Current Events in July 2012

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    Recent Heat Wave Spawns New Scam

    Consumers led to believe government will help pay utility bills

    What does the recent heat wave have to do with an identity theft scam? More than you might think as clever criminals use growing concern over rising electric bills to trick consumers into revealing personal information.

    Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller is among the first to call attention to the new scam. He's received reports that scammers are contacting consumers with the offer to pay their utilities via a new federal program allegedly authorized by President Barack Obama.

    Of course, there is no such program. It's another of the scams that use the president's name or likeness, such as the money-to-return-to-school scam. Zoeller said he was alerted to the scam this week from concerned homeowners who reported the solicitations.

    “This summer’s high temperatures mean high utility bills and identity thieves have created a fake program to take off with victims’ personal and financial information,” Zoeller said. “Everyone -- especially senior citizens who may be on a fixed income -- should be wary of these types of solicitations.”

    How it works

    Here's how it works: scammers claim credits will be provided on customers’ bills if they release their Social Security Numbers (SSN) or bank account information. The victims are then given fraudulent bank information to use when paying their bills online.

    If consumers fall for it and provide their Social Security numbers, the scammers steal their identities, taking out loans in their name. These loans might not be discovered for months, even years.

    If consumers provide their bank account information, the scammers can access the accounts and take any money they contain.

    Zoeller said legitimate businesses will not make unsolicited calls, texts or email messages asking for your SSN or bank account numbers. If in doubt, consumers should hang up and dial their utility provider directly.

    Like most scams, this one preys on desperation. The recent heat wave left millions of consumers with abnormally high utility bills.

    What does the recent heat wave have to do with an identity theft scam? More than you might think as clever criminals use rising concern over rising electri...

    Rising Student Loan Debt Growing Financial Concern

    Bankers join policymakers in worrying about the debt load

    Students who took out student loans four or five years ago are graduating into a weak job market with a mountain of debt, posing an increasing worry to both policymakers and bankers.

    Earlier this year the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reported that total student loan debt exceeded $1 trillion. It's even higher now and Eduardo, of Lakehurst, NJ, is part of that staggering total.

    Eduardo says he took out student loans in 2005 to attend Full Sail University, a for-profit arts school. The loan was divided into four loans – two federal and two private. He says each has a different interest rates with one as high as seven percent. The debt quickly multiplied.

    $80,000 in loans

    “Originally, I only owed approximately $40k, but with interest, it has risen to $80,000 -- pretty much double,” Eduardo wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post.

    Kathryn, of New York, NY, is pretty much in the same boat. She said she turned to Sallie Mae for loans because she had no co-signer and she considered them the only source of funding.

    “The rates are ridiculous,” Kathryn writes. “They make it actually impossible for people/students to actually get out of debt and even make a living after they graduate.”

    All of this is deeply worrying, not only to federal regulators but is also getting bankers' attention. A report from Barclays Bank shows the average debt burden for students attending a public four-year collage have risen by only $2,000 per borrower over the last 12 years, the trend is not encouraging.

    And of course debt levels for students attending for-profit colleges are much higher, with those enrollments increasing sharply in recent years.

    Both young and old affected

    The report expresses the worry that these rising debt levels are imposing hardships on both the young, who are graduating without adequate jobs, and retirees, who have co-signed for children or grandchildren and now well past their peak earning years and, in some cases, forced out of jobs.

    The report notes that borrowers who got a degree had a default rate of 3.7 percent in 2009 while the default rate for those who didn't finish their education was more than four times higher. And while all this could pose increased stress on the financial system, individuals like Eduardo and Kathryn and left holding the bag. If they had it to do over again, both would have taken a different course.

    “Truth is, I'm not benefiting from the education I received at Full Sail,” Eduardo writes. Albeit entertaining and informative, I received no assistance after graduation and haven't worked in what I studied a day in my life.”

    “I would have been better off struggling and working through school and finishing slower rather than borrowing money,” Kathryn concludes.

    Students who took out student loans four or five years ago are graduating into a week job market with a mountain of debt, posing an increasing worry to bot...

    Teens Outsmart Their Parents About Online Activities

    If you think you know what your kids are up to, chances are you're wrong

    Parents are clueless when it comes to their teen-agers' online activities. That's the conclusion of a study by security software firm McAfee.

    Parents may think they are staying in touch with their kids' computer habits, but the study found children have a number of ways to effective hide what they're doing from their parents.

    The study focused on nine in particular:

    1. Clearing the browser history

    This is a simple function in the settings portion of the browser. The list of visited Websites, known as the “history,” can be erased manually or the browser can be set to erase it automatically each time it is closed. Fifty-three percent of teens said they do it.

    2. Close or minimize the browser when a parent walks in

    This is done with a simple mouse click, removing the browser from the screen so that whatever is behind the browser, such as a term paper, appears on the screen. It's the electronic equivalent of placing a comic book inside a a school book and 46 percent of teens say they do it.

    3. Hide or delete Instant Messages (IM)

    This is a way Internet users can carry on written conversations in real time. The “chat” boxes are located at the bottom of the computer screen and can be closed or minimized the same as web pages. Thirty-four percent of teens say they do it.

    The teens also revealed to McAfee that they:

    4. Lie, or omit details about their online activities

    5. Use a computer their parents don't check

    6. Use an Internet-enabled mobile device

    7. Use privacy settings to hide content

    8. Create private email addresses their parents don't know about

    9. Create duplicate or fake social network profiles

    Know the dangers

    Teens not only know their way around technology, most are aware of online dangers -- yet they continue to take risks by posting personal information and risky photos online, even though they know their parents would be horrified if they knew. Many teens are accessing inappropriate online content, despite 73.5 percent of parents who say they trust their teens to not access age-inappropriate content online.

    Specifically 43 percent of teens have accessed simulated violence online, 36 percent have access sexual topics online and 32 percent have accessed nude content or pornography online.

