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Quality, fit and safety standards may be a little fuzzy06/29/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
The Internet has affected just about everything.Most music comes in digital form instead of analogue, books are downloaded instead of read, and shopping ...
For-Profit College Marketer Settles Deception Charges
QuinStreet was a "lead generator" for for-profit schools06/29/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Returning service men and women are eligible for education benefits under the GI Bill and attracting these students can be lucrative for the growing number...
Returning service members are eligible for education benefits under the GI Bill and attracting these students can be lucrative for the growing number of for-profit educational institutions in the U.S.
But in recent years policymakers have been closely monitoring these schools' marketing to ensure the former service personnel are getting reliable and complete information. A number of states sued one company – QuinStreet Inc. - for allegedly putting out misleading information. That case has now been settled.
QuinStreet owns a network of websites that generate leads primarily for the for-profit education industry. The multistate enforcement action arose in conjunction with a larger ongoing effort by state attorneys general looking into the recruiting and deceptive business practices of some for-profit colleges.
The investigation determined that the sites misleadingly gave the impression that the schools immediately listed as "eligible GI Bill schools" were the only schools at which the veterans' benefits could be used.
As part of the settlement QuinStreet will relinquish ownership and control of the domain GIBill.com to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which will use it to promote the GI Bill program and educate service members about the benefits available to them under the program.
In the future, the company must clearly disclose that its sites are not associated with the U.S. government and unequivocally state that companies appearing on certain websites are not the only schools that accept GI Bill benefits. The company will also pay $2.5 million to the settling states.
Complaints from students
|Consumers rate Kaplan|
Many complaints from students about for-profit schools revolve around funding, including the GI Bill. Ahshayahona, of Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., says she has completely run out of G.I. Bill funds because of what she said is delays by Kaplan University.
“I now have no GI Bill money because Kaplan got all of it and I owe on loans because of Kaplan,” Ahshayahona wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. They have now kicked me out of my program and told me that I had to apply for re-admission. I have had to pay $50 out my pocket for a background check for Kaplan. I have close to a 3.0 GPA and I feel like Kaplan is blocking me from doing my clinicals because they can not find a facility that would deal with them or their students.”
Consumer advocates and state Attorneys General have seen for-profit colleges intensify their recruitment of veterans since 2008, when Congress enacted the Post 9/11 GI Bill, which made billions of dollars in educational benefits available for veterans and their families. According to a February 2011 General Accounting Office report, $9 billion in educational benefits were provided to service members and veterans in Fiscal Year 2010.
Oregon Attorney General John Kroger notes that of 20 for-profit colleges analyzed by the U.S. Senate HELP Committee, total military educational benefits increased from $66.6 million in 2006 to a projected $521.2 million in 2010. Part of the reason why military members are attractive to for-profit colleges is because their benefits don't count toward the business' 90 percent cap on federal Department of Education funding, Kroger said.
Nevada County Could Be Model For Expanding Rural Broadband
Rural county residents have easy access to high-speed Internet06/29/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
While national policymakers are searching for a way to expand broadband Internet service to rural America, they might learn a thing or two by taking a clos...
While national policymakers are searching for a way to expand broadband Internet service to rural America, they might learn a thing or two by taking a close look at Churchill County, Nevada. The county of 25,000 people has plenty of Internet options.
“There's probably no one in the county that can't get high-speed Internet service,” said Bob Adams, General Manager of CC Communications, a county-owned telephone company.
CC Communications began in 1889 when Western Union announced it was discontinuing telegraph service in the county. Churchill County purchased the lines for $950 and began providing the service itself.
Full range of services
Today, CC Communications provides telephone, television, cellular, technical and security services. Adams says the company added the ISP side of the business in 1994 with dial-up but transitioned to a DSL-type broadband service in 1998.
For a while the company supplemented its wired service with wireless Internet, but spun-off the wireless division of the company and invested the money in fiber optic.
“Seventy percent of our county residents are eligible to receive fiber optic service,” Adams said.
CC Communications serves about 5,000 Internet customers. In addition, consumers can choose to receive high-speed Internet from Charter Communications, a cable TV provider in the county. It's a wealth of Internet riches most rural areas simply don't have. Many areas are limited to dial-up, mobile broadband or satellite service, all of which have distinct limitations.
Why some rural counties have few options
Adams says a big difference in the under-served rural areas is the fact that they must rely on large “price cap carriers,” like AT&T and Verizon, rather than small locally-owned providers. Whereas price cap carriers are reluctant to spend on infrastructure in sparsely-populated areas, the locally-owned providers see it as their mandate.
“We serve our county residents the best we can and we don't have to worry about a profit, where price cap companies are publicly traded and face pressures we don't,” Adams said.
Earlier this month the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) Wireline Competition Bureau announced it is seeking input on how the FCC should estimate the cost of bringing broadband to underserved areas in territories serviced by AT&T, Verizon and the nation's other large price cap carriers.
Gas Prices Falling Faster
Nationwide, prices down an average 10 cents a gallon06/29/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
As motorists prepare for the Independence Day holiday next week they'll find gasoline prices that are increasingly easier on the pocketbook. And the price ...
As motorists prepare for the Independence Day holiday next week they'll find gasoline prices that are increasingly easier on the pocketbook. And the price decline appears to be picking up speed.
The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.353 per gallon, down from $3.454 last Friday, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. Fuel prices are 27 cents a gallon lower than they were a month ago.
The average price of diesel fuel today is $3.670 per gallon, down from $3.738 a week ago.
Following oil prices lower
The accelerating decline in fuel prices reflects a significant drop in crude oil prices.
“Concern about the global economy, particularly the sovereign debt crisis in Europe and a slowdown in growth in large emerging market economies such as Brazil, India, and China, continues to act as a drag on expectations for future oil demand, putting downward pressure on prices,” said Avery Ash, AAA's manager of federal relations.
A stronger dollar is also bringing down oil prices, since oil is traded in dollars. The Federal Reserve decision not to goose the economy with an additional round of quantitative easing also helped boost the value of the dollar. The result has been a long break at the gas pump.
Big drops in the west
Prices seem to fall the fastest during the week in western states, where prices have been the highest all year long. Motorists in both Oregon and Washington saw average prices plunge 17 cents a gallon in a week.
South Carolina, with the cheapest prices in the nation, became the first state to see its average price dip below the $3 a gallon mark.
The states with the highest gas prices this week are:
- Hawaii ($4.280)
- Alaska ($4.130)
- California ($3.780)
- Washington State ($3.690)
- Idaho ($3.669)
- Oregon ($3.664)
- Connecticut ($3.651)
- Colorado ($3.636)
- Nevada ($3.582)
- Montana ($3.537)
The states with the lowest gas prices this week are:
- South Carolina ($2.945)
- Mississippi ($3.017)
- Alabama ($3.031)
- Tennessee ($3.034)
- Louisiana ($3.116)
- Arkansas ($3.129)
- Georgia ($3.154)
- Virginia ($3.155)
- Texas ($3.188)
- Missouri ($3.200)
Low-Income Areas Still Lack Access to Healthy Foods
Non-profits working to raise awareness of good nutrition, improve store selections06/29/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
Many families have a steady flow of fruits and vegetables in their homes, as they're the perfect food-accompaniment to a healthy lifest...
|A new SuperFresh store in Philadelphia|
Many families have a steady flow of fruits and vegetables in their homes, as they're the perfect accompaniment to a healthy lifestyle.
Across the U.S., access to healthy and fresh foods usually entails no more than a trip to the neighborhood grocery store. But sadly, this isn't the case for many Americans in lower-income neighborhoods.
A study conducted by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation showed that over 33 percent of adults making less than $15,000 per year suffered from obesity, compared to 24.6 percent of the working class earning $50,000 per year or more.
The link between income and health has been examined for many years, as many low-income neighborhoods still have a disproportionately lower number of grocery stores, compared to wealthier areas.
The issue of low-income adults not being able to access or afford healthier foods is naturally passed on to their children.
20 million kids
According to a report, almost 20 million school children receive free lunch through the National School Lunch Program, and although it provides kids with something to eat, free lunch still doesn't base its menu items on nutrition.
The Child Nutrition Act regulates exactly what the lunch program can serve, but greasy foods like pizza and French fries are nevertheless served daily, since they fall within the government's standard of nutrition.
Other findings also show how school children are impacted by low access to healthy foods. A report ran by the Children's Defense Fund showed nearly 45 percent of obese children ages 10 to 17 live in low-income neighborhoods.
But some efforts have been recently made to help students in lower-income areas get access to fresh produce.
Last summer Supervalu, Wal-Mart, Walgreens and other stores in low-income areas committed to upping the amount of fresh fruits and veggies they offer.
Some cities like New York are even offering financial incentives for supermarkets who choose to open in low-income neighborhoods.
Many non-profit organizations are also doing their part to help communities get better foods delivered, and they're also assisting with getting school children better educated on nutrition and fitness.
Life in Sync, a non-profit based in Wyomissing, Pa., provides nationwide funding to assemble programs to conduct shows and educational workshops that teach kids about healthy eating and nutrition. And according to Cynthia Lynn, president of Life in Sync, the programs are having a very positive effect.
"I believe change has to have the word fun in it," she said. We have streamlined the grant process to make it easy for schools to apply. Our targeted mission is to reach children inside schools, but outside the classroom- interactively inexpensively and, based on feedback, extremely effectively."
ConsumerAffairs spoke with Lynn to get her take on the food desert problem in certain communities, and what consumers can do to ensure healthy items are accessible to all neighborhoods, not just the affluent ones.
"Childhood obesity affects all children and families at all income levels. It's about changing behaviors with knowledge. Then joining our healthy 'in-the-know' movement'," she said.
"We live in a society where our children are more comfortable eating neon green squeezable yogurts than freshly picked broccoli crowns," Lynn adds. "Packaged foods claiming to be healthy are readily available to busy parents who are trying to do the right thing. Hey, the packaging says so- and so did that healthy-looking woman in the ad on TV."
Lynn also says the issue isn't with children not wanting to eat healthier; they just need to be properly educated, and given a slight nudge towards a healthier lifestyle.
"We need to get back to cooking and eating fresh foods, period," she explains. We have learned firsthand through HealthBarn USA assemblies, that when students were asked who is interested in being healthy?’ 80 percent of kids raise their hands! And their actions match up, when they try and like many foods that they have never been exposed to before. They say 'this healthy stuff actually tastes good....I can do this'! "
What to do
What can consumers do?
"Demand it!" Lynn said. "Band with other 'in the know' friends. Take photos of healthier options. Even Wal-Mart and McDonalds are carrying products with natural ingredients. Why? Other 'in the know' consumers suggested that they do. And retailers are finding that healthier options are great revenue generators."
HealthBarn USA is among the first assembly program to receive funding from Life in Sync, and according to Lynn, the programs are having huge amounts of success with its presentations on nutrition.
"Stacey Antine, MS, RD, founder of HealthBarn USA, energetically facilitates the 90-minute educational and highly-interactive programs which include exercise, and student volunteers as expert taste testers for each of the five food groups. At the end, all students get the opportunity to be taste testers," says Lynn.
But how successful with these kids be in passing on this new health information to their households?
"These empowered kids are going home from HealthBarn assemblies saying they're only going to drink white milk from now on," she adds. "They leave the assemblies with the group mission to try one new thing that is whole natural and comes from the ground, and give their thumb report back to the teacher. One third grader wrote that he tried radishes of his own free will and liked them. So mama bear at home can create radish recipes with her son."
"Teachers and kids can be creative," adds Lynn. "Let the kids decide what they care to focus on. If we all ate things that are good for our skin, hair, teeth, and bones, we'd be healthier and happier."
Neighborhoods of all income levels aren't receiving the proper education about nutrition, says Lynn. And if they are getting some education, the information isn't being facilitated in the right way.
"Nutrition education is not being taught in the school consistently", she says. And if it is, many of the times it's in a lecture format based on macronutrients. The staying power of the information lasts until the test. An interactive format seems to work."
On whether low income areas will see any improvements in getting better access to healthier foods, Lynn says she's cautiously optimistic, but changes are still needed.
"Nutrition education is starting to take priority in schools, but the environment has not changed to support new knowledge. The food service options need to change. I'd be so radical as to say the healthier option meals be lower in price. The pocketbook is a strong motivator when change has to be nudged."
And children are the perfect ones to start that change, says Lynn.
"What better place than K-8 schools? They're not engrained with 50 -year habits. Plus, their bodies are changing. They're finely tuned to how they look and feel," she explained.
But not only do the children and their parents need to make an effort towards healthier eating and access to better foods. It's really a societal problem, which will require all of society's collective effort to make a sweeping improvement.
"Everyone's mindset needs to change so that the environment can support optimal health. Our society is not healthy or happy. It's time for a radical change. Change is the loss of past limitations," said Lynn.
Blue Hippo Will Pay $1.2 Million To Settle Pennsylvania Charges
Consumers need to act quickly to claim their refund06/29/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Blue Hippo Funding, the company that marketed overpriced computers to people with poor credit, may be gone but it's not forgotten.In Pennsylvania, Attorn...
Blue Hippo Funding, the company that marketed overpriced computers to people with poor credit, may be gone but it's not forgotten.
In Pennsylvania, Attorney General Linda Kelly has secured a nearly $1.8 million settlement in her consumer protection lawsuit against the founder and owner of the Maryland-based company. The suit accused BlueHippo of preying on Pennsylvania consumers with poor credit.
Blue Hippo filed for bankruptcy in November 2009 and shortly thereafter began proceedings to dissolve the firm. It was sued by several states and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) after consumers complained they made a number of payments but never received their merchandise.
"Blue Hippo allegedly used a national campaign of television and radio ads, telemarketing calls and Internet websites to lure consumers into purchasing computers, flat screen TV?s and other electronic equipment," Kelly said. "In reality, the complaints we received indicated BlueHippo was little more than a sham enterprise that delivered few, if any, products to consumers."
|Consumers rate BlueHippo|
Pennsylvania consumers who encountered problems with BlueHippo, but have not yet filed formal complaints, are encouraged to do so as soon as possible. Kelly said that under the terms of the settlement, the company's owner will pay restitution in the amount of $200,000, which will be used to compensate.
Blue Hippo sold computers and big screen TVs on a layaway plan. Consumers, most of whom had little or no credit, were required to make to make weekly payments for several months before their received their merchandise. Generally, computers that might sell for $500 in a retail store would be listed at more than $2,000. Often, consumers would never receive what they paid for.
"While our Bureau of Consumer Protection has already received complaints from more than 300 consumers regarding BlueHippo, we believe that there are other potential victims who have not yet come forward," Kelly said.
Pennsylvania residents with problems or complaints involving BlueHippo should call the Attorney General's toll-free consumer protection hotline, at 1-800-441-2555.
Report Finds Confusion In Reverse Mortgage Market
Many seniors get into trouble by not understanding the ins and outs of a reverse mortgage06/29/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Confusion is at a fairly high level when it comes to reverse mortgages...
American consumers are struggling to understand reverse mortgages, a report released by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) finds
“Reverse mortgages are complex and have the potential to become a much more pervasive product in the coming years as the baby boomer generation enters retirement,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “With one in ten reverse mortgages already in default, it is important that consumers understand what they are signing up for and that it is the right product for them.”
What it does
A reverse mortgage is a special type of home loan that allows older homeowners to access the equity they have built up in their homes now, and defer payment of the loan until they die, sell, or move out of the home.
Reverse mortgages require no monthly mortgage payments, but borrowers are still responsible for property taxes and homeowner’s insurance. Nearly 10 percent of reverse mortgage borrowers are at risk of foreclosure because they have failed to pay taxes and insurance.
The original purpose of reverse mortgages was to let older homeowners convert home equity into an income stream or line of credit that borrowers could use in retirement. It was anticipated that most -- though not all-- borrowers would use their loans to age in place, living in their current homes for the rest of their lives or at least until they needed skilled care.
The study, a requirement of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, found that what is happening in practice is different than what was intended.
Findings and concerns
Some of the Bureau’s main findings and concerns are:
- Lack of Understanding: The CFPB report found that while consumers are largely aware of reverse mortgages, few completely understand them. Many consumers struggle to understand how their loan balance will rise and their home equity will fall over time with a reverse mortgage. Some borrowers do not understand that they need to continue to pay taxes and insurance with a reverse mortgage.
- Younger Borrowers: The CFPB report found that consumers are getting reverse mortgages at younger ages. The most common age for a new borrower is 62 -- the first year in which a consumer becomes eligible for a reverse mortgage. These borrowers will have fewer resources to pay for everyday and major expenses later in life and may find themselves without the financial resources to finance a future move -- whether due to health or other reasons.
- Lump Sum Payments: According to the CFPB study, seventy percent of borrowers are taking out the full amount of proceeds as a lump sum rather than as an income stream or line of credit. This raises concerns that consumers who take out all of their accessible home equity upfront will have fewer resources available later in life. They may not have the money to continue to pay taxes and insurance on their homes, which can put them at risk of losing their home. Borrowers who save or invest the proceeds may be earning less on the savings than they are paying in interest on the loan.
- Deceptive Marketing: The Bureau understands that older consumers may be receiving deceptive and misleading marketing materials about reverse mortgages. The Bureau has seen examples of mailers that tout reverse mortgages as a government benefit or entitlement program like Medicare. These mailers use images that look like government seals in order to entice consumers to sign up. It is difficult to tell from these materials that a reverse mortgage is in fact a financial product and not a government benefit.
- Housing Counseling: The CFPB report concluded that the new array of product choices in the reverse mortgage market makes a housing counselor’s job much more difficult. Counselors need improved methods for helping consumers better understand the complex tradeoffs they need to make in deciding whether to get a reverse mortgage.
The Bureau has posted new questions and answers about reverse mortgages to the Ask CFPB database. The Bureau has also developed a fact sheet and a consumer guide for older Americans with key facts on reverse mortgages.
The CFPB is currently accepting reverse mortgage complaints through the Web, phone at 1-855-411-CFPB, and mail.
How To Choose The Right Prepaid Credit Card
And avoid the worst ones that are loaded with fees06/29/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
For many consumers, prepaid credit cards are replacing bank accounts. Money can be direct deposited to these accounts and the cards used to make purchases...
For many consumers, prepaid credit cards are replacing bank accounts. Money can be direct deposited to these accounts and the cards used to make purchases or get cash from ATMs.
The problem with prepaid cards, however, is navigating the fees. Some cards have more and higher fees than others. Not all cards have the same capabilities. Choosing the right card can mean the difference between saving money and overspending.
Consumers are expected to load $82 billion into prepaid card accounts during 2012, according to the Mercator Advisory Group. That would be a 44 percent increase from last year.
If the group’s prediction that we load $117 billion during 2013 holds true, prepaid card deposits will have increased 200 percent in just three years.
Best and worst
Card Hub, a credit card information website, has analyzed the prepaid card offers and selected the best and worst in three different use categories:
Alternative Checking Account
Best Card: Green Dot Gold Prepaid Visa Card
Worst Card: Account Now Visa Classic
Best Card: The Suze Orman Prepaid Card
Worst Card: NetSpend Prepaid MasterCard – Fee Advantage/ACE Elite Prepaid Visa - FeeAdvantage Plan
Alternative Check Cashing Tool
Best Card: Chase Liquid Card
Worst Card: Original RushCard – Monthly Plan
The study looked at 20 cards and found that seven of them were not suitable to serve as an alternative to a checking account because they lacked direct deposit or online bill paying capability. Only two of the cards were suitable as alternative check cashing tools, as the other 18 do not allow consumers to load checks directly onto their cards.
For example, Chase offers use of its bank branches and ATMs to Chase Liquid cardholders, but Capital One does not integrate its own prepaid card with the rest of its everyday banking services in the same manner.
While you may assume that ACE, the largest check cashing company in the US, would offer a prepaid card conducive to check cashing, neither of its cards are suitable to be an alternative check cashing tool, the study found.
“The prepaid card market is difficult to navigate for two reasons: Most consumers are new to it and there are a multitude of different fees that prepaid card issuers have been known to charge," said Odysseas Papadimitriou, founder and CEO of Card Hub. "Unfamiliarity can lead consumers to simply apply for whichever card is offered by a company they’ve heard of, and the broad range of fees can make this a costly mistake."
In fact, choosing the wrong card for they way you need to use it can cost hundreds of dollars each year.
"The most important things to consider when evaluating a prepaid card are its fees and features, not branding or the name of its issuer," Papadimitriou said. "The first step in choosing the right card is realizing that not every card is suitable for every purpose, so you need to quickly rule out cards that prevent you from accomplishing certain tasks –paying billers that do not accept plastic, for example."
Once you have determined how you need to use the card, choose the one that will be least expensive in light of your intended usage.
"Ultimately, we better get used to this because prepaid cards are bound to have a prominent role in the personal finance landscape for years to come," Papadimitriou said.
Top Five Used Cars Of 2012
ConsumerAffairs makes its picks based on consumer reviews06/29/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
With the rising cost of new cars, used cars are in demand - especially those that are of recent vintage and have been proven to be reliable.But choosing ...
With the rising cost of new cars, used cars are in demand - especially those that are of recent vintage and have a reputation for being reliable.
But choosing a used car can be more difficult than selecting a new vehicle since some models tend to hold up better than others. Also, the way a car has been driven can affect how many more reliable miles it has in it.
In analyzing the thousands of car complaints ConsumerAffairs receives, we can make some suggestions. Our survey isn't scientific - it's based on the number of complaints we receive about a particular brand or model.
To make the rankings a little more accurate, we have weighted the results, considering the number of cars a particular manufacturer sells. While Honda draws more complaints than Audi, for example, Honda sells a lot more vehicles than Audi. That has to be taken into consideration.
So here are our top five used car choices of 2012:
1. Toyota Camry
The Toyota Camry, one of Toyota's top-selling models, has drawn only 93 complaints at ConsumerAffairs. Odell, of Biltmore Lake, N.C., has both good and bad things to say about the Camry.
"I purchased a new 2012 Camry Hybrid after owning the 2007 model for 5 years," Odell writes. "My experience with the navigation, audio, and phone systems was excellent. Easy to use and understand. However, these systems on the 2012 are a "nightmare" to program and operate, and the information on the navigation system is very poor in comparison. The owner manuals are a joke. I am really frustrated with the new systems and manuals."
2. Chevy Cruze
The Chevy Cruze is Cherolet's popular economy car. While it has been a best seller, it caught our attention because it has only generated five complaints in our database. However, Anthony, of Coram, N.Y., had a significant issue with his Cruze.
"On Feb. 4, 2012, at 5 pm, my Chevy Cruze caught fire at the engine compartment causing a total loss of the car," Odell wrote. "One week prior, we just had an oil change. After the incident, I did some quick research and I'm not the only one this problem has happened to. GM needs to look into and address this problem before someone gets seriously injured."
Despite Odell's problem, Edmunds.com also gives the Cruze a favorable review, citing its "upscale interior design, peppy yet efficient turbocharged engine, Eco model's top fuel econom, secure handling, top safety scores and a big trunk."
All models of Audi have generated only 164 ConsumerAffairs complaints. But some of those reviewing the car cite problems with reliability.
"I finally purchased a brand new 2008 Audi RS4 and have had a problem with my starter," Jason, of LaSalle, Ill., wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "It sometimes just doesn't start, no rhyme or reason. After about 15 minutes, it will start. I have had the car serviced. In fact, it was at the Audi garage for six months."
In reviewing the 2010 Audi A3, Edmunds said it makes for a good entry-level luxury car with plenty of utility, but the higher sticker price and expensive options may scare off some buyers.
Mazda is an often overlooked nameplate, with all models generating just 202 ConsumerAffairs complaints. But some of the complaints have been significant. Kay, of Cabot, Ark., has experienced transmission problems.
"I have a Mazda 6 year model 2007.," Kay wrote. "The car has 101,000 miles. This is the second time to replace transmission. I would not purchase any Mazda vehicles!"
Other consumers have reported clutch issues with their Mazda.
Honda has a great reputation but only makes the number five spot on our list because of its 689 complaints. However, that number must be balanced against the huge number of Hondas sold in the U.S. Also, many of the complaints are from consumers in other countries, who are not driving the same models sold in the U.S.
While the cars have a reputation for reliability, there are complaints about individual models.
"Before 60,000 miles they have already replaced the motor brackets, the battery, and the TPMS sensors four times on my 2009 Honda Civic," Adrianne, of Manassas, Va., writes.
Keep in mind that when selecting a used car, how the previous owner has cared for it will have a lot to do with how it performs for you. Problems consumers describe in complaints are not necessarily problems you'll have. But some brands and models do seem to hold up better than others.
Before heading for the car lot, researching issues others have had with a brand and model can alert you to questions to ask and problems to look for.
FDA Approves New Drug for Overactive Bladder
The once-a-day tablet provides a new treatment option06/29/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
A new treatment option for people with bladder control problems...
Help may soon be on the way for folks who find themselves constantly running for the bathroom.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved Myrbetriq (mirabegron) to treat adults with overactive bladder -- a condition in which the bladder muscle cannot be controlled, squeezes too often or squeezes without warning.
An extended-release tablet taken once daily, Myrbetriq improves the storage capacity of the bladder by relaxing the bladder muscle during filling. Symptoms of overactive bladder include the need to urinate too often (urinary frequency), the need to urinate immediately (urinary urgency) and the involuntary leakage of urine as a result of the need to urinate immediately (urge urinary incontinence).
“An estimated 33 million Americans suffer from overactive bladder, which is uncomfortable, disrupting and potentially serious,” said Victoria Kusiak, M.D., deputy director of the Office of Drug Evaluation III in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, adding that, the products approval “provides a new treatment option for patients with this debilitating condition.”
Myrbetriq’s safety and efficacy were demonstrated in three double-blind, placebo-controlled, multicenter clinical trials. A total of 4,116 patients with overactive bladder were randomly assigned to take Myrbetriq at doses of 25 milligrams, 50 mg, 100 mg, or a placebo once daily for 12 weeks.
Results showed that Myrbetriq 25 mg and 50 mg effectively reduced the number of times a patient urinated and the number of times a patient had wetting accidents during a 24-hour period. Patients taking Myrbetriq 50 mg also expelled a greater amount of urine, demonstrating the drug’s effectiveness in improving the storage capacity of the bladder.
The most common side effects observed in the trials were increased blood pressure, common cold-like symptoms (nasopharyngitis), urinary tract infection, constipation, fatigue, elevated heart rate (tachycardia) and abdominal pain.
Myrbetriq is not recommended for use in those with severe uncontrolled high blood pressure, end stage kidney disease or severe liver impairment.
Myrbetriq is marketed by Astellas Pharma US, Inc. of Northbrook, Ill.
Spot Delivery Still Victimizes Car Buyers
Don't let dealers pull the rug out from under you once the deal is done06/29/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
It's called spot delivery or yo-yo financing. By any name it's a practice some car dealers use to extract additional money or a higher interest rate from a...
It's called spot delivery or yo-yo financing. By any name it's a practice some car dealers use to extract additional money or a higher interest rate from a buyer long after they thought everything was settled.
Amanda, of Las Vegas, Nev., said she just experienced it at a local Honda dealer.
“I went in to buy a car and after finding one that I liked they said would be able to finance me if I had a co-signer,” Amanda wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post.
Amanda said she had a great credit score, proof of employment and a co-signer so she thought everything was fine. Then two weeks later, the salesman called and said she didn't qualify for financing after all. She was told to return the car and they would find her something she could afford.
No car or money
“After taking time out of my work schedule to go down there again they said the only way they could finance me is if I got a car that I didn't want for more money,” Amanda wrote. “I was extremely distraught at that point because I felt like I had to jump through hoops to make this work and that should've been their job. I put $2,500 down on the car and asked for my money back.”
Seems like a reasonable request, but Amanda said she found the dealer, who was quick to put her in a car, was not so quick to write a check.
“I returned the car three days ago and they said I wouldn't receive my money for another three days, Amanda said. “So now they have the car and my money.”
Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon complaint. Kimmel & Sullivan, a national law firm, handles a number of automotive and lemon law cases. The firm says consumers have more legal remedies than they might think.
Don't have to give it back
“If you signed purchase documents and registration applications and if you obtained insurance for the vehicle, had a new license plate put on the car and/or had your old plate transferred, the car belongs to you,” the firm says on its website.
For that reason, it's important to look over the sale and financing documents carefully, making sure you understand the terms and all documents are properly signed. A finance document showing payments, deposit, interest rate and other financial items is a binding contract, giving you specific legal rights.
According to Kimmel & Sullivan, you own the car subject only to making payments. The dealer cannot change that once you take possession.
Healthcare Law Survives High Court Challenge
The individual mandate has been ruled constitutional as a tax06/28/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
The Affordable Care Act has been passed and will be in full effect in 2014. Although many pediatricians commend the court, some state representatives have ...
|Obama signs the health care law (White House photo)|
A sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, known also as “Obamacare.”
In a 5-4 decision, Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the majority, including Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
President Obama, speaking early this afternoon, said the ruling upheld the principle that illness and accident should not lead to a family's financial ruin. Obama said that whatever the politics, the decision was a victory for families across America.
"Insurance companies can no longer impose lifetime limits on the care you will receive," Obama said as he listed the benefits the measure provides to individual Americans. He said 26 million Americans under 26 have already benefited from the law by being able to stay on their parents' healthcare policy.
|Obama reacts to the ruling from the East Room|
He said the benefits "enjoy broad popular support" among middle-class families and said healthcare providers will no longer be able to "bill you into bankruptcy."
Obama said he knew the mandate would not be politically popular but said it was necessary to spread the cost of healthcare fairly among everyone.
"It should be pretty clear by now I didn't do this because it was good politics. I did it because I thought it was good for the country," Obama said, referring to the vehement opposition the measure has aroused among conservatives.
The majority found the individual mandate, considered the heart of the healthcare law, is permissible under Congress’s taxing authority. Writing for the majority Roberts held, “Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness."
The mandate requires people to buy health insurance or pay a fine.
Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented. In his dissent, Kennedy said the entire act is “invalid” and should be repealed in its entirety.
In a joint statement, the dissenters said, "The act before us here exceeds federal power both in mandating the purchase of health insurance."
The ruling means implementation of the healthcare law can proceed as scheduled.
What it means
The Supremes have spoken. The high court's ruling is the final word on the Affordable Healthcare Act. No further legal appeals challenging the constitutionality of the law are possible except in the most extrordinary circumstances, which means that only Congress can modify or repeal the law.
Mitt Romney has said that if elected President, he will "end Obamacare on Day One," although it is not clear how he would do that, since it is now the law of the land and the President does not have the authority to repeal laws passed by Congress.
The Supreme Court's decision -- whether you agree or disagree with it -- at least removes an air of uncertainty that has stymied healthcare organizations, hospitals, insurance companies, drugmakers, doctors and consumers. It has been difficult to plan intelligently for the future without knowing whether the law would remain in effect.
Effect on consumers
Most elements of the Health Care Act have not yet taken effect and will not do so until 2014, so today's ruling has little immediate effect on most consumers.
However, there are a few early provisions that are already in effect and that will remain so under today's ruling. They include:
- Parents will still be able to keep their children on their insurance plans up to age 26.
- Medicare recipients will continue to receive discounts on prescription drugs to close a gap in coverage known as the "doughnut hole."
- New taxes and fees, including the 10% tax on tanning services, remain in place.
Pediatricians commend the Court
|Robert W. Block|
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which represents 60,000 pediatricians, commended the Court's decision. “Today, the Supreme Court upheld a law that invests in children’s health from the ground up,” said AAP President Robert W. Block, MD, FAAP.
“Pediatricians have already seen firsthand that health reform works,” said Dr. Block. “Since the Affordable Care Act took effect, millions of children with pre-existing conditions gained health care coverage; 14 million children with private insurance received preventive health services with no co-pay; and 3.1 million more young adults gained coverage through their parents’ plans. These are just a few of the law’s investments in child health, with many more set to take effect over the next few years as affirmed by today’s decision.”
The Academy endorsed the law in 2010 and filed three amici curiae (“friends of the court”) briefs to the Supreme Court in support of the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, individual mandate and the mandate’s severability from the rest of the statute.
“The Court has approved the stick and not the carrot. Congress can now penalize individuals for refusing to buy a commercial product,” Suthers said.
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli went even further and proclaimed it “a dark day for the American people, the Constitution, and the rule of law. This is a dark day for American liberty.”
“This decision goes against the very principle that America has a federal government of limited powers; a principle that the Founding Fathers clearly wrote into the Constitution, the supreme law of the land. The Constitution was meant to restrict the power of government precisely for the purpose of protecting your liberty and mine from the overreaching hand of the federal government,” Cuccinelli said.
California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, on the other hand, called it "a historic victory."
today issued the following statement regarding the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act:
“Today’s decision is a historic victory for Californians, for the President, and for the country. The Affordable Care Act repairs a healthcare system badly in need of reform and ensures that every American has access to affordable health care. We never doubted the constitutionality of this law, and it is already making a difference in the lives of millions of Californians,” she said.
Public Citizen: Health Care Act Leaves Millions Behind
Single-payer, Medicare-style coverage for all is what's needed, advocates say06/28/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James R. Hood
WeissmanNot all liberals and progressives are delighted with today's Supreme Court that found most of the Affordable Care Act constitut...
Not all liberals and progressives are delighted with today's Supreme Court that found most of the Affordable Care Act constitutional. Public Citizen President Robert Weissman says it leaves millions behind.
"Tens of millions of Americans will remain uncovered, as will tens of millions of under-insured who will remain at risk of financial ruin if a major illness strikes. The private health insurance and pharmaceutical industries will remain in charge of prices and life-and-death treatment decisions," Weissman said in a letter to Public Citizen supporters.
The answer, Weissman said, it a single-payer, Medicare-style plan that covers everyone.
"The improved Medicare-for-all approach starts with the premise that health care is a critically-needed right that must be afforded to all, irrespective of any individual’s ability to pay," Weissman said. "It solves the problems of 50 million uninsured Americans simply and directly by establishing that everyone is covered by improved Medicare for all."
Everybody in, nobody out
Improved Medicare for all would prevent the deaths of the 45,000 Americans who die every year from lack of health insurance, Weissman said, adding that it would eliminate the hundreds of thousands of medical bankruptcies — affecting millions of Americans every year — that occur because people can’t pay their medical bills.
Further, according to Weissman, the Medicare-for-all approach would "eliminate the greatest waste in the health care system: the needless costs imposed by the private health insurers."
"These firms impose hundreds of billions of dollars of excess cost on us via their excessive profit-taking and executive compensation, their marketing expenses, their vast bureaucracies devoted to denying care, and their imposition of massive paper-pushing obligations on actual health care providers," he said.
Weissman said Public Citizen plans to step up its advocacy for single-payer, improved Medicare for all.
"In the near term, we expect to devote substantial energy to holding off efforts to further privatize and weaken existing Medicare. We anticipate that the early steps forward in winning expanded and improved Medicare will come from state initiatives, which we aim to support directly, and by ensuring that states are able to obtain needed waivers from federal laws and rules," he said.
"We cannot and will not tolerate a system that sacrifices 45,000 Americans a year just for the sake of corporate profits," he concluded. "We can be our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper and be cost-effective at the same time. Indeed, it turns out that being cost-effective requires that we take care of each other."
Healthcare Ruling May Bring Workplace Improvements
Businesses see the benefit of healthier employees06/28/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, U.S. employers may try to make their employees healthier in a ...
Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, U.S. employers may try to make their employees healthier in a bid to reduce costs.
Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic and a Harvard professor, reacted to the historic ruling by telling CNBC today that corporations will spend money providing incentives and benefits to help employees lose weight, quit smoking and embrace healthier lifestyles. Skyrocketing healthcare costs, he says, are mostly related to lifestyle.
In fact, this trend has already started. A 2010 study found that wellness programs are smart for employees and the bottom line, with the return on investment sometimes as high as six to one. The researchers, writing in the Harvard Business Review, said wellness programs must be comprehensive, and can't stop at giving out a few passes to a fitness center and nutrition information in the cafeteria.
They conducted interviews with senior executives, managers of health-related functions and focus groups of middle managers and employees -- in all, about 300 people.
A broad range of companies -- including Johnson & Johnson, Lowe's, H-E-B, and Healthwise -- have built their employee wellness programs on six major principles.
- engaged leadership at multiple levels;
- strategic alignment with the company's identity and aspirations;
- a design that is broad in scope and high in relevance and quality;
- broad accessibility;
- internal and external partnerships; and
- effective communications.
The companies have reaped big rewards in the form of lower costs, greater productivity, and higher morale, the researchers found.
Some companies may also introduce games in the workplace that can promote health and improve the well-being of employees, saving employers direct and indirect health care costs.
"Wellness programs using health games have the potential to significantly impact human well-being and the costs, pain, and suffering of preventable illnesses and conditions," said Bill Ferguson, PhD, Editor of Games for Health Journal.
Hipsters Turning to Concierge Healthcare
Too hip to fill out insurance forms, they just pay in advance06/28/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
The term hipster is one that has grown in both popularity and usage since the start of the second millennium. It has different meanings to different people...
The term hipster is one that has grown in both popularity and usage lately. It has different meanings to different people, but mainly a hipster is one who follows the latest trends and fashions, while maintaining a counter culture outlook.
A hipster is typically somewhere between their 20s and 30s, and usually exists on the forefront of everything new and unconventional. Some people are turned off by hipster types and label them pretentious.
While this hipster outlook and lifstyle has been traditionally centered on fashion, music, and films that exist outside of the mainstream market, it has now included of all things ... healthcare.
Younger consumers who seek alternative ways to spend their dollars are choosing boutique or concierge medical practices, which have historically only been for the affluent.
What exactly is concierge medicine?
It's basically a form of care where the patient pays a yearly retainer for an unlimited amount of medical visits. Doctors who practice concierge medicine take on far fewer patients than traditional physicians, so in theory they're able to provide more personalized care.
News outlets have reported doctors cutting their patient list in half just to provide a better and more focused amount of service.
Patients who visit these kinds of practices are usually able to have direct contact with their physician, receiving perks like getting the doctor's personal cell phone number and email address. Some concierge doctors are accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Also, medical examinations are longer, more extensive and include other components like mental, hearing and detailed vision tests.
Concierge practices usually charge a yearly fee between $1,000 and $5,000, but companies like One Medical who offer a retainer fee of $199, have taken the concept of concierge medicine and introduced it to a younger, less affluent demographic.
This is where the hipster comes in, or that consumer who looks for alternative services that are seemingly not attached just to dollars and profit.
Many young people are choosing these types of boutique practices because they're able to receive medical care in a different way.
Although some additional medical fees are also paid by the patient on top of the retainer, less money is being spent to receive a higher quality of individualized care, according to patients.
Outside the box
One Medical is a prime example of a company that markets itself to the younger, urban and outside-of-the-box portion of consumers. It boasts that patients can use smartphones and web portals to make same day appointments, while also claiming to be affordable for those without healthcare insurance. In theory, these two perks are ideal for younger less financially stable adults.
In a 2011 study conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, results showed that younger people are using their smartphones to access medical information now more than ever. This includes the way they prefer to book medical appointments and communicate with their doctors.
GreenField Health is another boutique concierge practice that caters to younger adult patients. The Portland, Ore. based company charges a sliding retainer fee based on the age of the patient.
So if you're age 18 to 24 you pay $12 monthly, which is $120 a year for unlimited visits. If you're age 50 to 59 you pay $51 a month, which is $588 a year, and the fees go up higher the older you are.
Consumers in hipster neighborhoods located in metropolitan areas like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco have been choosing boutique concierge practices in large numbers.
ConsumerAffairs contacted One Medical to determine what percentage of its patients were of the younger 20 to 35 year old demographic, and Samantha, who is an employee of the company said, "The majority of our patients are younger people in bigger cities. People who are really busy and don't have a lot of time to sit in the doctor's office."
Same-day appointments as well as being able to book visits by smartphone is a key selling point for practices like One Medical and GreenField Health. There are other unique perks that draw in younger consumers.
Students get a $100 discount on the retainer fee, paying only $99 a year, and younger doctors are hired to relate better to younger patients, explained Samantha at One Medical's Washington, D.C office.
Since One Medical and GreenField Health are both relatively new practices opening in 2005 and 2007 respectively, and still somewhat unknown, there isn't any chatter about them in our ConsumerAffairs complaints and Review section.
But as these two companies and others like them grow, tons of reviews are bound to come.
Young hipster types aren't the only ones using these medical services. In April of 2011, The New York Times spoke with 40-year old Jennifer Contreras who is a patient of One Medical. She claimed there was no waiting time to see the doctor, and her visit with him was un-rushed, detailed and extremely thorough.
"We did all the careful fine-tuning over e-mail until we got just the right dosage of blood pressure medication," she said. It wasn't just 'Oh, take this medication and I'll see you later.' It was 'Let's make sure we get this right.' "
Critics of places like One Medical and GreenField say older people and seniors are being thrust out of receiving quality healthcare at lower costs. Especially since many of these practices charge a higher annual fee for older patients.
Dr. Ashish Jha an associate professor with Harvard School of Public Health said "One Medical could potentially scale by getting more and more younger people who are relatively healthy."
Other critics say younger people tend to be healthier and need the least amount of medical care, so yearly retainers aren't truly needed for them.
But for the most part negative reviews about hipster healthcare have been far and few. It'll be interesting to see how younger patients really fare as these medical practices grow both in popularity and patient interest.
Food Trucks Bringing Variety to City Streets
The moveable feasts are making lunchtime a little more interesting06/28/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
If you've looked around during lunch time you've probably noticed a few more food trucks than before, as the concept of the mobile takeout restaurant has b...
|A Seattle food truck (Wikipedia photo)|
If you've looked around during lunch time you've probably noticed a few more food trucks than before, as the concept of the mobile takeout restaurant has been catching on within the last year or so.
This week, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel backed a proposal that would permit food trucks to legally operate within city streets, and cook meals within vehicles.
The ordinance would allow trucks to sell food while being parked for a two-hour maximum in a designated area, a legal parking space, or a private residence with the owner’s permission. Mobile food trucks also have to be at least 200 feet away from restaurants, according to reports.
In addition, the city of Chicago will create specific parking areas for trucks that will soon turn certain streets into entire food sections, which will more than likely increase both consumerism and tourism within the city.
His Honor, a former top aide to President Obama and no political slouch himself, has no doubt been reading the political tea leaves, for there is no doubt that food trucks are winning the hearts and minds of American consumers.
ConsumerAffairs conducted a computerized sentiment analysis of about 490,000 comments posted on social media over the last year and found net positive sentiments in the 70%-80% range for most of the year.
Why have food trucks, and the entire concept of them become so popular in recent years?
A 2011 study by business consultants Technomic showed that 91 percent of consumers saw food trucks as a lasting trend compared to seven percent who said it would be a quick passing fad.
Our sentiment analysis found that, other than being a little greasy, food dished up from the back of a truck is just what consumers have been waiting for.
Consumers are also able to locate different food truck options easier than locating different restaurants, especially during a quick lunch break. Since trucks don't settle in just one area, it gives both businesses and consumers more opportunities to find each other.
First the obvious: Low overhead and start-up costs allow people who are skilled in the kitchen to get their product exposed without breaking the bank to open a restaurant. Experts say starting a food truck costs around 30 percent less than opening a restaurant.
Also, if the food truck fails to take off, business owners have an easier and cheaper way to back out, especially compared to shutting down a restaurant.
Food trucks can benefit the consumer too. Since it's easier and less expensive to start one, more trucks are on the street, thus giving the consumer a wider variety of food options at relatively reasonable prices.
The Technomic also showed that 61 percent of consumers found out about mobile food trucks by just coming across them. In addition, 84 percent of the respondents said they follow a food truck through social media on a weekly basis. Free advertising through pages like Twitter and Facebook is also a big part of the food truck revolution.
The report also indicates that 75 percent of consumers who frequent food trucks that are clustered together, purchase food from multiple trucks for one meal. This is mainly due to the specialized nature of food trucks, which is ideal for mixing and matching different food products, the report says.
The food truck craze, which started from the neighborhood meal cart, has grown so popular that major restaurant chains are also using the idea to introduce new products. Taco Bell, Chick-fil-A, and Qdoba Mexican Grill have all hitched its brands to the concept of bringing food on the road.
Even non-food brands are using the business model. Fashion designers, vinyl record stores, and magazine companies have all adopted the trendy selling pattern, and converted old mail and ice-cream trucks into full-fledged businesses.
Critics of the food truck craze are mainly restaurant owners and food event organizers, who complain of customers being lured away because trucks remain too close in proximity. Mayor Emanuel's backing of the proposal to keep trucks at least 200 feet away from restaurants could spread nationwide, and provide other business owners with some wanted breathing room.
So far no customer complaints have been documented in our ConsumerAffairs Complaints and Review section about mobile food trucks, which either indicates trucks are providing good service, or the concept is too new for consumers to fully assess.
According to Smithsonian's list, some of the ten best food trucks in the U.S. are Kogi in Los Angeles, Gastro Pod in Miami, Lardo in Portland, Ore., Clover Food Lab in Clover, Mass., and Fojol Brothers in Washington D.C. The full best-of list can be seen here.
At this year’s 93rd Annual National Restaurant Association Restaurant Hotel Show, food trucks were a major part of the discussion.
Experts told show attendees that six out of 10 consumers would visit a food truck offered by their favorite restaurant, according to research. This of course had restaurant owners at the convention salivating, as they were all in attendance to further grow their businesses.
Some experts even say food trucks are healthier lunch options, since many of them use fresh ingredients, and offer more low calorie and vegetarian items than a lot of restaurants.
FDA Approves Anti-Obesity Drug Belviq
Approval comes despite opposition from leading consumer health group06/28/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Anti-obesity drug approved despite opposition from some...
Another weapon in the battle against obesity.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Belviq (lorcaserin hydrochloride), as an addition to a reduced-calorie diet and exercise, for chronic weight management.
Public Citizen's Health Research Group blasted the move as “reckless."
"We expect that as with many of the other drugs, this one will be withdrawn from the market after the agency is forced to confront the many serious adverse health effects, such as heart valve damage, that will be reported," said the group's director, Dr. Sidney Wolfe.
Heart valve issues
Regarding that concern, FDA says heart valve function was assessed by echocardiography in nearly 8,000 patients in the Belviq development program. There was no statistically significant difference in the development of FDA-defined valve abnormalities between Belviq and placebo-treated patients.
Because preliminary data suggest that the number of serotonin 2B receptors may be increased in patients with congestive heart failure, Belviq should be used with caution in patients with this condition. Belviq has not been studied in patients with serious valvular heart disease.
The drug’s manufacturer will be required to conduct six post-marketing studies, including a long-term cardiovascular outcomes trial to assess the effect of Belviq on the risk for major adverse cardiac events such as heart attack and stroke.
Use driven by BMI
The drug is approved for use in adults with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater (obese), or adults with a BMI of 27 or greater (overweight) and who have at least one weight-related condition such as high blood pressure (hypertension), type 2 diabetes, or high cholesterol (dyslipidemia).
BMI, which measures body fat based on an individual’s weight and height, is used to define the obesity and overweight categories. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of adults in the United States are obese.
Belviq works by activating the serotonin 2C receptor in the brain. Activation of this receptor may help a person eat less and feel full after eating smaller amounts of food.
Not for everyone
Belviq should not be used during pregnancy. Treatment with Belviq may cause serious side effects, including serotonin syndrome, particularly when taken with certain medicines that increase serotonin levels or activate serotonin receptors. These include, but are not limited to, drugs commonly used to treat depression and migraine. Belviq may also cause disturbances in attention or memory.
In 1997, the weight-loss drugs fenfluramine and dexfenfluramine were withdrawn from the market after evidence emerged that they caused heart valve damage. This effect is assumed to be related to activation of the serotonin 2B receptor on heart tissue. When used at the approved dose of 10 milligrams twice a day, Belviq does not appear to activate the serotonin 2B receptor.
The most common side effects of Belviq in non-diabetic patients are headache, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, dry mouth, and constipation, and in diabetic patients are low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), headache, back pain, cough, and fatigue.
Regular, Moderate, Coffee Drinking May Reduce Heart Failure Risk
That morning cup of Joe might do more than get your eyes open; it could keep your heart pounding06/28/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
New research suggests a little coffee might be good for your heart...
If you're one of those folks who can’t face the day without a cup of coffee in the morning, here’s some good news for you.
New research in the American Heart Association's journal Circulation Heart Failure finds that people who drink coffee regularly in moderation could have a reduced risk of heart failure.
Researchers analyzing previous studies on the link between coffee consumption and heart failure found that moderate coffee drinking as part of a daily routine may be linked with a significantly lower risk of heart failure. In contrast, indulging excessively may be linked with an increased chance of developing serious heart problems.
"While there is a commonly held belief that regular coffee consumption may be dangerous to heart health, our research suggests that the opposite may be true," said Murray Mittleman, M.D., Dr.P.H., senior study author and director of the Cardiovascular Epidemiology Research Unit at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
"We found that moderate consumption -- which we define as the equivalent of about two typical American coffee shop beverages -- may actually protect against heart failure by as much as 11 percent," he said. "On the other hand, excessive coffee drinking -- five to six commercial coffee house cups per day -- has no benefit and may even be dangerous. As with so many things, moderation appears to be the key here, too."
Researchers reviewed five high quality prospective studies of coffee consumption and heart failure risk published between 2001 and 2011. Combined, the studies included 6,522 heart failure events among 140,220 males and females. Four of the studies were conducted in Sweden and one in Finland.
The study defines moderate consumption as four Northern European servings per day, the equivalent to about two typical 8-ounce American servings. Excessive coffee consumption is 10 Northern European servings per day, the equivalent to four or five coffees from popular American coffee restaurant chains (servings sizes vary from 9 to 20 fluid ounces per serving).
Researchers didn't account for brew strength, but coffee is typically weaker in the United States than it is in Europe. They also didn't differentiate between caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee, but most of the coffee consumed in Sweden and Finland is caffeinated.
Variety of factors
"There are many factors that play into a person's risk of heart failure, but moderate coffee consumption doesn't appear to be one of them," said Elizabeth Mostofsky, Sc.D., lead study author and research fellow at Beth Israel.
"This is good news for coffee drinkers, of course, but it also may warrant changes to the current heart failure prevention guidelines, which suggest that coffee drinking may be risky for heart patients. It now appears that a couple of cups of coffee per day may actually help protect against heart failure."
The American Heart Association recommends that heart failure patients consume only a moderate amount of caffeine -- no more than a cup or two of coffee or other caffeinated beverage a day.
Researchers didn't definitively say why coffee offers a heart-health benefit. But evidence suggests that frequent coffee drinkers develop a tolerance to the beverage's caffeine, which may put them at a decreased risk of developing high blood pressure.
Habitual coffee consumption is also associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, with most studies showing the greatest reduction in risk with higher levels of coffee consumption.
"Diabetes and hypertension are among the most important risk factors for heart failure, so it stands to reason that reducing one's odds of developing either of them, in turn, reduces one's chance of heart failure," Mittleman said.
Dole Fresh Vegetables Recalls Limited Number of Salads
There is a possible health risk from Listeria monocytogenes06/28/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Dole is recalling three kinds of salads...
Dole Fresh Vegetables is voluntarily recalling 1,077 cases of bagged salads.
The products being recalled are Kroger Fresh Selections Greener Supreme coded N158 211B 1613 KR04 with Use-by date of June 19 and UPC 11110 91039, Kroger Fresh Selections Leafy Romaine coded N158 111B KR11 with Use-by date of June 19 and UPC 11110 91046 and Wal-Mart Marketside Leafy Romaine coded N158111B with Use-by date of June19 and UPC code 81131 02781.
The recalls are prompted by a possible health risk from Listeria monocytogenes, an organism that can cause foodborne illness in a person who eats a food item contaminated with it. Symptoms of infection may include fever, muscle aches and gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea or diarrhea. The illness primarily affects pregnant women and adults with weakened immune systems. Most healthy adults and children rarely become seriously ill.
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 Marketside Leafy Romaine salad yielded a positive result for Listeria monocytogenes in a random sample test conducted by the State of North Carolina.
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 six U.S. states (Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia).
No other Wal-Mart Marketside, or Kroger Fresh Selections salads are included in the recall. Only the specific Product Codes, UPC codes and June 19, 2012 Use-by date 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.
Non-Traditional Destinations Offer Top Vacation Bargains
Princeton, N.J. sees the biggest drop in hotel rates06/28/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Vacations are expensive, but if you want to save money it's certainly possible. It just might mean going off the beaten path and visiting places you might ...
Vacations are expensive, but if you want to save money it's certainly possible. It just might mean going off the beaten path and visiting places you might not think of as vacation destinations.
In its June 2012 report, discount travel site Hotwire.com features the top five cities in North America where hotel, air and car rental rates have dropped the most as compared to the same time last year.
"Summer officially kicked-off last week which typically means higher prices in most popular markets; however, we're still seeing some fantastic deals on hotel, air and car rentals across the country," said Clem Bason, president of the Hotwire Group. "For sun worshippers, cities like Palm Springs, Key West and Las Vegas all have deep discounts on airfare and car rental rates. For those looking to escape the sizzling temperatures, places like Spokane, Seattle, Vancouver and the Bay Area are each offering stellar rates on a variety of your travel needs."
But those areas don't offer the best hotel bargains, Howire found. Rather, some unusual choices made the list.
Coming in at number one is Princeton, N.J. It replaces another New Jersey destination at number one – Atlantic City. Princeton scored a six percent drop in hotel rates.
Augusta, Ga., is in second place with a five percent price decrease compared to last year. Augusta doesn't have a beach or roulette tables but is a top deal market for history buffs and golf lovers.
Continuing to round out the top five hotel deal markets are Providence, Rhode Island and Spokane, Washington, each with five percent price drops.
Arts and entertainment
Known as the "Renaissance City," Providence offers an array of arts and entertainment for travelers to enjoy. As of late, 3.5-star hotels in this city have been increasing their discounts to compete for the same business as the 4-star hotels that dominated the market last year, Hotwire reports.
In Spokane, there is less demand than last summer, so hotels are becoming more aggressive with rates.
Rounding out the top 5 is Montreal, Canada where hotel rates have dropped three percent this month, which means travelers can afford to enjoy this popular city during its high season.
While there, folks can catch L'International des Feux Loto-Quebec that takes place from late June to early July.
