Current Events in July 2012

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    Complaints Mount About Pet Treats From China

    Suit against Purina gains class-action status

    Pet food maker Nestle Purina now faces a class-action suit by pet owners in eight states who say the company's jerky treats killed or sickened their pets.

    Yet the product remains on store shelves and NBC News reports the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is unable to pinpoint a contaminant that could be causing the problem.

    The original lawsuit was filed back in April by an Illinois pet owner. Six other pet owners have now joined it and are also suing the retail stores that carry the product, Walmart, Costco and Target.


    Consumers writing to ConsumerAffairs continue to report adverse results when they feed Waggin' Train treats to their pets.

    “I began to notice things just weren't right with her,” Dennis, of Bellport, NY, wrote about his pug in a ConsumerAffairs post. “She had become lethargic, had loose bowel movements, and seemed to drink a lot more water than usual. When she started to not want to eat her food, I knew something was wrong. I cook everything she eats, and give her no store bought dog food, so the Wagg'n Train treats were the only thing she was given besides freshly prepared foods.”

    Steve, of Franklin Park, NJ, reports he had purchased Waggin' Treats for years and that his dogs loved them. But last month, his Westie suddenly got sick after eating them and died.

    “My regular vet ran several logical tests – but came up clueless as to what was causing his lethargy, lack of eating, and vomiting,” Steve wrote. “He thought it was colitis – so we tried antibiotics. That made my “Max” feel no better – even worse. He was then tested for Addison’s Disease. Nope – that was not it, as well.”

    Common link?

    Both Steve and Dennis noted that they prepared their dog's food themselves, which might suggest the animals has particularly sensitive digestive systems. Whether that's a possible contributing factor is unknown.

    Since last November the FDA has been cautioning pet owners about chicken jerky products for dogs. The FDA notes that it has seen an increase in the number of complaints about the products, but as yet it does not know why.

    “FDA is advising consumers who choose to feed their dogs chicken jerky products to watch their dogs closely for any or all of the following signs that may occur within hours to days of feeding the products: decreased appetite; decreased activity; vomiting; diarrhea, sometimes with blood; increased water consumption and/or increased urination,” the FDA says on its site. “If the dog shows any of these signs, stop feeding the chicken jerky product. Owners should consult their veterinarian if signs are severe or persist for more than 24 hours.”

    The FDA says the illnesses may not be associated with the jerky treats and that it continues to investigate the origin of the animals' sickness.

    Pet food maker Nestle Purina now faces a class-action suit by pet owners in eight states who say the company's jerky treats killed or sickened their pets....

    Maid Service or New Vacuum? Both Can Present Problems

    Maids aren't always merry and finding the right vacuum isn't easy

    Some household chores can be put off for a short while.

    Pulling out the last bit of clean clothes to delay laundry another few days is normal, or letting the hedges grow another week before clipping them won't do too much harm.

    However, when it comes to cleaning your house or apartment, a consistent and steady attack is the only way to keep your home clean and free of dust and grime. But sometimes a steady cleaning attack isn't possible.

    With people being pulled in multiple directions between jobs and families, it’s easy for the household cleaning chores to be delayed or put off altogether.

    So many consumers use maid services, cleaning companies and new cleaning appliances, to help keep the dirt and clutter at bay.

    As with other consumer products and services, maid services don't always work out too well. Take Merry Maids for example. It's owned by ServiceMaster, which also owns TruGreen, American Home Shield and Terminix.

    Poor results

    Consumers rate Merry Maids

    Up in Wasilla, Alaska, a reader who calls herself "S" (but probably isn't that "S") complains that her home hasn't yet been 100 percent cleaned after using Merry Maids six times.

    "Nothing was done correctly," "S" said. "They have sent two people for 2 hours and they still couldn’t get my house cleaned. Then there were three people for 2 hours. Still not right. Floor around toilet not cleaned. Inside toilet not cleaned. Bathtub and sink not cleaned; half of kitchen done; half dusting in living room done. Carpet still had dirt all over it."

    Suzy of California also encountered problems: "Large framed puzzle had pieces knocked out and lost, so I had to throw it away after having it for 20-plus years.”

    The second time Suzy used the company, something else was also damaged and it never got repaired or paid for. "I came home to one of the set of three shower doors off the track. The cleaners either didn't see it or couldn't fix it," she said.

    Suzy called Merry Maids but nothing was done, so ConsumerAffairs placed a call to the company, but the corporate office in Tennessee failed to return calls and didn't comment.

    However we did reach a local branch of Merry Maids located in Gaithersburg, Md., and spoke to employee rep Katie about how easy it is for a dissatisfied customer to have their home re-cleaned.

    “If you have ongoing service with us we come back the next day and clean any missed areas in the home. If it’s a one-time cleaning we create a service report of the rooms, and the specific details to pay attention to before the clean. Then we come back as soon as possible. If the areas that you chose to have cleaned aren’t done right, we’ll come back until you’re happy,” she said.

    On the Merry Maids website, it indicates the company has liability coverage for items it damages, but since each location is independently owned and operated, it’s important that consumers learn how to file an insurance claim through their local Merry Maids office if something is broken, as protocols may differ from office to office.

    Some dissatisfied customers have claimed they received yet another poor cleaning when Merry Maids returned to redo the job.

    Though the company’s website guarantees that cleaners will return to your home if you call within one business day of your initial cleaning, some consumer comments suggest there may have to be a bit of toil on the part of the customer to get this promise honored.

    Sometimes the problem isn't breakage but theft, consumers claim. 

    “Merry Maids employee (s) in Conyers, Ga. location performed a very poor home cleaning job; however they cleaned us out of prescription medicine," said Jerry of Conyers. "I called the local office. The manager said owner was out of the country. When I described the problem, she said ‘Do what you have to do’ and did not call back with a solution. I am awaiting a phone. I filed a police report on missing meds.”

    The Conyers Merry Maids office failed to return our calls seeking comment.


    Consumers rate Kirby

    There are those who choose to avoid maid companies altogether, and decide to purchase an upgraded cleaning appliance or a more powerful vacuum cleaner instead.

    Kirby Vacuum Cleaners have been around forever but haven't done much to improve their popularity rating.

    Complaints about the vacuum stem from it being cumbersome and heavy to push, to salespeople making consumers feel pressured or uncomfortable when the company's in-home sales people come to call.  

    As with Merry Maids, Kirby has independent distributors who provide service, making it  difficult to know what to expect.

    Steve of Michigan had a horrific experience with a Kirby salesperson. Not only did the salesperson refuse to leave when asked, but made inappropriate comments towards Steve's wife.