    McAfee reports that some teens even engage in illegal activity online. For example, 15 percent admit they have hacked into a social network account and 30 percent says they have pirated music or movies. At the same time, only 15 percent of parents say they are aware their children have engaged in these activities.

    “Parents need to get informed about their children’s online behavior,” says Robert Siciliano, McAfee Online Security Expert. “The fact is that allowing teens to participate in unmonitored online activity exposes them to real dangers with real consequences, and these dangers are growing exponentially with the proliferation of social networks.”

    Parents are clueless when it comes to their teen-agers' online activities. That's the conclusion of a study by security software firm McAfee.Parents may ...

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      Nikon Recalls Rechargeable Battery Packs Sold With Digital SLR Cameras

      A short circuit in the battery pack presents a possible burn hazard

      Nikon Inc., of Melville, NY, is recalling about 5100 Nikon digital SLR camera battery packs sold in the United States, 1,100 that were sold in Canada and an additional 195,000 sold worldwide. 

      The battery packs can short circuit, causing them to overheat and melt, posing a burn hazard to consumers. 

      This recall involves Nikon EN-EL 15 rechargeable lithium-ion battery packs with lot numbers E and F. The battery pack was sold with the Nikon digital SLR D800 and D7000 model cameras. 

      The battery pack's model number "EN-EL15" and "7.0V 1900mAh 14Wh" are printed on the back of the battery pack. Only battery packs with an "E" or "F" in ninth character of the 14-digit lot number located on the back of the battery pack are included in this recall. 

      Nikon has received seven reports of incidents of the recalled battery packs overheating outside the U.S. and Canada. No incidents have been reported in the U.S. or Canada and no injuries have been reported. 

      The battery packs, manufactured in Japan and China, were sold at camera, office supply and mass merchandise stores, in catalogs and on various websites nationwide. They were sold with the digital SLR camera in Canada from February 2012 through March 2012 and in the U.S. from March 2012 through April 2012 for between $1,200 and $3,000. 

      Consumers should stop using the recalled battery packs immediately, remove them from the camera and contact Nikon for a free replacement battery pack. 

      For additional information, contact Nikon at (800) 645-6687 between 8 a.m. through 12 midnight ET Monday through Friday, or visit the firm's Website.

      Nikon Inc., of Melville, NY, is recalling about 5100 Nikon digital SLR camera battery packs sold in the United States, 1,100 that were sold in Canada and a...

      Resume Faux Pas and Things That Get You Hired

      Hiring managers judge the good, bad and ugly when it comes to resumes

      The folks at Careerbuilder.com see lots of resumes. Most are bland and boring. A few are disasters and even fewer are inspiring.

      The right resume can get you hired, of course, and the disastrous ones get put up on the bulletin board in the lunchroom. Careerbuilder hired Harris Interactive to consult with 2,298 hiring manager about the good, the bad and the ugly, when it comes to resumes.

      Ugh!

      First, the truly horrendous ones. Careerbuilder says these are actual examples provided by the surveyed hiring managers:

      • Candidate called himself a genius and invited the hiring manager to interview him at his apartment.
      • Candidate's cover letter talked about her family being in the mob.
      • Candidate applying for a management job listed "gator hunting" as a skill.
      • Candidate's resume included phishing as a hobby.
      • Candidate specified that her resume was set up to be sung to the tune of "The Brady Bunch."
      • Candidate highlighted the fact that he was "Homecoming Prom Prince" in 1984.
      • Candidate claimed to be able to speak "Antartican" when applying for a job to work in Antarctica.
      • Candidate's resume had a photo of the applicant reclining in a hammock under the headline "Hi, I'm _____ and I'm looking for a job."
      • Candidate's resume was decorated with pink rabbits.
      • Candidate listed "to make dough" as the objective on the resume.
      • Candidate applying for an accounting job said he was "deetail-oriented" and spelled the company's name incorrectly.
      • Candidate's cover letter contained "LOL." 

      Neat!

      But some candidates for jobs reached into their creative bag of tricks to craft a resume that commanded attention. Here are some examples that worked:

      • Candidate sent his resume in the form of an oversized Rubik's Cube, where you had to push the tiles around to align the resume. He was hired.
      • Candidate who had been a stay-at-home mom listed her skills as nursing, housekeeping, chef, teacher, bio-hazard cleanup, fight referee, taxi driver, secretary, tailor, personal shopping assistant and therapist. She was hired.
      • Candidate created a marketing brochure promoting herself as the best candidate and was hired.
      • Candidate listed accomplishments and lessons learned from each position. He gave examples of good customer service he provided as well as situations he wished he would have handled differently. He was hired.
      • Candidate applying for a food and beverage management position sent a resume in the form of a fine-dining menu and was hired.
      • Candidate crafted his resume to look like Google search results for the "perfect candidate." Candidate ultimately wasn't hired, but was considered.

      Make a good first impression

      With unemployment at 8.2 percent and the economy in low gear, looking for a job is harder than ever. That means making a great first impression.

      "One-in-five HR managers reported that they spend less than 30 seconds reviewing applications and around 40 percent spend less than one minute," said Rosemary Haefner, Vice President of Human Resources at CareerBuilder. "It's a highly competitive job market and you have to clearly demonstrate how your unique skills and experience are relevant and beneficial to that particular employer. We see more people using infographics, QR codes and visual resumes to package their information in new and interesting ways."

      According to the surveyed hiring managers, there are some simple dos and don'ts when it comes to crafting a resume. For starters, there should be zero typos. Don't copy and paste wording from the job posting. And don't list an inappropriate or unprofessional email address.

      Make your resume short and concise. It should not be more than two pages long. Make sure it lists your accomplishments and skills and how you used them in a previous position.

      The folks at Careerbuilder.com see lots of resumes. Most are bland and boring. A few are disasters and even fewer are inspiring.The right resume can get...

      Ten Best New Sedans Under $25,000

      Some on the list start at under $14,000

      Car shoppers can be classified in different groups. Some are in search of luxury, some want economy.

