Current Events in July 2012

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    Senator Questions Whether Toyota Acceleration Problem is Really Solved

    Federal probe "may have been too narrow," Sen. Grassley suggests

    A federal investigation into reports of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles "may have been too narrow," an influential U.S. Senator is suggesting.

    Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) says that information his office has received from whistle-blowers indicates that a probe by NASA and federal highway safety officials may not have uncovered the real culprit in the incidents, which led to a massive recall of Toyota and Lexus vehicles.

    The joint probe by NASA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) concluded that Toyota's electronic throttle control system was not to blame for the incidents, which included numerous accidents, some of them fatal.

    In August 2009, a California highway patrolman and his family were killed in their runaway Lexus ES 350 on a San Diego freeway. Someone calling from the car before it crashed at over 100 miles per hour said they couldn't stop it. Seconds later, it struck an SUV.

    The Los Angeles Times reports that Grassley has written to NHTSA Administrator David Strickland, asking for detailed information about the investigation -- specifically whether vehicles were tested for the presence of an electronic phenomenon known as "tin whiskers" that could have been the cause of unintended acceleration.

    In February 2011, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced with great fanfare that the joint investigation by NHTSA and NASA engineers had found no evidence the automaker's electronic throttle system played a part in incidents of unintended acceleration.

    "There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas," LaHood said.

    Instead, the agencies said the acceleration problems were most likely mechanical in nature. They blamed floor mats that could jam the gas pedal and sticky accelerator pedals.

    Tin whiskers

    The NASA engineers did consider the tin whiskers phenomenon but concluded it did not play a role in the incidents.

    The term is used to describe small crystalline "whiskers" that sometimes grow from electroplated tin. Under certain conditions, the whiskers could conceivably create a short circuit that "could theortetically lead" to unintended acceleration, Grassley said in his letter to LaHood.

    The Times, however,  quoted a Toyota spokesman as saying, "No one has ever found a single real-world example of tin whiskers causing an unintended acceleration event."

    NHTSA said the agency is reviewing Grassley's letter.

    Huge recalls

    Toyota has recalled more than 18 million vehicles since 2009. Five million of those recalls were to fix floor mat problems and four million were to fix gas pedals that were prone to stick.

    Toyota faces hundreds of lawsuits filed on behalf of victims of accidents blamed on unintended acceleration. It has already paid $48 million in fines in three separate cases and faces potential liabilities of $10 billion or more in the cases that are still pending.

    While the 2011 report exonerated Toyota's electronic throttle system, it did not directly examine the prevalence of pedals that became trapped in place by floor mats or pedals that stuck in the open position.

    However, the report said that most of the incidents NASA and DOT engineers examined occurred at low speed and appeared to be caused by driver error, with the driver inadvertently stepping on the gas rather than the brake, or in some bases depressing both pedals at once.

    The few high-speed incidents that have been documented were likely caused by the floor mat jamming the accelerator pedal into the wide-open position, the investigators said, basically blaming driver error for the problem.

    A federal investigation into reports of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles "may have been too narrow," an influential U.S. Senator is suggesting....

    Yahoo Confirms Data Breach

    But says it's "more wake-up call than threat"

    Yahoo has confirmed that hackers were able to break into servers and steal more than 450,000 user names and passwords.

    The good news, the company says, is most are for an old service and many are no longer active. The company calls it a "wake-up call more than a threat."

    According to Yahoo, the unencrypted user names and passwords are for a division called Yahoo Voices, a self-publishing company that was originally called Associated Content. The user names and passwords were posted online by hackers, who said they acted only to call attention to Yahoo's vulnerabilities.

    Yahoo, meanwhile, downplayed the breach. In a statement, it noted that only about five percent of the passwords were still active. Yahoo said it is in the process of fixing the breach and is notifying parties that may have been compromised.

    More serious?

    However, the breach could be more serious than it seems at first glance. The data published online also includes email addresses that Yahoo Voice clients used when registering. Some security experts note that if the passwords used for Yahoo Voices were also the ones used for the email accounts, there could be a more serious breach.

    "The only silver lining on the cloud is that the website hosting the passwords is temperamental, and people are experiencing difficulties accessing the information," Anna Brading, os Sophos Security Software wrote in her blog. "But maybe the access problems are being caused by so many people trying to access the stolen passwords at once?"

    AOL reports only about seven of the its 25,000 AOL Mail addresses revealed in the Yahoo breach had the same passwords on their email accounts.

    Yahoo said it is changing affected users' passwords and notifying companies with accounts that might have been compromised.

    Yahoo! has confirmed that hackers were able to break into servers and steal more than 450,000 user names and passwords.The good news, the company says, i...

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      Listeria Threat In Mexicali Cheese Corp. Products

      Risk of illness based on contamination at New York production facility

      Be careful about buying or consuming any products from the Mexicali Cheese Corp. of Woodhaven, NY. 

      The warning from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) follows the discovery of the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes in the company’s finished product. 

      The affected Mexicali Cheese products were distributed in the New York City area, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. The FDA is asking retailers to remove any Mexicali cheese products from their shelves and warns that consumers may have moved the products beyond those states. 

      Serious illness 

      Listeria contamination can result in listeriosis, a disease that primarily affects older adults, pregnant women, newborns and adults with weakened immune systems. However, in rare cases, people without these risk factors also can be affected. 

      Although healthy people may suffer only short-term symptoms such as high fever, severe headaches, stiffness, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea, Listeria can cause miscarriages and stillbirths among pregnant women. 

      Warnings issued 

      The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, which issued warnings on June 29 and July 2, 2012, said the product is packaged in a rigid 14 oz. plastic tub that displays the plant number 36-0128 and a code of 071512. The following product names are on the package containers: 

      • Mexicali Queso Fresco Mexicano, Mexican Style Fresh Cheese
      • Acatlan Queso Fresco, Fresh Cheese
      • Mi Quesito Mexicano, Mexican Cheese; and
      • Quesillo Ecuatoriano, Ecuadorian Style Cheese 

      Those who have eaten these products and experience any of the symptoms of listeriosis listed above should contact their health care professional. Consumers can report problems with FDA-regulated products to their district office consumer complaint coordinator. 