    "He starts addressing my wife instead of me, stepping in between me and my wife. He keeps this up and refuses to leave until I start cussing him out, then he walks to the door and starts making a pass at my wife. At this point, I picked up the phone and called 911 because he's telling me to come outside so he can start a fight with me! I will never ever buy a Kirby," Steve vowed.

    Another consumer, Michelle, experienced both a poor user demonstration and an unusable vacuum cleaner.

    “They came in late at night, brought family members with them, laid all over couches and left little circles of dirt,” Michelle said in our phone interview about the sales team. “I have a table that seats eight, and they left dust circles under it and all over my house. They say they used good cleaning stuff [in the demo] but we don’t know if that’s the same stuff they sell.”

    Concerning the vacuum cleaner itself, which Michelle eventually bought from the salesperson, she said it was way too pricey and functioned like an old outdated appliance.

    “When I signed the papers, I didn’t realize that I was paying $3,000. I’m livid because I could have bought the Dyson Ball. It would have been lighter. I haven’t used it (The Kirby Vacuum), because it’s too heavy, doesn’t go around corners and looks like it’s from the 1950’s. It’s not sleek,” she said.

    Michelle also said after using the Kirby and not being satisfied with its weight and movement, she still made the first payment so not to damage her credit. But when she decided to return the vacuum, the company couldn’t be reached.

    “I made my first payment, because I don’t want it going on my credit. I didn’t make the second payment because I couldn’t get in touch with them. Then they call, and they lowered my credit score. Even though I made two more payments I’m still on Equifax.”

    After contacting Kirby about its return policies I was referred to the company’s website by an employee rep, which states: “The Kirby Company requires its independent distributors to adhere to any county, state or local laws or regulation pertaining to consumers’ cancellation rights.”

    Not very specific, is it?

    Michelle also stated the Kirby demonstration wasn’t much help on how to use the vacuum, because the salespeople moved extremely fast and didn’t properly show her how to remove and change the parts.

    “They took it apart very fast, but didn’t show me how to use it. You have to know how to take everything apart to make it work under your couches.”

    Although Michelle didn’t have a problem with the actual sales team, they still left a bunch of dirt rings on her floor after the demo was complete, she said.

    “The people were nice, not to say anything about their personalities, but they should clean up your house instead of leaving those little dust things,” she stated.

    Some household chores can be put off for a short while.Pulling out the last bit of clean clothes to delay laundry another few days is normal, or letting ...

    FDA Approves New Colon-Cleansing Drug for Colonoscopy Prep

    Prepopik offfers split-dosage or day-before prep

    If you have ever had a colonoscopy, you would probably agree that the worst part of it is preparing for it. 

    This may or may not make a difference, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Prepopik (sodium picosulfate, magnesium oxide and citric acid) to help cleanse the colon in adults preparing for colonoscopy. 


    One dose of Prepopik consists of two packets of powder, each dissolved in cold water and taken at separate times. Patients should take Prepopik the night before colonoscopy and the morning of colonoscopy (Split-Dose regimen). 

    If this is not possible, patients may take Prepopik in the afternoon and evening before the colonoscopy (Day-Before regimen). 

    As part of this colon-cleansing regimen, patients taking Prepopik must consume additional fluids during and after use. Additional fluid intake is also important to reduce the risk of fluid and electrolyte imbalance. 

    The most common side effects reported in adult patients taking Prepopik include nausea, headache and vomiting. 

    “The choice of a bowel cleansing regimen for colonoscopy should be based on a patient’s health and personal preferences,” says Victoria Kusiak, M.D., deputy director of the Office of Drug Evaluation III in FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “Today’s approval provides a new treatment option for patients and doctors to consider.” 

    Safe and effective 

    The safety and effectiveness of Prepopik were established in two clinical studies with about 1,200 adult patients scheduled to have a colonoscopy. Patients were randomly assigned to take the Prepopik Split-Dose regimen, the Day-Before regimen, or a control preparation consisting of polyethylene glycol plus electrolytes (PEG+E) solution and two 5-milligram bisacodyl tablets. 

    The studies were designed to measure the number of patients whose colons were cleansed successfully. In both studies, Prepopik was as effective as the control preparation in cleansing the colon. In the study in which Prepopik was administered in the Split-Dose regimen, it was superior to the control preparation in cleansing the colon. 

    In the Split-Dose regimen, Prepopik is administered on the day before colonoscopy and on the morning of colonoscopy. The control preparation of the study was administered entirely the day before colonoscopy. 

    As a condition of approval, Prepopik’s manufacturer, Parsippany, NJ-based Ferring Pharmaceuticals, must conduct studies to determine if the drug can be used safely and effectively in children.

    This may or may not make a difference, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Prepopik (sodium picosulfate, magnesium oxide and citric ac...

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      International Visitors Spending At A Record Pace

      May marks more than two years of growth in tourist outlays

      People coming to America with full wallets.

      Figures from the U.S. Department of Commerce show international visitors spent an estimated $13.9 billion on travel to, and tourism-related activities within, the United States in May. That’s $1 billion, or eight percent, more than what was spent a year earlier. 

      “The new international spending numbers mark 29 consecutive months of growth in the travel and tourism sector,” said Acting U.S. Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank. “Tourism remains a high-growth bright spot in our economy, and we’re on pace for yet another record year.” 

      The recently-released data show that purchases of travel and tourism-related goods and services by international visitors to the United States totaled $10.6 billion during May.

      These goods and services include food, lodging, recreation, gifts, entertainment, local transportation in the United States, and other items incidental to foreign travel. Fares received by U.S. carriers from international visitors also increased by more than 8 percent to $3.3 billion for the month. 

      On a record pace 

      The U.S. travel and tourism industry is on pace for a record-setting year. International visitors have spent an estimated $68.4 billion thus far in 2012 -- an increase of 12 percent from the same five-month period last year. 

      U.S residents have also spent nearly $50 billion abroad year to date -- resulting in an $18.4 billion trade surplus for travel and tourism through the first five months of 2012. 

      The challenge

      The Task Force for Travel and Competitiveness created by President Barack Obama last January charges the Secretaries of Commerce and the Interior with developing a National Strategy that lays out concrete steps to be taken in five key areas. 

      As part of those efforts, Commerce’s International Trade Administration is continuing to supply the travel and tourism industry with important data, including international arrivals to the U.S., the forecast of international travel to America for more than 30 countries, and estimates of the total impact of travel and tourism on the economy, among others.

      International visitors spent an estimated $13.9 billion on travel to, and tourism-related activities within, the United States in May, according to figures...

      Microsoft Reaches For The Clouds With Office Upgrade

      Ambitious upgrade to be released with Windows 8

      Calling it the biggest and most ambitious redesign of a software package it has ever done, Microsoft has unveiled the “customer preview” version of its new update of Microsoft Office, a widely-used suite in both homes and the workplace.