      Is it possible to find a car that offers both? It is if you are willing to spend up to $25,000 on a new car. In fact, there are many new sedans in that price range that offer a good ride, handling, fuel efficiency, features, value and yes, even a touch of luxury.

      How do you know where to start looking? The editors at Kelley Blue Book recently rated the top 10 sedans under $25,000.

      The list includes not only the longtime segment leaders one may expect to see, but also recommendations for lesser-known models and all-new nameplates with which car shoppers may not be as familiar.

      1. Volkswagen Passat – Starting price $20,765
      2. Mazda MAZDA3 – Starting price $15,995
      3. Honda Civic – Starting price $15,575
      4. Hyundai Sonota – Starting price $20,570
      5. Buick Verano – Starting price $23,470
      6. Honda Accord – Starting price $22,150
      7. Ford Fiesta – Starting price $13,995
      8. Toyota Camry – Starting price $22,715
      9. Hyundai Elantra – Starting price $16,120
      10. Subaru Legacy – Starting price $20,745

      The variety of features and special trim available on these new sedans include all-wheel drive, achieving up to 40 mpg, tech-savvy features and infotainment systems, refined interiors, sporty ride and handling, quality, and reliability.

      Base prices start as low as $13,995 and top out at $23,470, providing a broad range of affordable price points accessible for a large number of car shoppers.

      Car shoppers can be classified in different groups. Some are in search of luxury, some want economy.Is it possible to find a car that offers both? It is ...

      Troxel Recalls Flexible Flyer Swing Sets

      A problem with the see-saw seats poses a fall hazard

      The Troxel Company, of Moscow, TN, is recalling about 100,500 Flexible Flyer Swing Sets in the U.S and 4,900 in Canada. 

      The see-saw seats can break away from the bolt fasteners during use, posing a fall hazard.

      The Flexible Flyer swing sets come in 11 different models each with a see saw attachment along with swings, bars or a slide. The model number can be found on a sticker located underneath the center of the top bar of each swing set unit. Model numbers and names are listed below:

      Model #Model Name
      41575BIG ADVENTURE
      41577FUN FANTASTIC
      41578FUN FANTASTIC II
      42003BACKYARD FLYER
      42013BACKYARD FUN
      42023BACKYARD SWINGIN' FUN
      42030WINDSOR II
      42124FUN TIME
      42126FANTASTIC PLAYGROUND
      42544TRIPLE FUN
      42560TRIPLE FUN II

      Troxel has received 1,232 reports of see saw seats breaking, resulting in thirteen injuries to young children that included bumps, bruises and lacerations. 

      The swing sets, manufactured in the U.S, were sold by Walmart, Toys R Us, Academy and at other specialty stores, and online retailers from December 2011 through May 2012 for between $130 and $280. 

      Consumers should stop using the see-saws immediately and contact Troxel to receive a free repair kit. 

      For additional information, contact Troxel at (888) 770-7060 between the hours of 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. CT Monday through Friday or visit the company's Website.

      The Troxel Company, of Moscow, TN, is recalling about 100,500 Flexible Flyer Swing Sets in the U.S and 4,900 in Canada....

      Bosch Recalls SkilSaw Miter Saws

      A problem with the lower guard poses a laceration hazard

      Robert Bosch Tool Corporation of Mount Prospect, IL, is recalling 22,149 SkilSaw miter saws. The lower guard can break and contact the blade during use, posing a laceration hazard to users. 

      The recalled product is the SkilSaw(r) 10-inch compound miter saw, with model number 3316 and date codes 111, 112, 201, 202, 203 or 204. The model number and date code are on the lower right side of the nameplate located on the motor housing. The SkilSaw logo appears at the top of the upper blade guard and on the dust collection bag. 

      The firm has received no reports of incidents or injuries. 

      The saws, manufactured in China, were sold at Lowe's Home Centers nationwide and OC Tanner from January 2012 to April 2012. 

      Consumers should immediately stop using the miter saw and contact Robert Bosch Tool Corporation for a free lower guard replacement kit. 

      For additional information, contact the firm toll-free at (888) 727-6109 between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. CT Monday through Friday, or visit the firm's Website.

      Robert Bosch Tool Corporation of Mount Prospect, IL, is recalling 22,149 SkilSaw miter saws. The lower guard can break and contact the blade during use, po...

      Chevy 'Changes Rules' To Entice Buyers

      Automaker will allow buyers to return vehicles within 30 to 60 days

      While the latest surveys show consumer confidence may be lagging into the summer months, General Motors says its Chevrolet division has plenty of confidence and is willing to put it on display in the showroom.

      The automaker is introducing what it calls its “Chevy Confidence” program, which appears to be changing the rules, going where few caremakers have gone before.

      Under the program, buyers will be able to return their Chevrolet within 30 to 60 days if they drive fewer than 4,000 miles and have no damage. “Love it or return it,” GM declared in a press release.

      The return policy applies on both 2012 and 2013 models.

      Negotiating the purchase of a new Chevrolet under the plan might also be a different experience. GM says it has applied special “no haggle” pricing on new 2012 models.

      Carmax pioneered the “no haggle” price approach and some consumers prefer it. Others, however, would rather try to drive the best bargain possible with the sales person.

      The Chevy Confidence program began this week and will run through September 4, GM said.

      Defensive move?

      The promotion applies to new 2012 models as dealers prepare to make way for the 2013 models. Business Week points out the promotion has popped up precisely at the time Chevy has lost ground to Toyota, which seems to have regained its mojo in the wake of 2010's safety recalls and 2011's earthquake and tsunami.

      Sales of the Chevy Cruze compact, the brand's popular small car, fell 7.4 percent in the first half of 2012, perhaps because of falling gasoline prices. For 2012 Chevy is introducing a new subcompact, the Spark, while redesigning the Malibu.