When it comes to airfare, Hotwire found Little Rock, Ark., saw the biggest drop in fares since last year – 20 percent. The biggest savings on car rentals is in Boston, where rates are down by an average of $22.
Cooper Issues Tire Recall
A tread separation problem could lead to crashes06/28/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Contaminated rubber could lead to tread separation, posing threat of crashes....
Cooper Tire & Rubber Company (Cooper) is recalling certain Cooper brand Discoverer H/T tires, sizes LT235/85R16 and P265/70R17; Discoverer LSX, size 265/70R17; and Mastercraft Courser HTR, size LT235/85R16. Also included in this recall are tires branded as Del-Nat Delta A/S SierraRadial or National A/S Commando, size 265/70R17; Pep Boys Definity Dakota H/T, size P265/70R17; and TBC Sigma Stampede Radial SUV, size P265/70R17. A total of 10,236 tires is being recalled.
Contaminated rubber may have been used in the tread compound, which could result in tread separation. Tread separation can result in loss of vehicle control, increasing the risk of a vehicle crash.
Cooper will notify owners, and dealers will replace the tires free of charge. Free mounting and balancing will also be included, as applicable.
Owners may contact Cooper Tire & Rubber Company’s consumer relations department at 1-800-854-6288. Cooper’s recall number is 156. Owners may also contact the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's vehicle safety hotline at 1-888-327-4236 (TTY 1-800-424-9153).
Big Cat Recalls Bicycle Due To Crash Hazard
The possibility of a frame crack poses the risk injury to the rider06/28/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
The company is recalling its recubent bikes because of the possibility of injury to the rider...
Big Cat Human Powered Vehicles LLC, of Winter Garden, Fla., has recalled about 170 Catbike Musashi recumbent bicycles.
The bicycle is being recalled because the frame can crack, which can cause the rider to lose control and crash. There been on incidents or injuries reported.
This recall involves model year 2010 Catbike Musashi recumbent bicycles. They were sold in the following colors: black, white, silver, yellow, orange, red, lime green, pink, blue, candy purple, candy red, candy green, candy blue and sparkle orange. "Musashi" is printed on the frame and "Catbike" is printed on the seat, frame and headrest.
Serial numbers CBM0002 to CBM0170 are included in this recall. The serial number can be found underneath the main frame where the seat bottom is located.
The bikes were sold at Catbike authorized dealers nationwide from February 2010 through December 2010 for about $2,350.
Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled bicycle and contact a Catbike dealer for a free frame replacement.
For additional information, contact Big Cat Human Powered Vehicles toll-free at (866) 276-2281 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or visit the firm's Web site.
Nearly Half Of U.S. Consumers Don't Know Their Credit Score
But survey shows consumers are getting credit card debt under control06/28/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Do you know your credit score? It turns out a lot of people don't. A survey by CouponCabin.com finds 47 percent of U.S. adults don't have a clue what their...
Do you know your credit score? It turns out a lot of people don't. A survey by CouponCabin.com finds 47 percent of U.S. adults don't have a clue what their credit score is.
It's an important number to know since it can affect the interest rate you get on a home mortgage or a new car loan. In fact, it can determine whether you get the loan or not, since lenders have become more choosy about their customers. It can also affect your insurance premium and even determine whether you get that job you've been angling for.
The survey found that 60 percent of young U.S. adults ages 18-34 were unaware of their credit scores. At the same time, only 42 percent of those ages 35 and up were unaware of their score.
A credit score is determined by a consumer's debt load and payment habits. Paying your bills on time is the best way to raise your credit score. Having high credit limits and low balances also helps.
To check your credit report, go to the government-affiliated site www.annualcreditreport.com. It is completely free and you are not asked for a credit card number.
While credit score knowledge is lacking among consumers, many are mindful of how much debt they're carrying on their plastic. Ninety percent of consumers with credit card debt said they are aware of how much total credit card debt the have. One-in-ten said they didn't know how much credit card debt they had.
Credit card debt has fallen
Since the beginning of the Great Recession, consumers have significantly reduced their credit card debt. Thirty-eight percent report they have less than $1,000 in debt. At the same time, 21 percent say they are carrying a balance of at least $5,000.
Here's a breakdown of current credit card debt, as measured by the survey:
- $1,000 or less – 38 percent
- $1,001 - $2,000 – 10 percent
- $2,001 - $5,000 – 11 percent
- $5,001 - $10,000 – 9 percent
- $10,001 or more – 12 percent
"While some credit card users report they are keeping their debt in check, others struggle with high interest payments and looming deadlines," said Jackie Warrick, President and Chief Savings Officer at CouponCabin.com. "In fact, more than one-third of people we surveyed said they are concerned about how long it will take to pay off their cards. Keep your swiping in check and always have a grasp on the number of cards you have and how you're using them."
How many credit cards do you carry? If you are typical, you make have at least two cards in your wallet. Thirty-five percent of respondents said they have three or more.
Having cards is not a problem but using them without paying off the balances each month is. While credit cards make everyday purchases like groceries and gasoline convenient, make sure your have the money to pay off the balance each month. It is those increasing balances that get you in trouble.
Facebook Withdraws 'Friends Nearby' App
Also gets flack for changing default email settings06/28/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
On Sunday Facebook rather quietly launched a new “find friends nearby” app. By Tuesday, after an Internet firestorm, the social networking site...
On Sunday Facebook rather quietly launched a new “find friends nearby” app. By Tuesday, after an Internet firestorm, the social networking site just as quietly took it down.
The app, which was said to be in the testing mode, allowed mobile Facebook users to see the locations of their friends who were also mobile. To some, it seemed a dangerous invasion of privacy. To others, it just seemed creepy.
How it worked
According to technology websites that studied the app, it displayed Facebook users' names when those users turned on the mobile app and were in close geographic proximity to one another. The users did not necessarily have to be “friends” to show up on the list.
It only worked when both parties had the app open on their mobile devices at the same time. In some ways, it was very similar to the “girls around me” app that proved controversial a couple of months ago.
Some, however, saw nothing sinister in the app, pointing out it could be useful for finding someone you briefly met at a business function or party. Jared Newman, writing in PC World, said the app was “a good idea that needs work.”
Commenters appeared to be divided, however. “Creepy, definitely creepy,” wrote one posting under the name LordInsidious. But “Puilamhenry” responded “how's that creepy? I have met lots of friends just by G+'s nearby feature.”
You may have a new email address
Facebook is also on the receiving end of some message board push-back for its new email policy. The social networking site has changed your default email address from the one you chose to your Facebook email address, even if you didn't know you had a Facebook email address.
“Back in April, Facebook quietly announced that it would be giving users @facebook.com email addresses so that they matched their public username, used as the URL for users' profile pages,” Graham Cluley, of Sophos Security Software wrote in his blog. “However, the social network didn't make clear that it would also be making the @facebook.com email addresses the default address displayed to your online friends.”
To change your default email setting, go to your “profile” page on Facebook and select “choose a different address.”
Poll: Safety Top Consideration In New Car Purchase
Style and gadgets take backseat in Swapalease.com poll06/28/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
You might think fuel economy would be the most important factor in a consumer's selection of a new car, but according to a new poll, it's not. Safety is....
You might think fuel economy would be the most important factor in a consumer's selection of a new car, but according to a new poll, it's not. Safety is.
The survey, conducted by Swapalease.com, an online marketplace for in-process vehicle leases, found that more than 60 percent of its users chose safety as the most important consideration in selecting a new car.
Safety outranks “style and appearance,” which garnered 30 percent, “luxury and convenience,” at 12 percent and “electronic features,” at nine percent.
"Safety has long been high on the list for prospective car buyers or lessees, and our survey shows that changing times don't always change people's priorities," said Scot Hall, EVP of Operations, of Swapalease.com. "Thanks to today's technology, we have an ever-growing list of features that make cars safer than ever before."
What's the most important safety feature for drivers? Thirty-two percent said a blind-spot warning system was their favorite feature. Close behind were hands-free calling and a back-up camera.
"It's interesting to note that people are so interested in the blind-spot warning system. It's the very latest in safety technology, and I know from personal experience that it's a wonderful feature," said Hall. "It's also currently priced at a premium, so whether consumer will put their money where their opinions are remains to be seen."
What cars have the most safety features? Last month the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recognized three vehicles - The 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco, a midsize hybrid; 2012 Hyundai Azera, a large family car; and 2012 Toyota Prius c, a small hybrid - with the Institute's top award for good performance in front, side, rollover and rear impact evaluations.
In the luxury and convenience category, heated/cooled seats were by far the most desired features. Next in order of rank were memory settings for things like seat and steering wheel placement; rain-sensing windshield wipers, and a heated steering wheel.
In just a few years, GPS navigation systems have almost something drivers consider a standard option. In the electronics category, more than half the participating drivers selected that as a must-have feature.
With the majority of other technology features falling in the entertainment category, iPod/MP3 compatibility was much more important than a CD or DVD players – 24 percent compared to 11 percent and 9 percent respectively.
Upgraded interior trim and upgraded wheels took the top spots for style needs.
Joining a Gym? Exercise Your Right to Read the Contract
Remember: Being fit doesn't necessarily mean belonging to a gym06/27/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
Everyone needs to exercise. That's no mystery. But choosing the right way to exercise can be a challenge. While some are able to stay self-motivated and do...
Everyone needs to exercise. That's no mystery. But choosing the right way to exercise can be a challenge. While some are able to stay self-motivated and do solitary exercises like jogging, or calisthenics, others need to get in their fitness by playing a team sport or joining an exercise group.
But many consumers around the globe choose to join a gym, usually for the variety of exercise equipment, access to personal trainers, and having others around them for inspiration.
Choosing the right gym can be as challenging as going through one of its exercise regiments. Not only in terms of finding a fitness center that meets your fitness desires, but also one that has fair and transparent payment clauses.
|Consumers rank LA Fitness|
Take LA Fitness for example, which as of this writing has received barely over one out of five stars in our ConsumerAffairs complaints and review section. Poor reviews from our readers about the gym are in the hundreds.
Many of the complaints are from customers who have been affected by LA Fitness buying out Bally's Total Fitness in 2011. Consumers were promised by LA Fitness that Bally's members wouldn't be impacted in terms of having the same membership, and being able to access all of LA Fitness' gyms. Customers were also assured that prices wouldn't go up once they made the switch.
This wasn't the case for Fred who wrote to ConsumerAffairs from Chicago, Ill.
"In my case, I was going to the same Bally's for more than 20 years," he said. "Three months after LA Fitness closed the Bally's I went to, I was told that the replacement, an LA Fitness location 2 blocks away is a 'Signature Club.' LA Fitness claims that my Bally's membership is based in a suburb 30 miles away. I don't own a car and can't even get there. LA Fitness now said that if I want to use the location close to me, my membership will increase 4.5 times that it was before."
Just to be sure our readers weren't overstating the case, we ran a computerized sentiment analysis of postings to social media by about 120,000 consumers over the last year. The findings: LA Fitness veered from a high of about 50% positive to a low of 28% in June.
And just what is it consumers like and don't like about LA Fitness? It's a long list but this graph shows the highlights:
And issues with LA Fitness don't stop with the gym not properly honoring Bally Memberships. Many people have complained that overall quality of service has declined since the two gyms merged.
Csaba of San Pedro, Calif. said he received harassing calls from LA Fitness, about updating his credit card information. Obviously Csaba wasn't comfortable providing this info over the phone, so he declined and received rude and aggressive responses from the customer service department. And to make it worse he even received these invasive calls on Easter Sunday.
One of the most popular complaints, not only for LA Fitness but all gyms, is the inability to cancel your membership when you decide to use another gym or simply work out at home. It's among the chief complaints with the Better Business Bureau when it comes to gym membership issues.
Many fitness centers already anticipate that you may cancel your membership early, so they purposely make it extremely difficult to do so. Similar to how Facebook or other social networking sites make cancellation difficult, in hopes people will find it too time-consuming and just choose to stay on.
Experts say it's important to be extremely cognizant of a gym's cancellation clauses, and most times written notice within a specific time frame is needed to successfully cancel your membership.
There are countless reported cases of consumers still paying for gym memberships years after they stopped using them. How to permanently cancel your membership should be the first question you ask when deciding to join an exercise facility.
Only the contract matters
The next step is to remember that what the salesman tells you means absolutely nothing -- as in not one thing. Nada. The only thing that matters is what the contract says. Read it. And keep it in a file where you can find it. If you do not follow the procedure outlined in the contract to the letter, your heirs will be left to straighten things out.
Some gyms will also covertly apply unexpected fees to your bill. Many consumers have reported being billed for new gym equipment offered, and some have been billed a pool or sauna fee in addition to their membership costs. It's also important to know exactly what membership fees will include, and if you'll ever be billed for any extras the gym provides.
According to a report entitled "Fitness Industry Analysis 2012- Cost & Trends", there are over 29,000 fitness centers in the U.S., which grew from only 17,000 about ten years ago. The report also shows that 41 million Americans hold gym memberships, and at least half of those consumes belong to nationwide gym franchises.
All that glitters ...
Gold's Gym won't be winning any popularity contests either. ConsumerAffairs analyzed about 63,000 consumer comments posted on social media over the last year.
We found Gold's net sentiment fluctuating wildly from about 100% to nearly zero -- sort of like a workout newbie trying to do a bench press without a spotter.
And if those 63,000 comments aren't enough for you, consider the 400 or so consumers who took the trouble to write extended ConsumerAffairs reviews about their Gold's experience, giving the slumping fitness chain barely more than one out of five stars.
|Consumers rank Gold's|
As consumers opinion goes, this isn't so hot. Gold's is in about the same shape as the hung-over meathead who drops a 45-pound plate on his foot.
Valerie of Sebring, Fla. said although her two-year membership expired with Gold's, the company kept billing her. She then went to the bank and changed debit cards in hopes the company wouldn't be able to extract money from her account. But then she received a collection notice from Gold's Gym threatening to harm her credit.
What's even more upsetting is that Gold's then offered her a new membership package, promising that if she signed up, her billing issues would be wiped clean.
Read the contract!
This case is an example of why you have to make sure your membership isn't automatically renewed after your membership runs out. In many cases, contracts go to month-to-month status after the initial contract term. It is still up to the consumer -- that's you -- to exercise your right to cancel, usually by sending a certified letter to the address specified in the contract.
If you don't follow the procedure outlined in the contract, gyms wll keep taking money from your bank account.
ConsumerAffairs contacted the headquarters of Gold's Gym to ask them about the large amount of complaints concerning hidden fees and its cancelation policy.
I spoke to a company rep named Libby who said, "Most people who phone us with angry complaints have failed to read our contract. If you're in a two-year contract, and you break it, you'll have to pay a $100 cancellation fee unless you move 25 miles out of the franchise area. We would then need a copy of a lease agreement or a utility bill to prove that you moved."
Libby said the company had no plans to change its policy, despite the numerous complaints.
OK, Libby, but our sentiment analysis finds a pretty big reservoir of ill will that somebody might want to take a look at.
The phone call demonstrated that the company has no flexibility in its policy no matter how inconvenient it is for the customer. This is a sign that Gold's Gym sort of counts on its customers not knowing what the clauses are.
One would have to assume the company would lose a great amount of money if all of its customers were in the know about its gym policies.
At this point, consumers might consider that too much time pumping iron and using their devilish exercise machines can make you muscle-bound. After all, flexibility and endurance are as important as brute strength and you don't need a gym to get them.
Instead using big commercial exercise facilities, you might want to consider working out at home, as many of the same fitness results can be achieved on your own. Furthermore, you'll save the hundreds sometimes thousands of dollars gym clubs charge, and you can use that money to purchase one or two pieces of equipment that specifically serve your fitness goals.
Also, working out in front of strangers or in a big display window may not be a source of motivation for you, but instead be a hindrance. If you prefer having a personal trainer, you can hire one independently that will be a fraction of the cost of getting a trainer through a gym. However, be sure to check the trainer's credentials, or have a friend or neighbor suggest a trainer for you.
With a constant stream of TV commercials, and ads about large gym facilities, one can easily forget there are many ways we can stay fit. Many exercise clubs make consumers feel if they don't join a gym they're doing their body and health a disservice, which is obviously not the case.
Be sure to carefully select the type of workout plan you want, and if you decide that's an exercise facility, be sure to do your homework.
Just because a gym is close to your home, or is heavily advertised doesn't mean it's right for your exercise goals or your wallet.
Poll: Honda, Mercedes Top Auto Brands
Harris Interactive poll shows Honda displaces Ford as top full line auto company06/27/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
When you ask consumers what automotive brands they consider to be best in terms of quality, Mercedes-Benz and Honda come out on top, according to the 2012 ...
Mercedes-Benz earned the title of lead luxury auto brand for the second straight year.
“Mercedes-Benz and Lexus have been battling over this top ranking for the last eight years,” said Mike Chadsey, Senior Consultant for Harris Interactive’s Customer Relationship Consulting team. “Mercedes has ranked at the top for two years in a row and four of the last eight years, while Lexus has made it to the top spot three times.”
Consumers seem to agree. ConsumerAffairs conducted a computerized sentiment analysis of postings to social media over the last year to see what consumers had to say about Mercedes and Honda.
We found about 730,000 consumers posting comments about Mercedes, with a positive net sentiment approaching 80% throughout the year.
Honda, on the other hand, is more talked-about with about 3.8 million comments but is less admired, never climbing above the 60% mark during the last 12 months.
What is it consumers like and dislike about Honda?
Ford gets bumped
Chadsey says BMW is also usually within the top three, with especially strong scores over the last three years. Honda earned the top spot as America’s favorite full line automaker. Honda overtook both Toyota and Ford to claim the honor. It replaces last year’s top-ranked automaker, Ford.
Toyota had a traumatic 2011 because of safety recalls but rebounded nicely this year. It claimed the second spot, up two notches from its fourth-place position in 2011, and that much closer to the top spot it held only two years ago in 2010. Toyota’s increase in brand equity is the largest of the brands measured in the category.
Ford slipped to third place in the 2012 rankings, even though its equity score increased. It just didn't increase as much as Honda and Toyota. Chevrolet, Nissan, Subaru,Hyundai, and Volkswagen also rank above average in the full line automotive category.
Mortgage Delinquencies Fall To Three-Year Low
OCC credits strengthening economy, among other factors, for the improvement06/27/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
More people are staying current on their mortgage payments...
More people are making their house payments on time for the first time in several years.
The percentage of first mortgages that were current and performing at the end of the first quarter of 2012 increased to the highest levels in three years, according to a report published by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency .
The OCC Mortgage Metrics Report for the First Quarter of 2012 showed percentages of mortgages that were 30 to 59 and 60 to 89 days delinquent also decreased to their lowest levels since the OCC began publishing its report on mortgage performance in first quarter of 2008.
The improvement in mortgage performance can be attributed to several factors, including strengthening economic conditions during the quarter, seasonal effects, servicing transfers, and the ongoing effects of home retention programs as well as home forfeiture actions.
The large number of delinquent loans continues to work through the loss mitigation process. Servicers initiated 352,989 new home retention actions—modifications, trial-period plans, and payment plans. During the past five quarters, servicers initiated more than 2.2 million home retention actions.
Completed foreclosures increased to 122,979 -- up 5.9 percent from the previous quarter and 2.7 percent from the first quarter of 2011. However, the number of new foreclosures initiated during the quarter decreased to 286,951 -- down 1.8 percent from the previous quarter. The inventory of foreclosures in process increased from the previous quarter to 1,269,921. The inventory stood at 1,308,757 a year ago.
Servicers have modified 2,543,133 mortgages from the beginning of 2008 through the end of the fourth quarter of 2011. At the end of the first quarter of 2012, 50.7 percent of these modifications remained current or were paid off. Modifications made during that period that reduced borrower monthly payments by 10 percent or more performed better than those that reduced payments by less than 10 percent -- the greater the payment decrease, the better the subsequent performance.
At the end of the first quarter of 2012, 57.9 percent of modifications that reduced payments by 10 percent or more were current and performing, compared with 36.8 percent of those that reduced payments by less.
On average modifications implemented in the first quarter of 2012 reduced monthly principal and interest payments by $437, which is 31 percent more than modifications implemented during the first quarter of 2011. HAMP modification reduced payments by $588 on average.
The report covers 31 million first-lien mortgages worth $5.3 trillion in outstanding balances -- about 60 percent of all first-lien mortgages in the United States.
Foreclosure Situation Improving For Some, But Not All
Some homeowners find the process hopelessly frustrating06/27/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
News from the housing sector lately has been encouraging. Home sales are up and so are prices. Now Equifax, the credit agency, comes along with more good n...
News from the housing sector lately has been encouraging. Home sales are up and so are prices. Now Equifax, the credit agency, comes along with more good news.
Severely delinquent balances among first mortgages are on the decline. While still high compared to historic levels, the May 2012 total of $450 billion in delinquent balances represents a 37 percent decline from the peak of more than $700 billion in January 2010. Of note is that 70% of outstanding delinquencies among first mortgages still remain tied to loans opened between 2005-2007.
The greatest level of change was among severely delinquent non-agency first mortgage loans, which fell 45 percent to $320 billion in May from its peak of $580 billion in January 2010.
"That severe mortgage delinquencies are trending downward is not surprising given generally improving economic conditions," said Equifax Chief Economist Amy Crews Cutts. "What is surprising is that even with the foreclosure moratoriums and the slow resolution of foreclosure backlogs, the downward trend has been a steady, consistent drumbeat of recovery. If this pace continues, we expect the volume of severely delinquent mortgage balances to return to mid-2007 levels by the end of 2014."
For some, the nightmare continues
But make no mistake, foreclosures are continuing and one thing has not changed in the last four years. People facing foreclosure continue to report maddening problems getting reliable, consistent information from their lenders.
Martha Lynn, of Garden City, N.Y., says he has worked for two and a half years to modify her Bank of America mortgage after her husband lost his job.
"We have filled out reams of identical papers numerous times, tolerated constant harassing phone calls, recorded conflicting statements by them on the telephone and have collected letters of clashing statements," Martha Lynn wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "We even have one that says we did not get a modification because we are not in default, however, they had us in foreclosure status at that time."
Lawyer can't seem to help
Martha Lynn and her husband have a lawyer but that doesn't seem to have gotten them very far. After making modified payments for 11 months, she said Bank of America suddenly stopped accepting the payments. She and her husband have, instead, been depositing those checks into an escrow account.
On June 18, she says she received a new packet of Bank of America modification forms to fill out. Two days later, she said she received a letter from a Bank of America executive saying her loan could not be modified "because you did not provide us with the documents we requested.”
If you think Martha Lynn sounds frustrated, consider the story of Stephen, of Evanston, Ind., who lost his Wells Fargo-financed home to foreclosure in April 2011.
"I was sent a letter from their lawyer on 5/2/2011 informing me the house was sold and I no longer have the right to possession of the property," Stephen wrote.
Still responsible for insurance
Stephen says he packed up his family and moved away, hoping to start fresh. But somehow his foreclosure followed him, adding insult to injury.
"On May 11, 2011 Wells Fargo started a home owners policy on the sold property under my name and charged it to me," Stephen wrote. "They stated my old policy was cancelled!"
Of course it was cancelled, Stephen pointed out, since he no longer owned he house, which now had a new owner.
"Now I get in the mail an insurance renewal policy for the same house sold a year earlier for another year," Stephen wrote. "I tried to cancel the insurance but they wont let me."
Mistakes happen, but Stephen reports he has been unable to get anyone at Wells Fargo to rectify the situation. He wants to know why it's his responsibility to inform Wells Fargo that they foreclosed on his home more than a year ago.
Martha Lynn, meanwhile, is going public with her case, launching a website for people who are not only losing their homes, but are frustrated in their attempts to communicate with their lenders.
Wyndham Hotels In Hot Water Over Personal Information Protection
Credit card data of hundreds of thousands of consumers compromised, millions lost to fraud06/27/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
FTC charges hotel chain with lax identity protection polices...
When you go on vacation, the last thing you want to do is be hassled with a credit card problem because someone at your hotel screwed up. But, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), that’s what’s happened to a lot of folks who stayed at Wyndham Hotels.
The FTC has filed suit against global hospitality company Wyndham Worldwide Corporation and three of its subsidiaries for alleged data security failures that led to three data breaches at Wyndham hotels in less than two years.
According to the agency, these failures led to fraudulent charges on consumers’ accounts, millions of dollars in fraud loss and the export of hundreds of thousands of consumers’ payment card account information to an Internet domain address registered in Russia.
Whether this will hurt Wyndham's standing with its customers remains to be seen. ConsumerAffairs conducted a computerized sentiment analysis of about 150,000 postings on social media over the last year and found a distinct dip consumers' perceptions of Wyndham during May and June.
The lodging and entertainment chain went from a 79% positive sentiment in January to just 39% by June.
Privacy shortcomings were by far the most frequent negative sentiments displayed by consumers during the year.
Wyndham and its subsidiaries license the Wyndham name to approximately 90 independently-owned hotels, under franchise and management agreements.
Since 2008 Wyndham has claimed, on its Wyndham Hotels and Resorts subsidiary’s Website that, “We recognize the importance of protecting the privacy of individual-specific (personally identifiable) information collected about guests, callers to our central reservation centers, visitors to our Web sites, and members participating in our Loyalty Program …”
According to the FTC’s complaint, the repeated security failures exposed consumers’ personal data to unauthorized access. Wyndham and its subsidiaries failed to take security measures such as complex user IDs and passwords, firewalls and network segmentation between the hotels and the corporate network, the agency alleged. In addition, the defendants allowed improper software configurations that resulted in the storage of sensitive payment card information in clear readable text.
Each Wyndham-branded hotel has its own property management computer system that handles payment card transactions and stores information on such things as payment card account numbers, expiration dates, and security codes. According to the FTC, in the first breach in April 2008, intruders gained access to a Phoenix, Arizona Wyndham-branded hotel's local computer network that was connected to the Internet and the corporate network of Wyndham Hotels and Resorts.
Because of Wyndham’s inadequate security procedures, the breach gave the intruders access to the corporate network of Wyndham’s Hotels and Resorts subsidiary, and the property management system servers of 41Wyndham-branded hotels. This access enabled the intruders to:
- install “memory-scraping” malware on numerous Wyndham-branded hotels' property management system servers.
- access files on Wyndham-branded hotels’ property management system servers that contained payment card account information for large numbers of consumers, which was improperly stored in clear readable text.
Ultimately, the breach led to the compromise of more than 500,000 payment card accounts, and the export hundreds of thousands of consumers’ payment card account numbers to a domain registered in Russia.
Even after faulty security led to one breach, the FTC charged, Wyndham still failed to remedy known security vulnerabilities; failed to employ reasonable measures to detect unauthorized access; and failed to follow proper incident response procedures. As a result, Wyndham’s security was breached two more times in less than two years.
In March 2009, intruders again gained unauthorized access to Wyndham Hotels and Resorts' network, using similar techniques as in the first breach. In addition to using memory-scraping malware, they reconfigured software at the Wyndham-branded hotels to obtain clear text files containing the payment card account numbers of guests.
In this second incident, the intruders were able to access information at 39 Wyndham-branded hotels for more than 50,000 consumer payment card accounts and use that information to make fraudulent charges using consumers’ accounts.
Later in 2009, intruders again installed memory-scraping malware and thereby compromised Wyndham Hotels and Resorts’ network and the property management system servers of 28 Wyndham-branded hotels.
As a result of this third incident, the intruders were able to access information for approximately 69,000 consumer payment card accounts and again make fraudulent purchases on those accounts.
The defendants in the case are: Wyndham Worldwide Corporation; its subsidiary, Wyndham Hotel Group, LLC, which franchises and manages approximately 7,000 hotels; and two subsidiaries of Wyndham Hotel Group – Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, LLC and Wyndham Hotel Management, Inc.
Court Blocks Sale Of Galaxy 10 Tablets In U.S.
Grant's Apple's request for preliminary injunction in patent dispute06/27/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Don't expect to purchase Samsung's new Galaxy Tab 10.1 in the U.S. for a while. A U.S. District Judge in San Jose, Calif., has granted Apple a preliminary...
Don't expect to purchase Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1 in the U.S. for a while. A U.S. District Judge in San Jose, Calif., has granted Apple a preliminary injunction against the device in Apple's long-running patent dispute with Samsung.
Samsung said it would immediately appeal the decision of Federal Judge Lucy H. Koh.
Apple sued to block Samsung from selling the Galaxy 10.1 in the U.S., claiming it is "virtually indistinguishable from the iPad." In an earlier ruling, the court agreed with Apple but the judge has yet to file a final ruling.
In granting the preliminary injunction, Koh required Apple to post a $2.6 million bond to compensate Samsung if the final ruling goes Samsung's way.
Apple filed suit last July accusing Samsung of violating its patent for the iPad. The case doesn't just center on the device's electronics, but also on its design.
Light & thin
Upon its release last year the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 won praise from technology reviewers, who called it "as thin as the iPad 2 and even lighter." It runs the Android operating system and features a three-megapixel back camera and two-megapixel front camera, with premium audio.
The court's decision, at least temporarily, removes one of the iPad's main competitors from the marketplace. It also removes the one that many saw as having the best chance to overtake Apple in the tablet wars.
"Apple sought a preliminary injunction of Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1, based on a single design patent that addressed just one aspect of the product's overall design," Samsung said in a statement. "Should Apple continue to make legal claims based on such a generic design patent, design innovation and progress in the industry could be restricted."
Activists Want Airlines Barred From Forcing Toddlers to Travel Solo
CREW says the polices of some carriers force an ‘outrageous scenario’ on parents06/27/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Children traveling alone should be banned, group says...
Thirty-thousand feet is no place for a two-year-old to be all alone.
That’s the message being sent by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which is calling on Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to issue a new rule requiring airlines to seat small children with their adult guardians.
Airlines like US Airways and American now routinely separate children as young as two-years-old from their parents, according to CREW, seating them in middle seats next to complete strangers. The group says the only way to avoid this “outrageous scenario” is for parents to pay often exorbitant fees allowing them to pick seats near their children.
“As if airline travel isn’t stressful enough, parents now have to worry about whether they will be seated with their toddlers,” said CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan. “Further, unsuspecting passengers may find themselves with the choice of either relinquishing their more expensive seat for a middle seat elsewhere on the plane or serving as a babysitter for an overwrought child.
“Any rational person would find this situation completely absurd, but leave it to highly paid airline executives – who fly first class themselves – to find yet new indignities to thrust upon coach passengers,” she added. “No wonder airlines are as hated as investment bankers and Congress.”
The practical consequences of airlines’ failures to seat children with their parents are significant, the group maintains. Young travelers who may become distraught, ill, or need a diaper change are on their own, utterly dependent on seatmates who may be unwilling or unable to assist them.
Further, in the case of turbulence or an emergency, passengers are directed to remain in their seats, leaving parents unable to respond to or assist their scared or sick children.
Ironically, airlines such as US Airways and American prohibit children under age five from traveling alone, although seating children far from their parents effectively leaves them unaccompanied.
Airlines also charge additional fees for unaccompanied minors that are allegedly based on the additional services these young solo travelers receive. In reality, such fees are just another revenue generating scheme.
“Since airlines have proven they can’t enact common sense policies on their own, the government must do it for them,” said Sloan. “Children must not be inhumanely separated from their parents by greedy airlines seeking to wrest another dollar from powerless passengers. It is time for Secretary LaHood and the Department of Transportation to crack down on this preposterous practice.”
TBC Recalling SUV Tires
Tread separation raises the risk of a crash06/27/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Tire with tread defect is being recalled...
TBC Corporation is recalling more than 900 Sigma Stampede Radial SUV tires, size P265/70R17, equipped with DOT code UTT6TX60112. Contaminated rubber may have been used in the tread compound, which could result in tread separation. Tread separation can result in loss of vehicle control, increasing the risk of a vehicle crash.
TBC will notify owners, and dealers will replace the tires free of charge. Free mounting and balancing will also be included, as applicable. The recall is expected to begin on July 2, 2012. Owners may contact TBC at 1-901-363-8030.
TBC’S recall number is 156. Owners may also contact the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Vehicle Safety Hotline at 1-888-327-4236 (TTY 1-800-424-9153).
Most Consumers Don't Have Emergency Savings
Bankrate survey shows consumers know they need more cash on hand06/27/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
If you encountered a major financial setback, such as losing your job, would you be able to get by until you got back on your feet? Perhaps it is no surpri...
If you encountered a major financial setback, such as losing your job, would you be able to get by until you got back on your feet? Don't feel bad if you answered no. You're not alone -- most people don't have adequate emergency savings.
A new poll by Bankrate.com finds 49 percent of consumers do not have enough emergency savings to cover three months' expenses, up from 46 percent last year.
Twenty-eight percent admit to having no emergency savings at all. The generally recommended cushion is six months' expenses, and only 25 percent have saved that much, according to the survey.
As bad as it sounds, it used to be worse,. When Bankrate conducted a similar poll in 2006, before the credit crisis and real estate crash, 61 percent of consumers failed to have enough emergency savings to cover three months' expenses.
Not enough progress
"While we've seen some improvement since then, the bottom line is that much more progress is needed," said Greg McBride, CFA, senior financial analyst for Bankrate.com. "Having sufficient emergency savings is critical to avoiding high-cost credit card debt when unexpected expenses arise."
In conjunction with the survey, Bankrate released its June 2012 Financial Security Index, showing it held steady from this same time last year. This is only the second time since polling began in Dec. 2010 that Americans are feeling greater financial security than the previous 12 months.
The Index also shows that U.S. consumers are mindful of the need to save more money. Thirty-two percent of Americans are currently reporting that they are less comfortable with their savings versus one year ago, a new low and down from the peak of 47 percen that were less comfortable in August 2011.
Eighteen percent said they are less comfortable with their debt than 12 months ago, a new low and down from the peak of 27 percent in October 2011 and November 2011.
How Long Should You Take Osteoporosis Drugs?
The decision depends on a number of factors and consultation with your doctor06/27/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
A number of factors enter into the decision to continue taking osteoporosis medication...
A number of factors put both men and women at risk for osteoporosis, including age, race, family history and a sedentary lifestyle.
But there are also several ways you can reduce that risk, including:
- getting adequate amounts of calcium and Vitamin D through foods
- staying physically active, including weight-bearing exercise such as walking, jogging, skipping rope, and skiing
- not smoking
- limiting alcohol use
An up-close look
Researchers at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have taken a close look at the long-term benefit of bisphosphonates, a class of medications widely prescribed to treat osteoporosis.
An FDA review of clinical studies measuring the effectiveness of long-term bisphosphonates use shows that some patients may be able to stop using them after three to five years and still continue to benefit from their use, says Marcea Whitaker, M.D., a medical officer at FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.
If you're one of the 44 million Americans at risk for osteoporosis -- a disease in which bones become weak and are more likely to break -- you may be taking bisphosphonates.
This class of drugs has been successfully used since 1995 to slow or inhibit the loss of bone mass. Doctors commonly prescribe such brand-name drugs as Actonel, Atelvia, Boniva, and Fosamax (as well as a number of generic products) for osteoporosis. In fact, more than 150 million prescriptions were dispensed to patients between 2005 and 2009.
More info needed
According to the review, further investigation is needed on the long-term risks and benefits of these drugs.
"These drugs clearly work," Whitaker says. "We just don't know yet the optimum period of time individual patients should be on the drug to both maximize its effectiveness and minimize potential risks."
More research is needed on patients' risk of fracture after they stop taking bisphosphonates, and whether taking them again later on could prove beneficial, she adds. As always, patients should talk to their health care provider about their continued need for therapy.
The studies suggest that patients at low risk of fracture (for example, younger patients without a fracture history and with a bone mineral density approaching normal) may be good candidates for discontinuation of bisphosphonate therapy after three to five years.
In contrast, patients at increased risk for fractures (for example, older patients with a history of fracture and a bone mineral density remaining in the osteoporotic range) may benefit further from continued bisphosphonate therapy.
How the medication works
Bones go through a continual process of remodeling, in the form of bone resorption (disintegration) and bone formation. Bone loss related to osteoporosis occurs when resorption is greater than formation. Bisphosphonates decrease bone resorption, thereby slowing bone loss.
During treatment, bisphosphonates become part of the newly formed bone and can stay there for years, through many cycles of resorption and formation. Patients continue to be exposed to the effects of the drug even long after they’ve stopped taking it.
According to Whitaker, the studies that FDA considered focused on patients who had been using bisphosphonates for at least three years and as many as 10. They looked at outcomes related both to bone mineral density and bone fractures.
Effective treatment – with caveats
"Bisphosphonates have been proven very effective in protecting against bone fractures in clinical trials lasting three to four years," says Whitaker. But it's still unknown whether the benefit lasts longer than that in decreasing the risk of fractures.
Bisphosphonate labels have carried a safety warning about severe jaw bone decay (osteonecrosis of the jaw) since 2002. In October 2010, FDA warned patients and health care professionals about the increased risk of unusual thigh bone fractures and directed manufacturers to include the warning in the safety labels and medication guides that come with prescription medications.
FDA continues to evaluate the possible association of bisphosphonates with esophageal cancer. These associations would suggest that health care professionals may want to reconsider how long patients should continue taking the drugs.
Decisions to continue treatment must be based on individual assessments of risks and benefits and on patient preference, Whitaker says.
If you are taking bisphosphonates:
Talk to your physician about whether you should continue this therapy. Re-evaluate the decision on a periodic basis.
Don't stop taking these (or any) prescribed drugs without talking to your physician first. If you do make the decision to discontinue use, talk to your physician before stopping therapy.
Tell your health care professional if you develop new hip or thigh pain (commonly described as dull or aching pain), or have any concerns with your medications.
Report unusual side effects of your bisphosphonate medication to FDA's MedWatch program.
Pending Home Sales Surge In May
Latest indicator that housing market is recovering06/27/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
On the heels of a huge spike in new home sales, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports pending home sales rose 5.9 percent in May and is up mor...
On the heels of a huge spike in new home sales, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports pending home sales rose 5.9 percent in May and are up more than 13 percent from May 2011. The Pending Home Sales Index is at the highest level in two years.
Pending home sales are sales contracts for property that have been signed but not closed. They are usually considered a good early indicator of the housing market. May's numbers suggest June's home sale numbers will show continued gains.
Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, has recent data shows the housing market is finally recovering.
“The housing market is clearly superior this year compared with the past four years," Yun said. "The latest increase in home contract signings marks 13 consecutive months of year-over-year gains. Actual closings for existing-home sales have been notably higher since the beginning of the year and we’re on track to see a 9 to 10 percent improvement in total sales for 2012.
A year ago pending home sales would suggest gains in the housing market, only to see actual sales fall the next month because many of the pending contracts would fall through. In many cases, would-be buyers found they could not get loans,or the property would fail to appraise for the agreed-upon price. In recent months, there have been fewer failed contracts.
Yun said mortgage rates have never been lower but buyers still have difficulty qualifying for loans. Now, he says, there are fewer homes for sale.
Could have been even better
“If credit conditions returned to normal and if we had more inventory, especially in the lower price ranges, more people would become successful buyers," he said. "In an environment of historically favorable housing affordability conditions, it’s frustrating to see some consumers thwarted in the process.”
Prices buyers are willing to pay for houses are also rising. Yun said the national median existing-home price is expected to rise 3.0 percent this year and another 5.7 percent in 2013.
Regionally, pending home sales were up in May all across the country. The West led with a 14.5 percent gain. In the Midwest, pending sales were up 6.3 percent in May and 22.1 percent over May 2012.
HIV Testing Expanding Into Pharmacies
A CDC pilot program aims to make HIV testing ‘routine’06/27/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
The government wants to make HIV testing more convenient...
The day is coming when you’ll have to go no farther than your nearest shopping mall to be tested for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (DC) is launching a pilot project to train pharmacists and retail store clinic staff at 24 rural and urban sites to deliver confidential rapid HIV testing.
The goal of the initiative is to extend HIV testing and counseling into the standard everyday services offered by pharmacies and retail clinics.
CDC will use the results of the pilot effort to develop a model for implementation of HIV testing in these settings across the United States. The project is part of CDC’s efforts to support its 2006 testing recommendations, which call for all adults and adolescents to be tested for HIV at least once in their lives.
“We know that getting people tested, diagnosed and linked to care are critical steps in reducing new HIV infections,” said Kevin Fenton, M.D., director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention. “By bringing HIV testing into pharmacies, we believe we can reach more people by making testing more accessible and also reduce the stigma associated with HIV.
Improving the odds
CDC estimates that 1.1 million people are living with HIV in the United States, yet nearly 1 in 5 remains unaware of the infection. In addition, one-third of those with HIV are diagnosed so late in the course of their infection that they develop AIDS within one year, missing years of opportunities to receive life-extending medical care and treatment, and potentially reduce transmission to partners.
Community pharmacies and retail clinics, with their convenience and easy accessibility, could play a critical role in ensuring more Americans have access to an HIV test. Data suggest that more that millions Americans enter pharmacies every week, and an estimated 30 percent of the U.S. population lives within a 10-minute drive of a retail clinic.
Compared with health care settings and conventional HIV testing sites, these locations may provide an environment that is more accessible to those who may be anxious about seeking an HIV test.
Making it routine
“Our goal is to make HIV testing as routine as a blood pressure check,” said Jonathan Mermin, M.D., director of CDC’s Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention. “This initiative is one example of how we can make testing routine and help identify the hundreds of thousands of Americans who are unaware that they are infected.”
Throughout the two-year initiative, CDC will provide training for staff in community pharmacies and retail clinics in 12 urban areas and 12 rural areas with high HIV prevalence or significant unmet HIV testing needs.
Training will focus on how to deliver rapid HIV testing and counseling and link those who are diagnosed with the virus to care and treatment.
Based on lessons learned, CDC will develop a comprehensive toolkit that pharmacists and retail clinic staff from around the country can use to implement HIV testing.
Do cereal companies value profits over children's health?06/26/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
With companies like Disney leading the way in promoting healthier foods to children, by announcing plans to stop running junk food ads during its programmi...
Don't Drink the Water ... Or the Coke
Study finds levels of carcinogen in Coca-Cola varies by country06/26/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James R. Hood
For decades, American tourists have avoided drinking the local water when touring internationally, often drinking soft drinks instead. But the results of a...
For decades, American tourists have avoided drinking the local water when touring internationally, often drinking soft drinks instead. But the results of a new study may make you switch to beer.
And if Congress drank Cokes, its distinguished members might be alarmed at the levels found in the District of Columbia.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says that Coca-Cola sold in California now contains little of the cancer-causing chemical 4 methylimidizole (4-MI), but new laboratory tests show alarming levels of the carcinogen in Cokes sold elsewhere around the world.
"Fortunately, people in China, Japan, Kenya, and some other countries drink much less soda than we Americans do, so their exposure to this dangerous chemical is proportionately lower," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "But now that we know it's possible to almost totally eliminate this carcinogen from colas, there's no excuse for Coca-Cola and other companies not to do so worldwide, and not just in California."
The carcinogen forms when the ammoniated caramel coloring used in colas is industrially produced. Coke began using a less-contaminated caramel coloring earlier this year in California after the state required a cancer-warning notice on soft drinks with excessive levels of 4-MI. CSPI first released test results showing the levels of 4-MI in Coke and Pepsi in March.
Coca-Cola obtained from Brazil had 267 micrograms (mcg) of the carcinogen per 12 fluid ounces (355 ml). Coca-Cola from Kenya had 177 mcg per 12 ounces. Cokes marketed in Canada, the United Arab Emirates, Mexico, and the United Kingdom had between 144 mcg and 160 mcg per 12 ounces. Coke from China had 56 mcg and in Japan had 72 mcg.
Coca-Cola purchased in Washington, DC, had 144 mcg per 12 fluid ounces, while Cokes bought in California contained only 4 mcg.
To put those levels into context, the state of California requires a cancer-warning label if a food would lead to people consuming 30 mcg or more of 4-MI per day. Thus, people drinking one 12-ounce soda per day would ingest that much if the soda contained 30 mcg or more of 4-MI. The state estimates that that amount of 4-MI would cause cancer in one in 100,000 people over their lifetimes.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) restricts carcinogenic contaminants in food to lower levels — amounts that would not cause more than one cancer per million people. If the FDA applied its standard, a Coke would have to have under 3 mcg of 4-MI.
Coca-Cola marketed in California is close to meeting that standard, but Cokes in most other countries, even allowing for lower consumption in most countries, greatly exceed that standard, CSPI said.
CSPI’s test results will be published shortly in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health (vol. 18, No. 3).
CSPI obtained the Coca-Cola from consumer advocates or others in the countries represented in this study. Some of those people are releasing the test results today to media in their counties and bringing the carcinogen to the attention of their respective health ministers.
In February 2011 CSPI first urged the FDA to prohibit ammoniated caramel coloring and to use a more accurate term for the ingredient. In contrast to the caramel one might make at home by melting sugar in a saucepan, the artificial brown coloring in colas and some other products is made by reacting sugars with ammonia (and often sulfites) under high pressure and temperatures.
Chemical reactions between the sugar and the ammonia result in the formation of 4-MI, which caused lung, liver, and thyroid cancer or leukemia in laboratory animals in studies conducted by the United States government’s premier testing laboratory. A major manufacturer (D.D. Williamson) of caramel colorings says that it offers a coloring that is totally free of 4-MI, but it is four times more expensive and beverage companies aren't purchasing it.
Five prominent experts on animal carcinogenesis, including several who worked at the National Toxicology Program, joined CSPI then in calling on the FDA to bar the use of caramel colorings made with an ammonia process.
"The American public should not be exposed to any cancer risk whatsoever as a result of consuming such chemicals, especially when they serve a non-essential, cosmetic purpose," the scientists wrote.
Although the presence of a known chemical carcinogen in such a widely consumed product is troubling, CSPI says that consumers should be more worried about the much greater risk posed by the sugar or high-fructose corn syrup in Coca-Cola and other sugary beverages. Overconsumption of sugary drinks raises one’s risk of weight gain, obesity, diabetes, tooth decay, and other health problems.
U.S. Health Experts Say Pregnant Women Shouldn't Drink
Call Danish study that reached opposite conclusion 'misleading'06/26/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
As predicted, some public health officials are taking exception to study results published last week suggesting it's okay for pregnant women to consume mod...
As predicted, some public health officials are taking exception to study results published last week suggesting it's okay for pregnant women to consume moderate amounts of alcohol.
Experts at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine say it is not okay.
At the center of the controversy, Danish researchers said they found children born to mothers who consumed fewer than six alcohol units per week were just as intelligent and well-developed as children of abstaining mothers. Mothers who had been drinking five or more drinks on a single occasion a limited number of times before realizing that they were pregnant also did not affect their offspring.
The finding were published in the international medical journal of obstetrics and gynaecology, BJOG.
Danish study misleading
The UC San Diego researchers disagree. Kenneth Lyons Jones, MD, professor in the UCSD Department of Pediatrics and a renowned expert in birth defects, and Christina Chambers, MPH, PhD, director of the California Teratogen Information Service (CTIS) Pregnancy Health Information Line, say these studies are misleading to pregnant women, citing more than 30 years of research to the contrary.
“This series of studies collected data on alcohol exposure during an interview conducted sometime between 7 and 39 weeks of pregnancy. The quantity and frequency of alcohol consumed was based on mother’s recall which may not be accurate,” said Jones who was one of the first doctors to identify Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) in 1973.
The series of studies analyzed data from more than 1,600 women in the Danish National Birth Cohort. The amount of alcohol consumed by the women during their pregnancy was classified as either none, low, moderate, or high.
In addition, binge drinking was defined as having five or more drinks on a single occasion. When the child reached the age of five, the children underwent various development tests. Researchers found no significant association between prenatal alcohol consumption at low and moderate levels and general intelligence, attention, executive function or IQ.
Study weaknesses cited
However, only half of the women invited in the follow-up studies agreed to participate, the U.S. experts note. It is possible that those women who drank during pregnancy and who agreed to participate were more likely to have higher functioning children.
Chambers, a UCSD School of Medicine professor, pointed to what she called the overwhelming evidence of more than 30 years of research supporting the conclusion that alcohol, especially alcohol consumed in a binge pattern, can be harmful to the developing baby.
“Individual women metabolize alcohol differently, and vary in terms of how susceptible they may be to having an affected child,” Chambers said. “Although we do not want to alarm women who find out they are pregnant and realize that they have consumed low levels of alcohol before they knew they were pregnant, we emphasize that a ‘safe’ amount of alcohol that any individual woman can drink while pregnant is impossible to establish. The best advice continues to be that women should avoid alcohol entirely during the nine months that she is carrying the baby.”
Report: Orbitz Quotes Higher Rates To Apple Users
Apple users typically spend more for hotel rooms06/26/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
If you are using a tablet or a Mac, the Journal reports it will show you more expensive rooms
The reason? Its research reportedly shows that Apple users spend, on average, $20 to $30 more for a room than those using a PC. Not leaving anything to chance the site just shows you the more expensive hotels, leaving the best deals for the more bargain-oriented PC users.
Commenting on the story on CNBC, stock maven Jim Cramer said he has noticed that most travel sites routinely make “paid” listings their first three or four offerings, meaning they are not necessarily the best deals. He said he usually scrolls deeper into the list to choose a hotel.
|Consumers rate Orbitz|
This would all sound pretty familiar to
"I was looking for a motel room in Willmar. Minnesota. I went online to Orbitz. They quoted me the cheapest room at a Days Inn in Willmar, Minnesota at $42.00. When I clicked to book, the site said that no rooms were available at that price and the cheapest price was $62.99," she said. "Because I needed a room and they quoted other hotels at an increased cost, I booked it. Their agreement states that I will pay the amount quoted.
"When I got to the room, the price was quoted at $42.00. Orbitz inflated the cost by $20.00 and lied about room availability," Kathie complained.
It's not just Orbitz, though. Over the years a constant complaint to ConsumerAffairs about travel booking sites in general is inconsistency.
Regina, of Big Stone Gap, Va., said she used Expedia to make reservations at Fairfield Inn and Suites in Wyetheville, Va., and was charged $166.66 for a one-night stay.
“At check-in I noticed a couple in front of me was charged 106.00,” Regina wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “I thought okay, maybe because we had our grandson. At checkout next day I was given a receipt for $126.65. That was $40.01 less than the rate from Expedia. I called them and asked for a refund or explanation. I was told that Expedia is not responsible, the rate is based on their agreement with the hotel. I am aware that Expedia must make money but $40.01 to make a reservation seems too much.”
Millions of consumers used third-party booking sites expecting the rate will always be cheaper, but as Regina discovered, that's not always the case. In addition, if plans change and you have to cancel your reservation you are usually out of luck.
In most cases, you are much better off making your reservation directly with the hotel. And just to be on the safe side, try not to use an Mac or iPad to do it.
You Have a New Facebook Email Address
Latest Facebook dust-up involves "email@example.com"06/26/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James R. Hood
Facebook has become notorious for making very basic changes to its system without bothering to tell anyone. The latest involves something many users consid...
Facebook has become notorious for making very basic changes to its system without bothering to tell anyone. The latest involves something many users consider pretty personal -- their email address.
Without the slightest notice to anyone, Facebook issued its users a new email address, one that combines their user id with a "@facebook.com" suffix, as in "firstname.lastname@example.org"
The change isn't really all that significant since Facebook didn't cancel or change anyone's existing email address. It simply added the new one to users' profiles. But it has infuriated privacy advocates and more than a few bloggers who have gotten onto it.
|Consumers rate Facebook|
But not to worry, it's quite easy to change your email address back to whatever you want it to be. Just go to your Facebook profile, click on "About" or "Update Info" and edit your contact information.
“This is Facebook’s sneaky way of trying to get people to use the Facebook email more often,” said Dave Awl, an Illinois resident who wrote “Facebook Me! A Guide to Socializing, Sharing, and Promoting on Facebook.”
“If Facebook is your main email, that increases the amount of time you spend on Facebook,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times. “The more time and the more page views spent, the more ads Facebook can sell.”
Awl suggested a link on Lifehacker that will walk you through the process.
Merrill Lynch Fined $2.8 Million for Overcharging Customers
FINRA action requires $32 million in remediation for affected customers06/26/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Financial service firm accused of overcharging customers...
If you have a Merrill Lynch account, you may be eligible to receive refunds, with interest, of some of the fees you've paid.
The brokerage firm has been fined $2.8 million for supervisory failures that resulted in overcharging customers $32 million in unwarranted fees, and for failing to provide certain required trade notices. Additionally, Merrill Lynch has agreed to pay $32 million in remediation -- plus interest -- to the affected customers.
“Investors must be able to trust that the fees charged by their securities firm are, in fact, correct. When this is not the case, investor confidence is threatened,” said Brad Bennett, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) Executive Vice President and Chief of Enforcement.
|Consumers rate Merrill-Lynch|
FINRA found that from April 2003 to December 2011, Merrill Lynch failed to have an adequate supervisory system to ensure that customers in certain investment advisory programs were billed in accordance with contract and disclosure documents.
As a result, the firm overcharged nearly 95,000 customer accounts fees of more than $32 million. Merrill Lynch has since returned the unwarranted fees, with interest, to the affected customers.
The company also failed to provide timely trade confirmations to customers in certain advisory programs due to computer programming errors. As a result, from July 2006 to November 2010, Merrill Lynch failed to send customers trade confirmations for more than 10.6 million trades in over 230,000 customer accounts.
In addition, Merrill Lynch failed to properly identify whether it acted as an agent or principal on trade confirmations and account statements relating to at least 7.5 million mutual fund purchase transactions. At various times, the firm also failed to deliver certain proxy and voting materials, margin risk disclosure statements and business continuity plans.
In concluding this settlement, Merrill Lynch neither admitted nor denied the charges, but consented to the entry of FINRA's findings.
Thousands of Fireworks Injuries Likely This July 4th
Feds warn that fireworks injuries are common and sometimes serious06/26/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Everybody knows fireworks are dangerous but every year, thousands of injured consumers wind up in hospital emergency rooms with injuries that range from mi...
Everybody knows fireworks are dangerous but every year, thousands of injured consumers wind up in hospital emergency rooms with injuries that range from minor to fatal.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reports that 9,600 people were injured and at least four were killed by fireworks last year.
More than half of these injuries were the result of unexpected ignition of the device or consumers not using fireworks as intended. Fireworks injuries most often resulted in burns to the hands and head, including the eyes, face, and ears. Sparklers, firecrackers, and aerial devices were associated with the most incidents.
