Current Events in August 2012

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    FTC: Your Baby Can't Read

    Company agrees to $185 million judgment, although it lacks the money to pay it

    Parents and grandparents mesmerized by advertising claiming babies could be taught to read shelled out $200 or more for "Your Baby Can Read," a supposed training kit that they hoped would magically transform their pre-verbal infants into bookworms. 

    One 30-minute television infomercial featured a home video of a two-year-old girl who used the program and is purportedly reading a page from the children’s book Charlotte’s Web.  The girl’s mother then appears, saying that when her daughter was three years old, “She read her first Harry Potter book and she fell in love with it.”

    But unlike most fairy tales, this one has an unhappy ending. After all, babies can't read, a fact cited by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as it charged the program's promoters with false advertising. Having read the writing on the wall, two of the three defendants named in the FTC's complaint have agreed to settle the FTC's charges.

    The settlement prohibits the Carlsbad, California-based defendants from further use of the term “Your Baby Can Read.”  It also imposes a $185 million judgment, which equals the company’s gross sales since January 2008, although the company will only have to pay $500,000, which is all the money it says it has. 

    Besides Your Baby Can Read LLC, the complaint charges company principal and product creator Robert Titzer, Ph.D, with making deceptive expert endorsements. Your Baby Can and Titzer represented that the program taught children as young as nine months old to read; gave children an early start on academic learning, making them more successful in life than those who didn’t use it; and that scientific studies proved these claims, according to the complaint.

    In addition to Titzer and Your Baby Can, the complaint names as a defendant Hugh Penton, Jr., who served as president and chief executive officer of the company until March 2010. Penton and Your Baby Can have agreed to settle the FTC’s charges.  The agency is initiating litigation against Titzer in federal court.

    Disputed charges

    Consumers rate

    Beyond the question of how literate your average baby can become, many consumers who ordered the Your Baby Can Read program complained about disputed charges and delivery problems, as ConsumerAffairs reported in September 2010. 

    Andrita Andreas ordered the product but did not receive her entire order. Jose Nio said he was charged the full $260 for attempting to order the trial period.

    More recent complaints sound like subsequent chapters in the same book.

    Take Ashley of Palm Springs, FL, who posted a review on July 5, 2011: "I ordered Your Baby Can Read in April 2011. I saw absolutely no improvement from my daughter after two months. Nothing at all.

    "I called to complain and proceeded to tell the representative that I felt I was scammed. He told me the 30-day money back guarantee had expired and there was nothing they would do. No refund nor credit. I was simply stuck with my purchase. This program is a complete scam/fraud and rips people off."

    Widely touted 

    Prior to running afoul of the law, the Your Baby Can Read program was widely touted in infomercials and on the Internet.  The program used videos, flash cards, and pop-up books that supposedly teach children as young as nine months old how to read. 

    According to the complaint, the defendants sold the Your Baby Can Read! program to parents and grandparents of children aged three months to five years since at least January 2008, charging about $200 for each kit and taking in more than $185 million, directly via a toll-free number and their own websites.  

    The defendants marketed the program on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, and television infomercials and ads on network and cable stations such as Lifetime, Discovery Kids, Disney DX, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon.  It also was available for purchase online at and, as well as, at retail stores nationwide, including Wal-Mart, Kmart, Walgreens, Buy Buy Baby, Toys “R” Us, and BJ's Wholesale Club. 

    Parents and grandparents mesmerized by advertising claiming babies could be taught to read shelled out $200 or more for a supposed training kit that they h...

    Planes, Trains and Ships of the Future ... Maybe

    How some companies could be completely changing the way we travel

    In 2012 it seems commercial air travel is worsening not improving. with overcrowded airports, higher baggage fees and delayed flights. It's enough to make you take the train. Except that, outside the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak's charges are sky-high and its service rock-bottom, consumers complain.

    Slow boat to China? Most ships these days basically go in circles. They're called cruises and they're hardly a way to get from Point A to Point B. Many, we're told, are similar to being locked in a bowling alley with a bunch of drunken louts for a week or so.

    Will things every get any better?

    Well, maybe. A company called  Jacob Innovations has created a unique new design for airliners. It changes the plane's aisle-like seating structure by utilizing the height of the aircraft, which the company considers to be unused space.