      Under a May 1, 2012, consent decree of permanent injunction, Mexicali Cheese was required by a court order to stop manufacturing and distributing any articles of food until it completed FDA-approved measures to correct food safety deficiencies, decontaminate its facility and take other steps needed to comply with the law. 

      The company did not comply with these requirements.

      Be careful about buying or consuming any products from the Mexicali Cheese Corp. of Woodhaven, NY....

      DOT Fines TripAdvisor for Violating DOT Price Advertising, Code-Share Rules

      Ticketing firm ran afoul of new federal rules requiring more complete disclosure

      The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has imposed the first penalty for violating the new airline price advertising requirements that took effect in January. 

      Ticket agent TripAdvisor is being fined $80,000 for violating rules on full-fare advertising and  for failing to disclose that flights were being operated under code-sharing agreements. The company was also ordered to cease and desist from further violations. 

      “Air travelers have the right to know how much they’ll have to pay for a ticket and which airline will be operating their flight,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said. “We will continue to make sure that carriers and ticket agents disclose this important information to consumers.” 

      New requirements 

      DOT requires all advertisements that include airfares to state the entire price to be paid by the consumer. Prior to a rule that took effect Jan. 26, advertised fares were not required to include certain government-imposed taxes as long as these additional fees were clearly disclosed in the ad. Under the new rule, though, all government taxes and fees must be incorporated into the fare. 

      Taxes that are included in the advertised fare may also be listed separately or through links or pop-ups, but these listings may not be displayed as prominently, or in the same or larger size font, as the total price. 

      Rule violations 

      An investigation by the Department’s Aviation Enforcement Office found that from at least March 2012 through June 2012, the total fares displayed on TripAdvisor’s website were not displayed more prominently than the base fares, which did not include taxes and fees. 

      When consumers entered specific itineraries, TripAdvisor returned lists of flights that displayed base fares in front of and in the same font size as the total fares. The rule applies to ticket agents as well as air carriers. 

      The Department also found that TripAdvisor failed to comply with DOT’s code-share disclosure rules. Under a code-sharing arrangement, an airline sells tickets on flights that use its designator code, but are operated by another airline.  

      DOT rules require airlines and ticket agents to disclose to consumers, before they book a flight, if the flight is operated under a code-sharing arrangement.  The disclosure must include the corporate name of the transporting carrier and any other name under which the flight is offered to the public. 

      Under a new law, when tickets are purchased on the Internet, code-share information must be easily viewable on the first display of a website following a search for flights corresponding to a desired itinerary. From at least March through June 2012, TripAdvisor failed to display the corporate names or other names being used by regional carriers providing transportation on behalf of a major airline. Consumers had to rely on a hover text feature to learn the identity of the airline that would actually operate the aircraft on which they would be flying.

      The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has imposed the first penalty for violating the new airline price advertising requirements that took effect in...

      Three Steps To Help Women Lose Weight

      Save your money, these tips cost nothing

      There are all kinds of diets and weight-control products on the market, but losing weight isn't complicated and doesn't have to be expensive. Researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center say there are three things that cost nothing that can help people -- women especially -- lose weight.

      Dr. Anne McTiernan and her colleagues were studying the impact of a wide range of self-monitoring and diet-related behaviors and meal patterns on weight change among overweight and obese postmenopausal women when they made their finding.

      The first step is to keep a food journal. Faithfully record everything you eat each day.

      The second step is to eat three meals a day. Skipping a meal here and there doesn't help, it actually hurts the weight-control process, the researchers said.

      The third step is to avoid eating in restaurants. Restaurant meals, especially lunch, can easily torpedo your diet routine.

      Reducing calories is the goal

      “When it comes to weight loss, evidence from randomized, controlled trials comparing different diets finds that restricting total calories is more important than diet composition such as low-fat versus low-carbohydrate. Therefore, the specific aim of our study was to identify behaviors that supported the global goal of calorie reduction,” McTiernan said.

      Specifically, McTiernan and colleagues found that:

      • Women who kept food journals consistently lost about 6 pounds more than those who did not
      • Women who reported skipping meals lost almost 8 fewer pounds than women who did not
      • Women who ate out for lunch at least weekly lost on average 5 fewer pounds than those who ate out less frequently. Eating out often at all meal times was associated with less weight loss, but the strongest association was observed with lunch.

      “For individuals who are trying to lose weight, the No. 1 piece of advice based on these study results would be to keep a food journal to help meet daily calorie goals. It is difficult to make changes to your diet when you are not paying close attention to what you are eating,” said McTiernan, director of the Hutchinson Center’s Prevention Center and a member of its Public Health Sciences Division.

      Be honest

      If you keep a food journal, McTiernan said its important that you be honest, accurate and complete. You should also be consistent. That means carrying your food journal with you at all times, or using a diet-tracking app on your smartphone.

      The reason not to skip meals is it can cause you to crave high-calorie foods and eat more than you might otherwise. Eating in restaurants may cause you to make unhealthy food choices.

      “Eating in restaurants usually means less individual control over ingredients and cooking methods, as well as larger portion sizes,” the authors wrote.

      There are all kinds of diets and weight-control products on the market, but losing weight isn't complicated and doesn't have to be expensive. Researchers a...

      Government Agency Look-Alike Scam Plagues Small Business

      Mailings appear to be official and demand a payment

      Scammers don't just target consumers. Small businesses are sometimes favorite targets and the government agency look-alike scam is claiming more victims.

      Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller has secured a temporary injunction against a California man doing business as Iowa Corporate Compliance. Miller says the firm has duped a number of businesses into paying $125 “document fees.”