      TheWall Street Journal reports Chevrolet's new program is a stark departure from years past, when carmakers slashed prices and added other incentives in an effort to clear the showroom for the new model year. These promotions usually afforded value-conscious consumers the biggest savings.

      But those big savings for consumers tended to cut into automakers' profits. The Journal says Chevy's promotion is designed to entice consumers while still protecting the bottom line.

      While the latest surveys show consumer confidence may be lagging into the summer months, General Motors says its Chevrolet division has plenty of confidenc...

      Public Citizen: Medical Malpractice Payments Hit Record Low Last Year

      The consumer watchdog says this discredits claims that medical malpractice payments account for soaring health care costs

      Medical malpractice payments in 2011 were at their lowest level on record by almost any measure, discrediting the claim that these payments are to blame for the skyrocketing cost of health care, according to a new report from Public Citizen

      In the report, "Malpractice Payments Sunk to Record Low in 2011," Public Citizen analyzed data from the federal government's National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB), which tracks malpractice payments on behalf of doctors. 

      The report found that the number of medical payments and the inflation-adjusted value of such payments were at their lowest levels since 1991, the earliest full year for which such data are available. 

      "Contrary to the promises of policymakers and leaders of physician groups who have spent the past two decades championing efforts to restrict patients' legal rights, there is no evidence that patients receive any benefits in exchange for ceding their legal remedies," said Taylor Lincoln, research director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch division and author of the report. "Instead, malpractice victims and ordinary patients end up absorbing significant costs for uncompensated medical errors." 

      Report findings 

      The report found that in 2011: 

      • The number of malpractice payments on behalf of doctors (9,758 payments) was the lowest on record, having fallen for the eighth consecutive year;
      • The inflation-adjusted value of payments made on behalf of doctors ($3.2 billion) was the lowest on record. In actual dollars, payments have fallen for eight straight years and are at their lowest level since 1998;
      • The average size of medical malpractice payments (about $327,000) declined from previous years;
      • Four-fifths of medical malpractice awards compensated for death, catastrophic harm or serious permanent injuries -- disproving the claim that medical malpractice litigation is "frivolous";
      • Medical malpractice payments' share of the nation's health care cost was the lowest on record (just 0.12 percent of all national health care costs); and
      • Health care costs rose again amid the decline in medical malpractice litigation --  debunking the claim that the litigation is tied to rising health care costs or that patients should expect dividends from reduced litigation. 

      The total costs for medical malpractice litigation for doctors and hospitals (as measured by liability insurance premiums paid) have fallen to their lowest level in two decades. They amounted to 0.36 percent of national health care expenditures in 2010, the most recent year for which such data is available. 

      Why the decline? 

      There is no evidence that the decline in medical malpractice payments is due to safer medical care, the report said. Studies routinely conclude that there is a high prevalence of medical errors. For instance, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that more than 700,000 Medicare patients suffer serious injuries from avoidable errors every year, with fatal outcomes for 80,000 of these people. 

      In contrast to the hundreds of thousands of injuries (and tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths) that major studies attribute annually to medical mistakes, fewer than 10,000 medical malpractice payments were made on behalf of doctors in 2011, demonstrating that the vast majority of patients injured by medical malpractice are not being compensated, the report found. 

      "When victims of malpractice do not receive compensation, their future medical costs must be borne by somebody: the victims themselves, their insurance companies or the taxpayers," said Christine Hines, consumer and civil justice counsel with Public Citizen. "The juxtaposition of declining medical malpractice payments and skyrocketing medical costs exposes bogus claims that reducing patients' access to legal remedies will reduce costs. The only sensible response is for policymakers and physicians to dedicate themselves to pursuing patient safety to prevent these injuries and deaths with the same vigor with which they have previously sought to restrict patients' legal rights." 

      You can read the full report here.

      Medical malpractice payments in 2011 were at their lowest level on record by almost any measure, discrediting the claim that these payments are to blame fo...

      Chemical Touted As Replacement for Visits To The Dentist

      Keep 32 destroys bacteria that cause cavities, researchers claim

      Consumers spend billions of dollars each year on dental care. Researchers at Yale and the University of Chile say they have developed a chemical that could eliminate most of that spending.

      The chemical is code named Keep 32, named for the 32 teeth in the human mouth. By adding it to toothpaste or mouthwash, the researchers say, it will kill the bacteria that cause cavities and keep a mouth clear of bacteria for several hours.

      Keep 32 is said to target streptococcus mutans, a type of bacterium that lives in your mouth. The germs interact with sugar, turning it into a form of acid that eats away at tooth enamel, causing cavities.

      The researchers say the chemical has been tested for at least seven years. It has now entered human clinical trials and, assuming it clears those with no adverse side effects, could become an additive in oral care products within two years.

      Plenty of skeptics

      It's one of those stories that just sounds too good to be true, and consumers posting comments on stories about Keep 32 appear to be highly skeptical. To many it has the ring of those Web-based urban legends that make the rounds every so often.

      “They were testing something like this 20 years ago and was developed by University of Florida,” wrote ElDubs, of Florida, in an Internet post. “Either they got bought up by the tooth fixing industry of it was deemed unsafe for long term use. I won't be a first adopter.”

      “Yeah right, that sounds like a good idea,” wrote David, of Kent in the UK. “Forget the underlying cause of tooth decay is poor nutrition, and instead, introduce another poison into our bodies that will no doubt be proven to cause cancer in ten years time.”

      Despite the skepticism, the news of the cavity-preventing substance is being reported around the world. 

      The researchers, meanwhile, say the chemical has enormous potential, not only as an oral care product but as a food additive. They say they are currently in talks with investors and hope to license the patent to a major U.S. consumer products company.

      Consumers spend billions of dollars each year on dental care. Researchers at Yale and the University of Chile say they have developed a chemical that could...