In the fatal incidents, a 31-year-old male died of substantial head and chest trauma caused by an illegal aerial firework device, a 47-year-old male perished when an illegal 3-inch display firework device exploded in his face, a 41-year-old male was decapitated by an illegal firework device and a 51-year-old male died of severe head and face injuries caused by a homemade firework device, the CPSC said.
"For thousands of consumers, last year's 4th of July celebration ended with a visit to the emergency room," said CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum. "CPSC wants you to understand the risks with legal and illegal fireworks, in order to prevent an injury, or worse, during this holiday."
Reports of faster-than-expected explosions and unpredictable flight paths of aerial devices have resulted in tragic consequences for some consumers.
Consumers who decide to purchase legal fireworks are urged to take these safety steps:
- Make sure fireworks are legal in your area before buying or using them.
- Never allow young children to play with or ignite fireworks. Parents may not realize that young children suffer injuries from sparklers. Sparklers burn at temperatures of about 2,000 degrees-hot enough to melt some metals.
- Always have an adult closely supervise fireworks activities if older children are allowed to handle devices.
- Avoid buying fireworks that are packaged in brown paper because this is often a sign that the fireworks were made for professional displays and that they could pose a danger to consumers.
- Never place any part of your body directly over a fireworks device when lighting the fuse. Back up to a safe distance immediately after lighting fireworks.
- Keep a bucket of water or a garden hose handy in case of fire or other mishap.
- Never try to relight or handle malfunctioning fireworks. Soak them with water and throw them away.
- Never point or throw fireworks at another person.
- Light fireworks one at a time, then move back quickly.
- Never carry fireworks in a pocket or shoot them off in metal or glass containers.
- After fireworks complete their burning, douse the spent device with plenty of water from a bucket or hose before discarding it to prevent a trash fire.
Economy Flashing Conflicting Signals
Despite recession worries, housing market shows real signs of life06/26/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Lately the economic news has been filled with doom and gloom. Over the course of the winter, what appeared to be a promising recovery has slowed.Across t...
Lately the economic news has been filled with doom and gloom. Over the course of the winter, what appeared to be a promising recovery has slowed.
Across the Atlantic, Europe's economy is teetering on the brink as first Greece, and now Spain and Italy, are running out of money. In the U.S., tax rates are set to rise and government spending to fall at the end of the year, a situation Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke calls a “fiscal cliff” that is sure to plunge the U.S. economy into recession.
All seems dark, except that the beleaguered U.S. housing market, which got us into this mess in the first place with overinflated home prices, is now showing real signs of life.
The U.S. Commerce Department reports sales of new single-family homes rose in May at the strongest rate in the last two years. The last time sales were this good the government's tax credit for new home buyers was just about to end, attracting a crush of buyers seeking to take advantage of it.
The May numbers are almost startling. Sales were up 7.6 percent over April and 19.8 percent over May 2011.
Glut of homes has dried up
New home sales had all but dried up in the last three years because of the glut of unsold homes for sale and falling prices. Because of material and labor costs, newly constructed homes had a hard time competing with existing homes selling at steep discounts.
But in the new economy many homebuilders have found ways to deliver more house for sell money. A billboard on Interstate 40 in east Tennessee advertises new homes for $42 a square foot, significantly lower than during the bubble years.
The Commerce Department report also shows the supply of new homes for sale has been steadily shrinking, helping prices to begin rising again. Earlier this month the National Association of Realtors (NAR) reported sales of existing homes fell slightly from April, mainly because there was such a big drop in the inventory of homes for sale. Like new home sales, existing home sales were up sharply year-over-year.
While the economy may indeed be softening, the real estate market appears to be getting back on its feet. And it's doing it without much help from the government or mortgage industry.
“The recovery is occurring despite excessively tight credit conditions and higher downpayment requirements, which are negating the impact of record high affordability conditions," said Lawrence Yun, NAR's chief economist.
Consumer Confidence Index Declines Again
Optimism elusive as consumers take stock of the economy06/26/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Consumers' view of the economy remains downbeat...
The mood of the U.S. consumer continued to darken during June.
The Conference Board says its Consumer Confidence Index®, which had declined in May, fell further in June and now stands at 62.0 (1985=100) -- down from 64.4 in May.
At the same time, the Expectations Index declined to 72.3 from 77.3. The Present Situation Index, however, increased to 46.6 from 44.9 last month.
The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey®, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen, a leading global provider of information and analytics around what consumers buy and watch. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was June 14.
The continuing slide
"Consumer Confidence declined in June, the fourth consecutive moderate decline, said Lynn Franco, Director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board. “Consumers were somewhat more positive about current conditions, but slightly more pessimistic about the short-term outlook.
“Income expectations, which had improved last month, declined in June,” she added. “If this trend continues, spending may be restrained in the short-term. The improvement in the Present Situation Index, coupled with a moderate softening in consumer expectations, suggests there will be little change in the pace of economic activity in the near-term."
A mixed outlook
Consumers' assessment of current conditions improved slightly in June. Those claiming business conditions are "good" increased to 14.9 percent from 13.6 percent, however, those saying business conditions are "bad" increased to 35.1 percent from 34.7 percent.
Consumers’ appraisal of the job market was mixed. Those stating jobs are "hard to get" increased to 41.5 percent from 40.9 percent, while those claiming jobs are "plentiful" increased to 7.8 percent from 7.5 percent.
Consumers have grown less upbeat about the short-term outlook. The percentage of consumers anticipating business conditions to improve over the next six months declined to 15.5 percent from 16.6 percent, while those expecting business conditions will worsen increased to 16.2 percent from 12.9 percent.
Consumers' outlook for the labor market was mixed. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead declined to 14.1 percent from 15.4 percent, while those expecting fewer jobs also declined to 20.6 percent from 21.5 percent. The proportion of consumers expecting an increase in their incomes declined to 14.8 percent from 15.7 percent.
Consumer Group Promotes Reverse Mortgage Reforms
Action urged as lenders mount PR campaign and CFPB holds hearing06/26/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Crackdowns urged on reverse mortgage offers...
The policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports is renewing its call for stricter oversight of reverse mortgages just as the industry launches a public relations campaign to repair its image and the CFPB prepares to hold a field hearing on the topic on tomorrow (June 27) in Tampa.
"Reverse mortgages should only be used as a last resort because they can carry huge costs that can quickly drain a homeowners equity," said Norma Garcia, senior attorney and manager of Consumers Union's financial services program. "The reverse mortgage industry insists that it can police itself but it's clear we need common sense oversight by the CFPB to protect seniors."
Reverse mortgages enable borrowers who are 62 or older to obtain income through cash payment or lines of credit by tapping the equity in their home. The reverse mortgage loan becomes due when the borrower dies, leaves the home for 12 consecutive months or more or fails to maintain the property or pay homeowners insurance or property taxes. Borrowers must pay a loan origination fee, closing costs, and compounding interests on the loan principal, which can be significant.
Consumers Union's December 2010 report on reverse mortgages documented a number of concerns that underscore the need for stronger oversight by the CFPB. The report was co-written by California Advocates for Nursing Home reform and the Council On Aging Silicon Valley.
The report highlighted how borrowers can be duped by misleading marketing claims and that required counseling provided by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was inadequate. It also noted that seniors are sometimes targeted with aggressive cross promotion of other financial products like long term care insurance or annuities that may not be suitable for them.
Finally, the report cited recent HUD statistics finding that an increasing number of borrowers had defaulted because they were unable to pay their property taxes or homeowner insurance premiums as required.
Consumers Union called on the CFPB to take a number of steps to protect seniors, including:
- Ensure loans are suitable for borrowers: Lenders and brokers should be required to consider whether the loans put borrowers at risk of losing their homes, if the borrower understands the complex nature of the contract, and if there are more viable alternatives available to the borrower.
- Establish a fiduciary responsibility for the loan: Lenders and brokers must be required to act in the best interests of the borrower and should be held liable for violating this fiduciary duty.
- Outlaw deceptive marketing: All reverse mortgages should be required to include information to help borrowers determine whether the loans are suitable for them.
- Adopt stronger prohibitions on cross promotions: Prohibitions against cross promotions of other financial products by lenders and brokers should extend to non-HECM loans. Insurance agents and brokers should be held liable for selling an annuity when it is purchased with reverse mortgage funds.
- Strengthen the quality and content of counseling: HUD counselors should be required to hold an in-person session with prospective borrowers to determine whether a reverse mortgage is suitable for the borrower. The counselor should deny a counseling certificate to the borrower if the loan is not in the best interest of the senior.
- Protect non-borrowing spouses and tenants: Spouses and tenants whose names are not on the reverse mortgage loan should be notified about their limited rights to remain in the home after the borrower dies or permanently moves out of the home.
Can You Really Settle Your Credit Card Debt?
Despite promises from companies, you'll have better luck doing it yourself06/26/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
There are a lot of companies and law firms that say they can settle your credit card debt, but these services are costly and many are not very effective....
There are a lot of companies and law firms that say they can settle your credit card debt, but can they really? The consumers were hear from say these services are costly and many are not very effective.
Hyun, of LaHabra, Calif., said he made a mistake when he hired a debt-settlement law firm to reduce his credit card balance.
“I lost my time and my credit score,” Hyun wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post.
A couple of years ago Hyun hired a firm to settle his debt and ended up paying around $8,000. After the payment, Hyun said he was told it would cost even more.
“It was a 30-month program I believed to be $250, never mention about I have to pay more other than the 30 months of $250 and before that time everything will be done,” he wrote. “In addition to losing that much money, I also realize waiting that much times to pay off each creditor, other cards will increase in balance of late fees and non payment such.
Do it yourself
So Hyun said he ended up calling the credit card companies himself.
“The whole process with the law group took me three years or more, but it could be done in less than a year working with the creditor directly,” Hyun said. “What angered me the most is, like myself and others who are in this situation, I was so desperate and they took a advantage of that.”
While consumers shouldn't fall for every slick promise of credit card debt settlement, they should also understand that it might not be that easy to settle their credit card debt the way Hyun did it. After all, there are a lot of people in his situation.
Debt settlement experts say credit card companies are still willing to make accommodations with their distressed customers, but you have to have a good reason why you are unable to pay off your debt. Debt settlement is mostly reserved these days for consumers in an extreme hardship situation.
Still, credit card companies increasingly say they would prefer to deal with the consumer directly and not a third-party who is going to take a cut.
Time is money
The sooner you contact the credit card company about negotiating the settlement, the better. Late fees and interest will quickly increase the balances. Be ready for a full and frank discussion of your income and finances.
Asking a credit card company for a settlement will not negatively affect your credit score. However, if you are successful in reaching a settlement, keep in mind your credit score will take a hit. But for many people still struggling against a crushing debt load, it may well be worth it.
Facebook Agrees To Strengthen Mobile App Privacy
Seventh major company to sign onto California agreement06/26/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Facebook has signed on to a Joint Statement of Principals to strengthen privacy controls for consumers who use online applications on their smartphones, ta...
|Consumers rate Facebook|
Under an agreement with California's attorney general, Facebook has agreed strengthen privacy controls for consumers who use online applications on their smartphones, tablets and other electronic devices.
“Consumers deserve to be able to make informed choices aboutmhow much personal information they want to share with others when using social apps,” said California Attorney General Kamala Harris. “We are delighted that Facebook has joined Amazon, Apple, Google, Hewlett-Packard,Microsoft, and Research in Motion to provide consumers with greater control and information about how their personal data is used. We need to protect privacy while we foster innovation.”
Harris released a letter from Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan announcing the company's decision to adhere to the agreement.
“As you know, the Joint Statement’s principles embodied essential protections for Californians and others who use mobile apps by encouraging companies that provide mobile app markets to give developers the ability to provide a link to their privacy policies and to display those links along with other app details,” Egan wrote. “As we built the App Center, we were guided by the principles contained in the Joint Statement.”
11 year effort
The agreement recognizes the Facebook App Center’s role as a clearinghouse for a variety of social apps, Harris said.
As it rapidly grew over the past few years, Facebook has faced some privacy-related lawsuits. In 2010 the company was sued over changes made to Facebook's privacy settings in late 2009, when the company changed the default setting for scores of user information to public.
As a result, users' names, photos, and friend lists all became available for everyone to see, even if the user had previously specified that only her friends could view it. In order to make the information private again, the user had to affirmatively go in and change the settings back.
The company also settled Federal Trade Commission charges last year that it wrongly divulged users private information.
Many commuters complain of overcharges, unjust penalties and fines06/25/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
In an effort to cut down on traffic congestion around highway tolls, especially in the New York metropolitan area, the Port Authority of New York and New J...
Country Save Laundry Detergent: An Affordable Alternative to Big Brands
Our informal test finds just a little Country Save can handle a big load of laundry06/25/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
There are tons of laundry detergents on the market. From Tide to All, from Cheer to Arm & Hammer, it's easy to get all of these products confused, and ...
Many consumers use the most prominent TV ad to determine which detergent they will purchase, or they'll select a brand because their mom used it regularly, and it was always in their household while growing up.
It's safe to assume that most people don't conduct detergent tests in their home to see which one works best, or even mentally document how good a soap is after a load is completed.
In our effort to examine both new and already established products, ConsumerAffairs informally tested the laundry detergent named "Country Save," that the company claims is far superior to bigger and more established brands.
According to the Country Save company, the detergent has no chemicals or hidden ingredients, is biodegradable, and it's dye- and fragrance-free.
The company also says not much soap is needed for an entire load, and the special mixture allows for a small amount of detergent to go along way. It also says huge loads will be flawlessly cleaned with no left-over soap residue, which is all we can ask of a laundry detergent, right?
We didn't find a lot of jibber-jabber about Country Save in a scan of social media but the 390 postings we found over the last year were largely positive and tended to support the view the company's claims.
Our computerized sentiment analysis found no negative emotions expressed by consumers posting to social media, as shown in this graph:
Luckily it was laundry day in my household, and the perfect time to see how this obscure, but 35-year old brand really performed. Especially compared to my usual brands of detergent, which tend to shift back and fourth between Tide and Gain.
On the back of the 2.0 package I used, it said the small amount was enough to do "one large load in a top load machine, or two loads in a front load machine". It's always nice when a product says a little can go a long way. That means consumers can possibly get more bang for their hard-earned buck.
I have a top load washer, so I used the tiny packet to do one load. When pouring the powdered detergent into the machine, I said to myself 'If this small amount of soap successfully cleans my huge load of laundry, I'll be pretty impressed'. With both Tide and Gain, I usually have to fill its big plastic scoopers to get a large load all-the-way-clean.
What were the results?
The best way to test a detergent, or any other product for that matter, is to judge it by its claims. So after I pulled the clothes from the dryer, I gave it the sniff test to determine if I smelled any annoying perfumes or fragrances, since the company said there were no added ingredients.
Did it have a clean and fresh smell? Yes. The clothes did smell clean, but not in that chemically induced way that products like Gain or Tide do. The finished clothes had a scentless smell, which many people prefer, while others like their clothes to have a perfumey aroma. If you prefer the later, Country Save may not be for you.
Second company claim: Did the small amount of detergent used successfully clean the big load I washed. Yes, it did. No left-over stains, no left-over soap residue, and each article of clothing was cleaned in equal proportion. So far two for two.
I forgot to add a bit of detergent to the collar of one of my soiled button-up shirts, but the collar still came out clean. The opposite happens with Tide and Gain. If soap isn't directly applied to the collar, a small bit of dirt will still be left over.
Country Save was also pretty gentle with my colors (I didn't wash any whites), and didn't fade any of the brights. Many detergents are harsh on jeans for example, as it will fade its blue color a bit upon each wash. No noticeable color changes were seen, although one would have to use the product several times in a row to see if this remains true.
The average consumer doesn't really require that much from a laundry detergent. If it cleans your clothes properly, doesn't have an annoying scent, and doesn't cost an arm and a leg, most would say it's a pretty good product.
So, as far as those requirements go, Country Save passed when it came to clothes cleanliness, and only needing a small amount of detergent for a large load.
But its other claims, like being gentle on sensitive skin can only be determined after extended use.
The good thing however, is there was nothing that jumped out at me that said, this product is inferior to others on the market. But, there was also nothing that seemed to say the product was far superior, except for its more-bang-for-your-buck-appeal.
But in these cash-strapped times, when families are trying to maximize their dollars, more bang for you buck may be enough for you to test out Country Save. It's only in selected stores but is available at Amazon and other online outlets.
Hospital Safety Rankings Reveal Big Differences Among States
Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont have the best, Missouri and Rhode Island the worst06/25/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Real estate is all about location. So, apparently, is health care.The Hospital Safety Score is an organization that ranks hospitals in the U.S., assignin...
Real estate is all about location. So, apparently, is health care.
The Hospital Safety Score is an organization that ranks hospitals in the U.S., assigning each A, B, C, D, or F letter grade reflecting how safe hospitals are for patients in a number of care-related fields. It found that the hospitals with the highest grades tended to be concentrated in a handful of states. So, in fact, did the hospitals with the lowest grades.
The best hospitals, according to the group, are found in Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, Illinois, Michigan, Tennessee, Virginia, Delaware, Minnesota and California. Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont have the largest percentage of "A" hospitals in the U.S.
The states with the lowest numbers of “A” hospitals include New York; Washington, D.C.; Connecticut; Wisconsin; West Virginia; Oklahoma; Arkansas; Oregon; Missouri and Rhode Island. Unscored hospitals include all hospitals from the state of Maryland which the federal government excludes from required public reporting at the national level.
Hospitals are scored using publicly available data on patient injuries, medical and medication errors, and infections.
Where the focus is on safety
"More than 400 people die every day from hospital errors such as medication mix-ups, accidents and infections," said Leah Binder, president and CEO, The Leapfrog Group, the independent nonprofit group that created the Hospital Safety Score. "Ultimately, we want all hospitals to get 'A's.' But it is interesting to see that hospitals in some parts of the country seem to be particularly focused on safety. We encourage the people who live in states that fared worse in the Hospital Safety Score to have a conversation with their doctors about the quality of care."
States that scored highest on the list tend to have highly-acclaimed teaching hospitals within their boundaries, which may raise the overall quality of care.
You can see where your state ranks here.
Statins May Work Better for Men than Women
But cholesterol-lowering drugs do appear to prevent recurrent heart attacks in both genders06/25/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
So do statins work as well for women as they do for men? That question has lingered for the 20 years or so that the cholesterol-lowering drugs have been po...
So do statins work as well for women as they do for men? That question has lingered for the 20 years or so that the cholesterol-lowering drugs have been popular. A new study sheds some light on the issue.
A meta-analysis published June 25 in the Archives of Internal Medicine, a JAMA Network publication, finds that statins "appear to be associated with reduced risk of recurrent cardiovascular events in men and women, but do not appear to be associated with reduced all-cause mortality or stroke in women."
Some of the previous uncertainty arises because most of the clinical trials on the drugs have predominantly enrolled men. There have been conflicting results on the benefits of statins for women with cardiovascular disease compared with men in secondary cardiovascular disease prevention, according to the study background.
Jose Gutierrez, M.D., M.P.H., of Columbia University Medical Center, New York, and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of 11 clinical trials (a total of 43,191 participants) to examine whether statin therapy was more effective than placebo in preventing recurrence of cardiovascular events and all-cause mortality in men and women.
Researchers also sought to determine the sex-specific effect of statins on the risk of recurrent cardiac and cerebrovascular events.
“In our results, statin therapy reduced the recurrence rate of any type of cardiovascular event, all-cause mortality, coronary death, any MI [myocardial infarction or heart attack], cardiac intervention, and any stroke type. The stratification by sex showed no statistically significant risk reduction for women taking statins compared with women taking placebo for the reduction of all-cause mortality and any type of stroke,” the authors comment.
Fewer women studied
However, the authors observe that the results of their meta-analysis “underscore” the low rate of women being enrolled in cardiovascular prevention clinical trials.
“Women represented only a fifth of the studied sample, limiting the strength of our conclusions. In our results, the benefit associated with statin administration in women did not reach statistical significance compared with placebo in at least two outcomes, all-causes mortality and any stroke type. The reason for this difference is uncertain. One possibility is that the small sample size of women limits the power of the study,” the authors note.
So should women be using statins?
The authors conclude “this meta-analysis supports the use of statins in women for the secondary prevention of cardiovascular events.”
Sunscreen On Infants? Not a Good Idea
An umbrella and brimmed hat for shade are generally better ways to go06/25/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
You're at the beach, slathered in sunscreen. Your 5-month-old baby is there, too. Should you put sunscreen on her? Says Dr. Cheryl Sachs, M.D., a pediatric...
You're at the beach, slathered in sunscreen. Your 5-month-old baby is there, too. Should you put sunscreen on her? Says Dr. Cheryl Sachs, M.D., a pediatrician at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA): not usually.
"The best approach is to keep infants under 6 months out of the sun," says Sachs, "and to avoid exposure to the sun in the hours between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when ultraviolet (UV) rays are most intense."
Sunscreens are recommended for children and adults.
For one thing, a baby’s skin is much thinner than that of adults, and it absorbs the active, chemical ingredients in sunscreen more easily, Sachs explains. For another, infants have a high surface-area to body-weight ratio compared to older children and adults. Both these factors mean that an infant's exposure to the chemicals in sunscreens is much greater, increasing the risk of allergic reaction or inflammation.
The best protection is to keep your baby in the shade, if possible, Sachs says. If there's no natural shade, create your own with an umbrella or the canopy of the stroller.
If there's no way to keep an infant out of the sun, you can apply a small amount of sunscreen -- with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 -- to small areas such as the cheeks and back of the hands. Sachs suggests testing your baby's sensitivity to sunscreen by first trying a small amount on the inner wrist.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests dressing infants in lightweight long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and brimmed hats that shade the neck to prevent sunburn.
Tight weaves are better than loose. Keep in mind that while baseball caps are cute, they don't shade the neck and ears -- sensitive areas for a baby.
Younger infants also don't sweat like we do. Sweat naturally cools the rest of us down when we're hot, but babies haven't yet fully developed that built-in heating-and-cooling system. So you want to make sure your baby doesn't get overheated.
In the heat, babies are also at greater risk of becoming dehydrated. To make sure they're adequately hydrated, Sachs recommends offering them their usual feeding of breast milk or formula. The water content in both will help keep them well hydrated. A small of amount water in between these feedings is also okay.
Sun safety tips
Here are some things to keep in mind this summer when outside with infants:
Keep your baby in the shade as much as possible. If you do use a small amount of sunscreen on your baby, don't assume the child is well protected.
Make sure your child wears clothing that covers and protects sensitive skin. Use common sense; if you hold the fabric against your hand and it's so sheer that you can see through it, it probably doesn't offer enough protection.
Make sure your baby wears a hat that provides sufficient shade at all times.
Watch your baby carefully to make sure he or she doesn't show warning signs of sunburn or dehydration. These include fussiness, redness and excessive crying.
Hydrate! Give your baby formula, breast milk, or a small amount of water between feedings if you're out in the sun for more than a few minutes. Don't forget to use a cooler to store the liquids.
Take note of how much your baby is urinating. If it's less than usual, it may be a sign of dehydration, and that more fluids are needed until the flow is back to normal.
Avoid sunscreens containing the insect repellant DEET on infants, particularly on their hands. Young children may lick their hands or put them in their mouths. According to AAP, DEET should not be used on infants less than 2 months old.
If you do notice your baby is becoming sunburned, get out of the sun right away and apply cold compresses to the affected areas.
Rural Internet Options Still Fairly Limited
DSL and cable are usually not available06/25/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
If you live in even a small city you likely have plenty of options for connecting to the Internet. But if you live in a rural area, your choices can be ext...
If you live in even a small city you likely have plenty of options for connecting to the Internet. But if you live in a rural area, your choices can be extremely limited. Not only that, each of the choices has its drawbacks.
As a basic option, there is dial-up service. Your computer connects to the Internet through a built-in modem and a telephone line. The connection speed is extremely slow, meaning all but the simplest web pages will take forever to load.
And good luck finding simple web pages. These days the Internet is designed for broadband access, with most pages containing large amounts of data. Forget about playing rich media like video.
So if you've decided you need a broadband connection, your choices are limited to satellite, mobile broadband through your cellphone provider, or a local wireless network, if one exists in your area.
Very few homes in rural areas have cable TV access because few cable providers find it profitable to go to the expense to install digital-capable cable to serve them. At the same time some telephone companies serving rural counties do not have digital equipment in these locations that can provide DSL service. At some point they may upgrade their equipment but they won't until they deem it to be profitable. And who knows when that might be.
Satellite Internet service is provided by HughesNet, WildBlue, StarBand and SkyWay. One of the biggest problems with satellite Internet service is latency. Latency is the delay between requesting data and the receipt of a response. This is no one's fault, it's simply physics. It takes time for the signal to travel from your computer to the satellite, which is way out there in space. Even when actual data download speeds are fast, the latency issue makes satellite Internet feel very sluggish.
|Consumers rate Hughes|
But latency isn't the only drawback to satellite services.
“We were thinking if we paid $70 a month, we should be able to use all we want; that is not the way it works with HughesNet,” Susan, of Luthersville, Ga., wrote in a ConsumeAffairs post. “I would like to get a smart TV, but I don't have Internet service smart enough to let me use it. I could never use streaming Netflix with HughesNet. Netflix is cheap enough, but HughesNet would cost me a fortune.”
Gertrude, of Newport, Tenn., is a WildBlue customer who says the service isn't fast enough to play a game.
“Also they said that you have to monitor your usage or they will slow down your Internet,” Gertrude wrote. “I am a student and I need to download some large files for school. But when I called them today, they told me that I was not able to download them because I have used the Internet too much.”
As part of the federal government's stimulus program, millions of dollars were allocated to subsidize development of rural broadband services. But much of the money was spent for satellite services, not for building out wired services.
For rural consumers who have good reception to a cellphone tower, mobile broadband can provide an alternative. The service is basically the same that consumers use to access the Internet with their smartphones. While 3G speed is about the same as the very lowest DSL speeds, 4G speed, which will eventually cover rural areas, is much faster.
But consumers using mobile broadband for everyday Internet access must carefully monitor their usage. No carrier offers unlimited data service. They are all measured, meaning consumers must stay within their usage plan each month or pay an overage fee.
Settlement Requires Bus Company to Provide Wheelchair Access
New York secures agreement from Eastern Coach06/25/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Undercover customers posing as disabled consumers found it extremely difficult to get a seat on Eastern Coach, a bus company serving New York, Maryland, Pe...
Undercover investigators posing as disabled consumers found it extremely difficult to get a seat on Eastern Coach, a bus company serving New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington D.C.
According to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, most were told by ticket agents that Eastern had no buses that were wheelchair accessible. Schneiderman said that was a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and he sued.
The two sides have now settled and Schneiderman says all future requests for accommodation will be handled in accordance with the law.
“Without equal access to transportation, people with disabilities across our state are unable to work, visit loved ones, address medical needs, or enjoy full independent living,” Schneiderman said. “This agreement helps pave the way for people with disabilities to access affordable intercity transportation and puts other companies on notice that violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act will not be tolerated."
Bus transportation has become more important for all consumers in recent years as increased air and rail transit fares have led individuals to rely more heavily on intercity bus service, especially between large metropolitan areas. It's a special hardship for disabled consumers, Schneiderman says, calling for a greater degree of vigilance to enforce compliance with the ADA.
In 2011, the Attorney General launched an undercover investigation into whether Eastern Coach provided accessible transportation to individuals with disabilities, including those who use wheelchairs. Schneiderman says the investigation revealed that Eastern Coach ticket agents advised customers that it did not have accessible buses and that it could not accommodate individuals who use wheelchairs.
The investigation also revealed that customers who purchased tickets through third-party websites faced significant barriers when attempting to notify Eastern Coach that they needed an accessible bus.
The settlement requires Eastern Coach to create new policies consistent with its obligations under the ADA, provide training to all employees about the requirements of the ADA, and pay costs to the State of New York. Schneiderman said Eastern Coach cooperated with his office and showed willingness to adopt new policies and properly train its employees.
The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, State and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications.
Feds Address Mortgage Practices Affecting Service Members
Changes protect service members who are ordered to relocate06/25/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Regulators Address Mortgage Practices Affecting Service Members Federal regulators today issued joint guidance to address mortgage servicer practi...
Federal regulators today issued joint guidance to address mortgage servicer practices that may pose risks to homeowners who are serving in the military.
It's intended to address mortgage servicer practices that pose risks to homeowners serving in the military and to ensure compliance with applicable consumer laws and regulations.
The guidance pertains to risks related to military homeowners who have informed the servicer that they have received Permanent Change of Station (PCS) orders, which occur when service members are ordered to relocate to a new duty station or base. Roughly one-third of active-duty service members receive PCS orders each year.
For military homeowners, PCS orders to move to a new duty station present unique challenges. Although the orders are non-negotiable and operate under short, strict timelines, military homeowners with PCS orders remain obligated to honor their financial obligations, including their mortgages.
If their homes have declined in value, they may be unable to sell the home and obtain sufficient funds to pay off the mortgage debt and may continue to be obligated to make monthly payments after relocating to the new duty station.
Regulators issuing the guidance included the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the National Credit Union Administration, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.
The new guidance can be found at http://www.occ.gov/news-issuances/news-releases/2012/nr-occ-2012-93a.pdf
Feds Bust Counterfeit Cell Phone Operation
More than 32,000 cell phones seized; value put at over $2 million06/25/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
More than 32,000 bogus cell phones and other electronics were seized and three people were arrested as federal agents broke up a counterfeit trafficking ri...
More than 32,000 bogus cell phones and other electronics were seized and three people were arrested as federal agents broke up a counterfeit trafficking ring.
Arrested following an extensive investigation conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Nassau County Police Department (NCPD) were Qiang Chen, 44, and Ye Zhang, 43, both of Syosset, N.Y.
They were conducting business as AMAX International Group Inc. Robert Eisenberg, 28, of Manhattan was also arrested. He conducted business as Cellular Wholesale USA Inc.
Chen is charged with five counts of trademark counterfeiting in the second degree. Zhang is charged with two counts and Eisenberg with one. Each defendant faces up to four years in prison if convicted. The charges could be upgraded to trademark counterfeiting in the first degree depending on the ultimate number of counterfeit items and their retail value.
"The defendants in this case allegedly sought to profit by providing the public with a substandard product. They also robbed manufacturers of their intellectual property, and robbed consumers of quality they come to expect and demand, said James T. Hayes Jr., special agent in charge of HSI New York.
"These scam artists knew that these phones were junk, knew that they were illegal and knew that they were duping their customers, and the only thing they cared about was how much cash they could stuff in their pockets," said Kathleen Rice, Nassau County district attorney.
The investigation began last January when CBP officers at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) performing a random inspection of a shipment of cellular phones from China grew suspicious that the phones were not authentic due to their appearance and because they were shipped loose in cardboard boxes with no packaging.
HSI special agents removed several phones from the shipment and sent them to the respective companies according to their labeling -- such as Motorola or HTC -- for testing. Analysis by the real manufacturers revealed that these phones were counterfeit, with numerous inconsistencies in the phones' designs, inferior technology and parts used in their construction.
HSI special agents enlisted the assistance of the Nassau County District Attorney's Office in March, and allowed the shipment to reach its intended recipient, but flagged both the sender and recipient. Eight more pallets of counterfeit cell phones were sent via China Air to the same recipients between January and June 2012.
HSI and NCPD officers tracked the phones from the airport to two warehouses in Plainview, N.Y., and Hicksville, N.Y
Search warrants were executed at the warehouses, as well as on a shipment at JFK, resulting in the seizure of more than 32,000 cell phones with a retail value of more than $2 million. Forty counterfeit Apple iPads and various accessories -- along with $539,710 in currency -- was also seized.
The recipients would re-package and sell the counterfeit phones online or through legitimate cell phone wholesalers who were likely unaware they were receiving counterfeit goods.
Business records will be analyzed by law enforcement to determine what companies were duped by the counterfeit phones. Those companies will be contacted and warned to investigate their inventory for potential counterfeit products.
Parents Urged To Do More To Keep Kids Active
Researchers find kids' activities are heavily influenced by parents06/25/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
David Schary, a family health researcher at Oregon State University, was disturbed by what he was seeing. In a study on children and physical activity, all...
David Schary, a family health researcher at Oregon State University, was disturbed by what he was seeing. In a study on children and physical activity -- all of the children ages two to four were sitting more than several hours a day.
Leading a team of fellow researchers, Schary set out to determine what role parents played in their children's increasingly sedentary lifestyle. What they found is that parents exert quite a bit in influence, more so than the growing availability of high-tech diversions that can keep kids glued to video screens for hours at a time.
In two studies for the journal Early Child Development and Care devoted to “Parental Influences of Childhood Obesity,” OSU researchers examined how parenting style – whether a strict but loving parent or a less-involved and more permissive parent – was associated with sedentary behavior.
30 minutes a day
Overall, they found that children who had “neglectful” parents, or ones who weren’t home often and self-reported spending less time with their kids, were getting 30 minutes more screen time on an average each week day.
“Across all parenting styles, we saw anywhere from four to five hours a day of sedentary activity,” Schary said. “This is waking hours not including naps or feeding. Some parents counted quiet play – sitting and coloring, working on a puzzle, etc. – as a positive activity, but this is an age where movement is essential.”
In the study, parents were grouped into four commonly used scientific categories – authoritative (high warmth and control), authoritarian (controlling, less warm), permissive (warm, low control), and neglectful (low control and warmth).
All the children in the sample of 200 families spent too much time sitting – typically four to five hours a day. But the study found that parents in the more neglectful category had children who were spending up to 30 additional minutes a day watching television, playing a video game or being engaged in some other form of “screen time.”
It adds up
“A half an hour each day may not seem like much, but add that up over a week, then a month, and then a year and you have a big impact,” Schary said. “One child may be getting up to four hours more active play every week, and this sets the stage for the rest of their life.”
Pressures of work might keep parents from participating as much as they would like during the week, but maybe they make up for it on the weekend. Actually, just the opposite happens. Sedentary time increased nearly one hour each weekend day in the neglectful category.
Bradley Cardinal, a professor of social psychology of physical activity at OSU, co-authored both papers with Schary. Cardinal said sedentary behavior goes against the natural tendencies of most preschool-age children.
“Toddlers and preschool-age children are spontaneous movers, so it is natural for them to have bursts of activity many minutes per hour,” he said. “Early life movement is imperative for establishing healthy, active lifestyle patterns, self-awareness, social acceptance, and even brain and cognitive development.”
In a separate study, Schary and Cardinal looked at the same group of participants and asked about ways parent support and promote active play. They found that parents who actively played with their kids had the most impact, but parents who did anything to encourage or promote active play made a difference.
The researches say parents need to maintain and increase that level of support, calling it a common sense way to prevent childhood obesity.
Majoring In Science Can Pay Big Dividends
Policymakers urging students to choose STEM fields06/25/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
The U.S. needs more scientists and technicians and will reward them handsomely. That's the bottom line of a new push in education to enroll students in the...
The U.S. needs more scientists and technicians and will reward them handsomely. That's the bottom line of a new push in education to enroll students in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – known collectively by the acronym STEM.
The STEM Education coalition is among the organizations pushing for more science-oriented education to make U.S. industry more competitive with the rest of the world. It also works to encourage more bright, gifted students, especially those from underrepresented or disadvantaged groups, to study in STEM fields.
A new study may make that job a bit easier. It finds degrees in science, technology, engineering and math associated with 25 to 50 percent higher earnings, with Latino college grads the highest earners. Minority college students who major in the STEM fields earn at least 25 percent more than their peers who study humanities or education.
Those who took jobs related to their STEM degrees earned at least 50 percent more than their classmates who majored in humanities or education fields. Why? Businesses that require employees with technical education and skill are having a hard time filling positions.
The study, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, followed more than 1,000 Asian and Pacific Islander, Latino and black students over nine years.
While minority groups continue to be underrepresented in the STEM fields, the study's researchers believe this will change if students understand how much more money can be earned in those fields.
"The premiums for majoring in STEM fields are huge," said lead author Tatiana Melguizo, associate professor of education with the USC Rossier School of Education. "We need to educate students that if they get a job in a STEM-related occupation, they have an even higher earning premium. Otherwise, students aren't reaping the economic benefit of all the hard work they went through as undergrads."
The payoff was biggest for Latino grads. They reported the highest average earnings after college - $42,180 annually - relative to the other minority groups. Black students reported earning $35,900 and Asian Pacific Islanders earned $40,261.
Latinos the highest earners
Latinos majoring in STEM fields also reported the highest earnings among the groups studied: an average of $56,875 per year, higher than the reported average salaries of $39,365 for blacks and $47,530 for Asian Pacific Islanders.
"Among the high achieving minority students we studied, Latinos not only reported the highest annual earnings overall, but also reported the highest annual earnings among STEM majors," said study co-author Gregory Wolniak, a senior research scientist at the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago. "Preliminary findings suggest this may partially be due to Latino students' ability to find jobs related to their major. These findings are encouraging signs that strengthening the pipeline of underrepresented students into STEM careers offers a viable solution to our nation's growing competitiveness problem in engineering and science fields."
According to the Princeton Review, the three most popular college majors are Business Administration, psychology. Biology, the highest ranking STEM major, comes in at fourth. The only other STEM major to crack the top 10 is computer science, which comes in at number 10.
Blood Pressure Medicine Linked To Severe Gastric Distress
Mayor Clinic doctors find olmesartan can cause nausea, vomiting and weight loss06/25/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Olmesartan is a commonly prescribed medication that helps patients control their blood pressure. But Mayo Clinic researchers is can cause nausea, vomiting,...
Olmesartan is a commonly prescribed medication that helps patients control their blood pressure. But Mayo Clinic researchers say it can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss and electrolyte abnormalities -- symptoms common among those who have celiac disease.
The findings are published online in the medical journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
Their discovery took shape over a three year period, from 2008 to 2011. Doctors at Mayo Clinic treated 22 patients with symptoms similar to celiac disease who suffered symptoms like chronic diarrhea and weight loss. The median weight loss was 39 pounds, and one patient lost 125 pounds. Fourteen of the 22 were hospitalized because of the severity of their symptoms.
But the patients didn't have celiac disease, it turned out. After examining their medications, Mayo Clinic gastroenterologist Joseph Murray, M.D., pulled several of the patients off Olmesartan.
Their symptoms dramatically improved. Eventually, all 22 were taken off the drug, and all showed improvement. Eighteen of the 22 patients had intestinal biopsies after stopping the medication and showed improvement.
“We thought these cases were celiac disease initially because their biopsies showed features very like celiac disease, such as inflammation,” said Murray, the lead author. “What made them different was they didn’t have the antibodies in their blood that are typical for celiac disease.”
Olmesartan -- prescribed for the treatment of hypertension, or high blood pressure -- works by blocking substances that tighten blood vessels, allowing blood to flow more smoothly and the heart to pump more efficiently, according to the U.S. National Library on Medicine. Olmesartan is marked under the trade name Benicar in the U.S.
Dealing With Moving Companies Can Be a Trying Experience
Moving is frustrating and stressful; professionals are supposed to make it easier06/22/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
Many people say you can tell how good a friend is if they're willing to help you move.Tongue and cheek it may be, but there's a dollop of truth in that s...
Many people say the sign of a good friend is that they're willing to help you move. Tongue in cheek it may be, but there's a dollop of truth in that saying, because nobody really likes to move, and the more help you can get the better.
Sure, we may like the new possibilities associated with picking up and starting anew, but the physical task of packing, loading and unpacking can be enough to make anyone consider a moving company.
The mere idea of using a moving company generates a sigh of relief, because one figures using professionals will greatly diminish the possibilities of having a stressful move. This is true in some cases, but many times moving companies contribute to stress levels instead of lowering them.
"I truly believe United Van Lines did everything in their power to make my move as difficult and stressful as it possibly could have been," wrote Dorothy of Norfolk, Va., in our complaints section.
When Dorothy used United Van Lines in her recent move from Memphis, Tenn. to Norfolk, the company said her belongings would be delivered no later than June 4. After her items failed to arrive on the promised date, she was then told her goods wouldn't be received until June 15.
ConsumerAffairs contacted Dorothy, and spoke with her in detail about her stressful experience.
"What upset me the most is that I was never made aware of the delay," she said. "And that's what frustrated me. They kept me in the dark the whole time. I was never sure where my belongings were at any given time."
What was the reason for Dorothy receiving her belongings nearly two weeks after the promised date? Get this one: United Van Lines said they didn't have the right crate to ship her goods in.
"My items were sitting in a warehouse until they were able to get a crate", said Dorothy.
|Consumers rate United|
You would figure a huge national moving company at the very least would have the proper receptacles to move your stuff.
So, how does one avoid moving company mishaps?
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), which is a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, says that each moving company is legally responsible for any loss or damage during the move, and consumers can use the Surface Transportation Board's Released Rates Order, to measure how much money you should be compensated for damaged belongings.
To order a copy of the most current released item rates, consumers should write to: Surface Transportation Board, 395 E Street, S.W., Washington, DC 20423-0001.
The FMCSA says consumers need to be sure to fulfill all their obligations as well. You must notify the mover in writing of any items worth over $100 per pound ($220 per kilogram), and if you include any perishable, or hazardous materials without telling your mover, you could be short changed if the moving company breaks or losses something.
In Dorothy's case, her items weren't damaged, she just received poor service from United Van Lines. When calling customer service, she was either given vague answers or was told incorrect information.
"I think because I'm a 26-year-old, single women, I was never taken seriously," she said.
ConsumerAffairs spoke with Candice from the FMCSA, and she advised that consumers should access the government website, as it lists a bevy of useful tips to help protect people from shady and negligent moving companies.
For instance, the site states that movers are legally responsible to provide you with a document that informs you about your rights under federal law. The moving company should also give you a written estimate and a copy of the U.S. Department of Transportation publication called "Ready to Move."
It's much easier to determine a reimbursement amount if items are damaged or lost, but if a company simply provides bad service, you'll have to demand compensation. In Dorothy's case, if it hadn't been for Dorothy's father she probably wouldn't have received anything.
United initially offered her $150 for the delayed move, but her Dad managed to negotiate a flat payment of $300. Dorothy said if she hadn't complained vigorously, the company would have been fine with delivering her items 11 days late with no effort to appease her.
Obviously Dorothy is happy her ordeal with the van company is over, and she'll make sure everyone she knows stays clear of the moving company.
"I will never recommend them to any friends, or family members. If they're are telling me they're doing business with them [United Van Lines], I will dissuade them," she said.
You may not have a choice but if you do, here are a few things to consider06/22/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
Moving into a new home is one of the most exciting times life has to offer. Whether your new dwelling will be in a house or an apartment, the sheer feeling...
Another Look At Rental Car Insurance
Why it may now be prudent to accept and pay for the damage waiver06/22/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
It's the age old question. At the car rental counter, you are asked if you want the company's insurance coverage on the vehicle.It's not cheap. The insur...
It's the age old question. At the car rental counter, you are asked if you want the company's insurance coverage on the vehicle.
It's not cheap. The insurance carries a fee for each day of the rental, so it can easily add $100 or more to the cost.
In the past the smartest course of action seemed to be to decline the coverage if you already had insurance coverage on your own vehicle. It usually covered you for liability for another car you happened to drive.
Reconsidering the damage waiver
But now, with car rental companies aggressively seeking to recoup from their customers even minor wear and tear on the vehicle, some are taking another look at rental car insurance.
Ironically, Amir, of Toronto, Ont., rented from Enterprise at the direction of his insurance company when his car was damaged in an accident. His insurance company told him he didn't need to take the insurance.
“When I rented the car the agent said it is a new car, there is no damage,” Amir wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “I showed him a couple of scratches and he said these are small we never claim them.”
But when Amir returned the car, another agent checked him in. This agent wasn't quite as laid back about minor scratches.
Found a dent
|Consumers rate Enterprise|
“The agent inspected the car and showed me a small dent maybe one to 1.5 inches in length and one millimeter deep on the door of back passenger that was not event visible and you had to touch it,” Amir wrote. “I had to compare it to the other side of the car to make sure it was a dent since the paint was intact. Now, they probably want to charge me a few hundred dollars for something that I didn't cause, probably existed before I rented the car and probably has no cost for them to repair. The sad part for me is that I always buy the damage waiver but this time I listened to the insurance adjuster who said if they offer you any insurance just decline. My lesson is the damage waiver is what you have to pay to be protected against the enterprise.”
Amir may be right. While your own insurance policy will protect you in the event of an accident where the police arrive and make a report, it isn't much good if the rental car check-in agent finds a dent or a scrape that they contend wasn't there when they rented the car.
The charges for this kind of minor damage can be several hundred dollars. In addition, some companies have been known to charge for the days the car is in the repair shop.
Technically, a damage waiver
The rental car company's insurance is more accurately described as a damage waiver policy. That means that the rental car company assumes the liability if the customer gets into an accident. It also assumes responsibility if the car returns with a few dings.
That may be why, amazingly, so much of the minor damage to rental cars seems to occur when they are rented by customers who decline the damage waiver. By accepting the waiver coverage, you may be insuring yourself against an unexpected extra expense.
Home Sales Dip In May
But not for the reason you think, Realtors say06/22/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Home sales have been improving in recent months, but fell back in May, according to the monthly report from the National Association of Realtors (NAR).Bu...
Home sales have been improving in recent months, but fell back in May, according to the monthly report from the National Association of Realtors (NAR).
But NAR is quick to point out the 1.5 percent decline in existing home sales last month was mostly due to a lack of homes for sale. There were fewer buyers, the group said, because there were fewer homes for sale.
"The slight pullback in monthly home sales is more likely due to supply constraints rather than softening demand,” said Lawrence Yun, NAR's chief economist. “The normal seasonal upturn in inventory did not occur this spring. Even with the monthly decline, home sales have moved markedly higher with 11 consecutive months of gains over the same month a year earlier."
Yun also points out that even though sales declined 1.5 percent from April they were up 9.6 percent from May 2011.
Shortage of houses for sale
Yun says there are broad-based shortages of inventory in the lower price ranges in much of the country except the Northeast, and in the West supply is extremely tight in all price ranges except for the upper end. It's due in part to the inability of underwater homeowners to sell and belief by others that right now might not be a good time to sell.
With supplies tightening, you would think that prices would being to rise and Yun says that's exactly what's happening. The median existing single-family home price was $182,900 in May, up 7.7 percent from a year ago.
All cash sales continue to decline – down to 28 percent of the buyers in May. That suggests more owner occupants are entering the market since all cash sales tend to involve investors. Investors purchased 17 percent of homes in May, down from 20 percent in April and 19 percent in May 2011.
"These figures reflect a modest increase in traditional repeat home buyers in May," Yun said.
Gas Prices Fall Another Seven Cents
Only two states now have an average price above $4 a gallon06/22/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
The week brought more good news for motorists filling their vehicles with fuel. The national average price of gasoline fell another seven cents a gallon in...
The week brought more good news for motorists filling their vehicles with fuel. The national average price of gasoline fell another seven cents a gallon in the last seven days.
The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.454 per gallon, down from $3.524 last Friday, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. Fuel prices are 18 cents a gallon lower than they were a month ago.
The average price of diesel fuel today is $3.738 per gallon, down from $3.795 a week ago.
Relief in the west
This week, it was the states with the highest gas prices – mostly in the western states – that saw the most relief at the gas pump. There are now only two states – Hawaii and Alaska – with average gas prices over $4 a gallon.
Washington State saw its average price plunge 19 cents in one week. In Oregon, the average price fell nearly 18 cents a gallon.
Indiana and Illinois saw significant relief at the pump after regional refinery problems caused prices to spike a weak earlier. In the Hoosier State, prices plunged 23 cents a gallon in the last week.
Overall, the outlook for gasoline prices appears to be promising for motorists as world oil prices continue to lose ground. Traders bid down the price of both Brent and WTI crude over fears of a global economic slowdown brought on by Europe's continuing problems.
The states with the highest gas prices this week are:
- Hawaii ($4.352
- Alaska ($4.222)
- Washington State ($3.862)
- Oregon ($3.833)
- California ($3.899)
- Idaho ($3.733)
- Michigan ($3.626)
- Nevada ($3.671)
- Colorado ($3.696)
- Connecticut ($3.694)
The states with the lowest gas prices this week are:
- South Carolina ($3.042)
- Mississippi ($3.108)
- Alabama ($3.131)
- Tennessee ($3.136)
- Louisiana ($3.211)
- Arkansas ($3.219)
- Georgia ($3.240)
- Virginia ($3.243)
- Texas ($3.264)
- Missouri ($3.310)
Study: Light Alcohol Use During Pregnancy Not Harmful
Danish researchers say one to six drinks per week doesn't hurt06/22/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Here's a study that could well trigger some debate in medical circles. Researchers in the Netherlands says pregnant women consuming one to six alcoholic dr...
Here's a study that could well trigger some debate in medical circles. Researchers in the Netherlands says pregnant women consuming one to six alcoholic drinks per week -- note that's per week, not per day -- cause no harm to their offspring.
Current thinking is that women should completely avoid alcohol during pregnancy. But the researchers say they found children born to mothers who consumed fewer than six alcohol units per week were just as intelligent and well-developed as children of abstaining mothers.
Mothers who had been drinking five or more drinks on a single occasion a limited number of times before realizing that they were pregnant may also breathe a sigh of relief; their children have likely not been harmed, the researchers said.
The finding are published in the International Medical Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, BJOG.
Not so fast
Women should not take the study as a green light for drinking while pregnant. The researchers say it's still a good idea for mothers to be avoid alcohol.
"The Danish Health and Medicines Authority recommends pregnant women to abstain completely from alcohol consumption, but we know from other studies that about half of the pregnant women do not entirely stay away from alcohol during pregnancy, said Ulrik Schiøler Kesmodel, associate professor at Aarhus University who led the research. “Many of these mothers report binge episodes during the period before they even knew that they were pregnant. Now we have scientific evidence which may set their minds at ease.”
The study focused on 1,628 Danish children registered in the Danish National Birth Cohort 'Better Health for Mother and Child', which includes information on mothers' alcohol habits during pregnancy.
The researchers analyzed five-year-old children, testing their IQ, attention span and executive functions in order to assess their abilities in planning, organizing and sustaining attention. They compared those abilities to children of mothers who completely abstained from alcohol and found virtually no differences between the groups.
While the research may prove controversial, Kesmodel says the findings are an important new contribution to the health information provided for pregnant women. He says the new findings may also send a message to the midwives and general practitioners who provide the women with health advice during pregnancy.
Survey: Workers Taking Fewer Vacations Since Recession
But bosses are more likely to take a summer break06/22/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
U.S. workers still take vacations but they take fewer and of less duration since the Great Recession. A survey by the jobs site Careerbuilder.com also show...
U.S. workers still take vacations but they take fewer and of less duration since the Great Recession. A survey by the jobs site Careerbuilder.com also shows employees take fewer vacations than their bosses.
Eighty-one percent of managers have taken or plan to take vacation this year, compared to 65 percent of full-time employees.
Before the recession, which began in late 2007 and officially ended in 2009, about 80 percent of employees took a vacation each year. But the survey, conducted earlier this year, now finds that vacations are just financially out of reach for many Americans.
Can't afford it
One in five workers said they can't afford to go on vacation, which is down from 24 percent in 2011. Another 12 percent of workers say they can afford vacations, but have no plans to take one, consistent with past years. People in supervisory positions are more likely, however, to take a vacation.
"Managers may be more likely to afford vacations, but they should still be encouraging their employees to use paid time off, even if they are staying close to home," said Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder. "Workers who maximize vacation time are less likely to burn out and more likely to maintain productivity levels. Heavy workloads and financial constraints can make it difficult to get away from work, but even if you're not traveling far from home, a few days away can have have a very postive impact on your health and happiness."
Even when workers do take vacations, they tend to be shorter than they once were. For example, in the post-recession era 17 percent of workers plan vacations of 10 days or more. That's down from 24 percent from 2007.
Hard to escape
Many find it's hard to escape the office even when they are on vacation. Three out of 10 workers said they usually stay in contact with their workplace during their time off. More than a third of managers (37 percent) say they expect their employees to check with work while on vacation, although most say only if the employee is involved in a big project or major issue going on with the company.
In the last couple of years, rising gasoline prices have added to the financial pressures of taking a vacation, popularizing the concept of “stay-cations.” Thirty-eight percent of workers say they vacationed at home last year or plan to do so this year.
Finally, 23 percent said they continued to stay on while the family went on vacation.
School's Out, Drowning Season in Full Swing
Children under 5 are at greatest risk06/22/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
With school out and the swimming pool season in full swing, it’s a good time to remember that summer fun can turn to tragedy in the blink of an eye....
With school out and the swimming pool season in full swing, it’s a good time to remember that summer fun can turn to tragedy in the blink of an eye.
Children younger than 5 years old represent nearly 75 percent of child drowning fatalities and African American and Hispanic children between the ages of 5 and 14 drown at higher rates than white children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Data from USA Swimming indicate that 70 percent of African American children and 62 percent of Hispanic children cannot swim, making them especially vulnerable populations.
"CPSC's Pool Safely campaign has worked to prevent countless drownings, and we will continue to work to save even more lives this year," said Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) Chairman Inez Tenenbaum. "Drowning is still the leading cause of unintentional deaths with children younger than 5. That's why the Pool Safely campaign is encouraging all parents and caregivers of children, especially African American and Hispanic children, to help them learn to swim and to take water safety seriously."
New statistics released by CPSC include:
An annual average of 390 pool or spa-related drownings for children younger than 15 occurred from 2007 to 2009; about 75 percent (293) of the reported fatalities involved children younger than five.
An estimated annual average of 5,200 pool or spa-related emergency department-treated submersion injuries for children younger than 15, from 2009 to 2011; children younger than 5 represented 79 percent, or 4,108, of these injuries.
Children between the ages of 1 and 3 (12 months through 47 months) represented 66 percent of estimated injuries for 2009 through 2011 and 67 percent of the reported fatalities for 2007 through 2009 involving children younger than 15 years.
The majority of the estimated emergency department-treated submersion injuries for 2009 through 2011 and the reported fatalities for 2007 through 2009 were associated with pools.
Approximately 51 percent of the estimated injuries for 2009 through 2011 and 73 percent of the fatalities for 2007 through 2009 involving children younger than 15 years old occurred at a residence.
Residential locations dominated incidents involving victims younger than 5 years of age (54 percent for injuries and 85 percent for fatalities).