      Miller accused Aaron Vincent Williams, of Playa Vista, California, of misleading consumers or violating the Iowa Consumer Fraud Act throughsolicitations that appear to be from a governmental entity. Miller sought the temporary injunction in conjunction with a consumer fraud lawsuit against Williams and Iowa Corporate Compliance.

      Sought $125 from businesses

      “This government agency look-alike is targeting business people across Iowa with official-looking mailings, and convincing them that they must complete and return a form with a $125 fee,” Miller said. “We allege that these documents are not worth anything more than the paper they’re printed on.”

      Miller says the scam depends on busy business people paying invoices as a matter of routine without questioning them very much, especially if the mailing appears to come from the government. He says the Iowa Corporate Compliance mailings, bearing an official-looking seal, create the false impression that they are sent by a governmental agency and that recipients are required to respond.

      Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz says the office’s Business Services Division received calls and letters from concerned owners and representatives, as well as copies of the bogus form labeled, “Annual Meeting Disclosure Statement.”

      No such requirement

      “While state law requires businesses to keep records of certain meeting minutes, the law does not require businesses to file those minutes with us. Neither do we collect a fee for this type of filing,” Schultz said.

      Miller's suit says the ruse was aided by the use of a Des Moines mail drop as the address of the state agency look-alike. It fooled a lot of people.

      “It looked like paperwork I’m required to fill out,” said Chris Rademacher who, with his wife Jamie, own the Des Moines West KOA Campground. “It seemed like it was legitimate.”

      The Rademachers filled out the form and wrote out a $125 check, which the Consumer Protection Division intercepted through its subpoena.

      Miller’s lawsuit seeks refunds for any Iowa consumer losses, a permanent injunction, and a penalty of up to $40,000 for each Consumer Fraud Act violation.

      Scammers don't just target consumers. Small businesses are sometimes favorite targets and the government agency look-alike scam is claiming more victims....

      Feds Shut Down Bogus Websites

      The sophisticated scam sites duped consumers into buying counterfeit merchandise

      Seventy Websites that were illegally selling counterfeit merchandise have been put out of business. 

      The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) -led National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center (IPR Center) seized the sites as part of Project Copy Cat, an iteration of Operation In Our Sites (IOS). 

      The bogus sites closely mimicked legitimate Websites selling authentic merchandise and duped consumers into unknowingly buying counterfeit goods. In fact, many of them so closely resembled the legitimate Websites that it would be difficult for even the most discerning consumer to tell the difference. 

      The Websites are now shut down and their domain names are in the custody of the federal government. Visitors to the sites will find a seizure banner that notifies them that the domain name has been seized by federal authorities and educates them about the federal crime of willful copyright infringement. 

      "This operation targeted criminals making a buck by trying to trick consumers into believing they were buying name brand products from legitimate websites when in fact they were buying counterfeits from illegal but sophisticated imposter sites located overseas," said ICE Director John Morton. "The imposter sites were simply a fraud from start to finish and served no purpose other than to defraud and dupe unwary shoppers." 

      New twist 

      A new twist in the Websites seized in Project Copy Cat involved the appearance of Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificates. SSL certificates provide authentication for financial information, meaning consumers should be able to trust that they are sending information to the intended server and not to a criminal's server. 

      Trusted SSL providers should only issue SSL certificates to verified companies that have gone through several identity checks.

      In addition to providing authentication, SSL certificates also provide encryption, enhancing the security of credit card numbers, usernames, passwords and other sensitive information. 

      These Websites, however, displayed SSL certificates, further duping the consumer into thinking they were shopping on a legitimate website, potentially putting customers' financial information at risk. 

      Undercover operation 

      During this operation, federal law enforcement officers made undercover purchases of a host of products, including baby carriers, professional sports jerseys, language and fitness DVD sets, and a variety of clothing, jewelry and luxury goods from online retailers who were suspected of selling counterfeit products. 

      In most cases, the goods were shipped directly into the United States from suppliers in other countries. If the copyright holders confirmed that the purchased products were counterfeit or otherwise illegal, seizure orders for the domain names of the Websites that sold the goods were obtained from federal magistrate judges. 

      "Every day the U.S. economy and American jobs are negatively impacted by criminal organizations engaged in the sale of counterfeit merchandise through rogue websites. Even more importantly, consumer's health and safety can be threatened when they unknowingly purchase counterfeit products," said IPR Center Director Lev Kubiak. "Our goal at the IPR Center is to protect the public's safety and economic welfare through robust intellectual property enforcement and we hope that today's enforcement actions raise the public's awareness to this pervasive crime." 

      This operation was the next phase of IOS, a sustained law enforcement initiative that began two years ago to protect consumers by targeting the sale of counterfeit merchandise on the Internet. These 70 domain name seizures bring the total number of IOS domain names seized in the last two years to 839. 

      Seventy Websites that were illegally selling counterfeit merchandise have been put out of business. ...

      Chicco Polly High Chairs Recalled

      The pegs on the rear legs of the high chair pose the potential for bruising or laceration

      Artsana USA Inc., of Lancaster, PA, is recalling  about 455,000 Chicco Polly high chairs in the United States and 30,690 in Canada. 

      Children can fall on or against the pegs on the rear legs of the high chair, resulting in a bruising or laceration injury. The firm is aware of 21 reports of incidents in which a child fell against the peg and received injuries -- including four laceration injuries requiring medical closure (stitches, tape or glue) and one scratched cornea. 

      This recall involves a range of Chicco Polly high chairs with pegs on the back legs intended for tray storage. The high chairs have a folding metal frame for storage and a reclining seat. The recalled high chairs can be identified by the model number and date code printed on a label on the underside of the seat, close to the footrest. 