      Airlines Turn In Mixed On-Time Performance for May

      The May showing improved over the past year, but was worse than April’s

      The nation’s largest airlines posted an on-time arrival rate of 83.4 percent in May – better than the 77.1 percent rate of a year earlier, but slightly worse that the April rate of  86.3 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report. 

      Airlines also reported one tarmac delay of more than three hours on a domestic flight and one tarmac delay of more than four hours on an international flight in May. 

      The larger U.S. airlines have been required to file complete reports on their long tarmac delays for domestic flights since October 2008. Under a new rule that took effect Aug. 23, 2011, all U.S. and foreign airlines operating at least one aircraft with 30 or more passenger seats must report lengthy tarmac delays at U.S. airports. 

      In addition. carriers operating international flights may not allow tarmac delays at U.S. airports to last longer than four hours. There is a separate three-hour limit on tarmac delays involving domestic flights, which went into effect in April 2010. 

      Exceptions to the time limits for both domestic and international flights are allowed only for safety, security or air traffic control-related reasons. 

      The report also includes data on cancellations, chronically delayed flights, and the causes of flight delays along with information on consumer service, disability, and discrimination complaints. There’s also a section on incidents involving pets traveling by air. 

      Cancellations 

      • During May, the carriers canceled 0.9 percent of their scheduled domestic flights, compared with May 2011’s 2.1 percent cancellation rate and April 2012’s 1.0 percent. 

      Chronically delayed flights 

      • At the end of May, there was one flight that was chronically delayed -- more than 30  minutes late more than 50 percent of the time -- for two consecutive months. No flights were chronically delayed for three consecutive months or more. 

      Causes of flight delays 

      • In May, the carriers filing on-time performance data reported that 4.75 percent of their flights were delayed by aviation system delays, compared with 3.56 percent in April; 5.56 percent by late-arriving aircraft, versus 4.59 percent in April; 4.59 percent by factors within the airline’s control, such as maintenance or crew problems, compared with 4.04 percent in April; 0.58 percent by extreme weather, compared with 0.39 percent in April; and 0.03 percent for security reasons, compared with 0.02 percent in April. 
      • Weather is a factor in both the extreme-weather category and the aviation-system category. This includes delays due to the re-routing of flights by DOT’s Federal Aviation Administration in consultation with the carriers involved. Weather is also a factor in delays attributed to late-arriving aircraft, although airlines do not report specific causes in that category. 
      • Data also show the percentage of late flights delayed by weather, including those reported in either the category of extreme weather or included in National Aviation System delays. In May, 38.53 percent of late flights were delayed by weather, down 9.23 percent from May 2011, when 42.45 percent of late flights were delayed by weather, and up 35.05 percent from April when 28.53 percent of late flights were delayed by weather. 

      Mishandled baggage 

      • The U.S. carriers reporting flight delays and mishandled baggage data posted a mishandled baggage rate of 2.77 reports per 1,000 passengers in May, better than May 2011’s rate of 3.54 but up from April 2012’s rate of 2.63. 

      Incidents involving pets 

      • In May, carriers reported four incidents involving the loss, death, or injury of pets while traveling by air -- up from both the two reports filed in May 2011 and three this past April. May’s incidents involved three pet deaths and one pet injury. 

      Complaints about airline service 

      • In May, the Department received 1,260 complaints about airline service -- up 18.3 percent from the 1,065 complaints received in May 2011, and up 18.0 percent from the 1,068 complaints filed in April 2012. 

      Complaints about treatment of disabled passengers 

      • The report also contains a tabulation of complaints filed with DOT in May against airlines regarding the treatment of passengers with disabilities. The Department received a total of 68 disability-related complaints in May 2012, compared with 58 filed in May 2011 and 65 filed in April 2012. 

      Complaints about discrimination 

      • In May, there were five complaints alleging discrimination by airlines due to factors other than disability such as race, religion, national origin or sex. There  were 10 in May 2011 and 14 received in April 2012.  

      Consumers may file complaints in writing with the Aviation Consumer Protection Division, U.S. Department of Transportation, C-75, W96-432, 1200 New Jersey Ave. SE, Washington, DC 20590; by voice mail at (202) 366-2220 or by TTY at (202) 366-0511; or on the Web

      Consumers who want on-time performance data for specific flights should call their airline’s reservation number or their travel agent. This information is available on the computerized reservation systems used by these agents. The information is also available on the appropriate carrier’s Website.

      The nation’s largest airlines posted an on-time arrival rate of 83.4 percent in May – better than the 77.1 percent rate of a year earlier, but slightly wor...

      Consumer Credit Surges In May

      Consumers increase credit card charges the most since 2007

      Consumers tapped into credit in a big way during May, according to the latest report by the U.S. Federal Reserve. Credit use rose by $17.12 billion, the most in five months.

      Is this good news or bad? Economists might say it is good since more consumer spending is always considered a tonic for a lagging economy. But if consumers tapped into credit just to pay their bills that month, that's not so good.

      Consumer confidence?

      An initial review of the data suggests the big increase in credit spending may have been a sign of growing consumer confidence. Revolving credit, a segment that includes credit cards, rose by $8.01 billion.

      That increase in credit card use was the largest since November 2007, the month before the economy slipped into a recession. A year later, when the U.S. economy seized up in the credit crisis of 2008, credit began to dry up and consumers began paying down their credit card balances.

      Gradually consumers have begun using their plastic again with credit card spending rising since mid 2011. May's surge in the use of plastic may indeed be a healthy sign if consumers used their cards for non-necessities like restaurant meals and vacations. If they used their cards more for groceries and gasoline, it might not be such a good sign.

      While credit card usage scored a healthy gain, so did non-revolving credit, which includes things like car and education loans. That sector was up $9.1 billion.

      Economists generally greeted the report with optimism, suggesting it is a sign that credit channels, which narrowed significantly after 2008, are widening once again. Though the data do not include mortgage debt, a few economists expressed the hope that general increases in credit flows would eventually make their way to the mortgage market, helping the housing market recover.

