cars, multipurpose passenger vehicles, trucks and buses, regardless of weight. For vehicles that have Electronic Throttle Control (ETC) and a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of 10,000 pounds or less, the proposal would also require manufacturers to include a Brake-Throttle Override (BTO) system to ensure the vehicle would stop if both the brake and the accelerator pedals are simultaneously applied.  Many manufacturers are already including BTO systems in their vehicle fleets.

“We learned as part of the comprehensive NASA and NHTSA studies of high-speed unintended acceleration that brake override systems could help drivers avoid crashes,” said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. “While NHTSA’s defect investigation program will continue to monitor and consider consumer complaints of any potential vehicle safety issues, this proposal is one way the agency is helping keep drivers safe and continuing to work to reduce the risk of injury from sticky pedals or pedal entrapment issues.”

Wild in the streets

Complaints about unintended acceleration have been around ever since the horse was the primary means of conveyance.  Many complaints are never solved and engineers have been known to scoff at drivers' claims, calling them the result of an overworked imagination or a misplaced foot.  But whatever the cause, accidents do happen and they often involve drivers whose qualifications make it unlikely they didn't know which pedal was which.

In August 2009, a California highway patrolman and his family were killed in their runaway Lexus ES 350 on a San Diego freeway. Someone calling from the car before it crashed at over 100 miles per hour said they couldn't stop it. Seconds later, it struck an SUV. The accident helped put unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles at the top of the safety agenda and eventually led to the 2010 recall of millions of Toyota and Lexus models.

Jeeps have also been the subject of complaints. In June 2006, then-Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal told federal regulators that they ought to investigate Jeeps after a 52-year-old man was run over and killed by a Grand Cherokee in a Connecticut car wash.

Don't get them dirty

In fact, Jeeps seem to have acquired an especially fearsome reputation among car wash operators, like Dan of Palmyra, Pa. 

"My family has owned and operated automatic car washes for nearly 50 years. Over the past 10 years, we have had half a dozen incidents with Jeep Grand Cherokees accelerating out of control," Dan said in a 2011 ConsumerAffairs posting. "Every time it has happened, our employees have maintained that the vehicle took off on them and they could not stop it. The first few times it happened, we assumed it was driver error but not anymore. There is case after case of this happening and nobody at Chrysler will do anything about it.

"On Friday, Nov. 25th 2011, we had a Jeep Grand Cherokee come into one of our full service locations and when my drive-off guy, a 25 year veteran, started it up and put it into gear, it took off on him rapidly accelerating. He narrowly missed other employees and customers and plowed into a utility pole. He has cuts and bruises from the air bag and is in a lot of pain but he maintains that he had his foot on the brake and not the gas. This employee's only job is to pull cars off of the conveyor and as I said, he is a 25-year veteran guy. We will only push jeep Grand Cherokees off the conveyor. We will not start them," Dan said.

Other complaints, not involving car washes, have been received steadily over the years from consumers like Jerry of Brilliant, Ohio, who told ConsumerAffairs about a similar incident last month.

"My wife was coming to pick me up. She got in the 2012 Jeep (Wrangler) and started it up, then put in reverse and then the jeep took off like full speed and the parking brake was on. It went over the hill and slammed into the neighbor's garage and the thing is my jeep had less than 2,000 miles and we only had it in a month," Jerry said.

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VW's American Blitzkrieg Topples Foes

Volkswagen's new Tennessee plant races to keep up with sales

The horizon looks bright for Volkswagen and its new base of operations in Chattanooga, Tennessee...

PhotoSome new numbers from German automaker Volkswagen are showing how a number of initiatives are paying off big for the VW brand in the U.S. This month, the company released sales figures showing an increase of over 40% for the first quarter of the year -- the best first quarter for Volkswagen in over three decades.  It also represents a staggering 31 consecutive months of growing sales, with six straight months of monthly gains over 30%.

Of the March sales total of over 36,000 units, VW estimates that over 23% of that volume was for “clean diesel” TDI VW models utilizing the power of diesel fuel to give drivers more mpg.

Consumers have been turning towards more fuel-efficient vehicles lately, partially a response to high gas prices, but also a response to a few models years where domestic and foreign automakers are competing, not through brawn or bells and whistles, but through new engineering to save vehicle owners money at the pump.

High-efficiency diesel engines are grabbing a lot of the fuel-thrifty market, holding their own against the hybrid and the electric plug-in, both of which are still making significant but somewhat plodding advances into the market.

Volkswagen’s huge sales are a sign that diesel will continue to be a popular choice for many American drivers who don’t want to drive a battery-powered or battery-assisted engine without giving up the torque they've come to love. 

American approach

The spike in sales for VW is a continuation of a very positive trend for a manufacturer that has invested in an “American approach,” opening a huge plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee that employs over 2,000 workers.

Since its inauguration last year, the Tennessee facility has cranked out over 10,000 Passat vehicles, which are aimed at the American consumer in a deliberate way. The Passat, a top IIHS safety pick with estimated city/highway mpg of 21/32 on the base model, is a vehicle that VW says is made “specifically for the North American consumer.”

A recent press release providing VW’s gleaming numbers shows execs marveling at how the 2011 year sales total for the Passat, around 10,000, is already rivaled by the March 2012 sales alone. These great leaps in volume should make 2012 a great year for VW, a company that made a calculated play to source some of its new production stateside.

"Volkswagen is clearly committed to the US market," said Volkswagen Group of America exec Jonathan Browning in an April press release, "During the worst recession in the past century we never wavered with our investment of a billion dollars to create this world class facility.”

Along with producing  impressive volumes, the plant has garnered a prime Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or LEED rating from the U.S. Green Building Council for its building design, a win for VW’s sustainability rating. VW execs cited an “ultra-clean paint shop” and other features of a plan to really control the environmental impact of local operations.

With its plans neatly in place, Volkswagen seems poised to deliver more of the company’s products to an American audience looking to save at the pump. 

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For Foreclosures, the Calm Before the Storm

Foreclosures are down but ready to surge, now that settlement is signed

Foreclosures are down but ready to surge, now that settlement is signed...

PhotoIn the first three months of 2012, there were 572,928 foreclosure filings -- everything from default notices, scheduled auctions and bank repossessions. According to RealtyTrac, a company that markets foreclosed properties, that's down two percent from the previous quarter and off 16 percent from the first quarter of 2011.

But don't take that as a sign that the housing market has kicked into recovery mode -- it hasn't.

"The low foreclosure numbers in the first quarter are not an indication that the massive reservoir of distressed properties built up over the past few years has somehow miraculously evaporated," said Brandon Moore, chief executive officer of RealtyTrac. "There are hairline cracks in the dam, evident in the sizable foreclosure activity increases in judicial foreclosure states over the past several months, along with an increase in foreclosure starts in many judicial and non-judicial states in March.

"The dam may not burst in the next 30 to 45 days, but it will eventually burst, and everyone downstream should be prepared for that to happen -- both in terms of new foreclosure activity and new short sale activity."

More homes headed for the market

What's happening, according to RealtyTrac, is that banks are preparing to foreclose on properties that are in default, after postponing that action while federal and state regulators worked out a settlement deal with major lenders. Now that the settlement is done, the market could be flooded with distressed properties for sale.

It's already beginning to happen in states that use the judicial foreclosure process. It was in those states where robo-signing and other abuses came to light, resulting in the lender settlement with states and the federal government. With the settlement signed, those states are beginning to clear the backlog of distressed homes.

RealtyTrac found that these judicial states posted some of the biggest year-over-year increases in foreclosure activity in the first quarter. Foreclosure filing were up 45 percent in Indiana, up 38 percent in Connecticut, up 26 percent in Massachusetts, Florida and South Carolina, and up 23 percent in Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, 20 non-judicial states registered year-over-year decreases in foreclosure activity, led by Arkansas, with a 79 percent drop, and Nevada, with a 62 percent drop.

Next move

But RealtyTrac says there are still plenty of distressed homes in those states. What happens when they hit the market is anyone's guess.

The impact, in large part, will be determined by how many buyers are ready and willing to scoop up bargain-priced homes when they come on the market. Recent indicators have been slightly encouraging.

Investors have been consistently active in the market, making about 30 percent of home purchasesw each month. As rents continue to rise and home prices continue to dip, investing in real estate becomes a more attractive option.

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Subprime Lending On the Rise Once Again

Lenders making more loans to higher-risk customers

Credit crisis of 2008 was caused, in part, by too much lending to people who couldn't afford the loans. So-called subprime loans were particularly harmful ...

PhotoThe credit crisis of 2008 was caused, in part, by too much lending to people who couldn't afford the loans. So-called subprime loans were particularly harmful to the housing market, because high-risk borrowers were lured in with low-rate "teaser loans" that readjusted to unaffordable monthly payments.

Equifax, one of the three credit reporting agencies, says after a big drop, subprime loans are beginning to rise again. The biggest increase is seen in subprime credit cards accounts.

The report shows lending to sub-prime consumers showed a 41 percent increase from 2010 to 2011 as sub-prime borrowing hit a four-year high in Dec. 2011 with 1.1 million new bank credit cards issued.

New sub-prime card limits grew 55 percent from 2010 to 2011. At $12.5 billion in 2011, bankcard limits are at their highest level since 2008, when they hit $27.4 billion.

Subprime credit cards

Bank credit card growth continues, but is still well below pre-recession levels. In 2011 39.9 million bankcards were opened, an 18 percent increase from 2010 and the highest total since 2008.

"The evidence of increased lending to sub-prime consumers demonstrates banks' ongoing efforts to grow lending by providing credit opportunities to more consumers," said Equifax Chief Economist Amy Crews Cutts. "Year-over-year results show borrowers are taking advantage of the new opportunities and seeking to diversify their financial activity, which is building momentum toward economic improvement."

But will history repeat itself? Will subprime borrowers get lured into loans that they really can't afford? The jury is still out.

Leading up to the 2008 credit crisis, subprime mortgages were the biggest culprit. But these days, banks are lending less money for houses, period.

Subprime auto loans

Instead, there are more subprime auto loans, which has helped carmakers record robust sales figures over the last year or so. Subprime borrowers are gaining share in new auto loan originations, especially in the auto finance segment where they now make up over 46 percent of the market; prime borrowers make up a larger share - 83 percent - among auto bank originations, but have also lost share over the past two years to subprime borrowers. New auto finance loan amounts increased $11.6 billion from 2010 to 2011, hitting the highest originations level since 2007.

Similarly, auto bank loan amounts were up 14% from 2010 ($162.1 billion) to 2011 ($187 billion), nearly reaching the levels seen pre-recession.

According to Equifax, subprime lending has also increased in the area of college loans. As of December 2011, nearly 66 percent of newly originated student loans were held by higher-risk borrowers.

Among total outstanding student loan balances, low-risk borrowers have seen declining share though they still dominate; as of February 2012, low-risk borrowers accounted for 37 percent of outstanding student loan balances, while high-risk student borrowers accounted for almost 35 percent.

Total consumer debt in the U.S. currently stands at $11 trillion, a decrease of 11 percent from its peak in Q4 2008 at $12.4 trillion. The drop is driven by a nearly 12 percent drop in home financing balances, which fell from $9.8 trillion in 2008 to $8.7 trillion in February 2012. Non-mortgage and non-student consumer debt balances also fell sharply from the early 2008 peak of $2.05 trillion. After reaching a post-recession low of $1.60 trillion in May 2011, consumer debt balances have risen about two percent.

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Tests Link Parasite Strains to Illness in Newborns

Findings underscore value of screening for toxoplasmosis

Scientists have identified which strains of the Toxoplasma gondii parasite, the cause of toxoplasmosis, are most strongly associated with premature births ...

PhotoScientists have identified which strains of the Toxoplasma gondii parasite, the cause of toxoplasmosis, are most strongly associated with premature births and severe birth defects in the United States.

The researchers used a new blood test developed by scientists at the National Institutes of Health, to pinpoint T. gondii strains that children acquire from their acutely infected mothers while in the womb.

Pregnant women can become infected with T. gondii through contact with cat feces that contain infectious forms of the parasite or by eating undercooked meat. Women who become infected while pregnant may miscarry, give birth prematurely, or have babies with eye or brain damage.

“If undetected or untreated, congenital toxoplasmosis can have serious consequences for a child’s quality of life,” noted NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. “The findings from this study support the value of screening for toxoplasmosis to identify patients who could benefit from treatment.”

Tests available

Currently available blood tests can determine whether a person has ever been infected with any strain of Toxoplasma parasite. The experimental test developed at NIAID improves upon the older tests because it can detect the presence of strain-specific antibodies that distinguish infecting strains from one another. The test was developed by Michael Grigg, Ph.D., of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases, and his colleagues. It was applied to blood samples collected between 1981 and 2009 as part of the National Collaborative Chicago-Based Congenital Toxoplasmosis Study. The study of congenitally infected children was initiated by NIAID grantee Rima McLeod, M.D., of the University of Chicago, who is the first author of the new study, published online in Clinical Infectious Diseases.

At least 15 distinct T. gondii strain types have been found throughout the world. In France, where research has been done to establish which strains are most common, a strain called type II predominates. Type II parasites can be distinguished from all other strains, which are collectively termed not exclusively type II strains (or NE-II).

Using the new test, the researchers found evidence of either type II or NE-II infections in 183 of the mother-child pairs in the national congenital toxoplasmosis study. Statistical analysis revealed that NE-II parasites were more likely to be associated with premature birth, and infants infected with these strains were more likely to have severe manifestations of disease than infants infected by type II parasites. For example, severe eye damage was seen in 67 percent of NE-II cases (59 out of 88), while such eye damage was present in only 39 percent of type II cases (18 out of 46). The researchers noted, however, that the association is not absolute, and that mild, moderate or severe disease can result regardless of the infecting strain.

“We knew that, in mice, certain parasite strains are clearly associated with severe disease,” said Dr. Grigg. “But we didn’t know if the same association between strain type and disease severity would hold true for people. Until now, we had not systematically determined whether infected people in the United States had European-type strains or other types, and we also hadn’t determined whether strains found here would have more severe disease symptoms associated with them.”

Can be treated

When she helped start the congenital toxoplasmosis study in 1981, optimal drug treatment regimens were unknown, said Dr. McLeod. Now, thanks in part to controlled clinical trials run under the auspices of the study, the condition can be successfully treated and many babies who are diagnosed before or shortly after birth and who are treated suffer few or no ill effects. When the researchers looked at the clinical histories of those children in the long-term study who had been diagnosed with congenital toxoplasmosis during gestation and whose mothers had received drug treatment prior to giving birth, the association between NE-II and severe disease at birth vanished. “Our study demonstrates that outcomes are equally good following postnatal treatment for type II and NE-II parasites, although not all outcomes are favorable for all children,” she said.

In France, all pregnant women are screened for Toxoplasma infection. Prompt treatment is offered to any woman who becomes infected while pregnant, thus lessening the chance that the parasite will damage the fetus, Dr. McLeod noted. “In the United States, obstetrical screening for Toxoplasma infection is rarely practiced. This new study underscores the value of identifying all patients who will benefit from treatment and suggests that widespread screening and treatment of pregnant women who are infected could prevent infants from suffering eye and brain damage due to congenital toxoplasmosis,” she said.

Unlike in France, where type II is the most common strain detected, the new study found that NE-II parasites predominated (61 percent) in the United States over the three-decade span of the national collaborative study. NE-II parasites were more common than type II along the Gulf Coast, the Pacific coast and in Hawaii. NE-II strains were also more common among lower-income and rural populations.

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National Effort Aims To Reduce Harm From Stolen Cell Phones

Industry to help consumers recover when devices are lost or stolen

National Efforts Aims To Reduce Harm From Stolen Cell Phones...

PhotoIn many ways, losing your cell phone is like losing your wallet. Not only can the finder make unlimited calls, they can download all sorts of expensive games and other software, charging it, of course, to you.

As smartphones have gotten more expensive, the devices themselves can bring money on the black market.

Now the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the major wireless carriers have set up a central database of stolen cell phones, helping to prevent reduce their value to criminals.

Two-year ramp-up

Wireless providers will set up and maintain the database during the two-year ramp-up period.

More than 40 percent of all robberies in New York City involve smartphones and other cell phones. The situation is getting worse: In Washington, D.C., cell phones were taken in 54 percent more robberies in 2011 than in 2007, and cell phones are now taken in 38 percent of all DC robberies.

Other major cities have similar statistics, with robberies involving cell phones comprising 30-40 percent of all robberies.

A recent Symantec study indicates that a loss or theft of an unsecured smartphone often results in access to sensitive personal data. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, with the support of major city police chiefs and the wireless industry, announced the new initiatives by wireless carriers, initially including AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint who cover 90 percent of US subscribers, to deter theft and secure customer data.

System to be online in six months

Within six months, when Americans call their participating wireless provider and report their wireless devices stolen, their provider will block that device from being used again. This system will be rolling out globally using common databases across carriers over the next 18 months, according to the FCC.

A parallel campaign will encourage users to lock their phones with passwords. Smartphone makers will notify and educate users in the most highly visible ways—through messages on the smartphone itself and through “Quick Start” user guides—about how to use passwords to deter theft and protect their data.

The industry will also educate users on lock/locate/wipe applications. Wireless providers will directly inform their customers about how to find and use applications that enable customers to lock/locate/and wipe smartphones remotely.

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Study Finds Hate Groups Flourish In Big Box Communities

Researchers find communities with big box retailers also have hate groups

Study Finds Hate Groups Flourish In Big Box Communities...

PhotoResearchers at Penn State University say they have noted an odd correlation. In communities where big box retail stores flourish, so do "hate" groups.

The researchers suggest the the presence of these stores, such as Walmart, Kmart and Target, may alter a community's social and economic fabric enough to promote the creation of groups that play on different types of prejudice.

The number of Walmart stores in a county is significantly correlated with the number of hate groups in the area, said Stephan Goetz, professor of agricultural economics and regional economics, Penn State, and director of the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development.

Indirect cost of low prices

"Wal-Mart has clearly done good things in these communities, especially in terms of lowering prices," said Goetz. "But there may be indirect costs that are not as obvious as other effects."

The number of Walmart stores was second only to the designation of a county as a Metropolitan Statistical Area in statistical significance for predicting the number of hate groups in a county, according to the study.

The researchers, said that the number of Walmart stores in a county was more significant statistically than factors commonly regarded as important to hate group participation, such as the unemployment rate, high crime rates and low education.

What's behind this statistical correlation? The researchers have several theories.

The researchers suggested several theories for the correlation between the number of large retail stores and hate groups in an area.

Economic impact

Goetz said it may have something to do with the economic impact a big box store like Walmart has on a local community. Local merchants may find it difficult to compete against large retailers and be forced out of business.

Local business owners are typically members of community and civic groups, such as the Kiwanis and Rotary clubs. Losing members of these groups, which help establish programs that promote civic engagement and foster community values, may cause a drop in community cohesion, according to Goetz.

"While we like to think of American society as being largely classless, merchants and bankers are part of what we could call a leadership class in a community," Goetz said.

Nothing personal

The large, anonymous nature of big-box retailers may also play a role in fraying social bonds, which are strongest when individuals feel that their actions are being more closely watched. For example, people may be less likely to shoplift at a local hardware store if they know the owner personally, Goetz said.

While big box retailers are likely to recoil from the notion that their presence in a community has anything to do with the presence of hate groups, the researchers say it's nothing personal.

"We're not trying to pick on Walmart," said Goetz. "In this study, Walmart is really serving as a proxy for any type of large retailer."

Goetz suggests the store chain could use this study to find ways to play a role in supporting local groups that can foster stronger social and economic ties in a community.

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Goldman, Sachs Fined $22 Million for 'Huddles'

Huddles created the risk that non-public information would be disclosed

A Goldman, Sachs process known as "trading huddles" was supposed to allow research analysts to share ideas with the firm's traders, so they could provide b...