Approximately 58 percent of fatalities (annual average of 226) occurred in in-ground pools. Portable pools accounted for 10 percent of the reported fatalities (annual average of 40) to children younger than 15 years of age.
There were no reported entrapment fatalities for 2011. CPSC received seven reports of entrapment injury incidents during 2011.
Making a difference
"After losing my son, I wanted to do something to help others, so other moms wouldn't have to suffer from the loss of a child drowning," said Wanda Butts, a mother who lost her son to drowning in 2006 and formed The Josh Project to help other children learn how to swim. "Together, we can make a difference this summer and ensure that our kids pool safely."
"The USA Swimming Foundation is proud to lend its research and resources to further the life-saving learn-to-swim message," according to USA Swimming's "Make a Splash" official Kim O'Shea. "We are incredibly proud to have enrolled more than 1.2 million children in swimming lessons through our Make a Splash initiative, to educate parents and communities across the nation about the importance of learning to swim."
Pool Safely, a national public education campaign, works with partners around the country to reduce child drownings, near-drownings submersions and entrapment incidents in swimming pools and spas.
Parents, caregivers, and the media are encouraged to visit PoolSafely.gov or @PoolSafely on Twitter for vital safety information regarding the prevention of child submersions in and around pools and spas.
Volaris Fined for Failing To Disclose Baggage Fees
Extra charges must be spelled out clearly06/22/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
You have a right to know if you have to pay extra for airline baggage and the carrier is required to tell you when you buy a ticket. Because it didn’...
You have a right to know if you have to pay extra for airline baggage and the carrier is required to tell you when you buy a ticket. Because it didn’t, the Mexican airline Volaris has been hit with a $130,000 civil penalty by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).
This is the first penalty assessed for a violation of the provisions of the new aviation consumer rule that took effect this past January.
“We adopted our rule on baggage fees to make sure that consumers have complete and accurate information about how much they will have to pay when they book a flight,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said. “We will continue to take enforcement action when carriers fail to comply with our rules.”
Full disclosure required
Under DOT’s new rule, carriers must clearly and prominently disclose on the first screen that offers a fare for a customer’s specific itinerary that additional fees for baggage may apply, as well as show consumers where they can view the baggage fees. The rule applies to all airlines selling air transportation in the United States -- including foreign carriers.
For a period of time beginning Jan. 24, 2012, the date the new requirement took effect, a search of flights on Volaris’ Website displayed itineraries that listed the fares for outbound and inbound flights, but failed to inform consumers that additional baggage fees might apply.
Tips For Handling a Heat Wave
You can stay cool and save money06/22/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
With the eastern half of the country in the grip of a summer heat wave, staying cool and keeping energy bills under control become twin, if not conflicting...
With the eastern half of the country in the grip of a summer heat wave, staying cool and keeping energy bills under control become twin, if not conflicting, priorities.
But there are some simple things you can do. For example, close air conditioning registers in unused rooms and keep the doors to those rooms closed. This will reduce the amount of energy your air conditioner will use to maintain your home's temperature.
Make sure heat-producing appliances are not near wall-mounted thermostats. Doing so will make your air conditioner run longer than necessary to maintain your preferred temperature.
Turn up the thermostat a bit
When it gets really hot outside, try to stand a little more warmth inside. When the temperature rises, set your air conditioners a few degrees warmer. Every degree you add to your interior temperature in the summer can reduce your energy usage by up to three percent.
Lighting adds to interior heat, and here's where phasing out incandescent light bulbs can help save money. Switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), since CFLs use up to 75 percent less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs and they produce less heat.
If you have already had a seasonal HVAC tune-up your air conditioner will run more efficiently. And if you haven't done so lately, replace the filter on the air handler.
Blot out the sun
This is not the time of year you want the sun to shine in. Close drapes or blinds on windows that receive direct sunlight. Blocking the sun's rays reduces the temperature in your home, which means your air conditioner has less work to do.
If your home has an attached garage, keep your garage door closed during the hottest hours of the day. This can reduce the amount of cool air that might escape, resulting in less work for your air conditioner.
Locate window air conditioning units where they will be in the shade during the hottest hours of the day. Keeping the sun off your window air conditioner will reduce its workload and increase your energy efficiency.
In the kitchen, cook with the microwave instead of the oven. Eating salads and other food that doesn't need to be cooked will make you feel cooler while producing less heat in the house.
Run kitchen and bath exhaust fans only as long as necessary to remove odors or steam from the room. Leaving a fan running will pull cool air from your home, increasing its temperature.
The Lowdown on Lawn Care Companies
There's no one-size-fits-all solution to having a lawn that stays green and weed-free06/21/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
Many kids who had the ardent task of mowing their parents lawn, clipping hedges, or pulling weeds probably said to themselves 'I'm going to use a lawn care...
Many kids who had the arduous task of mowing their parents lawn, clipping hedges, or pulling weeds probably said to themselves, "I'm going to use a lawn care company when I'm older and get my own house."
For many, that proclamation turned into reality, as a lot of homeowners choose to hire companies like TruGreen, and National Grass Cut Inc., because their lives are just too busy for yard-work, or they simple hate doing it.
One would imagine the business exchange between consumer and lawn care company would be quite simple. The consumer obtains a reputable company, an estimate is provided, and the workers come and give your lawn that tidy golf course look. But many times it's not that simple.
Plenty of consumers across the U.S. have reported cases of lawn care companies doing poor yard work, having questionable billing practices, and using harmful lawn chemicals.
A perfect example is the Kansas-based Ryan Lawn and Tree. The company is swimming in a sea of lawsuits claiming it used a harmful herbicide that killed trees, bushes and plants on the yards of several residents.
One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit is suing the nationwide company for the sum of $50,000, alleging that Ryan Lawn killed over 75 trees and bushes on his estate.
The landscapers used the controversial herbicide Imprelis, created by the chemical company Dupont. In 2011, the product was pulled by the Environmental Protection Agency, but many companies already used it before it was taken off shelves.
A report conducted by Ohio State University about selecting proper lawn care service showed that consumers should become well acquainted with the various types of lawn care options and company programs.
The authors of the report say it's imperative for homeowners to select the right company and service for their specific landscape needs. Many companies have a standard or basic package, but what that service actually entails will differ from company to company -- and may not be appropriate for your specific situation.
While some plans may be inadequate, others may have more service than what's actually needed.
The report states that consumers should call at least two to three companies before choosing one.
The authors of the report also tell consumers to find out how much and what type of fertilizer a company uses, as it must comply with state laws for the amount of nitrogen the fertilizer contains.
For example, Maryland's Nutrient Management Law not only regulates fertilizer use, it makes lawn companies test the soil, and keep records of when and what type of chemicals it uses. The Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) also makes sure commercial lawn companies properly apply chemicals to yards. Similiar laws are established across the U.S.
Lawn care experts say consumers should ask neighbors or friends for recommendations of yard service companies instead of choosing one blindly. In addition, cost shouldn't be the sole factor in selecting a lawn care company, as better fertilizers and higher-quality service will obviously cost more, but will pay off over time.
Homeowners should know exactly what they want done to their yards before the company arrives, while also staying away from general flat rates. A free inspection should be done to determine the size of your yard, as not one rate should be applied to every yard.
The size of your yard will also determine the proper amount of fertilizer the company should use.
Get it in writing
|Consumers rate TruGreen|
Additionally, it's important for homeowners to lock down guarantees in writing for things like response times, pricing and materials used.
One should also know the names and faces of who will be working on your yard, as people have reported seeing phony uniformed workers showing up early, saying they're part of the work team.
"A man with a TruGreen logo shirt rang my door bell," said Cheryl in a complaint posted on ConsumerAffairs. "Not knowing him and having seen a 'beware of scammer alert' from the local news, I wouldn't open the door. As he left, he made an inappropriate comment about my talking through the door."
Kudos to Cheryl for listening to her gut instinct.
Consumers should also make sure a company is certified according to state laws, especially if the company is using pesticides.
Samsung To Probe Galaxy S3 Heat Claims
Irish consumer says his phone caught fire while in a docking station06/21/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Technology sites have displayed photographs in the last 24 hours of a Samsung Galaxy SIII handset that appears to be damaged by fire. The reports said the ...
|A MacBook was damaged in a 2007 battery fire|
Technology sites have displayed photographs in the last 24 hours of a Samsung Galaxy SIII handset that appears to be damaged by fire. The reports said the phone burst into flames, melting part of the chassis.
Samsung was quick to respond.
“There have been recent online posts displaying pictures of a Samsung GALAXY SIII that appears to have heat-related damage at the bottom of the device,” the company wrote in its product blog. “Samsung is aware of this issue and will begin investigating as soon as we receive the specific product in question. Once the investigation is complete, we will be able to provide further details on the situation. We are committed to providing our customers with the safest products possible and are looking at this seriously.”
According to published report, the handset began to overheat while it was in a car mount. The phone in question is owed by an Irish consumer who was in Dublin at the time.
The consumer reportedly told officials he was driving in traffic when a white flame and sparks began coming out of the device. The consumer said he isn't even sure the problem was with the phone, saying it could have been a combination of issues.
A few years ago there were numerous reports of laptop computers overheating and catching fire. In 2006 Sony Corp. recalled about 340,000 rechargeable lithium ion batteries used in Fujitsu Computer Systems Corporation, Gateway Inc., Sony Electronics Inc., and Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. notebook computers. The lithium ion batteries can overheat, posing a fire hazard to consumers.
Prior to the recall there had been 16 reports of notebook computer batteries overheating, causing minor property damage and two minor burns.
The Galaxy SIII is Samsung's newest Android handset featuring Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, 4G LTE/HSPA+ 42 capability, a dual-core processor, and an 8-megapixel camera.
Should You Consider Insurance For Your Pet?
"Self-insuring" may be a better option for many pet owners06/21/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
People have healthcare plans and, with the rising cost of veterinary care, so do pets.For a monthly fee, many vet visits are covered for little or no add...
People have healthcare plans and, with the rising cost of veterinary care, so do pets.
For a monthly fee, many vet visits are covered for little or no additional cost. A growing number of consumers are opting for them, though others – like Terry, of Cornelius, Ore., advise against it.
“Think twice before being sucked into getting these so-called wellness plans for your pet,” Terry wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “They are not worth the money. Put aside that money into a separate savings plan for your pet. Then find a private local vet to take your pet to. Check them out first with the Better Business Bureau. Ask for references.”
If you do decide to shop around for a pet wellness plan, you'll find it's a lot like shopping for a healthcare plan for humans. Prices and coverages vary, depending on what's covered.
These plans can be offered by chains or by an independent local vet. A good plan might cover office visits and physical exams. It may also cover vaccines and regular screenings. Some plans include dental care.
Before signing up for a wellness plan, however, try to price all these individual services and come up with a total price, if purchased separately. Next compare that total to a year of wellness plan premiums.
The total cost of the wellness plan should be well below the cost of the a la carte services. Otherwise, you might want to take Terry's advice and set up your own wellness plan for your pet, putting that “monthly payment” in a savings account each month to pay for excellent care for your pet.
The goal of a pet wellness plan should be to:
- Prevent disease
- Detect irregularities before they lead to expensive treatment
- Schedule checkups and procedures at the proper times - all while eliminating unnecessary veterinary expenses.
In general, plans fall into the following categories:
- Traditional - Standard pet insurance plans with predetermined plan design options that cover illness, accidents and preventive care. Based on the plan design, the insurance company will pay all or part of vet bills up to a certain amount.
- Customizable - Offers more freedom in terms of "mixing and matching" plan design provisions such as deductibles, copays, coinsurance percentages and annual maximum coverage amounts.
- Accident Only - Only cover accidents. There is no coverage for illnesses or preventive care.
- Discount - When you take your pet to a veterinarian or hospital that is in the insurance company's network, you will receive a discount on the services provided.
Keep in mind that not all plans are alike and the more flexible it is, the more it is to your – and your pet's – advantage.
More about Pet Care and Insurance
Consumer Awarded $65,000 for Bank's Harassing Phone Calls
Bank kept calling even after being advised it was calling the wrong person06/21/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
Have you ever received a continuous flow of pre-recorded phone calls? They usually come at the most inconvenient time during your day, and typically have t...
Have you ever received a continuous flow of pre-recorded phone calls? They usually come at the most inconvenient time during your day, and typically have to do with some sort of sales pitch, survey, or debt collection.
Well, a gentleman from Michigan took his annoyance to court, after receiving a slew of harassing phone calls from World Financial Network National Bank (WFNNB).
Dan Harris claimed he received 56 robo-calls to his cell phone about an outstanding debt, but Harris was the wrong person, and although he told the bank it was phoning the wrong person, the harassing phone calls didn't stop.
Harris opened a lawsuit and claimed the bank violated guidelines established by the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) and Michigan's Collection Practices Act (MCPA).
The TCPA passed by the Congress in 1991, and signed into law by President George H. W. Bush, disallows automated or prerecorded calls to be used when calling someone's cell phone, unless their prior consent is given.
Harris received a sum of 56 automated calls on his cell phone from Alliance Data Systems, that phoned on behalf of WFNNB. The bank claims one of its customers gave Harris's cell phone as a contact number, but admitted that Harris did in fact call to remedy the error.
Not only did Harris not have an outstanding debt with the bank, but he never was one of its customers and had no prior dealings with WFNNB. Between August 18 and October 26, 2010, Harris was autodialed 56 times before he decided to take both the bank and Alliance Data Systems to court.
The Michigan courts ruled in Harris's favor granting him $65,000 for harassing and incorrect phone calls, with the help of Michigan attorney Ian Lyngklip.
"It's a big win for consumers and puts banks and others in the collection business on notice once again that harassing phone calls will not be tolerated," said Lyngklip.
The complete amount granted was made up of $62,000 under the TCPA, and another $2,500 in legal fees, court costs, and damages under the MCPA guidelines.
The TCPA allows recovery damages that total $500 per wrongful call, and that amount is tripled in those cases of willful action. U.S. District Judge Sean F. Cox in Michigan, found that WFNNB violated the TCPA and "acted willfully" when it continued to call Harris's cell phone, even after he called and tried to correct the bank's mistake.
Moral of this story: Don't take harassing phone calls lying down, and familiarize yourself with your states calling laws. It could win you a bit of money, or at the very least stop you from being bothered by annoying phone calls.
Bluestem Recalls Fingerhut, Gettington Recliners
The legs contain excessive amounts of lead paint06/21/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Bluestem Brands, Inc., of Eden Prairie, Minn., is recalling about 400 recliners. The surface paint on the legs of the recliner contains excessive leve...
Bluestem Brands, Inc., of Eden Prairie, Minn., is recalling about 400 recliners. The surface paint on the legs of the recliner contains excessive levels of lead which is prohibited under federal law.
The recalled adult-sized recliner chairs have wooden legs. The chairs include a reclining function and foot rest extension. The fabric is jacquard in a paisley design. The phrases: "Manufactured By Xiamen Xinzhjheng Foam Products Co., LTD Xiang-Bei Industrial Area, Xiang' An District, Xiamen" and "Made in China" are printed on a label located on the underside of the recliner chair.
The chairs were sold through Fingerhut catalogs, Fingerhut.com and Gettington.com from July 2011 through January 2012. They were made in China.
Consumers should contact Tone World International Inc. to receive free replacement legs along with instructions on removing the old legs and attaching the new ones.
For more information, contact Tone World International Inc. at email@example.com or call collect at (763) 513-9596 between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.
Cost of Raising a Child Still Rising
A one-year-old will cost you $234,900 before reaching adulthood06/21/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
If you are a parent, you don’t need the government to tell you it’s expensive to raise a child. What you may not know is HOW expensive.Accord...
If you are a parent, you don’t need the government to tell you it’s expensive to raise a child. What you may not know is HOW expensive.
According to the U.S. Agriculture Department, a middle-income family with a child born in 2011 can expect to spend about $234,900 ($295,560 if projected inflation costs are factored in) for food, shelter, and other necessities to raise that child over the next 17 years.
This represents a 3.5 percent increase from 2010. Expenses for transportation, childcare, education and food saw the largest percentage increases. There were smaller increases in housing, clothing, health care and miscellaneous expenses on a child during the same period.
For 2011, annual child-rearing expenses per child for a middle-income, two-parent family ranged from $12,290 to $14,320, depending on the age of the child.
The USDA report, issued annually since 1960, is used by courts and state governments to help determine child support guidelines and foster care payments. The report is based on data from the Federal government's Consumer Expenditure Survey -- the most comprehensive source of information available on household expenditures.
The report notes geographic variations in the cost of raising a child, with expenses the highest for families living in the urban Northeast, followed by the urban West and urban Midwest. Families living in the urban South and rural areas have the lowest child-rearing expenses.
The report, developed by the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, notes that family income affects child-rearing costs. A family earning less than $59,410 per year can expect to spend a total of $169,080 (in 2011 dollars) on a child from birth through high school. Similarly, middle-income parents with an income between $59,410 and $102,870 can expect to spend $234,900; and a family earning more than $102,870 can expect to spend $389,670.
For middle-income families, housing costs are the single largest expenditure on a child, averaging $70,560 or 30 percent of the total cost over 17 years. Childcare and education (for those incurring these expenses) and food were the next two largest expenses, accounting for 18 and 16 percent of the total cost over 17 years. These estimates do not include costs associated with pregnancy or the cost of a college education or education beyond high school.
Economies of scale
But, parents, don't let the report scare you away from having more children. The USDA says that, as you might expect, expenses per child decrease as a family has more children. Families with three or more children spend 22 percent less per child than families with two children.
As families have more children, the children can share bedrooms, clothing and toys can be handed down to younger children, food can be purchased in larger and more economical quantities, and private schools or child care centers may offer sibling discounts.
The full report, Expenditures on Children by Families (2011), is available on the Web at www.cnpp.usda.gov. In addition, an interactive Web version of the report is available where families can enter the number and ages of their children to obtain an estimate of costs.
Veterans Get a Little Help Finding Jobs in Transportation
Feds launch job-finding portal for unemployed veterans06/21/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James R. Hood
DOT, VA To Help Vets Seeking Jobs In Transportation U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki tod...
Two federal agencies are trying to get moving to help veterans find jobs in the transportation industry.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki today unveiled a new job-finding portal for military veterans on their departments’ Websites.
“Our transportation industry needs pilots, controllers, mechanics and drivers -- the very kinds of skills that our military is known for developing,” said LaHood. “This new Web link will help repay the debt we owe our veterans for their service to our country.”
“Veterans have the skills, knowledge and attributes that American businesses need to help rebuild an economy that will last," said Secretary Shinseki. "These men and women bring exceptional leadership to any position. They are uniquely qualified for jobs as pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers, commercial drivers and emergency medical technicians because many of them have performed these roles in combat."
The portal on the DOT and VA Websites will link to the Veterans Transportation Career Center, where former members of the armed forces can enter their specific military work experience and see how it translates to jobs in the civilian working world.
The site will guide vet to jobs in five categories: aviation pilot, aviation maintenance technician, air traffic controller, commercial motor vehicle driver and emergency medical services. Job seekers can find what training and certification is needed for civilian jobs, determine what career fits best with their background, and search for available jobs in their field.
Why Fat-Free Salad Dressing May Not Be the Best Choice
Some fat brings out the nutrients in vegetables06/21/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Having a salad is almost always a healthy choice, but it turns out that the kind of salad dressing you choose can make a difference in how healthy it is....
Having a salad is almost always a healthy choice, but it turns out that the kind of salad dressing you choose can make a difference in how healthy it is.
The vegetables in salads are full of important vitamins and nutrients, but their benefits are controlled by using the right type and amount of salad dressing.
Purdue University researchers fed subjects salads topped off with a variety of dressings. Some were saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat-based dressings. The subjects were then tested for absorption of fat-soluble carotenoids – compounds such as lutein, lycopene, beta-carotene and zeaxanthin in their blood.
Those carotenoids are considered very healthy since they are associated with reduced risk of several chronic and degenerative diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and macular degeneration.
The study found that monounsaturated fat-rich dressings required the least amount of fat to get the most carotenoid absorption. What does this mean, exactly? It means that a fat-free salad dressing is not necessarily the best choice.
"If you want to utilize more from your fruits and vegetables, you have to pair them correctly with fat-based dressings," said Mario Ferruzzi, the study's lead author and a Purdue associate professor of food science. "If you have a salad with a fat-free dressing, there is a reduction in calories, but you lose some of the benefits of the vegetables."
Overall, pairing with fat matters, the researchers found. You can absorb significant amounts of carotenoids with saturated or polyunsaturated fats at low levels, but you would see more carotenoid absorption as you increase the amounts of those fats on a salad.
The findings coincide with a 2004 Iowa State University study that determined carotenoids were more easily absorbed by the intestines when paired with full-fat dressing as opposed to low-fat or fat-free versions.
Traveling? Don't Bring Measles Home With You
Summer Olympics could be an Olympic event for measles06/21/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
With the 2012 Summer Olympics just weeks, people around the world are preparing. Athletes are putting in their final weeks of training, officials in...
With the 2012 Summer Olympics just weeks, people around the world are preparing.
Athletes are putting in their final weeks of training, officials in London are getting the city ready for visitors and spectators are making travel plans. In the U.S., the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is working to make sure everyone’s healthy for the big event.
One area of concern is measles -- in particular -- unvaccinated travelers contracting the disease while abroad and bringing it back home. Last year, 222 people in the U.S. were reported to have measles -- due mostly to overseas travel.
While traveling, you may be exposed to people from countries where measles is still common, including countries in Europe, Asia, the Pacific, and Africa. In 2011, over 30,000 people in Europe had measles. So, as you prepare for your trip abroad, make sure you’re protected against measles before you leave.
Why are people still getting sick?
Measles vaccination coverage in many countries around the world is not as high as in the United States and the Americas. Thanks to the vaccine, measles was declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000. However, it is still common worldwide -- about 20 million people get measles each year. So, there’s a risk of being exposed while you’re overseas.
Measles is highly contagious and very good at finding unvaccinated people. This includes babies too young to be vaccinated and people who have health conditions like cancer.
Measles spreads through the air when an infected person breathes, coughs, or sneezes. So, you can catch it just by being in a room where an infected person has been, even after they’re gone. You can be exposed in airports, airplanes, buses, hotels, or any place where there are infected people. You can even get measles from an infected person who doesn’t have measles rash yet.
If you’re not vaccinated, you put yourself and others at risk for measles and its complications, like pneumonia, encephalitis -- or even death.
Luckily, the measles vaccine is highly effective. So, if you’re planning to travel overseas this summer, make sure you and your family are up to date on all vaccinations, including the measles vaccine. You can get more information about measles and the vaccine at www.cdc.gov/measles.
J.D. Power Finds Big Improvement In Auto Initial Quality
Only trouble spot appears to be audio and navigation systems06/21/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
U.S. automakers are building the highest initial quality vehicles since 2009 according to the J.D. Power and Associates 2012 U.S. Initial Quality Study. Th...
U.S. automakers are building the highest initial quality vehicles since 2009 according to the J.D. Power and Associates 2012 U.S. Initial Quality Study. The company reports the strong improvement coincides with the continued recovery of the industry.
Initial quality is based on the number of reported problems in the first year of a vehicle's life. In the latest survey, overall initial quality for the industry improved by five problems per 100 vehicles in 2012—an improvement of five percent from 2011.
This year, the biggest quality negative was in the area of audio, entertainment, and navigation problems which increased by 8 percent from 2011. This continues a recent trend, as problems in this category have increased by 45 percent since 2006 while other categories have improved by 24 percent, on average.
The problems increased as manufacturers continue to introduce increasingly sophisticated multimedia systems designed to enhance the ownership experience. For the first time in the 26-year history of the study, owners report more problems related to audio, entertainment, and navigation systems than in any other vehicle area.
In particular, drivers are reporting problems with new technology like voice recognition on mainstream models.
"Until recently, this type of sophisticated technology was found primarily on high-end models" said David Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power and Associates. "However, over the past few years it has rapidly found its way into the automotive mainstream. For example, in 2012, more than 80 percent of owners indicate that their new vehicle has some form of hands-free technology."
Specifically, the number of owner-reported problems with factory-installed hands-free communication devices has increased 137 percent during the past four years. In fact, hands-free devices not recognizing commands has become the most-often-reported problem in the industry.
This year, Lexus is the highest-ranked brand for a second consecutive year. Jaguar and Porsche were tied for second, with Jaguar posting the biggest improvement in the study. Cadillac and Honda round out the top five.
Of the 34 brands ranked in the study, 26 have improved from 2011, five have declined, one scores the same as in 2011 and two were not included in the 2011 study. Of the 185 models ranked in both the 2012 and 2011 studies, 65 percent have improved.
The Universal/EMI Merger: How Will It Specifically Impact The Music Consumer?
Consumer Federation experts outline risks to consumers if takeover goes through06/20/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
Last week ConsumerAffairs discussed a possible music industry takeover by Universal Music Group (UMG), as the mega label announced its attempts to purchase...
Last week ConsumerAffairs discussed a possible music industry takeover by Universal Music Group (UMG), as the megalabel announced its attempts to purchase EMI, which would make Universal one of the most powerful record labels in the business.
Both public interest groups and music industry insiders alike believe the potential merger would negatively impact music consumers by leading to higher prices for digital and physical music releases. Universal would also gain more ability to control when new music is made available, and have more power to influence the overall sound of popular music by withholding content.
In their report "The Role of Antitrust in Protecting Competition, Innovation and Consumers As the Digital Revolution Matures," Mark Cooper, Director of Research for the Consumer Federation of America, and Jodi Griffin, Staff Council for Public Knowledge, discussed the potential consequences of the merger, and how it could threaten competitiveness within the music industry.
ConsumerAffairs talked with Cooper and Griffin, and they spoke specifically about what's in store for the music consumer if the UMG/EMI merger is finalized.
In the report the authors state that record companies currently over-estimate how much piracy and digital sales impact market power. In our interview they expanded on that.
"The paper shows that there is a huge amount of spending on digital music," the authors said. "So much so that the industry is shipping 50 percent more units that they ever did. The question for the antitrust authorities is whether piracy would prevent a major with much more market power from raising prices by 5 percent or more."
"Consumers are paying $2.4 billion for legal digital music. Raising the price of a digital album, for example, by 50 cents would not turn people into pirates or increase piracy substantially. The majors know this because of their own studies of elasticities of demand and marketing strategies."
The authors fear that improvements on digital music distribution could also be harmed, since Universal would have the power to govern a disproportionate amount of music that would be needed by distributors to further improve serviceability.
"Innovation could be reduced", the authors explained. "Because the combined UMG/EMI would be able to withhold must-have content that digital distributors need to build successful new services, or only license that content on onerous terms, like disproportionately high royalties, enormous advances, or requiring an ownership interest in the new service. As a result, innovative new digital music services will be unable to launch or unable to compete."
The detailed report contains a section entitled "Pricing Patterns: Illegally Fixing the Price of CDs." The section shows how record labels historically manipulated CD prices when technology allowed CDs to be made and distributed at cheaper costs. Both Cooper and Griffin believe that if the merger goes through, the same thing would be done to digital sales.
In addition authors say, the UMG/EMI label would be so powerful that it would eventually set an industry trend, influencing other labels to heavily manipulate content in terms of pricing, availability, and new music consumers have access to.
Push prices up
"Universal could lead the effort to push prices up or they could withhold content from business models they do not like, or demand equity shares in those that they do. The other majors would be more likely to follow, since there ar fewer of them. This reduces competition and innovation in the space," the authors detailed.
But, you may ask if the consumer will truly be impacted by price manipulation since many listeners pay small amounts for downloads, or listen to music for free on sites like Spotify, or GrooveShark.
"The initial and primary benefit of digital disintermediation (combined with two consent decrees) was to force singles back into the market, which labels do not prefer but have yielded huge consumer benefits," the CFA researchers said, adding:
"The growth of digital albums has been strong of late. The fact that market power has been reduced by law and economics does not mean it cannot return. At $10.41 for a digital album, the price may still be too high. The industry remains concentrated and the majors control the flow of product through licensing. The major labels have begun to exercise control over prices. The purpose of antitrust merger review is to preserve competition."
Universal will face a Congressional hearing on June 21, as it tries to explain why the merger with EMI won't be harmful to the music consumer and the overall industry. Stay tuned for the results.
Amazon's Impersonal Service Rankles Some Consumers
Things generally go well but when they don't, solutions can be hard to find06/20/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
After ordering a book for my Dad for Father's Day at Amazon.com, two weeks prior to the actual holiday, I was told the book was out of stock and it couldn'...
After ordering a book for my dad for Father's Day at Amazon.com, two weeks prior to the actual holiday, I was told at the last minute that the book was out of stock and it couldn't be sent. This was a day before Father's Day.
No personal letter, no answer provided when calling, just a 'sorry for any inconvenience' kind of response.
Having to tell my father, "I sent you something Dad, but it's not coming and I have to reorder it" really stank! Especially because it was a gift for a man that's never missed a holiday, birthday, or any type of family deadline in his life. It led me to wonder, who else has experienced inadequate service from Amazon.com?
I found a large number of complaints from people like Daphne, who wrote ConsumerAffairs about Amazon keeping her money after they wrongfully sent her two books instead of one.
Daphne said after trying to contact the retail giant about the error, the company seemed to "hide from responsibility," and didn't provide any help, resolution, or refund.
One consumer, a Prime subscriber who places several orders each week, complained that he ordered a small item which never showed up, even though Amazon's system showed that it had been delivered. He finally reached a human at Amazon, who directed him to an obscure menu entry where he could report missing shipments.
"Although the Amazon representative seemed to think I was dense, I don't believe I would ever have found the menu entry on my own," this person, an online marketing executive, told us. He said the experience had shaken his faith in Amazon and made him less loyal.
"The representative was snippy with me and I spend thousands of dollars a year with them. I now make an effort to shop elsewhere whenever possible," he said.
There's no question Amazon has built a powerful brand. According to a ConsumerAffairs sentiment analysis of more than 12 million postings to social media over the last year, maintains a solid 60 percent positive net sentiment.
But some question whether Amazon's highly automated brand of service will sustain it as consumers grow more demanding and less tolerant of complications. Though most postings we analyzed were favorable, Amazon is not without its critics.
Some Amazon customers we heard from said they received orders from the company they didn't place.
|Consumers rate Amazon|
Sandra of Woodridge, Ill., said she received two cancellation notices from Amazon for items she never ordered. "Is somebody placing orders in my name?" she wrote to ConsumerAffairs. "I hope that is not possible."
Unfortunately it is possible, as Amazon customers recently reported being victims of a widespread phishing scam, and received emails from "firstname.lastname@example.org." In the email it said that the customer's order had been completed and the money has been extracted from their bank accounts. Scary, right?
The fraudulent emails looked to be authentic, as phishing scams often do. An investigation is currently underway.
Also, with many Linkedin and eHarmony members having their passwords stolen recently, plenty of Amazon customers are also worried, since many consumers use the same password for multiple sites.
And as far as shipping,the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), a consumer watchdog group in the UK, said recently that Amazon's promise of overnight shipping is misleading. ASA's beef with the online retailer began after many customers didn't receive their packages in a day, although they paid extra for overnight service.
After a quick back and fourth between ASA and Amazon, an advertising loophole was revealed. It was learned that Amazon's premium one-day delivery service really meant packages could be sent one business day after the order is supposed to be shipped. Huh?
Oftentimes consumers will pay extra to use Amazon over third-party retailers, as a lot of consumers view the company as a trusted brand. But many customers have claimed Amazon's shipping services are no speedier or reliable than its cheaper and less known competitors.
When it comes to selling items on Amazon, many consumers say they preferred using eBay instead. According to a consumer survey conducted by the software company Vendio, 93 percent of respondents said the task of listing items on eBay's site was easier and less cumbersome than Amazon's site.
Between the potential of being the victim of a phishing scam, and being the victim of broken shipping promises, Amazon's record of consumer satisfaction is far from flawless.
Consumers should be aware of the fine print behind the companies advertising claims, while not being afraid of phoning Amazon and asking what its doing to ensure passwords and personal information isn't compromised.
Hopefully that will whip the company into better shape, so it can better provide for its many unhappy customers.
How To Make the Right Offer On a New Car
Do your homework and be prepared to walk06/20/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Many consumers walk into a new car showroom thinking they can go toe-to-toe with the salesman, driving a hard bargain and getting an exceptional deal.But...
Many consumers walk into a new car showroom thinking they can go toe-to-toe with the salesman, driving a hard bargain and getting an exceptional deal.
But keep in mind, while you may buy a new car every five years or so, the salesman is probably selling three or four cars a day. Who do you think is going to be the better bargainer?
That said, there is no reason to approach buying a new car with fear and trepidation. Some careful homework beforehand can build your confidence and help you get a fair price.
Automall Network, an auto broker used by consumers and insurance companies, now offers Competitive Market Price Reports through their recently launched website, IVONTaCar.com. The reports cost $50 but tell a new car shopper what a competitive retail price range is in their market for the vehicle they want, be it a cash purchase, finance or lease.
"If you can walk into a dealership knowing what a competitive price is, you can use this as a much better starting point for negotiations" says Viraf Baliwalla, President of Automall Network. "This saves time comparison shopping and makes negotiating much quicker and less painful."
Another shopping tool is the Dealer Invoice Price Report. The problem with it, however, is that many dealers don't typically sell vehicles at their invoice price. So it is important to consult a variety of sources and find out as much as possible about the competitive price of your vehicle choice. Even then, it can be a crapshoot.
Playing it close to the vest
"The problem with buying a new car is that most dealerships won't give you their best price until someone else has first" said Baliwalla. "Then they will match it or slightly beat it just to get the deal while you're in their dealership."
Because of the commission-based structure of the industry, the salespeople have the greatest incentive to sell you a car with a lot of profit. Time spent trying to charm the salesperson is pointless since, no matter how much they may like you, it's in their financial interest to get you to pay as much as possible for the car.
Automotive site Edmunds.com also offers new car-buying tools, including a True Market Value (TMV) formula.
Edmunds analysts look at the market, examine what other cars have sold for, consider the popularity of the car within your region and set the TMV price. It is the average amount that other buyers in your area are paying for the car. Usually, TMV is less than sticker price but more than invoice price.
Because it's an average, some people will pay much less than TMV and others will pay more. But by looking at TMV, you can get a rough idea how popular the car is and what you should expect to pay for it.
Closing the deal
Once you have made an offer the dealer will almost certainly counter with a higher price. If you feel, after considering your research, that it is a fair price, then its time to do the deal.
But if you think the salesperson will go a little lower, then simply begin to walk off the lot. If the salesperson is really willing to sell at, or near your price, it is at this point that they will let you know.
Feds Charge Precious Metals Investment Scheme is Bogus
Sterling Precious Metals LLC allegedly scammed elderly consumers06/20/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Precious metals may be precious but that doesn't automatically make them a good investment, as many consumers have learned after succumbing to a slick sale...
Precious metals may be precious but that doesn't automatically make them a good investment, as many consumers have learned after succumbing to a slick sales pitch.
One such pitch came from Sterling Precious Metals LLC, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) alleges. The agency today charged Sterling with running a deceptive investment scheme that took in at least $10 million from predominantly elderly consumers, many of whom invested their retirement savings buying precious metals on credit without knowing the significant costs and risks.
According to the FTC's complaint, Sterling and its principals promised consumers they could earn large profits quickly by investing in precious metals with very little risk, without telling customers of the likelihood that they would have to pay more money later or lose their investment.
The investments were typically not profitable and carried a high risk of loss.
As alleged in the complaint, the defendants failed to clearly disclose the investments' total cost, and often failed to disclose that about 80 percent of the purchase would be financed through a loan with interest. The defendants also allegedly misrepresented or failed to clearly disclose fees and commissions, such as a $200 account opening fee and that consumers would be charged as much as 39 percent of their investments in commissions.
The defendants also failed to tell consumers they were likely to receive equity calls on their accounts. When a consumer's equity decreased to a certain level, an equity call was issued, and the consumer had to invest more money or allow the investment to be liquidated at a loss. In some instances, consumers were not told their accounts were liquidated.
The FTC alleges that most of the defendants' customers lost money. Likewise, consumers lost the equity in their investments through the accumulation of fees and commissions, including storage fees and interest charges on the leveraged portion of their accounts. The FTC charged the defendants with violating the FTC Act and the FTC's Telemarketing Sales Rule.
BMW Recalls X5, X6 Models
Power steering fluid may leak06/20/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
BMW is recalling about 2,600 X5 models from the 2012-2013 model years and X6 models from the 2013 model year.The company said that power steering fluid m...
BMW is recalling about 2,600 X5 models from the 2012-2013 model years and X6 models from the 2013 model year.
The company said that power steering fluid may leak, which could cause an engine fire.
BMW dealers will inspect and, if necessary, replace the steering gear free of charge. Owners may contact BMW at 1-800-525-7417.
Big Lots Recalls Ceramic Space Heaters
Portable heaters post fire, shock hazards06/20/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
About 70,000 portable space heaters sold by Big Lots are being recalled. The heaters can overheat and melt, posing a fire or electric shock hazard.B...
About 70,000 portable space heaters sold by Big Lots are being recalled. The heaters can overheat and melt, posing a fire or electric shock hazard.
Big Lots has received four reports of the product overheating and melting. There are no reports of injury, fire or property damage.
This recall is of two models of 1500 watt Climate Keeper ceramic heaters. Both models have a fan, two dials on top, a wire mesh panel in front and the name “Climate Keeper” and a label on the bottom with the model number and ETL 3130679. Model #FH107A has grey plastic housing. Model #PTC-902T is an oscillating heater with silver-grey plastic housing, a molded handle on top of the heater and a small extra button between the two dials which controls the oscillation.
The heaters were sold at Big Lots stores nationwide from September 2010 through March 2012 for about $20 for Model #FH107A and $25 for Model #PTC-902T. They were made in China.
Consumers should stop using the recalled product immediately and return it to a Big Lots store for a full refund.
For additional information, contact Big Lots toll-free at (866) 244-5687 between 9 a.m. through 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or visit the firm’s website at www.biglots.com
Not All Debt Is Bad
Used properly, debt can help you build financial independence06/20/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Debt is bad and should be avoided at all costs, right? Wrong, says Ike Ikokwu, a financial planner and author.“Money is opportunity, and havin...
Debt is bad and should be avoided at all costs, right? Wrong, says Ike Ikokwu, a financial planner and author.
“Money is opportunity, and having a blind spot for maximizing investment can drastically reduce one’s future options,” says Ikokwu, author of Winning the Money Game: Separating the Myths from the Truth.
That blind spot is debt, Ikokwu says. Just as Americans have learned that are such things as good fats and good cholesterol, so too is there good debt for a prosperous financial future.
“The three most common ways people in this country get rich all involve using debt,” he says. “They use it to launch businesses, invest in real estate, or pay for advanced degrees in order to become high-income earners.”
Some myths born from the idea that all debt is bad include:
- Paying off your home mortgage provides financial security.
- A 15-year mortgage is always the quickest way to pay off your home.
- Putting money in your 401K or other qualified plan saves you taxes.
- The stock market is the only place to generate high, double-digit returns.
Admonishments to “stay out of debt” prevent people from gaining financial independence, Ikokwu says. Investing in education, a new career in another state or a new business may be more lucrative than paying down a mortgage.
“My definition of being ‘debt-free’ is to have enough money so that you can pay off your debt at any time – if you need to,’’ he says. “But you don’t necessarily want to do that. Good debt can save you money on taxes, increase your investment gains and allow you to take advantage of wealth-building opportunities. Bad debt, on the other hand, is like having a big hole in your money bucket.”
Ikokwu developed a new personal financial plan after a period of successful investing imploded following the market crash in 2001. After filing for bankruptcy in 2003, he rebuilt his wealth – using his new plan – in five years. Today he is financially independent and his wealth secure.
“To a greater extent than many Americans suppose, money is plastic,” he says. “That means you do not have to be rich in order to gain more wealth, and we do not have to follow old, outdated paths. We can all mold the money we have to a shape that yields better return.”
J.C. Penney Shuffles Executive Suite Amid Plunging Sales
President is ousted in shake-up over marketing plan06/20/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
More changes are coming to J.C. Penney's, the department store chain that began the year proudly boasting it was throwing off the past and embracing the fu...
More changes are coming to J.C. Penney's, the department store chain that began the year proudly boasting it was throwing off the past and embracing the future.
This week the retailer abruptly announced that company president Michael Francis, who had been brought in from Target Corp. to help redefine the brand, was leaving after joining the company late last year.
Apple alum and CEO Ron Johnson will assume the duties of president as well as CEO. While Johnson has been the public face of the new Penney's, analysts say it was Francis who had responsibility for installing a new marketing and pricing plan, both of which have been slow to gain favor with consumers.
Off on the wrong foot
|Consumers rate JC Penney|
The company seemed to hit a sour note in early January when it launched an advertising campaign featuring screaming women, which alienated many of the store's customer base.
In February it rolled out its "fair and square" pricing, doing away with sales and coupons. By the time spring arrived, it was clear many of Penney's customers just didn't get the changes.
"I used to love to shop at J.C. Penney's, but that is no longer the case," Edna, of Albuquerque, N.M., wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "I am a woman and I can speak for a good majority of us! The pricing is not at all near a shopping deal, like we used to experience before this so called wonderful change! Just saying please change it back to our wonderful J.C. Penney's we once loved and once enjoyed the wonderful sales with coupons a woman so desires! We live for sales and coupons, what were you at the round table thinking?"
Customers get through
Apparently, enough customers like Edna spoke up that it got some attention. By early this month Johnson was telling investment analysts that the company was returning to its previous use of sales, discounts and coupons.
From all appearances Penney's changes were aimed at expanding its customer base from its traditional-value consumer to reach more upscale shoppers who frequented stores like Target, Macy's and Nordstrom. Instead, it appeared to drive away the very consumers who were supporting Penney's without pulling in new customers, or enough of them at least.
In the end Penney's bid for change proved costly. Penney's suffered a staggering $163 million loss in its fiscal first quarter. A year earlier, it had turned a $64 million profit.
Don't Worry About Momentary Memory Lapses
A majority of seniors often struggle to remember things, researchers say06/20/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
If you are between 62 and 95 and sometimes struggle to recall a word that's "on the tip of your tongue," don't sweat it. New Research from the University o...
If you are between 62 and 95 and sometimes struggle to recall a word that's "on the tip of your tongue," don't sweat it. New research from the University of Michigan (UM) suggests it's normal.
In fact, in a study of 105 healthy, highly-educated older adults, 61 percent reported this memory mishap.
To reach its conclusions, the study had participants complete a checklist of the memory errors made in the last 24 hours, as well as several other tests. About half the participants reported making other errors that may be related to absent-mindedness, such as having to reread a sentence because they forgot what it said, or forgetting where they placed an item.
Researchers hope to use the results to design programs to brain-train people to overcome memory problems they experience as a part of daily life.
"Right now, many training programs focus on the age differences in memory and thinking that we see in laboratory studies," said Cindy Lustig, UM psychology professor and the study's senior author. "However, those may not translate to the performance failures that are most common in everyday life."
The study uncovered an interesting occurrence. In a lab setting young adults usually showed better memory function than their elders. But in a real-world setting, older adults sometimes outperform young adults at things like remembering appointments because the former are likely to use memory supports such as calendars, lists and alarms.
Not a sign of Alzheimer's
Lustig cautioned that an elderly person occasionally forgetting a name does not mean he's in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease or other dementia.
"Everybody forgets," she said. "However, our findings suggest that certain types of memory errors may be especially important to monitor for increases, which then should be discussed with a clinician."
Lustig said future research should identify how people change their lives to avoid errors. If people restrict their activities to avoid memory errors, it could affect their independence.
Obesity Seen As Economic, As Well As Health Issue
Nutrition expert says profit pressure on food companies part of the problem06/20/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Small and medium-sized businesses are committing more of their resources to try to reduce obesity in the workplace, alarmed at projected increases in healt...
Small and medium-sized businesses are committing more of their resources to try to reduce obesity in the workplace, alarmed at projected increases in healthcare costs associated with the condition.
A survey more than 500 employers conducted by the National Business Coalition on Health (NBCH), with support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Safety Council, find these firms are actively seeking new tools to help control obesity among their workforce.
Respondents said they are now investing in obesity prevention and those that are not are interested in what they might do, how to do it, and how to measure success.
"Given the amount of time an employee is at their place of work, there is an opportunity to positively influence the choices they make about their health," said Andrew Webber, NBCH president and CEO.
While obesity has an acknowledged impact on the economy, one obesity expert believes economics lies at the root of the problem. Dr. Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at NYU and author of book "Why Calories Count," notes that obesity rates started to go up in the early 1980s.
"I think there were a lot of changes in society that took place at precisely that time," Nestle said in a web interview with Yahoo!'s Daily Ticker. "Mostly they were changes that made the food industry enormously competitive. Changes in farm policy, changes in Wall Street, that forced food companies to try to sell food in an extremely competitive environment."
To grow their profits, publicly traded food companies and restaurant chains had to attract more customers, offering more "value" for the money.
"They had to look for ways to get people to buy more food and they were really good at it," Nestle said. "I blame Wall Street for insisting that corporations have to grow their profits every 90 days."
In the Depression era people went hungry because there wasn't an abundance of food and it was expensive. Food is cheaper now but healthier food, like fresh fruit and vegetables, is more expensive than less-healthy food.
"It's wonderful that food is cheap because it means even poor people can afford to buy it," Nestle said. "On the other hand, having cheap food is one of the reasons people eat more of it and it encourages the food company to serve food in larger portions."
Research suggests parents use the screen to occupy kids so they can do other things06/20/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Parents may have the noblest of intentions and consider television and video programs to be a rich source of educational value for their children. But in t...
Microsoft Jumps Into Tablet Wars
Company unveils 'Surface' but doesn't announce a release date06/19/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Microsoft has introduced its own tablet PC...
There is a scene in the 1999 TV movie "The Pirates of Silicon Valley" where young Bill Gates is meeting in the 1970s with top executives of IBM, trying to sell them DOS. Gates explains that he will only sell the license to use it, that his company, Microsoft, will retain all rights.
After thinking a few seconds the IBM exec agrees, adding "everyone knows that the real money is in hardware." It's supposed to be a joke, since Microsoft went on to build a business empire built on software while hardware makers came and went.
Now, however, Microsoft is sticking a toe into the world of hardware with the announcement of Surface - it's own tablet that will run on the new Windows 8 operating system. Company executives showed off two Windows tablets and accessories Monday that Microsoft hopes will put it in the conversation with Apple's iPad and Samsung's Galaxy tablets.
One model of Surface will run an ARM processor featuring Windows RT, and one a third-generation Intel Core processor featuring Windows 8 Pro. Surface for Windows RT will release with the general availability of Windows 8, and the Windows 8 Pro model will be available about 90 days later. Both will be sold in the Microsoft Store locations in the U.S. and available through select online Microsoft Stores.
Left unsaid is when, exactly, that will be and how much consumers will have to pay to get one. Tablet prices have been falling in recent months. The iPad remains at an entry price of $499 but Samsung's tablets are around $250 and Amazon's Kindle Fire sells for $199.
Both Surface models feature a built-in kickstand and a cover that flips over and functions as a keyboard.
"The 3 mm Touch Cover represents a step forward in human-computer interface," Microsoft said in a press release. "Using a unique pressure-sensitive technology, Touch Cover senses keystrokes as gestures, enabling you to touch type significantly faster than with an on-screen keyboard."
The cover will be available in a variety of colors. When not in use, the cover clicks into the tablet via a built-in magnetic connector, forming a natural spine like you find on a book, and works as a protective cover. You can also click in a 5 mm-thin Type Cover that adds moving keys for a more traditional typing feel, the company said.
Surface will feature a 10.6-inch display and weigh less than two pounds.
Greyhound Passengers, Drivers Agree On One Thing
Bus company racks up miles and complaints about safety, customer service06/19/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
It's probably an absolute certainty that anyone who has taken a Greyhound bus has some sort of interesting story.Whether that story is attached to a good...
|Consumers rate Greyhound|
It's likely that anyone who has taken a Greyhound bus has some sort of interesting story.
Whether that story is attached to a good or bad experience will obviously differ from customer to customer, but anyone who has taken a Greyhound bus knows trips are rarely uneventful.
Susan of Chicago wrote to ConsumerAffairs about how she encountered a sleepy Greyhound bus driver on her way to Chicago from Memphis. She speaks of how she took this same journey twice, and coincidentally had the same driver. According to Susan, on both trips the bus operator was dozing off and swerving into different lanes. Passengers in the front seats had to talk to the driver to keep him awake.
"This driver nodded off several times before we got to Effingham, IL. The people on the front seats constantly talked to him to keep him awake. I was awakened one of the times he swerved back in his proper land. I joked with him in Effingham that he needed coffee, He said he didn't drink coffee."
Now before you say such comments aren't typical, consider this: ConsumerAffairs conducted a computerized sentiment analysis of more than 50,000 postings to social media over the last year to find out what consumers think about Greyhound.
The results show the company's net sentiment veers from roughly zero to a peak over 45% over the last 12 months, not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Greyhound has encountered its fair share of safety complaints in the past. In Texas, the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1700 (ATU), whose members consist of Greyhound bus drivers, picketed a Greyhound station and protested against the the company's level of safety.
The union members claim Greyhound has minimized its efforts to hire skilled, experienced drivers, and instead is using drivers from its subsidiary company, Americanos.
Drivers from Americanos belong to another union besides ATU, and many of these drivers were cited for serious safety violations. They also scored nearly the least in many federal driver safety tests.
"Many 'Greyhound Express' drivers in Texas are wearing Greyhound uniforms, but are really employed by the company's cut-rate line, Americanos, " said ATU. "Why are they disguising Americanos drivers, to hide poor performance?"
Many think of Greyhound as a safer option to the many mom and pop bus operations around the U.S., and around the globe. In May of 2012, 26 smaller bus companies were shut down by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), because of broken safety violations and recent cases of drivers falling asleep.
As companies including New Century Travel, I-95 Coach, Apex Bus Inc., and other bus lines were shut down, Greyhound made vigorous attempts to pick up stranded customers. Shortly after the shutdown, Greyhound offered passengers $1 rides to certain locations, and marketed itself as a safer and more reliable option. But are they really?
In 2010, six people were killed in California, due to a Greyhound bus being involved in a highway accident. In April of 2011, 14 people were injured when a Greyhound bus driver lost control of the vehicle on a trip from St.. Louis to New York City.
In addition, a Texas woman was granted $7.2 million by a Dallas court for a serious Greyhound cash in one of the state's rural areas, and all three cases were related to Greyhound driver error.
Although many crashes are due to the errors of other drivers, a report by the FMCSA shows the majority of bus accidents are caused by the careless or negligent driving of bus drivers.
Abrupt lane changes, veering off the road, and traveling at high rates of speed are all common bus driver errors, according to the report.
But safety issues aren't the only complaint the bus company has received. Poor customer service, un-kept schedules, and filthy buses have all been experienced by many consumers.
"I was a first time customer and my experience was horrid to say the least," said Adrian of Forth Worth, Texas, in our complaints and review section.
"First, the online system showed an error message at the end of my online transaction, which caused me to purchase my tickets a second time only to get the same error message. I gave up on the online purchase, but when I checked my email, I had received 2 confirmation emails from Greyhound. I called customer service and they said that one of the purchases would be refunded in 7-14 days.
Adrian eventually went down to a Greyhound station, and had the issue escalated to a manager. Did the manager save the day and rectify the double charge? Hardly. Here's what the manager told Adrian, "Yeah I know, and what do you want me to do about it." Cases about horrible customer service experiences are in the hundreds in our complaints section.
Back to those 50,000 consumers and their social media postings. This graph shows the most common emotions expressed in those postings:
ConsumerAffairs contacted Greyhound's headquarters to see if the company had any protocols in place to deal with such complaints, and if it was aware of how poorly it's viewed by many consumers.
After telling Tim Stokes, who is one of the company's media spokespeople, about the large amount of customer service complaints we have for Greyhound, his response was, "I would have to know what the complaints really were to answer you."
After telling him about Adrian's case, he replied "Customers can call our customer service number on our website."
Although no suggestions were provided for improvements on customer service, he did send us this statement concerning passenger safety:
Greyhound drivers go through extensive training to establish safe driving skills. Drivers starting with the company are required to complete 160 hours of behind the wheel and classroom training before they are qualified to drive for the company, and must continue training throughout the remainder of their employment. This amount of training far exceeds the federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's suggested industry standard of 90 hours of safety training for motorcoach operators.
Well, fine. It's up to consumers to decide whether Greyhound's response answers their concerns adequately and makes them eager to take the next bus out of town.
Sharp Introduces 'World's Largest LED TV'
$11,000 gets you a six-foot-wide screen06/19/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
How big does a television set need to be? For those who think bigger is always better, Sharp has introduced what it calls "the worlds largest LED TV."It'...
How big does a television screen need to be? For those who think bigger is always better, Sharp has introduced what it calls "the worlds largest LED TV."
It's the 90-inch AQUOS LED TV model LC-90LE745U measures nearly four feet tall and spans six feet, eight inches wide.
"Its picture quality is as stunning as its size, displaying crisp and clear content at the highest HD resolution available of 1080p," the company said in a press release. "Sit as close as you like, and see colors pop and never before seen details become visible. Sports and action sequences are as big as life."
The screen weighs 141 pounds without the stand and is less than five inches deep. It provides direct access to apps and video on demand from services like Netflix, YouTube, CinemaNow, Hulu Plus and VUDU. It also has web browsing and Skype capability and built-in Wi-Fi.
"Our 90-inch class LED smart TV offers size, picture quality and smart functionality unlike anything consumers have experienced with LED TVs to-date," said John Herrington, president, Sharp Electronics Marketing Company of America. "You can now experience Sharp AQUOS like never before."
The AQUOS LED is not only the world's largest TV, it might well be the world's most expensive. Sharp says it will be sold at select retailers for a suggested retail price of $10,999.99, meaning not every consumer is going to be rushing out to buy it.
An LED TV is actually an LCD screen that uses an LED for backlight illumination. They are considered an improvement over the previous generation of flat screens because they use less power, provide a better picture, and perhaps most important if you're going to spend $11,000 on a TV set, they are more reliable.
Many a consumer has purchased a large, expensive TV only to have to pay for major repairs soon after the manufacturer's warranty expired. Part of the problem with flat-screen TVs is the build-up of heat in a space packed with sensitive electronics. A reduction in heat might reduce some of those failures.