      Consumers tapped into credit in a big way during May, according to the latest report by the U.S. Federal Reserve. Credit use rose by $17.12 billion, the mo...

      Considering A Hip Replacement? Don’t Rush Into It

      NIHSeniorHealth.gov has information you should consider

      Hip replacements for seniors are fairly commonplace these days. But that doesn’t mean there’s anything routine about the procedure. 

      Anyone considering the operation should be armed with as much information as possible -- including reasons to have the surgery, how to prepare for and recover from it, and ways to avoid complications. All of that – and more – is available at NIHSeniorHealth.gov, the senior-friendly health and wellness Website from the National Institutes of Health. 

      Consumers can visit the Webpage to learn more about this surgery, which occurs most often among people between 60 and 80 years of age. 

      Why do it? 

      The most common reason for hip replacement surgery is pain and disability from osteoarthritis of the hip, which occurs when cartilage in the joint breaks down, causing bones to rub together. 

      “Osteoarthritis of the hip can lead to severe pain and stiffness, impairing one’s ability to function normally,” said Stephen I. Katz, M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), which developed the topic for NIHSeniorHealth. 

      Although hip replacement is typically a highly successful procedure and an effective treatment for arthritis, the decision to have the surgery is not always an easy one, especially for older adults. “Surgery of any type involves risk, and older adults might understandably be hesitant about having hip replacement surgery,” says Dr. Katz. “But if less invasive treatments such as medications and physical therapy have not helped, hip replacement has proven to be an effective way to relieve pain and restore function.” 

      Preparing for the procedure 

      Adequate preparation for surgery and appropriate arrangements for an extended recovery are critical to a successful outcome, and the new topic includes helpful details about the importance of physical therapy and arranging for assistance after surgery. 

      “Older adults considering hip replacement surgery would benefit greatly from reading this new addition to NIHSeniorHealth,” adds Richard J. Hodes, M.D., director of the National Institute on Aging (NIA), which collaborated on the topic with NIAMS. “It is an excellent source of information about the surgery itself, as well as the pre- and post-operative phases of the procedure.”

      Anyone considering the operation should be armed with as much information as possible -- including reasons to have the surgery, how to prepare for and reco...

      Pop-Ups On Your Smartphone May Be Coming From Apps

      Security firm says guidelines for developers needed to protect consumers

      Remember when pop-up ads used to fill your computer screen and slow your PC? The same thing may be happening to your smartphone.

      Where are they coming from? A mobile security firm is pointing a finger at some of those apps you're downloading. Many of these apps are running ads from rogue ad networks.

      They can even change settings on your device and steal your contacts without you ever being the wiser.

      Where the action is

      “Mobile has become the dominant computing platform in an incredibly short amount of time, changing the lives of people around the world and creating a booming economy for businesses and app developers,” said Kevin Mahaffey, co-founder of Lookout, a mobile security firm based in San Francisco.

      Based on Lookout’s analysis, more than five percent of free apps have included aggressive ad networks, affecting millions of people. When you download one of these apps to your phone, you may be downloading a lot of other stuff you don't want. However, you're in the dark.

      Lookout says you shouldn't be. The company has proposed a set of guidelines for both developers and ad networks to follow to increase transparency and protect consumers personal information. The idea is not to stifle advertising, since after all, that's what makes so many free apps free.

      One set of rules

      “People want to have confidence and trust that they’re not being compromised while on devices that have access to their most personal information,” said Jules Polonetsky, Director and Co-Chair of the Future of Privacy Forum. “For many years, desktop users were plagued with programs that triggered pop-ups, added unwanted toolbars, and changed homepages. These guidelines make it clear, while mobile marketing business models and practices are still developing, some practices are out-of-bounds. That’s good news for both consumers and responsible businesses.”

      The Lookout guidelines cover requirements and suggested best practices in transparency and clarity of data collection; individual control over information collected; ad delivery and display behavior; collection and retention of personal or device-specific data; and secure transport of sensitive data.

      Mahaffey says mobile ads aren't going away but if developers all follow a set of clear guidelines, the system will work for app developers, ad networks and consumers.

      “In order for these great benefits to continue, everyone in the mobile ecosystem must respect individual privacy choices and hold user experience in the highest regard,” he said.

      Remember when pop-up ads used to fill your computer screen and slow your PC? The same thing may be happening to your smartphone.Where are they coming fro...

      Tax Lien Sales: Elderly Are Losing Homes While Investors Reap Profits

      NCLC report documents a growing national problem, urges states to reform tax laws

      Outdated state laws that permit local governments to sell property through a tax lien foreclosure process if the owner falls behind on property taxes (owing as little as $400) are fueling a second nationwide foreclosure calamity, according to a report from the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC). 

      “Homeowners throughout the nation, particularly elderly and people with cognitive challenges, have lost or stand to lose family homes along with long-term equity which may represent their sole savings and security for retirement,” said National Consumer Law Center Attorney John Rao and author of The Other Foreclosure Crisis: Property Tax Lien Sales. “Our report is a wake-up call for states to reform tax sale laws to keep speculators from reaping huge windfalls at the expense of fragile citizens while still ensuring local governments receive much needed tax revenue.”  

      Elderly and disabled most at risk 

      A tax lien sale may be started over nonpayment of a small delinquent tax bill for a few hundred dollars, and then sold at a tax lien sale for simply the back taxes owed on the property. 

      If the homeowner fails to buy back the property, the purchaser acquires the home for very little. Thus a $200,000 home might be sold for as little as $1,200, and then resold for a huge profit. 

      Currently, annual tax lien sales total approximately $15 billion nationwide and are on the rise due to the weak job market, depressed home values, and an increase in mortgage foreclosures. Florida had nearly $2 billion in back tax liens and sold $1.8 billion of these liens in 2009. A county in Mississippi doubled the number of properties in its annual tax sale in recent years. Other states at risk include Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Texas. 