      The date code is in the format DDMMYYYY or YYYY-MM-DD. High chairs included in this recall were manufactured prior to October 13, 2010 and have one of the following model numbers on the label:

      Model Numbers

      They were sold at retail stores including Babies R Us, Burlington Coat Factory, Buy Buy Baby, Shopko and Toys R Us, as well as online outlets including,,,, and from January 2005 through July 2012 for between $100 and $150. 

      Consumers should contact Chicco for a free peg cover kit which will be mailed to them. To help prevent injuries before repair, consumers should store the tray on the pegs when the high chair is not in use. 

      For additional information, contact Chicco toll-free at (800) 807-8817 between 8 a.m. through 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or visit the firm's Website

      Artsana USA Inc., of Lancaster, PA, is recalling about 455,000 Chicco Polly high chairs in the United States and 30,690 in Canada....

      Gas Prices Gain Three Cents In Last Week

      Pump prices appear to be following last year's pattern

      With a rally in oil prices the last two weeks, the price of gasoline is on the rise again, but fortunately for consumers, the turnaround has been slow and steady.

      The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.388 per gallon, up from $3.358 last Friday, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. Gas prices 15 cents a gallon higher a month ago.

      The average price of diesel fuel today is $3.683 per gallon, down from $3.662 a week ago.

      We've seen this before

      If motorists are feeling a little deja vu as far as gas prices go, it's not that unusual.

      "This reversal in a trend of falling prices at the pump to begin July is not a unique phenomenon," said Avery Ash, AAA's manager of federal relations. "In 2011, prices declined for 52 of 56 days, falling 44 cents from a peak of $3.98 on May 5 to a summer low of $3.54 on June 30. July 2011 saw prices rise 17 cents and then remain elevated through Labor Day and the end to the busy summer driving period. From September 6 until December 21, 2011, the national average steadily declined, falling 46 cents to $3.21 per gallon. The low price to-date for the summer of 2012 came on July 2 at $3.33 and the national average is currently five cents above that low."

      Economic trends are still putting a damper on oil prices, so why aren't they continuing to fall? Many oil traders fully expect the Federal Reserve to begin another round of "quantitative easing" to boost the economy, which will also make the dollar worth less. Since commodities like oil are priced in dollars, the price will go up.

      Role reversal

      In states where gasoline has been the most expensive, prices actually continued to fall. In Oregon, the price fell by four cents a gallon. In California, the price dropped three cents.

      The increase was felt in states that have enjoyed the lowest average prices in the country. The price at the pump surged a dime a gallon in Georgia and by seven cents in Louisiana.

      The states with the highest gas prices this week are:

      • Hawaii ($4.209)
      • Alaska ($4.051)
      • California ($3.694)
      • Connecticut ($3.684)
      • New York ($3.658)
      • Illinois ($3.581)
      • Washington State ($3.578)
      • Colorado ($3.574)
      • Idaho ($3.572)
      • North Dakota ($3.565)

      The states with the lowest gas prices this week are: 

      • South Carolina ($3.041)
      • Mississippi ($3.073)
      • Alabama ($3.112)
      • Tennessee ($3.118)
      • Louisiana ($3.170)
      • Arkansas ($3.198)
      • Virginia ($3.236)
      • Texas ($3.239)
      • North Carolina ($3.249)
      • Georgia ($3.261)

      With a rally in oil prices the last two weeks, the price of gasoline is on the rise again, but fortunately for consumers, the turnaround has been slow and ...

      Scientists To Study Genetics Behind Foodborne Illnesses

      The genome project for food pathogens will help track down the source of an outbreak

      The tiny organisms that cause foodborne illnesses -- bacteria, viruses and others – are formidable foes. Despite efforts to reduce outbreaks, bacteria like Salmonella, Campylobacter, E. coli and Listeria are pervasive in the environment. Like masters of disguise, they evolve into different strains to adapt to changing surroundings. 

      These microorganisms are collectively referred to as food pathogens. And they do a lot of harm. Every year an estimated 48 million people in the U.S. get sick from a foodborne disease, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  (CDC). 

      Despite progress in the understanding of these pathogens, there is a lot that scientists do not yet understand, including where these harmful organisms live, how they survive or multiply in the environment, and whether some geographic locations affect them in unique ways. 

      Building a database 

      To answer these and other questions, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is embarking on a five-year collaboration with public and private partners to create a public database of the gene sequences of 100,000 bacteria that have been responsible for outbreaks of foodborne illnesses around the world. Gene sequences are the ordered chemical building blocks that make up the bacteria's DNA. 

      The goal of this effort, called "The 100K Genome Project" is to give public health officials the tools they need to more rapidly identify the source of the contamination and bring these outbreaks under control, says Steven Musser, Ph.D., director of the Office of Regulatory Science in FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN). 

      Practical applications 

      Musser explains that this new database containing the genetic codes of food pathogens will: 

      • enable scientists in both the public and private sectors to develop tests that can identify the bacteria present in a sample within days or even hours.
      • help investigators discover the likely source of an outbreak. For example, a cluster of Salmonella illnesses is detected using current testing procedures but the contaminated food is not easily identified. A test would reveal what bacteria is present in the person's body and the genome database could indicate where that strain or one like it came from the last time it was detected. That would point investigators in the direction of a specific food or region.
      • greatly expand the pool of researchers able to develop software for the diagnosis and analysis of potential hazards that could lead to new methods of preventing and controlling outbreaks. Making this information available to the public means that researchers throughout the world can use it. "If we keep this information to ourselves at FDA, we're limited to just what we can think of doing with it," says Musser. 

      Public-private collaboration 

      This initiative is a collaboration between FDA, the University of California/Davis, and Agilent Technologies Inc

      The genomic sequencing will be done at a new facility at UC Davis that will coordinate the overall effort. As the gene sequences are completed, they will be stored in the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Biotechnology Information's public database. 