      The redesign is an abrupt departure from previous versions, in that it makes use of touch-screen features, social networking and the cloud.

      “We are taking bold steps at Microsoft,” said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. “The new, modern Office will deliver unparalleled productivity and flexibility for both consumers and business customers. It is a cloud service and will fully light-up when paired with Windows 8.”

      When running on Windows 8, Microsoft says Office will function with touch, as well as the keyboard and mouse. You'll be able to add new content and access features through touch.

      You can also use a stylus to create content, take notes and access features. Should the mood strike you, you can handwrite email responses and convert them automatically to text. The stylus may be used as a laser pointer when presenting. It also allows you to color your content and erase your mistakes.

      In the cloud

      The cloud feature may be the biggest departure. Microsoft says the new Office saves documents to SkyDrive by default, so content is always available no matter what device you happen to be using. Your documents are also available offline and sync when you reconnect.

      Once signed in to Office, your personalized settings show up on all your devices, including your most recently used files, templates and even your custom dictionary. Microsoft calls this its “roaming” feature. With a subscription, you can access Office even when you are away from your PC by streaming full-featured applications to an Internet-connected Windows-based PC.

      Microsoft said it plans to offer the upgrade as a local version called Office 2013 and the cloud-based version that will be sold on a subscription basis and called Office 365. It will be sold in three packages:

      • Office 365 Home Premium - designed for families and consumers. This service also includes an additional 20 GB of SkyDrive storage and 60 minutes of Skype world minutes per month.
      • Office 365 Small Business Premium - designed for small businesses. This service also includes business-grade email, shared calendars, website tools and HD webconferencing.
      • Office 365 ProPlus - designed for enterprise customers who want advanced business capabilities and the flexibility to deploy and manage in the cloud.

      Microsoft said the new Office will be released in the fall, along with Windows 8.

      Calling it the biggest and most ambitious redesign of a software package it has ever done, Microsoft has unveiled the “customer preview” versio...

      IRS To Taxpayers: Avoid Becoming Victims of Tax Scams

      Vigilance is your best defense against being taken for a ride

      Be careful about following the “advice” you  get about filing for tax credits or rebates. 

      The Internal Revenue Service is encouraging taxpayers to guard against being misled by unscrupulous individuals trying to persuade them to file false claims for tax credits or rebates. 

      The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) notes there’s been an increase in tax-return-related scams -- frequently involving unsuspecting taxpayers who normally do not have a filing requirement in the first place. 

      These taxpayers are led to believe they should file a return with the IRS for tax credits, refunds or rebates for which they are not really entitled. Many of these recent scams have been targeted in the South and Midwest. 

      A few bad apples 

      Most paid tax return preparers provide honest and professional service, but there are those who engage in fraud and other illegal activities. Unscrupulous promoters deceive people into paying for advice on how to file false claims. 

      Some promoters may charge unreasonable amounts for preparing legitimate returns that could have been prepared for free by the IRS or IRS sponsored Volunteer Income Tax Assistance partners. In other situations, identity theft is involved. 

      Be careful 

      Taxpayers should be wary of any of the following: 

      • Fictitious claims for refunds or rebates based on excess or withheld Social Security benefits.
      • Claims that Treasury Form 1080 can be used to transfer funds from the Social Security Administration to the IRS enabling a payout from the IRS.
      • Unfamiliar for-profit tax services teaming up with local churches.
      • Home-made flyers and brochures implying credits or refunds are available without proof of eligibility.
      • Offers of free money with no documentation required.
      • Promises of refunds for “Low Income – No Documents Tax Returns.”
      • Claims for the expired Economic Recovery Credit Program or Recovery Rebate Credit.
      • Advice on claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit based on exaggerated reports of self-employment income. 

      Empty promises

      In some cases non-existent Social Security refunds or rebates have been the bait used by the con artists.  In other situations, taxpayers deserve the tax credits they are promised but the preparer uses fictitious or inflated information on the return, which results in a fraudulent return. 

      Flyers and advertisements for free money from the IRS, suggesting that the taxpayer can file with little or no documentation, have been appearing in community churches around the country. Promoters are targeting church congregations, exploiting their good intentions and credibility. 

      These schemes also often spread by word of mouth among unsuspecting and well-intentioned people telling their friends and relatives.

      Promoters of these scams often prey upon low-income individuals and the elderly. 

      They build false hopes and charge people good money for bad advice.  In the end, the victims discover their claims are rejected or the refund barely exceeds what they paid the promoter.  Meanwhile, their money and the promoters are long gone. 

      Unsuspecting individuals are most likely to get caught up in scams and the IRS is warning all taxpayers, and those that help others prepare returns, to remain vigilant. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. 

      Anyone with questions about a tax credit or program should call the IRS toll-free number at 800-829-1040 or visit a local IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center.

      Be careful about following the “advice” you get about filing for tax credits or rebates. The Internal Revenue Service is encouraging taxpayers to guard ...

      Retail Expert: 'Consumers Are Getting Poorer'

      Data suggest U.S. consumers plight will only get worse

      If it feels like you are falling behind in this economy, maybe you are. A retail expert says the American consumer is getting poorer.

      "The American consumer is going to continue to get poorer," Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, said in an interview with Yahoo! Finance's Daily Ticker. "They're going to shop at the places that are cheapest. This is not rocket science."

      Davidowitz was reacting to the report that retail sales had fallen in June for the third month in a row. The U.S. Commerce Department reported that consumer spending was down 0.5 percent after sales fell 0.2 percent in May.

      Pretty ugly

      “If your net worth is down 40 percent, if your income is down 10 percent over the last few years, if you're in the worst housing crisis since the Great Depression, the jobs numbers are terrible, that shows where the consumer is,” Davidowitz said in the interview.

      Davidowitz said growing consumer poverty is most visible in the food business. He said traditional grocery chains are losing marketshare, not only to Walmart, but also non-traditional food sellers like Dollar General, Dollar Tree and Family Dollar.

      In January the Federal Reserve reported that in 2010, the median value of income for the average American between 2007 and 2010 fell 7.7 percent while median net worth plunged more than 38 percent.

      Consumers take the hit

      Consumers in the workforce saw their wealth drop the most.

      “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.”

      If it feels like you are falling behind in this economy, maybe you are. A retail expert says the American consumers is getting poorer."The American consu...

      When Should You Start Drawing Social Security?

      Later is probably better than sooner

      As things now stand, retirees can begin drawing Social Security benefits at age 62. But as they say, just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

      If you choose to start drawing benefits at age 62, the benefit is smaller than it would be if you waited to start drawing at age 66 – four years later. But the appeal of early benefits proves tempting for a lot of people.