That said, consumers should proceed cautiously when considering any large flat screen since the product life has been shown to be a lot shorter than traditional tube TVs.
University of Phoenix Still a Complaint Magnet
Online education doesn't always live up to consumers' expectations06/19/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
College is a lot of fun. Whether one goes away to a campus or commutes to a local college--the partying, the learning, and the socializing can all be life ...
|Consumers rate University of Phoenix|
College is a lot of fun. Whether one goes away to a campus or commutes to a local college -- the partying, the learning, and the socializing can all be life-changing experiences.
But not everyone can go to college right after high school, as we all know that life has an interesting way of temporarily knocking you off your planned path. Thankfully, getting a degree online these days is as easy and accessible as downloading a song.
The University of Phoenix (UoP) is generally regarded as standing at the top of this particular area of higher education. It advertises heavily and markets itself as the primary go-to for those who need a more flexible college schedule.
But, like everything else in life, it doesn't always work out just the way consumers expect.
Nearly 800 consumers have complained to ConsumerAffairs about their experience, claiming they were overbilled, didn't have online access to classes they paid for or just didn't find the courses useful.
ConsumerAffairs conducted a computerized sentiment analysis of about 72,000 comments posted to social media over the last year and found consumers' perception of University of Phoenix hovering around the 50% positive mark.
It's not just consumers who've raised objections. The University of Phoenix has paid fair share of fines and penalties over the years.
UoP was forced to pay a sum of $6 million to the federal government in 2000, for including study-group meetings in its instructional hours. This allowed the school to receive federal aid, but didn't meet federal Department of Education (DOE) regulations.
$9.8 million fine
In 2004, UoP paid a whopping $9.8 million fine for violating the Higher Education Act, which among other things prohibits schools from paying their admission reps financial bonuses for recruiting students. Two admission employees of the online school alleged that they were paid according to the amount of students they recruited.
The online university has also been accused of making the college experience quite stressful for students. Many reported having professors who weren't available for instruction, or simply didn't show up for work.
"Problems ranged from teachers simply disappearing for more than a week, not answering direct posts or emails, instructors not following their own written class policies, to a policy of allowing teachers to fail my courses due to a persistent bug in their system as a result of an UoP software upgrade," said one consumer who posted to ConsumerAffairs.
In a 2007 government audit, it was revealed that UoP uses more part-time professors than most universities, and at 16 percent, its graduation rate is among the lowest in the industry. This is according to results provided by the Department of Education.
The news isn't all bad, though. As this chart shows, many students are happy, even enthusiastic, about their experience with UoP.
History of complaints
While many students have graduated successfully from the school with no issue, UoP does have a lengthy list of complaints from consumers.
In a past response to ConsumerAffairs, UoP said: "The University strives to provide excellent customer service, and our goal is to demonstrate this commitment in all of our actions. We are always eager to review any comments or concerns from students and will work diligently to review any opportunities for improvement." The full response from the school can be seen here.
But has the school improved since it offered that response a few years ago?
As recently as June 5, of this year, Ryan of Highland Lakes, N.J. said both he and his wife received poor services from the online university.
After not being able to attend some classes due to a serious family matter, Ryan was sent to collections for not paying tuition, while his wife was returned her money with no grade, explanation, or offer of re-enrollment.
"Do not attend," Ryan summarized.
And UoP's troubles don't stop at the U.S. border. In 2011, the school quit providing classes to its Canadian students, for reasons that aren't exactly clear.
Pressure from investors
Experts say the school is under a large amount of pressure from Wall Street to keep its earnings consistently high, even at the expense of not providing a full and carefully designed online educational experience.
"Wall Street has put them under inordinate pressure to keep up the profits, and my take on it is that they succumbed to that," said David W. Breneman, the University of Virginia's dean at the campus's Curry School of Education. "They have really stumbled," he said.
The University of Phoenix did not respond to requests for comment.
Refinery Closing Causes Midwest Gas Price Surge
While gas prices are falling most places, they're rising in others06/19/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Motorists across the country have enjoyed the benefit of steadily falling gasoline prices in recent weeks. The national average price of self-serve regular...
Motorists across the country have enjoyed the benefit of steadily falling gasoline prices in recent weeks. The national average price of self-serve regular has fallen to $3.50 a gallon.
But some motorists have actually seen prices jump in the last couple of weeks. Most of those consumers live in a handful of Midwestern states.
In Indiana, the average price of gas, as measured by the AAA Fuel Gauge Survey, is $3.69 a gallon. A week ago it was $3.59.
In Ohio, the average pump price has jumped from $3.58 to $3.69. Prices are also up by lesser amounts in Illinois and Michigan.
The reason for the surge when other states are enjoying falling prices? Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller says the Midwest's problems can be traced to the closing of one refinery and reduced operations at three others, all located in Illinois.
“While prices at the pump have increased so have our office’s efforts to monitor and track fluctuations,” Zoeller said. “It appears that this latest hike is a direct impact of the supply chain being disrupted. It is our hope that once these refineries come back online Hoosiers will start to see a lower price on the retail level.”
81 percent of refining capacity
The impact is being felt throughout the region. The four refineries account for 81 percent of refining capacity in Illinois and Indiana. Zoeller said this continued decrease in supply, on a regional level, has caused the unusual increase in prices for states in the Midwest.
The Wood River refinery, the 6th largest in the country, operated by Marathon is performing annual maintenance earlier than expected this year. In addition, this refinery will be addressing environmental quality issues related to a lawsuit filed by the Illinois Attorney General’s Office.
Zoeller said scheduled partial refinery closings in Illinois include Exxon Mobil in Joliet, Marathon in Robinson and CITGO in Lemont.
Zoeller said his office received 65 gas-price related complaints so far this month – with more than 90 percent of those complaints submitted last week alone. Zoeller said this month’s spike in gas-price related complaints is the highest number the office has received in 2012.
Annual List Reveals Dirty Dozen Fruits
"Highly disturbing" level of pesticides found in baby food06/19/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Environmental Working Group has released the eighth edition of its Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce with updated information on 45 popula...
You like fruit? See how you feel after reading this:
- Some 98 percent of conventional apples have detectable levels of pesticides.
- Domestic blueberries tested positive for 42 different pesticide residues.
- Seventy-eight different pesticides were found on lettuce samples.
- Every single nectarine USDA tested had measurable pesticide residues.
- Grapes have more types of pesticides than any other fruit, with 64 different chemicals.
- Thirteen different pesticides were measured on a single sample each of celery and strawberries.
These are among the findings of the eighth edition of the Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce, published annually by the Environmental Working Group, this year with updated information on 45 popular fruits and vegetables and their total pesticide loads.
“The explosive growth in market share for organic produce in recent years testifies to a simple fact that pesticide companies and the farmers who use their products just can’t seem to grasp: people don’t like to eat food contaminated by pesticides,” said EWG president Ken Cook. “Our shopper’s guide to pesticides in produce gives consumers easy, affordable ways to eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables while avoiding most of the bug killers, fungicides and other chemicals in produce and other foods.”
“This year’s guide will also give new parents pause,” Cook added. “Government scientists have found disturbing concentrations of pesticides in some baby foods. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture has found weed killers widespread in finished tap water. Environmentalists have had important successes in forcing pesticides that presented unacceptably high dietary risks off the market. The latest USDA tests show we have much more work to do.”
Pesticides in baby food
For the first time since the inception of its pesticide testing program in 1991, USDA looked at pesticide residues on baby food. Department scientists analyzed about 190 samples each of prepared baby food consisting of green beans, pears and sweet potatoes.
Green beans prepared as baby food tested positive for five pesticides, among them, the organophosphate methamidiphos, which was found on 9.4 percent of samples, and the organophosphate acephate, on 7.8 percent of samples. EWG analyzed baby food samples in 1995 and found the two organophosphates in surprisingly similar concentrations.
Pears prepared as baby food showed significant and widespread contamination. Fully 92 percent of the pear samples tested positive for at least one pesticide residue, with 26 percent of samples containing 5 or more pesticides and 15 different pesticides on all samples.
Disturbingly, the pesticide iprodione, which EPA has categorized as a probable human carcinogen, was detected on three baby food pear samples. Iprodione is not registered with the EPA for use on pears. Its presence on this popular baby food constitutes a violation of FDA regulations and the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
"Federal testing of pesticide residue in baby food was long overdue, as infants are especially vulnerable to toxic compounds," said Andrew Weil, MD, Founder and Director, Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and a renowned medical expert on natural health and wellness. "Now that it has begun, the results are highly disturbing."
Sweet potatoes sold as baby food had virtually no detectable pesticide residues.
Colorado Indicts Suspects in Nigerian Internet Romance Scam
374 victims in U.S. and 40 other countries lost $1 million06/19/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
A Colorado woman and her mother are accused of running a Nigerian internet romance scam that allegedly fleeced 374 victims from the U.S. and 40 other count...
A Colorado woman and her mother are accused of running a Nigerian internet romance scam that allegedly fleeced 374 victims from the U.S. and 40 other countries out of more than $1 million.
Colorado Attorney General John Suthers obtained the indictments against Tracy Vasseur, 32, and her mother, Karen Vasseur, 74.
According to the 20-count indictment, which alleges violations of the Colorado Organized Crime Control Act, Money Laundering and Theft, individuals working with the Vasseurs lured unsuspecting women to internet dating sites by posing as members of the U.S. military serving in Afghanistan.
After a phony relationship was established, victims were asked to send money and were led to believe that the soldiers would use the money to retrieve property, travel to the U.S., and pay other expenses.
The indictment alleges that Tracy and Karen Vasseur posed as military agents and accepted hundreds of payments sent by victims via wire over a three-year period. The Vasseurs took a percentage of the stolen money and then wired the remaining money to associates in Nigeria, the indictment charges.
The Vasseurs allegedly established 20 personal and business bank accounts at 11 local banks for the purpose of laundering the stolen money. As part of the scheme, Tracy Vasseur also used a 16-year-old to fraudulently receive stolen money and then wire it to Nigeria.
Tracy Vasseur faces up to 205 years in prison if convicted on all counts. Karen Vasseur faces up to 172 years in prison.
Consumer Advocates Irked by Girl Scouts Candy Bars
Bars violate Nestle's pledge not to sell candy bars to children, group argues06/19/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Nestlé claims it doesn't market candy to children but health advocates say a new line of Girl Scout-themed Crunch candy bars violates the company'...
Nestlé claims it doesn't market candy to children but health advocates say a new line of Girl Scout-themed Crunch candy bars violates the company's pledge.
The limited-edition candy bars bear the familiar Girl Scouts logo and evoke three popular Girl Scout Cookie flavors. A key difference between the Nestlé Girl Scout candy bars and Girl Scout cookies is that the new candy bars have more calories, more saturated fat, and more sugars, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
"A third of the kids in the United States are overweight or obese, yet Nestlé is targeting vulnerable young girls with these obesogenic junk foods," said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. "It's not credible for the company to claim these are marketed exclusively to adults, any more than if their labels bore Dora the Explorer instead of the Girl Scouts."
Nestlé's Thin Mints candy bar has 200 calories, 10 grams of saturated fat, and 16 grams of sugars; a Caramel & Coconut variety has 190 calories, 9 grams of saturated fat, and 17 grams of sugars; a Peanut Butter Crème variety has 190 calories, 6 grams of saturated fat, and 13 grams of sugars.
Nestlé's pledge not to market any candy to children is made through its membership in the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, the industry’s self-regulatory body.
According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, candy is the fourth-largest source of sugars in Americans' diets, after sugary drinks, grain-based desserts, and dairy desserts. Chocolate candy bars are calorically dense and high in saturated fat and sugars.
"The Girl Scout tie-in and logo will attract the attention of children, especially young girls," said Lori Dorfman, director of Berkeley Media Studies Group, a project of the Public Health Institute. "After all, for 100 years, the Girl Scouts has worked to keep focused on girls' issues, empowering young girls around the world. Even if the candy bar advertising is targeted towards adults, the Girl Scouts image appeals to children and so constitutes marketing to children."
In a letter today to Nestlé USA Chairman and CEO Brad Alford, CSPI's Wootan and BMSG's Dorfman urged the company to stop marketing unhealthy foods featuring the Girl Scout's name and logo and refrain from similar marketing approaches in the future.
Reports Of Mortgage Modification Rip-Offs Increasing
Washington attorney general sees uptick in complaints06/19/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Five years into the foreclosure crisis there is no end in sight. After a pause for a now completed settlement with the mortgage industry, the pace of forec...
Five years into the foreclosure crisis there is no end in sight. After a pause for a now completed settlement with the mortgage industry, the pace of foreclosures is picking up again.
Many homeowners have attempted to negotiate mortgage modifications with their lenders in an effort to keep their homes, but have become frustrated with the process. That's when many turn to a third-party mortgage modification consultant.
"Because I was behind in my mortgage and facing foreclosure, I contacted Britt Processing," Chris, of Reading, Pa., wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "They told they work with Wells Fargo as well with many other banks. They guaranteed me they could get me a modification and save my home for me. They told me not to pay my mortgage for two months, instead send them $ 1000.00 a month to get this done."
A bad sign
It's always a bad sign when a company guarantees they can negotiate a modification because there is simply no way to guarantee that. Gina, of Redway, Calif., said she had real misgivings about signing up with Legal Helpers to try and save her home but did it anyway, to her later regret.
"During this time I was told not to contact my mortgage company that they would handle this part," Gina wrote. "This went on for one year they have $4000.00 from me and I have done a ton of paper work! I finally made a call to my mortgage company and found out that they only contacted them and left a message one time in a year."
Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna says he has been hearing more stories like this in recent months from residents of his state. In a particularly heartbreaking cases, he says, a woman taking care of her elderly mother lost her home after paying a modification consultant $2,500 up front.
“Offers of mortgage help for a fee exploit people in their darkest hours,” McKenna said. “They convince people to pay a fee for something they can receive for free.”
McKenna warns consumers to be on the lookout for television and radio advertisements, flyers, mailings, e-mails and phone calls from those offering mortgage help for a fee. Scammers comb foreclosure filings, which are public records, for new victims.
The company's name may sound like it's a law firm, but it isn't. McKenna says they often offer “loan audits” in which they promise to examine your loan for legal claims you can use to stop a foreclosure. However, these audits are often inaccurate and are never enough to stop a foreclosure.
McKenna's advice? If you are facing foreclosure pay a lot less and seek legal advice from a trusted local attorney.
West Virginia Sues Auto Title Loan Company
Attorney general claims abusive collection tactics06/19/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Over the years West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw has filed dozens of lawsuits against payday lenders and car title loan companies, which state ...
Over the years West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw has filed dozens of lawsuits against payday lenders and car title loan companies, which state law bars from doing business in the state.
Because many now operate on the Internet, they have been able to get around that prohibition - up to a point. Sure, they can make the loans but getting repaid is another thing entirely.
Back in court
McGraw has gone to court again, this time suing Virginia-based Fast Auto Loans, Inc., its parent company, Community Loans of America, headquartered in Atlanta, and its owner Robert I. Reich.
The lawsuit asks for a permanent injunction preventing Fast Auto from making unlawful threats of criminal prosecution and halting the company’s collection of excess charges, failure to follow the law in seizing consumers’ vehicles, extreme methods of coercion, and other deceptive, unfair and illegal debt collection practices.
It's McGraw's second suit against the company in the last 14 months. He sued the company last year accusing it of trying to block his investigation.
Seeks restitution and refunds
The suit also charges that Fast Auto Loans violated several state consumer protection laws and asks for civil penalties as well as restitution and refunds for consumers.
"Out-of-state lenders collecting debts in West Virginia will respect the rights of our citizens and the laws of our state or they will face the consequences," McGraw said.
McGraw said his investigation shows that Fast Auto Loans has put hundreds of liens on vehicles in 24 West Virginia counties. Many of the affected consumers live close to the Virginia border where they visited Fast Auto offices. Car title loans are illegal in West Virginia.
"Unfortunately, many desperate folks obtained a title loan from the company as a stopgap measure only to find that they had compounded their financial troubles," McGraw said.
300 percent interest
After a number of West Virginia residents complained, McGraw said he found that Fast Auto Loans had charged 300 percent interest on loans made against car titles, repeatedly harassed and abused West Virginia consumers and their families and friends in attempt to collect debts, made false threats of arrest and criminal prosecution, and confiscated cars without a court order. Some victims’ vehicles were seized even though the amount owed – as little as $100 – was a fraction of the car’s value.
"While we cannot stop our citizens from seeking these ill-advised out-of-state loans, we can and will stop predatory lenders from abusing our citizens and violating our state’s debt collection laws," McGraw said.
Warning: Loneliness Can Be Fatal
Study finds loneliness in older persons is a risk factor for poor health and death06/19/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Having a lot of people around can be pretty annoying. They listen to music, crash around in the kitchen and sometimes make you go places and do things you ...
Having a lot of people around can be pretty annoying. They listen to music, crash around in the kitchen and sometimes make you go places and do things you would rather not do.
But there's something even worse, especially if you're over 60. That something is loneliness, according to a report published Online First by Archives of Internal Medicine, a JAMA Network publication. Another study found that, even if you're not lonely, simply living alone was associated with an increased risk of death.
Loneliness in individuals over 60 years of age appears associated with increased risk of functional decline and death, the journal reported. In older persons, loneliness can be a common source of distress and impaired quality life, according to the study background.
Carla M. Perissinotto, M.D., M.H.S., of the University of California, San Francisco, and colleagues examined the relationship between loneliness and risk of functional decline and death in older individuals in a study of 1,604 participants in the Health and Retirement Study.
The participants (average age 71) were asked if they felt left out, isolated or a lack of companionship. Of the participants, 43.2 percent reported feeling lonely, which was defined as reporting one of the loneliness items at least some of the time, according to the study results.
Risk of death
Loneliness was associated with an increased risk of death over the six-year follow-up period (22.8 percent vs. 14.2 percent), the results indicate. Loneliness also was associated with functional decline, including participants being more likely to experience decline in activities of daily living (24.8 percent vs. 12.5 percent), develop difficulties with upper extremity tasks (41.5 percent vs. 28.3 percent) and difficulty in stair climbing (40.8 percent vs. 27.9 percent).
“Loneliness is a common source of suffering in older persons. We demonstrated that it is also a risk factor for poor health outcomes including death and multiple measures of functional decline,” the authors comment.
The authors conclude their study could have important public health implications.
“Assessment of loneliness is not routine in clinical practice and it may be viewed as beyond the scope of medical practice. However, loneliness may be as an important of a predictor of adverse health outcomes as many traditional medical risk factors,” the researchers note. “Our results suggest that questioning older persons about loneliness may be a useful way of identifying elderly persons at risk of disability and poor health outcomes.”
If loneliness seems too imprecise, consider this: another study published today finds living alone was associated with an increased risk of death and cardiovascular death in an international study of stable outpatients at risk of or with arterial vascular disease, according to a report published Online First by Archives of Internal Medicine, a JAMA Network publication.
Living alone was associated with higher four-year mortality (14.1 percent vs. 11.1 percent) and cardiovascular death (8.6 percent vs. 6.8 percent), according to the study results.
Social isolation may be associated with poor health consequences, and the risk associated with living alone is relevant because about 1 in 7 American adults lives alone. Epidemiological evidence suggests that social isolation may alter neurohormonal-mediated emotional stress, influence health behavior and effect access to health care, which may result in association with or acquisition of, cardiovascular risk, according to the study background
Jacob A. Udell, M.D., M.P.H., of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, and colleagues examined whether living alone was associated with increased mortality and cardiovascular (CV) risk in the global REduction of Atherothrombosis for Continued Health (REACH) Registry. Among 44,573 REACH participants, 8,594 (19 percent) lived alone.
Based on age, living alone was associated with an increased risk of death among those patients 45 to 65 years old compared with those living with others (7.7 percent vs. 5.7 percent) , and among those participants 66 to 80 years old (13.2 percent vs. 12.3 percent). However, among patients older than 80 years, living alone was not associated with an increased risk of mortality compared with those living with others (24.6 percent vs. 28.4 percent), the results indicate.
“In conclusion, living alone was independently associated with an increased risk of mortality and CV death in an international cohort of stable middle-aged outpatients with or at risk of atherothrombosis,” the authors conclude. “Younger individuals who live alone may have a less favorable course than all but the most elderly individuals following development of CV disease, and this observation warrants confirmation in further studies.”
Feds investigating fires in recent-vintage cars as consumers complain of no help from Toyota06/18/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James R. Hood
You wouldn't expect your car door to catch fire but that's apparently what's been happening on some 2007 through 2009 Toyotas, according to federal safety ...
Toshiba's Satellite U840 Ultrabook Lacks Sizzle
Our reviewer finds it dull but serviceable, with Toshiba's trademark bland packaging06/18/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
Earlier this month, Toshiba released its Satellite U840 Ultrabook, and the company claims it's the perfect portable laptop. That bold claim alone made me g...
Earlier this month, Toshiba released its Satellite U840Ultrabook, and the company claims it's the perfect portable laptop. That bold claim alone made me go to see the computer myself, especially since I've owned a Toshiba Satellite L655D for years, until it overheated and stopped working a ways back.
I was a bit gun-shy to look at another Toshiba, but I trudged on and went to a Best Buy display area to run some tests and comparisons.
Don't get me wrong. Toshiba has lots of loyal users. It has a reputation for making solid, serviceable laptops at a reasonable price. Sort of the Toyota Camry of computers.
We checked the comments of 1.8 million posters to social media and found Toshiba hovering around an 80 percent positive rating, which is good anyway you look at it.
The comments we checked through computerized sentiment analysis found consumers generally happy with their Toshibas, although one has to wonder how many have ever tried anything else.
ConsumerAffairs readers were, as usual, much tougher, giving the brand just a 1.5 rating on a scale of 5.
|Consumers rate Toshiba computers|
Before checking out the laptop, I was careful to jot down each of Toshiba's product claims about the Ultrabook, and check-listed each one.
The multinational Japanese company's primary claim, is the UltrabookU840 is one of the most portable laptops on the market. I even overheard the store salesperson telling someone 'If you work outside of your home a lot, this is the one you want', pointing to the new Ultrabook.
Was it especially portable? I would have to say yes. Just upon appearance the laptop looked incredibly thin, and upon picking it up, I imagined its lightness would be really easy on the shoulder and arms if it had to be carried on a regular basis. So check plus for ultra portability.
Toshiba also says the new Ultra book is ultra-rich with sharp, lifelike imaging, powered by HD 4000 graphics, but I wasn't all that impressed.
Don't get me wrong, the picture was pretty darn good, far superior to my previously owned Toshiba, but with Apple recently wowing my eyes with its, New MacBook Pro and iPad 2, the U840's screen view was underwhelming. The resolution is 1366x768, which is pretty much industry standard these days.
The laptop is also advertised to be extra fast in its boot-up time, and is supposed to be booted and ready to go within 14-seconds. Just to time it, I shut down the laptop just to turn it back on again. I did that two times, and the Ultrabook fully booted in 12 seconds and 13 seconds respectively. Not bad.
The U840 also is supposed to have superior audio, far better than its predecessors. It features include SRS Premium Sound 3D, which claims to automatically adjust sound to ensure proper bass, plus the mid and treble tones. Toshiba also says its speakers are of better design, and all movies, games, and music will sound crisp and distortion-free.
I give the new laptop a check plus in the audio category. After running a few Youtube videos, and playing a couple of songs, I noticed the speakers were noticebly better than I expected.
Definitely a step above most laptop speakers I've encountered. It's always baffling why putting decent speakers in a laptop is so difficult for computer companies. Toshiba apparently has thought the same thing and has made some needed improvements to its speakers.
I didn't like the keyboard though. It was too tiny and the buttons were incredibly close together. I know one has to get used to smaller keys, and at first use your fingers may not be adjusted, but several laptop designers have figured out how to make a compact device without sacrificing necessary finger space or softer buttons.
In today's email/Facebook, text-heavy world, buttons are everything. Just ask Blackberry who's taken a profit dive since Apple made everyone want a touchtone screen instead of hard Blackberry buttons.
Another check minus for the U840 is the fact it only has one USB port. With the many gadgets and the loads of information people transfer, having only one port could really be an annoying inconvenience. But the laptop having a long nine=hour battery life slightly compensates for the single USB port.
The overall processing speed of the laptop was up to par. No computer speed records were broken upon testing it, but it passed my personal-user-impatience-test. I was told the laptop should handle any task that requires heavy video processing, and will maintain its speed over time. That remains to be seen though.
As far as the overall look of the U840, it's quite straightforward looking. No pretty colors, no sleek design, just a basic no-nonsense look. The serious appearance of the laptop makes it look like it was built for crunching numbers, and nothing else.
The battery compartment is locked by tiny screws, so one just couldn't easily slip off the compartment door to replace or check the battery. A Phillips screwdriver will be needed, and that could be an eventual hassle.
And since my last Toshiba overheated, I especially wanted to see how hot the U840 felt after being on all day in the store's display area. It was actually cool to the touch.
The vents that are used to extract the computer's hot air were both on the back and bottom of the laptop, and the vents are much bigger than older models. The L655D series only has small venting on the base and side of the computer, which is why my old laptop had a tough time cooling off.
Overall, the Toshiba Satellite U840Ultrabook is sufficient for basic computer needs, and its best feature is the laptops thinness and lightweight. Anyone who totes their laptop around on a regular basis should be pleased with how portable the U840 really is.
At $799.99 for the 13-inch version, consumers will find the price comparable to similar-sized laptops with similar functionality. As far as performance, it opened photos, streamed video content, and loaded screens quite normally, with no noticeable flaws in that area.
However, the bland look, coupled with the small keyboard and resistant buttons, didn't make me want to head to the store register for a purchase. But it did make me wonder why it took Toshiba so long to release a better laptop than the model I bought.
Suit Claims Nutrex Contains a Dangerous Stimulant
DMAA is becoming the next ephedra, safety advocates fear06/18/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James R. Hood
Nutrex must face class-action claims that its body-building diet supplements contain a powerful stimulant banned in professional sports, a federal mag...
Nutrex must face class-action claims that its body-building diet supplements contain a powerful stimulant banned in professional sports, a federal magistrate has ruled.
The case arises out of a complaint by Stephen Rush, who charged that Nutrex Research and its founders violated California's fair business laws by marketing the supplements as safe muscle builders despite their alleged knowledge that the products were ineffective and dangerous because of the use of the chemical stimulant DMAA, Courthouse News Service reported.
Several countries and Major League Baseball have banned DMAA or geranamine, which is growing in popularity among young people as a designer "party pill."
In the suit, Rush and his girlfriend say they bought two of Nutrex's products -- Hemo Black Rage Ultra Concentrate and Lipo 6 Black Hers Ultra Concentrate -- and used them for about six weeks. They said that during that time, they felt jittery, anxious, had a racing pulse, and felt exhausted if they did not use the products. Rush said he didn't know the products contained DMAA and also didn't know that DMAA can cause stroke or death.
U.S. Magistrate Laurel Beeler refused a motion by Nutrex that the claims be dismissed and said Nutrex had not properly challenged Rush's charges. "If Nutrex has not challenged all theories supporting Rush's claims, then the claims survive and the court does not need to address Nutrex's arguments on the merits," Beeler wrote.
The new ephedra?
DMAA has been finding its way into the gym bags of more and more body-builders since ephedra was banned because of safety concerns and is also becoming popular among dieters hoping to find the mythical "fat burner."
Body-builders say the substance gives them the energy and concentration to make their way through a strenuous workout while the overweight hope it somehow helps them lose weight without setting foot in a gym.
But critics say DMAA is dangerous. It acts in the body like ardenaline, which is normally produced in times of stress and physical danger. Taken regularly, it can cause complications ranging from high blood pressure to stroke and death.
Writing recently in Archives of Internal Medicine, Dr. Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and general internist at Cambridge Health Alliance, said the chemical is potentially dangerous and challenged manufacturers' claims that it is a natural substance.
Marketers sometimes claim that DMAA is a natural substance derived from geraniums but Cohen said there is no evidence that this is true.
The compound, also known as 1,3-dimethylamylamine or methylhexaneamine, was patented as a nasal decongestant decades ago and is similar in structure to ephedrine and amphetamine.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned ephedra in 2003, years after consumer and health advocates began calling on them to do so. The Feb. 16, 2003, death of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler, who keeled over from heatstroke after taking the herbal stimulant, reignited a long-simmering debate over the safety of the substance.
BPA Exposure May Last For Generations
Researchers found the chemical in a series of mice generations06/18/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
The debate over the safety of Bisphenol A (BPA), a widely used chemical in plastic containers, will likely continue for some time but the evidence of its e...
The debate over the safety of Bisphenol A (BPA), a widely used chemical in plastic containers, will likely continue for some time but the evidence of its effects continues to pile up.
The latest study comes from researchers writing in the journal Endocrinology who say they have found exposure to low doses of BPA during pregnancy had trans-generational effects on mice.
In other words, a female mouse exposed to BPA during gestation had offspring that displayed different social behaviors, previously associated with BPA exposure. The research found the offspring and succeeding generations of offspring all showed the effects of BPA, including anxiety, aggression and cognitive impairments.
Effects passed on to other generations
"We have demonstrated for the first time to our knowledge that BPA has trans-generational actions on social behavior and neural expression," said Emilie Rissman, PhD, of the University of Virginia School of Medicine and lead author of the study. "Since exposure to BPA changes social interactions in mice at a dose within the reported human levels, it is possible that this compound has trans-generational actions on human behavior.”
That means that if BPA were suddenly banned and all products with BPA in them were withdrawn, and all landfills immediately cleaned up, it is possible, if the mice data generalize to humans, that the effects of BPA would appear in the human population for many generations. At least, that's what this study suggests.
BPA is a manmade chemical present in a variety of products including food containers, receipt paper and dental sealants and is now widely detected in human urine and blood. Public health concerns have been fueled by findings that BPA exposure can influence brain development.
Food industry appears split
Though some manufacturers and retailers have moved away from using BPA in recent years, the food industry as a whole insists it is safe and fights for it to remain legal. Campbell's Soup announced in March that it was phasing out the use of BPA in the plastic liners of its soup cans.
Recent studies point to BPA’s ability to interfere with the body’s hormone system, potentially leading to a variety of health problems, including damage to the reproductive system and the brain, particularly in children. Eleven states have banned the chemical’s use in certain products, typically baby bottles and other children’s goods; Canada, China and the European Union have similar restrictions.
An industry group, the American Chemistry Council, says BPA has been used safely for decades and there is no evidence that it causes harm as it is currently used. A key component of many plastic products, BPA is found in everything from the lining of food cans to the paper used in store receipts.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is studying the issue but as of now holds the view that BPA exposure, in small amounts, is not harmful to humans.
How To Reduce Or Eliminate Your Student Loan Balance
It isn't easy, but some federal student loans can be forgiven06/18/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Crushing student loan debt is a growing threat to the economy. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reports total student loan debt in the U.S. now exc...
Crushing student loan debt is a growing threat to the economy. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reports total student loan debt in the U.S. now exceeds $1 trillion, placing a huge financial burden on new graduates.
New education programs warn students and their families of the dangers of running up college loan debt, but what about the millions of former students already struggling to make payments?
Student debt doesn't have to be a lifelong burden. It turns out there are ways to reduce or eliminate that debt, but it takes time and you must meet certain criteria. But for graduates with federal student loan balances the size of a home mortgage, the student loan forgiveness programs may offer hope.
First, the program is for federal loans, not loans from private institutions. To qualify for federal loan forgiveness, you must:
- Perform volunteer work
- Qualify for public service loan forgiveness
- Perform military service
- Teach or practice medicine in certain types of communities
- Meet other criteria specified by the forgiveness program
Encouraging good works
When Congress created the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, it didn't really foresee the mounting debt burden. Instead, it was really trying to encourage people to work full-time in public service jobs.
But to even be considered for the forgiveness plan, borrowers must first make 120 payments on their loan. That's 10 years worth of payments. Only then can you be considered -- and the loan must be current, it can't be in default.
The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program is available to anyone employed by a public service company. This includes those who work in law enforcement, government agencies, the U.S. military, public health, public education, and other qualifying non-profit organizations. Even if your position at a company may not seem eligible, that's okay -- as long as the company is considered a public service company, you may still qualify.
Some volunteer work also qualifies you for federal Stafford loan assistance. If you serve in Americorps for 12 months you'll receive up to $7,400 in stipends plus $4,725 to be used towards your loan. Peace Corps volunteers may apply for deferment of Stafford, Perkins and consolidation loans and partial cancellation of Perkins Loans, earning 15 percent for each year of service. If you sign up with Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) and provide 1700 hours of service, you can receive $4725.
The forgiveness program applies to any non-defaulted loan made under the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program, such as:
- Federal Direct Stafford/Ford Loans
- Federal Direct Unsubsidized Stafford Loans
- Federal Direct Unsubsidized Stafford Loans
- Federal Direct PLUS Loans
- Federal Direct Consolidation Loans
To find additional information, and determine if the organization or job you work for qualifies for public service loan forgiveness, you can contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center by calling toll-free (800) 433-3243.
Chance of additional help
Meanwhile, more help may be on the way if legislation introduced in March finds its way to President Obama's desk. The student Loan Forgiveness Act would set up a new repayment plan, capping interest rates and more importantly, converting some private student loans to federal loans.
The repayment portion caps payments at 10 percent of the borrower's discretionary income. The borrower would still have to make 10 years worth of payments before any of the loan could be forgiven.
And of course, first it has to pass Congress. The bill, H.R. 4170, has been referred to the House Subcommittee on Education and Workforce Training.
Facebook to Pay $10 Million in 'Social Advertising' Lawsuit
"Sponsored story" ads illegal in California without prior notice to consumers06/18/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
You may have seen them on Facebook, they're called "Sponsored Stories" and they're generated when one of your "friends" clicks the "Like" button to applaud...
You may have seen them on Facebook, they're called "Sponsored Stories" and they're generated when one of your "friends" clicks the "Like" button to applaud someone else's posting.
So does that mean your "friend" is being paid by the brand that's advertised in the story? You might think so, but you'd apparently be wrong and five Facebook users took offense at the notion that they were potentially being seen as advertising shills.
The five filed a class action lawsuit against Facebook in U.S. District Court in San Jose, charging that Facebook violated California law by publicizing users' "Likes" without paying them or giving them a way to opt out.
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A judge has agreed and Facebook has agreed to pay $10 million to charity to settle the lawsuit.
"California has long recognised a right to protect one's name and likeness against appropriation by others for their advantage," Judge Lucy Koh wrote, reported Reuters.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is quoted in the lawsuit as saying that such friend endorsement is the "Holy Grail" of advertising.
The judge must still give final approval to the settlement.
Consumer Group Urges Tighter Controls On Subprime Credit Cards
Feds urged not to back off rule limiting yearly fees to 25 percent of credit limit06/18/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
In comments filed with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) says the government watchdog should find a w...
In comments filed with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) says the government watchdog should find a way to protect low-income consumers from “exorbitant, deceptive and abusive fees and other practices” of subprime credit card issuers.
The comments were issued in response to a CFPB proposal to withdraw a rule that requires pre-account opening fees to be included in the calculation of fees for purposes of the government's 25 percent cap. That rule, established under the CARD Act, requires that first year fees not be more than 25 percent of the card's credit limit.
First Premier Bank sued the CFPB last year to block the agency from considering its first year fees in that 25 percent calculation. For at least one of First Premier's cards, there are $130 in first year fees while the credit limit is sometimes as low as $300.
But in its suit, First Premier argued that its fee structure was “in accordance with law and regulations” and that the higher fees, which were not deducted from the customer's credit limit, were necessary to protect the bank against the risk of default.
Urged not to abandon the rule
“The CFPB should retain the current rule as issued by the Federal Reserve Board (FRB),” the group said in its comments. “In the alternative, the CFPB should re-issue the rule that includes pre-account opening fees in the 25 percent cap by using its expanded authority under the Truth In Lending Act or its authority under Dodd-Frank to prohibit unfair, deceptive or abusive practices.”
NCLC criticized First Premier Bank in particular, taking issue with its fees. Over the years, a number of consumers have been critical as well.
“Many years ago, I was desperate to rebuild my credit due to a divorce,” Gerald, of Brownstown, Mich., wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “I got my Premier credit card to start me back to a better rating. Working 12-hour days, I unfortunately didn't pay attention to fine print on the application. I believe the fees came to well over $200 just to have this 'wonderful' card with a $300 limit.”
Mike, of Flanders, N.J., says the cards are marketed to people with less than sterling credit, but that the fees just make their situations worse.
“The initial credit limit is so low and on top of what is a low initial limit, they charged me $130 in fees,” Mike wrote. “They charge you $4.50 to access your own account online, then to increase your credit after a few months of good payments, they charge you for increase as well.”
Different cards, different fees
First Premier Bank, like most banks that serve the subprime market, offers a number of different credit card products, each with different terms. The card with the highest fees currently assesses two fees of $75 and $55 to open an account. The $75 fee is an "annual fee" that drops to $45 after the first year.
“We also urge the CFPB, in conjunction with the Federal Reserve Board, to closely examine First Premier Bank and other issuers of cards targeted at consumers with poor credit records,and to bring any appropriate enforcement actions,” NCLC said in its comments. “In particular, the high default rates of the First Premier card, which is deliberately targeted at consumers with poor credit records, show that it is violating the ability to repay rule. A review of complaint reports posted online also indicates numerous other problems and high consumer dissatisfaction.”
The group said cards targeted at consumers with poor credit records that harm credit worthiness or do not live up to implications that they will improve credit should be considered unfair, deceptive and abusive.
Terminix Commercials Latest To Rile Consumers
Some viewers complain the ads are more like a horror movie06/18/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
As we have previously reported, consumers take growing offense at commercials they find annoying or that “scare the children.” The latest to fi...
|Consumers rate Terminix|
As we have previously reported, consumers take growing offense at commercials they find annoying or that “scare the children.” The latest to draw consumers' ire are TV spots for Terminix pest control that some find just too graphic.
“Your commercials are atrocious and cause my grandkids to run and scream in horror,” Barbara, of Charlotte, N.C., wrote in a recent ConsumerAffairs post. “How could you put something that gross on the TV all times of the day for kids to see? My granddaughter is having serious nightmares about that ugly monstrous thing coming out of the sink and breaking up into roaches. She refuses to brush her teeth without my standing there with her. You people should be ashamed of yourselves.”
Previous Terminix campaigns have been known more for humor than a horror movie approach. A long-running staple is the giant ant ringing the doorbell of a suburban home asking to use the telephone, glancing at the floor and stopping mid-sentence to ask “is that oak?”
But among the new commercials is one featuring a slimy slug that morphs into roaches pouring out of a cookie jar. Russell, of Evans, Ga., calls it a “middle of the day horror show” and admits to being unsettled by it.
“Watching a DIY show and glad my grandkids were not in the room,” he wrote to ConsumerAffairs. “I might have nightmares of ugly slugs coming out of the sink and turning into a mass infestation!! Like something from The Mummy returns! Have no interest in doing business with any company who thinks this is a good add campaign.”
If you aren't overly squeamish, check out the commercial below.
How Effective Are Prescription Warning Labels?
Michigan State researchers say most consumers, especially older consumers, never see them06/18/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
When you take a prescription medication, there may be warnings on the label that caution users about possible harmful side effects. Do we read them? Appare...
When you take a prescription medication, there may be warnings on the label that caution users about possible harmful side effects. Do we read them? Apparently, many of us never even see them.
A study at Michigan State University (MSU) has concluded that making sweeping changes to the design of prescription medication bottles and their labels could make a big difference, and perhaps avoid some of the estimated four million adverse drug reaction cases in the U.S. each year.
The study found that when patients are handed a new prescription, few read the critical warning labels such as “do not consume alcohol while taking this medication” or “for external use only.” MSU researchers used eye-tracking technology and concluded that one source of the labels’ ineffectiveness is an inability to capture patients’ attention.
The study, which appears in the current issue of PLoS ONE, found that only half the participants looked directly at the warning labels. Twenty-two didn't even look at the label at all. Laura Bix, associate professor in MSU’s School of Packaging, suggests that relatively simple changes could improve the labels’ effectiveness.
“Given our results, we are recommending a complete overhaul of the design and labeling of the ubiquitous amber bottles, which have seen little change since their introduction some 50 years ago,” Bix said. “Our initial recommendations would be to move all of the warnings from the colored stickers to the main, white label, which 100 percent of the participants read, or to reposition the warnings so that they can be seen from this vantage point.”
Bix and her colleagues say improving the design of prescription medicine bottles and labels could be of special help to older consumers. They, after all, tend to be the ones that take the most prescription medicine.
On average, more than 30 percent of those 65 and older take 10 different medications daily. Taking multiple medications increases the odds of adverse reactions.
The study reveals that is older consumers who are less likely to notice or remember warning labels. Not surprisingly, when consumers saw the stickers they could recall them better, suggesting that enhancing the labels’ visibility is a key factor for people remembering the warnings.
At MSU, the school of packaging and school of psychology are collaborating to find ways to draw more attention to medication warning labels.
Who's Who Publisher To Make Restitution
Oregon reaches settlement agreement with publisher06/18/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Cambridge Who's Who is a vanity publisher that creates a directory of business leaders and professionals. While it provides a free online listing, it also ...
Cambridge Who's Who is a vanity publisher that creates a directory of business leaders and professionals. While it provides a free online listing, it also sells enhanced listings and other products like press releases and videos.
Its sales of those additional products are what brought it into conflict with Oregon's very tough telemarketing laws.
Oregon Attorney General John Kroger says the company has agreed to pay approximately $15,000 in restitution to Oregon consumers, and has changed its sales script to comply with Oregon's Unlawful Trade Practices Act (UTPA). In particular, Cambridge Who's Who will comply with Oregon's "30-second rule."
That rule requires the telemarketer to clearly communicate the total cost of goods or services in the first 30 seconds. If the consumer says they aren't interested, the call must be ended immediately.
Cambridge Who's Who advertises a free listing both online and through the mail, then personally follows up with a phone call. Kroger's office got involved after receiving about half a dozen complaints from Oregon consumers.
Company records obtained by the Oregon Department of Justice indicated that Cambridge Who's Who would call consumers who expressed an interest in the free listing and, during those calls, the company would attempt to sell memberships that cost several hundred dollars. Under the terms of the settlement, the company will now remind consumers that a free listing is available to them.
The publisher will also pay more than $15,000 to two Oregon consumers. The company had already issued refunds to a number of consumers prior to the settlement under which the company admitted to no wrongdoing.
The company has also agreed to pay $13,500 to the Oregon Department of Justice consumer protection & education fund. Kroger says the Better Business Bureau of New York gives Cambridge Who's Who a "C" rating, citing 354 consumer complaints nationwide.
270 Deaths Later, Feds Accelerate Probe of Jeep Fires
A consumer group spelled out the problem in great detail more than two years ago06/15/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James R. Hood
More than two years after a 69-page petition from the Center for Auto Safety spelled out the problem, citing at least 254 fatalities, federal safety regula...
More than two years after a 69-page petition from the Center for Auto Safety (CAS) spelled out the problem, federal safety regulators are expanding their probe into gas-tank fires involving Jeeps, blamed for at least 270 fatalities.
The investigation had previously centered on 1993-2004 model Jeep Grand Cherokees but has now been expanded to include 1993-2001 Jeep Cherokees and 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty models, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) said.
"The tragic question is how many more fatal fire crashes will it take before Chrysler recalls this Pinto for soccer moms," said Clarence M. Ditlow, the executive director of the CAS, a Ralph Nader-founded non-profit organization, in a November 17, 2011, letter to Chrysler Group LLC Chairman Sergio Marchionne.
"The known toll now stands at 185 fatal fire crashes with 270 deaths and numerous burn injuries," Ditlow said.
Behind the axle
|Consumers rate their Jeeps|
The Jeeps involved in the probe all have their fuel tanks installed behind the rear axle, which could make them more likely to burst into flames following a rear-end collision. Fuel tanks in newer Jeeps are located ahead of the rear axle, a change that Chrysler Group LLC insists was made for design reasons, not because of safety concerns.
"The 1993-04 Grand Cherokee has a fatal crash fire occurrence rate that is about four times higher than SUVs made by other companies," Ditlow said in his October 2, 2009 petition to NHTSA asking for an immediate safety recall. "Comparing the 1993-04 Grand Cherokee with the exposed rear fuel tank to the 2005 and later Grand Cherokee with the shielded fuel tank in front of rear axle in the first five years of use for both vehicles so that it’s an apples to apples comparison, the defective old Grand Cherokee has a fatal fire rate six times higher than the new Grand Cherokee."
The expanded review is the final step in NHTSA's process of determining whether a recall will be required. A recall could affect up to 5.1 million Jeeps.
Other manufacturers, most notably Ford, have experienced similar problems with fuel tanks mounted behind the rear axle. Ford faced numerous lawsuits because of fires in Crown Victoria sedans equipped as police cars and taxis. At least 14 law enforcement officers died in Crown Victoria fuel-fed fires after being rear-ended at high speeds, one lawsuit claimed.
The Jeep design is eerily similar to the fire-prone Ford police cars.
"The fuel tank of the Grand Cherokee is plastic and extends below the rear bumper so there is nothing to protect the tank from a direct hit in a rollover or by a vehicle with a low front profile or one lowered by pre-impact braking," the CAS petition said.
"The design is so bad that Chrysler frequently settles lawsuits without extensive discovery and subject to confidentiality agreements. A search of NHTSA’s FARS files for fatal fire crashes where there was a fire occurrence in a 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee from calendar year 1992 through 2008 found 172 fatal fire crashes with 254 fatalities," the 2009 CAS petition alleged, noting that, by comparison, the infamous Ford Pinto -- another ill-fated Ford model with a behind-the-axle fuel tank -- was implicated in only 26 fire deaths.
"The fuel system in the 1993-04 Grand Cherokee is defectively designed in that it contains a plastic fuel tank subject to rupture, degrades in performance over time, a fuel filler neck that tears off in a range of crashes, a hostile environment with sharp objects such as suspension bolts that can puncture the tank, extends below the bumper and is unshielded although Chrysler offers a optional 3/16-inch steel shield as a 'skid plate' for off road use which would protect the tank in rear impacts where there is pre-crash braking of the striking vehicle," the 2009 CAS petition continued.
Mercedes takes action
The petition notes that Jeep took no action until Chrysler merged with Mercedes. DaimlerChrysler then moved the fuel tank in board of the rear axle in 2005 and shielded it. "Since the relocation of the fuel tank in 2005 and later Grand Cherokees, there has only been one fatal fire crash in the redesigned vehicle. And that fire occurred after both occupants had been ejected in a rollover of a 2008 Grand Cherokee so that the deaths were not caused by fire," CAS said.
In its 69-page petition, CAS cites several court cases that, unlike most, were not blocked from public view. Auto manufacturers frequently settle fatal injury cases on the condition that the case is "sealed," protecting the company from bad publicity and making it impossible for consumers to know whether they are driving a vehicle with known safety hazards.
One case cited by CAS involved a crash on New York's Long Island on September 1, 1999, when a stopped 1997 Grand Cherokee was struck from behind by a braking Toyota MR2. Two sisters in the back of the Grand Cherokee were severely burned when they could not get out of the Jeep due to jammed doors. The driver of the MR2, a gardener, was fatally burned as he was enveloped by the burning fuel from the ruptured tank of the Grand Cherokee, CAS said.
Another crash occurred in New Jersey, when a a 1996 Grand Cherokee was struck from behind by a 2004 Toyota Sienna. The doors on the Jeep jammed in the impact. The driver climbed from the driver side to the passenger side trying to get out of the burning vehicle but was unsuccessful. Her skeletal body was found in the passenger seat.
CAS said in its petition that those two cases "both demonstrate the unique hazards of an unshielded tank extending below the rear bumper where it can be engaged by the lowered front of a striking vehicle and shoved up into the structure of the vehicle above the tank and ruptured."
And CAS said the low-hanging, exposed fuel tank of the 1993-04 Grand Cherokee is also particularly vulnerable in rollover crashes where it can strike fixed objects as it rolls.
Although quick to settle some cases, Chrysler has tried to escape liability for future Grand Cherokee crashes which occurred after Chrysler went through bankruptcy in cases where the vehicle was sold before the bankruptcy.
Big Four Records Companies May Become the Big Three
Universal Music Group plotting an industry takeover?06/15/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
What's interesting about the music business is that on the outside looking in, it appears there are many record labels around the world. Everyday a new a r...
What's interesting about the music business is that on the outside looking in, it appears there are many record labels around the world. Everyday a new a record company pops up, naming itself such and such records, or whatever catchy name its owners can think of.
But in actuality, there are only four record labels in the world, and the rest are merely subsidiaries. Some smaller labels are subsidiaries of other subsidiaries, and it goes on and on. It can get kind of tricky.
The four record labels, often known as the "Big Four," are Sony BMG, Universal Music, Warner Music Group, and EMI. These four root labels contain branches upon branches of smaller labels that of course get a smaller cut of the profits. In most cases, the smaller the label, the smaller the cut. And never mind the artist getting their fair share.
Last November it was revealed that the Big Four may turn into the Big Three, as Universal Music said it had strong interest in purchasing EMI.
If the $1.9 billion deal is finalized, it would make Universal Music, which is owned by Vivendi, one of the most powerful record labels in the world, or as critics say, just about the most monopolistic record label in the world.
On June 14th, two consumer watchdog groups, the Consumer Federation of America, and Public Knowledge, released a report that encouraged government regulators to halt the $1 billion deal, or at least look into the possible negative repercussions.
The report, The Role of Antitrust in Protecting Competition, Innovation and Consumers As The Digital Revolution Matures, makes the claim that the buyout would ultimately cause a major blockage in the competitive world of digital record sales. It's possible the deal could impact physical record sales too.
With huge artists including everyone from Diana Ross to Rihanna, Universal Music Group doesn't really need a corporate power boost.
But if anyone knows anything about the music business, they know record companies leave no financial stone unturned, and will do questionable things to maintain the bottom line first, everything else second.
The two consumer groups also believe the buyout could negatively impact the music-buying public. If one label owns the lion share of the decision making, it could unfairly dictate prices for albums when your favorite music is released, and possibly control the amount of song freebies consumers get through downloads or promotions.
On June 18, authors of the report will give a briefing on Capitol Hill to explain the specific potential dangers of allowing one label to posses a disproportionate level of authority.
Just to really put the buyout into perspective, Universal would have the rights to the music of not only its own impressive artist catalogue, but that of Pink Floyd, David Bowie and The Beatles, all EMI artists.
Back in May of this year, it was reported that over 30 employees at Universal made a yearly salary of $1 million or more. The report of the ultra-high salaries came at a bad time for Universal's parent company Vivendi, as the deal drew unwanted attention to Universal's overall finances. Vivendi sent a financial regulator to Universal in order to clean house.
The European Commission has already filed an antitrust complaint against Universal, and in the U.S., the Senate Antitrust Panel will hold a hearing to look into possible problems with the colossal sized deal.
How much will the possible deal actually affect consumers? It's hard to estimate at the moment, but one should apply the same possibilities of any other global company possessing an abundance of power and influence.
The worse case scenario for any one record company having majority say, would be a level of musical control that gets to the listeners. Historically, record labels have been known to force annoying trends and musical perspectives onto the public.
In the past, record labels had a desire to develop artists and release music that was groundbreaking. Today, there is too much money to be made for labels to be solely interested in art for art's sake, which is why a lot of the popular music you here today sounds similar to all the other popular music.
The debate on whether the Universal deal should go through or not, is just in its beginning phases. After the Capitol Hill briefing next week, and the upcoming panel hearing, we'll have a better idea on which way this road of battle will shift.
ConsumerAffairs reached out to the authors of the report in attempts to get additional insight into what the potential deal could mean for music consumers, and the music business at large.
Upon their response, more of this story will be forthcoming.
Closing your bank account doesn't mean you can escape fees06/15/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Once upon a time, if you received a check as payment you could take it to the bank on which the check was drawn and receive your money. It was a pretty str...
They look futuristic and have lots of features, but check the consumer reviews first06/15/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
When did washers and dryers start looking so snazzy?This is the question I was asking in my head, as I wandered around an appliance show room getting an ...
Asus PadFone: Rumored To Be On Its Way to the US
It's a smartphone, tablet and laptop, all in one ... sort of06/15/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
If you think about it, many people don't just have one electronic device nowadays. Between their laptop, mobile device, and smartphone, many peo...
If you think about it, many people don't just have one electronic device nowadays. Between their laptop, mobile device, and smartphone, many people are walking, breathing, gadget conventions.
And let's say a consumer has preference for devices that come from different companies. Or, the gadgets that they like all use different carriers. One could be multi-billed for each electronic. This is where the Asus PadFone comes in. (Yes, it does sound like something you'd order in a Thai restaurant but, trust us, it's not edible).
The idea of combining two separate conveniences is sort of a trend in modern technology. With hybrid cars, DVD/Internet video players and washer-dryer combos, consumers are getting used to the idea of getting two combined technologies for the price of one.
The Asus PadFone is both a smartphone and tablet together. The smartphone slips into a back compartment of a display screen, and turns the basic control panel into a tablet. The user can also attach the tablet onto a docking station, and use it like a computer or laptop, complete with a real keyboard.
The system is only available in Taiwan for the moment, but those interested can go online and purchase the display panel and the smartphone for $859.50, without the docking station. However, the website shows the product is currently on back order.
Who knows when?
ConsumerAffairs phoned the Asus company to get an idea if the device will be available in the United States anytime soon. After being shuffled from department to department, a representative said they had no specific date as to when the PadFone would sail to U.S. shores.
It would be safe to believe that the company does have a date in mind, and knows exactly when the device will be rolled out, but is keeping mum in the interest of making a grand announcement.
The good news for interested consumers is that AT&T just signed on to be Asus' first official U.S. carrier, which makes a U.S. launch seem like it will happen sooner than later. Also, the fact that the PadFone is being released in Australia this July provides more hope for those who want to get their hands on the innovative yet pricey device.
Or is is pricey? Since it combines the functions of a smartphone, tablet and laptop and uses only a single data feed, the PadFone could be a bargain for those who make full use of it.
Not everyone's a fan
Regardless, there is a definite contingent of gadget users that won't share the same type of anticipation for the PadFone's release, as many Asus customers encountered troubling experiences with the Taiwan-based electronics company.
Take Denise of Minnesota, for example, who received an installation from Asus, only to have that installation infect her computer.