      FDA is providing hundreds of genetic sequences its scientists have already drafted, thousands of actual food pathogens for additional sequencing, and other technical support. Under a cooperative agreement grant to UC Davis, FDA scientists will guide the project and provide technical assistance. 

      CDC will provide its foodborne disease expertise, strains to be sequenced and other information for use in the project. CDC experts will also serve on the steering committee for the project.

      The tiny organisms that cause foodborne illnesses -- bacteria, viruses and others – are formidable foes. Despite efforts to reduce outbreaks, bacteria like...

      DirecTV Axes Nick, Comedy Central and MTV

      It's the latest fee dispute between distributors and program producers

      It's not Nick at Nite, or any other time, in 20 million American homes today. And the Jersey Shore? You can't get there from here.

      DirecTV has axed Viacom's channels, which include Nickolodeon, the Comedy Channel, BET and MTV. And DirecTV's customers are not happy. After all, they want their MTV.

      It's the latest stand-off between program producers and distributors. In this case, the usual tug of war -- Viacom wants more money, DirecTV wants to pay less -- is being aggravated by Viacom's aggressive courting of online viewers.

      Viacom makes most of its programming available on Netflix, Amazon and YouTube. DirecTV and the other satellite and cable operators increasingly view Internet streaming as direct competition. They're not happy with Viacom and other program producers who are helping the streaming business get a foothold.

      But try telling that to angry viewers. ConsumerAffairs conducted a sentiment analysis of about 620,000 consumer postings to social media over the last year and, not surprisingly, found net sentiment for DirecTV going off a cliff in recent days.

      It's not just pocket change we're talking about. Viacom is pushing for a 30% increase, which works out to an extra $1 billion, according to Derek Chang, DirecTV's executive vice president of content, strategy and development.

      Consumers rate DirecTV

      Chang argued that the increases are out of line given declining ratings for many of Viacom's channels over the last year, including the kids network Nickelodeon.

      Chang said Viacom was willing to let DirecTV continue carrying its channels while talks continued but DirecTV pulled the plug.

      "Let's be clear, Viacom took these channels from DirecTV viewers," Chang said in a statement.

      Viewers seem to know that. DirecTV is taking quite a bashing online.

      "Every DirecTV customer should get a reduction in their bills for every day we are without 26 channels," fumed Greg of Cincinnati in a ConsumerAffairs posting.  "We shouldn't have to pay the same price. Why should I pay the same price for fewer channels?"

      Our analysis found these positive (in green) and negative (in red) attributes most frequently mentioned by consumers:

      Jarom of Anaheim, Calif., is one of the thousands of subscribers who tried to cancel their DirecTV contract, only to find it's not quite that simple. 

      "So tonight, when I lost my channels that I watch, I called to cancel my contract with DirecTV. I was thinking that they just took away 26 channels from my plan. So they must not be able to still charge me the same or at least charge me for all 17 more months, $20 per month, since they aren't living up to their end of the commitment," Jarom said.

      "On the phone with the specialist, this is the response I got to start my call with him. 'I don't want to be that guy, but technically we could drop all your programming and still charge you the same for every month that's left on your contract.' Now I am not a lawyer or anything close, but how could that be legal at all?"

      The sad truth that Jarom and other subscribers are learning is that they have a multi-year contract with DirecTV that doesn't give them the option of cancelling except at the end of the contract. Most likely, the contract does not require DirecTV to provide a specific program line-up and the customer rep Jarom spoke to is thus technically correct in his seemingly outlandish statement. 

      But now that consumers have harnessed the power of the Internet to make their wishes known, it's becoming harder for large corporations to simply impose their will without considering the consequences.

      It's likely this squabble will be worked out shortly, as it is not in either side's interest to infuriate their customers any longer than necessary.

      It's not Nick at Nite, or any other time, in 20 million American homes today. And the Jersey Shore? You can't there from here.DirecTV has axed Viacom's c...

      Cruises Aren't Always Smooth Sailing

      Carnival collects complaints the way freighters collect barnacles

      It's nice to get away, isn't it? Whether by train, plane or car, having an extended trip to look forward to can be just what's needed to get us through a challenging work week.

      Many people choose to escape their everyday routine via a cruise line, because it has all the comforts of a relaxing all-inclusive hotel, but with an adventurous and exploratory component to it.

      But the consumers who share their experiences with ConsumerAffairs are often somewhat sick of the whole affair by the time their ship comes in. Disney Cruises, Princess Cruises, and Celebrity Cruises have amassed a collection of complaints that would make a sailor blush.

      Consumers rate Carnival

      But Carnival Cruise Lines outdoes them all; it has virtually swamped the cruise section, receiving by far the most negative reviews.

      "While on Blue Lagoon, we were supposed to receive a complimentary lunch with a rum drink (never happened)," said Rosalyn of South Carolina. "We didn't see our guide again until it was time to leave which was 6:30 p.m. By the time we got back, it was 7:00 pm and we had to board the boat before 7:30 p.m., therefore we never saw Nassau! Very disappointing!"


      Carnival Cruise Lines has also been foundering amidst a tidal wave of lawsuits brought by aggrieved vacationers.

      Earlier this year the Miami-based line was sued for allegedly allowing one of its passengers to bleed to death, after she cut an artery by falling on a drinking glass. The ship's staff took an hour to get the 39-year-old to the emergency infirmary where she later died. The family of the deceased woman is suing Carnival, alleging negligence.

      In addition, an 18-year old girl and her family are suing Carnival for what they're saying was an illegal strip-search of the teenager, after she was accused of trying to bring marijuana onboard.

      And most recently the cruise line had a well-publicized fatal accident when the Costa Concordia partially sank off the Italian coast on June 13, 2012, a disaster that killed 30 people and left 64 others injured. A group of survivors from the wreck have sued the company for gross negligence and are asking for $528 million in restitution.