      The Great Recession, with its massive job losses, hit just as the first of the baby boomers were hitting 62. Many who found themselves suddenly jobless opted to begin drawing benefits. Others, given the opportunity, decided to take the money and run.

      Patience is a virtue

      In most cases, however, it pays to wait. By taking benefits early, you forfeit future increases in benefits. You might receive a benefit of $1500 a month at age 62 but get a check for $2000 a month if you wait until you are 66.

      By taking benefits at 62, you are getting $1500 a month for four years that you wouldn't get if you waited. After you turn 66, however, you would be getting an extra $500 a month as a reward for waiting.

      A simple math equation shows that drawing at age 62 gets you $72,000 by the time you turn 66. How long would it take you to make up that $72,000 if you wait until age 66 to begin receiving benefits?

      Twelve years, at which time you would be 78. From then on, each year you live would put you ahead $6,000.

      If you don't expect a normal lifespan, then maybe drawing early makes sense. But keep in mind there are some other disadvantages.

      Could affect your spouse

      If you are married and you expect your benefit to be higher than your spouse's, you should probably consider waiting. If you die first, you spouse has the option to receive your monthly amount if it's higher than his or her own. The benefit payments, however, will be less than they could have been for the rest of our spouse's life as a result of you opting to take early benefits.

      Receiving early benefits also has important tax ramifications. If you plan to work in retirement and have a good income, there's a tax penalty on Social Security benefits between age 62 and 66. After age 66, you can earn as much as you want without affecting your benefits.

      If you are at the peak of your earning years at age 62, it makes little sense to stop. You can significantly add to your nest egg over the next four years.

      A research paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research supports the notion of waiting. It notes that the difference in benefits is “actuarially fair,” meaning that, on average, individuals can expect to receive the same present value of benefits regardless of when they claim.

      But the researchers say it doesn't really work out that way.

      “Instead, delay appears to be actuarially advantageous for a very large subset of the population,” the authors wrote.

      As things now stand, retirees can begin drawing Social Security benefits at age 62. But as they say, just because you can, doesn't mean you should.If you...

      Virginia Dentist's 'Fix 311' Offers Cities a Quick Fix for Citizen Service Problems

      See a pothole, stray dog or flooded street? Free smartphone app lets you report it

      They used to say you can't fight City Hall. Maybe they're right but Minh Tran thinks you should be able to help City Hall do its work more efficiently. Cities like Baltimore, Boston and San Francisco agree with him. 

      Tran, a Virginia dentist, has developed a smartphone app called Fix 311. It's a quick, simple and inexpensive way for citizens to report problems -- anything from animal control issues to potholes -- to local governments. The app is free to citizens and all cities have to do is agree to accept the incoming information.

      Many cities now use the 311 telephone number to take citizen calls but staffing is expensive and there's no easy way to verify the incoming information. 

      Tran's app solves those problems.  It doesn't require any telephone operators and it uses the built-in GPS on iPhones and Androids to report the exact location of any problem needing government attention. Citizens can also use the phone's camera to snap a photo that accompanies that textual report.

      New York City's Mayor Bloomberg is interested and Tran said he has an upcoming meeting to present the idea. Washington, D.C., is also interested, he said.  

      Tran said the idea grew out of a pothole-reporting app he built a few years ago. It was quickly adopted by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), which promotes it heavily to motorists in the traffic-choked state.

      One nation, one app

      "My goal is to have the government of the entire United States take this system and use it," Tran said. "Right now, every city is trying to make their own app and it's kind of wasteful of taxpayers' money. Why does every city have to make its own when Fix 311 already works nationwide?"

      Tran, who graduated from the Temple University School of Dentistry, practices in Falls Church, Va. Although he makes his liviing drilling teeth, Tran said he worked in network administration before dental school and continues to enjoy writing his own apps and programs.

      The dental business being what it is, Tran said he is not trying to get rich with Fix 311 but just wants to provide a way for governments to provide better service to their citizens without wasting huge amounts of money to do so. 

      His biggest frustration at the moment is that, although his app has won wide acceptance around the country, he hasn't been able to get any interest from Fairfax County, Va., where he lives and works.

      "I've sent them letters and emails but no one responds," he said. "I don't know why."

      They used to say you can't fight City Hall. Maybe they're right but Minh Tran thinks you should be able to help City Hall do its work more efficiently. Cit...

      Convenience Stores Reject Swipe Fee Settlement

      Retail group says proposal doesn't solve the problem

      The headlines from Friday's “swipe fee” settlement between credit card companies and retailers casts it as a victory for retailers. At least one group of retailers doesn't see it that way.

      The National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS), a class plaintiff in the lawsuit yielding a more than $6 billion settlement, says it rejects the agreement.

      The settlement, which must still be approved by a federal judge, allows retailers to charge customers more if they pay with a credit card. MasterCard, Visa and major banks, including JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo, agreed to the huge payment to settle accusations they engaged in anti-competitive practices in payment processing. The dispute has dragged on for seven years.

      "Our decision to settle is based on our belief that MasterCard and our stakeholders are best served by an amicable resolution," said Noah Hanft, MasterCard's general counsel.


      But the NACS Board of Directors unanimously rejected the agreement, unmoved by the more than $6 billion.

      "Not only does the proposed settlement fail to introduce competition and transparency into a clearly broken market, it actually provides Visa and MasterCard with the tools to continue to shield swipe fees from market forces," said NACS Chairman Tom Robinson, president of Santa Clara, Calif.-based Robinson Oil Corp.

      According to the convenience store group, the proposed settlement allows the card companies to continue to dictate the prices banks charge and the rules that constrain the market including for emerging payment methods, particularly mobile payments.

      Consumers and merchants to pay more?

      “Consumers and merchants ultimately will pay more as a result of this agreement -- without any relief in sight," Robinson said.

      The proposed settlement allows merchants to show consumers some of the costs of accepting credit cards, something they have been fighting for. But NACS says the agreement allows that disclosure only under very limited circumstances with strict oversight by Visa and MasterCard.

      While news reports have noted the proposed settlement is the largest antitrust settlement in U.S. history, NACS says it only amounts to less than two months' worth of swipe fees, based on the estimated $50 billion in swipe fees collected by the credit card companies on an annual basis. Worse, the group says, there are no fundamental market changes that would constrain Visa and MasterCard from continuing to raise rates to a point where the net effect is to make merchants pay for their own settlement — and then some.

      Larger goals

      As a class plaintiff in the litigation, NACS pushed for a trial where it intended to argue that the anticompetitive practices engaged in by the credit card industry are illegal. NACS said it wants to force changes on credit card companies that it says would open the market to more competition.

      "Even the monetary agreement in this proposal is a mirage," said Robinson. "Merchants won't get these funds for years and will have paid more than that through increased swipe fees long before they see those funds."

