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    Gift Card Issuers Flee New Jersey

    Too hard to comply with new law, card issuers say

    Hey, 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. 

    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...
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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. 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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    Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase

    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...
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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, 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.

    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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.”

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

      Not too long ago, Walgreens was giving consumers a $25 gift card if they transferred a prescription from another pharmacy.  Nice, no?  Not accord...
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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, 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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      Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase
      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...
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      FCC Launches 'Bill Shock' Website

      Online tool helps consumers track wireless carriers' billing plans

      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.

      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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      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 & 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.

      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

      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.

      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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      Identity Theft Services: How Do They Measure Up?

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

      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 

      ----

      Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase

      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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      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 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.

      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...
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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

      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

      One 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.”
      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?...
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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

      What'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.

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

      Nestlé Prepared Foods Company, a Gaffney, S.C. establishment, is recalling approximately 16,890 pounds of Stouffer's lasagna frozen entrées t...
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      Non-Stick Chemical Linked to Kidney, Testicular Cancer

      PFOA found in the bodies of 99% of Americans

      A 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.

      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&...
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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 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.


      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...
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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

      As 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.

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

      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...
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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, 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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