      Plunging sentiment

      The Costa Concordia incident was a disaster not just for the passengers but, at least in the short term, also for Carnival's image.  ConsumerAffairs conducted a sentiment analysis of about 58,000 consumer postings on social media over the last year and found that, other than during the immediate aftermath of the Italian accident, Carnival enjoys a positive net sentiment of about 80%.

      Of course, you might think that many of those expressing positive sentiments haven't taken a cruise, either lately or at all. This doesn't appear to be the case, however, as a closer reading finds that by far the majority of the positive comments are along the lines of "best vacation ever."

      Be prepared

      What to make of this? Like so many experiences, when they're good they're very good but when they're bad, they're really bad. Thus, as we always say, you shouldn't read our complaints and reviews and think that all the bad things you read about will happen to everyone. But it doesn't hurt to keep in mind that they just could happen to you. Never hurts to be prepared. 

      Sometimes seemingly little problems add up and ruin what would otherwise be a fun time.

      Amy, of Holmstead Fla., for example, said she had a miserable experience traveling with Carnival, as the company made no efforts to fix her room's damaged light fixture, properly clean the cabin's bathtub, or have the right accommodation for her baby.

      "This was no vacation. I am more tired, more stressed than before I got on the ship," she said.

      "The lights in our closets did not turn off all night because the doors would not close completely. The entire cruise, we had to try and sleep with light beaming out of closets. We couldn't get hold of anyone. Not front desk, not guest services, not our room steward, not anyone. It wasn't til almost 2 hours later that we got someone."

      Or how about Mary Sue of Iowa who wrote to us about the cruise company leaving her luggage in the rain and ruining some of her personal items?

      There's also Angela of Chesapeake, Va. who had a far less than perfect travel experience with the company.

      "Right from the start getting onto the boat was disorganized," she said. "Lines all over the place on the boat, to get anywhere or to do anything there were lines. Staff was kind of rude. I had to ask for towels and ice all the time and when I did, they seemed to be very irritated."

      What to do

      ConsumerAffairs called the corporate office of Carnival Cruise Lines to learn what action really takes place once a complaint is made.

      "We try to rectify each problem while the guest is on the ship," said Patrice, an employee of Carnival’s guest care department. "We advise the guest to first speak with guest services. The goal is to solve the problem while the guest is still onboard, and we'll do a work order and send the appropriate person to the cabin."

      Which sounds all well and good, but what if the issue isn't properly resolved by the service team during the guests' stay? As in Amy's case.

      "They have 30 days to file their complaint after they leave the ship," said Patrice.

      What if the guest reports a problem, say, on day 31?

      "If the guest isn't satisfied they can follow up with customer care" said Patrice.

      She also said the customer care department, which is separate from the guest services team on the ship, is the second line of defense if one's complaint isn't dealt with satisfactorily.

      I also told Patrice of Amy's problem with the dirty room, broken light fixture, and no accommodations for her child.

      "Guest services documents everything so we can see what happened, and what the resolution was."  But there was no resolution, I reminded her.

      "We can always email the ship and review the file and see what took place," she said.

      So apparently one has to do their own legwork and constant follow-up if their issue isn't rectified while on board. Passengers with unresolved problems can call Carnival Cruise Lines corporate office at 1-305-599-2600, and ask to be connected with guest services.

      According to Patrice, the guest service department will review each issue, as cases are supposed to be documented, then contact the ship to get a full report.

      Then the problem will be escalated to the right person, depending on the issue and a follow-up call is supposed to be placed to the traveler.

      However consumers shouldn't take the word of Carnival Cruise, and assume all of this will really be done. It’s important to get names, numbers and extensions, and make sure your issue is actually going through the proper ranks.

      Also document the names, times and issues you first filed your complaint with guest services when onboard. The company says it has a file for each issue, but it's wise for you to keep a file too. Just in case the company's memory gets a little fuzzy.

      It's nice to get away, isn't it? Whether by train, plane or car, having an extended trip to look forward to can be just what's needed to get us through a c...

      Wells Fargo Settles Federal Fair Lending Case

      The settlement means more than $175 million in relief for homeowners

      The second largest fair lending settlement in Department of Justice history has been filed, resolving allegations that Wells Fargo Bank engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination against qualified black and Hispanic borrowers in its mortgage lending from 2004 through 2009.  

      The settlement provides $125 million in compensation for wholesale borrowers who were steered into subprime mortgages or who paid higher fees and rates than white borrowers because of their race or national origin. 

      Wells Fargo, the largest residential home mortgage originator in the United States, will also provide $50 million in direct down payment assistance to borrowers in communities around the country where the department identified large numbers of discrimination victims and which were hard hit by the housing crisis.  

      Additionally, the bank has agreed to conduct an internal review of its retail mortgage lending and will compensate African-American and Hispanic retail borrowers who were placed into subprime loans when similarly qualified white retail borrowers received prime loans.   

      Compensation paid to any retail borrowers identified in the review process will be in addition to the $125 million to compensate wholesale borrowers who were victims of discrimination. 

      “The department’s action makes clear that we will hold financial institutions accountable, including some of the nation’s largest, for lending discrimination,” said Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole. “An applicant’s creditworthiness, and not the color of his or her skin, should determine what loans a borrower qualifies for. 

      “With today’s settlement,”, he continued, “the federal government will ensure that African-American and Hispanic borrowers who were discriminated against will be entitled to compensation and borrowers in communities hit hard by this housing crisis will have an opportunity to access homeownership.” 

      The complaint 

      The settlement, which is subject to court approval, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in conjunction with the department’s complaint, which alleges that between 2004 and 2008, Wells Fargo discriminated by steering approximately 4,000 black and Hispanic wholesale borrowers, as well as additional retail borrowers, into subprime mortgages when non-Hispanic white borrowers with similar credit profiles received prime loans.   

      All the borrowers who were allegedly discriminated against were qualified for Wells Fargo mortgage loans according to Well Fargo’s own underwriting criteria. 