      NACS made clear that it will do what it can to prevent the settlement from going forward but said it hopes other retailer groups will also reject it.

      "There is plenty of time for merchants to make thoughtful decisions related to this proposed settlement,” said NACS President and CEO Henry Armour. We hope and expect that, as they have the time to review it, many other merchants including class representatives will decide to reject this proposal.”

      The headlines from Friday's “swipe fee” settlement between credit card companies and retailers casts it as a victory for retailers. At least on...

      Hotel Germs Are Ready to Welcome You

      They're just about everywhere, especially on light switches, pens and the TV remote

      Nice but how clean?

      Staying at a hotel can either be a fun experience or a harrowing one, whether you're staying in a swanky hotel with an $80 breakfast, or you choose a small motel where things like "free color television in each room" are touted as amenities.

      Aside from a few exceptions most hotel rooms look great upon arrival. The sheets are perfectly tucked into the queen sized mattress, the fluffy white towels are arranged just so, and the room has a lemony or pine aroma indicating a recent clean.

      But what about below the surface -- in those small crevices where housekeeping may not automatically think to clean.

      In a recent report by the University of Houston, it was found that many germs in hotel rooms are located on the light switch by the bed, on the pens in the room, and on the TV remote.

      The researchers conducted germ tests in 19 hotel rooms located in North Carolina, Texas, and Indiana, and learned that 81 percent of the surfaces contained traces of E. coli.

      The study group also learned that cleaning staffs spent about half an hour cleaning each room.

      At least you hope that's the case, as it's easy to think of the disgruntled housekeeper choosing to clean haphazardly one day because her boss snapped at her.

      Invisible grime

      A typical rhinovirus

      As expected, the sink and bathroom had high levels of invisible grime, but surprisingly most of the germs in the room area came from the housekeeper's cleaning cart, which means a thorough cleaning of many rooms may be doomed from the very start.

      Mops, brooms, dirty towels and rags were all heavily contaminated with germs, which increase the chance of viruses being spread from room to room.

      At this year’s General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, Katie Kirsch, one of the study authors said, "Currently, housekeeping practices vary across brands and properties with little or no standardization industrywide."

      Our research "could aid hotels in adopting a proactive approach for reducing potential hazards, and provide a basis for the development of more effective and efficient housekeeping practices," she explained.

      In a separate 2006 study conducted by the University of Virginia, researchers gathered 15 participants who were all medically diagnosed with rhinoviruses, which often infects the respiratory area and causes the common cold.

      Each volunteer stayed one night in separate rooms, and after checking out the following morning, researchers tested ten surface areas to determine how much of the rhinoviruses were left behind.

      Although rooms are obviously cleaned when guests check out, the findings were still telling in terms of how germs can both spread and stick to multiple areas after just one night of stay.

      The researchers found bacterium on seven of the 14 door handles, six  of the 14 pens, and six out of the 15 light switches. Other areas like the drapes, the phone, the alarm clock and the coffee maker all contained viruses.

      A chat with the housekeeper

      E. coli

      ConsumerAffairs contacted Raleigh Marriott City Center, in North Carolina, which was one of the states the University of Houston researched.

      We spoke to director of housekeeping Juan Oliveira and asked him what Marriott's particular policy on room cleaning was.

      "We clean the rooms daily and every surface is wiped down. If you have special [cleaning] needs we can accommodate that too. We can come to your room anytime between 8:30 and 4:30 and you tell us when you want us to clean. We again clean and change everything when the guest departs."

      After asking if the less obvious places like the remote, light switches and pens in the room were cleaned, he repeated, "We can accommodate any need," which is an indication these smaller surfaces may not be sanitized on a regular basis.

      Many travel experts suggests guest should bring their own disinfectant and even their own bedspreads, as it's generally known  the thick comforter lying across the bed is rarely washed.

      It's also wise for travelers to ask the hotel how often items are washed in their room, and what the overall cleaning policy is, as with large chains it varies from hotel to hotel.

      Most importantly, wash your hands frequently as most germs can be killed on the surface with just soap and water.

      What gives certain hotels the yuck factor is that rooms have huge amounts of uncertainty attached to them, and one doesn't have any control on how dirty a room was kept, or how many germs were left behind.

      Hotel rooms aren't "any dirtier than at home, says Kirsch. “But there's a stranger factor."

      And that's what can be so unnerving when you’re just trying to find a place to rest comfortably when away from home.

      Staying at a hotel can either be a fun experience or a harrowing one.Whether you're staying in a swanky hotel with an $80 breakfast, or you choose a smal...

      FDA Approves HIV infection Drug

      Evidence-based approach enhances existing prevention strategies

      Another step forward in the battle against HIV infections. 

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Truvada (emtricitabine/tenofovir disoproxil fumarate), the first drug approved to reduce the risk of HIV infection in uninfected individuals who are at high risk of HIV infection and who may engage in sexual activity with HIV-infected partners. 

      Taken daily, Truvada is to be used for pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) in combination with safer sex practices to reduce the risk of sexually-acquired HIV infection in adults at high risk. 

      The FDA previously approved Truvada to be used in combination with other antiretroviral agents for the treatment of HIV-infected adults and children 12 years or older. 

      Using Truvada 

      As part of PrEP, HIV-uninfected individuals who are at high risk will take Truvada daily to lower their chances of becoming infected with HIV should they be exposed to the virus. 

      A PrEP indication means Truvada is approved for use as part of a comprehensive HIV prevention strategy that includes other prevention methods, such as safe sex practices, risk reduction counseling, and regular HIV testing. 

      "Today’s approval marks an important milestone in our fight against HIV," said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. "Every year, about 50,000 U.S. adults and adolescents are diagnosed with HIV infection, despite the availability of prevention methods and strategies to educate, test, and care for people living with the disease. New treatments as well as prevention methods are needed to fight the HIV epidemic in this country." 


      As a part of this action, the FDA is strengthening Truvada’s Boxed Warning to alert health care professionals and uninfected individuals that Truvada for PrEP must only be used by individuals who are confirmed to be HIV-negative prior to prescribing the drug and at least every three months during use. 

      The drug is contraindicated for PrEP in individuals with unknown or positive HIV status. The FDA strongly recommends against such use. 

      Training and education program

      Truvada for PrEP is being approved with a Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS) to minimize the risk to uninfected individuals of acquiring HIV infection and to reduce the risk of development of resistant HIV-1 variants. The central component of this REMS is a training and education program to assist prescribers in counseling individuals who are taking or considering Truvada for PrEP. 

      The training and education program will not restrict distribution of Truvada but will provide information about the importance of adhering to the recommended dosing regimen and understanding the serious risks of becoming infected with HIV while taking Truvada for the PrEP indication. 