PhotoA Goldman, Sachs process known as "trading huddles" was supposed to allow research analysts to share ideas with the firm's traders, so they could provide better advice to their clients. Whether that happened or not is open to debate but the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) says the huddles "created the significant risk that analysts would disclose material non-public information."

Despite that risk, FINRA said Goldman did not have adequate controls in place to monitor communications in trading huddles and by analysts after the huddles, and today it fined Goldman $22 million for failing to adequately supervise the huddles. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced a related settlement with Goldman. Pursuant to the settlements, Goldman will pay $11 million each to FINRA and the SEC.

FINRA said trading huddles created the significant risk that analysts would disclose material non-public information, including, among other things, previews of ratings changes or changes to conviction list status. Despite this risk, Goldman did not have adequate controls in place to monitor communications in trading huddles and by analysts after the huddles.

Goldman did not adequately review discussions in the trading huddles to determine whether an equity research analyst may have previewed an upcoming ratings change, FINRA charged. For example, an analyst said of a particular company in a trading huddle in 2008 that "we expect companies with consumer and small business exposure to be under pressure in the current environment, including [the company]." The next day, the analyst sought and received approval to downgrade the company from "neutral" to "sell," and to add the stock to Goldman's conviction sell list. Goldman published an equity research report making these changes that same day.

In concluding this settlement, Goldman neither admitted nor denied the charges, but consented to the entry of the SEC's and FINRA's findings and admitted to certain facts that were part of a prior settlement with the state of Massachusetts.as conducted by Sandra Del Buono and Jeanne Elmadany under the supervision of James Day, Enforcement Chief Counsel and Jessica Hopper, Vice President, Enforcement.

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 or by calling (800) 289-9999. Investors may find copies of this disciplinary action as well as other disciplinary documents in FINRA's Disciplinary Actions Online database.

 

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Beware of In-App Purchases, They Can Add Up Quickly

Free apps can suddenly become very costly

Beware of In-App Purchases, They Can Add Up Quickly...

PhotoAn eight-year-old with an iPad might not seem like a dangerous thing.  After all, who would think a “free” game downloaded from iTunes, or any other reputable site, would not actually be free?

Kristy, of Portland, Mich., reports her eight year-old son downloaded a "free" game on his iPad. The game may have been free but by playing it, he managed to rack up more than $1,140 in charges in charges on iTunes from the in-app purchasing option, playing the game Dragonvale, which is labeled as appropriate for ages four and up.

“On March 30, he made 15 purchases totaling $720 in less than one hour,” Kristi wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “On March 31, the charges totaled over $420 in under 20 minutes.”

As she looked into it, Kristy said she discovered these in-app purchases, ranging in price from less than $1 to over $100, were for things like treasure chests of coins, sacks of food, bags of gems, and dragon treats to use in this children's game.

iTunes refunds the charges

After a few phone calls, Kristi said iTunes agreed to refund the charges. But the experience has made her extremely wary about in-app purchases, and whether consumers, particularly young ones, realize the charges that they can quickly incur. Here's what Apple says about in-app purchases:

“With iOS 3.0 or later, you can purchase subscriptions and extra content from within an application using your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch,” iTunes says on its website. “Some examples of In-App Purchases are bonus game levels/maps, additional experience points, subscriptions, and recurring services.”

But the question could be raised -- if the game is "free" but the consumer is offered expensive add-ons to make it more fun, doesn't it cease to be free?

And when thousands of consumers fail to notice the fine print on "free offers," and find resulting unauthorized charges on their credit cards, is it any wonder that people downloading a free game fail to realize they are spending real money when offered in-app options? And is it any wonder that children, especially, might not notice?

Too easy

“My son was required to use our password one time to download this allegedly free game and did not have to reenter the password to make all of these in-app purchases,” Kristi said. “In his defense, my son thought he was being charged 'game money' and had no concept that these were real-world charges. As a parent, I feel like my son's naivety was preyed upon by this company.”

iTunes is not the only company using in-app purchasing. Amazon and Google also use the practice.

It allows developers to earn revenue on apps they provide consumers for free. But is it also a new, high-tech form of bait and switch? Kristi apparently sees it that way.

“Developers are clearly targeting children and creating victims out of their parents who take ownership for allowing their kids to download these so-called free, paradoxically high-grossing, games,” Kristi wrote. “Something needs to be done regarding the current industry practice with respect to the marketing and delivery of these applications.

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U.S. & 16 States Sue Apple and Major Publishers for Price Fixing

Charges the companies conspired to drive up the price of ebooks

The Justice Department today filed suit against Apple and five major publishers, alleging they conspired to limit competition in the pricing of e-books. Th...

PhotoThe Justice Department and 16 states today filed suits against Apple and five major publishers --  Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin and Simon & Schuster -- alleging they conspired to limit competition in the pricing of e-books. The suit has been reported to be in the works for several months.

"What was at first a great benefit to buyers of electronic books – lower prices – apparently was considered too much of a benefit," said Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. "Customers who pay out their hard-earned money, no matter the product or service, deserve better."

Hachette, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster have agreed to a proposed settlement, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said at a news conference this afternoon.  He said the proposed settlement would require the publishers "to grant retailers – such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble – the freedom to reduce the prices of their e-book titles." He said the settlement also requires the companies to terminate their anticompetitive most-favored-nation agreements with Apple and other e-books retailers. 

Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said the states have reached agreements in principle with Harper Collins and Hachette to provide "significant consumer restitution" as well as injunctive relief. 

Holder said the alleged comspiracy began in the summer of 2009, whe "executives at the highest levels of the companies included in today’s lawsuit – concerned that e-book sellers had reduced prices – worked together to eliminate competition among stores selling e-books, ultimately increasing prices for consumers."

"As a result of this alleged conspiracy, we believe that consumers paid millions of dollars more for some of the most popular titles," Holder said.  "During regular, near-quarterly meetings, we allege that publishing company executives discussed confidential business and competitive matters – including Amazon’s e-book retailing practices – as part of a conspiracy to raise, fix, and stabilize retail prices.   

"In addition, we allege that these publishers agreed to impose a new model which would enable them to seize pricing authority from bookstores; that they entered into agreements to pay Apple a 30 percent commission on books sold through its iBookstore; and that they promised – through contracts including most-favored-nation provisions – that no other e-book retailer would set a lower price.   Our investigation even revealed that one CEO allegedly went so far as to encourage an e-book retailer to punish another publisher for not engaging in these illegal practices."

Holder said Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott played a major role in the investigation and warned that other major companies should beware of running afoul of the antitrust laws.

"Today’s action sends a clear message that the Department’s Antitrust Division continues to be open for business – and that we will not hesitate to do what is necessary to protect American consumers," Holder said.

Other litigation

The Justice Department's case is similar to an antitrust 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.

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.”

States take action

The states' lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Court for the Western District of Texas, alleges that Macmillan, Penguin and Simon & Schuster conspired with other publishers and Apple to artificially raise retail prices for e-books by imposing a distribution model in which the publishers set the prices for bestseller e-books at $12.99 and $14.99.  When Apple prepared to enter the e-book market in late 2009 and early 2010, the publishers and Apple agreed to adopt an agency distribution model as a mechanism to allow them to fix prices. To enforce their price-fixing scheme, the publishers and Apple relied on contract terms that forced all e-book outlets to sell e-books at the same price. Because the publishers agreed to use the same prices, retail price competition was eliminated. According to the States’ enforcement action, the coordinated agreement to fix prices resulted in e-book customers paying more than $100 million in overcharges.

The states seek injunctive relief to reverse the effects of the defendants’ anti-competitive conduct as well as damages for customers who paid artificially inflated prices for e-books.

States mounting the action are Arizona, Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and West Virginia.

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Beware Black Mold Hype

Mold industry leader says term is used to scare consumers

"Beware the black mold hype," Earle said. "It's a sales pitch based on fear, often accompanied by inferior abilities and practices on the part of the selle...

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Does Old Fashioned Common Sense Trump Popular Diet Products?

Researchers find eating less fat and getting more exercise best way to lose weight

Researchers find eating less fat and getting more exercise best way to lose weight...

PhotoThere's no shortage of popular, commercial diet products and diet systems that charge fees and sell their own special food. But are they any more effective than the way people used to lose weight in the past – by eating less fat and getting more exercise?

Both, it appears, can be effective. One just costs less than the other, and it tends to garner the best results. Researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center say the old tried and true methods of eating less fat and exercising are some of the most effective paths to weight loss success.

“This is great news because studies have shown that even a five percent reduction in weight can lead to improved health,” said lead author Dr. Jacinda M. Nicklas, a clinical research fellow at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School. “With more than a third of Americans now obese and 50 to 70 percent of them trying to lose weight, this is important because the health risks associated with carrying that extra weight are substantial.”

Major study

Nicklas and colleagues analyzed data from more than 4,000 obese individuals culled from the 2001-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to assess the health and nutritional status of adults in the United States.

Individuals included in the study were over 20 years of age with a body mass index of 30 or more 12 months prior to the interview. Of those surveyed, 2,523 individuals reported trying to lose weight. Forty percent of these said they experienced weight loss of 5 percent or greater, and another 20 percent lost 10 percent or more.

“Those who exercised more and ate less fat were significantly more likely to lose weight,” say the authors. “Additionally we found a correlation between joining weight loss programs and greater reported weight loss, which may speak to the importance of structure in a weight loss regimen” says Nicklas. And while those who used prescription weight loss medications also reported weight loss success, this represented only a small number of study participants.

Not so successful

In contrast, the authors found that, “self-reported use of popular diets, liquid diets, nonprescription weight loss pills and diet foods/products were not associated with weight loss.”

“It’s very encouraging to find that the most of the weight loss methods associated with success are accessible and inexpensive,” said senior author Dr. Christina Wee, who conducts research on obesity and health disparities as the Co-Director of Research in BIDMC’s Division of General Medicine and Primary Care. “There are lots of fad diets out there as well as expensive over-the-counter medications that have not necessarily been proven to be effective, and it is important that Americans discuss product claims with their doctor before trying such products.”

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Housing Groups File Discrimination Complaint Against Wells Fargo

Alleges foreclosed homes better maintained in predominately white neighborhoods

It's generally accepted that a foreclosure in the neighborhood has a negative impact on other houses nearby. But is the impact felt more severely in predom...

PhotoIt's generally accepted that a foreclosure in the neighborhood has a negative impact on other houses nearby. But is the impact felt more severely in predominately minority neighborhoods?

The National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) and four of its member organizations believe that it does, and that it is no accident. The groups have filed a federal housing discrimination complaint against Wells Fargo & Co. and Wells Fargo Bank, N.A.

The groups say the complaint is the result of an undercover investigation of Wells Fargo’s bank-owned properties that found foreclosed properties in white areas are much better maintained and marketed by Wells Fargo than such properties in African-American and Latino neighborhoods.

Investigation covered 218 properties

The complaint details the results of an investigation of 218 foreclosed properties owned by Wells Fargo. The groups say the results show that Wells Fargo has engaged in a systemic practice of maintaining and marketing its foreclosed, bank-owned properties, also known as Real Estate Owned or REO, in a state of disrepair in minority communities while maintaining and marketing REO properties in predominantly white communities in a far superior manner.

The Wells Fargo investigation evaluated REO properties in the eight metropolitan areas of Atlanta, GA; Baltimore, MD; Dallas, TX; Dayton, OH; Miami/Fort Lauderdale, FL; Oakland/Richmond/Concord, CA; Philadelphia, PA; and Washington, DC. One item in the complaint was the lack of real estate signs in front of foreclosed homes in minority neighborhoods.

Without a “for sale” sign, for example, potential homebuyers would simply not know the property is available. Also, if there is storm damage or unauthorized occupants, neighbors have no one to call. With a for sale sign, neighbors can call a real estate agent to report these kinds of problems.

More signs in white neighborhoods

The complaint says almost twice as many for sale signs were found in white communities than in communities of color in Philadelphia, PA and Oakland, CA. In Washington, DC, there were four times as many for sale signs in white neighborhoods than in neighborhoods of color, the groups say. There were no for sale signs at 90 percent of Wells Fargo properties in Dayton, Ohio's minority communities.

“Wells Fargo’s disregard for homes in communities of color has severely damaged these communities,” said Shanna L. Smith, NFHA President and CEO. “The company has also hindered this nation’s efforts to promote fair housing and is in clear violation of the Fair Housing Act.”

The National Fair Housing Alliance in Washington, D.C., and four of its member organizations – the Miami Valley Fair Housing Center in Dayton, Ohio; Housing Opportunities Project for Excellence in Miami, FL; Metro Fair Housing Services in Atlanta, GA; and North Texas Fair Housing Center in Dallas, TX – evaluated the maintenance and marketing of REO properties for the existence of 39 different types of maintenance or marketing deficiencies, such as broken windows and doors, water damage, overgrown lawns, no “for sale” sign, trash on the property, and other deficits.

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Court Halts Alleged Fake Debt Collector Calls from India

California Defendant Ran Phantom Debt Collection Scheme from His Home, FTC Alleges

A U.S. district court has halted an operation that alleged hounded consumers for payday loan debts they didn't owe to the defendants or, in some cases...

PhotoA U.S. district court has halted an operation that alleged hounded consumers for payday loan debts they didn't owe to the defendants or, in some cases, didn't owe at all. The defendants' scheme involved more than 2.7 million calls to at least 600,000 different phone numbers nationwide, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

In less than two years, they fraudulently collected more than $5.2 million from consumers, many of whom were strapped for cash and thought the money they were paying would be applied to loans they owed, according to FTC documents filed with the court. The court order temporarily stops the illegal conduct and freezes the operation’s assets while the FTC moves ahead with the court proceedings and seeks refunds for consumers.

The agency charged Tracy, California-based Kirit Patel and two companies he controls with violating the FTC Act and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

Often pretending to be American law enforcement agents such as "Officer Mike Johnson" or representatives of fake government agencies like the "Federal Crime Unit of the Department of Justice," callers from India who were working with the defendants would harass consumers with back-to-back calls, according to the FTC. One consumer reported that the caller threatened to have her children taken away if she did not pay, according to court documents.

Another consumer told the FTC, “The callers threatened me and claimed they would arrest me if I didn’t pay them the alleged debt. One of the callers even contacted my neighbors and told me he was watching my house. The callers had a lot of . . . personal information about me, including my work address. One caller told me, ‘We just saw you walk into your office building,’ and then listed my office address. Another caller told me there were 55 warrants out for my arrest. Sometimes my caller ID would indicate that the call was from the FBI. Because the callers knew so much about me, I believed they were police officers or FBI agents. The calls scared me and I was often shaking when I hung up the phone."

Private data leaked

In difficult economic times, consumers may turn to high-interest, short-term payday loans between paychecks. The FTC alleges that information submitted by consumers who applied for these loans online found its way into the defendants’ hands.  Because the callers had this information – which often included Social Security or bank account numbers – and because many of the victims already were in a tenuous financial situation, they often believed that they owed the defendants the money, according to the FTC. In some cases, when consumers made the allegedly bogus payments, they had nothing left over to cover legitimate expenses: Two mothers reported that they could not buy Christmas presents for their families after making payments on the phony debts.

The defendants typically demanded several hundred dollars and, in violation of federal law, routinely used obscene language and threatened to sue or have consumers arrested, according to the FTC’s complaint. They also threatened to tell the victims’ employers, relatives, and neighbors about the bogus debt, and sometimes followed through on these threats, the FTC alleged.

Once victims were pressured into paying, the callers instructed them to use a pre-paid debit card such as a Wal-Mart MoneyCard, another debit card, a credit card, or Western Union so the money could be deposited into one of the defendants’ merchant processing accounts, the FTC alleged. Even after victims made a payment, the harassing calls often continued, forcing them to change their phone numbers, or close their credit cards or bank accounts in an effort to get the calls to stop, according to documents filed with the court.

$4.2 million in consumer losses

The FTC alleged that of the $5.2 million the defendants collected, almost $1 million was returned or charged back by their merchant processor, resulting in consumer injury totaling more than $4.2 million.

The complaint alleges that the defendants violated the FTC Act and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act by:

  • misrepresenting that they had the authority to collect on supposedly delinquent loans that consumers owed, they were a law enforcement authority or were affiliated with a government agency, and that consumers would be arrested, imprisoned, or sued; and
  • using obscene or profane language, and calling consumers repeatedly with the intent to annoy, abuse, or harass them.

 

 

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Gas Prices Not High Enough For Refineries

East Coast refineries may be forced out of business

East Coast refineries may be forced out of business...

PhotoWith the national average price of gasoline closing in on $4 a gallon, you might expect the oil refinery business to be booming. It isn't.

In fact, the opposite is true. Refiners have seen their margins slashed to the point that many are no longer profitable.

A report in the Financial Times notes Sunoco has closed two oil refineries in Pennsylvania and is ready to pull the plug on another, meaning the East Coast is about to lose half of its refining capacity.

Refiners caught in a squeeze

With consumers paying $4 a gallon, how can this be? Well, believe it or not, it's the marketplace at work.

The price of oil has soared over $100 a barrel, making it more expensive to refine a gallon of gasoline. That gallon of gas is sold to a retailer, who adds in a small profit and sells it to a consumer for around $4.

But because it's so expensive, the consumer doesn't buy as many gallons as she did when gasoline sold for $3 a gallon. So the refinery is selling fewer gallons, on which the profit margin is very small. As sales keep dropping, the refinery isn't making enough profit to justify keeping the refinery open.

PhotoAdding to the red ink is the fact that the East Coast refineries have traditionally purchased oil from overseas, which is now much more expensive than crude oil pumped in the U.S., mostly in Texas. It doesn't buy Texas oil because, well, because it never has.

There are no pipelines running from Texas to Pennsylvania, but then are pipelines really necessary? The refineries currently get their oil delivered from Africa by tanker. It's not clear why tankers couldn't deliver it from Texas as well. From the Gulf of Mexico, take a hard left at the southern tip of Florida, steam north and you're practically there, right? 

Odd circumstances

It all makes for an odd set of circumstances; oil prices remain high because traders who buy and sell it on the commodities futures market believe it will be in short supply in the future and be even more expensive in the future. Either recovering economies will demand more oil or hostilities with Iran will interrupt shipments from the Persian Gulf, creating supply shortgages, they've concluded.

None of that has happened yet, but it affects the current price of oil just the same. It makes for hard times at East Coast refineries and confusion and anger at the gas pump.

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Are Banks Causing Even Higher Gas Prices?

Convenience stores say swipe fees add to the price at the pump

Are Banks Causing Even Higher Gas Prices?...

PhotoWhat makes consumers madder than high gasoline prices? How about bank fees?

So, if you were to combine high gas prices with bank fees, you might have the perfect consumer storm. The National Association of Convenience Stores, which warred with banks last year over “swipe” fees, is stirring the pot again, making the case that bank fees are adding to the already expensive prices at the pump.

The association has released a new study that found drivers are paying 6 to 10 cents a gallon in hidden bank fees every time they gas up. To make matters worse, the retailers say, the banks' "swipe" fee goes up inexorably with the price of gas, even though your bank is doing nothing extra to process your debit or credit card transaction.

Swipe fees, of course are what banks charge stores to process your transaction. You may not know about them, but the convenience-store owner does.

Rates set 'in secret'

The association says all kinds of card fees, including swipe fees, are set in secret by Visa and MasterCard. They have grown to be the store owner's largest operating expense after labor – more than rent, more than utilities. Though they were reduced last year, convenience stores say they are still too high.

According to the association, convenience stores paid more than $11 billion in card fees last year, a jump of almost 25 percent and an amount almost 90 percent greater than their profits.

"These fees have come to be a tremendous burden on convenience stories, most of which are run by small business people," said Lyle Beckwith, senior vice president of government relations for the National Association of Convenience Stores. "In many cases, the banks are profiting more from the sale of gas than our members."

As gas goes to $4 in some markets, the bank's average cut of swipe fees alone increases to 7 cents, if you pay with a debit card and up to 10 cents with a credit card.