      The government also alleges that, between 2004 and 2009, Wells Fargo discriminated by charging approximately 30,000 black and Hispanic wholesale borrowers higher fees and rates than non-Hispanic white borrowers because of their race or national origin rather than the borrowers’ credit worthiness or other objective criteria related to borrower risk.  

      “By reaching a settlement in this case, African-American and Hispanic wholesale borrowers who received subprime loans when they should have received prime loans or who paid more for their loans will get swift and meaningful relief,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division.   “As one of the largest mortgage lenders in the country, Wells Fargo’s commitment to conduct an internal review of its retail lending and compensate African American and Hispanic retail borrowers who may have been improperly placed in subprime loans is significant. We will continue to work aggressively to ensure that all qualified borrowers have access to credit on an equal basis.” 

      Race a factor 

      The United States’ complaint alleges that black and Hispanic wholesale borrowers paid more than non-Hispanic white wholesale borrowers, not based on borrower risk, but because of their race or national origin.   Wells Fargo’s business practice allowed its loan officers and mortgage brokers to vary a loan’s interest rate and other fees from the price it set based on the borrower’s objective credit-related factors.   

      This subjective and unguided pricing discretion resulted in black and Hispanic borrowers paying more. The complaint also alleges that Wells Fargo was aware the fees and interest rates it was charging discriminated against black and Hispanic borrowers, but the actions it took were insufficient and ineffective in stopping it.  

      In addition, the complaint contends that, as a result of Wells Fargo’s policies and practices, qualified black and Hispanic wholesale borrowers were placed in subprime loans rather than prime loans even when similarly-qualified non-Hispanic white borrowers were placed in prime loans.   

      The discriminatory placement of wholesale borrowers in subprime loans, also known as “steering,” occurred because it was the bank’s business practice to allow mortgage brokers and employees to place a loan applicant in a subprime loan even when the applicant qualified for a prime loan .   

      In addition, Wells Fargo gave mortgage brokers discretion to request exceptions to the underwriting guidelines, and Wells Fargo’s employees had discretion to grant these exceptions.         

      The department began its investigation into Wells Fargo’s lending practices in 2009 and received a referral in 2010 from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) which conducted its own parallel investigation of Wells Fargo’s lending practices in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. metropolitan areas.  

      The OCC found that there was reason to believe that Wells Fargo engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination in these metro areas on the basis of race or color, in violation of the FHA and ECOA.

      The second largest fair lending settlement in Department of Justice history has been filed, resolving allegations that Wells Fargo Bank engaged in a patter...

      Three LCD Makers To Pay $543 Million Restitution

      Total of 10 companies now agree to more than $1 billion settlement

      The last three manufacturers to be charged with fixing prices of LCD screens have settled charges with several states and the U.S. government.

      As a result of the settlement, Toshiba Corp.; LG Display Co., Ltd.; and AU Optronics Corporation have agreed to pay $543.5 million in restitution to consumers who bought LCD monitors, notebook computers, and LCD televisions between January 1, 1999, and December 31, 2006.

      The action follows previous settlements with seven other manufacturers who agreed to pay $500 million, making the total restitution in the case over $1 billion. The earlier settlement has already been approved in federal court, where it was filed.

      “These settlements should make it clear that price fixing will not be tolerated in Missouri,” said Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster. “My office will continue to investigate and prosecute any anticompetitive actions – whether they originate in Missouri or across an ocean in Taiwan – that harm our state’s consumers.”

      Consumers and businesses who believe they may be owed restitution can find information at a special Website.

      The case stems from a 2010 lawsuit in which consumer advocates claimed companies selling LCD screens conspired to make the prices artificially high. That in turn, they claimed, made computers and TV sets more expensive than necessary.

      Koster said his office, along with seven other state attorneys general and the federal government, uncovered evidence of a high-level conspiracy involving secret meetings in which the companies’ executives agreed to raise prices for their LCD screens.  

      The last three manufacturers to be charged with fixing prices of LCD screens have settled charges with several states and the U.S. government.As a result...

      New Online Tool Helps Students Manage Loan Debt

      The Financial Awareness Counseling Tool pledges a ‘new transparency’

      How much will your degree cost? Here’s one way to get a good idea. 

      The U.S. Department of Education has released a new interactive loan counseling tool to provide students with financial management basics, like information about their current loan debt and estimates for student loan debt levels after graduation. 

      Students can access the new resource, known as the Financial Awareness Counseling Tool here. 

      “Managing student loan debt can be a difficult and confusing process for many borrowers. That's why the Obama Administration has been working to unravel the mystery of college financing and arm students and parents with the information they need to make smart educational choices," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. "Students need to know up front how much college will actually cost them instead of waiting to find out when the first student loan bill arrives. This new tool will help bring new transparency to the process of debt management on the front end and empower students to keep their school loan payments on track and on time after graduation.” 

      Interactive tutorials 

      The Financial Awareness Counseling Tool provides students with five interactive tutorials covering topics ranging from managing a budget to avoiding default. Students are able to access their individual loan history and receive personalized feedback that can help them better understand their financial obligations. 

      In addition, college financial aid professionals can monitor a student’s progress in using the tool and provide assistance if necessary to help ensure they can utilize the information the site provides. 

      The announcement is part of what the Obama administration says is an effort “to make college costs more transparent for education consumers.” Recently, the Education Department published its annual college cost lists, which detail schools with the highest and lowest published sticker price, schools with the highest net price once grants and scholarships are factored in, and those schools where prices are rising the fastest. 

      In the coming weeks, the administration is set to release its model financial aid shopping sheet. The shopping sheet, which all institutions of higher education will be encouraged to adopt, will tell prospective students how much aid they will receive in grants and scholarships; how much they’ll need to borrow in student loans; the difference between private loans and federal student loans; and the average student loan payment after graduation.