      "The REMS for Truvada for the PrEP indication is aimed at educating health care professionals and uninfected individuals to help ensure its safe use for this indication without placing an unnecessary burden on health care professionals and patients," said Janet Woodcock, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. 

      Testing procedure 

      Truvada’s safety and efficacy for PrEP were demonstrated in two large, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials. The iPrEx trial evaluated Truvada in 2,499 HIV-negative men or transgender women who have sex with men and with evidence of high risk behavior for HIV infection, such as inconsistent or no condom use during sex with a partner of positive or unknown HIV status, a high number of sex partners, and exchange of sex for commodities. 

      Results showed Truvada was effective in reducing the risk of HIV infection by 42 percent compared with placebo in this population. Efficacy was strongly correlated with drug adherence in this trial. 

      The Partners PrEP trial was conducted in 4,758 heterosexual couples where one partner was HIV-infected and the other was not (serodiscordant couples). The trial evaluated the efficacy and safety of Truvada and tenofovir versus placebo in preventing HIV infection in the uninfected male or female partner. 

      Results showed Truvada reduced the risk of becoming infected by 75 percent compared with placebo. 

      No new side effects were identified in the clinical trials evaluating Truvada for the PrEP indication. The most common side effects reported with Truvada included diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain, headache, and weight loss. Serious adverse events in general, as well as those specifically related to kidney or bone toxicity, were uncommon. 


      As a condition of approval, Truvada’s manufacturer, Gilead Sciences, Inc. of Foster City, CA, is required to collect viral isolates from individuals who acquire HIV while taking Truvada and to evaluate these isolates for the presence of resistance. Additionally, the company is required to collect data on pregnancy outcomes for women who become pregnant while taking Truvada for PrEP and to conduct a trial to evaluate drug adherence and its relationship to adverse events, risk of seroconversion, and resistance development in seroconverters. 

      Gilead has committed to provide national drug utilization data in order to better characterize individuals who utilize Truvada for a PrEP indication and to develop an adherence questionnaire that will assist prescribers in identifying individuals at risk for low compliance.

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved Truvada (emtricitabine/tenofovir disoproxil fumarate), the first drug approved to reduce the risk of HIV...

      Why Now May Be A Good Time To Buy A Home

      But getting a mortgage may still be a problem

      Yes, it's still scary out there but recent data from the housing market suggests this might be a good time to buy a home.

      Prices are still relatively low but rising, while interest rates have never been lower. Assuming you can qualify for a mortgage, you often can get more house for less money than if you were to rent. In one of its periodic reports on the state of the industry, CoreLogic notes that home prices are up in many markets and that future increases are likely.

      One reason for that is the supply of homes for sale has fallen sharply, even with the distressed properties finally making their way to the market. The construction industry is only now beginning to put up new homes again after the housing collapse sent many builders into hibernation.

      Would like to sell but can't

      At the same time, many people who would normally sell their homes and move, can't. They're under water, owing more on their mortgages than their homes are worth.

      With fewer homes for sale, the old law of supply and demand begins to exert itself. Even with tighter lending standards keeping many would-be buyers out of the market, there are enough consumers looking at homes to support present price levels.

      The CoreLogic report contains other encouraging data. It shows that the lower end of the home price tier is rebounding at more than three times the rate of the upper end. In previous months the lower end was dominated by foreclosures, usually sold at a steep discount. The new data shows that either there are fewer distressed sales or the discount for these homes is not as cheap as it once was.

      CoreLogic's Home Price Index (HPI), including distressed sales, posted the largest year-over-year spring price gain in the last 25 years. That should give buyers confidence that a home they purchase should hold, and eventually increase it's value.

      Getting a loan may still be tricky

      First, of course, they have to be able to qualify for a mortgage. That seems to be easier to do if you already own a home. Estimates show that refinancing accounted for 70 percent of the total mortgage originations market over the past 12 months.

      Last week the National Association of Realtors (NAR) urged Congress to develop a broadly defined Qualified Mortgage (QM) regulation that does not shut out qualified buyers from purchasing a home. The QM is designed to protect lenders to ensure that loans only go to consumers with the ability to repay them. But NAR says making the regulation to narrow will deny credit worthy borrowers and strangle the recovering market.

      "The first step to creating certainty in the housing finance system is to broadly define QM so that it encompasses the vast majority of the safe, high quality lending being done today," said NAR Vice-President Scott Louser.

      In testimony before the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit, Louser said current underwriting standards are already tight and are contributing to the slow housing market recovery.

      Yes, it's still scary out there but recent data from the housing market suggests this might be a good time to buy a home.Prices are still relatively low ...

      Feds Order Shutdown of Alabama-Based Truck Company

      MTI Transportation, LLC found to be ‘imminent safety hazard’

      The term “off road" has a negative meaning for an Alabama trucking company. 

      The U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has ordered MTI Transportation, LLC, to cease all transportation services immediately. 

      The government says the order is based on evidence that it was a chameleon operation for two unsafe truck companies previously shut down by the agency. 

      “We must keep our nation’s roadways safe for drivers and passengers,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “This case sends the message that we will shut down unsafe truck companies that attempt to illegally operate.” 

      Safety citations 

      FMCSA placed MTI Transportation out of service after safety investigators discovered the company was transporting goods for the former BM&L Trucking, LLC, and IDM Transportation, Inc.  

      On May 11, the FMCSA issued an imminent hazard out-of-service order against both BM&L Trucking and IDM Transportation for serious federal safety violations in the areas of vehicle maintenance and driver drug and alcohol testing compliance. 

      The agency’s safety audit of MTI Transportation found that three of the company’s drivers were previously employed by BM&L Trucking or IDM Transportation. 

      Additionally, MTI Transportation used two commercial vehicles still registered to BM&L Trucking or IDM Transportation.  The May 2012 imminent hazard out-of-service order now also applies to MTI Transportation. 

      "The practice of unsafe companies quickly reincarnating as chameleon companies to continue operations is unacceptable.  Our agency is constantly doing everything within its current legal authority to keep one step ahead of these illegal actors,” said FMCSA Administrator Anne S. Ferro.

      The U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has ordered MTI Transportation, LLC, to cease all transpo...

      Summer Drought Likely To Push Food Prices Even Higher

      Over 1,000 counties seeking U.S. disaster aid

      Dry, parched conditions persist in much of the nation, including sections heavily involved in agriculture. That doesn't bode well for food prices, economists say.

      Already, corn prices have soared on commodities markets raising the costs to manufacturers, who are likely to pass along that extra costs to consumers. The impact was apparent in last week's Producer Price report from the U.S. government, which for the most part showed price stability.