"They sabotaged my computer!" she wrote. "Asus installed 'Fancy Start' that is supposed to speed things up. Instead, I was not able to open my files or create a document. After a few calls to tech support and attempts to fix the problem, I was instructed using F9 to wipe everything off my computer.
"Hours of time and frustration," she added, "and I have lost everything from when I purchased it a year ago, thanks to what the manufacturer sent to my computer.
Other Asus users have complained that although the Taiwanese company does have some decent products, laptops and mobile devices may not be its specialty. Some customers said Asus makes its laptops unable to properly cool down after heating, and many have reported their computers shutting down with malfunctions within the first year or two of buying it.
Some ConsumerAffairs readers have also noted that Asus can use a bit of improvement in the area of customer service.
"Asus computers -- a lot of big talk and promises before the sale, but nothing behind the talk. Don't buy one," wrote Chris of Springdale, Utah. "I've owned Dell, Toshiba, HP and Sony and all give customer satisfaction when it comes to repairs. With Ausus, the support is not there. My computer was sent to the wrong repair center and placed on a shelf for two weeks. If I not called as to its status, it would still be there."
We'll see if Asus makes some improvements as it continues to roll out its PadFone.
In actuality, the PadFone could have been going through a number of tweaks already, as Asus, has been talking about the device for quite some time. The company has already missed a few scheduled rollouts, but is now hoping to make a ripple in the mobile device waters that Apple and Samsung currently control.
Although Apple or Samsung haven't announced any plans for releasing a similar product, it's safe to assume designs are already in the making, so these two companies can maintain its global hold on the gadget industry.
But back to the PadFone. It's about 4.3 inches in length, has an eight-megapixel AF camera with LED flash, an the company says the device is scratch and crack resistant and should remain intact when dropped.
With no definitive dates in site for the PadFone, consumers can take the time to think if they'd like to combine a few of their technologies, or keep their gadgets just like they are. Plentiful.
Gas Prices Down Another Three Cents This Week
Global economic concerns have a silver lining for motorists06/15/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
The price of gasoline continued to drift lower for another week, with the average price three cents a gallon less than it was a week ago.The national ave...
The price of gasoline continued to drift lower for another week, with the average price three cents a gallon less than it was a week ago.
The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.524 per gallon, down from $3.555 last Friday, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. Fuel prices are 20 cents a gallon lower than they were a month ago.
The average price of diesel fuel today is $3.795 per gallon, down from $3.850 a week ago.
“The multi-month slide in gas prices has been largely the result of bearish global economic news and declining crude oil prices, which have fallen more than $20 per barrel since the beginning of May,” said Avery Ash, AAA's manager of federal relations. “As a general rule-of-thumb, a one dollar per barrel decline in crude oil prices results in a decline in gas prices of about 2.5 cents per gallon. However, these lower gas prices at the pump usually lag cheaper crude prices by a week or two, as the less-expensive crude oil makes its way through the supply chain to consumers.”
Relief in the west
Among the states, prices dropped most sharply in states that have among the highest average pump orices. In both Washington State and Oregon the average price fell more than 15 cents a gallon during the week. The average price fell 12 and a half cents a gallon in California and, for the first time in memory, New York dropped out of the 10 states with the highest gasoline prices.
Meanwhile, the price decline was much slower in the Midwest with the average price in Michigan actually jumping more than a nickel a gallon. Eight of the ten states with the lowest average price are all in the southeast.
The states with the highest gas prices this week are:
- Hawaii ($4.446)
- Alaska ($4.350)
- Washington State ($4.055)
- Oregon ($4.015)
- California ($4.035)
- Michigan ($3.828)
- Idaho ($3.776)
- Nevada ($3.775)
- Illinois ($3.761)
- Connecticut ($3.744)
The states with the lowest gas prices this week are:
- South Carolina ($3.098)
- Mississippi ($3.175)
- Alabama ($3.179)
- Tennessee ($3.186)
- Arkansas ($3.232)
- Louisiana ($3.267)
- Georgia ($3.279)
- Virginia ($3.284)
- Missouri ($3.287)
- Oklahoma ($3.338)
Why Your Phone Battery Is Always Dead
Maybe it's not always getting a good night's sleep06/15/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Wonder why your smartphone battery runs down, even when you aren't using the device? Chances are, it's not getting enough sleep.Because smartphone functi...
Wonder why your smartphone battery runs down, even when you aren't using the device? Chances are, it's not getting enough sleep.
Because smartphone functions are energy hogs, reducing battery life in normal operations, manufacturers have aggressively built in “sleep” functions. When the device detects no activity, the smartphone goes into sleep mode to save power.
But it's not entirely asleep. Various functions need to run in the background, such as checking with the email server to see if any new messages have arrived. While the phone is sleeping, an app springs into action every now and then and wakes up the phone just to see if it needs to perform a function.
And therein lies the problem. Under normal circumstances the app will do its job, then let the phone go back to sleep. But Charlie Hu, a Purdue University professor of electrical and computer engineering, says sometimes there's a glitch in the software and the phone stays awake.
Silent battery killer
"These energy bugs are a silent battery killer," Hu said. "A fully charged phone battery can be drained in as little as five hours."
Researchers have now proposed a method to automatically detect a new class of software glitches in smartphones called "no-sleep energy bugs."
Smartphone manufacturers have designed in application programming interfaces, or APIs, available to app developers. The developers insert the APIs into apps to instruct the phone to stay awake long enough to perform necessary operations.
"App developers have to explicitly juggle different power control APIs that are exported from the operating systems of the smartphones," Hu said. "Unfortunately, programmers are only human. They make mistakes when using these APIs, which leads to software bugs that mishandle power control, preventing the phone from engaging the sleep mode. As a result, the phone stays awake and drains the battery."
Hu and his team of researchers are working on a tool to automatically detect the presence of these power-wasting glitches in smartphones.
Saving Money On Currency Transactions When You Travel
Having a credit card with no foreign transaction fees can be a big help06/15/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
When traveling from one country to another, a credit card often makes it easier to navigate. Whatever the currency, plastic makes it nearly universal.It ...
When traveling from one country to another, a credit card often makes it easier to navigate. Whatever the currency, plastic makes it nearly universal.
It can also save you money. A currency exchange study by Card Hub shows no-foreign-fee credit cards are the best spending tools for international travel, saving consumers an average o 8.1 percent over banks and16.2 percent compared to airport exchange services.
“Exchanging currency tends to be an important pre-trip task for international travelers, but as this study illustrates, doing so is not only unnecessary, but it will also cost you quite a bit of money,” said Card Hub CEO Odysseas Papadimitriou. “Using a Visa or MasterCard credit card with no foreign transaction fees, on the other hand, allows you to save as well as avoid undue hassle, given that currency is converted automatically whenever you make a purchase.”
Fees are usually low
Even if the traveler uses a credit card that does assess a foreign fee, it's usually not that much. The study found the average foreign transaction fee is 2.38 percent. That's still a net savings of 5.72 percent compared to banks and 13.82 percent compared to exchange services provided at airports. While the cost of converting currency at banks and airport kiosks increased over last year, the cost of doing it with a credit card actually decreased, thanks to a decline in the average foreign transaction fee.
As for banks, the study finds that Northern Trust and Harris Bank are the least expensive when it comes to currency transactions. The most expensive are U.S. Bank and Fifth Third Bank. Banks' currency conversion fees are largely unchanged from last year, with the exception of Wells Fargo, which dropped its fee from $12 to $7.
When traveling in another country, it's also helpful if your debit card has low international ATM withdrawal fees.
“A debit card with low foreign transaction fees will also come in handy because you will need cash for certain travel expenses, such as cab fare, Papadimitriou said. “You’d rather get the low Visa/MasterCard exchange rate and withdraw cash as needed than have to trade in dollars at an unfavorable rate and risk getting pick-pocketed while carrying more cash than you need.”
And before taking your trip, Papadimitriou suggests notifying your bank and credit card company that you are leaving the country. Otherwise, they might suspend your credit and debit cards when they see what may appear to them to be suspicious activity.
Text Promising Gift Cards Is a Scam
Part of a growing number of schemes that target mobile devices06/15/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Unsolicited texts are annoying enough. Those that say you're won a gift card from Walmart or Costco are even worse – they're scams.Thousands of peo...
Thousands of people around the country have reported receiving the texts on their cell phones, urging them to click on a link to claim their prize. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster has looked into the complaints and warns consumers that clicking on these links downloads malware that can lead to identity theft.
“My office is seeing a lot of illegitimate text messages promising free gift cards,” Koster said. “You should never open a link in a text or email unless you know the sender very well and trust that he or she would only send you safe links.”
Koster said if consumers are ever in doubt as to whether to open a link, they should just delete it.
The scam is part of a growing trend of schemes targeting mobile devices instead of PCs. The malware associated with the texts allows identity thieves access to personal information stored on the device, such as social security numbers and bank information.
One way to protect yourself against identity theft is by placing “security freezes” on their credit reports. Most states allow consumers to notify credit reporting agencies not to give any business or person your credit information unless you authorize it.
If you have a freeze on your account, thieves who steal your information will not be able to open credit accounts in your name. There is a small fee to set up the security freeze, limited by law to $5. If you have already been a victim of identity theft, however, there is no fee.
How to 'Have the Conversation' With An Older Parent
Aging expert advises to talk frankly about nursing home, end-of-life issues06/15/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Next to talking to your child about sex, probably the next most dreaded conversation is telling an aging parent you think they should move into a nursing h...
Next to talking to your child about sex, probably the next most dreaded conversation is telling an aging parent you think they should move into a nursing home.
No one wants to do it because, not only is it unpleasant but it confronts a reality that most of us would rather avoid.
"The first time talking about this is going to be really, really hard because it's a painful subject to think about," said Gayle Doll, assistant professor in Kansas State University's College of Human Ecology and director of the Center on Aging. "However, it is also one of the most important conversations you can have."
Research at nursing homes
Doll is an expert on aging, having studied the subject through repeated visits to nursing homes where she talks with residents. She says in many cases, “the conversation” between parent and child isn't nearly as bad as it seems.
Doll found that many residents voluntarily chose to move into a retirement community that included a nursing home to protect their children from having to make the difficult and painful decision about caring for their parent.
"However, only a small percent of older adults are this forward-thinking, leaving many other families, especially now with an aging baby boomer population, to be involved in this important decision process," Doll said.
Don't put it off
Despite the fear and pain, Doll says the conversation should not be avoided. Otherwise, it sets up worse circumstances in the future.
"The most critical thing is to start this discussion before a crisis occurs," Doll said. "At the time of a crisis you're going to be looking at nursing homes and trying to make a decision. Without ample time, that decision may not be based on which home is the best, but rather which one has an opening. That's a factor nobody wants to have dictate a decision."
If you feel it's time for the conversation, here's what Doll suggests:
- Be honest and direct, beginning with the first conversation. "It won't be something easy to talk about, so that's why it's important to be direct," Doll said. "Say something like, 'I know we don't want to talk about this and I can't stand thinking about a time when our life can't be like it is now, but I want to make sure that when things change we do this the best way we can. The sooner we talk about this the easier it will be in the future and the more we'll get what we want from the situation when the time comes.'"
- Do not make unrealistic promises and promises that cannot be kept. "So often kids will say, 'I won't ever put you in a nursing home,'" Doll said. "Other times it may be the parent who will say something like, 'Kill me when the time comes' or 'Never put me in a nursing home.' Those are all such horrible things to say and may not be realistic."
- Make it an annual talk about the same time each year. "A lot can happen in a year, and it's common for people to change their mind a million times about something," Doll said. "By reassessing previous decisions on a frequent basis, you and your loved one can have the latest decision about what you want and don't want because those circumstances will have changed."
- Start discussing nursing home and end-of-life wishes earlier in life rather than later. Although these topics are affiliated more with older age, an unforeseen injury or crisis could happen, requiring an immediate decision, Doll said. Discussing these topics earlier in life will also help with addressing other difficult and complex issues in life.
- Do not assume that parents may have a stigma about discussing these topics. "In talking to groups of older adults I've found that they are much more comfortable talking about this subject than we may think," Doll said. "They read the obituaries and they have had friends who have died. The door is open to talk about it; they're just waiting for you to start the conversation."
Feds Derail Bogus Health Insurance Scheme
Health Care One LLC agrees to settlement with FTC06/15/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
It's bad enough having no health insurance, it's even worse to fall for a scheme that takes your money and returns nothing.That's when the Federal T...
It's bad enough having no health insurance, it's even worse to fall for a scheme that takes your money and returns nothing.
That's when the Federal Trade Commission alleged Health Care One LLC and three affiliated companies were doing. The agency said the companies tricked consumers who were seeking affordable health insurance into buying worthless medical discount plans.
The settlement orders with Health Care One, Americans4Healthcare Inc., Elite Business Solutions, Inc., Mile High Enterprise Inc., and their principals resolve a complaint filed by the FTC in August 2010 as part of an agency crackdown on scams targeting Americans without health insurance.
Health Care One and its affiliates allegedly deceived consumers by marketing medical discount plans as government-endorsed health insurance and claiming they would deliver substantial savings on consumers' healthcare costs.
According to the FTC's complaint, filed in Central District of California, the companies also falsely claimed that their program was widely accepted by healthcare providers in consumers' local communities. The Health Care One companies touted their services in television commercials and radio ads. They promised "100% satisfaction" and a money-back guarantee.
However, the FTC alleged that Health Care One's discount plans were not insurance, were not widely accepted by healthcare providers, and did not provide the promised healthcare savings to consumers.
According to the FTC's complaint, the companies did not inform consumers that their program was not health insurance until after consumers signed up for the program and paid hundreds of dollars in fees. Consumers who subsequently tried to cancel their enrollment found that the Health Care One companies made it difficult or impossible to obtain refunds.
Hundreds of Thousands Scammed Via Dating Sites Yearly
The average dating scam victim loses nearly $9,000 -- not counting the emotional cost06/14/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
Love. It's both the most coveted and elusive emotion of all time. Songs are sung about either finding it or recovering from it, screen writers send story l...
|Consumers rate eHarmony|
Love. It's both the most coveted and elusive emotion of all time. Songs are sung about either finding it or recovering from it, screen writers send story lines on unrealistic tangents to secure romantic endings, and books are filled with characters searching and pining for it.
But in the last decade or so, the game of looking for love has gotten some new rules, with the venue moving from the bar world to the the cyber world.
Instead of men searching for the right verbal approach, many now search for the right photo to put on their profile page. Instead of women deciding between flats or pumps, many are now choosing between eHarmony or Match.com. It must be hard for cupid to get a decent arrow-shot when people now stay at home to begin their love quest.
But with recent reports about eHarmony passwords being hacked along with Linkedin passwords, people have to question: Are users really safe using dating sites when it comes to avoiding personal and financial harm? Whatever else may result from the hack attack, it sent consumers' perceptions about eHarmony into the cellar, as determined by a ConsumerAffairs sentiment analysis of about 140,000 social media postings over the last year.
Match.com seems to have profited from eHarmony's downfall, showing a distinct uptick over the last few weeks, as determined by a ConsumerAffairs sentiment analysis of about 110,000 social media postings.
|Consumers rate Match.com|
According to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), Americans were robbed of $50 million in online dating scams in 2011. Simplified, each online dater that was scammed lost an average of $8,900 last year.
Out of the hundreds of thousands of cases filed with the IC3, only a small portion of victims went to the authorities. Some who were scammed felt embarrassed about being duped, while others didn't want to admit using a dating site.
Dating websites are the perfect place for scammers. While most users are searching for love, Internet scammers are searching for victims. Consumers use sites like Christian Mingle and Chemistry.com, much differently than they use Amazon or iTunes, for example.
If a customer is purchasing a store product from a website, they typically have their guard up, and look out for shady dealings and unrealistic claims. If a retail site requests personal information, most are reluctant to give it.
But when people use a dating site, they sometimes bring emotions, vulnerability, or feelings of loneliness along in their dating search. This is an ideal situation for the Internet scammer, as they typically count on people to be preoccupied with achieving positive online dating results.
The IC3 said it fields an average of 15 date-site-related complaints a day. According to the government agency, it receives calls that equal a daily loss of nearly $138,000.
IC3's 2011 Internet Crime Report consisted of 314,246 complaints last year. Out of those complaints, 115,903 spoke of a financial loss, and the monetary sum of those duped equaled $500 million. Sadly, many of those monetary losses were attached to romance scams. The IC3 report also showed that lonely, middle-aged, and elderly people are at equal risk of being tricked by a romance scam. People over the age of 40, those divorced, widowed, or disabled, are also common targets of dating site scammers.
Common crimes in dating site scams include users being asked for money. Both men and women have reported being asked for plane tickets, so the online companion can visit, and thrust the relationship towards a face-to-face interaction. Victims have also reported money requests for health issues, family funeral arrangements, and a host of other bleak sounding circumstances.
But dating site scams aren't always based on finances. The sheer invisibility of the Internet allows people to adopt all kinds of fake personas and intentions. Married men, registered sex offenders and convicted con artists have all been busted for using dating sites, so be extra careful.
Under new regulations recently enacted in California, dating sites like Sparks Networks, Match.com and eHarmony have agreed to start using background checks on its sites, and other dating sites will soon do the same. The background check will search if users had past identity theft crimes, sexual assault cases or records of violence.
California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris also said the sites will have "rapid abuse reporting systems," which is a safety tutorial that shows people how to avoid romance scams and how to meet people offline in a safe manner.
How did major dating sites like eHarmony fare with ConsumerAffairs readers? Not that well.
Theresa of South Haven, Mich. sadly writes, "I give up. I don't have any luck connecting with someone and then when I do, they are scammers. I am a widow and these guys are breaking my heart all over again. I belong to a few other sites and it's the same thing. I want to cancel my membership, and i would also like to see if i could get some of my money back. I feel that I have been ripped off."
Other ConsumerAffairs readers have tried to get their money back, but were unsuccessful.
"I tried repeatedly to cancel membership, and was not only continually billed, but despite five phone calls and reassurance with each call that a manager "at headquarters" would call me to resolve matters, I was never contacted," said Belinda of Vermont. "It may be that I'm still erroneously being billed after not using the service for over three years."
Did eHarmony competitors Match.com do any better in our ConsumerAffairs complaints and review section? A big, fat, colossal-sized no.
Earlier this month, Steven of Ocala, Fla. wrote about eHarmony,
"I have received mostly scammers' winks, IMs and messages since I signed up 4 to 6 per day. Right away, they ask for a Yahoo address, or send me a link to look at their "photos." Yesterday, 6/8 2012, I received a dozen or so messages from a site called OurTime.com. First time I had ever heard from them or about them. They had my photos and profile from Match.com, and my credit card info. The same credit card I used to sign up for Match.com. Today, Saturday, I received a notice that they would be automatically billing my credit card $19.95 to renew my subscription".
Mind you, Steven never signed up to be on OurTime.com in the first place.
What to do
So the moral of the online dating story is:
1.) Be sure to think long and hard before jumping headfirst into a dating site.
2.) Before joining, be sure you are fully aware of the sites reimbursement and cancellation clauses.
3.) Be sure to not let any scam, whether it be by a dating site or any other entity, go unchallenged.
Republicans and Democrats Disagree on Politics ... and Products
There's very little bipartisan agreement in the marketplace06/14/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
The last few years have proven that Republicans and Democrats really can't agree on much of anything at all. Apparently it even extends to choices in consu...
The last few years have proven that Republicans and Democrats really can't agree on much of anything at all. Apparently it even extends to choices in consumer products.
Buyology Inc., a business consulting group, has actually conducted a study to find what Democrats like and what Republicans prefer. Not surprisingly, they disagree on the majority of the 200 brands included in the study of more than 4,000 Americans.
Relaxing in front of the TV, Democrats tend to tune into Animal Planet. Republicans, meanwhile, watch the History Channel.
Favorite sport? Professional football for Democrats, Major League Baseball for Republicans.
"Both candidates and brands have never fought harder for our affection and our votes," said Gary Singer, Founding Partner & CEO of Buyology Inc. "It's never been more important to understand why people make the choices that they do. Brands can learn a lot by having a deeper understanding of the deep-seated connections that drive our decision-making."
Despite the differences, the survey did find some bipartisan agreement on certain products. Both Democrats and Republicans pledged their allegiance to Coca-Cola, Visa, Google and Apple.
Here's another thing the parties can agree on: nobody likes them very much. A ConsumerAffairs sentiment analysis of 7.5 million postings to social media over the last year found Democrats trending poorly, at around 0%.
And the Republicans? They're doing even worse ... and taking more heat. We found 16 million social media postings about Republicans, with even worse results, net sentiment below zero for most of the year.
That's just the beginning, of course. We found a lot more, which we'll reveal in a later story. Stay tuned.
The New MacBook Pro: A Look, Touch, and Basic Feel Review
Apple's latest does indeed have a bright and radiant display, our man Daryl discovers06/14/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
My colleague Truman Lewis recently covered Apple's New MacBook Pro, and discussed how the new laptop was all the buzz at this year's World Wide Developers ...
|The new MacBook Pro at the Bethesda, Md., Apple Store|
My colleague Truman Lewis recently covered Apple's new MacBook Pro, and discussed how the new laptop was all the buzz at this year's World Wide Developers Conference. He inspired me to take a journey on the DC Metro.
On a crisp June afternoon, I made a beeline on the Red Line to an Apple Store in Bethesda, Maryland, just to see how much thinner, lighter and better the new device really was. Also, with the laptop's new Retina display feature, I was eager to put it next to the previously released MacBook Pro, to see how much more visually appealing the new model really is.
Luckily, upon arrival at the Apple Store, I noticed an older version MacBook Pro next to the newly released one. Perfect. Now I can just swing the old one around and set it right by the side of the new laptop for a perfect side-by-side test. Hopefully no one grabs and escorts me out of the place for messing up the display.
Okay, here we go ... Success. Security didn't tackle me.
Before looking at the older version, I simply stared into the current model. I didn't operate anything, didn't do a comparison, I just gazed at the screen to get my eyes accustomed to the new desktop view.
Off the bat, I couldn't tell if it was the sheer brightness of the screen, or the caffeine swimming in my system, but I found my eyes growing in size with each second I stared. It was like the ultra clarity of what I was viewing made a gentle but strong attack on my optic nerve.
I quickly noticed that my eyes simply weren't used to seeing a laptop this clear. But hey, the previous model looked amazing too, and maybe the recent acclaim, along with my sheer excitement, made me view the laptop with an added amount of consumer optimism. It was time to visually compare both Macs side by side.
Imagine yourself enjoying the sunshine, basking in its bright loveliness, only to notice seconds after the sky darkening because of a grey cloud. That's what it felt like upon shifting my eyes from the new MacBook Pro to the old one.
What once appeared to be high definition, the old MacBook Pro now looked visually dated. The screen was darker, less detailed, and the icons appeared less prominent. But then I thought, duh ... maybe I should adjust the laptop's brightness control, yeah -- maybe that's it.
Wrong. Both laptops were set to the recommended levels, and the new MacBook Pro simply beat out its older sibling by tremendous strides. Talk about delicious eye candy. Better yet, delicious retina candy.
Besides the life-like clear resolution, the new MacBook Pro seemed to move a lot faster than the older version, as its glass track pad was smoother and much more responsive. It clearly operated at a higher and more efficient level than the older version.
Lighter but not wimpy
I also picked up both laptops, and found the new Pro was noticeably lighter, but barely thinner. I couldn't really tell the two apart in terms of density. Although the new MacBook is lighter, it didn't feel delicate. It actually felt quite firm and secure.
A few changes to the newer laptop include the CD/DVD drive and Ethernet port being removed, although they're still on the 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pros. The device also has two USB 3.0 ports, HDMI port, SD card slot, and a 3.5 mm headphone jack. I also ran a quick YouTube video and noticed the speakers were louder and clearer on the new Mac.
As the older version, the laptop is equipped with soft chiclet keys that will be easier on the fingers and joints after extended use.
So as far as touch, feel and basic functionality, the laptop is a winner, but I'm sure upon ownership, users will find annoying designer flaws since no device is perfect. But in my 35-minute MacBook experience, Apple comes pretty close to achieving perfect.
But I say that with consumer caution, knowing that what seems like perfection is seldom long-lasting.
Finding the Best Cash-Back Credit Card For You
No one card is best for everyone; it depends on what you buy06/14/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
There are an increasing number of credit cards that offer various amounts of cash back on your purchases. Selecting the best one might not be that easy, ho...
There are an increasing number of credit cards that offer various amounts of cash back on your purchases. Selecting the best one might not be that easy, however, since cards offer bigger rewards for some purchases than others.
"We did an analysis of the typical U.S. consumer's spending habits and designed a calculator that will help them find the cash-back credit card that will be more most beneficial for them," Erik Larson, President of NextAdvisor, told ConsumerAffars. "Everyone's spending is different."
And the cards are all different too. Some might pay you more for gasoline purchases. Others might pay the most on travel. If you travel a lot in your business, then it would serve you to have a rewards card that paid the most for travel charges rather than one that rewarded you for grocery purchases.
"We calculated the savings over two years instead of one because usually, in the first year, there will be some kind of bonus for opening the account," Larson said. "By including the second year we can provide a more realistic picture of the rewards."
First year bonus cash
|Consumers rank Capital One|
For example, the Capital One Cash Rewards card includes a $100 bonus when you spend $500 in the first 3 months. That means you will probably get more back in the first year than the second.
The Capital One Cash Rewards card, which ranks first in NextAdvisor rankings of cash-back cards, offers a straight one percent cash back on all purchases, but also includes a 50 percent annual cash back bonus. This bonus nets cardholders 50 percent of the cash back they earn each year.
NextAdisor's calculator ranks 12 different cards, most without an annual fee. While an annual fee will cut into a users net cash back rewards, Larson says it doesn't have to be a deal-breaker.
"For example, the Blue Cash Preferred card from American Express has an annual fee, but if you spend a lot each month in it's prime categories, it's worth it to pay the fee," Larson said. "On the other hand, if you don't spend a lot each month, selecting a card with an annual fee might not pay off."
For many credit card customers, the whole idea that more card issuers would be offering you cash instead of hitting you with fees is a refreshing change from just a few years ago. The CARD Act has been in force for two years now, and Larson says he thinks generally it has improved the credit card landscape for many consumers.
Using the NextAdvisor calculator, consumers are not only able to identify the cash-back card that is best for them but can go to the company's website where they can apply. But Larson says consumers should do their homework before applying.
"Look for a card with a program you can understand," he said.
Low-Cost Airlines Outperform Majors in Latest Rankings
Consumers like low fares, but good customer service too06/14/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Overall, the level of customer satisfaction with air travel took a dip in the latest J.D.Power and Associates North America Airline Satisfaction Study.Bu...
|Consumers rate Delta|
Overall, the level of customer satisfaction with air travel took a dip in the latest J.D.Power and Associates North America Airline Satisfaction Study.
But when you break it down by low-fare carriers and the so-called "legacy" airlines, customers rate the little guys higher in overall satisfaction. In fact, satisfaction with low-cost carriers improved for a third consecutive year, increasing 3 index points from 2011 to average 754, while satisfaction with traditional carriers declined 4 points to 647.
"The airline industry is caught between trying to satisfy customers who demand low prices, high-quality service and comfort, and contending with the economic challenges of profitably operating an airline," said Stuart Greif, vice president and general manager of the global travel and hospitality practice at J.D. Power and Associates. "Passengers want it all, but they are not necessarily willing to pay for it all. Carriers often must make decisions for financial reasons that they know will negatively impact passenger satisfaction, and therein lies the conundrum."
Afraid to raise fares
Carriers also often feel they cannot significantly increase published fares, since consumers generally choose flights based on the lowest fare. While adding fees for checked bags have helped improve airlines' bottom lines, consumers often feel blindsided by the extra fees.
"Delta displays on the website that the first check in bag is free," Gee, of Snellsville, Ga., wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "Once you arrive at the airport, you are told that only American Express holders have free bags. Also I was told that if I read the fine print online I would see the details. I was very upset to be tricked into fees."
Passengers reviewing airlines at ConsumerAffairs mostly complain about service issues. Gwendolyn, of Portland, Ore., recently recounted her problems getting home from Tulsa on United.
Not going to happen
|Consumers rate United|
"My flight on United Airlines was scheduled to leave early evening on April 2," she wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "I could get to Denver later, but I would miss my flight to PDX and have to stay overnight there. No problem, these things happen. I opted to stay in Tulsa (no offer for a hotel room was made by United staff). I was booked for an early morning flight. So I left and came back 12 hours later on for my second scheduled flight.
"When I arrived, I was told that the flight had been canceled the previous evening and that I had been notified by phone (I had not been). I was then booked for an evening flight. So I left the airport and came back 12 hours later for my third attempt to get home to PDX. This time, I made it through security before it became known that this flight too was delayed to the point that I would miss my connection. I was told to come back in the morning to try for a fourth time. I was told there was no way for me to get back to PDX that night."
The J.D. Power study measured overall customer satisfaction based on performance in seven factors: cost and fees; in-flight services; boarding/deplaning/baggage; flight crew; aircraft; check-in; and reservation.
Checked bag fees
Checked baggage fees are a customer sore point and have a notable impact, with satisfaction averaging 85 points lower among passengers who pay to check bags. For example, two carriers with the highest satisfaction scores in the study — JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines — do not charge passengers to check the first bag.
While the cost and fees factor is important, more than 70 percent of passenger satisfaction is driven by other parts of the overall experience. The study finds that customer service – whether personnel are perceived to be helpful or rude - play a big role in whether the passenger intends to fly with an airline again in the future.
"Despite the need for some carriers to charge unpopular fees, they can gain a competitive advantage by focusing their efforts on process efficiency and positive interactions with the staff and crew," said Jessica McGregor, senior manager of the global travel and hospitality practice at J.D. Power and Associates. "Carriers that find innovative ways to provide passengers with greater control, save them time, reduce hassles and make the airline experience more enjoyable and comfortable will reap satisfaction benefits."
Alaska Airlines ranks highest in the traditional network carrier segment for a fifth consecutive year, performing particularly well in four of the seven factors: boarding/deplaning/baggage; flight crew; check-in; and reservation.
JetBlue Airways ranks highest among low-cost carriers for a seventh consecutive year, performing particularly well in two factors: in-flight services and aircraft.
Southwest Airlines follows closely behind, performing particularly well in four factors: cost and fees; boarding/deplaning/baggage; check-in; and reservation. Despite Southwest performing higher in more factors than JetBlue this year, JetBlue's strong performance, broadly combined with its large advantage in aircraft and in-flight services over Southwest, has enabled JetBlue to retain its highest ranking.
How to Switch Your Dog to A New Pet Food
Illness in dogs not always caused by the food, but by an abrupt change06/14/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Pet owners over the years have reported major illness and even death to their dogs when they switched to a new brand of dog food. In most cases the consume...
Pet owners over the years have reported major illness and even death when they switched to a new brand of dog food. In most cases the consumer blames something in the pet food.
While mold or bacteria can attach itself to dog food and make animals sick, it's not always a problem with the food itself that is causing the problem. Debbie, of Orlando, Fla., runs a non-profit animal rescue shelter and sees a problem in many of the dog food reviews, especially ones concerning Pedigree, which she said she uses in her operation.
“We have had over 6,000 dogs that we have rescued and placed in that time frame,” Debbie wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “We have not had any issues with the dogs eating Pedigree. It seems that a lot of the complaints on this site are from people that bought the food and started feeding their dog for the first time. As with any food change, it can cause severe intestinal upset, to the point of the dog having to be hospitalized. When changing foods, you need to do it slowly and mix it together with the old food and gradually switch the dog over. Vomiting, diarrhea, bloody stools, etc. are all possible if the dog is not switched over correctly.”
Debbie is correct. Veterinarians recommend changing a dog's diet gradually. Some breeds will be more sensitive to change than others. The ingredients in some brands of dog food might also require a careful transition. Also, puppies may be especially sensitive to change.
Dry food, especially, may all look the same but the ingredients can be very different. For example, the old brand may have a heavy concentration of meat products while the new food is mostly grain.
This can be a problem when your dog is allergic to corn, as some are. Corn can be quite common in low-priced dog food.
Most veterinarians say the change to a new dog food is best accomplished over about a two-week period. You might want to start off with a mixture of 3/4 cup of the old brand to 1/4 cup of the new brand and see how that goes.
Watch your dog carefully and if problems develop, consult your veterinarian.
Most of it came in savings at the gas pump06/14/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
The U.S. Labor Department reports the Consumer Price Index (CPI), a measure of what consumers pay for goods and services, tumbled in May, but the savings c...
Cooper Recalls Cooper, Del-Nat, Pep Boys, TBC Tires
Tread separation hazard06/14/2012ConsumerAffairs
Cooper is recalling about 10,000 tires because of possible tread separation. The recalled tires are listed below. Cooper will notify owners and dealers wil...
Cooper is recalling about 10,000 tires because of possible tread separation. The recalled tires are listed below. Cooper will notify owners and dealers will replace the tires free of charge. Consumers may contact Cooper at 1-800-854-6288.
Kolcraft Recalls Strollers after Fingertip Amputations
Fingers can get stuck in the strollers' hinge mechanism06/14/2012ConsumerAffairs
Kolcraft is recalling about 36,000 Contours Options three- and four-wheeled strollers. A child or consumer’s finger can become caught in the ope...
Kolcraft is recalling about 36,000 Contours Options three- and four-wheeled strollers. A child or consumer’s finger can become caught in the opening formed when locking and unlocking the hinge mechanism which is used to adjust the handlebars on the strollers. This presents an amputation and laceration hazard to children and the adults handling the stroller.
Kolcraft and federal safety regulators have received five reports of injuries involving the hinge mechanism, including reports of three children whose fingertips were amputated and two adults whose fingers were either smashed or lacerated.
This recall involves Kolcraft Contours Options three- and four-wheeled strollers. Strollers included in the recall have model numbers starting with ZL002, ZL005, ZL008, ZL015 and ZL018. On the ZL002 model, the model number and date of manufacture is printed on a sticker above the left wheel. On the ZL005, ZL008, ZL015 and ZL018 models, the model number and date of manufacture is printed on a label sewn into the edge of back of the stroller seat pad. The strollers were manufactured from January 2006 through November 2009 and sold in various color schemes.
Juvenile product specialty stores sold the strollers nationwide and online at Amazon.com, Target.com and ToysRUs.com from January 2006 and June 2012 for between $150 and $160. They were made in China.
Consumers should immediately stop using the product and contact the company to receive a free repair kit.
For additional information, please contact Kolcraft at (800) 453-7673 between 8 a.m. and 6:45 p.m. ET Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. ET Friday, or visit the firm’s website at www.kolcraft.com
Foreclosure Numbers Rise In May
But there are still fewer foreclosures than a year ago06/14/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
There are two ways to look at the current state of foreclosures. On one hand, activity spiked between April and May, but is down on a year-over-year basis....
There are two ways to look at the current state of foreclosures. On one hand, activity spiked between April and May, but is down on a year-over-year basis.
In its monthly report, foreclosure marketing firm RealtyTrac says foreclosure filings — default notices, scheduled auctions and bank repossessions — were reported on 205,990 U.S. properties in May.
That's an increase of nine percent from April but when compared to May 2011, it's down four percent. It means the forecast surge in foreclosures, now that the multi-state settlement with mortgage lenders has been ratified, has yet to materialize.
“U.S. foreclosure activity has now decreased on a year-over-basis for 20 straight months including May, but the jump in May foreclosure starts shows that it’s going to be a bumpy ride down to the bottom of this foreclosure cycle,” said Brandon Moore, CEO of RealtyTrac.
Going foreward, Moore thinks we could see fewer foreclosures and more short sales. In a short sale, the homeowner is allowed to sell for less than the current mortgage balance, meaning the mortgage holder loses money.
Mortgage servicers have been reluctant to do short sales in the past, but Moore says there has been a definite change in their thinking.
“Disposing of distressed homes by pre-foreclosure sale can also benefit lenders and servicers because pre-foreclosure homes sell at a higher average price point than bank-owned homes,” Moore said. “Our first quarter foreclosure sales report showed that the average price of a pre-foreclosure home was more than $27,000 higher than the average price of a bank-owned home — which quickly adds up given that there have been an average of 1.6 million nationwide foreclosure starts per year for the past five years.
In essence, banks have finally recognized that treating the problem of delinquent mortgages with short sales rather than bank repossessions can help them minimize their losses and also avoid taking on more REOs, which they then have to manage, maintain and market for sale.
If this trend actually holds up, it could be encouraging news for the housing market. Homes will sell for slightly more than they would have otherwise and avoid going to foreclosure, which often depresses the value of surrounding homes.
Eating Out and Eating Healthily: They Can Go Together
Here are some healthy options next time you're at your favorite chain restaurant06/13/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
What is it about eating out that's so nice?On the surface that may seem like a stupid question. I can already hear the sarcastic portion of readers sayin...
What is it about eating out that's so nice?
On the surface that may seem like a stupid question. I can already hear the more sarcastic readers saying, 'ummm.....the food maybe?
But let's dig a little deeper than that. What really draws us away from our stovetops, and using those refrigerated groceries that were carefully written down and purchased? With new cooking shows, and entire cooking channels being birthed by the millisecond telling us to cook, cook, cook, Americans are eating out in increasingly high numbers regardless of their income level.
Although it's widely known that eating at home is healthier, eating out is still the highest weekly expenditure for U.S. consumers, according to a 2010 study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics.
Whether it be a high-end restaurant where presentation sometimes supersedes portion or taste, or a fast-food joint where you gaze at the wall menu though it hasn't changed in decades, eateries aren't that concerned with how healthy you're eating.
Sure, many restaurants now list nutritional information next to the menu items, but only because they have to. In 2010, legislation was passed that forces restaurant chains to list its calorie counts next to their products.
Fancier restaurants and fast-food chains share an equal amount of fluctuation when it comes to healthy and unhealthy menu options. But let's face it, the majority of U.S. consumers prefer restaurant chains over the white-table-clothed expensive variety. Waiting 50 minutes for a Saturday night Chang's table is proof.
Although we like to occasionally dabble in the culinary unknown, there's something comforting about going to a familiar chain, and knowing what you're getting is something you've had a million times already but love each go around. But at what nutritional cost does that love come?
Not the top concern
Most consumers don't go to restaurants to seek out healthy menu options, because it's all about satisfying the pallet. I mean eating out is supposed to be at least partially recreational, right?
But what about when eating out isn't connected to fun, a date, or an evening out with friends? When we're on our way to the work, and stop to get that quick bite, are we eating healthier then? Many are not.
Eric Hudson, a 37-year old computer program designer told ConsumerAffairs that he doesn't really have the time to think about health when grabbing something to quick to eat.
"It's mainly because of time constraints," he said. You're rushing on the way to work and looking for a quick bite to eat, rather than something that's going to be nutritious. I'll get a sausage Mcmuffin, greasy hash browns, and some orange juice from Mcdonalds."
So even if you have to grab that quick bite, what can you get that won't rock the nutritional boat too much?
Well, Dunkin' Donuts offers an Egg White Turkey Sausage Wake-Up Wrap that's only 150 calories, 5 grams of fat, and 400 milligrams of sodium. Not the absolute healthiest, but healthier than the eatery's powdered jelly donuts. At Dunkin' Donuts consumers can also opt for the "Bacon, Egg and Cheese Wake-Up Wrap", at 210 calories and 12 grams of fat.
And who doesn't love a good ole' bagel every now and then? But one still must be selective when going to places like Einstein Bagel, as many of the bagels are high in salt, and fattier than other menu choices.
The healthiest options at this bagel chain, owned by Boston Chicken, is the Plain Thin Bagel with 140 calories, 1 gram of fat, and 240 milligrams of sodium. If you prefer a little sweet with your healthiness, Einstein's Honey Whole Wheat Bagel comes in at 140 calories, 1.5 grams of fat and 120 milligrams of sodium. Rounding out the top five of Einstein's healthiest menu items are the multi grain bread, the Everything Bagel, and the Ciabatta Bread.
If your breakfast stop is Starbucks, as it is for millions of people, there are obviously healthier menu choices than others. Among the top five are the Clover Brewed Coffee, which has 5 calories, 0 fat, and 10 milligrams of sodium.
Starbucks, Iced Skinny Flavored Lattee comes in second among its menu items at 110 calories, 4 grams of fat and 85 milliegrams of sodium. Rounding out the top five of healthiest Starbuck menu choices are the Iced Cafe Lattee, Starbucks' Perfect Oatmeal, and the Peppermint Brownie Cake Pop.
Sit down and eat something
But let's say you're not grabbing a quick bite and you actually want to sit down and dine instead of just eat?
Some of the healthier menu options among popular chains like PF Chang's offer an Asian Grilled Salmon at 320 calories, 6 grams of fat and 575 milligrams of sodium. Not the lowest sodium content, but in a restaurant known for its heavily seasoned dishes and sauces, 575 of sodium per one serving isn't that bad. The Egg Drop Soup and the Hot and Sour Soup, along with the Buddha's Feast Steamed, are among the healthier ways to go at this Asian-fusion restaurant. And brown rice is always suggested over white, or the fried versions.
At the popular chain Applebee's, the healthiest food option on its menu is the 7 oz House Sirloin Steak with 250 calories, 12 grams of fat, and 860 milligrams of sodium. Many of Applebees' dishes are plagued with salt, so it'll be hard to avoid it when you eat there.
If you're really making an effort to go healthier, one should just stick with the Applebees' Weight Watchers selections, or salads. Rounding out the top menu options at Applebee's are the Trios Classic Wings, or Classic Buffalo Wings, at 360 calories, and 25 grams of total fat.
The Asiago Peppercorn Steak contains 380 calories, 14 grams of fat and 1520 millegrams of sodium. And the Roasted Garlic Sirloin at 450 calories, 18 fat, and 1910 sodium completes the best way to go at this relatively inexpensive eatery. But it'll be hard to avoid high sodium counts at this place.
For those who like to sit down to an iHOP breakfast, the Create Your own Omelet, Plain with Egg Substitute is among the healthiest food options on the menu, at 140 calories, 4 grams of fat, and 320 milligrams of sodium.
The Simple and Fit Veggie Omelet with Fresh Fruit, is the second healthiest iHOP menu option. The low fat dish comes with 330 calories, with 10 grams of fat and 420 milligrams of sodium.
iHOP's other omelet dishes like the Simple and Fit Spinach, Mushroom and Tomato Omelet, the Turkey Omelet, and the Create Your Own Omelet, Plain with Regular Eggs, completes the top five of the pancake house's healthiest food options.
Restaurant chains are fun and relatively inexpensive to go to. And it sometimes is the perfect no-brainer when you're trying to figure out exactly where to eat. But continuing to select menu items blindly can really lead to poor health in the future, especially because we U.S. consumers like to dine out so much.
Justice Department Opens Antitrust Probe of Cable Industry
Are cable companies conspiring to shut out competitors like Netflix, Hulu?06/13/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James R. Hood
So think about it a minute: Would you want to live your life as a pipe, doing nothing but moving everybody else's slush around?No, of course, you wouldn'...
So think about it a minute: Would you want to live your life as a pipe, doing nothing but moving everybody else's slush around?
No, of course, you wouldn't and the Justice Department reportedly suspects that Comcast, Time Warner and other cable companies don't like the idea either and is said to be investigating whether they have conspired to squash competition from the likes of Netflix and Hulu.
Cable and phone companies know what being a pipe is like, after all. They've been there, done that. If you'll recall, cable companies originally did nothing but capture distant television signals and transport them to the homes of subscribers who lived too far out in the boonies to pull in a decent over-the-air signal.
Phone companies were also pipes. They played no role in the "content" that their subscribers generated when they called each other.
|Consumers rate Comcast|
Ah, but that was then. Now, the cable and phone companies are basically in the same business. They provide lowly old telephone service, broadband data and the programming packages that consist of clumps of network and local stations and the output of HBO, AMC, CNN and all the other program producers out there.
So, the cable and phone companies have gotten a grip on two of the three legs of the stool -- the pipes and the distribution rights to programs produced by third parties. Comcast has gone even further and added a third leg with its purchase of NBC Universal, a program producer.
But the stool is getting a little wobbly lately, thanks to such interlopers as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and the other services that distribute third-party programs over the Internet, which basically consists of the pipes owned by the big cable and phone companies.
Consumers like this because it lets them pick and choose. Instead of paying $100 or more to subscribe to 173 channels to get access to the four or five shows they watch regularly, they can buy a very inexpensive (or, in some cases, free) subscription to a streaming service that lets them watch some stuff for free and pay a few bucks for premium stuff, like recent movies and TV shows.
The Wall Street Journal reports today that it has learned that Justice Department officials have been talking with various players in the industry, asking probing questions about such issues as data caps, the limits that cable and phone companies impose on their subscribers.
Could it be, the investigators wonder, that the cable and phone companies are worried that their subscribers will figure out that as long as they have the pipe, they don't need the distribution services they now pay so dearly for.
Just to be clear about this, not all program producers are crazy about scrapping the present set-up. As it works now, a cable company works out a deal to distribute -- let's say -- AMC, a movie channel. It then pays AMC a certain amount each month for every household that subscribes to the package that includes AMC, even though many of those households will most likely never watch AMC.
|Some of AMC's finest|
This is not a purely hypothetical example. Dish Network is currently threatening to drop AMC, claiming it's too expensive and not enough subscribers watch it.
There are quite a few cable channels out there that might find themselves going back to beans and rice if they got paid only when somebody actually watched one of their shows. It would be like the Internet sites that try to get by on those pay-per-click ads the newspapers complain so bitterly about. (Newspapers are kind of an early version of cable pipes, more like buckets really, but that's another story).
Where all of this goes is anybody's guess. After all, when you take cable, telecommunications and broadcasting, you're talking about three of the most heavily-regulated (i.e., governmentally protected) industries out there, so expect some heavy lobbying before anything much happens.
10 Car Models Dropped After 2012 May Be Bargains
Kelley Blue Book says some may be better values than others06/13/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
What happens when an automaker decides to discontinue a model? Chances are the manufacturer and dealer will be willing to make deals to clear inventories....
What happens when an automaker decides to discontinue a model? Chances are the manufacturer and dealer will be willing to make deals to clear out their inventories.
|2012 Lexus HS Hybrid|
Kelly Blue Book (KBB) reports that in 2012, 10 auto models have reached the end of the line, meaning price-motivated consumers might find some attractive bargains.
"Because 2012 marks the final year of these 10 models, savvy in-market consumers likely can swing really good deals on some of the cars we identify," said Jack R. Nerad, executive editorial director and executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book's kbb.com. "In addition, the automakers that produce them are making interesting changes in their new-car lineups to fill the space left by these departing models."
Here are the 10 vehicles making their final appearance in the 2012 model year:
- 2012 Dodge Caliber
- 2012 Kia Sedona
- 2012 Mitsubishi Eclipse
- 2012 Mitsubishi Galant
- 2012 Mazda CX-7
- 2012 Lexus HS Hybrid
- 2012 Mercedes-Benz R-Class
- 2012 Hyundai Veracruz
- 2012 GMC Canyon
- 2012 Chevrolet Colorado
|2012 Mazda CX7|
Of course, buying a model that is no longer in production can have an impact on the vehicle's value. KBB says the 10 vehicles headed for retirement this year fall into two camps of expected depreciation.
First, the Dodge Caliber, Kia Sedona and Mitsubishi Galant start out as relatively inexpensive cars. Consumers can expect their values to slip over time.
"The Caliber and Galant are two models overdue for discontinuation, and with previous model years 10 percent more affordable than their closest competitors," said Alec Gutierrez, senior market analyst of automotive insights for KBB. "We expect this discount to increase one or two percent each year as they age."
Some models shouldn't take much of a hit
But KBB said it does not expect a significant drop in value for the Kia Sedona as it also is considerably cheaper than its segment counterparts. In fact, a 2010 Sedona is nearly $5,000 cheaper than a comparable Toyota Sienna or Honda Odyssey.
KBB likens them to the used versions of the Mercedes-Benz R-Class and Hyundai Veracruz, as being far more affordable than similar vehicles in their respective segments, with little additional drop in value expected as a result of being discontinued. Values will likely remain firm since these vehicles could present buying opportunities for consumers seeking a good deal in the full-size and luxury crossover categories, KBB says.
It is not all bad news for owners of soon-to-be discontinued models. If you drive the Lexus HS, Mazda CX-7, Chevrolet Colorado or GMC Canyon, KBB says you likely will see little impact to your vehicle's value.
Outlook For Gasoline Prices: Going Lower
A change in perception makes a big difference at the pump06/13/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Motorists have seen prices at the pump fall steadily since early April. After peaking around $3.93 a gallon, the national average price of self-serve regul...
Motorists have seen prices at the pump fall steadily since early April. After peaking around $3.93 a gallon, the national average price of self-serve regular has fallen to $3.54, as measured by AAA.
What's behind the free-fall? It turns out we have something of an oil glut. Consumers around the world are buying less fuel while oil producers, including the U.S., have continued to pump oil.
A recent survey by Platts found oil production from OPEC nations rose 40,000 barrels per day to 31.75 million in May.
The highest since October 2008
The May production marks a rise from April's output level of 31.71 million barrels a day and is the highest level since October 2008 when OPEC volumes averaged 32.26 million barrels. That's when, you will remember, the economy went into a nose dive.
"The number that really matters is the jump from January to May this year, which shows that OPEC output rose from 30.87 million barrels a day in January to 31.75 million barrels a day last month," said John Kingston, Platts global director of news. "This has occurred even as Iranian supplies were being squeezed by a drop in the number of customers willing to take its oil. We can now assume OPEC members at least will discuss at their upcoming meeting a possible paring of production. This scenario was almost impossible to fathom just a few months ago, as OPEC continues to surprise the world with its ability to put oil on to the market."
In fact, there's some dissension in the OPEC ranks over how much oil the cartel should be pumping. Iran and Venezuela, for example, accuse Saudi Arabia of undermining the price of oil by pumping too much of it.
Saudis think oil too expensive
But the Saudis, echoing many U.S. motorists' sentiments, argue the price of oil is artificially high. Remember, prices began to spike earlier this year when oil investors believed there was a risk of a confrontation with Iran over nuclear issues leading to a supply disruption. The Saudis have argued that oil prices should be below $100 a barrel for the overall health of the global economy.
Sentiment in the oil market has turned "bearish," meaning traders no longer think prices are headed higher, and are thus unwilling to bid up the price of crude. In addition to the lessened risk of conflict with Iran, there are worries about a slowdown in the global economy, brought on by Europe's debt problems.
That leads economists like Joel Naroff, of Naroff Economic Advisers, to conclude that the price of just about everything the U.S. imports could get cheaper, or at least not go up in price.
Supply and demand
"Import prices are falling as everyone around the world is trying to sell into the one market where there is some demand, the U.S.," Naroff said, "That means they are willing to take lower prices to sustain their sales."
As a result, he says oil prices are down, further declines in gasoline prices are coming and the U.S. economy is not growing strongly enough for any firm to have much pricing power. At the same time, the value of the U.S. dollar is rising, meaning things that are purchased in dollars - like oil and gold - are getting cheaper.
That fact is underlined in the U.S. Labor Department's Producer Price Index (PPI) for May, which took its biggest drop since 2009. The main factor in the decline? A 4.3 percent decline in the price of energy.
Will the trend last? Who knows? But for the rest of the summer, at least, consumers should enjoy falling prices at the pump.
Diesel Exhaust Found to Cause Cancer
World Health Organization now says there is conclusive proof06/13/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
For the last 24 years the World Health Organization (WHO) has believe diesel exhaust to be a "probable" source of cancer. Now the agency has removed the wo...
For the last 24 years the World Health Organization (WHO) has believed diesel exhaust to be a "probable" source of cancer. Now the agency has removed the world "probable" from the statement.
After input from international health experts, the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified diesel engine exhaust as carcinogenic to humans, based on sufficient evidence that exposure is associated with an increased risk for lung cancer.
It also found a "positive association" between diesel exhaust and development of bladder cancer.
Diesel exhaust's cancer-causing potential has been the source of intense study over the last two decades, especially because of findings in epidemiological studies of workers exposed in various settings. Earlier this year health researchers published the results of a large US National Cancer Institute/National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study of occupational exposure to such emissions in underground miners, which showed an increased risk of death from lung cancer in exposed workers.
“The scientific evidence was compelling and the Working Group’s conclusion was unanimous: diesel engine exhaust causes lung cancer in humans.” said Dr Christopher Portier, Chairman of the IARC working group. “Given the additional health impacts from diesel particulates, exposure to this mixture of chemicals should be reduced worldwide."
Because of growing environmental concerns over the past two decades, governments in North America and Europe have already taken some action to tighten emission controls on both diesel and gasoline engines. Among the changes have been reductions in the sulfur content of diesel fuel, as well as changes in engine design to promote efficiency.
The researchers concede that recent changes in diesel fuel and engine technology may have mitigated the risk somewhat, but said more research is needed to determine just how much. Meanwhile, they say that gasoline exhaust remains a suspected carcinogen, but current research has not offered conclusive proof that it is.
Jamaica Home to Many Phone Scams
Con artists can't spend all their time on the beach -- they have to work too06/13/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
White sand beaches, plentiful sun, reggae music…and international phone scams?When most people think of Jamaica, they imagine a tropical paradise,...
White sand beaches, plentiful sun, reggae music…and international phone scams?
When most people think of Jamaica, they imagine a tropical paradise, not a scammer’s paradise. But time and time again, Jamaican scammers call U.S. residents looking for easy money through phony stories about Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes winnings, lottery prizes and free cars, according to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
The Wisconsin agency says it has already received more than a dozen written complaints this year from Wisconsin residents who were contacted by Jamaican scammers.
One telling sign of a scam is if your caller ID notes that a questionable call is coming from a phone number with an “876” prefix – this is the area code for Jamaica. The process for making a call to and from the island is just like calling state-to-state, so many call recipients may not realize that the contact is actually coming from overseas.
The scammers often claim to represent Publishers Clearing House, “Mega Millions” or a similar organization. Their goal is to convince American residents to wire money or send the card number from a MoneyPak “Green Dot” pre-paid debit card overseas to cover the fees on a phony lottery sum that is supposed to be delivered to their home. The scammers request anywhere from $20 to more than $1,000 for these delivery fees.
In other variations on the scam, callers have claimed to be from Bank of America or have used an opening line about “lowering interest.” The scammer may also engage the call recipient in a conversation about religion or family in order to earn the person’s trust.