      The U.S. Department of Education has released a new interactive loan counseling tool to provide students with financial management basic...

      Studies Find Hospitals Not Always Alerted of Incoming Stroke Patients

      Despite the benefits of quick response, there is a serious lack of pre-notification

      Although treatment is delivered faster when emergency medical services (EMS) personnel notify hospitals a possible stroke patient is en route, pre-notification doesn't occur nearly one-third of the time. 

      That's the finding of two separate Get With The Guidelines–Stroke program studies published in American Heart Association journals. 

      The American Heart Association/American Stroke Association recommends EMS notify hospitals of incoming stroke patients to allow stroke teams to prepare for prompt evaluation and treatment. Quick response is vital for stroke patients, particularly those with ischemic stroke, when a clot cuts off the blood supply to a portion of the brain. Clot-busting drugs can only be given within a limited time -- three to 4.5 hours after the onset of symptoms. 

      For both studies, researchers examined the records of 371,988 acute ischemic stroke patients transported by EMS to one of 1,585 hospitals participating in the Get with The Guidelines–Stroke quality improvement program between 2003 and 2011. 

      The benefits 

      Pre-notification of hospital by EMS resulted in faster diagnosis and treatment for stroke patients, according to the study published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality & Outcomes

      Pre-notification was independently associated with better treatment times: 

      • arrival-to-imaging times of 25 minutes or less,
      • arrival-to-treatment with the clot-busting drug tPA within 60 minutes,
      • symptom onset-to-tPA treatment times of 120 minutes or less,
      • and more eligible patients treated with tPA. 

      Sorely lacking 

      However, pre-notification occurred in only 67 percent of patients in 2011, only a modest increase from the 58 percent in 2003, according to the study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association (JAHA). 

      "Despite national guidelines recommending pre-notification by EMS for acute stroke patients, it's disappointing that there's been little improvement," said Gregg C. Fonarow, M.D., senior author of both studies and professor of cardiovascular medicine at the University of California-Los Angeles. "However, with these powerful new findings demonstrating substantial benefits with pre-notification, we have a tremendous opportunity to make positive changes in this component of stroke care."

      Faster treatment 

      Among patients arriving within two hours of symptom onset, patients with EMS pre-notification were more likely to: 

      • be treated with tPA within three hours (82.8 percent vs. 79.2 percent);
      • have shorter arrival-to-imaging times (26 minutes vs. 31 minutes);
      • have shorter arrival-to-tPA treatment times (78 minutes vs. 80 minutes); and
      • have shorter symptom onset-to-tPA treatment times (141 minutes vs. 145 minutes). 

      The researchers found dramatic variations in pre-notification rates: 

      • Rates ranged from 0 percent to 100 percent among individual hospitals.
      • Rates were higher in non-academic hospitals and those that more frequently use tPA.
      • States and regions also varied widely, from 93.4 percent in Montana to 19.7 percent in the District of Columbia.
      • Rates were lower in the northeast. 

      "The large variations by state and hospital are really striking and should be a concern because the potential for ideal patient care isn't being met," Fonarow said. "We've developed a map of rates by state. This tool can identify areas that are most in need of improved stroke care systems." 

      Furthermore, EMS pre-notification was significantly less likely if patients were older, black or had a prior history of stroke, diabetes or peripheral vascular disease (clogged leg arteries). 

      "This tells us what we need to target EMS education," Fonarow said. "These patients are at higher risk for stroke and other ailments and may present challenges to EMS determining in the field whether their symptoms represent stroke. The goal is that EMS provides advanced notification for every potential stroke patient being transported." 

      The studies included only data from Get With The Guidelines–Stroke hospitals. However, these comprise about one-third of U.S. hospitals and are considered representative of all hospitals in terms of pre-hospital care, Fonarow said.

      Although treatment is delivered faster when emergency medical services (EMS) personnel notify hospitals a possible stroke patient is en route, pre-notifica...

      Pace Of Foreclosures Picks Up In June

      And why that might help the housing market recover

      For the second month in a row, the number of foreclosure filings increased in June compared with the same month a year ago. Except for the people living in those homes, that might be a good thing, analysts say.

      RealtyTrac, which issues a monthly accounting of all U.S. foreclosure filings, reports California had the biggest spike in June foreclosure starts -- up 18 percent over June 2011.

      Catching up

      “Lenders and servicers are slowly but surely catching up with the backlog of delinquent loans that under normal circumstances would have started the foreclosure process last year, and that catching up is why the average time to complete the foreclosure process started to level off or decrease in some states in the second quarter,” said RealtyTrac CEO Brandon Moore. “The increases in foreclosure starts in the first half of the year will likely translate into more short sales and bank repossessions in the second half of the year and into next year.”

      In fact, Moore believe banks will actively seek out short sales, becoming more cooperative than they have in the past. Not only do they usually lose less money on a short-sale, it's neater, cleaner, and takes less time to clear the books.

      Now that lenders have settled a major base with the states and the federal government over past foreclosure practices, they are eager to begin clearing the backlog of distressed properties and real estate analysts say that can only help the market in the long run.

      Could housing lead the recovery?

      There are those who believe this increase in distressed properties on the market will not hurt home values because it coincides with a recovery in housing demand. Bill Smead, CEO of Smead Capital Management, is among them.

      In an interview with business news cable channel CNBC Smead said the housing market is “reviving,” and will help lift the overall economy, which is sagging in other areas. Interest rates are at historic lows and homes in many areas are the cheapest they've been since the 1980s. All that remains is for mortgage companies to increase lending to credit-worthy buyers.

      While foreclosures may continue to increase over the next few months, they could see a sharp decline as problem homes work their way through the system. RealtyTrac forecasts 700,000 homes will have been repossessed by banks by the end of the year -- a 30 percent decline from the previous year.

      For the second month in a row, the number of foreclosure filings in June increased, compared to the same month a year ago. Except for the people living in ...