Paying cash doesn't protect you

Even if you pay cash, the association says you'll pay extra, because the credit card companies' rules push the merchant to pass along the costs to everyone, not just customers who pay with plastic. The study also found that gas prices increased 80 percent between 2004 and 2011. Card fees rose 180 percent. In other words, even when gas prices level off, the bank fees continue to rise.

“Because credit-card fees are fixed in secret by a duopoly of MasterCard and Visa, they always are on the increase, to the point where they are now the highest in the industrialized world,” the association said in a press release.

Sounds like the war between convenience stores and banks isn't over yet.

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Chrysler Introduces Wireless Charging of Smartphones, MP3 Players

New technology debuts in 2013 Dodge Dart, arriving in showrooms by June

In a world seemingly filled with goofy gadgets and fairly useless innovations, Chrysler Group has come up with something that could actually save time and ...

PhotoIn a world seemingly filled with goofy gadgets and fairly useless innovations, Chrysler Group has come up with something that could actually save time and trouble: wireless in-car recharging of all those goofy gadgets.

Through its Mopar division, Chrysler is introducing new technology that will allow your iPhone, Blackberry, MP3 Players and Droid-based devices to immediately begin charging in your vehicle once the engine has started -- without the need to plug in any cords. 

No, you can't keep your phone in your pocket or purse. This is new technology, not a miracle. 

The company said a seamlessly integrated power bin will be installed just below the center stack and in front of the center console. The bin has a built-in charging grid that is activated when customers place their battery-powered device in it. A phone case, specifically designed for a variety of smartphones, is required and included with the feature. 

The new technology will debut for customer purchase in the all-new 2013 Dodge Dart, which arrives in dealerships in the second quarter of this year. 

Mopar in-vehicle wireless charging is available for $199.99, plus installation. For a detailed look, watch Mopar President/CEO Pietro Gorlier and Head of Product Development and Sales Jim Sassorossi below.

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Pier 1 Outlines Expansion Plans

New ecommerce platform, new store openings

Pier 1 Imports has outlined plans for an upgraded e-commerce platform, store remodelings, and new store openings over the coming three years.Last year, t...

PhotoPier 1 Imports has outlined plans for an upgraded e-commerce platform, store remodelings, and new store openings over the coming three years.

Last year, the retailer opened 13 new stores, according to its website, and introduced a site-to-store initiative called Pier 1 To-Go. This July, it will launch Pier 1 To-You, which CEO Alex Smith said will "lay the foundation for the next phase of our evolution into a multi-channel retailer ... and have the ability to provide a truly seamless shopping experience for our valued customer."

But many consumers tell ConsumerAffairs they have a less than seamless experience when they try to make payments on their Pier 1 credit card.

"Trying to pay bill online, Chase Bill Pay page kept telling me I was not a recognized card holder," said Robin of Manor, TX. "I called the phone number on my statement and was told that Chase is no longer the bank for Pier 1. All the information on payments, phone numbers and online addresses are for Chase on the current month's statement. When I asked why customers were not notified, the rep, who gave her name as Marinol, stated that this was a sudden change and notices would be forthcoming."

Melissa of Shippensburg, Pa., had a similar experience. 

"I received a billing statement from Pier 1 for March. I have attempted to make a payment to chase.com/pier1card, which is who is listed on the statement, for the past week or so. The site states: 'Cannot confirm you as an account holder.'" she said.

"Now, my payment is overdue. I will get a late charge and I still don't know how or where to make a payment. If I can't pay online, I certainly don't want to mail a check and have it get 'lost' if I can't be identified as an account holder. This is ridiculous."

No payments, no interest

Sherie of Eugene, Ore., wrote to ConsumerAffairs about a dispute over what was supposed to be a no payments-no interest promotion.

"I purchased $1515.78 of mostly furniture in March of 2009 at what I understood to be a promotion through Chase of 'no payments, no interest for 12 months.' I am a regular at the store as I purchase for my business of home staging and I spoke with the manager to verify that it was truly no payments, no interest for 12 months. She strongly agreed and of course encouraged me to go forward to get 20% off. So I did," Sherie said.

"Two months later, I receive a late payment and interest charge for the items. I called to complain to Chase that my promotion was for no payments, but they did not agree. So I paid the $1515.78 plus $203 in interest to stop the hassle."

Even though I paid in full over the phone with a debit card, the next month, there were more interest charges owed. I then refused to pay more and since then have spent hours every months (from July 2009 to today, October 22, 2010) calling Chase and Pier 1. It took months to get work with Chase. I would find supervisors who would say that they stopped all charges, only to find the next month's bill with more charges. Finally, I started calling Pier 1 Customer Care. I was told by a representative there that, in fact, she could see that the promotion in March was "no payments, no interest".

Sherie said the dispute damaged her credit rating and was never satisfactorily resolved.

Refurbishings

Perhaps the improved ecommerce platform will improve the bill-paying experience.

Meanwhile, Pier 1 says that over the last fiscal year, it refurbished 125 stores with new fixtures and lighting, fully remodeled three stores, and added new merchandise fixtures throughout all of its stores. 

This year, the company said it plans to remodel up to eight locations, refurbish roughly 100 existing stores improved merchandise fixtures and lighting, and integrate new merchandise fixture elements into all stores.

Smith said Pier 1 remains on track to open approximately 80 to 100 new stores and close approximately 30 to 50 existing locations by the end of fiscal 2016.

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Mercedes Diesel Wins 2012 World Green Car Award

High-mpg clean diesels can rival the performance of many hybrids

The emergence of fuel efficient engines is a major strategy for many auto makers, incuding Mercedes Benz, as an alternative to hybrids and plug-ins...

Photo
2012 Peugeot 3008

In this year’s “World Green Car” competition at the New York International Auto Show, Mercedes Benz took home the trophy, with the company’s new S 250 CDI BlueEFFICIENCY model beating other top contenders,  including the Ford Focus Electric and a Peugeot 3008 Hybrid for the 2012 award. It’s the second time the German automaker has won World Green Car, which is presented by Bridgestone to honor eco-friendly automotive design.

The World Green Car contest provides its own unique take on the best new auto technology  and presentations for the model year: this contest hinges on the opinions of three “green experts” who consider issues like tailpipe emissions, overall mpg, and progressive design before sending their short lists to a larger groups of “jurors” for ratification.

The 2012 World Green Car choice is also a win for the wider range of high-mpg “clean diesel” cars; while in years past, the award has gone to all-electric cars like the Chevy Volt, this year’s judges chose to focus on the BlueEfficiency technology that Mercedes Benz is promoting as a way to get more out of every tank without going to a hybrid design. Although the German auto maker is still pursuing hybrid models like the S400 and electric “fuel cell” cars, the company has been putting a lot of work into the S 250 CDI model’s 204hp engine, which is estimated to get over 40 mpg combined.

Judges also commented on the use of a “start-stop system” that limits emissions; ConsumerAffairs.com has been covering the addition of this technology to other new vehicles for today’s eco-conscious and fuel-thrifty market.

We should point out that this year’s Mercedes Benz S class starts at around $92,000, but while that’s an amount guaranteed to produce sticker shock in most shoppers, an available Mercedes Benz C Class car with some of the same technology and high mpg retailed for around $34,000. Nor is Mercedes Benz the only carmaker proving that turbodiesel and related designs can get high mpg: from Volkswagen’s frugal diesel engines to new conventional engine designs from makers like Mazda, today’s auto makers are giving consumers more choices, so that going green doesn’t automatically mean buying a car sporting a battery. We recommend that consumers always consider the following while shopping:

  • Whether other models using similar technologies are more affordable or a better value
  • What local shops have the expertise to work on a given model
  • Whether additional technology will lead to a higher total cost of ownership over time
  • How much the owner will understand his/her vehicle and how it works in order to negotiate repairs and maintenance

The growing competition in high-mpg, hybrid and all-electric auto markets is making it all the more important for drivers to do a significant amount of research before buying a car. In the past, lots of consumer advocates focused on warranties, features, etc. and now, many are making larger points about choosing, not just a certain brand of car, but a certain kind of technology for the road ahead.

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Taking a Survey Can Compromise Your Privacy

It's almost never worth the incentive they offer

Everyone likes to get something for free, but if you are asked to fill out a survey in order to get that freebie, think twice. ...

PhotoEveryone likes to get something for free, but if you are asked to fill out a survey in order to get that freebie, think twice.

Surveys are a very clever way for marketers to get information about you. At best you'll get annoying emails with “special offers.” At worst, your identity might be compromised.

“I recently agreed to participate in a survey Papa John's offered,” Clarence, from Kentucky, wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “In return, I was told I would possibly receive a $100.00 Papa John's certificate. I found the questions to be very personal in nature, ones that I'm sure my answers were sold to businesses that matched my answers. I feel that I have been duped by Papa John's, and it came as a big surprise. I never would have thought Papa Johns would take part in something like this.”

Seems harmless, right?

Filling out a survey might seem harmless, but stop and think for a minute. If a company is willing to give you a $100 gift certificate, they obviously expect to profit even more from your answers. They may, in fact, sell your survey results, complete with contact information, to a third party.

Over the years ConsumerAffairs has heard from consumers who found unauthorized charges on their credit cards after filling out a survey. Some survey's are simply fronts for scams.

Some survey scams start with a telephone call. "Nick called and asked if I would like to take part in a survey. For my participation, he would send me two free DVD's," wrote Chris of Portland, Oregon. "Once the brief survey was completed he told me that he would be sending me two free copies of 'Girls Gone Wild' and all I had to pay for these 'free' DVD's would be the shipping. He said that he would have to verify my age and this is done by credit card. I asked him, 'Do you really think I would give my credit card to some stranger who calls me?' He replied, 'Yeah, people do it all the time.'"

Read the privacy policy

If you are tempted to fill out an online survey at a website, be sure to read the company's privacy policy, to make sure you understand what you're getting into. Here's a portion of the privacy policy of a site called PaidForResearch.com:

“Paid for research depends on advertisements to offer its free services. We make effort to get you the best offers and user experience on our site. We may always use and share with others your personal information for managing your account and to enable us to generally respond to you.  Paid for research may also use personal information for any marketing and survey purpose on behalf of itself and its trusted affiliates and subsidiaries. Paid for research may disclose personal information to third party agents and independent contractors that help us conduct our marketing and survey efforts...”

Filling out a survey is probably never a good idea, and almost never worth what you think you are getting in return. As a final straw against the idea, consider this: if you fill out a survey, it establishes a relationship between you and the marketing company, providing a loophole to the Do Not Call law. Meaning, of course, you can look forward to telemarketing calls from these folks around meal time.

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Judge Tosses Proposed McAfee Settlement

Suit alleged McAfee tricked customers into buying "PerfectSpeed"

A federal judge refused to approve a proposed settlement to a class action lawsuit that claimed McAfee and an advertiser conspired to trick consumers into ...

PhotoA federal judge refused to approve a proposed settlement to a class action lawsuit that claimed McAfee and an advertiser conspired to trick consumers into buying services from an unrelated third party, and then gave out their banking information to complete those purchases.

U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh said the settlement agreement "does not pass muster," and said she found it impossible to differentiate between class members who actually downloaded the advertiser's software and those who did not, Courthouse News Service reported.

The 2010 suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, says that consumers who purchase security products directly from McAfee's website are presented with a misleading pop-up display [that] leads them to unwittingly enroll in subscription-based services offered by a third party, Arpu Inc.

According to the suit, McAfee transmits customer credit/debit card and billing information to Arpu Inc. and receives an undisclosed fee for each consumer.

Customers say they clicked the "Try It Now" pop-up and unwittingly bought the Arpu product called PerfectSpeed because they thought clicking was a necessary step toward downloading McAfee's anti-virus software. Arpu charged $4.95 a month for PerfectSpeed after a 30-day free trial, using the credit card information already on file.

Class members who did not download the software reached a $1.2 million settlement with McAfee and Arpu in July 2011. A separate class of customers who downloaded Arpu's software never reached a final agreement.

The judge took issue with that and rejected the non-downloaders' claims that it was fair for the others to receive nothing from the settlement.

"Those who did not download the Arpu software claim that they were charged for something that they never received. In contrast, the downloaders are in a different position," the judge wrote.

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Study Finds Workplace Is Dangerous for Young Workers

Researchers call for more stringent safeguards

Study Finds Workplace Is Dangerous for Young Workers...

PhotoA deeper look behind the workplace accident statistics in the U.S. and Canada shows a large percentage of those deaths and injuries involve youth under the age of 20. To safety researchers, it raises some troubling issues.

"We don't tend to think of child labor as a major issue in the U.S. but we should," said Carol Runyan, of the Colorado School of Public Health the lead author and lead author of the workplace study. "Laws governing the employment of youth ages 14 to 17 in this country are often very lenient and in the case of family farms virtually non-existent."

Stricter oversight

Runyan, who led a group of American and Canadian scholars and public health professionals on the project, is now calling for stricter oversight of working conditions for the young including those employed in agriculture.

"Work can help young people develop skills, explore career options, earn money and gain self-esteem," she said. "But without adequate safeguards in place, work can also be dangerous for youth."

The report found that 88 youths under age 20 died from work-related injuries in 2010 while 20,000 missed work in private industry due to occupational-related illness or injury. This may be due partly to their inexperience, but it could also be partly due to their number.

Significant part of the labor force

Young people comprise a significant part of the U.S. and Canadian labor force. More than 17.6 million workers under age 25 are employed in the U.S. In Canada, nearly three million workers between ages 15 and 24 were employed in 2010.

Runyan said that while work holds many positives for young people, it can also expose them to unsafe tasks and environments with limited supervision.

"For example, a recent national U.S. study reported that 26 percent of workers younger than 18…worked at least part of the day without an adult supervisor and as many as one-third of them reported not having any health and safety training," Runyan said.

Food service to construction

You often find young employees in fast food restaurants, grocery stores, convenience stores and even construction sites. Hazards include being burned while preparing food, injured by equipment or even robbed. But these urban and suburban hazards, says Runyan, pale in comparison to the dangers of working in what seemingly is the safest of places – the family farm.

"From a fatality standpoint, farm work is the most dangerous occupation for kids," she said. "In farm work, youths are working around heavy equipment, digging and cutting with sharp implements. There are deaths almost every year from young people suffocating in grain bins."

Youths working on family farms have practically no legal protections and often drive while underage and operate tractors and other heavy equipment. Runyan and her colleagues are calling for new laws that would better safeguard the safety of young workers on the job.

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Pet Owners Should Be Aware of Salmonella Threats

Foodborne illnesses affect pets a lot more than you think

The news that Diamond Pet Foods is recalling its Diamond Naturals Lamb Meal & Rice dry dog food because it may be contaminated with salmonella should be a ...

PhotoThe news that Diamond Pet Foods is recalling its Diamond Naturals Lamb Meal & Rice dry dog food because it may be contaminated with salmonella should be a reminder for pet owners. Salmonella and foodborne illnesses can affect your pets, just like humans.

In the case of Diamond, the company said it has received no reports of people or animals getting sick. But it notes that pets who do get salmonella may have decreased appetite, fever, diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal pain. Those symptoms are often cited by consumers describing their pets after eating a variety of commercial pet foods.

"Just got a female English bulldog about two weeks ago," Brandi, of Canon, Ga., wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "After a week she started gasping and vomiting , then my male started. The only thing that has changed was the food that I recently bought."

It may not be what you think

When consumers report these often life-threatening ailments to their pets, they assume that there is some ingredient in the dog food that is causing the illness. Other consumers report feeding their pets the same brand with no ill effect. In many cases, the problem may not be the food itself, but simply that it has become contaminated with salmonella or some other bacteria.

“The problem of salmonella in pet foods and pet treats, even in pet supplements like vitamins, is something people should be aware of,” Dr. Casey Barton Behravesh, a veterinary epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention., told the New York Times last August.

Last fall the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began a stepped-up program of testing pet food samples for salmonella, mainly to prevent exposure to humans who handle the food. But pet owners are arguing more should be done to protect food given to animals.

Pay attention to recalls

The Humane Society says pet owners should remain vigilant about pet food recalls, when they occur, such as the one just announced by Diamond. The company has recalled:

  • 6-pound bag with the production code DLR0101D3XALW and best before Jan. 4, 2013;
  • 20-pound bag with the production code DLR0101C31XAG and best before Jan. 3, 2013;
  • 40-pound bag with the production code DLR0101C31XMF and best before Jan. 3, 2013;
  • 40-pound bag with the production code DLR0101C31XAG and best before Jan. 3, 2013;
  • 40-pound bag with the production code DLR0101D32XMS and best before Jan. 4, 2013.

 If your pet's food or treats are recalled, the Humane Society says you should immediately stop feeding the product to your pet. Recalled products may be returned to the store where they were purchased for a full refund or thrown away in a secure area not accessible to animals. If you have questions about recalled food or treats or require additional information contact the company that manufactures the product.

If your pet may have consumed a recalled product, consult your veterinarian, even if your pet does not appear to have any symptoms. If your pet has become ill or died because of a recalled food or treat, please you should report it to the FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinator in your state.

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Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplements a Fish Story?

Study finds little evidence the supplements help heart patients

Omega-3 fatty acids -- the kind found in fish -- are thought to be helpful in preventing heart disease.  But that doesn't necessarily mean that taking...

PhotoOmega-3 fatty acids -- the kind found in fish -- are thought to be helpful in preventing heart disease.  But that doesn't necessarily mean that taking omega-3 supplements is beneficial, and a new study finds the evidence "insufficient." Experts who reviewed the study said that doesn't mean you should stop eating fish, however.

According to a report published Online First in Archives of Internal Medicine, a JAMA Network publication, the new analysis of previous studies finds "insufficient evidence of a secondary preventive effect of omega-3 fatty acid supplements" among patients with a history of cardiovascular disease (CVD). The evidence as to whether taking the supplements helps prevent cardiovascular disease was also inconclusive, the analysis found.

Sang Mi Kwak, M.D., of the Center for Cancer Prevention and Detection, Republic of Korea, and colleagues conducted the study.

“Our meta-analysis showed insufficient evidence of a secondary preventive effect of omega-3 fatty acid supplements against overall cardiovascular events,” the authors note. “Likewise, we found no beneficial effect of omega-3 fatty acid supplements on other cardiovascular events, such as sudden cardiac death, myocardial infarction (fatal or nonfatal heart attack), angina and unstable angina, congestive heart failure, and transient ischemic attack and stroke, or on all-cause mortality.”

Their analysis included 14 randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials that involved 20,485 patients with a history of CVD. The mean (average) age of participants was 63.4 years old and 78.5 percent of the participants were men. Among the trials, reported from June 1995 through November 2010, the daily dose of EPA or DHA ranged from 0.4 to 4.8 g/d (grams per day) and follow-up ranged from one to 4.7 years.

What to do?

What does this mean for doctors and patients?

In an invited commentary, Frank B. Hu, M.D., Ph.D., of the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, and JoAnn E. Manson, M.D., Dr.P.H., of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, noted that the trials included in the meta-analysis were mostly "very small short-term studies" and said more research is needed.

“While waiting for more definitive results, what should physicians tell their patients?" they asked. "To date, there is no conclusive evidence to recommend fish oil supplementation for primary or secondary prevention of CVD. However, a diet high in fatty fish (≥2 servings of marine fish per week) should continue to be recommended for the general population and for patients with existing CVD because fish not only provides omega-3 fatty acids but also may replace less healthy protein sources, such as red meat.” 

(Arch Intern Med. Published online April 9, 2012. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2012.463. Available pre-embargo to the media at www.jamamedia.org.)

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Study: Hybrid Owners Not Likely to Buy Another Hybrid

Only 35 percent of hybrid owners buy another one

Research Suggests Hybrids Not Really Catching On...

PhotoWith sky-high gasoline prices, carmakers are turning out more hybrid vehicles. But who's buying them? An automotive research firm suggests it's mostly first-time buyers.