      Homeowners most vulnerable are those who have fallen into default because they are incapable of managing their financial affairs, such as individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s, dementia, or other cognitive disorders. 

      And one government study found that last year property tax foreclosures in New York City were highly concentrated among low income communities with large black and Latino populations -- groups also targeted by subprime mortgage lenders.

      Tax lien sales may increase the number of  vacant and neglected properties, further eroding tax revenue and destabilizing entire communities. 

      Windfall for investors 

      Individual tax sale purchasers and large investment companies, including Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase, have used the tax sale process as a profit center. Tax liens can yield an incredible rate of return, as high as up to 50 percent. 

      Many state laws permit tax lien purchasers to charge homeowners extremely high interest rates and fees to redeem their property in order avoid foreclosure. (For example, redemption penalties in Georgia, Iowa, Mississippi, New Jersey and Texas all exceed 20 percent). For these reasons, tax lien sales are often marketed as “get-rich quick” schemes on Websites. 

      Investors take advantage of the fact that the tax sale process is  arcane and rarely understood by homeowners. And states do little to inform homeowners about steps they can take to avoid foreclosure. Very few states have enacted procedures to protect owners’ equity interests or to avoid windfalls to purchasers, and almost no states have updated tax lien laws to reflect current economic conditions or to ensure that proper safeguards exist to avoid unnecessary loss of homeownership.  

      Recommendations 

      The NCLC report offers the following recommendations that state and municipalities could adopt, which reflect the goals of preserving homeownership and ensuring prompt payment of local taxes: 

      • Implement redemption payment programs. Local tax offices should collect redemption payments to eliminate the possibility that an unscrupulous purchaser may thwart the owner’s attempt to redeem. The local tax office should accept partial and installment payments.
      • Adequate notice should be given at every stage of the tax sale process. Notifications should be used as a tool to avoid loss of homeownership. Comprehensive notices should use plain language, include information about tax exemptions, abatements and repayment plans, and note the consequences of each stage of the tax sale process. 
      • Provide detailed notice of redemption rights. The notice should give all the essential details on how the redemption right can be exercised, including the name and address to which the homeowner can remit payment, itemized costs and the deadline for the redemption payment. 

      “The consequences of homeowners not understanding their rights or the process of a tax lien sale is devastating for individuals, families, and communities,” says Rao.  “To date, states have done very little. Will legislators and policymakers now reform their laws to help keep elderly and other homeowners from losing their homes due to a small property tax delinquency? We certainly hope so and the sooner they act to head off this swelling problem, the better.” 

      Outdated state laws that permit local governments to sell property through a tax lien foreclosure process if the owner falls behind on property taxes (owin...

      Reports: Google Set to Pay Biggest Fine in FTC History

      Search giant reportedly will pay $22 million to settle privacy violation charges

      For being such a big company, Google certainly makes a lot of "mistakes," which often have the effect of invading consumers' privacy.  

      One of its latest supposed blunders was disregarding consumers' privacy settings on the Safari Web browser used on Apple products. Google insists it never meant to bypass those settings and place cookies on users' machines but is nevertheless said to be ready to pay $22.5 million in penalties to settle an inquiry by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

      While this would be the biggest fine ever levied by the FTC, it is just a few hours worth of revenue to Google but it's another black eye for a company that has at best a spotted record of protecting consumers' privacy.

      The report of a settlement comes from The Wall Street Journal, which uncovered and disclosed Google's misdeeds earlier this year. After the Journal told Google about its discovery, Google said it immediately stopped the practice. 

      Of course, Google never apologizes for anything and usually insists its privacy violations were inadvertent, accidential, unintentional and so forth. Which, of course, doesn't mean they didn't happen.

      Wi-Spy

      You might recall back in 2010, when Google admitted invaded Wi-Fi networks and downloaded private data from those networks as its fleet of gadget-encumbered cars crept through neighborhoods around the world, collecting information for its street-mapping project.

      That, Google said, was inadvertent but in April, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fined Google $25,000, saying it was obstructing the FCC's investigation of the affair. Google said it didn't mean to.

      Last year, in a settlement with the Justice Department, Google agreed to pay a $500 million penalty for promoting and advertising unlawful sales of prescription drugs through its ubiquitous AdWords program. It said its role in establishing a global network of illicit drug sites was unintentional.

      Then there was Buzz, Google's ill-fated social network Google. The FTC -- and many others -- complained that Google deceptively used information it had already collected to establish accounts for consumers and string together data about them. Google said it was accidental and promised -- through a consent decree -- not to do it again. It also agreed to 20 years of privacy audits and said it would strengthen its privacy protection practices.

      Google+

      Though the Buzz didn't last long, Google is currently having another go at the social media game, with Google+, which sort of cobbles together many of the settings and much of the data from other Google sites and services. Sound familiar?

      This time around, Google is hoping to stay out of trouble. It modified its privacy policy in advance of cranking up Google+. The changes make it harder for users to stay anonymous and also make it harder -- much harder -- for individuals to keep their private and public lives separate, something that's quite important to people whose jobs put them and their families at risk of dirty tricks or worse. That was probably inadvertent though, don't you think?

      However, Google is still operating under terms of the consent decree it signed after the Buzz affair and the FTC could conceivably impose additional penalties if the Safari escapade is deemed a violation of the decree.

      The $22.5 million penalty has not been officially announced and the Journal's report said the settlement is still being negotiated. Once Google agrees to it, it must still be approved by the FTC commissioners.

      For being such a big company, Google certainly makes a lot of "mistakes," which often have the effect of invading consumers' privacy. ...

      Payday Lenders Fight Back Against Consumer Protection Laws

      Lenders not ready to give up on high-profit payday loans

      Most people have needed a  quick loan at some point in their life, and going to a family member, close friend, bank or credit union to get financial assistance is usually the norm.

      But some consumers choose payday loan companies to get help, and oftentimes they find themselves worse off for it.