The scammers are not simply cold calling – they are using online mapping technology to add legitimacy to their calls. When scammers claim that the “prize patrol” is in the call recipient’s neighborhood right now, they can describe the area in detail using free web-based mapping tools.
To avoid being the victim of a Jamaican phone scam, Consumer Protection offers the following tips:
- If you receive a phone call from an 876 area code that asks you for payment in order to secure a prize, hang up immediately and file a complaint with the Consumer Protection Bureau. If you have caller ID, record the incoming phone number and the time of the call.
- If the scammers reach you once they may call repeatedly, so check your caller ID before you pick up.
- Any request for a wire transfer or pre-paid debit card for a product or service is likely a scam.
- The scammers will not provide any legitimate documentation prior to requesting your prize delivery fees. This is illegal in Wisconsin. A promoter who represents that a consumer is eligible or has been selected to receive a prize MUST provide the consumer with a written prize notice with specific disclosures BEFORE requesting or accepting any payments.
Consumer Advocates Group claimed it could help financially-troubled homeowners06/13/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
A federal court has shut down a company that sold "forensic audits" that would supposedly help troubled homeowners avoid foreclosure. The Federal Trade Com...
Consumers Getting Fewer Credit Card Offers
Drop-off in offers coincides with reduction in credit card debt06/13/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Recent data shows that credit card debt is down. Maybe it's no coincidence that there are also fewer credit card offers clogging your mailbox.The cool-of...
Recent data shows that credit card debt is down. Maybe it's no coincidence that there are also fewer credit card offers clogging your mailbox.
The cool-off in credit card mail that began in the winter of 2011 looks set to continue, at least for now, according to Mintel Comperemedia.
For example, In April 260 million offers for new credit cards were received at US households, down 33 percent from the 390 million offers US households received during April of last year. This is the lowest estimated monthly mail volume tracked in the past 25 months, according to Mintel Comperemedia.
"April marks a new low for the credit card direct mail decline that began in December 2011," said Andrew Davidson, senior vice president at Mintel Comperemedia. "The last time volumes were lower was back in March 2010. At that time a come-back in direct mail was gathering steam following severe cut backs during the recession. That come-back turned into a two-year period of expansion that peaked in June 2011 when 497 million offers were received by US households."
Lenders more cautious
While there is no evidence to suggest that consumers have lost their appetite for credit, Davidson says it appears that lenders have become more cautious again. However, he says it might just reflect a cycle and not be part of a long-term trend.
Once the long term outlook for the economy gains more solid footing, he predicts confidence and direct mail volumes will return. When they do, Davidson predicts the offers will be more competitive, as companies look for ways to stand apart from their competitors.
"Credit card direct mail volume will be significantly lower in 2012 than 2011," Davidson said. "For credit card issuers this is a great time to be in the mail. The mailbox is less cluttered and it is easier to get consumers to notice your message."
Consumers, of course, should exercise discipline and discretion before applying for new credit cards. Routinely lenders use the offer of lower-interest balance transfers to gain new customers. Consumers should read the terms and conditions carefully.
Survey: Students Benefit From Personal Finance Education
Ninety percent say course helped them change their behavior06/13/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Is financial literacy education worthwhile. There was always the assumption that it could be helpful and now, USA Funds, a non-profit financial education o...
Is financial literacy education worthwhile? There was always the assumption that it could be helpful and now, USA Funds, a non-profit financial education organization, says there's research that suggests just how powerful it can be.
The organization commissioned a survey of 1,522 college students who had received personal finance education through their college or university. Nine of 10 respondents said what they learned changed how they manage their personal finances and college life in some way.
Of those students reporting changes in their personal finance behaviors, the respondents reported making an average of 10 behavioral changes. Here are the top five new behaviors:
- I consider if an item is a need or want before purchasing it and spend less on wants. (885 respondents.)
- I established educational, financial and/or career goals. (879 respondents.)
- I researched and understand the requirements to complete my program of study. (813 respondents.)
- I spend more time on activities that help me achieve my educational, financial and career goals. (728 respondents.)
- I use new or different strategies to manage stressful situations. (718 respondents.)
USA Funds invited all students who had completed at least one USA Funds Life Skills lesson between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2011, to complete an online survey. Respondents could choose from a list of 25 possible personal finance behavior change statements, including topics related to managing school life and student loans, managing student finances and managing personal life issues.
"These results indicate that regular exposure to personal finance education can help college students adopt habits that promote completion of their college programs, as well as sound spending and saving practices and wiser use of credit," said Denise B. Feser,USA Funds senior vice president, School and Student Services.
Schools have begun placing new emphasis on financial literacy in the wake of the credit crisis and the growing problem of college loan debt. While financial literacy education is particularly helpful for young people, everyone can benefit from it.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the entity that guarantees bank deposits, offers Money Smart, a financial education curriculum designed to help low- and moderate-income individuals outside the financial mainstream develop financial skills and create good banking relationships. It's helped educate over 2.75 million consumers since 2001.
But Where Will Don Draper Go? Dish Network Canceling AMC
The Walking Dead may have to shuffle off to another satellite06/12/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
For those who were watching Don Draper, from AMC's hit show Mad Men, ride off into another season ending sunset, you probably also noticed the ads during c...
For those who were watching Don Draper, from AMC's hit show Mad Men, ride off into another season-ending sunset, you probably also noticed the ads during commercials that warned of Dish Network's plan to drop AMC by next month.
The AMC spot also told viewers to email Dish Network and let them know that the channel should be kept where it is, and that Dish should continue to provide popular programming like Breaking Bad and The Killing to its viewers. Not to mention The Walking Dead, which perhaps best describes AMC fans who subscribe to Dish.
After speaking with a representative of the Dish Network to confirm what the real deal was behind the dispute, we learned that dollars and cents were the actual culprit, not the inadequate viewership reason that Dish Network gave media outlets within the last 24 hours.
Lucy at Dish Network, who didn't want to give her last name, said AMC has become too expensive for Dish Network to distribute and keep onboard, as channels charge cable companies high fees to carry and distribute its station, and those fees are typically passed on to the consumer. Nice, huh?
The dust-up isn't doing much for Dish's standing with consumers, according to a ConsumerAffairs sentiment analysis of comments posted on social media over the last year. Dish currently hovers around a 25% net positive rating, not exactly something to shout about.
See, there is a certain cable hierarchy if you will, and your local franchising authority (LFA) is perched at the top. The LFA is an American government organization -- usually a city or county -- that regulates, among other things, the rate your cable company can charge you for basic programming and services. The LFA works in conjunction with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Second in the hierarchy comfortably sits the cable company or channel provider. The cable and satellite companies like Dish Network, negotiate a distribution fee with each channel, and ultimately set a price on what they will charge the consumer. The LFA only regulates pricing when a cable company has other cable companies in the area to compete with.
But if the cable provider is the sole company in its area, it doesn't have to justify pricing, since there's no other pricing in its zone to be compared to. The LFA will only intervene if it deems the pricing unfair. And we all know the word "fair" is arguably the most subjective term in the history of terms, so at times the LFA can provide the consumer with only small amounts of comfort.
Lowest on the cable hierchy is the consumer. The poor viewer is merely a ball of yarn between the one paw of the cable company, and the other paw of the LFA. The consumer is continually battered back and fourth as pricing, channels, and offered programming change with very little or no consumer say.
Take for example this past Sunday night, after AMC warned its viewers about Dish Network's intentions to remove the channel from it viewing list. In retaliation, Dish quickly moved AMC from channel 130 to cable no-man's-land channel 9069. The AMC's high definition station is now on channel 9610.
Some viewers even reported that their DVRs shut off in the middle of recording their favorite AMC programs. According to many, the abrupt channel shift had DVRs and Tivos across the U.S. malfunctioning with confusion.
Dish has recently portrayed itself as a champion of the consumer by coming up with Auto Hop, a device that automatically zaps out commercials in pre-recorded shows, but any goodwill that may have created seems likely to be erased if our DVRs are going to stop recording shows on networks Dish is feuding with.
Contractual terms between AMC and Dish haven't officially been released, but it's rumored that Dish pays AMC in the range of 50 cents each for the channels 14 million subscribed viewers. That would give AMC a substantial loss of $7 million per month if it permanently broke from the Dish Network company. And $7 mil a month ain't peanuts, that's for sure. Or any other snack type for that matter.
After asking Lucy if the channel shift is only temporary, she said the end result is yet to be determined, and hopes the dispute will soon be resolved. "The [AMC] programs are still airing," she said, "and we're still negotiating. We're getting a lot of calls from customers asking about AMC."
ConsumerAffairs also contacted the AMC network based in New York City, to get the lowdown on the showdown, between the TV network and Dish. A representative said she couldn't provide any comment at this time but those concerned should call 1-855-Keep-AMC.
The automated AMC phone message at the 855 number allows you to be connected to Dish Network directly to voice your concerns. Or customers can leave a detailed voice message that AMC says may be used in its negotiations with Dish.
|Consumers rate Dish|
The recent battle for Dish Networks comes at a time when many consumers said they were displeased with the satellite company's services. In ConsumerAffairs' complaints and reviews, many Dish customers voiced their experiences and showed a consistent level of dissatisfaction.
"I called into question my bill and got unsatisfactory answers," one consumer complained. "I then decided to cancel my services and they told me that I would have to disconnect my equipment myself and ship it to them, but i tried to explain that I was disabled and unable to disconnect the equipment alone. The employee helping me got angry and hung up and cut my service off. She told me that I would have to pay a $99 fee to have the company come to my house and disconnect the equipment for me, because I told her I was disabled."
Joe and Lisa of Lincoln, Neb., wrote: "We decided to cancel our services with Windstream/Dish because Dish was always freezing up and not working right since installation of the service. Also, our bills were always going up. On March 29th, we called to cancel our Windstream bundle package. Windstream cancelled our internet and phone service then transferred us to Dish Network. Dish said we had to be paid in full before we could cancel."
Joe and Lisa didn't even receive monetary credit or a bill discount for their service working improperly. Not good Dish Network. Not good at all.
AMC said Dish began its channel attack when its other channel, Sundance, was cancelled by the satellite company, and both IFC and WE TV are expected to be next. AMC also says the fight stems from a 2008 lawsuit between the TV channel and Dish, when the satellite company removed AMC's high definition stations.
ConsumerAffairs also questioned Lucy from Dish Network about potential replacements for the cancelled AMC, Sundance and the other channels. She mentioned that AMC's normal channel of 130 will now show HD Net, the channel owned by modern renaissance guy Mark Cuban. Lucy also said there's still a chance that AMC could return to its normal station at some point.
"It's still up in the air" she said.
And up in the air it will remain until the two multimillion dollar companies decide to consider the person at the bottom of the cable hierarchy: the consumer.
Verizon Wireless Formally Unveils New Pricing Plan
Calls and texts are unlimited, but not data06/12/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Verizon Wireless has made it official, rolling out its new “Share Everything” pricing plan that will replace its current plan structure for new...
Verizon Wireless has made it official, rolling out its new “Share Everything” pricing plan that will replace its current plan structure for new customers, beginning June 28.
The carrier is, in effect, providing breaks on lower-demand services while exacting a premium for the one service all users seem to crave – data. Under the plan consumers will pay a monthly access fee for all smartphones, basic phones, jetpacks/usbs, notebooks and tablets. For that monthly access fee, the consumer will gets unlimited voice and texting.
Paying for data
|Consumers rate Verizon Wireless|
However, all data usage will be measured and shared by all the devices on the account. One gigabyte of data per month will cost $50, with allotments up to 10 GB for $100 per month.
All device users on the account would have to stay cumulatively within their monthly allotment or the account would be billed for overage charges.
Verizon Wireless points out that tablet users stand to benefit under the change. Currently if a subscriber wants to add 3G or 4G access for a tablet, they must pay $30 a month for a data plan. That has resulted in some consumers putting off a tablet purchase, or has sent them to another electronics retailer where they purchased, at a lower price, a Wi-Fi only tablet.
Under the new plan subscribers would pay an additional $10 a month for adding a tablet. The tablet's data usage would then come out of the plan's monthly allotment. To Verizon Wireless, it's the wave of the future.
"Share Everything Plans are the new standard for wireless service,” said Tami Erwin, vice president and chief marketing officer for Verizon Wireless. “They are simple; customers no longer have to think about their voice and message plans, because both are unlimited.”
True, but they will have to think long and hard about data usage. 10 GB sounds like a lot of data, but it might not be in a family of four with two teens who, between smart phones and tablets, watch a lot of video, listen to streaming music and surf the web.
The costs under the new Share Everything plans are as follows:
- Smartphones - $40 a month
- Basic phones - $30 a month
- Jetpacks/USBs/Notebooks/Netbooks - $20 a month
- Tablets - $10 a month
- 1 GB of data - $50 a month
- 2 GB of data - $60 a month
- 4 GB of data - $70
- 6 GB of data - $80
- 8 GB of data -$90
- 10 GB of data - $100
Survey: Store Brands Can Knock 36% Off Grocery Bill
Biggest savings on buns -- 62%06/12/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
What's the difference between an advertised brand and a store brand? Sometimes its just the label.Sometimes, major food manufacturers also produce the sa...
What's the difference between an advertised brand and a store brand? Sometimes it's just the label.
Sometimes, major food manufacturers also produce the same products that are sold under a store label. For example, ConAgra, which makes Peter Pan peanut butter, also produces Great Value peanut better for Walmart.
It's generally accepted that store brands cost less than national brands, but how much less? A survey conducted for an association of store brand labels says switching to store brands could save the average consumer as much as 36 percent off their grocery bill.
The survey looked at a range of basic food and non-food items that an average family might put on the shopping list for the summer outdoor season. It tracked pricing for 30 grocery items over a four-week period at a conventional supermarket.
The survey compared prices for summertime staples like hot dogs, American cheese, BBQ sauce and freezer pops, as well as non-food items like sunscreen, charcoal, aluminum foil and paper plates.
When buying national brands, the total bill came to $109.70 on average over four separate trips, while the same purchases for the retailer's brands cost $69.89. For every category, a leading national brand was compared to a similar store brand product and prices were adjusted to account for all known discounts, coupons and promotions available. The survey took place over a four week period in a typical suburban supermarket located in the northeast.
Where can you save the most? Hot dog and hamburger buns were the cheapest when you opt for a store brand. In the survey the price was 62 percent lower than the price of name brand buns. Store brand soft drinks were 52 percent cheaper and ice cream yielded a 42 percent savings.
Is there any material difference between national and store brands? The national brands will argue there is. In fact, in some cases there may be differences in quality but in many cases, there simply isn't.
As a test, compare the ingredients labels on both products before selecting one.
Average Family's Net Worth Drops 38 Percent
Fed report suggests collapse of housing market to blame06/12/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
The U.S. Federal Reserve has released a report that sheds light on the precarious financial state of the American family and may help explain why the econo...
The U.S. Federal Reserve has released a report that sheds light on the precarious financial state of the American family and may help explain why the economic recovery has been slow to take hold.
The Fed's Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) for 2010 shows that the median value of income between 2007 and 2010 fell 7.7 percent while median net worth plunged more than 38 percent.
But not everyone saw their fortunes decline. In fact, some groups experienced gains.
“Most noticeably, median incomes moved higher for retirees and other nonworking families,” the report said. “The decline in median income was most pronounced among more highly educated families, families headed by persons aged less than 55, and families living in the South and West regions.”
But the decreases in family income over the 2007-10 period were substantially smaller than the declines in both median and mean net worth. Overall, median net worth fell 38.8 percent, falling for most groups between 2007 and 2010. That decline is a product, in large part, of the collapse in the housing market.
“The decline in median net worth was especially large for families in groups where housing was a larger share of assets, such as families headed by someone 35 to 44 years old, whose median net worth fell 54.4 percent, and families in the West region," the report said.
Families whose homes are “underwater,” meaning they owe more than the home is worth, have actually seen their net worth move into negative territory. Last month the real estate site Zillow.com reported nearly 16 million U.S. homeowners were "under water" in the first quarter of 2012. The company estimate “under water” homeowners comprise a total of $1.2 trillion in negative equity.
With the combination of declining income and declining net worth, the average U.S. family is not in a position to increase spending on discretionary items, which most economists see as necessary to maintain economic growth.
Data Broker Fined $800,000 for Privacy Violations
Spokeo marketed consumers' profiles to prospective employers06/12/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Selling personal information about consumers is perfectly legal ... sometimes. It depends on what the purchaser does with the data.In the caes of Spokeo,...
Selling personal information about consumers is perfectly legal ... sometimes. It depends on what the purchaser does with the data.
In the caes of Spokeo, Inc., a data broker that compiles and sells detailed information profiles on millions of consumers, the Federal Trade Commission charge that by selling the information to human resources departments, background screeners and recruiters, it was violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).
It's the first FTC case to address the sale of Internet and social media data in the employment screening context.
The FTC alleged that Spokeo operated as a consumer reporting agency and violated the FCRA by failing to make sure that the information it sold would be used only for legally permissible purposes; failing to ensure the information was accurate; and failing to tell users of its consumer reports about their obligation under the FCRA, including the requirement to notify consumers if the user took an adverse action against the consumer based on information contained in the consumer report.
The FTC also alleged that Spokeo deceptively posted endorsements of its service on news and technology websites and blogs, portraying the endorsements as independent when in reality they were created by Spokeo's own employees.
In addition to imposing the $800,000 civil penalty, the FTC's settlement order bars Spokeo from future violations of the FCRA, and bars the company from making misrepresentations about its endorsements or failing to disclose a material connection with endorsers.
Feds Order Railroads to Post Emergency Contact Info at Grade Crossings
Consumers will be able to report unsafe conditions, equipment malfunctions06/12/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Federal regulators have ordered railroads to make it a little bit easier for consumers to report unsafe conditions and equipment malfunctions at railroad c...
Federal regulators have ordered railroads to make it a little bit easier for consumers to report unsafe conditions and equipment malfunctions at railroad crossings.
Railroads will be required to install signs at highway-rail grade and pathway crossings with telephone numbers the public can use to alert railroad companies to unsafe conditions.
“Safety is our highest priority,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “The sooner railroads can be made aware of potentially unsafe conditions, the faster they can respond to ensure the safety of everyone driving over or walking across highway-rail crossings.”
Under the final rule published in today’s Federal Register, railroads must establish Emergency Notification Systems (ENS) by installing clear and readable signs with toll-free telephone numbers at crossings so the public can report unsafe situations and for railroads to respond to malfunctioning warning signals, vehicles stalled on the tracks or other emergency situations.
Depending on a railroad’s operating characteristics, calls may be received through a 24 hour call center, or for smaller railroads, through an automated answering system or third-party telephone service.
“The signs will help reduce the risk of certain highway-rail crossing collisions,” said Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph C. Szabo. “They will tell the public who to contact if they come upon a vehicle stalled on the tracks, or see problems involving flashing lights and gates.”
Upon receiving a call, the dispatching railroad is required to contact all trains authorized to operate through the crossing, inform local law enforcement to assist in directing traffic, investigate the report or request that the railroad with maintenance responsibility for the crossing to investigate the report.
There are approximately 211,000 public and private highway-rail and pathway grade crossings in the United States. Many major freight and commuter railroads already have systems in place to receive emergency reports.
Utility Surcharges, Fees Frustrate Consumers
Stronger safeguards needed to stop unjust rate hikes, study finds06/12/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
New AARP Report: Utility Surcharges, Fees Frustrate Consumers and Short Cut Consumer Protections Recommends Co...
Consumers are fed up with higher utility bills and especially with the increased use of fees and surcharges by utility companies, a report compiled by AARP finds.
“AARP’s new report demonstrates why we continue urging state regulators and lawmakers to deny consumer protection loopholes, such as fees and surcharges,” said Elaine Ryan, AARP’s Vice President for State Advocacy and Strategy. “In the past surcharges on our utility bills were permitted only in limited circumstances for costs that were substantial, volatile and uncontrollable but today these types of charges are becoming commonplace.”
The report explains how the departure from a well-analyzed rate increase procedure to a hurried process with limited review by regulators could put consumers at risk. The report also includes the specific justifications utility companies use to push surcharges past regulators and information about why these claims are often invalid. Additionally featured are failed surcharge attempts and some of the many surcharges and fees consumers face today.
“AARP has been fighting to stop utility companies from unjustifiably increasing utility bills for over 20 years, and this report is our latest effort to stop them from burdening their customers with numerous fees added to the bottom line of bills,” added Ryan. “This issue remains important to our members because affordable power to light, heat and cool our homes can often mean the difference between life and death for older Americans.”
Since the launch of its Multi-State Utility Campaign in January of 2011, AARP said it has seen tremendous success in home energy savings for American families, with approximately 10.4 million 50+ customers benefiting from AARP’s efforts on home energy affordability and $441 million in home energy savings as the result of AARP’s efforts in 2012 alone.
For the full report please visit AARP here.
Five More Debt Collectors Settle With West Virginia
Barred from collecting illegal debts in the state06/12/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
West Virginia has, in recent months, cracked down on debt collectors that violate state consumer protection laws.The crackdown continues as give more out...
West Virginia has, in recent months, cracked down on debt collectors that violate state consumer protection laws.
The crackdown continues as give more out-of-state debt collectors agreed to terms with West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw, coughing up a total $772,286 in refunds and cancelled debts to settle charges that they engaged in unlawful debt collection within the state.
The investigation began after McGraw said he received complaints that four of the companies them were not licensed in West Virginia and all five were collecting illegal Internet payday loans. The five companies Frontier Financial Group, Henderson, NV; United Debt Holding, Castle Rock, CO; Skutr Financial, Las Vegas, NV; USCB Corp., Archibald, PA; and Mauconduit & Luna, Hapeville, GA.
In most cases, the debts were not only illegal, but also old. McGraw said the debt collectors had purchased charged-off debt for pennies on the dollar.
"State laws and regulations governing collection agencies are intended to protect both consumers and legitimate creditors from fraud and abuse," McGraw said. "The Tax Department has made it clear that debt buyers who buy charged-off debts for collection must comply with collection agency laws."
Second time around
McGraw also says his office had taken action in the past to prevent some of these same debts from being collected. For example, he says James Shuff, from Oak Hill, West Va., filed a complaint against Frontier Financial after he received a letter demanding payment of a $615 debt to Money & More, an Internet payday lender based in California. Because of information previously provided by McGraw’s Consumer Protection Division, Shuff knew that the debt had been canceled and Money & More had been banned from doing business in West Virginia.
Because Internet payday loans are illegal in West Virginia, the companies have no legal way to require their repayment. Internet payday loan companies make loans to West Virginia citizens at their own risk.
"Internet payday loans are harmful to consumers and have never been legal in West Virginia," McGraw said. "My office will continue to intervene whenever any agency, licensed or otherwise, is collecting unlawful debts here."
Aflac Warns That Scammers Have Hijacked Its Name
Version of Sweepstakes Scam is using conterfeit Aflac checks06/12/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Aflac, an insurance company perhaps best known for its duck advertising mascot, is warning consumers its name has misappropriated by scammers.“It h...
Aflac, an insurance company perhaps best known for its duck advertising mascot, is warning consumers its name has misappropriated by scammers.
“It has been reported that Aflac's name is being used in a fraudulent financial scam,” the company said in a statement. “This scam involves checks bearing the Aflac name and brand, leading consumers to believe they have won a sweepstakes.”
Here's how the way the sweepstakes scam works. A victim is contacted by phone or letter and told they have won a sweepstakes. They receive a check – perhaps for about $3,000 – and are told it is for use in payment of either taxes or a “processing fee.”
The money, of course, needs to be sent to the scammer but to do that, the victim first has to deposit the fake check in their checking account, then wire money back to the scammer.
By the time the bank discovers the check is bogus, the victim has already sent the cash. They then have to pay the bank back using their own money.
Scammers are apparently turning out counterfeit Aflac checks because they seem more credible. A bank, for example, might not question a customer depositing a hefty check from an insurance company.
“We urge consumers to disregard any letter or check that suggests a promotional reward bearing the Aflac name — the letter and the check are bogus, and the check will not be honored by any financial institution,” Aflac said.
The company further points out that it would never require policyholders to wire funds prior to obtaining legitimate claims payments.
Aflac said it has been in contact with the FBI, the United States Secret Service and the Better Business Bureau regarding this scam.
Another Round of Collections Target Former Hollywood Video Customers
But consumers are adamant they don't owe the money06/12/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
The collection calls are continuing for some former customers of now-defunct Hollywood Video, judging by the increase in complaints received at ConsumerAff...
The collection calls are continuing for some former customers of now-defunct Hollywood Video, judging by the increase in complaints received at ConsumerAffairs.
Consumers report getting calls from Universal Fidelity seeking to collect late fees on movies and games. The complaining consumers insist they don't owe the fees, which usually range from $12 to $160.
This is nothing new. Almost since the video rental chain went belly-up in 2010 the debt collectors were out in full force. In most cases, they present no proof – they simply say the money is owed.
Desarae, of Tacoma, Wash., is looking for advice about what to do after she got a call from Universal Fidelity telling her she owned $156.
Looking for advice
“I filed a complaint with the Washington Attorney General but it will take about four weeks to receive a response,” Desarae wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “I called the debt collector and they stated I was unwilling to resolve the debt. I just need more advice while I'm waiting to hear back from the Attorney General.”
Desarae says she had the type of account that allowed her to keep out a number of movies in exchange for a monthly fee. She insists that she owes no money. In that case, she should write a letter to Universal Fidelity providing that information.
In addition, she is within her rights to request written proof of the debt. Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, collection agencies must provide validation notices within five days of contacting consumers about debts.
If Desarae chooses to ignore the debt collector, there will likely be few repercussions. In 2011 attorneys general from around the country reached a settlement with the liquidating trustee for the stores. Among the agreement’s terms is a requirement that negative information be removed from consumers’ credit reports.
The right to dispute
“Collection laws require that consumers have a chance to pay or dispute their debts,” said Washington Assistant Attorney General Mary Lobdell, who helped lead the multistate investigation and settlement negotiations. “But starting in October, we received a flurry of complaints from Washington residents who told us they didn’t owe the fees or were never informed of these debts before they were reported to the credit bureaus.”
Complaints to the Washington Attorney General’s Office show that a young woman was turned down for her first credit card because of the negative mark. A man said his credit card limit was slashed from $8,700 to just $600. And yet another consumer blamed the late charge for preventing him from obtaining a mortgage.
The problem is that Hollywood Video, when listing its assets in its bankruptcy filing, showed $244 million in outstanding debts from customers, which might explain the persistent collection efforts. But it's obvious that many of their former customers dispute the notion they owe part of that $244 million.
Too Little Sleep May Raise Stroke Risk
Researchers say it's an overlooked risk factor, especially for older adults06/12/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
We generally think that high blood pressure and being overweight are the main contributors to stroke risk. But researchers at the University of Alabama Bir...
We generally think that high blood pressure and being overweight are the main contributors to stroke risk. But researchers at the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB) say they have found another – too little sleep.
The researchers on the project say older adults who regularly get less than six hours of sleep a night have significantly higher risk of stroke symptoms. The study included more than 5,600 people who were followed for three years.
The participants in the study had no history of stroke or stroke symptoms at the start of the study. The researchers then recorded the first stroke symptoms, along with demographic information, stroke risk factors, depression symptoms and various health behaviors.
After adjusting for body-mass index (BMI), they found a strong association with daily sleep periods of less than six hours and a greater incidence of stroke symptoms for middle-age to older adults, even beyond other risk factors.
The study found no association between short sleep periods and stroke symptoms among overweight and obese participants.
Takes a toll
"In employed middle-aged to older adults, relatively free of major risk factors for stroke such as obesity and sleep-disordered breathing, short sleep duration may exact its own negative influence on stroke development," said lead author Megan Ruiter, PhD. "We speculate that short sleep duration is a precursor to other traditional stroke risk factors, and once these traditional stroke risk factors are present, then perhaps they become stronger risk factors than sleep duration alone."
The researchers say their findings mean physicians should discuss sleep habits with their middle aged and senior patients. It's especially important, they say, to have this conversation if the patient appears otherwise healthy and displays no other risk factors.
"Sleep and sleep-related behaviors are highly modifiable with cognitive-behavioral therapy approaches and/or pharmaceutical interventions," Ruiter said. "These results may serve as a preliminary basis for using sleep treatments to prevent the development of stroke."
Apple Unveils New MacBook Pro, Previews iOS 6
MacBook Pro features high-def display, all-flash storage06/11/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Apple did its thing today, unveiling new products and goodies at its WWDC 2012 conference. Taking center stage was the all new 15-inch MacBook Pro fea...
Apple did its thing today, unveiling new products and goodies intended to intensify its competition with Google and Microsoft.
Taking center stage at the WWDC 2012 developers conference was the new 15-inch MacBook Pro featuring a high-defination Retina display, all flash storage and quad-core processors in a thinner and lighter case.
“The MacBook Pro with Retina display pushes the limits of performance and portability like no other notebook,” said Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO. “With a gorgeous Retina display, all flash architecture and a radically thin and light design, the new MacBook Pro is the most advanced Mac we have ever built.”
It was Cook's first keynote speech at the event since the death last October of Apple co-founder and perennial emcee Steve Jobs. He was at times upstaged by Siri, who (or which?) opened the show with a few understated jokes.
"It's hard for me to get emotional, because my emotions haven't been coded yet," Siri admitted, perhaps ruefully.
Cook said the new MacBook Pro Retina display is the "world’s highest resolution notebook display" with over 5 million pixels, 3 million more than an HD television.
Light & thin
With an aluminum unibody design and an all-flash storage architecture, the new MacBook Pro is the lightest MacBook Pro ever and nearly as thin as a MacBook Air. The flash storage architecture also delivers improved reliability, instant-on responsiveness and 30 days of standby time, Apple said.
Apple claims the MacBook Pro battery delivers up to 7 hours of wireless productivity, and uses advanced chemistry and Adaptive Charging technology to provide up to 1,000 recharges. The MacBook Pro also features a FaceTime HD camera, glass Multi-Touch trackpad, full-size backlit keyboard, dual microphones, enhanced speakers, 3-stream 802.11n Wi-Fi and a thinner MagSafe 2 power port.
The 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is available through the Apple Online Store (www.apple.com), Apple’s retail stores and Apple Authorized Resellers. Prices start at $2,199 (US).
Also at WWDC, Apple previewed iOS 6, introducing over 200 new features and released a beta version to iOS Developer Program members. iOS 6 will be available to iPhone, iPad and iPod touch users this fall as a free software update.
New iOS 6 features include: an all new Maps app with Apple-designed cartography, turn-by-turn navigation and a new "Flyover" view; new Siri features, including support for more languages, access to sports scores, restaurant recommendations and movie listings; Facebook integration for Contacts and Calendar, with the ability to post directly from Notification Center, Siri and Facebook-enabled apps like Photos, Safari and Maps; Shared Photo Streams via iCloud; and Passbook.
Apple confirmed earlier that it is dumping Google maps for a new in-house system that one Apple executive said will "blow your head off." By integrating its system more tightly with Facebook, Apple also throws yet another obstacle into the already rugged road Google faces with its Google+ social site, derided by critics as a "ghost town."
“iOS 6 continues the rapid pace of innovation that is helping Apple reinvent the phone and create the iPad category, delivering the best mobile experience available on any device,” said Scott Forstall, Apple's senior vice president of iOS Software. “We can’t wait for hundreds of millions of iOS users to experience the incredible new features in iOS 6 including the new Maps app, expanded Siri support, deep Facebook integration, Shared Photo Streams and the innovative new Passbook app.”
There had been speculation that Apple might reveal its plans for an integrated TV, dubbed iTV, but that revelation apparently must wait until the time is right.
Teens Are Choosing Pot Over Cigarettes
The anti-tobacco messages have gotten through but kids are still lighting up06/11/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
Many teens believe smoking pot is healthier than smoking cigarettes. This is according to a new study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC...
Many teens believe smoking pot is healthier than smoking cigarettes. This is according to a new study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), that says teenagers are inhaling more cannabis than nicotine nowadays.
Advertisements about the harms of drug use were extremely prevalent in the 80s and 90s, as many remember the "this is your brain on drugs" commercials. But in recent years, health groups have focused more on the growing cigarette problem among teenagers, after statistics showed that teen cigarette smoking was on the incline. And the commercials seemed to work.
From 1993 to 2003, the amount of teen cigarette smokers dropped by a third, from 30.5 percent to 21.9 percent. Also, reports show those who smoked a full cigarette by the age of 13 dropped from 26.9 percent to 18.3. With cigarette health warnings working so well, kids chose marijuana smoking as their new and preferred form of rebellion.
Reports also show that 21.9 percent of teens used pot within the last 30 days, compared to 22.4 percent that admitted to smoking marijuana in that same time frame. And overall 23 percent of high school students said they smoked marijuana in recent days, while 18 percent said they had a cigarette instead, according to the CDC.
In the last couple of years many reports showed a small decline in the overall use of marijuana among teens, but numbers have begun to slowly increase again.
Other reports have indicated that 60 percent of kids who use drugs only use marijuana, and 4.8 million teens admitted to using it at least 20 days of any given month. Also, many studies and reports devoted to teen drug use reported that over 100,000 teenagers are treated for marijuana dependency each year.
What other reasons besides advertising have kids chosen pot over cigarettes?
Cigarettes have taken on a new stigma among younger generations. Once considered cool and rebellious, cigarettes now appear to be a sign of outdated thinking and unhealth behavior. Many of the entertainers of yesteryear, whether it be movie or rock stars, have used the cigarette as part of their hip motif, but no longer.
Many singers, rappers, and actors have openly discussed smoking pot, and arguably influenced younger and more impressionable fans to do the same. At the very least the entertainment industry has removed some of the taboo and criminal perception of marijuana, especially among teenagers. Also, with many states legalizing the medical use of marijuana, teens have taken it as a sign to consider pot less harmful.
It will be even a bigger challenge to keep pot out of the hands of kids as more and more states in the U.S. are making it more accessible through commercial sale, which also makes it easier for more marijuana to be on the streets.
Reports sometimes list non-existent damage06/11/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
When consumers buy used cars – which often cost more than what new cars cost a few years ago – they want some assurance that the car they are b...
Tips For Stronger Passwords
It's harder these days to stay a step ahead of the hackers06/11/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
In the wake of the LinkedIn password hack, a lot of computers users are changing their passwords. But instead of changing it from “yourname1234&rdquo...
In the wake of the LinkedIn password hack, a lot of computer users are changing their passwords. But instead of changing it from “yourname1234” to “yourname4321,” why not select something a little harder to crack?
Here are some ideas:
The longer your password is, the more secure it's considered to be. According to the security experts at Microsoft, a password should have, at a minimum, eight or more characters.
Make it complicated
They should also be complex. You should include letters, punctuation, symbols, and numbers. The greater the variety of characters in your password, the better.
It's also wise to change your passwords frequently and to not use one good password for all your accounts. But for most of us, this can present a problem.
It's hard enough to come up with one long, complex, secure password and memorize it. But to have to come up with several – and remember not only the passwords but to which accounts they're assigned? That seems a bit much.
That means you probably have to write down your passwords. But if you do, write them on paper (or write them to a memory stick), don't store them near your computer, and try not to make the document look like an obvious list of passwords. Don't call it "passwords.doc," in other words.
Security experts suggest using phrases, not single words, to construct passwords. For example, start with a sentence that might have particular meaning for you but few others, such as “My Best Vacation Was 1996.” From that you might get “mybestvacationwas1996.” For added security drop the “t” in best and replace it with “'”. The password is “mybes'vacationwas1996.”
Better yet, use a strong password generator. There are many out there. Here's one that is easy to use: http://strongpasswordgenerator.com/
Worth the effort
Why go to all this trouble? Robert Siciliano, a McAfee consultant and identity theft expert, says hackers use software tools that can effortlessly crack many passwords, especially simple ones.
“Don’t use personal information such as your name, age, birth date, child’s name, pet’s name, or favorite color/song, etc,” Siciliano writes on the McAfee blog. “When 32 million passwords were exposed in a breach last year, almost one percent of victims were using '123456.' The next most popular password was '12345.' Other common choices are '111111,' 'princess,” 'qwerty,' and 'abc123.'”
And while all accounts need to be sure, security is more important for some accounts than others. That's why passwords to access bank and brokerage accounts should be secure and changed often.
Inmates usually have no other options than to make the expensive calls06/11/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
In this era of cell phone plans that treat local and long distance calls the same, it's easy to forget that long distance “collect” calls, in w...
Philadelphia Ranked As 'Most Bedbug Infested' City
Pest control company compiles list of 15 most-infested U.S. cities06/11/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
The folks at Terminix Pest Control have scoured the country and issued a list of U.S. cities with the most bedbug infestation. This year, Philadelphia wins...
The folks at Terminix Pest Control have scoured the country and issued a list of U.S. cities with the most bedbug infestation. This year, Philadelphia wins the dubious honor.
The list was put together by compiling information supplied by all 300 Terminix branches operating in the U.S. The ranking is the result of evaluating service calls and confirmed cases by service professionals.
The 2012 ranking proves bedbugs continue to be a problem across the country, with five cities –Cleveland, Houston, Indianapolis, Miami and New Haven – joining the top 15 this year. Other cities, such as Columbus, Dallas, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., saw growing bedbug populations this year.
Lots of bedbugs in Ohio
|Consumers rate Terminix|
Ohio continues to be a hotbed of activity, with three of its cities making the top 15. The complete rankings are:
- New York
- Washington, DC
- Columbus, Ohio
- San Francisco
- New Haven, Conn.
"Bedbugs continue to increase their presence across the U.S.," said Stoy Hedges, an entomologist with Terminix. "While major metropolitan areas are most at risk, it is important to note that bedbugs have been spotted in cities and towns across the country."
Bedbug have become a common source of complaints among hotel guests these days.
“My wife and I stayed at the Super 8 in Chillicothe, Ill., checking out early in the morning,” Willie, of Grand Forks, ND., wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “The last morning we were in the hotel, we found bed bugs on the head board and under the mattress. Now we are back home and are washing/disinfecting all of our clothing, luggage and everything else we had in the room. Had I known the hotel was infected with bed bugs we would have never stayed there.”
If you're traveling this summer and staying at hotels and motels, here are some steps you can take to spot and avoid bedbugs:
- Check hotel headboards, mattresses and box springs for bedbugs and dark blood spots.
- Hang all clothing. Leave nothing lying on the bed or furniture.
- Avoid storing your clothing in the hotel's furniture drawers.
- Store suitcases on a luggage rack as far from the bed as possible.
- Vacuum suitcases when returning home, and immediately wash clothing in hot water.
- Between trips, store luggage in a sealed plastic bag in a garage or basement, away from bedrooms.
- If you suspect your hotel has bedbugs, ask for a change of rooms.
No Source Found for Latest E. coli Outbreak
One death, 14 illnesses blamed on latest outbreak06/11/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
There's little progress so far in tracking down the source of an outbreak of E. coli that has made at least 14 people ill and caused at least one death. Th...
There's little progress so far in tracking down the source of an outbreak of E. coli that has made at least 14 people ill and caused at least one death. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the illnesses occurred in April and May and were spread across six states. The one reported fatality occurred in New Orleans, where a child died last week.
The strain implicated in the current oubreak -- O145 -- is one of the more dangerous strains of the common bacteria. Its first large-scale appearance in the U.S. came in July 2010 when it was blamed for a widespread recall of Romaine lettuce. At least two dozen people in five states were sickened in that outbrak.
The CDC has not connected the current outbreak to any particular food. It said that so far all of the known cases have occurred in Albama (2), California (1), Florida (1), Georgia (5), Louisiana (4), and Tennessee (1). Ages of those stricken range from 1 to 79 years.
It has been about four weeks since the last illness occurred, which could mean the outbreak is over, CDC said.
The only advice health officials can offer is to cook meat thoroughly, avoid unpasteurized milk and ciders and wash your hands thoroughly if you have a diarrhea-like illness.
Returns And Warranties Not the Same Thing
Stores often have short time limits for returns, even though the warranty is still in force06/11/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Rhonda, of Waterloo, Iowa, is angry with Staples. About six weeks ago, she says, she went to the office supply retailer and purchased the Model SPL TXC 15A...
Rhonda, of Waterloo, Iowa, is angry with Staples. About six weeks ago, she says, she went to the office supply retailer and purchased the Model SPL TXC 15A paper shredder.
After using it twice, she said, it stopped working. What happened next, which resulted in her anger, was probably caused by miscommunication.
“I called Staples and was informed that it only had a two-week warranty!” she wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “Two weeks!! Are they kidding? I was assured by the salesman that it was the best shredder Staples carried. I am very upset and feel that I have been scammed out of $150. I have worked in retail for over twenty years and have never heard of such poor customer service. I know that you cannot return an item after two weeks, but this product should have a warranty longer than two weeks. I am very disappointed in Staples and will never shop there again.”
In fact, it does appear that Rhonda and the salesperson she spoke with are talking about apples and oranges. Most stores have a policy that they will accept a return of an item within a specified time period. Two weeks is not unreasonable and Rhonda acknowledges as much.
But Rhonda is under the impression that the warranty covering the product is only for two weeks, which is not the case. We were able to access the product information on the Staples website, where it clearly states the shredder has a one-year manufacturers' warranty.
When Rhonda called the store complaining that the shredder didn't work, she should have been told to contact the manufacturer. Maybe she was but just didn't understand. Or maybe the store personnel thought she just wanted to return it and explained that it was too late.
Consumers should understand that chain retailers especially don't get involved in warranty issues, unless they have issued the warranty, in the form of an extended service contract. Instead, when an item breaks in the first year of use, the consumer needs to contact the manufacturer directly.
That's why it is important for purchases like shredders to not only keep the store receipt, but to hang onto warranty information, and take the time and trouble to fill out the warranty card and send it in.
Feds Shut Down Trucking Company
WTSA US Express probe finds multiple safety violations06/11/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
In its latest safety crackdown, the U.S. Transportation Department (DOT) has ordered Wisconsin-based truck company WTSA US Express to shut down ...
In its latest safety crackdown, the U.S. Transportation Department (DOT) has ordered Wisconsin-based truck company WTSA US Express to shut down immediately. The department said it found "serious safety violations that posed an imminent hazard to public safety."
"Commercial truck and bus companies that blatantly violate federal safety standards and jeopardize public safety will be shut down. Safety is always our top priority,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
The DOT said the action followed an extensive review of the company’s operations that discovered multiple federal safety violations in the areas of drivers' hours-of-service compliance, driver qualifications and drug testing requirements.
For example, DOT said investigators uncovered that the company employed drivers without valid commercial driver’s licenses and medical certificates, and the company allowed its drivers to operate without records of duty status. Additionally, WTSA US Express did not test its drivers for controlled substances.
On May 30, in the largest single safety crackdown in the agency’s history, the department shut down 26 bus operations, declaring them imminent hazards to public safety, and ordered 10 individual bus company owners, managers and employees to cease all passenger transportation operations.
It's Just Round 1 of the TV Networks vs. Dish Grudge Match
TV program producers and distributors are starting to feel like newspapers06/08/2012ConsumerAffairsBy James R. Hood
Commercials are like dentists. Everybody complains about them and tries to avoid them but they're a necessity of modern life. Without them, we'...
Commercials are like dentists. Everybody complains about them and tries to avoid them but they're a necessity of modern life. Without them, we'd have no free TV programs and no teeth.
Using computerized sentiment analysis, we eavesdropped on 17 million consumer postings to social media sites over the last year to see how folks were feeling about commercials.
The answer: not so good. Net sentiment hovered close to zero all year, dipping to -9 percent this month.
There's one big difference between dentists and commercials though: Dentists are here to stay, while commercials (and maybe free TV) are in trouble. Once again, the Internet is to blame. And once again, traditional media is having a hard time dealing with it.
You'll recall that a few years ago, newspaper publishers and the many big-J journalists who populate the think tanks and universities (and who should be sued for consumer fraud for recruiting students into a field that has fewer than no openings) decried the rise of news "aggregators" on the Internet and cursed the day that newspapers had put their content out on the Web without charging for it.
Well, guess what? Newspapers are now charging for their content but the Internet is still there and Google News is still sending eyeballs all over the universe instead of just to the front page of the Mulkeytown Gazette, as Mulkeytown's scribes would much prefer.
Newspapers, not famous for listening to their end users, never quite caught on that it wasn't price that was driving Internet reading decisions. Rather, it was convenience -- primarily portability and time-shifting. Readers could find stories they wanted to read and read them whenever they wanted to, without getting ink all over their fingers or having to fold a bulky newspaper into little tiny sections so as to make it subway-friendly.
Justified, or not
Similarly, Internet video sites like YouTube, Netflix and Hulu are drawing eyeballs away from ABC, CBS, NBC and, yes, even Fox. Again, it's not because the Web streams are commercial-free; some are, some aren't. Rather, it's convenience and time-shifting.
Want to watch a whole season of "Justified?" No problem. It's out there somewhere.
This irks TV networks and over-the-air stations, who are feeling the same audience erosion so familiar to their print brethren. It's sort of a "Where's the rest of me?" emotion as, one by one, viewers stop behaving like mushrooms and start behaving more like wiley foxes who go out prowling around for something tasty.
Since it's a relatively slow erosion, like the Colorado River creating the Grand Canyon, everyone has sort of learned to live with it. But now a disruptive gambler named Charlie Ergen has managed to set off an earthquake that is shaking things up much more violently.
When Ergen's Dish TV rolled out its Auto Hop feature last month -- allowing consumers to automatically skip commercials on TV shows they had recorded on their digital Dish recorders -- the TV world went ape and began papering Ergen with lawsuits and declaiming that he would go down in history as the man who killed off television as we know it.
Which might not be a bad thing, but that's another story.
|Consumers sound off about Dish|
See, everybody knew that viewers had been avoiding commercials since the first VCR was introduced a few decades ago. Everybody knew it but no one talked about it. The rating services chose to ignore it, the networks ignored it and the advertising agencies ignored it. No one wants to kill the golden goose, after all, and so what if major brands spend billions of dollars on commercials that fail to reach entire battalions of eyeballs?
But thanks to Charlie Ergen, the subject is now out in the open and must be dealt with. Something of a recluse, Ergen seldom speaks to the press but the Wall Street Journal managed to lure him out to a waffle house the other day, where he presented his side of the story.
Dish TV has previously painted itself as the consumer's friend -- and has presented Auto Hop as simply providing a service its customers have been asking for.
But Ergen took it a step further in the Journal interview, blaming consumer distaste for commercials on -- are you ready? -- the commercials. Oh sure, they are loud, intrusive, crass and all those things. Everybody knows that. But what Ergen finds truly objectionable is that most TV ads are not targeted.
Does a 22-year-old want to watch a commercial for denture cream? No, of course not. Does an elderly pensioner want to see spots for condoms? No, and therein lies the rub.
The answer, says Ergen, can be found on the Internet, which has put the concept of targeting -- something ad people talk about but don't really do very often -- into practice in a big way.
Think about it a minute. Those little Google text ads you see everywhere and the display ads you see in the few spots not filled by text ads or a small squirt of content? They're targeted, sometimes eerily so.
Targeted ads have many advantages. They work better for advertisers, producing a higher response rate at less cost. They work better for consumers, presenting information that may actually be useful and not therefore quite as distracting. And, perhaps most significantly, they support all kinds of content that would never see the light of day otherwise.
The TV and advertising worlds need to peer carefully into the mirror, Ergen thinks. Instead of lambasting him, suing his company and clogging up Capitol Hill with hordes of whining lobbyists, they need to get busy figuring out how to deliver narrowly targeted ads that viewers won't be so eager to get away from.
After all, if dentists didn't target their work carefully and simply drilled, pulled and spackled with wild abandon, would they seriously expect to keep their appointment books filled to overflowing?
This is a boxing match that's just in the latter half of the first round. It has a ways to go, although there's always the chance of a knock-out. But whoever wins, assuming Congress and the alphabet soup agencies stay out of the way, it's likely consumers -- you know, viewers -- will be the winners.
The New Air Yeezy 2: Kanye West's Sneakers Hit the Stores Saturday
Pre-release pair sold on eBay for $90,00006/08/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
Every summer brings about a new sneaker that consumers go mad over, and this season is no different with the new shoes by both Kanye West and Nike being re...
Every summer brings about a new sneaker that consumers go mad over, and this season is no different with the new shoes by both Kanye West and Nike being released this weekend.
The Air Yeezy 2 hits stores this Saturday and consumers from around the globe have been buzzing about the sneaker that was designed by the rap star himself. The sneakers will sell for $245, and are a second edition of the 2009 Air Yeezy that also drew buckets of critical and consumer acclaim.
The sleekly styled shoes are a reworking of classic Nike releases from the 80s and 90s, but with a 2012 twist. With a narrow foot hugging appearance, and a soft leather light weight exterior, the shoes look quite different than current Nike basketball shoes that posses a bulkier design.
The shoes also look somewhat adultish. Many basketball sneakers designed today are seemingly made just for the teen demographic, and come equipped with bright colors and a wider look. But the Yeezys are just the opposite. Coming in black with green and red trim, or white with red trim, the sneakers have a subtle coolness to them, and can be worn with casual or more dressier wear.
A little luck
But if you want a pair for yourself, you'll need a little luck and a lot of patience, as sneaker-heads have already started forming lines in front of stores across the U.S.
However, if you're not the wait-in-line-overnight kind of person, many retailers are also holding online raffles where consumers can possibly win a pair. Go to the Nike website or your local Foot Locker stores for more details.
Nike says it will release the sneakers online for sale too, but the company is being purposely vague when they will hit the Internet, most likely to avoid server crashes from everyone trying to buy a pair at once. Nike also said they'll release between 3,000 to 5,000 pairs for in-store purchase.
But some customers can't wait until this Saturday to purchase the highly coveted shoe wear. A person who was able to get their hands on a pre-released pair, sold the sneakers on eBay for a reported $90,000. Others who already have the shoes started bids in the $7,000 range.
If you're not quite willing to shell out several thousand dollars for the Kanye shoes, you still have a chance to pick a pair up at retailers.
Here are some of the stores that will carry the Air Yeezy 2, when it hits stores this weekend:
- House of Hoops by Foot Locker 34th Street 11 W 34th St New York, NY 10001
- House of Hoops by Foot Locker Harlem 268 W 125th St New York, NY 10027
- House of Hoops by Foot Locker Fashion Show Mall 3200 Las Vegas Blvd South Las Vegas, NV 89109
- House of Hoops by Foot Locker Beverly Center mall 8500 Beverly Blvd Los Angeles, CA 90048
Gasoline Prices Still Falling
U.S. refineries step up their output, increasing supplies06/08/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Motorists continued to get a break at the gas pump this week as retail prices retreated another five cents a gallon nationwide.The national average price...
Motorists continued to get a break at the gas pump this week as retail prices retreated another five cents a gallon nationwide.
The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.555 per gallon, down from $3.611 last Friday, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. Fuel prices are 20 cents a gallon lower than they were a month ago.
Diesel fuel fell even faster during the week. The average price of diesel fuel today is $3.850 per gallon, down from $3.930 a week ago.
For the first time in 11 weeks, U.S. crude oil stockpiles declined in the previous week, according to a report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The reason was a decline in imports and a surge in refinery output, which bodes well for gasoline supplies. Gasoline supplies rose by 3.35 million barrels.
Declines in prices at the pump this week were spread across the country but the lowest prices are still clustered in the southeastern states.
A heat map of average prices shows that the highest prices remain in the western U.S. Avery Ash, AAA's manager of federal relations, notes refinery issues have resulted in sharply higher prices in that region over the spring.
“While the national average has declined steadily for the nearly two months since the 2012 to-date peak price of $3.94 on April 5, supply issues west of the Rocky Mountains have kept upward pressure on prices in that region,” Ash said. “Since May 4 retail gas prices in ten states and the District of Columbia have fallen more than 30 cents per gallon, while prices in many western states have increased during the same period.”
The states with the highest gas prices this week are:
- Hawaii ($4.496)
- Alaska ($4.456)
- Washington State ($4.211)
- Oregon ($4.168)
- California ($4.160)
- Nevada ($3.852)
- Connecticut ($3.810)
- New York ($3.798)
- Idaho ($3.802)
- Montana ($3.771)
The states with the lowest gas prices this week are:
- South Carolina ($3.151)
- Alabama ($3.233)
- Tennessee ($3.238)
- Mississippi ($3.253)
- Arkansas ($3.257)
- Missouri ($3.302)
- Oklahoma ($3.313)
- Louisiana ($3.314)
- Georgia ($3.321)
- Virginia ($3.340)
'Shopping Sheet' Will Help Parents Estimate College Costs
Families now have trouble navigating the maze of tuition, fees, loans06/08/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
Current and future tuition costs for college can be a big mystery at times. Between the costs of housing, meals, books and incidentals, it's hard for paren...
Current and future tuition costs for college can be a big mystery at times. Between the costs of housing, meals, books and incidentals, it's hard for parents to know just what they're financially in for.
In an effort to create a wider level of transparency, officials are creating a college "shopping sheet" that will allow parents and students to have an easier time navigating through school costs and financial aid information.
Vice President Joe Biden recently met with 10 college presidents from around the U.S., and all agreed to provide students with the shopping sheet in each financial aid packet that students receive.
The new initiative was first discussed back in January of 2012, as both the Education Department and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau suggested it be mandatory for schools to provide a cost sheet with its school information.
Congress has yet to make the shopping sheet an official regulation for schools to follow, but some college presidents said they would provide the sheet, and not wait for the official congressional ruling.
Representing 1.4 million students, some of the college presidents that attendend this week's meeting were from state schools in Maryland, Texas, New York, and Massachusetts. The school presidents said they would have the shopping sheet available for the 2013-2014 school year.
"This is just part of a larger strategy, but we are very excited about being an early adopter," said Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York System.
The shopping sheet will theoretically make the entire process of college shopping easier, as it will contain the yearly price for classes, and what monies the student is responsible for after receiving scholarships or grants.
The sheet will also list information on the school's financial aid programs, and federal loans. There will even be info on the school's rate of successful graduates, and how many students defaulted on their student loan programs.
According to the Institute of Education Sciences, 66 percent of all undergraduate students received financial aid in a study that was conducted in 2008, and it's likely that even more students use financial assistance in today's challenging economic times.
The main problem however, is that many families cannot navigate through the complex financial information and successfully apply them to tuition costs. The shopping sheet, U.S. officials say, will change the entire process of selecting a school by making informational sheets more user friendly.