While the incentives to drive a gas-stingy car have never been greater, Polk, an automotive research firm, says only 35 percent of hybrid owners chose to purchase a hybrid again when returning to market in 2011. Toyota Prius owners tend to be the exception, more often replacing their old Prius with a new one.

If repurchase behavior among the high-volume audience of Prius owners isn’t factored in, hybrid loyalty drops to under 25 percent.

Satisfied with the brand, not necessarily the car

But just because a consumer doesn't buy another hybrid, that doesn't mean they are disillusioned with the car brand itself. The Polk researchers found they appear to maintain brand loyalty when returning to the new car market.

For example, in 2011, 60 percent of Toyota hybrid owners returned to the market to purchase another Toyota, according to Polk, while 41 percent of them purchased another hybrid from any brand. In the case of Honda hybrid owners, more than 52 percent of them stayed with the Honda brand, while just under 20 percent of this same owner group bought another hybrid vehicle from any brand.

The findings suggest that not all drivers are sold on a hybrid after driving one for a few years. But that doesn't mean offering a hybrid is bad news for the car company.

Hybrids are profitable

"Having a hybrid in the product lineup can certainly give a brand a competitive edge when it comes to attracting new customers," said Brad Smith, director of Polk's Loyalty Management Practice. "The repurchase rates of hybrid vehicles are an indication that consumers are continuing to seek alternative solutions to high fuel prices."

Online cross-shopping data from Edmunds.com shows consumers are doing their due diligence to compare hybrids with similar gasoline-powered vehicles. As an example, the Honda Civic is the second most cross-shopped vehicle among both Toyota Prius and Honda Insight shoppers.

Hybrid vehicles represent just 2.4 percent of the overall new vehicle market in the U.S., according to Polk, down from a high of 2.9 percent in 2008. And Polk researchers don't see it as what consumers are really looking for when it comes to selecting their vehicle.

"The lineup of alternate drive vehicles and their premium price points just aren't appealing enough to consumers to give the segment the momentum it once anticipated, especially given the growing strength of fuel economy among compact and midsize competitors," said Lacey Plache, Edmunds.com chief economist. "For EVs and PHEVs in particular, certain obstacles -- including consumer unease with unfamiliar technology and the lack of an adequate recharging infrastructure -- will need to be overcome before sales increase."

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Consumer Debt Rises in February

Borrowing for cars and college leads the way

U.S. consumers went deeper into debt in February, but did not increase their credit card debt, according to the Federal Reserve.In its monthly report, th...

PhotoU.S. consumers went deeper into debt in February, but did not increase their credit card debt, according to the Federal Reserve.

In its monthly report, the Fed found that consumer credit grew at a slower rate, mainly because "revolving credit," the kind of debt that goes onto credit cards, continued to contract. Credit card debt was down $2.95 billion in January and another $2.21 billion in February.

Overall consumer debt, however, rose $8.73 in February after going up a revised $18.60 billion in January.

Spending on cars and college

If consumers weren't loading up their plastic, where did the increase in debt come from? According to the Fed, the two big drivers were auto loans and college loans. Those two categories grew by $10.94 billion in February.

It's very possible that consumers are spending less on credit cards because credit card companies continue to reduce customers' credit limits.

"I made an online payment today on one of my four Bank of America credit cards and noticed my available limit was much less than than established limit," Suzanne, of Austin, Tex., wrote in a post at ConsumerAffairs. "I called Bank of American credit card services to find out what the issue was. I talked with a credit counselor who said it was a credit decision, and since I carry such high balances it put them at risk! I asked about my other three credit card accounts and all of them have reduced limits, without any warning, nothing."

The fact that student loan debt is rising may also prove troubling. Policy makers have worried recently that students are taking on too much education debt and will be unable to repay it, once they graduate and look for a job.

Troubling trend

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recently reported 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.”

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Tax Resolution Firm Decries 'Bad Apples' in Industry

Says abuses are big mess that needs to be cleaned up

Companies that offer services to taxpayers, to help resolve problems with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), say a handful of companies in their business ...

PhotoCompanies that offer services to taxpayers, to help resolve problems with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), say a handful of companies in their business have given the rest of them an undeserved bad reputation.

"Not all tax problem resolution and mediation firms are created equal," said Michael Rozbruch, founder and CEO of Tax Resolution Services, Co., and part of an association that is working toward regulating the industry to protect consumers. "When some companies make news by doing things the wrong way, it makes the rest of us look really bad—the consumers lose, the legitimate tax debt resolution businesses lose, the taxing agencies lose, and it's just a huge mess that needs to be cleaned up now."

Rozbruch notes his industry began getting unwelcome attention in 2010 when then-California Attorney General Jerry Brown skewered "Tax Lady" Roni Lynn Deutch for purposely "engaging in a scheme to swindle taxpayers." Since then, he says media outlets have started a trend of lambasting tax debt resolution companies across the board.

Authorities shut down firms

"Over the past couple years, nationally recognizable firms such as American Tax Relief (ATR), JK Harris and TaxMasters were either shut down by federal regulators or recently filed for bankruptcy. Additionally, JK Harris and TaxMasters are also under investigation for similar issues that helped to take down the Deutch firm.

Rozbruch criticizes those firms for engaging in what he called the "dubious practice" of not working clients' cases until they were full paid by the consumer, which was generally months after folks hired them, even though they offered their clients payment plans.

Even if Rozbruch is correct about his industry, it would be wise for taxpayers to tread very carefully when considering paid assistance in dealing with the IRS. A number of reputable law firms specialize in tax issues, and they may be a good place to start.

IRS is easier to deal with

At the same time, it is easier to deal with the IRS than it has been in the past and dealing directly with the tax agency should be explored. The objective is to reach an "offer in compromise" that will allow you to settle your tax debt for less than the full amount you owe. Here's what the IRS says about offers in compromise:

It may be a legitimate option if you can't pay your full tax liability, or doing so creates a financial hardship. We consider your unique set of facts and circumstances:

  • Ability to pay;
  • Income;
  • Expenses; and
  • Asset equity.

 "We generally approve an offer in compromise when the amount offered represents the most we can expect to collect within a reasonable period of time," the IRS says on its website. "Explore all other payment options before submitting an offer in compromise. The Offer in Compromise program is not for everyone. If you hire a tax professional to help you file an offer, be sure to check his or her qualifications."

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Should Hospitals Hand Out Infant Formula Samples?

Public Citizen doesn't think so and is launching a crusade against the practice

Public Citizen to Hospitals: Stop Handing Out Industry-Provided Samples of Infant FormulaHospitals Should Focus on Public Health, Not Marketing for Drug ...

PhotoHospitals should stop including industry-provided samples of infant formula in new mothers’ discharge bags because the distribution is unethical and violates good public health policy, the consumer group Public Citizen argues.

It's launching a crusade against the practice, including sending letters co-signed by more than 100 other organizations to more than 2,600 hospitals across the country. 

Public Citizen also is launching an online petition calling on the three major formula makers – Abbott (maker of Similac), Mead Johnson (maker of Enfamil) and Nestle (maker of Gerber) – to stop marketing their products in healthcare facilities.

Nearly every medical authority agrees that breastfeeding for the first six months after a child is born is best for the health of both babies and mothers. But Public Citizen said research convincingly shows that mothers who received infant formula samples were less likely to breastfeed exclusively and are more likely to breastfeed for shorter durations.   

The consumer group said hospitals that distribute formula samples are in violation of a 1981 World Health Organization (WHO) code that prohibits healthcare facilities from marketing infant formula.

Two-thirds

Yet, at least two-thirds of hospitals in the U.S. distribute samples of infant formula, even if mothers have indicated that they plan to breastfeed. Succumbing to infant formula companies’ marketing techniques is costly, both in terms of money spent on formula and the health of mothers and children. Formula feeding costs between $800 and $2,800 per year.

Additionally, the formula samples usually are brand-name products, which cost up to 66 percent more than store brands. Families typically continue to use the same expensive brand they receive in samples.

“Hospitals and doctors’ offices shouldn’t be used as marketing vehicles for any product, period,” Public Citizen President Robert Weissman said. “They certainly shouldn’t be pushing products that harm the health and well-being of babies and new moms.”

Added Elizabeth Ben-Ishai, campaign coordinator for Public Citizen’s Commercial Alert project, “When hospitals distribute formula samples, they are engaging in marketing for major pharmaceutical and food companies. Many hospitals are actively trying to promote breastfeeding in their obstetrics units. But by continuing to allow marketing of infant formula in their facilities, they are undermining their own efforts.”

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Pesticides Associated with Lower Birth Weight, Shorter Pregnancy

Study reinforces belief that pregnant women should avoid pesticides

A new study is reinforcing obstetricians’ standard warning that pregnant women should avoid exposure to pesticides in foods and weed killers because ...

A new study is reinforcing obstetricians’ standard warning that pregnant women should avoid exposure to pesticides in foods and weed killers because the chemicals can harm the developing fetus.

In the study, Cincinnati-area women had levels of organophosphate insecticides that significantly affected birth weight and gestation period.

“This latest report is further evidence that babies in the womb are exquisitely sensitive to pesticide exposure,” said Ken Cook, president and co-founder of the Environmental Working Group. “While much has been done to reduce people’s exposure to organophosphates, this important study shows that even remaining exposures are harmful.”

Lead researcher Bruce Lanphear, MD MPH, and his colleagues tracked an ethnically and economically diverse group of more than 300 expectant mothers from the Cincinnati area. They found that newborns of women with the highest levels of organophosphates in their urine were delivered, on average, about half a week earlier and weighed one-third of a pound less than those of women with the lowest exposures.

For years, EWG has urged the US Environmental Protection Agency to reduce the use of these highly toxic pesticides in agriculture and advised consumers to avoid fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticides.

Last year, three studies found that prenatal exposure to organophosphates was associated with diminished IQ in children. Other research has linked organophosphate exposure in children to increased risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The abstract of the new study can be found in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

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Neil Young Hopes to Tune Up Digital Music

Young, other artists have long lamented the horrific quality of MP3 audio

Those iPad earpods may look cool but they sound awful.  So says no less an authority than Neil Young.  It's not entirely the pods' fault, though,...

PhotoThose iPad earpods may look cool but they sound awful.  So says no less an authority than Neil Young.  It's not entirely the pods' fault, though, it's the abysmal audio quality of the MP3 protocol that today encodes most digital music.

Young launched into a diatribe at a recent media conference, dissing and dismissing the MP3 format as having just "5 percent of the data present in the original recording."

"When I started making records, we had a hundred percent of the sound," said Young at the D: Dive Into Media conference in January, Rolling Stone magazine reported. "And then you listen to it as an MP3 at the same volume – people leave the room. It hurts...It's not that digital is bad or inferior. It's that the way it's being used is not sufficient to transfer the depth of the art."

If you think this isn't true, hook your iPod up to a really decent stereo system -- not a "home entertainment" system with lots of itty bitty speakers hidden around the room. First, play a complex piece of music -- you know, something like Beethoven or the Grateful Dead. Then listen to the same piece of music from a CD. 

Go ahead, crank it up.  The neighbors won't care. They're in foreclosure anyway.

Hear the difference? If everything's working properly, it should be as obvious as the difference between high-def TV and the old NTSC (a technical term that might as well mean "never the same color").

Not just saying ...

But unlike lots of us, Neil Young isn't just sitting back and complaining, he's doing something about it.  Or so it appears anyway. Rolling Stone says Young has filed a number of trademark applications with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office recently, applications with names like "21st Century Record Player," "Earth Storage" and "Thanks for Listening."

Young apparently envisions a service that would allow music fans to download audio files that sound like the studio recordings of the past, as opposed to the über-compressed song files that are currently available at MP3 stores like iTunes and Amazon.

This would fit with Young's previous assertions that we're in desperate need of a "high resolution" audio format that would deliver the 95 percent of the sound that's completely missing from the MP3 format.

There are other formats out there now but none really approaches original studio quality -- which is odd considering how much fawning attention is given to high-def video and, for that matter, to the upgrading of sound systems in major theaters around the country. Why are most consumers willing to put up with 1950s sound in 2012?

It's likely to take about a year for the applications to work their way through the trademark office, which is both notoriously slow and also notoriously picky. But keep your ear to the ground and we'll see -- and hear -- what develops.

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Study: Early BPA Exposure Affects Adult Learning

Researchers tests on zebrafish show BPA can make it harder to learn

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration days ago announced it will not take immediate steps to ban the use of the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) in food product...

PhotoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration days ago announced it will not take immediate steps to ban the use of the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) in food product packaging and other containers. The FDA says it will continue to review studies on the substance.

Here's another one it can review. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) scientist Daniel Weber says his study found exposure to BPA in early development led to profound behavioral changes in adulthood. He conducted his experiments on fish.

Like developmental exposure to mercury, adult fish that had been exposed to tiny amounts of BPA as embryos had learning and memory problems, compared to fish that had not been exposed, he found.

Testing on zebrafish

Weber, a researcher with the NIEHS Children’s Environmental Health Science Core Center at UWM, collaborated with Robert Tanguay at Oregon State University. Their pilot study, funded by the center, is the first to identify a neurobehavioral effect of BPA using a zebrafish model exposed to concentrations comparable to what humans might encounter in the environment.

“What was amazing is that exposure only happened at the embryonic stage,” said Weber. “But somehow the wiring in the brain had been permanently altered by it. It’s an example of why children are not just little adults when it comes to gauging the effects of contaminants.”

BPA is widely used in plastic food containers and container liners. Conflicting reports of its safety have made it the subject of vigorous public debate.

Industry already reacting

Amid the debate, the Campbell’s Soup Company recently announced it would be removing BPA from the linings of the company’s soup cans as soon as a viable alternative is found. At the retail level, Walmart has taken steps to remove plastic infant bottles containing BPA from store shelves.

At issue is the amount of exposure with some studies concluding BPA is a health risk only at concentrations that are higher than environmental levels. Results of this study, however, suggest that lower concentrations may be more potent during early-life exposures. The study tested three different small amounts considered environmentally relevant.

Teaching zebrafish

You might be wondering how it is possible to test the learning ability of zebrafish, but Weber says it's not that hard. Since zebrafish mature in only a few months, he says they are a useful model to test effects of toxicity over a lifetime. Scientists also can control the conditions and timing of chemical exposure with zebrafish because the embryos can live outside the mother.

Using a T-shaped maze, Weber freed adult fish that were exposed to BPA as embryos at the base of the T and conditioned them choose the left arm of the intersection. He then reversed the task, conditioning them to choose the right.

Weber says it took seven to ten trials for an unexposed fish to learn this. But the exposed fish took two to three times as many trials to learn it. Almost none of the fish exposed to the highest levels of BPA Weber used learned even the first part of the task.

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Chrysler Premiers New Ads in NCAA Finals

The second half of Chrysler's "Halftime in America" marketing campaign is now making the rounds in the American living room

The new ads began during the 2012 Superbowl, will now run in other high profile sports venues like NASCAR coverage...

PhotoAs the Kentucky Wildcats shut down Kansas for this year’s title, some new Chrysler ads were playing on the screens of Final Four watchers around the country. News from the automaker’s marketing offices and from affiliated dealers shows Chrysler is also set to roll out the second half of its “Halftime in America” campaign in other televised events like the NASCAR season, as well as the Stanley Cup and the popular tv series “Mad Men.” The new ad play is a concentrated effort to tie in Chrysler products with the people that buy them, and the America in which they live.

Is it working? A ConsumerAffairs sentiment analysis of 990,000 consumer comments on Twitter, Facebook and other social media over the last year finds the company, now part of Italian automaker Fiat, with an overall positive sentiment of 51%, way up from its nadir of 23% last June.  

 

Photo

The first part of Chrysler’s ad campaign featured Clint Eastwood on screen during the NFL Superbowl and generated some debate about the politics of the spots, including speculation on how auto makers are reacting to the industry bail-outs of years past. Now, Chrysler is switching the camera from celebrities to “folks like us,” attempting to give viewers a picture of some of the brand loyalists who buy Chrysler products. There’s also a “Made in America” theme running through the ads, a pull for Detroit and for the domestic automakers as the American economy continues to rebound.

The new ads are comprised of four individual spots, each featuring a family, where a family member provides an intimate voice-over as a Chrysler vehicle roves the streets of quintessentially American small towns and cities. There’s “Steven” and the Chrysler 300, “Jenny” and the Jeep Wrangler, “Shaun” and the Dodge Challenger, and “Tommy” and the Ram truck; in each ad, an authentic voice talks emotionally about family ties, the challenges of modern American life, and the will to persevere and care for loved ones. Unlike many of today’s tv spots, these ads read almost poetically, and not in the zany-kitsch or even bordering-on-mockery style of other wordsmithing commercials (like those weird Levi’s ads), but as an ode to the people who make those Jeeps, Chryslers and Dodges their own.

While not everyone likes the commercials, they're one of the top five positive attributes we found in our consumer sentiment analysis.

Photo

If you're wondering about the other attributes, further analysis finds that "faster in America" generally refers to U.S. consumers feeling that the Chrysler-Fiat duo is rolling out new models faster in the U.S. and is being more responsive to the American market.  By "look," consumers are saying they like the sporty Italian look of the new Chrysler models. The "rev up city" comments are consumers -- Detroiters, maybe? -- who are enthused by Chrysler's new "Imported from Detroit" tagline, finding it a helping hand to a city that's been down on its luck a long time.

As for "building," that's not fans of New York's Chrysler Building, it's gearheads who think Chrysler is building some pretty fine cars, with good workmanship and attention to detail. The negative attributes are pretty self-explanatory and, in many cases, have more to do with consumers' dealer experience than with the company itself. 

Despite its share of recalls within the last year, the numbers show that there are quite a lot of Chrysler fan around these days; a ConsumerAffairs.com story from January showed big gains in vehicle registrations for the brands, citing an Edmunds.com staffer who attributed at least part of the boom to the original first part of the “Halftime in America” ad campaign, calling it “a good comeback story” that Americans can latch onto in a more than superficial way as they browse local lots for a new ride. Chrysler execs are hoping that these ads bring shoppers close enough to the new lineup to see what their new vehicles have to offer, from new off-roading features and more technology in Jeep models, to classy sedans, hot-rod Dodge street cars, and tough, capable Ram trucks. Despite being fused with Italian carmaker Fiat, Chrysler still hopes to keep its uniquely American appeal alive for another generation of drivers.

 

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Trojan Reportedly Infects 500,000 Macs

Russian software firm says the malware can give hackers control of users' computers

A Russian anti-virus company, Doctor Web, has issued a report saying its research shows the Trojan BackDoor.Flashback is now infecting more than a half-mil...

PhotoA Russian anti-virus company, Doctor Web, has issued a report saying its research shows the Trojan BackDoor.Flashback is now infecting more than a half-million computers running Apple's Mac OS X.

It says most of the infected machines are in the U.S. and Canada. While Apple users have long thought their machines were virtually invulnerable to virus and worm threats, the harsh truth is that most threats were aimed at Windows machines simply because there are so many more of them. With Apple taking a bigger market share, it becomes a more attractive target.

"Systems get infected with BackDoor.Flashback.39 after a user is redirected to a bogus site from a compromised resource or via a traffic distribution system,” the company said in a press release. “JavaScript code is used to load a Java-applet containing an exploit. Doctor Web's virus analysts discovered a large number of web-sites containing the code.”

According to the security firm, the recently discovered codes include:

  • godofwar3.rr.nu
  • ironmanvideo.rr.nu
  • killaoftime.rr.nu
  • gangstasparadise.rr.nu
  • mystreamvideo.rr.nu
  • bestustreamtv.rr.nu
  • ustreambesttv.rr.nu
  • ustreamtvonline.rr.nu
  • ustream-tv.rr.nu
  • ustream.rr.nu

The exploit saves an executable file onto the hard drive of the infected Mac machine. The file is used to download malicious payload from a remote server and to launch it. Once launched, it gives the hacker control of the user's machine. Doctor Web said it found two versions of the Trojan horse: attackers started using a modified version of BackDoor.Flashback.39 around April 1.