      It's easy to spot these loan companies, as there's a countless number of commercials which promise hard cash within 24 hours. The advertisements focus on solving the short-term financial challenges of the consumer, while obscuring the long-term challenges many face when trying to pay back the loan.

      Here's how payday loans works: Companies like Ace Cash Express, and Advance America give a small short term loan, usually issued through a cashier’s check. The borrower will then postdate a check to the lender for the borrowed amount plus an interest fee. The lender then agrees not to cash the check until the borrower's payday.

      Sky-high interest

      Sounds simple, right? But check out these interest rates which were common before some very much-needed legislation was passed:

      Consumers had to pay 911 percent for a one-week loan, 456 percent for a two-week loan, and 212 percent for a one-month loan, according to a loan fact sheet.

      One would assume that payday loan companies sound way too fishy for most consumers to use, but surprisingly, many people feel otherwise.

      According to a 2008 report by the credit union Community Financial, payday advance companies loaned $45 billion in credit in 2007. The majority of those customers were and still are, people who are underbanked and have lower-income.

      Consumers may be catching on, though. ConsumerAffairs conducted a computerized sentiment analysis of more than 1.8 million comments posted to social Web sites over the last year and found net positive sentiments running as high of 72% a year ago, dropping sharply to 51% this month. 

      Looking at what people say about payday loans, consumers agree the loans are "fast," which is a plus, while a small but perhaps growing number recognize that the loans are "dangerous" and "expensive" -- both negatives.

      In fact it's hard to find anyone who'll say anything good about payday loans, other than people who need money fast. Consumer watchdog organizations and politicians routinely accuse payday companies of taking advantage of those who are in no financial position to take out more reasonable loans.

      However, loan companies say they are being unfairly targeted because they are providing an essential service for those people who need cash to get them through until their next pay check. They point out that, in most cases, no one else is willing to lend to their customers and that, in an emergency, even an expensive loan is better than none.

      The loan companies also note that most of their customers have poor credit ratings, or no credit rating at all.  Many have no bank account and basically live from one paycheck to another. By any measure, they are a high-risk group and, since interest rates are based largely on perceived risk, it's unrealistic to argue for lower rates.

      Patchwork protection

      There has been some legislation passed in favor of the consumer. There are currently 17 states in the U.S., including the District of Columbia, that make it illegal for loan companies to charge triple-digit interest rates. Lenders can now only charge a certain percentage according to each state's limit amount.

      Legislation has also made it illegal for lenders to hide high fees in lengthy hard-to-understand contract agreements. Companies have to now list all fees  in plain language.

      In  2006, President George W. Bush signed a law making it unlawful for lenders to charge military families over a 36 percent interest rate after the Defense Department said predatory lending was affecting the nation's military readiness.

      But those laws don't mean consumers are safe from high-interest loans and aggressive collection strategies.

      "I got threatening phone calls from this company saying that I owe $545 for a loan that I never got," said Terri about Ace Cash in a ConsumerAffairs posting.

      "He threatened me with my job, my SS card and my bank saying that we were going to court if I didn't pay. I sent them $200 so far and I shouldn't pay anymore. I did not receive the money and I have a bank statement to prove it. I just want this to stop."

      Cashjar.com doesn't fare any better with consumers.

      "I had an extreme emergency and needed money fast," said Linda of Temple Hills, Md. "I went online and found CashJar's advertisement. I applied for a $1,000 loan. CashJar loaned me the money. In haste, I read the terms but did not fully understand them. In summary, so far, CashJar has taken $1,500 out of my account. By the end of this, I will have paid $3,100.00 back on a $1,000 loan."

      Going backwards in Pennsylvania?

      Luckily, Linda doesn't live in Pennsylvania, as lobbyists in that state are working to overturn legislation that regulates payday loan companies, and the interest they're able to charge.

      In retaliation, consumer groups fought back against a bill that would remove current guidelines for lenders.  If industry lobbyists are successful and the new bill passes, it would raise admissible interest rates to 369 percent. Pennsylvania currently has an interest rate cap of 24 percent.

      Deep trouble

      Many who obtain a payday loan will find themselves in deep trouble, because they borrow additional amounts of money to pay back the original loan. According to the watchdog group Center for Responsible Lending, repeated payday loans account for $3.5 billion in fees every year.

      In addition, the average borrower has nine loans open per year, as many people remain in constant struggle trying to catch up with payments. This is especially difficult as most of these consumers were cash-strapped in the first place.

      The average loan recipient stays in a payday loan for 212 days of any given year, according to the watch group’s findings.

      And if Pennsylvania lobbyists get their way, loan companies will once again be able to charge whatever interest they want to consumers. State representatives who oppose the pending bill say it's a combination of bad politics and hidden agendas.

      "There is an army of lobbyists for the payday lenders in Harrisburg," said attorney Kerry Smith at a speaking engagement in Philadelphia. 

      Lance Haver, who is Philadelphia's Director of Consumer Affairs, put it a little more bluntly: "If there were a truth-in-politics-law, they'd have to say, 'We're about to pass a bill that will screw every poor person even more.'"

      Fighting vigorously

      In 2010, Financial Service Centers of America, along with other loan companies, stormed Capitol Hill to protest the interest regulations put in place just a few years prior. Since those parameters were set by the U.S. government, lenders have been fighting vigorously to have them removed.

      Payday lenders have also starting lending online, in hopes that interest laws would no longer apply. But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled recently that the regulations are still in effect, whether money is borrowed from a physical location or online.

      Consumers should really do their best to avoid using payday loan companies. But if you do have to use one, it should only be as a rock-bottom-last-resort.

      One should always keep in mind that loan companies don't have your best interest in mind, and the last thing they want to do is get you out of a bad financial situation.

      Remember, these companies wouldn't lend you money if they didn't see a large profit for themselves down the road. So be very careful.

      Most people have needed some cash loaned to them at some point in their life, and going to a family member, close friend or a bank to get financial assista...