"These aren’t standards," said Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education. "This is basic transparency."
Catherine Hill, President of of Vassar College said the cost sheet will make it "representative and clear" for students to compare their financial aid awards to other student awards across the U.S.-- This is helpful Hill says because students will be able to see how their financial aid awards compared to the national average of student awards.
In the past, schools have tried using a similar cost sheet, but Hill says a regulation set by Congress would bring about some needed uniformity to such information. Hill also said using this new shopping sheet shouldn't contradict any informational sheet that schools already use.
"It won’t be inconsistent with anything else we do," she said. "We send them in the direction of more information if they want more information. I liked the idea of a summary sheet, in fact."
Pew Study Finds Checking Accounts 'Risky'
Fees are rising and so are the number of disclosure pages06/08/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Consumer banking seems to be a lot more complicated than it once was. Now, checking account holders have to meet increasing requirements to avoid fees and...
Consumer banking seems to be a lot more complicated than it once was. Now, checking account holders have to meet increasing requirements to avoid fees and absorb a lot of information and disclosures from their bank.
"Consumers are expected to wade through long, confusing documents and may be subject to steep, unexpected fees to access their own checking accounts, the cornerstone of household financial management," said project director, Susan Weinstock, project director of the Pew Safe Checking in the Electronic Age Project. "Consumers must have understandable, transparent information that enables them to make educated choices when comparing one checking account's costs and benefits to another."
The report, “Still Risky: An Update on the Safety and Transparency of Checking Accounts,” examines the financial risks consumers face when they open a checking account. It's a follow up to Pew's 2010 report that highlighted rising fees and inconsistent disclosures and bank practices.
Pew says the new study has not found a lot of improvement since them. It points to a report by Moebs Services, an independent financial research firm, that found overdraft fees cost American consumers an estimated $29.5 billion in 2011.
The new study found that important policies and fee information are not summarized in a uniform, concise, and easy-to-understand format that allows customers to compare account terms and conditions. Currently, the median length of bank checking account disclosures is 69 pages.
According to the study, accountholders are not provided with clear and comprehensive information about overdraft options offered and their costs, with the median bank fee coming in at $35.
All 12 banks featured in the study either already reorder withdrawals from high to low or reserve the right to do so at their discretion and without notice to the customer. This practice, Pew says, maximizes the number of times an account goes negative, thus increasing overdraft fees. It's a constant source of complaints to ConsumerAffairs.
“I check my account balance a few times throughout the day and make sure what I have before I ever use my card,” Tawney, a Key Bank customer from Bolivar, N.Y. wrote in a recent post.
Seeing she had a healthy balance, Tawney said she made a few purchases with confidence. The next day she said she was surprised to see her account had a negative balance so she called her local branch, where she was reassured that her account balance was what she thought it was. She was told she would be contacted if that turned out not to be the case.
“I deposited $100 that same day so I knew I was in the clear,” Tawney wrote. “The following day I deposited another $170, checked my account and I had more than enough money to go grocery shopping. I spent $40 grocery shopping and a measly $3 at Tim Horton's. If you add those, I had at least $220 in my account. Apparently Key Bank doesn't know math? I checked my account today and had four overdraft charges in the amount of $148.”
When problems like that occur, it can often be frustrating for consumers to get satisfaction. The Pew study found Financial institutions restrict consumers' options for recourse in the event of a dispute.
Pew's Safe Checking Project recommends that regulatory changes be made by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) or Congress to protect consumers from these unfair practices.
Stressful Life Events Linked to Cancer
Study suggests link between basal cell carcinoma and troubled parent-child relationship06/08/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
A study of 91 patients at a university medical center suggests that a troubled early parent-child relationship in combination with a severe life event in t...
A study of 91 patients at a university medical center suggests that a troubled early parent-child relationship in combination with a severe life event in the past year may be associated with immune responses to a basal cell carcinoma tumor, the most common skin cancer, according to a report in the June issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, a JAMA Network publication.
Stressful events and their resulting negative emotions can impair immunity enough to produce clinically significant alterations, and the immune system plays a role in basal cell carcinoma (BCC) tumor appearance and progression, according to the study background.
“Our results show that among BCC patients who experienced a severe stressor in the past year, those who were emotionally maltreated by their mothers or fathers as children were more likely to have poorer immune responses," the authors note.
Risk factors for the first tumor include age, childhood sun exposure, fair skin and being male, and the authors note subsequent tumors are not reliably related to those variables.
“The immune system plays a prominent role in response to BCC tumors because they are immunogenic, unlike many other common cancers that do not show the same responsiveness to the immune system,” the authors comment. “Psychological stress may play an important role in the tumor environment for this immunogenic tumor and have important implications for subsequent BCC tumors.”
Christopher P. Fagundes, Ph.D., of The Ohio State University Medical Center, Columbus, and colleagues collected information about early parent-child experiences, recent severe life events, depression and messenger RNA for immune markers associated with tumor progression and regression.
The patients, 48 men and 43 women, ranged in age from 23 to 92 years and had a previous BCC tumor.
Emotional maltreatment was not associated with BCC immune responses among those who did not experience a severe life event, and depressive symptoms were not associated with the local tumor immune response, according to study results.
“This is the first study, to our knowledge, to show that troubled early parental experiences, in combination with a severe life event in the past year, predict local immune responses to a BCC tumor. These data complement and expand increasing evidence that the consequences of early parental experiences extend well beyond childhood,” the authors conclude.
Parents Aren’t Monitoring Their Kids Mobile Device Behavior
Internet habits get more attention but mobile usage presents equal risks06/08/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
Many of us who were born before the technological boom of the Internet era had limited access to information. If we wanted a peek into the large...
Many of us who were born before the technological boom of the Internet era had limited access to information. If we wanted a peek into the larger world, only four avenues could be taken: the television, which usually had only three channels, the radio, books, and any newspapers that were available at the time.
But today's kids are facing an overload of information that's sometimes useful for school work or overall development, but sometimes the information can be harmful to their young eyes.
A recent survey conducted by Cox Communications and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, revealed that parents are learning and implementing new ways to protect their children from online safety hazards, but are still in the dark when it comes to monitoring online activity on mobile devices.
The children surveyed, who were between the ages of 10 and 13, said their parents were doing a stellar job of keeping abreast of their online viewing behavior at home. Most of the children said their parents set strict internet guidelines, and spend ample time warning them about internet dangers.
However, the children admitted their parents still haven't figured out how to monitor their online behavior when a mobile or other handheld device was used.
The report goes on to say that internet use doubles every two years, and kids can now gain access through their smartphones, game consoles, tablets, or handheld games.
Over 95 percent of children use their mobile devices to access the internet, but parents typically provide safety parameters only for the home computer. One in five parents (17 percent) admitted to using parental controls for the children's mobile devices.
Although mobile devices have fewer parental controls to activate than computers, they do have some, but many parents say they're unable to use them because they're not sure how to work it.
The survey showed that 82 percent of parents said they're very knowledgeable of what their kids did online, but a lot children admitted to engaging in inappropriate behavior that their parents had no idea about.
In addition, 44 percent of the children surveyed said they've viewed something that their parents wouldn't approve of, and 34 percent said they lied to their parents about what they did online.
In other alarming survey results, 42 percent of children said they received a personal online message from someone they didn't know, and only 22 percent of parents said they were aware of this.
Around 17 percent of children surveyed said they've gotten an email or online message with pictures or words that made them feel uncomfortable (seven percent of parents said they were aware of this), and 12 percent said they've been a victim of online bullying (6 percent said they didn't know this happened).
With Twitter and Facebook increasing its attempts to secure younger users, parents have their policing work cut out for them.
Experts say parents should increase their efforts by having frank and continous talks with their children, but also educate themselves on safety controls and how to apply them to their kids' mobile devices. Parents can also visit www.cox.com/takecharge to learn new ways of keeping their children safe from online predators or inappropriate content.
"We applaud the efforts parents are making to keep their kids safe online, but we all must remain vigilant and proactive when it comes to knowing what children are accessing on the web and the devices they are using," said Ernie Allen, NCMEC president and CEO. "Educating parents about the potential risks their children face online and empowering them to take simple preventive steps is critical to helping keep families safe."
Another Reason to Count Calories
Study finds restricting calories keeps heart young06/08/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Restricting your daily calories to a healthy total will not just help you keep the pounds off. It just might help you live longer.People who restrict the...
Restricting your daily calories to a healthy total will not just help you keep the pounds off. It just might help you live longer.
Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have found a link between calorie consumption and a healthy heart. They say a key measure of the heart’s ability to adapt to physical activity, stress, sleep and other factors that influence the rate at which the heart pumps blood, doesn’t decline nearly as rapidly in people who have significantly restricted their caloric intake for an average of seven years.
The study is available online in the journal Aging Cell.
“This is really striking because in studying changes in heart rate variability, we are looking at a measurement that tells us a lot about the way the autonomic nervous system affects the heart,” said Luigi Fontana, MD, PhD, the study’s senior author.
There is a link, it turns out, between heart function, breathing and digestion.
“We would hypothesize that better heart rate variability may be a sign that all these other functions are working better too,” she said.
The researchers hooked portable heart monitors to 22 people who restricted calories and who ate healthy diets but consumed 30 percent fewer calories than normal. Their average age was just over 51.
For comparison purposes, researchers also studied 20 other people of about the same age who ate standard Western diets. Heart rates were significantly lower in the calorie restriction group, and their heart rate variability was significantly higher.
“Higher heart rate variability means the heart can adjust to changing needs more readily,” said lead author Phyllis K. Stein, PhD. “Heart rate variability declines with age as our cardiovascular systems become less flexible, and poor heart rate variability is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular death.”
Young at heart
The researchers say that, when looking at heart rate variability among people at different ages, they found that those who practice calorie restriction have hearts that look and function like they are years younger. They say they've seen this before.
Laboratory animals with a restricted calorie intake tend to live 30 percent to 40 percent longer than those that eat standard diets.
"Many humans who practice calorie restriction believe they also will live significantly longer, but that won’t be known for several more years," Fontana said.
The daily calorie needs of individuals will vary. Obviously you should not begin a restricted calorie diet without determining how many calories a day you require and consulting with your doctor.
Consumers Continue to Use More Credit
But credit card debt drops sharply in April06/08/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
U.S. consumers are tapping into credit this year in a big way, mostly to pay for vehicles or education.The Federal Reserve's monthly report shows consume...
U.S. consumers are tapping into credit this year in a big way, mostly to pay for vehicles or education.
The Federal Reserve's monthly report shows consumer credit rose by $6.51 billion in April, the eighth month in a row that it has risen. It follows a $12.4 billion gain in March.
The gain in non-revolving credit – which covers car payments and student loans, recorded its biggest advance in the last three months.
Overall credit rose despite the fact that consumers put less money on their credit cards. Revolving debt – and credit cards make up the biggest segment of that – fell by $3.44 billion.
While the economy needs consumers to spend – and credit card debt is usually a sign of spending – rising credit card balances are not necessarily a good thing for the long term. The latest report suggests consumers are working at paying down balances and are exercising greater discipline in using their plastic.
The rise in student loan debt might be a troubling sign, as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) earlier this year warned total student loan debt in the U.S. now exceeds $1 trillion. The CFPB expressed the concern this level of debt might not be manageable in a tight job market where debt-burdened graduates have difficulty finding employment.
In issuing its “beige book” this week, the Fed noted that credit appears to be expanding, with lenders making more money available to creditworthy customers. It also reported that the economy appears to be expanding at a “moderate” pace.
Best Buy Chairman Makes Hasty Departure
Sudden resignation latest bump in the road for electronics retailer06/08/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
When Circuit City went under a couple of years ago, Best Buy appears to be the last man standing in the retail consumer electronics and appliance space. Bu...
When Circuit City went under a couple of years ago, Best Buy appears to be the last man standing in the retail consumer electronics and appliance space. But Best Buy has had far from smooth sailing.
Earlier this year the company announced it was closing a number of unprofitable stores. Now, company founder and chairman Richard Schulze has announced he is leaving his position on the board effective immediately.
Schulze, who is 71, had originally said he planned to depart at the end of this year but remain on the board for another year. He still owns about a 20 percent stake in the company and said he is considering “all available options” for his stock.
Hatim A. Tyabji as chairman of the company effective immediately. Tyabji, currently Chairman of the Audit Committee, has served as a director since 1998.
“Mr. Schulze notified the board this morning of his decision to resign from the board, including the chairmanship, effective immediately,” Best Buy said in a statement Thursday.
The Best Buy statement said Schulze's replacement has more than 40 years of experience as a board member, operating executive and entrepreneur in various technology industry segments, including mobile communications, enterprise software, financial services and mainframe computing.
To date, 2012 has not been a very good year for Best Buy. In April company CEO Brian Dunn resigned over a personal issue. Also in April Best Buy identified 50 stores for closing.
The retailer has been under pressure from rival hhgregg and from online retailers like Amazon. In particular, it may have been hurt by the proliferation of smartphones, which allow shoppers to do instant price comparisons while they are in a store.
Best Buy stock has taken a pounding this year. It closed Thursday at $19.70, down about 23 percent from its 2012 high in February.
Court Shuts Down Credit Repair Service
FTC says company was told to stop four years ago06/08/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
A federal court has temporarily shut down a Florida-based operation that allegedly continued to pitch bogus credit-repair services nationwide, despite a 20...
A federal court has temporarily shut down a Florida-based operation that allegedly continued to pitch bogus credit-repair services nationwide, despite a 2010 court order requiring it to stop.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) secured the court order, which will remain in place while the FTC seeks a contempt ruling against the defendants for violating the original order. It bars the operators from all activities involving credit repair, and from offering credit-related products, programs, or services.
The original case goes back to 2008, when the FTC filed a complaint against Latrese and Kevin Hargrave and the firms they control, alleging that they advertised on the Internet and radio stations and charged $250 to $270 per person and $450 per couple for purported credit repair services, requiring half or all of the charge to be paid in advance.
In a radio script, the defendants stated, "They specialize in erasing bad credit! Hargrave & Associates covers all three major credit bureaus, slow pays, charge-offs, repossessions can be erased for two-hundred, fifty dollars."
In January 2010, the court ruled in favor of the FTC and barred the defendants from engaging in the deceptive conduct – including making or using untrue or misleading statements to induce consumers to buy their credit repair services. It also barred them from charging or receiving an up-front payment for such services before they are performed.
At the FTC's request, in mid-May 2012, the U.S. District Court in Jacksonville, Florida, issued a temporary restraining order against the defendants, appointed a receiver, and froze their assets, stating that "there is good cause to believe that the defendants have violated, and continue to violate provisions of the permanent injunction" against them.
The FTC alleged the defendants continued to violate the FTC Act and the Credit Repair Organizations Act through their false credit repair claims. Following a hearing in late May, the court entered a preliminary injunction order, temporarily barring the defendants from engaging in deceptive credit repair offers and freezing the defendants' assets.
There are lots of ads for credit repair companies. The FTC says these companies target people who have poor credit histories with promises to clean up their credit reports so they can get a car loan, a home mortgage, insurance, or even a job – after paying a fee for the service. The truth, according to the FTC, is that no one can remove accurate negative information from your credit report. It's illegal.
When negative information in your report is accurate, only the passage of time can assure that it will be removed. A consumer reporting company can report most accurate negative information for seven years and can report bankruptcy information for 10 years.
LinkedIn Hacked; What You Should Do
eharmony says 'small fraction' of its passwords also stolen06/07/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
If you get an email from LinkedIn saying you need to reset your password, it's real. The social networking site has reported a data breach in which an undi...
If you get an email from LinkedIn saying you need to reset your password, it's real. The social networking site has reported a data breach in which an undisclosed number of passwords were compromised.
"Members that have accounts associated with the compromised passwords will notice that their LinkedIn account password is no longer valid," Vincente Silveira, a LinkedIn director, wrote on the company's blog. "These members will also receive an email from LinkedIn with instructions on how to reset their passwords."
Silveira stresses there will not be any links contained in the email that informs you that you must reset your password. However, once you follow the initial step request password assistance, then you will receive an email from LinkedIn with a password reset link.
Regardless of whether you receive an email, it would be prudent to immediately change the password on your LinkedIn account.
"It is worth noting that the affected members who update their passwords and members whose passwords have not been compromised benefit from the enhanced security we just recently put in place, which includes hashing and salting of our current password databases," Silveira wrote.
A ConsumerAffairs sentiment analysis of about 2.5 million comments posted to social media finds that the news knocking LinkedIn from an overall approval rating of close to 80% to a 24% negative rating.
While the hack attack wasn't the only negative to emerge in the analysis, it was by far the largest, as shown in this chart:
How it happened
Silveira did not say how the data breach occurred, only that an investigation was underway. Chester Wisniewski, Senior Security Advisor at Sophos Canada, wrote in his blog that it is imperative that LinkedIn also determine whether email addresses, often a user name, were also compromised. LinkedIn has more than 161 million members who use the site to expand their business and professional contacts.
About 6.5 million passwords have been posted online and the company says some of them do appear to be LinkedIn passwords. Others appear to be passwords for eHarmoney accounts, security experts say.
EHarmoney said a "small fraction" of its member passwords had been compromised and that it is investigating. Meanwhile, it said affected passwords have been reset.
EPA: Honda Fit EV Wrings the Most Out of its Battery
But Americans aren't exactly charged up about electric cars06/07/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Honda Fit has the highest mileage range compared to competitors like the Ford Focus or Nissan L...
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Honda Fit has the highest mileage range compared to competitors like the Ford Focus or Nissan Leaf.
The EPA says the electric version of the Fit travels up to 82 miles from merely one electrical charge. This exceeds the mileage of competitors like the Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus electric, and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, which have a mileage range of 76, 73, and 62 miles respectively.
"The 82 miles is great," said John O'Del car expert, and employee of Edmunds.com. " Every little bit helps when you are talking about range in an electric vehicle. "The car is lighter and smaller so a smaller battery will take it farther," he said.
Could be, but American consumers aren't exactly swarming into showrooms to glide silently away in an electric car, according to a ConsumerAffairs sentiment analysis of about 500,000 social media postings over the last year. We found net positive sentiment never topped 50%, declining to about 23% in May.
It's not that consumers are uncomfortable with the technology and they don't appear to be concerned about scattered reports of battery fires. Rather, it's the high cost and around-town nature of electric cars that consumers find unattractive.
The Fit's 82-mile range may be the best of the lot but 82 miles isn't all that great if your day includes frequent hops on and off the local freeways with no change to recharge in-between.
Stories like the one recounted by Rob Eshman, whose Nissan Leaf, leaves him feeling "like a jackass" when it runs out of juice during his daily jaunts around Southern California. So far the Chevrolet Volt, which has a small gas engine that kicks in when the battery dies, seems to be leading the pack.
The Fit's battery is said to be 13 percent smaller than the Ford Focus, and 17 percent smaller than the Nissan Leaf, giving the vehicle a lighter feel and easier navigation than similar cars on the market. Experts also say the Fit will last up to three hours when charged at 240 volts. Witness last week's story about Dennis Dineen, who has averaged 203.4 miles per gallon and never been stranded during the year he's owned his Volt.
The EPA gave the Fit a rating of 118 mpg equivalent, which is the measure of the average distance a car travels per unit of energy used. The Mitsubishi has a 112 mpg equivalent, the Ford Focus 105 and the Nissan Leaf 99. Yearly fuel costs for the fit came to be $500, which also beat out its competitors.
Honda says it plans to release around 1,100 Fit EVs in the next couple of years. Honda spokesman Chuck Schifsky said in a statement that customers will be able to lease the car for $389 per month and no money down. The cars will begin a national rollout in 2013, after heavy testing by manufactures, but states like Oregon and California will have sooner access.
As far as overall sales of electric cars this year, numbers were strong earlier in 2012, but started to decline in following months. The Nissan Leaf sold 370 vehicles in April, down from 579 cars sold in March. In the past four months the Leaf sold a total of 2,103 units.
The Chevrolet Volt took a sales plunge in the past few months, selling 2,289 in March, down to 1,462 in April. Overall sales in 2012 for the Volt are at 5,377, according to sales reports.
The highest seller in the electric car category in the month of April was the Toyota PriusPlug-In Hybrid, which sold 1,654 cars in the three months the vehicles have been on the market.
Since February, Toyota has sold 2,552 of the plug-in Priuses.
Thanks But No Thanks: Apple Parting Ways With Google Maps
Both companies promise more excitement in next-generation products06/07/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
It's not you, it's me. That's what Apple is telling Google in its impending breakup with the Google Maps tool.Apple just announced it will be using its o...
It's not you, it's me. That's what Apple is telling Google in its impending breakup with the Google Maps tool.
As we reported last month, Apple will soon be using its own map application for mobile devices, and will no longer use the popular Google Maps program when it releases its new iOS6. What's making Apple and Google part ways after such a fruitful union?
"Because there is money to be made in mobile mapping technology, and for Apple, the pieces finally are in place to give Google the boot," said a representative from investorplace.com.
Not a problem
It's not that Google and Apple users are fed up and disenchanted with the existing product, although a ConsumerAffairs sentiment analysis of about 1.1 million comments posted to social media over the last year finds that net sentiment has declined over the last few months, as shown in the following chart.
Emotions about the existing mapping products are still largely positive but both Google and Apple think their next-generation products will be much more compelling. An Apple insider was quoted recently as saying the next Apple maps will "blow your head off."
The Google and Apple love affair started back in 2007 when Apple began using Google Maps for its iPhones. According to the Wall Street Journal, the first signs of the relationship going south started when phones powered by Google's Android operating system beat out Apple's iPhone in number of shipments.
Apple then bought three companies, Poly 9, Placebase, and C3 Technologies, that it used to build its own mapping system, thus starting the breakup of the huge power couple.
And just like a person being newly single wants to show of their new look and partner, Google just announced a bunch of new features it has in store for its new mapping system.
Google announced it will revamp its digital mapping by allowing offline access on mobile devices, and will also include more three-dimensional images of major cities. "We're trying to create magic here," the company said at a San Francisco speaking engagement. It's part of a "never-ending quest for the perfect map."
The search engine giants also announced its mapping tool will have a hiking system for when users are traveling in remote locations by foot. Google says its new hiker's tool will be better and have more uses than its current backpacker app Google trike.
Apple is trying to give Google a run for its money in the area of mapping, as over 90 percent of iPhone users in the U.S. already use Google Maps.
"Apple is aiming squarely at Google on multiple dimensions," Rajeev Chand, a managing director at investment bank Rutberg & Co., told the Wall Street Journal. "Google and Apple are in a battle over data, devices, services, and the future of computing. This is the historic battle of today."
Google also announced its planes will photograph more cities and surrounding areas to provide a more realistic view for users, so people will have full view of areas that can't be picked up by Google's Street View maps.
Apple is rumored to be making an announcement on its new mapping system sometime next week, in attempts to show Google that it can compete in the digital mapping game, and prefers the single life.
How to Prepare For 'Taxmageddon'
How would rising taxes and cuts in government spending affect you?06/07/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke calls it "the fiscal cliff." Others are calling it "taxmageddon. Without new legislation, it will come at the end of ...
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke calls it "the fiscal cliff." Others are calling it "Taxmageddon." Whatever it's called, without new legislation, it will come at the end of the year.
That's when the Bush era tax cuts expire. It's also when deep across-the-board cuts in federal discretionary spending go into effect.
The Bush tax cuts happened so long ago, way back in 2001 and 2003, that many Americans have forgotten the details and have seemingly bought into the notion that they affect only millionaires. A ConsumerAffairs sentiment analysis of about 500,000 postings on social media finds quite a range of emotions.
Over the last year, our analysis found, consumers' net sentiment regarding the tax cuts has been largely negative and now stands around -9%.
But regardless of public sentiment, with the government spending a lot less money, and taxpayers having a lot less money to spend, Bernanke and other economists believe a recession in inevitable. So perhaps the prudent thing for consumers to do is figure out how all this will affect them and get prepared.
The long-running political debate over taxes has created the impression that the "Bush tax cuts" only affected upper income earners, but that's not the case. The tax cuts lowered everyone's taxes. When the rates go back to what they were before 2001, here's what will happen.
The lowest tax bracket -- 10 percent -- will go away. If you are currently in the 10 percent bracket, and assuming you earn the same income, you'll be paying 15 percent of your taxable income -- a rather hefty increase.
If you are currently in the 15 percent bracket, your increase is even bigger, since you'll move into the 25 percent bracket. Those now paying 25 percent of the taxable income will move up to the 28 percent bracket.
Those now in the 28 percent bracket will move to 31 percent, the existing 33 percent bracket will be replaced with a 36 percent bracket and the existing 35 percent bracket will rise to 39.6 percent.
At the same time, the two percent "tax holiday" for the FICA payroll tax also expires. As a result of all of this, your take home pay -- assuming you don't get a raise -- will go down on January 1. If you're going to need more income to get by, it might be wise to start looking for it now and beefing up your savings.
If you have been frugal and have saved money so as not to be a burden on society and therefore receive taxable income from dividends and the sale of stocks, the tax you pay will also go up. In January the 15 percent tax rate on long-term capital gains and dividends rises to 20 percent. Dividends, meanwhile, will be taxed as ordinary income, meaning at whatever tax bracket you happen to be in.
For that reason, it may be wise to take capital gains in 2012 and move dividend-producing stocks into tax-deferred retirement accounts, if possible.
At the same time, huge cuts in government spending are locked in unless Congress overrides them with other, more targeted cuts to trim the deficit. This could affect you if you work for the U.S. government or a company that derives much of its income from government contracts or for a company that supplies goods and services to goverment contractors. In other words, it's likely to affect you no matter where you work.
The Defense Department would not be spared the budget knife, so it could easily affect your current or planned military career.
Of course, Taxmageddon doesn't have to happen. But after what promises to be an extremely bitter November election, lawmakers would have to return to Washington and suddenly find a way to compromise. The odds against that happening are significant.
While Taxmageddon would prove to be painful, it might actually turn out for the best in the long run. At least, that's the gist of a report this week from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
The CBO acknowledged the pain but said raising taxes and cutting spending would put the government on a path toward smaller budget deficits in a very similar way that European nations are approaching "austerity."
The CBO doesn't exactly come out and say it, but suggests that might not be such a bad thing, since the issue must be addressed at some point. By setting up Taxmageddon during last year's bill to raise the debt ceiling, Congress prescribed bitter medicine without having to vote for painful tax hikes and spending cuts.
A Blood Test To Diagnose Depression
It's especially hard to diagnose depression in teens; new test should help06/07/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
Many teenagers suffer from emotional issues, and many parents can't tell if it's due to clinical depression or a normal amount of teen growing pains. Let's...
Many teenagers suffer from emotional issues, and many parents can't tell if it's due to clinical depression or normal teen growing pains. Let's face it, it's almost a teen's job to go through emotional ups and downs while figuring out who they are, and what their place in the world is.
Soon parents will be able to take their child in for a simple blood test that will be able to determine if their teen is actually depressed or just suffering from a temporary case of the blues.
According to recent statistics, nearly 20 percent of teens will experience depression before they reach adulthood, and between 10 to 15 percent will show symptoms of depression at some point during adolescence. Additionally, 20 to 40 percent of teenagers will have more than one episode of depression within the next two years, and 70 percent will have more than one episode before reaching adulthood.
In a recent pilot study conducted by Northwestern University, scientists showed that teenage depression can be diagnosed by the use of 11 genetic markers. Experts say the new test can differentiate between varying types of depression, so doctors can provide a more personalized level of treatment. This of course differs from traditional diagnosis tests, where patients simply tell doctors of on-going symptoms.
"Right now depression is treated with a blunt instrument," said Dr. Eva Redei, professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University Fenberg School of Medicine. "It's like treating type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes exactly the same way. We need to do better."
Researchers also say the blood test works effectively in both teens and adults, and is the first to identify sub-areas of depression. The test can classify whether a patient is suffering from major depression, or if their depression is also combined with an anxiety disorder.
Redei and her team of researchers conducted tests for 26 genetic blood markers that were identified in earlier research. The team confirmed that 11 of the markers were able to distinguish between depressed and non-depressed teens. Also, 18 of the 26 markers identified patients that only suffered from depression, or from depression with a mixture of anxiety.
"These 11 genes are probably the tip of the iceberg because depression is a complex illness," Redei said. "But it's an entree into a much bigger phenomenon that has to be explored. It clearly indicates we can diagnose from blood and create a blood diagnosis test for depression."
In a separate study conducted by UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, TX, researches found that blood testing can also better determine the type of medicine that would best suit patients.
Health Experts Skeptical of New York's Big Beverage Ban
Some call the idea 'short-sighted' and minimize soda's contribution to obesity06/07/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg riled the beverage industry with his proposal to ban large sugary beverages at food establishments, in an effort to c...
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg riled the beverage industry with his proposal to ban large sugary beverages at food establishments, in an effort to combat obesity.
Many health experts who have weighed-in on the subject say the Mayor may have been well intentioned, but the plan probably won't meet its objective. Experts at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) say by focusing on one product the city could be missing the big picture in the obesity battle.
In fact, in 2009 a team of researchers from the UAB School of Public Health and Purdue University reviewed five randomized trials that studied the effect of drinking sugar-sweetened beverages on body weight.
“We found no significant effect on overall weight reduction as a result of reducing intake of sugar-sweetened beverages,” said Kathryn Kaiser, Ph.D., instructor in the SOPH. “Since this was published, two other randomized trials have been published, and neither showed large effects on weight change.”
Kaiser says energy should be directed toward the design and conduct of randomized trials that will definitively answer the questions about actions that can significantly reduce weight. That, she says, has a better chance of producing effective policies.
“I think to say people drinking large sodas at events is the cause of obesity is short sighted and it is making a villain out of something that may not be the true villain,” said Suzanne Judd, Ph.D., assistant professor of biostatistics at UAB. “I think that while reducing consumption of sugar sweetened beverages is important, I don’t think making it unavailable in certain settings is a way to accomplish that.”
Consumers posting comments on our original story about the proposed ban were, for the most part, also skeptical.
“Another example of failing to consider second, third, etc. order consequences of a policy,” Earl, of Arlington, Va., wrote. “Folks wanting 20 or 24 ounces will buy two 16-ounce drinks. Hence, yet more calories.”
Judd said she thinks that individuals are ultimately responsible for their own health and the actions they take related to it.
“People make their own choices and we can’t force them into those decisions. A public health effort must be made so they can better understand the consequences of their choices,” Judd said.
Car-Surfing a Growing, Dangerous Fad
Influence of movies, social media fostering risky behavior06/07/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
The next time your teenager leaves the house and you tell them no drinking and no texting while driving, you might want to add "no car-surfing."Most popu...
The next time your teenager leaves the house and you tell them no drinking and no texting while driving, you might want to add "no car-surfing."
Most popular with teenage males, the sport involves clinging to the exterior of a speeding car. Inspired by movies like "Jackass" and videos posted to YouTube, this dangerous fad is leading to more car injuries and deaths.
“Young people believe they are invincible but several seconds of thoughtless, risky behavior can lead to a lifetime of permanent disability or even death,” said Thomas Esposito, MD, chief of the Division of Trauma, Surgical Critical Care and Burns in the Department of Surgery at Loyola University Medical Center.
Sees the results
Esposito knows the subject all too well. Loyola is the only Level 1 trauma center which has been verified by the American College of Surgeons in Illinois and regularly cares for patients who have been involved in car crashes and sustain complicated injuries.
National statistics, meanwhile, have shown a steady rise in car surfing fatalities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), since 1990, at least 99 people died or sustained serious injuries as a result of car surfing.
“Broken bones and road rash – severe skin abrasions caused by impact from a fall – are minor injuries from car-surfing,” said Esposito. “Head injuries are very prevalent and the effects are devastating.”
Influence of social media
Car crashes are the leading cause of death among teenagers in the United States and car-surfing just makes the highway that much more dangerous for young people. Esposito says it's no accident that the trend has coincided with media depictions of the activity in movies, video games and in social media.
“For those desiring their five minutes of fame, social media such as YouTube and Facebook offer perceived fame and instant gratification,” said Esposito. “Replicating a dangerous stunt and capturing it with a cellphone may seem like a cool idea but can have serious long-term consequences.”
According to the CDC report, Males are more likely to car surf than females and the average age of persons injured as a result of car surfing is 17.6 years. Injuries have been reported in 31 states, with a regional pattern detected with 39 percent from the Midwest and 35 percent from the South.
Esposito notes that one of the key risks is sudden, unanticipated car maneuvers such as accelerating, swerving or braking, that can force a car surfer off of the vehicle.
“People who fall off a moving vehicle may suffer brain contusions, broken bones, fractured skulls, loss of consciousness, internal bleeding, paralysis and death,” he said. “Car surfing is a dangerous game with stakes that are too high if you lose.”
Study: Most Consumers Pay Little Attention to Food's Sodium Content
Researchers call for broader education campaign to warn consumers of harmful effects06/07/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
U.S. Consumers, by and large, like their food salty. As a result, the amount of sodium in the average U.S diet has drifted higher, to dangerous levels, ove...
U.S. consumers, by and large, like their food salty. As a result, the amount of sodium in the average U.S diet has drifted higher, to dangerous levels, over the last three decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Knowing this, policymakers and public health officials are considering both public education campaigns and the possibility of legislation to address the problem. But to do this effectively, they need good information, not only about the amount of sodium consumed, which the CDC monitors, but also about consumer knowledge and attitudes.
A new study by marketing researchers at the University of Arkansas shows that American consumers ignore the amount sodium they eat, even though excessive sodium intake contributes to cardiovascular disease. And just try avoiding sodium in your diet.
It is the primary ingredient of table salt and is found in many processed foods. The finding that Americans are unaware of their sodium intake is problematic for policymakers because, on average, Americans consume 50 percent more than the daily maximum recommended level for sodium.
“Simply put, Americans consume too much salt,” said Scot Burton, professor in the University of Arkansas Sam M. Walton College of Business. “Unfortunately, only approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population currently consumes the recommended daily level. Reducing the daily intake of sodium from the average of more than 3,400 milligrams down to the recommended level of 2,300 milligrams could potentially prevent almost 100,000 deaths and 66,000 strokes per year while saving billions of dollars in health care costs.”
Education programs can work
Burtson has done research that shows education campaigns about the effects of excessive sodium intake work: Consumers – both hypertensive and non-hypertensive – will modify their purchase intentions if they are given this information, he says.
But isn't the information out there? Sodium content is listed on Nutrition Facts panels on food labels, on some restaurant menus and within a growing body of education material. But are consumers paying attention?
To find out, Burton teamed with fellow researchers from Wayne State University and Loyola Marymount to study two groups of consumers - one with high blood pressure and one normal blood pressure. When given the sodium information, the group with hypertension paid more attention to the information than those without hypertension.
Both encouraging and worrisome
“While it is encouraging that hypertensive consumers pay some attention to sodium levels, it is worrisome that non-hypertensive consumers do not," said University of Arkansas marketing professor Elizabeth Howlett. "Because the effects of excessive sodium intake are cumulative, many who are not yet diagnosed as hypertensive are probably not paying attention to how much salt they consume."
What's needed, the researchers say, is an effective education campaign that makes sodium content and its effect on the body more relevant for more consumers. They say their research shows that relevancy is the key - when consumers understand the harmful effects of too much sodium in the diet, they make different buying decisions when it comes to food.
Fruit and Vegetable Diet May Help You Stop Smoking
Could this be a cheaper way to kick the habit?06/07/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Reluctant smokers spend millions each year on smoking cessation programs and products, but maybe all that's needed is diet rich in fruit and vegetables, al...
Reluctant smokers spend millions each year on smoking cessation programs and products, but maybe all that's needed is a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, along with a healthy dose of willpower.
Researchers at the University at Buffalo (UB) surveyed 1,000 smokers aged 25 and older from around the country, using random-digit dialing telephone interviews. They followed up with the respondents fourteen months later, asking them if they had abstained from tobacco use during the previous month.
“Other studies have taken a snapshot approach, asking smokers and nonsmokers about their diets,” said Gary A. Giovino, PhD, chair of the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior at UB. “We knew from our previous work that people who were abstinent from cigarettes for less than six months consumed more fruits and vegetables than those who still smoked. What we didn’t know was whether recent quitters increased their fruit and vegetable consumption or if smokers who ate more fruits and vegetables were more likely to quit.”
The UB study found that the more fruit and vegetables smokers consumed, the more likely they were to be tobacco-free for at least 30 days at follow-up. The findings persisted even when adjustments were made to take into account age, gender, race/ethnicity, education, household income and health orientation.
They also found that smokers with higher fruit and vegetable consumption smoked fewer cigarettes per day, waited longer to smoke their first cigarette of the day and scored lower on a common test of nicotine dependence.
“We may have identified a new tool that can help people quit smoking,” said Jeffrey P. Haibach, first author on the paper and graduate research assistant in the UB Department of Community Health and Health Behavior. “Granted, this is just an observational study, but improving one’s diet may facilitate quitting.”
The researchers see several possible explanations, such as less nicotine dependence for people who consume a lot of fruits and vegetables or the fact that higher fiber consumption from fruits and vegetables make people feel fuller.
“It is also possible that fruits and vegetables give people more of a feeling of satiety or fullness so that they feel less of a need to smoke, since smokers sometimes confuse hunger with an urge to smoke,” said Haibach.
And unlike some foods which are known to enhance the taste of tobacco, such as meats, caffeinated beverages and alcohol, fruits and vegetables do not enhance the taste of tobacco. In fact, Haibach says foods like fruit and vegetables may actually worsen the taste of cigarettes.
Before Getting Prepaid Debt Card, Check Out the Fees
Survey shows most consumers are uninformed about prepaid card fees06/06/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
There's no doubt that prepaid debit cards are growing in popularity among U.S. consumers, particularly those who don't have traditional bank accounts.But...
There's no doubt that prepaid debit cards are growing in popularity among U.S. consumers, particularly those who don't have traditional bank accounts.
But these cards carry fees, and new research reveals that a startlingly high number of consumers aren't aware of them. According to a new survey from CouponCabin.com, nearly six-in-ten -- 58 percent -- U.S. adults said they are not aware of fees associated with prepaid debit card use.
In addition, 27 percent of U.S. adults agree they are more likely to use a prepaid debit card now than before the recession. This survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Interactive.
"More consumers are using prepaid debit cards these days, but like with any financial decision, users need to be aware of the pros and cons of using these cards," said Jackie Warrick, President and Chief Savings Officer at CouponCabin.com. "Even as new consumer protections are sought, users need to do their homework to ensure that prepaid debit cards are a good fit for their personal budget and lifestyle."
In May the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) announced it is previewing proposed rules to protect consumers in the prepaid card market. The agency is seeking input on how to ensure that consumers’ funds on prepaid cards are safe and that card terms and fees are transparent.
How prepaid cards are used
Forty-two percent of U.S. adult consumers say they have purchased or received a prepaid debit card for personal use. When asked how they have used their prepaid debit cards, they replied:
- For everyday purchases – 69 percent
- To make purchases online – 36 percent
- To use instead of cash or credit when I travel – 19 percent
- To take out money from an ATM – 10 percent
- Other – 10 percent
When it comes to opinions on prepaid debit cards, consumers are evenly split. Forty-four percent have a negative opinion of the cards, while 43 percent view the cards positively. Of those who have a positive opinion, they report they like prepaid debit cards because it's safer than cash, helps them budget and they don't have to worry about overdraft fees or accumulating credit card debt.
There are some downsides to prepaid cards and those negatives also showed up in the survey. Twenty-five percent of respondents said the cards don't help build a credit score and 24 percent cited too many fees.
Obviously, a fair amount of research is required before selecting a prepaid card. Consumers should look into all the fees, deadlines, contracts and more before signing up. The fees and fee schedule can vary greatly from card to card, so make sure to pick one that best fits your lifestyle and budget.
Warrick also suggests keeping credit cards active, even if you aren't using them. Since prepaid cards don't affect your credit, having an open credit card account will be helpful.
J.C. Penney Utters Four-Letter Word
Company going back to calling price reductions 'sales'06/06/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
There, they said it. “Sale.”When J.C. Penney began 2012 with a new strategy, CEO Rob Johnson vowed the department store chain was finished wi...
There, they said it. “Sale.”
When J.C. Penney began 2012 with a new strategy, CEO Ron Johnson vowed the department store chain was finished with coupons and sales. From now on, it would be “fair and square pricing,” which was a three-tiered system of prices.
Johnson said customers wouldn't be hearing the word “sale” again. Instead, the company would call these events “month-long values.”
Customers posting on ConsumerAffairs didn't like it and apparently, enough others didn't like it either. Penney's sales plunged in the first quarter of the year. This week Johnson told a Piper Jaffray investors conference that it failed to effectively communicate with its customers so the word “sale” is returning to its advertising.
Consumers like Amanda, of Tao Baja, Puerto Rico, are saying “told you so.”
“Since the new CEO changed the strategy to Fair and Square, we have practically stopped shopping,” Amanda wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “The store is mostly empty, there are no good sales and I know many people have drifted to Macys instead.”
And Amanda says she is not at all surprised to see the company changing course again.
“Of course,” she wrote. “The coupons and sales were excellent motivators and I know that the stores sold more this way than the way it is now.”
But Penney's isn't abandoning all its changes. Johnson says in August the chain will start remodeling stores that will be turned into a number of separate shops. And Johnson said the new pricing policy actually helped draw in more vendors that will draw in new customers over time.
Regular Soda, Diet Soda, Zero-Calorie Sodas: What's Really Safe?
With New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposing a ban on the sales of large sodas and other sugar-based drinks, the national debate on healthy verse non-healthy beverages is at an all-time high06/06/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Daryl Nelson
With New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposing a ban on the sales of large sodas and other sugar based drinks, the national debate on healthy verse non-he...
With New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposing a ban on the sales of large sodas and other sugar-based drinks, the national debate on healthy verse non-healthy beverages is at an all-time high.
Between the vast array of diet sodas available, not to mention the bevy of health drinks, juices and organic beverages, consumers can feel quite confused about what's actually healthy and what's merely branded as such.
For starters, lets look at some of the more popular non-diet beverages and gauge what their actual calorie and sugar count is:
- Eight ounces of Coca-Cola contains 100 calories and 27 grams of sugar.
- Eight ounces of Pepsi has 100 calories and 28 grams of sugar
- Nestea Iced Tea with Lemon has 80 calories with 22 grams of sugar, in an eight ounce serving.
- Eight ounces of Rockstar Energy Drink contains 140 calories with 31 grams of sugar.
- Sprite contains 96 calories and 26 grams of sugar in an eight ounce serving.
Those who still consume heavy amounts of non-diet sodas, they run the risk of getting diabetes, tooth and even bone decay, according to health experts.
And what about diet sodas? The word diet alone engenders a feeling of safety for consumers who want a healthier beverage option, but many health experts say diet sodas can be more fattening than non-diet versions.
In a recent study from the University of Texas, diet soda drinkers experienced a 70 percent increase in waist size compared with non-diet-soda-drinkers.
The main culprit of weight gain among diet soda drinkers is an ingredient called aspartame, which is an artificial sweetener used in most diet sodas. Experts say perpetual consumption of aspartame could possibly lead to increased blood glucose levels, which could eventually cause diabetes.
Many consumers, who have been already hip to the health risks of drinking too much diet soda, have decided to drink zero calorie drinks instead. Many believe sodas like Coke Zero and Pepsi Max are a healthier product to buy, but experts say they're really not.
Many of the zero calorie beverages not only contain the aspartame ingredient, but also have an additive called Acesulfame Potassium, which is another artificial sweetener that could create even more health risks.
In lab tests, scientists have found the sugary additive potentially increased the risk of cancer as well as insulin production levels in test animals.
Experts say Acesulfame Potassium is less risky than aspartame, but more research still needs to be done on both additives. The problem with zero calorie sodas, experts say, is they typically contain both artificial sweeteners, and each comes with its own potential health risk, not to mention possible weight gain.
But not always ...
But just as certain beverages can be the catalyst in weight gain and cause serious ailments, certain drinks can do the opposite, and thrust an individual into a healthier lifestyle.
"Some drinks have tremendous health benefits, from relieving minor ailments like indigestion to protecting against serious ones like osteoporosis," says Dan Nadeau, M.D., medical director of Exeter Hospital's HealthReach Diabetes, Endocrinology and Nutrition Center in Exeter, New Hampshire.
Besides water, here are some of the healthier drinks that experts say should be replacing your soda or sugary beverage intake:
Green Tea: Helps reduce risk of osteoporosis, cancer, heart disease and cavities. It also holds a natural antioxidant that can protect cells from receiving cancer-causing substances. Green tea can also lower the risk of heart disease, blood clots, and strokes.
Cranberry Juice: Prevents gum disease, urinary tract infection, and eliminates bacteria from the teeth and gums while eating. But doctors say to be mindful of your intake, as certain juices contain high levels of sugar. "Make sure the label says 100 percent juice, not 'juice drink' or 'cocktail,'" says Heidi Reichenberger, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
Low-Sodium Tomato Juice: Protects against certain cancer types. Processed tomato products have the richest source of the antioxidant lycopene, which has been known to lower the risk of lung and stomach cancer, say experts. Tomato juice has also been known to reduce the chances of getting pancreatic, colorectal, esophageal, oral, breast and cervical cancers.
Orange Juice: Many already drink the popular breakfast beverage for its taste, but orange juice also has some wonderful health benefits. It's a high source of vitamin C, and has antioxidants that can thwart off diseases like, cataracts, and certain types of cancers. It's also known to boost the immune system. However, it's even better to eat an orange, as you get more fiber that way.
Employees work while sick, often have little safety training06/06/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
A new report finds that workers in the food industry endure some of the lowest wages, poorest working conditions, fewest benefits, least opportunity for ad...
Consumer Encounters Two Scams in One Day
Fortunately, she didn't fall victim either time06/06/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Daria, of Highland, Ind., may be on some kind of list that she doesn't want to be on. She reports she was the target of two different, unrelated scams with...
Daria, of Highland, Ind., may be on some kind of list that she doesn't want to be on. She reports she was the target of two different, unrelated scams within 24 hours.
In a post on ConsumerAffairs, Daria reports that it all started with a pitch from a company that told her it hired “secret shoppers.” Daria was rightly skeptical.
“They tried to get me on the telephone, and when I did not fall for that they sent a letter with a check,” Daria writes. “I took the check to the bank for deposit. I had no intention using the money for the 'secret shopper' job until the check cleared.”
Other victims who have thought that way got in trouble because it can take weeks for the phony check from the scammer to be discovered. By then the victim has used her own money. Fortunately for Daria, the bank teller was able to examine the check closely and show that it was fake.
A scam was avoided and Daria was relieved, but her encounter with scammers wasn't over.
“No sooner than I get home from from the bank, I get the 'US Government Grant Department' on the phone telling me that I was selected for doing my taxes on time to receive $7,000 and how did I want to receive it,” Daria wrote. “He wanted my bank information. I told him that something was wrong with him if he thought I was going to give a stranger my account information.”
Daria was the target of two of the more common scams, and though they might seem unrelated, it is possible they are connected in some way. Scammers are known to compile lists of targets – especially people who have fallen for a scam in the past. In the scam world, retargeting a past victim is called “reloading.”
Both the secret shopper scam and the government grant scam work the same way. The victim is sent a large check, which is counterfeit. They are instructed to deposit it in their bank account and wire a portion of it back to the scammer.
Usually the transfer takes place before the bank finds out the check is fake. At that point, the money the victim sent to the scammer comes out of their account.
Very often, after hearing a pitch from a scammer a victim believes it is their lucky day. Luckily for Daria, she knew better.
Researchers: Consumers Need Better Information About Fish
Consumers need information about marine toxins that can affect fish safety06/06/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Eating fish is good for you because it contains plenty of heart-healthy omega-3. However, some fish tends to contain more toxic material absorbed from its...
Eating fish is good for you because it contains plenty of heart-healthy omega-3. However, some fish tends to contain more toxic material absorbed from its environment. That's not so good.
Which fish is best? Consumers have a hard time answering that question, according to researchers at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital. A study there has determined that consumers are not getting all the information they need to make informed decisions about fish consumption.
The research team looked at fish consumption choice from toxicological, nutritional, ecological, and economic points of view. It evaluated scientific literature, public health guidelines and fish consumption advisories made in the U.S. and found that there is no one place that gives consumers a complete view of the advantages and disadvantages of various fish species.
"Our research shows that there is no one perfect fish when considering nutritional value, toxicity rates and the environmental and economic impact," said Susan Korrick, MD, of Brigham and Women's hospital. "Consumers are forced to decide what trade-offs they are willing to make. But as a consumer standing in a store, it is difficult to understand the pros and cons of a fish purchase, because the amount of readily available information is limited."
Korrick points out that fish is generally a healthy food and because of periodic stories in the media about toxicity in some species, she worries that consumers will give up eating fish out of frustration.
"Our research highlights the need for the development of clear and simple consumer advice that describes the multiple impacts of fish consumption," Korrick said.
Fish's natural beneficial qualities can sometimes be outweighed by marine toxins, that contaminate the fish in its environment. These toxins are not always man-made pollution.
Marine toxins can be naturally occurring chemicals that can contaminate certain seafood. The seafood contaminated with these chemicals frequently looks, smells, and tastes normal. When humans eat this seafood, disease can result.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published an online list of some of the more common marine toxins that affect commercially-available fish. If you eat fish frequently, it might be a good idea to keep the list handy.
As in all things, moderation is the key.
Rattlesnake Bites On the Rise
When civilization encroaches on nature, nature bites back06/06/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Though it rarely makes news, about 8,000 Americans each year are bitten by poisonous snakes, according to public health officials.About 10 percent of the...
|Randy Nauert interviews a rattler at his Encinal Canyon ranch above Malibu|
Though it rarely makes news, about 8,000 Americans are bitten by poisonous snakes each year, according to public health officials.
About 10 percent of these dangerous snake bites occur in one state – California – home to an abundance of snake species, but only one family is native and venomous: rattlesnakes.
“This is the time of year when we see a rise in snake bites,” said Richard Clark, MD, director of the Division of Medical Toxicology at UC San Diego Health System.
Toxin levels in rattler venom vary from year to year and season to season, but typically venom is weaker in winter and stronger in summer because snakes are more active, fighting for food and territory. In recent years, it seems the venom has become more deadly.
“We really don’t know why the venom is becoming increasingly potent,” Clark said. “Some speculate that with the modern world encroaching on nature it could be survival of the fittest. Perhaps only the strongest, most venomous snakes survive.”
Swelling and pain
The majority of the injuries are on hands, fingers and feet, and the most typical result is swelling and tissue damage that looks like blisters or frost bite.
Symptoms of severe bites can include: extreme pain at the location of the bite, nausea and sometimes diarrhea, followed by swelling in the mouth and throat, making it difficult to breathe. Within minutes, victims can get lightheaded, collapse and go into shock.
“Many of our snake bite victims show symptoms of severe weakness, trouble breathing and low blood pressure,” said Clark who is also medical director for the California Poison Control System (CPCS), San Diego Division. “For anyone who suspects a bite, their next move should be to a hospital emergency department.”
With some rattlesnake bites, no venom is injected into the wound, but because it is impossible to know if venom has or has not been injected, getting medical treatment quickly is important.
Treating a rattlesnake bite can be expensive. The anti-venom costs around $2,500 a vial. Patients may need a series of anti-venom shots and insurance does not always cover the treatment, Clark said.
What to do
If bitten by a snake, go to a hospital's emergency room or a nearby health care facility immediately. There are potential risks to applying ice, using a tourniquet or suctioning the wound.
For the direct application of ice, Clark says the main concern is the risk of a frostbite-like injury. If tourniquets are applied too tightly, they will decrease blood flow to the affected area and might also concentrate the venom, increasing local tissue damage. Suctioning the wound is ineffective in removing venom because the venom is usually injected too deeply into tissue. When people use their mouths to suck the bite site, they can actually make things worse by introducing harmful bacteria.
If you happen to be in a remote area when you're bitten by a rattler, first immobilize the wounded area, especially for a hand or arm bite, then proceed slowly to a vehicle. Moving slowly will keep the heart rate low and help prevent the venom from spreading.
West Marine Recalls Folding Deck Chairs
The chairs can collapse06/06/2012ConsumerAffairs
West Marine Products is recalling about 1,200 Folding Deck Chairs. The chair cannot support the stated weight capacity. This poses a collapse hazard t...
West Marine Products is recalling about 1,200 Folding Deck Chairs. The chair cannot support the stated weight capacity. This poses a collapse hazard to consumers.
West Marine is aware of six incidents of the chair collapsing. No injuries were reported.
The recalled item is a West Marine Deluxe Deck Chair. It is a folding deck chair with metal legs and light-colored wood armrests. It has plastic feet on the corners of each leg. The seat and back are covered with blue and gray nylon fabric. The back can be adjusted to various angles. Model/SKU number “13110341” is printed on a coated paper tag attached to the chair frame.
The chairs were sold exclusively at: West Marine stores nationwide, online at westmarine.com and in the West Marine catalog from February 2012 to May 2012 for about $70. They were made in China.
Consumers should immediately stop using the deck chairs and call West Marine for a full refund or store credit. Consumers may also return the chairs to any West Marine store to receive the refund or store credit.
For additional information, please contact West Marine toll-free at (800) 262-8464 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday, or visit the firm’s website atwww.westmarine.com
Feds Shut Down Supposed Debt Relief Company
FDA Solutions claimed it could slice debt by 40 to 60%06/06/2012ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
The Federal Trade Commission has put a stop to the allegedly deceptive practices of a debt settlement operation that lured consumers with exaggerated claim...
The Federal Trade Commission has put a stop to the allegedly deceptive practices of a debt settlement operation that lured consumers with exaggerated claims about how it could help reduce their debts. The defendants behind the operation have agreed to a settlement that prohibits them from making any further misleading claims.
The FTC case against FDN Solutions, LLC and Timothy Daniels is part of the agency’s continuing crackdown on scams that target consumers in financial distress. The defendants claimed, mostly through Google ads and websites they used, such as everestdebtsolutions.com, 1800debtsettlement.com, and everestdebtrelief.com, that they could reduce consumers’ debts, typically by 40 percent to 60 percent, according to the FTC complaint.
However, the FTC charged that these savings claims were misleading, because they did not take into account the consumers who dropped out of the program, or the fact that the fees each cli