The news has Apple user forums buzzing, with Mac owners looking for instructions for determining if a machine is infected. Several users offered simple tests to determine if a Mac is clean or infected. Doctor Web said Apple closed the vulnerability on April 3 by issuing a patch. Users who do not install it remain exposed, according to the security firm.

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Long Island Broker Fined $2.3 Million for Excessive Markups

David Lerner Associates also ordered to pay restitution of $1.4 million

A Long Island, New York, brokerage firm has been fined $2.3 million for charging retail customers excessive markups on municipal bond and collateraliz...

PhotoA Long Island, New York, brokerage firm has been fined $2.3 million for charging retail customers excessive markups on municipal bond and collateralized mortgage obligation (CMO) transactions over a two-year period, causing the firm's retail customers to pay unfairly high prices and receive lower yields than they otherwise would have received.

A Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) hearing panel imposed the fine on David Lerner Associates, Inc. and ordered the firm to pay restitution of more than $1.4 million, plus interest, to affected customers.

The panel also fined its head trader William Mason $200,000 and suspended him for six months from the securities industry. The ruling resolves charges brought by FINRA's Department of Enforcement in May 2010.

1,500 transactions

The panel found that from January 2005 through January 2007, DLA and Mason charged retail customers excessive markups in more than 1,500 municipal bond transactions and charged excessive markups in more than 1,700 CMO transactions from January 2005 through August 2007.

FINRA rules require that the amount of a markup must be fair and reasonable, taking into account all relevant factors and circumstances, including the type of security involved, the availability of the security in the market and the amount of money involved in a transaction.

The hearing panel decision notes that Lerner's municipal bond and CMO trades reflected a pattern of intentional excessive markups. The municipal bonds and CMOs in the transactions were all rated investment grade or above, and were readily available in the market at significantly lower prices than DLA charged.

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 or by calling (800) 289-9999. 

 

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AirTran Gets Chicago-Cancun Route

Route has been vacant for four years

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has given shivering Chicagoans a new escape route.The department today announced that it has finalized the te...

PhotoThe U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has given shivering Chicagoans a new escape route.

The department today announced that it has finalized the tentative decision made on March 16, 2012 to allow AirTran, a wholly owned subsidiary of Southwest Airlines, to provide daily nonstop service from Chicago’s Midway International Airport to Cancun International Airport. It will be the first service from Midway to Cancun in four years.

“This decision provides consumers the opportunity to travel to Cancun from each of Chicago’s international airports,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Not only will this new service provide the traveling public with more options, it will also support jobs in the aviation industry and boost economic activity throughout the region.”

Under the U.S.-Mexico agreement, three carriers may provide scheduled passenger services between Chicago and Cancun. Currently, American Airlines and United serve Cancun from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. USA 3000 Airlines ceased its U.S.-Mexico services on January 30, 2012, leaving one opportunity available for Chicago-Cancun scheduled passenger service.

Two competing applicants, AirTran and Frontier Airlines, participated in the Department proceeding to award the one available Chicago-Cancun opportunity. Frontier may continue to serve the Chicago-Cancun market from O’Hare International Airport on a charter basis.

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Public Bikes Recalls Bicycles Due to Fall Hazard

The pedals can crack and break, posing a fall hazard

Public Bikes Inc. is recalling about 4,100 bicycles. The pedals can crack and break, posing a fall hazard to the rider.Public Bikes has received 24 ...

PhotoPublic Bikes Inc. is recalling about 4,100 bicycles. The pedals can crack and break, posing a fall hazard to the rider.

Public Bikes has received 24 reports of pedals cracking. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves 18 models of women’s and men’s Public Bikes. The bicycles are various colors and sizes. “Public” or “Publicbikes.com” is printed on either the bicycle chain guard or the rear fender. The bicycles have a metal “badge” at the top of the down tube with a number stamped on it. Recalled badge numbers are 1-5843, 5845, 12560, 20743 and 20757. The “Apple” model, which has no badge, is also included. The word “Wellgo” is embossed on both the top and bottom of the pedals. All bicycles with Wellgo pedals are included in this recall.

The bicycles, made in Taiwan, were sold by Public Bikes & Gear in San Francisco and other Public Bikes dealers in 16 states nationwide and publicbikes.com from April 2010 through January 2012 for between $500 and $1,250.

Consumers should immediately stop riding the recalled bicycles and contact Public Bikes or an authorized Public Bikes dealer for free replacement pedals. The recalled pedals have a black spindle, the replacement pedal spindles are chrome.

For additional information, please contact Public Bikes toll-free at (855) 840-1400 between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. PT Monday through Friday or visit the firm’s website at www.publicbikes.com

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Increase In Memory Loss May Signal Impending Death

Researchers say memory decline accelerates a couple of years before death

When an elderly person begins losing their memory at a noticeably faster rate, it may mean they are in the last years of life.New research finds that a p...

PhotoWhen an elderly person begins losing their memory at a noticeably faster rate, it may mean they are in the last years of life.

New research finds that a person’s memory declines at a faster rate in the two- and-a-half years before death than at any other time after memory problems first begin. A second study shows that keeping mentally fit through board games or reading may be the best way to preserve memory during late life.

Both studies are published in the online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

Small study

The results are based on a relatively small study. For the study, 174 Catholic priests, nuns and monks without memory problems had their memory tested yearly for six to 15 years before death. After all the test subjects had died, scientists examined their brains for hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease called plaques and tangles.

“In our first study, we used the end of life as a reference point for research on memory decline rather than birth or the start of the study,” said study author Robert S. Wilson, PhD, of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

The study found that at an average of about two-and-a-half years before death, different memory and thinking abilities tended to decline together at rates that were eight to 17 times faster than before this terminal period.

Higher levels of plaques and tangles were linked to an earlier onset of this terminal period but not to rate of memory decline during it.

Staying mentally fit

The second study, also conducted by Wilson, focused on mental activities and involved 1,076 people with an average age of 80 who were free of dementia. Participants underwent yearly memory exams for about five years.

They reported how often they read the newspaper, wrote letters, visited a library and played board games such as chess or checkers. Frequency of these mental activities was rated on a scale of one to five, one meaning once a year or less and five representing every day or almost every day.

The results showed that people’s participation in mentally stimulating activities and their mental functioning declined at similar rates over the years. The researchers also found that they could predict participants’ level of cognitive functioning by looking at their level of mental activity the year before but that level of cognitive functioning did not predict later mental activity.

“The results suggest a cause and effect relationship: that being mentally active leads to better cognitive health in old age,” said Wilson.

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Movie Chain Settles Discrimination Claims

Moviegoers with vision, hearing disabilities to get assistive technology

In a settlement with the state of Illinois, AMC Theatres will provide access to movies for consumers with both vision and hearing disabilities.Illinois A...

PhotoIn a settlement with the state of Illinois, AMC Theatres will provide access to movies for consumers with both vision and hearing disabilities.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan says the chain will provide personal captioning services and audio-description technology for movie-goers with hearing and vision disabilities at all of its theaters and its 460 movie screens.

“This technology will allow people with disabilities to enjoy a movie right alongside their friends and families unlike ever before,” Madigan said.

By 2014, AMC movie theaters in Illinois will be equipped with captioning services and audio-description devices. The technology will be available to movie-goers at nearly any movie at an AMC theater and at all of a film’s listed showings.

In 2010, AMC settled charges with the U.S. Department of Justice that its theaters were not in compliance with the Americans for Disability Act. The suit concerned wheelchair accessability and not whether the movies were accessible for the hearing and sight impaired.

Madigan said the settlement is a significant development for people living with disabilities in Illinois. Prior to the agreement, Madigan said, only 21 out of 246 movie theaters in Illinois offered closed-captioning services and only 10 offered audio-description services.

Two-year effort

Madigan got involved two years ago when a disability rights group, Equip for Equality, brought the issue to her attention. At the time, she says, only a small fraction of movie theaters offered the technology for only a limited number of movies and usually at showings set at off hours. Whether or not it took a lot of persuading, AMC seems to be fully on board now.

“AMC is committed to providing the best possible moviegoing experience for all of our guests, which includes the conversion to digital presentation,” said Noel MacDonald, vice president of Operations at AMC Theatres. “For the past several years we’ve worked with suppliers to develop digital assistive technologies that can be implemented on a broad scale. We’re excited that this technology allows everyone to join us at an AMC theatre.”

Equip for Equality sees the agreement as a big step forward.

“Under the agreement, people who are deaf, hard of hearing, and blind will now be able to fully enjoy going to the movies, like all other citizens of Illinois,” said Amy Peterson, senior attorney for Equip for Equality.

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Google Thinks Its Glasses Can Make Reality Really Really Real

Why settle for plain old reality when you could have augmented reality?

Yesterday it was flying cars. Today it's Google Glasses -- thin wraparound shades that give new meaning to "in your face."Googlers say the new glasses wi...

PhotoYesterday it was flying cars. Today it's Google Glasses -- thin wraparound shades that give new meaning to "in your face."

Googlers say the new glasses will not only display maps, information, ads and other stuff we already see all day long but will also snap photos, accept voice commands and do just about everything except help you cross the street.

Oh wait, maybe they'll do that too. We're not quite sure, since the glasses aren't for sale yet.

Blinders

Actually, we'd better hope the glasses will help you cross the street. The side frames -- which house the electronics -- appear to be so thick they completely obliterate the wearer's peripheral vision. If you've ever tried wearing really thick frames, you'll know how annoying this is to you and those around you, the people you're constantly bumping into.

PhotoAnd by the way, we have checked our sources and today is definitely April 5, not April 1.  So maybe this Google Glasses thing really is for real? It's in The New York Times, so it must be true. There's nothing about it on Google's official blog, though, which instead is headlining yet another too-weird-to-be-true story about Google developing a self-driving NASCAR race car. 

Oh wait, that NASCAR story.  It's an April Fool's prank, even though it's dated March 31. Good one, Google. These are the people who run Google News. Keep that in mind for future reference.

But back to those glasses for a minute. Google released a video yesterday that showed a man wandering around the streets of New York City, talking to unseen friends, getting directions out of thin air and chatting with a remarkably beautiful girlfriend only he could see.

It's kind of hard to see what's so nifty about that. The sidewalks of New York are full of people who fit that description. Is it really necessary to create more of them?

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Be Skeptical About Search Engine Results

Scareware attacks increase around holidays like Easter

Why You Shouldn't Always Trust Search Engine Results...

Scam artists hawking “scareware” products -- which make you think you have a virus when you don't -- are increasingly use what's called Search Engine Optimization (SEO) poisoning attacks.

They do it by manipulating search engine results to make their links appear higher on the search page than legitimate results.

You see it a lot around holidays like Easter, when scammers know that there will be a lot of computer users searching using terms like “Easter egg,” “chocolate,” and “bunny.” When an unsuspecting user clicks on one of these “poison” links, they get a phony message like those below warning them of a virus and encouraging them to purchase and download supposed security software.

Those who fall for it not only throw away money on a product they don't need and that may not even work.  They also give criminals access to their credit card and download malware onto their computer.

Photo

Fraser Howard, an anti-virus specialist at Sophos Security reports an increasing number of the SEO attacks in recent week, as Easter approaches. He notes that most people fall for this scam.

“The reason why SEO attacks are successful, is that all of us tend to trust search engine results,” Howard writes in his blog. “ After searching for something we happily click any of the links high up in the first page of results.”

Howard suggests we all be a little more discriminating and a lot more careful about what we click on. Before clicking, look at the URL. This might not always help, but if the domain name doesn't come anywhere close to the subject you were searching, it should be a red flag.

Many reputable anti-virus products block the viruses distributed through "black hat" SEO but cautious humans are still the best defense. If you see a security "warning" like the ones pictured on this page, don't click on it.  Close your browser immediately and start a new session.

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Ford Fusion's Auto Stop-Start Saves Gas, Lends a Green Hue

Ford pushes technology to generate near-hybrid results at much lower cost

Customers can get auto stop-start on the Ford Fusion for just $295...

PhotoAs prices for regular unleaded gasoline stay stuck around $4.00, Ford wants its customers (and other shoppers) to know that they can get additional fuel savings with an “auto stop-start system” for the company’s conventional 2013 Ford Fusion for just a few hundred dollars.

In a way, the technology behind this new feature is relatively simple. The auto stop-start system simply turns the engine off automatically when the vehicle comes to a stop, then switches it back on when the driver wants to go. Doing this, says Ford, can save owners upwards of $1000 in fuel costs over five years by improving overall mpg by about 3%, or more for those who regularly sit in heavy traffic.

Ford isn’t the only auto maker unrolling this feature. Yesterday, we covered a similar system available for some Mazda cars, and there’s a lot of buzz lately about how this feature is being added to truck lines, including Chrysler’s Dodge Ram product. However, while this fuel-saving gear can cost over a thousand dollars on some models, Ford is pushing auto start-stop at an affordable price, as part of a strategy to brand its vehicles green.

The auto stop-start system, which is available as an added feature for $295.00, is part of an attractive fuel-efficiency package for the new Fusion, which comes in three “green” varieties:

  • the "regular" gas-engine Fusion, 
  • a Fusion Hybrid, and 
  • a Fusion Energi plug-in model. 

Ford calls this “MPG to the Power of 3,” a careful strategy to blend choice in auto innovations which fuel-efficient options across the board. The non-electric Fusion design, billed as “Great Haste, Less Filling” in Ford promos, starts with a four-cylinder EcoBoost engine, a newly designed block that Ford is putting into a major portion of its lineup to entice customers who want to burn less fossil fuels without driving a hybrid. The Fusion’s standard 1.6 liter EcoBoost delivers 179 hp with an estimated 26 mpg in city and 37 mpg on the highway. Other engines in less expensive models will get slightly lower miles per gallon. A new six-speed transmission will also add fuel economy by more finely matching the most efficient gear at any speed.

“What we’re seeing today,” says Ford CEO Alan Mulally of the new Fusion, “is the result of continuous improvement over all these years, in vehicle design, in materials, in integrated electronics…the new Fusion represents Ford today, and it also represents where Ford is going in the future.”

The new face for this car comes after Ford has recalled many thousands of Fusion cars from the 2010 and 2011 model years because of possibly faulty wheel studs. There's also a new issue with the MyFord Touch in-dash systems put into various Ford vehicles, which may affect some late-model Fusion cars.

While we’ve been alerting auto buyers and owners to these issues, we’ve also been noting the new developments of more efficient Fusions in months past, where the new hybrid and electric systems are renovating the company’s product line to rival the “greening” of big Japanese auto makers in the North American market. For today’s shopper, getting a more fuel-efficient car and buying American don’t have to be mutually exclusive goals – with these upgrades to recent model years, Ford is dedicated to staying competitive in helping U.S. drivers spend less on a valuable commodity, lessen overall foreign oil dependence, and promote a cleaner future.

 

 

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Looking for Credit Reports in All the Wrong Places

There is no reason to use a commercial site to retrieve your credit report

Consumers continue to ignore the government's free credit report site...

PhotoConsumers continue to look for a free copy of their credit report in the wrong places and, as a result, find themselves enrolled in a credit monitoring service that charges a monthly fee.

Avery, of Lompoc, Calif., said he typed in “free credit report” on a search engine and ended up with a large number of sites to choose from. He clicked on ScoreSense.

“I picked one that said 'free' and typed in required info for a free report,” Avery wrote in a post at ConsumerAffairs. “At the end it said to possess it would require a one dollar refundable processing fee. I typed in all my credit card info.”

But Avery said he was charged $29.95. He said he called the company and cancelled the program in which he had been enrolled.

“I asked about the $29.95 and he told me that was up to the billing dept,” Avery wrote.

At last report, Avery had not been refunded his $29.95. Dan, of Collyville, Tex., reports a similar experience, ending up at Freecreditreport.com. He says he was aware that he was being enrolled in a credit monitoring program but had seven days in which to cancel it.

“I viewed and then promptly cancelled my membership,” Dan wrote in a post. “My credit card was billed once for the $1.00 but then again for $31.95. I called to get second charge removed. They said best they could do was refund $17.00 because I had already viewed it.”

Don't go there

But the question needs to be asked, why would consumers choose to run the risk of being signed up for a service they don't want, and have to cancel, just to get a copy of their credit report?

By law, every consumer can get a copy of their credit report from all three credit reporting agencies once each year at www.annualcreditreport.com. This is the one and only place consumers can get this information without providing a credit card or signing up for a service.

There's really no excuse for not doing so. If you do a Google search for “free credit report,” www.annualcreditreport.com is at the top of the search results.

If you do find yourself at any other credit report site, read the information on the site very carefully and make sure you actually want what they are sell. 

Feds could make it easier

Of course, the federal government could clear up all this confusion once and for all but giving the official free credit report a ".gov" suffix instead of the ".com."  Using the same suffix as commercial sites is a guarantee for confusion.

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Red Wine May Block Fat Cells

Piceatannol, a substance in red wine, interferes with formation of fat cells

If red wine enthusiasts need another reason to indulge their favorite passion, here it is: piceatannol, a substance found in red grapes, may help keep you ...

PhotoIf red wine enthusiasts need another reason to indulge their favorite passion, here it is: piceatannol, a substance found in red grapes, may help keep you trim.

Researchers at Purdue University report piceatannol has a structure similar to another substance found in red wine, resveratrol, which may hold some health benefits of its own.

Kee-Hong Kim, an assistant professor of food science, and Jung Yeon Kwon, a graduate student in Kim's laboratory, say piceatannol is able to block cellular processes that allow fat cells to develop, opening a door to a potential method to control obesity.

Alters the timing

"Piceatannol actually alters the timing of gene expressions, gene functions and insulin action during adipogenesis, the process in which early stage fat cells become mature fat cells," Kim said. "In the presence of piceatannol, you can see delay or complete inhibition of adipogenesis."

Previous studies of red win have focused mostly on resveratrol, which is also found in peanuts, and is believed to be helpful in combating cancer and heart and cognitive diseases. It turns out that resveratrol is converted to piceatannol in humans after consumption.

While similar in structure to resveratrol – the compound found in red wine, grapes and peanuts that is thought to combat cancer, heart disease and neurodegenerative diseases – piceatannol might be an important weapon against obesity.

The way the researchers explain it, fat cells reach maturity over a relatively short period of time.

Interference

Kim found that piceatannol, in effect, interferes with that process. Piceatannol essentially blocks the pathways necessary for immature fat cells to mature and grow.

Increasingly, red wine is being analyzed for its potential health benefits. Besides studies suggesting it is helpful in preventing various types of cancer, a National Institutes of Health study earlier this year tried to figure out why.

Researchers found that resveratrol does not directly activate sirtuin 1, a protein associated with aging. Rather, the authors found that resveratrol inhibits certain types of proteins known as phosphodiesterases (PDEs), enzymes that help regulate cell energy.

These findings may help settle the debate regarding resveratrol's biochemistry and pave the way for resveratrol-based medicines.

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Cell Providers Selling Your Data to Police

Industry expert calls for reform of cellular communication laws

Civil libertarians are up in arms over revelations that police departments around the country routinely track individuals using cell phones without getting...

PhotoCivil libertarians are up in arms over revelations that police departments around the country routinely track individuals using cell phones without getting a warrant.

The law enforcement officials say they do it as a matter of public safety, as in the case when someone is missing. The cell phone companies, meanwhile, are making a tidy profit providing the data

Stephen B. Wicker, Cornell University professor of electrical and computer engineering, says it it just points up what he calls our “obsolete” federal data privacy laws. He conducts research on wireless information networks, and focuses on networking technology, law, sociology, and how regulation can affect privacy and speech rights. He is also the author of “Cellular Convergence and the Death of Privacy,” a book to be published by Oxford University Press at the end of 2012.