      “The one major exception was food, especially meat prices which posted its highest jump in nearly a year,” said economist Joel Naroff, of Naroff Economic Advisors, of Holland, PA. “Intermediate food and feed costs jumped in June and the drought across the farm belt looks like it will lead to large increases in food costs going forward. That is not good news for consumers as these expenses get passed through fairly quickly.”

      So far more than 1,000 counties in the U.S. have applied for federal disaster relief. To quality for that kind of help, the regions must have experienced drought conditions for at least eight weeks.

      Last week Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak rolled out changes to the natural disaster relief program he said would deliver faster, more flexible assistance to agriculture producers. He said the changes would result in a 40 percent reduction in processing time for most counties affected by disasters.

      Bright spot?

      "Agriculture remains a bright spot in our nation's economy and it is increasingly important that USDA has the tools to act quickly and deliver assistance to farmers and ranchers when they need it most," Vilsack said.

      But the economic damage to the agriculture industry might exceed $50 billion, by some estimates. While that will be sure to cut into exports, of immediate concern to consumers is how that will impact prices on the grocery shelf.

      Corn futures have increased nearly 50 percent since the drought began. That will have a huge impact since corn not only goes directly into many manufactured food products but is also a key ingredient in feed for cattle, hogs and chicken. Those prices can be expected to rise in the coming weeks because of the extended drought.

      Naroff says food is the main trouble spot in the economy, with other prices fairly tame. In fact, if the economy continues to slow, consumers could be faced with something similar to the “stagflation” of the early 1970s -- when economic growth ground to a halt but prices kept rising.

      Dry, parched conditions persist in much of the nation, including sections heavily involved in agriculture. That doesn't bode well for food prices, economis...

      Study Finds Families Continue To Cut College Costs

      Students assume greater share of college costs, while parents trim

      It doesn’t appear that the student debt problem is going to go away anytime soon. 

      A new national study from Sallie Mae and Ipsos Public Affairs finds that 83 percent of college students and parents strongly agreed that higher education is an investment in the future, and that the majority are finding multiple ways to cut college costs. 

      Mom and pop back away 

      Students now foot an expanding share of the college tuition bill, while parents scale back compared with four years ago. Drawing from savings, income and loans, students paid 30 percent of the total cost of attendance last academic year versus 24 percent four years earlier, while parents covered 37 percent, down eight percent in the same time period. 

      “Once again, we see that families recognize the value of a college education and that they are taking steps to keep college costs in line with their financial resources,” said Albert L. Lord, vice chairman and CEO, Sallie Mae, the nation’s No. 1 financial services company specializing in education. “Data confirms again and again that the investment carefully made significantly enhances the lives and livelihoods of those who complete their education.” 

      The percentage of families who eliminated college choices because of cost rose to the highest level (69%) in the five years since the study began and virtually all families exercised cost-savings measures. 

      How they cut 

      The most common cost-savings strategies included living at home (51%), adding a roommate (55%) and reducing spending by parents (50%) and students (66%). In 2012, families continued the shift toward lower cost community college, with 29 percent enrolled, compared with 23 percent two years ago. In fact, overall, families paid five percent less for college than they did a year ago. 

      “This is really a tale of the resilient American family who still see the extreme value of a college education and are finding new and creative ways to pay for it,” said Clifford Young, managing director, Ipsos Public Affairs and a principal author of the report. 

      The survey 

      In response to new survey questions, American families reported that students make college selections largely on their own while parents played a much greater role in deciding how to pay for it. For the first time this year, the study examined student loan borrowing by student course of study. The field with the highest percentage of borrowers was visual and performing arts (53%), followed by liberal arts (42%). 

      More than two-thirds of students and parents strongly agreed that college is needed now more than ever (70%) and the path to earning more money (69%). The number of students willing to stretch themselves financially to pay for college (61%) is higher than each of the previous five years of the survey, while parents’ willingness held steady from last year (53%). 

      Less than half of parents strongly agreed that they would rather borrow than not send their child to college (47% vs. 51% in 2011), whereas the percentage of students who preferred to borrow rather than not attend remained unchanged (62%). 

      Grants and scholarships declined from last year’s peak, but were still higher than previous years, financing the largest portion of college bills (29%). Student borrowing funded a larger percentage of costs (18% vs. 15% in 2010), with federal student loans accounting for 13 percent, private student loans 4 percent and other types of borrowing one percent. 

      Thirty-five percent of students took out education loans to pay for college: 25 percent used federal loans only, 9 percent used a mix of federal and private loans, and one percent tapped private loans only. The high usage of federal loans among students with private education loans reflects their nearly universal use of the FAFSA (98% compared to 81% overall). 

      Credit card ownership by college students has dropped two years in a row. Overall, 35 percent of undergrads carried a credit card, down from 42 percent in 2010, with the sharpest drops among sophomores and juniors. Of those with a card, the average balance was $755. Thirty-three percent reported carrying no balance on their credit card. 

      The 2012 nationally representative study, “How America Pays for College,” is the fifth in the series. Interviews with 801 undergraduate college students, ages 18 to 24, and 800 parents of undergraduates were conducted by telephone spring 2012. The margin of error on percentages from this survey using the whole sample is +/-2.5 percentage points with a confidence level of 95 percent. 

      A new national study from Sallie Mae and Ipsos Public Affairs finds that 83 percent of college stude...

      Responding To Recall Notices Can Be Life And Death Matter

      It takes a sense of personal responsibility to make the recall system work

      There is a system in place for safety recalls for cars and trucks. Government safety regulators issue the recall and the automaker sends out notices and makes the repair. The system works pretty well.

      But there is a third, and very critical element. Consumers who receive the notices must act on them. If they don't, not only could they be in danger, but when they sell the vehicle other, unsuspecting consumers can be endangered.

      Authorities in Texas are investigating a house fire in which two small boys died to determine whether a Ford F150 pick-up truck parked in the driveway was responsible. The older model truck had beensubject of a recall years ago to repair a faulty cruise control switch. Ford began offering the repair seven years ago but reports only about half the affected vehicles have been brought to dealers.

      "Whether the recalled truck is the cause of the fire or not, this is a tragic reminder of how important it is to check regularly for recalls on vehicles, trailers and tires," said Linda Water Nelson, editor of INSIDEout: Cars & Trucks.

      Forgotten recall notices

      The problem is that when a vehicle owner doesn't respond to a recall notice, it can quickly be forgotten. Once the owner sells the vehicle to another consumer, the buyer is usually unaware that there was a safety issue or, more importantly, that the issue hasn't been addressed.

      Based on typical sales patterns, many of these recalled vehicles have been sold and are now in the hands of second or even third owners who don't realize their safety is threatened. The carmaker can't help because it only knows who originally owned the vehicle. If the original owner still has the vehicle but has moved and is unreachable by mail, they will also fail to receive notice.