Tracking your location

“Cellular telephony is a surveillance technology – and despite the hundreds of millions of Americans who use cell phones every day, we still have out-of-date and obsolete federal data privacy laws,” Wicker said.

When a cellular handset is on, it periodically transmits a registration message that allows the service provider to track the location of the user. While useful for routing incoming calls to the handset, the location data has proven irresistible to law enforcement as a means for tracking individuals.

“Last August, the American Civil Liberties Union submitted requests under the Freedom of Information Act to over 380 state and local law enforcement agencies regarding their tracking of cell phone users,” Wicker said. “Over 200 agencies responded, and the results were alarming both in the extent of the surveillance and the variability in supervision by the judicial system.”

Cashing in

A Justice Department document obtained by the ACLU shows that service providers retain location data for at least a year, and in some cases, appear to do so indefinitely. Wicker says cell phone companies are cashing in, treating consumers' data as a commodity.

“Some service providers are charging fees in return for providing their subscribers’ personal information without telling the subscribers about the transactions,” Wicker said. “All consumers should be annoyed – and alarmed.”

It turns out that only a small minority of the police department requested a warrant before requesting the data. In recent court cases, Wicker says federal courts have been divided over the actual requirements, with some requiring a warrant and others not.

“We must reform our data privacy laws,” Wicker said.

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Timeshare Mega Media Owners Must Find a New Line of Work

FTC action bans company and its owners from telemarketing and timeshare resales

The Federal Trade Commission put the telemarketing and timeshare businesses off-limits to a south Florida couple who allegedly operated a deceptive telemar...

The Federal Trade Commission put the telemarketing and timeshare businesses off-limits to a south Florida couple who allegedly operated a deceptive telemarketing scheme that victimized property owners hoping to sell their timeshares.

Pasquale Pappalardo and his wife, Lisa Tumminia-Pappalardo, agreed to settlements with the FTC that permanently ban them and their companies -- Timeshare Mega Media and Marketing Group, Inc. -- from telemarketing and engaging in timeshare resale services. 

According to the FTC's complaint, filed in October 2010, the defendants conned consumers by promising that they had buyers lined up and waiting to buy the consumers' timeshares. The defendants charged consumers an up-front fee, usually $1,996, but promised a full refund upon closing of the timeshare sale.

The FTC alleged that, after the consumers paid the fee, they were told to expect a contract from Timeshare Mega Media. What they received turned out to be a contract to market and advertise their timeshare, and not a sales contract, and many consumers signed and returned the contract thinking it was a sales contract, the complaint alleges.

Those who questioned its validity allegedly were given the runaround by the company and falsely told that a sales contract would follow.

In fact, according to the FTC, the company never had any timeshare buyers lined up and never actually assisted anyone in selling a timeshare. When consumers discovered this and demanded their money back, they found it nearly impossible to get a refund, or even get a call back.

The Commission estimates that in the 20 months the defendants operated, thousands of consumers were defrauded out of at least $2.7 million. In October 2010, a federal court halted the operation and froze the defendants' assets, pending resolution of the case.

In addition to banning the duofrom telemarketing and engaging in timeshare resale services, the settlement orders announced today permanently prohibit them from misrepresenting any product or service, selling or using customers' personal information, failing to properly dispose of customer information within 30 days of the orders, and attempting to collect payments from past customers.

The order against Pasquale Pappalardo imposes a judgment of almost $2.7 million, which will be suspended when he surrenders the proceeds from the sale of a condominium.

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Obesity Now More Costly to Health System Than Smoking

There are fewer smokers now but more people packing on pounds

Obesity Now More Costly To Health System Than Smoking...

PhotoUp until recently, smoking was far and away the biggest issue health advocates attacked. Lately, however, the health problems related to obesity have shared the attention.

While both are serious threats, James P. Moriarty, MSc, and colleagues at the Mayo Clinic have determined that obesity now adds more to health care costs that smoking does. Fewer people are smoking but obesity rates are rising.

The researcher came to there conclusion after analyzing the incremental costs of smoking and obesity among more than 30,000 Mayo Clinic employees and retirees. All had continuous health insurance coverage between 2001 and 2007.

If you smoked or were obese, your health care costs were generally found to be higher. Compared to nonsmokers, average health costs were $1,275 higher for smokers.

The incremental costs associated with obesity were even higher: $1,850 more than for normal-weight individuals. For those with morbid obesity, the excess costs were up to $5,500 per year.

Hidden costs

The costs associated with obesity appeared lower at first, the researchers said, since they showed up in other health problems that, on the surface, didn't appear related to obesity, but were.

"This may lead to underestimation of the true incremental costs, since obesity is a risk factor for developing chronic conditions," Moriarty and colleagues write.

Smoking and obesity place a growing strain on an already stretched healthcare system. If you are an obese smoker, your drain on the health care system is even more severe.

In the workplace, employers have responded with wellness programs—such as quit-smoking and fitness programs—in an attempt to lower costs by reducing health risk factors. Since companies pick up a large portion of health insurance premiums, they have a strong incentive.

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Single Baby Boomers Face Increased Challenges as They Age

Many lack economic resources and good health

Single Baby Boomers Face Increased Challenges As They Age...

It was the generation told to “never trust anyone under 30.” Now, many of its members are over 60. How's that working out?

The answer is, for some better than others. Nick and Bobbi Ercoline, the couple depicted on the “Woodstock” soundtrack album cover, have now been happily married for over 40 years. However, a new special issue of The Gerontologist showing the Ercolines as they look today — a portrait of successful aging — finds that their unmarried baby boomer counterparts generally fare much poorer in terms of economic, health, and social outcomes.

In 2011, the first of the 79 million American baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, reached age 65. Among this population, approximately one in three people are unmarried; the vast majority are either divorced or never-married, while only 10 percent are widowed.

Researchers I-Fen Lin, PhD, and Susan L. Brown, PhD studied data from the 1980, 1990, and 2000 Census and the 2009 American Community Survey. What jumped out at them was this: the number of boomers that are unmarried has grown by more than 50 percent since 1980, and that these singles also face increasing difficulties.

Less money, poorer health

“Unmarried boomers are disproportionately women, younger, and non-white,” the authors write in their article. “They tend to have fewer economic resources and poorer health. The prevalence of disability is twice as high among unmarrieds as among marrieds.”

And despite this higher rate of disability, single boomers are less likely to have health insurance.

Among women, widows appear to be the most disadvantaged as they enjoy fewer economic resources and have poorer health than divorced and never-married women. In contrast, those who never married are the least advantaged among men. Despite having relatively high levels of education, never-married men have poorer economic circumstances and are most likely to live alone.

Overall, 19 percent of unmarried boomers said they received food stamps, public assistance, or supplemental security income, while only six percent of married boomers indicated they used these services.

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Are Flying Cars Finally Here?

Get ready for a new kind of hybrid: two land-air hybrids are close to market

The PAL-V company in the Netherlands, and the Terrafugia company stateside, are releasing plans to offer actual flyign cars to public buyers...

Is it the future yet?  Maybe so. Two flying cars are revving their engines and heading for the runway.  Or driveway, as the case may be. Mark Huffman takes a look:

A vehicle called the Personal Air and Land Vehicle or PAL-V, from a Dutch company of the same name, is setting out to prove that what many have considered a futuristic dream for decades could soon become a reality. The PAL-V is a gyrocopter, a lean, agile two-seater that can speed down motorways, launch from airstrips, and actually fly. New developments this month could have a huge impact on transportation planning for the future, as industry experts release more information on how “flying cars” could work in various countries around the world.

With its advanced rotor and propeller design, the PAL-V is easier to control than a helicopter; it can reach speeds above 100 miles per hour and launch from a short runway. Landing is also easy, and the safety of the design means that stalling out will not cause the vehicle to crash. The PAL-V can be flown under 4,000 feet in the air, meaning that it will take less training to operate and won’t interfere with more complicated air traffic. The company's detailed web site shows much more of the unique vehicle’s design, and lists U.S. schools that are currently preparing flight enthusiasts and others to be the “flying car pilots” of the future.

Although the oddly timed release of new announcements on the feasibility of the PAL-V and other flying car designs may have some thinking that the whole thing is just an April Fool’s joke, the planning and research behind the PAL-V gyrocopter is very real. The PAL-V company has been around since 2001, but its products are just now getting some lift, with current realtime testing underway and the International Flying Car Association or IFCA preparing global audiences for what they are going to see from companies like PAL-V in the very near future.

According to a recent Washington Post review, the PAL-V will likely be available commercially to U.S. customers sometime next year, at a price ballparked around $300,000.

Not airborne yet

Though it looks like researchers have finally figured out the effective design of these personal flyers, there’s still a long way to go before American drivers will be taking to the skies to avoid traffic jams, or jetting comfortably between the home and office. Preparing the U.S. for flying cars also means writing effective insurance policies and expanding the set of municipal laws and ordinances governing transportation.

In addition to PAL-V, an American company called Terrafugia is also promoting their new flying car design, the Transition, that looks much more like a small plane, with wings and a larger body. Many consider the FAA approval of the vehicle as a "light sport aircraft" to be a major coup, and expect that it will eventually translate into a relatively easy process for getting one of these models off the ground from small, local airstrips across the country.

Even if we can’t currently take our commutes airbound, PAL-V and Terrafugia are showing us what the flying cars of the future (now the near future rather than a utopian fantasy) will look like, and from there, the rest is more or less red tape. Look for more on these high-tech hybrids as their makers continue to work through the elaborate processes of changing how the world views the automobile.

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Is Your Tote Bag a Toxic Waste Site?

Only 15% of consumers wash their grocery totes regularly

Reusable grocery totes are a popular, eco-friendly choice to transport groceries, but only 15 percent of Americans regularly wash their bags, creating a br...

PhotoReusable grocery totes are a popular, eco-friendly choice to transport groceries, but only 15 percent of Americans regularly wash their bags, creating a breeding zone for harmful bacteria, according to a survey by the Home Food Safety program, a collaboration between the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) and ConAgra Foods.

It's an issue that is likely to become more urgent as cities and towns encourage -- and, in some cases -- require shoppers to use reusable bags.  The Los Angeles City Council is considering a proposal today to charge supermarket customers 10 cents for each paper bag they take on their way out of the checkout line. City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana opposed banning paper bags altogether, although he said he doesn't mind banning plastic bags, as another pending proposal would require. Similar debats are going on around the country.

"Cross-contamination occurs when juices from raw meats or germs from unclean objects come in contact with cooked or ready-to-eat foods like breads or produce," says registered dietitian and Academy spokesperson Ruth Frechman. "Unwashed grocery bags are lingering with bacteria which can easily contaminate your foods."

Each year, 48 million Americans are affected by food poisoning caused by foodborne pathogens such as salmonella, listeria and E. coli.

"Food poisoning can easily be prevented with practical steps, such as cleaning grocery totes and separating raw meats from ready-to-eat foods when shopping, cooking, serving and storing foods," Frechman says.

According to Frechman, bacteria can be eliminated by:

  • Frequently washing your grocery tote, either in the washing machine or by hand with hot, soapy water;
  • Cleaning all areas where you place your totes, such as the kitchen counter;
  • Storing totes in a clean, dry location; and
  • Avoiding leaving empty totes in the trunk of a vehicle.

"When grocery shopping, wrap meat, poultry and fish in plastic bags before placing in the tote, and use two different easy to identify totes; one for raw meats and one for ready-to-eat foods," Frechman says.

It's also important to separate raw meats from ready-to-eat foods when preparing food, she says. To stay safe in the kitchen, use two cutting boards: one strictly to cut raw meat, poultry and seafood; the other for ready-to-eat foods, like breads and vegetables.

"Don't confuse them, and always wash boards thoroughly in hot, soapy water or in the dishwasher after each use," she says. "Discard old cutting boards that have cracks, crevices and excessive knife scars."

Visit www.homefoodsafety.org for additional safety tips on how to avoid cross-contamination and food poisoning.

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Most Americans Have No Credit Card Debt

About a third of consumers hold all the debt

Most Americans Have No Credit Card Debt...

PhotoConventional wisdom holds that most consumers are drowning in credit card debt. But according to a nonprofit credit counseling agency, conventional wisdom is wrong.

In fact, according to the Federal Reserve, more than a quarter of Americans have no credit cards at all. Among consumers who do have credit cards, only half carry a balance. That leaves 63 percent of the population free of credit card debt.

"If you feel compelled to overspend on credit cards because your friends are doing it, you should get new friends," said Karen Carlson, Director of Education and Creative Programs at InCharge Debt Solutions. "Headlines that tout average credit card debts of $10,000-$20,000 are really talking about average debt levels for people who carry debt, not the general population."

While this might seem like good news, think of it another way. All that credit card debt – about $780 billion at last count – is weighting down a much smaller group of people. That means the consumers who do have credit card debt usually have a crushing amount of it.

"If you carry credit card debt, you put yourself at much higher risk for bankruptcy, foreclosure, divorce and other negative situations, including the inability to retire in later years," Carlson said.

Toxic debt

Credit card debt is among the most toxic of debt. It was probably spent on consumables like restaurant meals and vacations, rather than assets. Worst of all, it carries interest rates as high as 30 percent.

InCharge Debt Solutions says the 60 percent who have no credit card balances should serve as role models. What do they do that others don't?

According to Carlson, they probably have a budget that they stick to, do without things they can't afford, only used credit cards for things they can pay for when the bill arrives and have a vision of where they want to go financially.

If you are among the 37 percent drowning in credit card debt, avoid the easy fixes offered by debt settlement companies. If you seek the advice of a credit counselor, make sure its one associated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, which has been around for more than a half-century.

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FTC Asks Judge to Shut Down Car-Loan Modification Schemes

Consumers pay hundreds of dollars but get no benefit, feds charge

The Federal Trade Commission has filed charges and requested that a U.S. district court put a stop to the allegedly deceptive tactics of two California-bas...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission has filed charges and requested that a U.S. district court put a stop to the allegedly deceptive tactics of two California-based auto loan modification operations. The FTC asserted that the two separate operations charged hundreds of dollars in up-front fees, based on bogus promises that they could reduce consumers’ monthly car loan payments and help avoid repossession of their vehicles.

Consumers were instructed to pay fees to the companies, and to stop paying their auto lenders.  Subsequently, at least one consumer’s car was repossessed, and one set of defendants told other consumers to “hide [their] car[s] to avoid repossession.” 

Moving on from mortgages

“Now that the FTC and its partners have stopped hundreds of mortgage loan modification scams, fraud artists are moving to another loan modification scam, preying on consumers who are behind on their auto loan payments and facing repossession,” said David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Despite promising to substantially lower consumers’ monthly payments, these schemes charge hundreds of dollars in up-front fees, leaving financially distressed consumers in worse shape than when they began.”

These are the FTC’s first cases against companies offering auto loan modifications. They come at a time when the volume of auto repossessions remains high.  Recognizing that a car is second only to a home as the most expensive purchase many consumers make, the FTC has been highly involved in auto-related consumer issues.

The FTC charged that Hope for Car Owners, LLC, NAFSO VLM, Inc. and Kore Services LLC (doing business as Auto Debt Consulting), and several individual defendants deceived consumers with false promises, and then did not provide promised refunds when they failed to obtain car loan modifications. The FTC has asked the court to order the defendants to stop the allegedly illegal conduct while the FTC moves forward with the cases.

PhotoThe FTC alleged that the Hope for Car Owners defendants typically promised to reduce consumers’ monthly auto loan payments by 30 to 50 percent, for fees ranging from $200 to $500.  One supposed consumer testimonial represented:  “I was 4 months late and on the verge of losing my car to the repo man. Hope 4 Car Owners stepped in and not only stopped the repossession, but they negotiated to reduce my payments from $1200 a month to $548!!”

The FTC alleged that the Auto Debt Consulting defendants typically promised to reduce consumers’ monthly auto loan payments by 25 to 40 percent, for fees ranging from $350 to $799. According to one of the defendants’ websites, “If you have engaged the services of Auto Debt Consulting for negotiating with your lender or bank on your behalf, and if for any reason you are dissatisfied with our services or we are unsuccessful in the negotiation process we will provide a 100 percent money back guarantee.” 

Big promises

According to the FTC’s complaints, both groups of defendants marketed their services on company websites, with statements like:  “Join the thousands who have already SAVED! (Hope for Car Owners) and “Lower your monthly vehicle payments by as much as 40% regardless of your credit score!” (Auto Debt Consulting).

The FTC alleged that the defendants provided toll-free numbers for consumers to call so that telemarketers could sign them up.  Many consumers were told to stop making payments on their auto loans, which increased the risk that their vehicles would be repossessed. But the FTC asserts that once the up-front fees were collected, neither operation did anything to obtain the promised loan modifications, consumers who tried to get refunds were denied, and one consumer’s vehicle was repossessed by the finance company.

Hope for Car Owners allegedly took $400 from one consumer and told her not to make any more payments on her vehicle.  The consumer did not send her next payment to her auto lender, and the lender soon informed her that her vehicle was going to be repossessed.

The FTC has a new publication for consumers who are looking for help managing their auto loans.  For more information, see:  Ads for Auto Loan Modifications: You May Be Able to Drive a Better Deal with Your Lender.

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Avoid Last-Minute Tax Filing Mistakes

Remember, if you can't get it done by April 17, you can file for an extension

Five common last-minute tax filing mistakes...

PhotoThe April 17 federal income tax filing deadline is closing in. If you haven't filed your return by now, you may feel you are under increasing pressure to do so.

Just don't let that pressure force you into making common last-minute filing mistakes.

"Each year, there are many who wait until the final days to file their taxes," said Mark Steber, chief tax officer, Jackson Hewitt Tax Service Inc. "With the last minute rush, it is important to carefully check your tax return prior to filing because even the simplest of mistakes can cause delays in the issuance of a refund."

Common last-minute mistakes

According to Steber here are the top five most common mistakes made when filing a return:

  1. Incorrect Filing Status – Choosing a filing status is usually one of the first steps when preparing a tax return, but it can also be a confusing decision that leads many to choose an incorrect status. The wrong filing status can significantly impact the amount of a tax refund or tax liability.
     
  2. Providing Incorrect Information – Another common mistake is when taxpayers misspell a name or incorrectly record their Social Security numbers. It is vital to clearly record the correct name, Social Security number and address (including zip code) directly on the return. Names and Social Security numbers for a spouse, dependents and qualifying children should be documented exactly as they appear on their respective Social Security cards. For those who changed their name due to getting married or divorced, or for any other reason, make sure the name used on the return is your legal name.
     
  3. Mathematical Errors – Another error on tax returns is bad math, which remains common on paper returns. Making mathematical miscalculations can greatly impact your tax return by reducing your expected refund or positioning you to owe more money than you actually do;
     
  4. Claiming Ineligible Exemptions – With so many complex rules, taxpayers often claim exemptions for which they are not eligible. Some examples include claiming a grown child who no longer qualifies as a dependent or claiming an exemption for a live-in significant other.
     
  5. Forgetting to Claim Items – In the rush to file, forgetting to claim certain items is a mistake that is made all too often. For example, certain charitable contributions, medical expenses and IRA contributions can all be claimed on a return, if you have the proper documentation.

 Getting an extension

If you don't think you can get your return prepared in time, you may file for an extension, using Form 4868, and get an additional six months to submit your return. However, you needed to pay any additional tax that you owe by the April 17 deadline.

If you file your Form 4868 electronically, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) says you will receive an acknowledgement or confirmation number for your records and you do not need to mail in Form 4868. If you need to pay additional taxes when filing Form 4868 electronically, you may do so through the outside service provider or through e-file. You can refer to your tax software or tax professional for ways to file electronically using e-file services.
Several companies offer free filing of Form 4868 through the Free File program that you can access on the IRS.gov website. If you wish to file electronically, be sure to have a copy of last year's tax return. You will be asked to provide the Adjusted Gross Income from the return for taxpayer verification.

A second way of requesting an automatic extension of time to file your individual income tax return is to pay part or all of your estimate of income tax due by credit card or debit card. You may pay by phone or Internet through one of the service providers listed on Form 4868. Each service provider will charge a convenience fee based on the amount of the tax payment. At the completion of the transaction, you will receive a confirmation number for your records.

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USGS: Recent Earthquakes 'Almost Certainly Manmade'

Report implicates oil and natural gas drilling

 Report Implicates Oil and Natural Gas DrillingBy Dusty Horwitt and Alex Formuzis, April 2012Washington, D.C. – A U.S. Geological Surv...

PhotoA U.S. Geological Survey research team has linked oil and natural gas drilling operations to a series of recent earthquakes from Alabama to the Northern Rockies. The researchers say the spike in earthquakes since 2001 near oil and gas extraction operations is “almost certainly man-made.” The research team cites underground injection of drilling wastewater as a possible cause.

The authors of a study published by the Seismological Society of America found that the frequency of earthquakes started rising in 2001 across a broad swath of the country between Alabama and Montana. In 2009, there were 50 earthquakes greater than magnitude-3.0, the abstract states, then 87 quakes in 2010. The 134 earthquakes in the zone last year is a sixfold increase over 20th-century levels.

The USGS authors said they do not know why oil and gas activity might cause an increase in earthquakes but a possible explanation is the increase in the number of wells drilled over the past decade and the increase in fluid used in the hydraulic fracturing of each well. The combination of factors is likely creating far larger amounts of wastewater that companies often inject into underground disposal wells. Scientists have linked these disposal wells to earthquakes since as early as the 1960s. The injections can induce seismicity by changing pressure and adding lubrication along faults.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that between 1991 and 2000, oil and gas companies drilled 245,000 wells in the U.S. compared to 405,000 wells between 2001 and 2010 – a 65 percent increase. As an example of how much more fracking fluid is used, New York state’s review of oil and natural gas drilling regulations in 1988 assumed that companies would use between 20,000 and 80,000 gallons of fluid for hydraulic fracturing per well. The state’s 2011 review of regulations for natural gas drilling in shale formations assumed that companies would use 2.4 million to 7.8 million gallons of fluid per well – a 100-fold increase.

The USGS report is likely to be of particular interest in California where earthquakes are a part of life largely as a result of the 810-mile long San Andreas Fault. An Environmental Working Group (EWG) investigation recently discovered that companies are engaged in hydraulic fracturing, mostly for oil, in a number of counties throughout California, including several directly above the fault line. It is unclear how the companies are disposing of their wastewater.

“With gasoline prices at $4 a gallon, there’s pressure to rush ahead with drilling, but the USGS report is another piece of evidence that shows we have to proceed carefully,” said Dusty Horwitt, EWG's Senior Counsel and chief natural resources analyst.

 

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FDA Warns France T253 Contains Hidden Ingredients

Sexual enhancement aid sold on ebay.com, among others, may be dangerous

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is advising consumers not to purchase or use “France T253,” a product for sexual enhancement.  This...

PhotoThe Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is advising consumers not to purchase or use “France T253,” a product for sexual enhancement.  This product is promoted and sold on various Web sites, such as ebay.com.

FDA laboratory analysis confirmed that “France T253” contains sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra, an FDA approved prescription drug for Erectile Dysfunction (ED).  Sildenafil may interact with nitrates found in some prescription drugs such as nitroglycerin and may lower blood pressure to dangerous levels.  Men with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or heart disease often take nitrates.

Consumers should stop using these products immediately and throw them away.  Consumers who have experienced any negative side effects should consult a health care professional as soon as possible. 

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Burger King Getting a Make-Over

Fast food chain has slipped to third place in burger competition

For years, Burger King has been playing catch-up to McDonald's in the burger battles. Then last month Burger King found itself slipping to third place, beh...

PhotoFor years, Burger King has been playing catch-up to McDonald's in the burger battles. Then last month Burger King found itself slipping to third place, behind Wendy's. 

Consumer sentiment about the chain has see-sawed over the past year. A ConsumerAffairs sentiment analysis of about 1.1 million consumer comments on social media finds Burger King's net positive sentiment slipping to just 39% today, down from its peak of 65% last May.

Photo

The company has announced changes it hopes will make it more competitive. While McDonald's in recent years has moved toward a McCafe branding and emphasized healthier fare, Burger King now appears to be following in that direction.

As for just what's troubling Burger King customers, well, it's a little hard to say. While the fries are popular, the biggest complaint seems to center around "no real wonder."  Frankly, we're not sure what that's all about but maybe you know.

Photo

New menu

The fast-food chain plans to offer snack wraps, salads, smoothies made from real fruit and frappes. It's taking on a distinctive international flavor as well, featuring jalapeno and kung pao sauces on various chicken meals.

Will it be enough to turn the tide? Consumers offering reviews on the chain at ConsumerAffairs usually have other gripes. For example, Brian of Rimersburg, Pa., complains that, even though Burger King promises you can “have it your way,” you don't always get it the way you ask for it.

Photo“I asked for a Double Whopper with cheese, no tomato, no pickle,” Brian wrote in a post. “I got my sandwich, and guess what was on my sandwich? Tomato and pickle only! This was not the only time this has happened at this particular Burger King.”

Sandra, of Greenwood, La., has been a Burger King fan, but has recently grown frustrated.

“Burger King has always been my favorite burger restaurant but due to the extremely long wait time, I will not be going back,” Sandra wrote in a post at ConsumerAffairs. “I kept going back thinking something would change but it has not. As I sat in line, I saw three cars behind me pull out and leave. A car in front of me left after placing order. BK must be losing money at this store.”

Not so fast

Tom, of Tampa, Fla., also complains that Burger King seems to be taking the “fast” out of fast-food.

“I ordered my food at 12:23 and was served at 12:40,” Tom said. “Although my meal was good, I really didn't want to wait that long at a fast food establishment. For the amount of employees I witness and it was lunch time, I expected faster service.”

Burger King's changes, meanwhile, include remodeled stores, new employee uniforms and a new ad campaign, along with the new menu items. All good, but Brian, Sandra and Tom probably hope someone looks at the system that produces the product.

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Sentiment analysis by NetBase

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Congress Targets Offshore Call Centers

Consumers at risk of identity theft, fraud, New York Congressman argues

Consumers sound off frequently about offshore call centers, usually complaining the overseas customer service reps are hard to understand and, often, not f...

PhotoConsumers sound off frequently about offshore call centers, usually complaining the overseas customer service reps are hard to understand and, often, not familiar with American customs and business practices.

Actually, it's not just Americans who complain. Donna of Scarborough, Ontario, called TransUnion to complain about a serious case of identity fraud on her account.

"When I asked to speak to a manager to complain, that's when I was told that I was reaching a call center in India and that they don't have the same privacy rules as Canada and therefore they really don't care who reports on your file," Donna said. "I knew something was wrong when he asked me where I was from and I said Toronto, then he asked me if that is considered Ontario. Wow! What a great country we have here."

Donna's case is hardly unique. Several major investigations have unearthed fraudulent and criminal activity emanating from overseas call centers.

The trend has not gone unnoticed in Congress, where Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.) of Long Island said yesterday that more than 100 cosponsors have signed onto his legislation to bar American companies that outsource call centers from receiving federal grants and loans.  

Bishop's bill, the U.S. Call Center and Consumer Protection Act (HR 3596), has gained 106 co-sponsors including Congressman Michael Grimm (R-Staten Island). The legislation continues to gain momentum in the House as identity theft and sale of customers' personal information by call center employees in India and the Philippines have been exposed in new reports by the British and Australian media.

Australian TV Newsmagazine Today Tonight reports that an employee at a call center operated in the Philippines for Australian phone company Telstra offered to reduce a customers' $557 (AUS) mobile phone bill to $99 (AUS) in exchange for a $60 (AUS) bribe.

“After I sort of had a chuckle at it, I realized it was like this is quite serious ‘cause this woman has access to my credit card account details in Telstra and all my personal details,” said Telstra customer Sam McNeil in the report, which has received over 100,000 views on YouTube. 

Sting operation

The Times of London set up a sting operation to snare one of the criminals who make up what it called an "army of data traders selling swathes of personal information - ranging from credit card details and medical records to loans data and satellite TV information - that has been stolen from India’s enormous network of call centres," 

“These recent reports of theft and misuse of sensitive information from British and Australian customers of Asian call centers are deeply disturbing, and it is impossible to believe that the financial and medical information of Americans has not been similarly compromised,” said Bishop. “It is clear that overseas call centers simply cannot provide the same level of security for sensitive personal data as facilities in the US, and Americans should be guaranteed the option of a domestic call center to conduct their business. Taxpayer dollars should not be supporting companies that choose protecting their bottom line over protecting their customers.”

“American companies should be taking all measures necessary to protect the identities and personal information of their customers, and these incidents strengthen the case to keep call centers in the United States,” said Rep. Michael Grimm, a former FBI agent. “Furthermore, it is important that we do all we can to preserve American jobs and prevent them from moving overseas. This bill ensures that companies receiving taxpayer-funded federal aid or tax incentives don’t use those incentives to move their call centers abroad. I stand behind this legislation that not only protects American jobs but ensures that the people of Staten Island and Brooklyn are protected by American laws that safeguard their personal information and protect them from identity theft.”

Ineligible for loans

The U.S. Call Center and Consumer Protection Act would require the U.S. Department of Labor to track firms that move call center jobs overseas; the firms would then be ineligible for any direct or indirect federal loans or loan guarantees for five years. The provision is partially a response to the practice of companies taking millions in incentives from local taxpayers to open call centers in the U.S., only to off-shore their operations a short time later and leave local communities devastated and still paying the bill.

Bishop's bill also requires overseas call center employees to disclose their location to US consumers and gives customers the right to be transferred to a US-based call center upon request.

The Communications Workers of America, who represent 150,000 call center employees across the United States, have been strong supporters of the U.S. Call Center and Consumer Protection Act.

“Americans are fed up with good-paying, family-supporting call center jobs here in the United States being shipped overseas,” said CWA Chief of Staff Ron Collins, who began his career in a U.S.-based Verizon call center. “Now, to hear that personal information is being stolen at overseas call centers just days after T-Mobile USA announces it will be closing seven call centers in the USA -- affecting 3,300 American workers - just makes your blood boil.”

 
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Mazda's Takeri: Mystique and More

Latest Mazda uses proprietary SKYACTIV engine design

The Takeri concept car from Mazda is showing off some of the newest engineering that Mazda had been waiting to reveal to the market...

PhotoA new concept car from Mazda, just unveiled at the 2012 New York Auto Show, is blending brand cachet and curb appeal with a series of new technologies that have been under development for quite awhile. For a car company that loves articulating its mission statement in bold and expressive ways, the Takeri expresses Mazda’s hope for the future in a different way, with a lot of the new technology and engineering that’s likely to drive Mazda’s lineup through the next few model years.

A press release on the new Mazda Takeri model, which Mazda has revealed as part of its KODO “Soul of Motion” campaign, describes the build and shape of the car almost poetically, alluding to “pronounced body lines which …create katana-like strokes, evoking a tempered intensity,” as well as a “sharp five-point grille and lean, chiseled front fascia,” but along with the deliberate visual setting that the Takeri provides structurally, there are a lot more reasons for buyers to look closer at this model.

What powers the Takeri is a Mazda SKYACTIV engine design that has been part of the automaker’s strategy to provide cars with higher mpg for a new market focused increasingly on saving drivers money at the pump.

The SKYACTIV engine design seeks to rival hybrid and other emerging technologies through specific changes to the fuel combustion process – the Takeri will be powered by a SKYACTIV-D 2.2-liter clean diesel engine that uses a two-stage turbocharger and optimized timing, giving the engine a low compression ratio and allowing Mazda diesel vehicles to burn cleaner, avoiding NOx aftertreaments. As promised last year, Mazda has already put a SKYACTIV engine into this year’s Mazda 3, so it’s possible to test drive one of these new engines at local dealers.

Stop-start

The SKYACTIV diesel power isn’t the only innovation that Mazda is putting into the Mazda Takeri concept car. There’s also a stop-start system and other features meant to make the most of the engine’s power to conserve fuel, as well as the i-ELOOP, which Mazda calls “the world's first capacitor-based regenerative braking system.”

While this sounds like something futuristic, (remember the “flux capacitor” on Doc’s DeLorean?) a more detailed description doesn’t disappoint: as revealed by Mazda engineers, the capacitor is what allows the car to do without an actual electric motor. By storing electricity elsewhere, the car achieves a kind of hybrid power, without really being a conventional “hybrid.” There’s no battery involved, either, just a reuse of engine power through a low-resistance electric double-layer capacitor attached to a DC converter.

The new Mazda Takeri represents part of the cutting-edge engineering coming from Mazda’s four design studios. From Hiroshima and Yokohama in Japan, to Frankfurt, Germany and Irvine, California, Mazda researchers and design teams continue to build vehicles “inspired by nature” that will compete handily with other offerings from “big 5” makers Toyota, Honda and Nissan, as well as re-emerging giants like Ford and General Motors.

Look for the best local offers on new Mazda models to cash in on some of the finer points of the company’s unique “zoom-zoom” design philosophy.

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Consumers Relying More on Tax Refunds for Basic Needs

Fewer use their refund checks to treat themselves

Consumers Relying More On Tax Refunds For Basic Needs...

PhotoFor taxpayers receiving refunds, it's often viewed as a windfall, even though it's their own money the government has been holding for months, interest-free.

Even so, the arrival of a refund was often the occasion of a shopping spree, a new vehicle or maybe a vacation. Not so much, these days.

A new poll from Cricket Communications shows that 50 percent of people expecting a tax refund say they plan to spend the money on bills or other household expenses.

Smarter this year

The survey also noted that more than three-quarters of Americans receiving their refund say they will be "smarter" about how they spend it, with more than half - 55 percent - pledging they are more likely to use refund dollars on practical "needs" instead of "wants."

A number of taxpayers posting at ConsumerAffairs early this year expressed frustration when they didn't receive their tax refunds as quickly as they expected. Many blamed their tax preparer.

“We asked our agent if our taxes would be late, and she said that no everything was fine now with IRS,” James of Sidney, Ohio, wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “We still have not received our refund. Why do we have to pay H&R for filing our taxes electronically if we did not get them in a timely manner?”

In most cases, however, tax preparers were not to blame. The Internal Revenue Service's (IRS) enhanced anti-fraud efforts resulted in slowdowns for some refunds to be processed.

Meanwhile, if you find that you need your tax refund in order to meet everyday expenses, it may be a sign that you need to revisit your budget.

Best uses

According to the personal finance company Kiplinger, the five best uses of a tax refund are:

  1. Pay off high-interest credit cards
  2. Rebuild your emergency fund
  3. Add to retirement savings
  4. Build savings for college
  5. Help your children save for the future
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What If You Can't Pay Your Taxes?

Whatever you do, don't ignore April 17 filing deadline

What If You Can't Pay Your Taxes?...

PhotoFiled your tax return yet? The deadline is closing in and millions of taxpayers may be cringing over income tax bills they simply can't afford to pay.

Stiffing the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is never a good idea, but what if you have no money to pay the taxes you owe? Are there any options?

"If you can't pay what you owe all at once, you should still file your tax return and make payment arrangements with the IRS," said Mark Luscombe, and analyst with CCH, a provider of tax, accounting and audit services. "If you don't file because you can't pay, you're immediately facing a failure-to-file penalty as well as interest, additional costs and potentially a tax lien or levy down the road."

Kinder, gentler IRS

Believe it or not, it's a little easier to deal with the IRS on payment issues than it used to be. Last year, the tax agency issued new rules to help soften the blow for taxpayers who can't afford to pay their taxes when owed, including increasing the threshold at which the IRS files a tax lien, as well as expanding the installment and offers in compromise programs to allow more taxpayers to qualify.

But to take advantage of these changes, taxpayers need to act in a timely, forthright manner. There are procedures and specific steps you must take to take advantage of these options.

Fresh Start 

The IRS has a program called the “Fresh Start” initiative. To take part, you must fill out a new Form 1127A to request the 2011 penalty relief if they are in one of these two categories:

Wage earners who have been unemployed at least 30 consecutive days during 2011 or in 2012 up to this year's April 17tax deadline; or

Self-employed individuals who experienced a 25-percent or greater reduction in business income in 2011 due to the economy.

How to qualify

To qualify for this penalty relief, the taxpayer's adjusted gross income must not exceed $200,000 if married filing jointly or $100,000 if filing status is single, married filing separately, head of household or qualifying widower.

However, a taxpayer's 2011 balance due can not exceed $50,000. The penalty relief only extends to October 15, 2012, and interest continues to accrue during that period.

Penalties 

You cannot simply ignore the April 17 filing deadline. If a taxpayer does not file a return and pay the taxes owed when due, the IRS can take several steps, including filing a five percent penalty on the tax due for every month or any fraction of a month the return is overdue. The penalty is capped at 25 percent.

The IRS can also file a substitute tax return for the taxpayer based on information it has from other sources. I may start a collection process that can include a tax levy or tax lien against the taxpayer's property, bank account or wages. Tax liens can impact credit ratings and make it difficult to buy and sell property and even get a job.

All of this can be avoided by alerting the IRS to your problem and seeking to work with the agency.

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Fed Enters Consent Order Against Morgan Stanley

Company will also face a fine for its misconduct and negligence in mortgage activities

The Federal Reserve Board today announced it has reached a consent order against Morgan Stanley to address a pattern of misconduct and negligence in reside...

The Federal Reserve Board today announced it has reached a consent order against Morgan Stanley to address a pattern of misconduct and negligence in residential mortgage loan servicing and foreclosure processing at its subsidiary, Saxon Mortgage Services, Inc.

Morgan Stanley also faces financial penalties that have not yet been finalized.

In 2010, Morgan Stanley agreed to pay $102 million to affected Massachusetts homeowners and the Commonwealth for its role in securitization and financing of Massachusetts subprime loans.

Sold Saxon

Morgan Stanley sold a substantial portion of the assets of Saxon to Ocwen Financial Corporation on April 2, 2012, and has taken other actions to cease to conduct residential mortgage servicing. Prior to the completion of these actions, Saxon was the 34th largest mortgage servicer in the United States.

The consent order requires Morgan Stanley to retain an independent consultant to review foreclosure proceedings initiated by Saxon that were pending at any time in 2009 or 2010.

The review is intended to provide remediation to borrowers who suffered financial injury as a result of wrongful foreclosures or other deficiencies identified in a review of the foreclosure process. The foreclosure review will be conducted in a manner consistent with the reviews currently underway at several large mortgage servicers that consented to enforcement actions brought by the banking agencies last year.

If Morgan Stanley re-enters the mortgage servicing business while the Consent Order is in effect, it will be required to implement enhanced corporate governance, risk-management, compliance, borrower communication, servicing, and foreclosure practices comparable to what the mortgage servicers subject to the 2011 enforcement actions were required to implement.

As noted in the announcements relating to the 2011 enforcement actions, the Federal Reserve said it believes monetary sanctions are appropriate and plans to announce monetary penalties in these cases.

The monetary penalties against Morgan Stanley will be in addition to the corrective actions that Morgan Stanley will be taking pursuant to today's action. Morgan Stanley has acknowledged that it will be responsible for satisfying any civil money penalty that the Board of Governors could have assessed against Saxon for its conduct.     

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Al Baghdadi Food Recalls Stuffed Potato Product

May contain undeclared allergens

Al Baghdadi Food Inc., a Hazel Park, Mich. establishment is recalling approximately 5,400 pounds of a stuffed potato product with beef filling because of m...

PhotoAl Baghdadi Food Inc., a Hazel Park, Mich. establishment is recalling approximately 5,400 pounds of a stuffed potato product with beef filling because of misbranding and undeclared allergens. The product contains soy and milk, which are known allergens not declared on the label. 