      "Unless the current owners have checked for recalls on their vehicles, and verified whether the specific vehicle has been fixed, they are literally playing with fire," Nelson said. "This is not only true of the truck in question. Recalls have become relatively common and consumers must be aware of their own responsibility to learn about them."

      Tracking a recall is easy. The federal government has a Website with this information. Or, you can plug in the terms: recalls for (name and year of product) to your search engine and obtain information to get your search started. Sites like ConsumerAffairs also have recall information.

      "This is as much an owner's responsibility as purchasing car insurance, and I recommend using at least two methods of search," Nelson said. "It's as important as having smoke detectors in your home, and checking them regularly."

      There is a system in place for safety recalls for cars and trucks. Government safety regulators issue the recall and the automaker sends out notices and ma...

      FTC: Health Care Scammers Out In Force

      Supreme Court's Affordable Care Act ruling brings them out of the woodwork

      It's enough to make you sick! 

      No sooner had the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the Affordable Care Act – also known as “Obamacare”  -- than scam artists began working the phones. They say they're from the government and that, using the Affordable Care Act as a hook, they need to verify some information. 

      Various approaches 

      They might have the routing number from your bank, and then use that information to get you to reveal the entire account number. Or, they'll ask for your credit card or Social Security number, Medicare ID, or other personal information. 

      The Federal Trade Commission says do NOT give out personal or financial information in response to unsolicited phone calls, emails, or knocks on your door. Scam artists want your information to commit identity theft, charge your existing credit cards, debit your checking account, open new credit card, checking, or savings accounts, write fraudulent checks, or take out loans in your name. 

      If someone who claims to be from the government calls and asks for your personal information, hang up. It's a scam. The government and legitimate organizations you do business with already have the information they need and will not ask you for it. 

      You can file a complaint here or call 1-877-FTC-HELP. If you think your identity's been stolen, go here  or call 1-877-ID-THEFT. You also can file a complaint with your state Attorney General.

      No sooner had the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the Affordable Care Act – also known as “Obamacare” -- than scam artists began working the phones. They say ...

      New IRS Scam Making The Rounds

      Email tries to scare recipients into revealing bank information

      The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) commands attention. When you get something in the mail from the tax agency, you can bet you'll open it right away.

      That's why the agency is a favorite of scammers who try to trick victims into disclosing personal information. A new scheme is packaged in a spam email with the heading “Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR).”

      The first line of the email is designed to get your attention and, perhaps, make you drop your guard:

      “This is in reference to your 2010 U.S. Individual Income Tax Return we seem to have some discrepancies with your filing.”

      Notice there is a missing period after “Return” and “we” is not capitalized, as the first word of a new sentence should be. In addition, the email header, with the IRS logo, has been enlarged and distorted from an original and is a poor copy.

      The biggest giveaway that this is not coming from the IRS are instructions in the email to download an attached form, fill it out with account information for all foreign and domestic bank accounts, and to fax it back.

      The IRS would never seek sensitive financial information in that way. People who comply with the email will have their accounts emptied by the scammers.

      The scam coincides with the recent announcement by the IRS of an effort to collect owed taxes from offshore accounts. Increasingly scammers model their schemes after events in the news so that there might be a slight ring of authenticity with their victims.

      The IRS email scam also uses the element of fear. It notes that “it is a crime to evade or defeat the collection of a federal tax."

      Consumers who receive this email -- or one like it -- should simply delete it from their inbox. You can also report it to the IRS by calling 1-800-829-3676.

      The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) commands attention. When you get something in the mail from the tax agency, you can bet you'll open it right away.That...

      Consumers May Face Surcharges for Using Credit Cards

      Settlement of long-running "swipe fee" case may end up costing consumers plenty

      A seven-year dispute between retailers and credit card issuers over "swipe fees" has been settled. It will cost Visa and MasterCard $6 billion -- and may end up costing consumers a lot more than that.

      Under the settlement, retailers, who will split the $6 billion, will be allowed to charge customers more for paying with credit cards -- something the card issuers have long prohibited.

      The dispute between the retailers and the credit card and banking industries has been confusing to consumers, as both sides have put their spin on the issue.

      Retailers have claimed the swipe fees of 2% or more charged by the card companies are a "hidden tax" on consumers and have long pressed for the ability to pass along the swipe fee to consumers who choose to pay with credit cards -- in effect giving a discount to customers who pay with cash.

      The card companies have argued that consumers should have the choice of paying with cash or a credit or debit card and should not be penalized for choosing one method over another.

      The legal arguments, however, had little to do with that and were built around antitrust and price-fixing allegations. There are, after all, only a handful of major national credit card brands and retailers said the card companies used their power to make merchants bow to their will.


      There are some eye-popping numbers in the settlement, thought to be the largest ever in a private antitrust case.  

      Lawyers in the case had amassed a client list of 7 million American merchants who sued the card companies in 2005. The total value of the agreement is $7.25 billion, including a temporary reduction in card fees.

      In the end, both sides claimed to be happy with the deal. Executives of Visa and MasterCard said the settlement was in the best interests of both parties. The Electronic Payments Coalition, an industry group, said the settlement contains important regulations that will prevent retailers from gouging consumers.

      “As part of the settlement, retailers negotiated the ability to charge their customers a checkout fee (merchant surcharge) at the register," said the coalition said in a prepared statement.  "Historically, banning surcharging has been an important safeguard, and it remains illegal in ten states.  To the extent that retailers do assess checkout fees, we are pleased that the settlement includes important safeguards that will help to curb any abusive or excess checkout fees at the register."

      The National Retail Federation was not quite as sanguine.

      "The money is significant but money is only temporary - it's here today and spent tomorrow. What we need are changes in the rules that bring about transparency and competition that would be here for years to come," said NRF Mallory Duncan. "The test will be whether the injunctive relief is meaningful. Unless it is, the card market will stay broken and neither merchants nor their customers will achieve a long-term benefit. In that case, it would be a missed opportunity."

      Convenience factor

      Ironically, while the case has been working its way through the courts, debit cards have largely displaced credit cards for many smaller purchases and many retailers have taken advantage of new technology that makes it faster and easier to process payments.

      Retailers also pay swipe fees for debit card transactions and there has been an entirely different -- thousand somewhat similar -- controversy swirling around those fees. 

      It takes just a few minutes of hanging around a retail establishment to find that many consumers aren't sure whether the card they're using is a credit or a debit card, a situation that is not aided by the fact that many cards can be used as either.

      In the end, consumers are not likely to put up with different prices based on how they choose to pay except in the rare instances when large purchases are being made with credit cards.  

      A seven-year dispute between retailers and credit card issuers over "swipe fees" has been settled. It will cost Visa and MasterCard $6 billion -- and ...