The product subject to recall is: 

  • Packages containing 12 pieces and labeled Al Baghdadi Food "Fully Cooked Potato Chop Middle Eastern Brand Mashed Potato Stuffed with Beef Filling Artificially Colored."

The product bears the establishment number "EST. 44182" inside the USDA mark of inspection on the product label. The products were produced between Aug. 16, 2011 and April 2, 2012 and were sold to retail stores, institutions and wholesale establishments in Arizona, Illinois and Michigan.  

The problem occurred when an ingredient supplier reformulated their product and the change was not reflected on the finished product label. The problem was discovered during a routine verification activity by FSIS. FSIS and the company have not received any reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products. Anyone concerned about a reaction should contact a healthcare provider. 

FSIS routinely conducts recall effectiveness checks to verify that recalling firms notify their customers of the recall and steps are taken to ensure the product is no longer available to consumers. 

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Chemical in Smokeless Tobacco Linked to Oral Cancer

Researchers say (S)-N’-nitrosonornicotine should be removed from products

Chemical in Smokeless Tobacco Linked to Oral Cancer...

PhotoA chemical called (S)-N’-nitrosonornicotine, or (S)-NNN, is present in smokeless tobacco products. Researchers say it is a strong oral carcinogen.

Although smokeless tobacco products have long been linked with certain cancers, including oral cavity cancers and esophageal cancers, researchers haven't been sure why. Now, they say they have a very good idea.

A chemical called (S)-N’-nitrosonornicotine, or (S)-NNN, is present in smokeless tobacco products. Researchers say it is a strong oral carcinogen.

“(S)-NNN is the only chemical in smokeless tobacco known to cause oral cancer,” said Silvia Balbo, Ph.D., research associate at the Masonic Cancer Center of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minn. “This finding provides mechanistic underpinning for the epidemiologic observations that smokeless tobacco products cause oral cancer.”

Lab rats

Balbo and colleagues reached their conclusion after a study using laboratory rats. They say the results overwhelming suggest the linkage between the chemical and oral cancers.

“Measures should be taken to reduce this chemical in smokeless tobacco,” Balbo said. “If it is not possible to stop the use of smokeless tobacco products, we should advocate for a reduction of this chemical in these products.”

Because the Food and Drug Administration regulates tobacco products, Balbo said she hoped these results will inform regulatory decisions. In the future, she and her colleagues hope to identify other chemicals that may be carcinogens in smokeless tobacco and to understand what level of these chemicals is present in smokeless tobacco products.

And it goes without saying, Balbo believes these findings are yet another reason that tobacco products should be avoided.

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J.C. Penney Customers Just Don't Get the Changes

Sales fall as customers puzzle over new pricing policy

J.C. Penney Customers Just Don't Get The Changes...

PhotoThe financial media is focusing new attention on the changes at retailer J.C. Penney, pointing out that consumers appear to be resisting them.

Business Week reports J.C. Penney has taken a big hit in revenue, a result it says of the company's new pricing policy.

In an article headlined “Most Customers Don't Have A Clue About J.C. Penney's New Pricing Plan,” Forbes cites a survey showing 67 percent of shoppers said they did not know about changes to Penney's pricing policies.

Many of the consumers who do know about it don't seem all that impressed. Jeannette, of Enfield, N.C., doesn't mince words.

Hates it

“I hate the new pricing that J.C. Penney recently implemented,” Jeannette wrote in a post at ConsumerAffairs. “All of my coworkers, family and friends feel the same way. I hope the CEO or whoever that made these changes will change things back to the way they were or at least improve the pricing! I predict that many stores especially in my small community area will be closing if something does not change. Listen to your customers!”

New J.C. Penney CEO Rob Johnson instituted the changes in February, doing away with sales and coupons and going to what he called a three-tiered pricing system. Wanda, of Panama City, Fla., said she used to be a regular Penney's shopper until the changes went into effect in February. But over the over the weekend, she says she and her husband decided to see what had changed at their local store.

Prices are higher

“This was the first time my husband had been in the store since the change,” Wanda wrote. “He has always liked to shop for his clothes here and he also was in shock. We purchased three polos for him which costs us $60 plus. In the old days those same shirts would have cost us at least $20 less with our 'coupon' savings and 'rewards' we would received by doing the survey on the back of our receipt. St Johns Bay polos use to be around $10-$15 when on sale....now a SJB polos regular everyday price is $20. How is that fair and square?”

Candy, of Morgantown, WVa., says she also hates the new pricing, and is additionally upset that Penney's has discontinued its catalog.

“I believe the changes have made it clear that J.C. Penney no longer wants any money from senior citizens,” Candy wrote. “Senior citizens needed the catalogs and were good customers. Senior citizens needed the coupon sales to save due to fixed incomes.”

The arrival of Johnson at Penney's from his former position at Apple was cause for widespread optimism about Penney's on Wall Street. But now it appears that some of that optimism is fading. Forbes cites a report from a Citi analyst predicting J.C. Penney's sales will fall by $1.2 billion in 2012. Bloomberg reports Johnson, meanwhile, earned $53 million in compensation from Penney's last year.

While consumers like Jeannette, Wanda and Candy don't feel they are benefiting from Penney's make-over, Forbes sees some possible winners – Walmart, Target and Khol's.

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Recalls of Children's Products Down; Reasons Unclear

Despite new law, much of the review and recall process still occurs in secret

The number of children's products recalled last year dropped 24% from the previous year. That's good, right? Well, maybe but then again, maybe not.Unfort...

PhotoThe number of children's products recalled last year dropped 24% from the previous year. That's good, right? Well, maybe but then again, maybe not.

Unfortunately, despite a much-hyped Congressional overhaul of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), much of what the agency does still goes on behind closed doors, thanks to sustained lobbying by manufacturers eager to avoid the damaging publicity and other costs associated with recalls.

An annual report by the non-profit group Kids In Danger finds that nursery products were once again the most-recalled category, making up 30% of total 2011 recalls, followed by toys at 26%.

The largest recalls were for 1.7 million infant monitors that can cause strangulation -- and which were blamed for two deaths in 2011. The other of the year's three deaths occurred when a child became entrapped in a bunk bed. 

Sleeping is, in fact, dangerous for infants and toddlers.  There were 14 recalls of cribs, bassinets, bunk beds, canopy beds and other sleeping products.

The second-largest recall was for 1.7 million toy workbenches and tools that caused some near-misses when toddlers got the pieces stuck in their throats. Little girl's Keds shoes with decorative stars caused 27 lacerations before they were recalled.  

Target had the dubious honor of having the most recalls, six of them. Next up were Battat and Build-a-Bear, with three each.

Photo
Source: Kids In Danger

So, to return to the opening question: If the number of recalls is down, doesn't that mean manufacturers are starting to test their products more thoroughly and putting out safer toys, furniture, tools and appliances?

Unfortunately not. As Kids in Danger put it: "With the secrecy surrounding the process, that is difficult to ascertain."

The group noted that many products that have not been recalled have nevertheless been reported in the CPSC's own database as causing serious injuries.

In other cases, it took hundreds of reports before anything was done. The Adventure Playset Swingset was the subject of 500 consumer repports before it was recalled.

 

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FDA Declines to Bar BPA from Food Packaging

Chemical is tied to potential health problem including birth defects

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has decided it will not take immediate steps to bar bisphenol-A, or BPA, a synthetic estrogen and plastics...

PhotoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration has decided it will not take immediate steps to bar bisphenol-A, or BPA, a synthetic estrogen and plastics component, in canned food and liquid infant formula containers.

The decision ignited a firestorm of criticism from environmental and consumer organizations.

“The next decision the FDA should make is to remove ‘responsible for protecting the public health’ from its mission statement,” said Jane Houlihan, Senior Vice President for Research of the Environmental Working Group. “It’s false advertising. Allowing a chemical as toxic as BPA, and linked to so many serious health problems, to remain in food means the agency has veered dangerously off course.”

"Scientists, consumers, retailers, manufacturers and the states are sending clear signals that BPA doesn't belong in our food packaging and that investment in safe alternatives is an investment in the health of the American public. Now the FDA needs to catch up. Inaction is not acceptable," said Jeanne Rizzo, Breast Cancer Fund President & CEO. "The FDA needs to take decisive, urgent action to ensure that all of us -- regardless of where we live or where we shop -- are protected from this toxic chemical."

The FDA said it "has determined, as a matter of science and regulatory policy, that the best course of action at this time is to continue our review and study of emerging data on BPA," and that "this announcement is not a final safety determination and the FDA continues to support research examining the safety of BPA."

"This weak response is deeply disappointing and calls into question the FDA's ability to take decisive action to protect public health," Rizzo said.

While the FDA continues to ponder the matter, some private companies are acting on their own to reduce BPA exposure. Campbell's announced in March that it would phase out BPA from its soup can linings and many large retailers, including Walmart, have stopped selling certain products -- notably baby bottles -- containing BPA.

2007 study  

A 2007 study by the Environmental Working Group found that BPA leached from epoxy linings of cans into surrounding food and drink. EWG’s tests showed the highest concentrations of the chemical, a synthetic estrogen, in canned soup, pasta and infant formula.

Studies have found BPA in breast milk, saliva, urine, amniotic fluid and umbilical cord blood. 

The chemical has been associated with many health problems, including breast cancer, prostate cancer, insulin resistance, reproductive defects, diabetes and miscarriages.

“Pregnant women and new parents should no longer think FDA has their backs,” said Houlihan.

Low-dose exposure

FDA’s decision comes just weeks after a three-year study published by The Endocrine Society found low dose exposures to endocrine disrupting chemicals, including BPA, do produce significant, adverse health effects in people. The report rebuts the chemical and food industries’ arguments that people are exposed to too little BPA to do harm.

“When the most populous state in the country, California, and the world’s largest soup maker, Campbell’s, are both taking steps to reduce BPA in people’s diets, you’d think the FDA would join in,” said Houlihan. “The FDA and chemical industry lobbyists may soon be the only ones left to defend the use of this synthetic hormone in food containers.”

Late last year, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that will prohibit the sale of baby bottles and sippy cups made with BPA, making the state the 11th to take similar action. And, earlier this month Campbell’s became the latest food company to say that it is phasing out the use of BPA.

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2012 Kia Rio Beats Accent, Sonic in Consumer Reports Review

Decent handling, good gas mileage, attractive interior helped Rio take top spot

As the 2012 market year begins, the 2012 Kia Rio is getting a lot of attention, even up against newer models like the Chevrolet Sonic and Hyundai Accent...

PhotoThis year, the Kia Rio is emerging as a winner in its segment. In late March, Consumer Reports came out with an analysis of the model year’s subcompact market that gave the Rio top ratings in the reviewer’s analysis of subcompact sedans, which have become a lot more popular with gas prices rising back toward $4.00.

Overall, Kia and its sister company Hyundai are starting to be associated with economy, reliability and attractive design, as well as competitive fuel efficiency in the North American market. CR chose the Rio largely because of its decent handling and a nice basket of features for an affordable price. Testers also liked the performance and braking of the car, and noted that the fuel economy of 30 mpg is very competitive.

In getting the nod from Consumer Reports, the 2012 Kia Rio edged out the Hyundai Accent as well as the new Chevrolet Sonic, a car that entered the market to much fanfare as GM started to provide more fuel-efficient offerings. Both of these cars should have been tough competition for the 2012 Rio, but CR details the reasons that its staffers picked the Rio for first.

While the Accent actually gets better estimated gas mileage than the Rio, reviewers found that the interior materials weren’t quite as good, and the ride wasn’t quite as nice. As for the Sonic, Consumer Reports found that the base model only gets 28 mpg, and while this will still get a driver pretty far on a tank of gas, it’s a little surprising to many who have been hearing about the Sonic’s rollout for a while, expecting a small car that will blow others away in terms of gas savings. Some of the confusion may stem from different numbers for city, combined and highway driving: the “just under thirty” number, confirmed by other reviewers like Edmunds, refers to combined estimates, while potential buyers may have heard numbers like 35 mpg, which is what the Sonic is estimated to get on highway. But as Consumer Reports and other venues have pointed out, to get the best fuel economy out of the Sonic, buyers have to choose a turbo-charged upper-trim LT or LTZ Sonic, where these optimized trims can get about 35 mpg combined and 40 mpg on highway.

The news on the 2012 Rio comes along with some great reviews of used models by Kelley Blue Book and other sources. Also, the 2012 Rio isn’t the only Kia getting attention from reviewers; last year, Kelley included another model, the Kia Forte Koup, in its list of “coolest cars under $18,000.”

The 2012 Rio also retails just under $18,000, and according to Consumer Reports, it’s a pretty good deal. Along with this endoresement, the 2012 Kia Rio also got a spot on the list of  "six best car for teens" from Vroomgirls, an auto reviewer with a female perspective on the industry. Consider this option if you are hunting for a small car that promises the right equation of value for cost.

 

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Deceptive Robocaller Gets $30 Million Phone Bill

FTC case against Cash Grant Institute ends with record penalty

In response to charges by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a federal judge has ordered the defendants behind a deceptive robocall scheme to pay a t...

PhotoIn response to charges by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a federal judge has ordered the defendants behind a deceptive robocall scheme to pay a total of $30 million in civil penalties and give up more than $1.1 million in ill-gotten gains for violations of the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule.

The court order includes a $20 million judgment against Paul Navestad, which is the largest civil penalty against a defendant in an FTC case, and a $10 million judgment against Christine Maspakorn. The $30 million in total fines is, by far, the largest penalty ever imposed for unlawful calls to consumers on the Do-Not-Call Registry.

According to a decision issued by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York, Navestad and Maspakorn, operating primarily as the "Cash Grant Institute," made more than eight million robocalls to consumers, including more than 2.7 million calls to phone numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry.

These calls falsely claimed that "cash grants" for consumers were readily available from federal, state, and local governments, private foundations, and "wealthy individuals." The calls promised consumers that they had already qualified for these "grants," and that they could receive up to $25,000 to overcome personal financial problems.

The robocalls directed interested consumers to one of Navestad and Maspakorn's websites, requestagrant.com, which repeated many of the same deceptive claims about the availability of "Free Grant Money." Another of the defendants' websites, cashgrantsearch.com, declared that it was the "Source of Free Money from the Government." It contained pictures of the U.S. Capitol Building and President Obama, and stated, "Did you know that grant money exists for almost any purpose and does not need to be repaid?"

Yet as the FTC demonstrated to the court, government grant money does not exist for almost any purpose, and none of the defendants' websites actually provided grants. Instead, they merely referred consumers to other grant-related websites that charged a fee for providing general information about how to obtain grants from public or private sources. It was only after consumers had paid the fee that they learned that it was very difficult to obtain cash grants from public or private sources, that very few people qualified for such grants, and that obtaining a grant involves a lengthy, competitive application process.

The FTC filed the case in July 2009. A short time later, the court halted the defendants' operation, froze their assets, and appointed a receiver to oversee the business pending litigation.

Took the Fifth

Navestad and Maspakorn then asserted their Fifth Amendment rights and refused to testify or turn over evidence. Through his attorney, however, Navestad contested the charges, claiming that he was merely a "consultant" for the companies engaged in the deceptive scheme. U.S. District Court Judge Michael Telesca rejected Navestad's claims and held that the FTC had "submitted copious amounts of evidence" – including 120 exhibits consisting of bank records, contracts, witness statements, depositions correspondence, and photographs – "supporting each and every element" of its case against Navestad and Maspakorn.

Judge Telesca then issued orders permanently banning the defendants from marketing grants, grant-procurement goods or services, and credit-related products; from misrepresenting any good or service; and from violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule in any fashion in the future. In addition, the court orders bar the defendants from selling or otherwise benefitting from customers' personal information, and require them to properly dispose of customers' personal information within 30 days.

The defendants are Paul Navestad, also known as Paul Richard, and Chintana Maspakorn, also known as Christina Maspakorn, both doing business as, among others, The Cash Grant Institute, Global Ad Agency, Global Advertising Agency, Domain Leasing Company, and/or Cash Grant Search.

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AT&T, Verizon Praised For Squashing 'Cramming'

Illinois attorney general wants universal ban on the practice

“Cramming” is a scheme in which third-party vendors use consumers’ phone numbers much like a credit card – adding charges to phone bills for bogus products...

“Cramming” is a scheme in which third-party vendors use consumers’ phone numbers much like a credit card – adding charges to phone bills for bogus products or services, such as identity theft protection, website design or email service, that consumers and businesses never asked for and never used.

It wouldn't be possible, of course, unless the consumer's main telephone provider gave those third-party vendors access to consumers' accounts.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has commended two national telephone companies – AT&T and Verizon - for implementing measures to prevent cramming. Madigan hailed the actions as she pushes for complete bans on the practice in Illinois and nationwide.

“An outright ban on third-party billing is the only way to stop this scam and protect consumers,” Madigan said. “Thanks to efforts on the state and federal level, the major phone companies are moving in the right direction, but until an industry-wide ban is in effect, we will continue to pursue our legislation to put an end to this abusive billing practice that’s costing consumers untold millions.”

In her state legislature, Madigan is backing House Bill 5211, a statewide ban on all billing by a third-party company with only limited, commonsense exceptions for legitimate services. Last year, Madigan testified before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee and filed comments with the Federal Communications Commission calling for a similar, nationwide ban.

30 lawsuits

To date, Madigan says her office has filed 30 lawsuits against crammers, representing more than 200,000 Illinois businesses and residents who were victims of these phone billing schemes.

Telephone companies place an estimated 300 million third-party charges on their customers’ bills each year, and, according to a U.S. Senate Commerce Committee report, third-party billing generates at least $2 billion annually.

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

Consumers can avoid “cramming traps” by refraining from submitting their phone number, among other personal information, for online prize drawings, surveys or free recipes. Weeks or months later, consumers almost always find charges on their phone bills for unauthorized services.

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Debit Card 'Skimmers' a Growing Problem

Illegal devices placed on ATMs can steal identities

Debit Card 'Skimmers' a Growing Problem...

PhotoATM and debit card “skimmers” are a big identity theft threat. Consumers fall victim when they use their debit cards at machines where scammers have installed devices to capture numbers and pins.

These “skimmers” can be placed on ATMs as well as gas pumps. Often the devices fit over the machines' card slots, capturing the data as the card slides through. Armed with this information, scammers can make purchases or withdraw money from bank accounts.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris has announced the sentencing of a man she says was convicted of setting up these “skimmers” in seven counties throughout the state.

The man and a partner were charged with "skimming" debit card information of Chase Bank customers and stealing $320,728. The Department of Justice eCrime Unit was able to charge the entirety of the scheme across seven counties, including the counties of Santa Clara, Marin, Fresno, San Bernardino, San Diego and Los Angeles.

"These criminals stole not just money, but people's identity," Harris said. "While modern technology provides many advantages, it is also increasingly being used by criminals.

How it worked

Harris said that between July 2010 and February 2011, the pair replaced the card readers at Chase Bank ATM vestibules. The readers they installed allowed them to retrieve the card information of customers using the ATM.

Additionally, the crew installed micro cameras to capture the card holders' PIN entry. With both the card information and the PIN information, they created bogus ATM access cards. These cards were used to fraudulently withdraw $320,728. Chase Bank has reimbursed customers for their losses, Harris said.

In one of the higest-profile “skimming” cases, thieves placed “skimmers” over debit card readers last year in 80 Michael's stores. Michaels ended up replacing all 7,200 of its card readers at all of its stores.

Consumers should be mindful of this threat when using debit cards at ATMs and gas pumps. Look for any change to the ATM and don't use it if it appears suspicious. Try to use the same ATM on a regular basis, so you will easily note changes, and choose ATMs at indoor, supervised locations.

When paying at the gas pump, you can minimize your risk by using a credit card instead of a debit card to pay for gas. Or, you can use a debit card but select “credit” instead of “debit.” That way, you won't have to enter your PIN.

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