    The new seating plan consists of stacking individual seat compartments on top of each other instead of side by side.

    For business-class flights and extended journeys the company combines the seat with an overhead bed and adjacent staircase allowing you to travel back and forth.

    It’s sort of like a loft bed that has a thin mattress on top and a private seating area at the bottom.

    The compartment also has large spaces for your luggage, big enough to store a giant family suitcase, so no more trying to stuff your bags in the narrow overhead compartment. In fact, there are no overhead luggage compartments. 

    For economy flights the company builds each row of seats one step up from each other, again, utilizing the upper parts of the aircraft to create distance and ample space for reclining.

    The added space allows the sleekly designed chairs to shift almost vertically, allowing those in economy the ability to practically lie down, almost as good as first and business class.

    All Jacob Innovations has to do now is sell its ideas to the airlines.

    Vacuum Trains

    For those choosing railway over air, they may someday have the chance to experience the impressive Vacuum Train, disturbingly fast trains that define  the meaning of both futuristic travel and beautiful innovation.

    Vac-Trains, as they're known, have been on the drawing board since the 1990s.

    Even before then, engineers like Robert Goddard have been trying to develop an underground tunnel that would have all of its air sucked from it, allowing trains to travel at speeds up to 2,500 mph due to lack of resistance.

    Now, before you take your eyes off the webpage to roll them in disbelief, a group of researchers at Southwest Jiaotong University in China say they’ll have the first Vac-Train built in 10 years.

    Other developers have been attempting to design an intercontinental vacuum tunnel that would allow one to travel from New York to London in about an hour. The train itself is small and capsule shaped, holding only six passengers each. So at least the boarding gate wouldn't be too crowded.

    All eyes will be on China in the next decade to see just how the highly evolved train will actually work, because its success will most likely impact the decision to create intercontinental Vac-Trains and tunnels.

    Daryl Oster — who is creating a Vac-Train of his own called the ET3 — says it can move at speeds up to 4,000 mph. The American engineer has already sold six licenses to China for possible use.

    Not only could Vac-Trains make airplanes the slower way of travel, they could ultimately make the world a much smaller place. Just imagine living in Washington State, for example and making a trip to the Great Wall of China on a quick weekend excursion.

    Freedom Ship

    But if you ever get a chance to live on what's known as the Freedom Ship, you may not have to take the Vacuum Train to see the world.

    The idea of the Freedom Ship was conceived by engineer Norman Nixon and his company Freedom Ship International, and it's a floating city of condominiums that circles the globe every two years.

    Side view of the Freedom Ship

    The ship would have an airstrip aboard so you wouldn't have to go to an airport if you wanted to fly to the mainland.

    Freedom Ship International says about 18,000 people could live on the ship, which would actually be a flat-bottomed barge, rather than a traditional cruise ship. People could also find employment on the barge, as it would be a functioning city with companies, stores and schools for the children.

    The floating condominiums were supposed to be completed back in 2001, but the company has yet to finish construction due to financial problems.  However, Nixon hasn’t made any announcements of throwing away the idea, and it’s quite possible something may be built in the future.

    Since there has been no word about progress, it could be that Nixon has given up, or he may be secretly working under the media radar. Time will truly tell.

    None of these projects are close to being incorporated into our everyday lives yet, but they are far from being merely good ideas stuck on drawing boards. All of these innovations are at least in the development stages and have gotten some financial backing, and companies have ironed out some of the necessary legalities.

     Both developers and the companies behind them are still in the selling-the-idea phase, but it may not be too long until commercial travel is completely turned upside down. Which would probably be a most welcome development.

    In 2012 it seems commercial air travel is worsening not improving.Overcrowded airports, higher baggage fees and delayed flights force people to consider ...

    Hertz Snaps Up Dollar Thrifty, Passing Avis and Gaining on Enterprise

    Once the deal is closed, three companies will control 95% of the U.S. car-rental market

    As far as your typical consumer is concerned, this might be one of those ho-hum, who-cares stories, but here goes: Hertz is buying Dollar Thrifty, thereby passing Avis and gaining on Enterprise, which also owns Alamo and National.

    In other words, Hertz is now No. 2 so it will have to try harder. What? You thought Avis was No. 2?  Nope, not since yesterday when Hertz sealed its $2.56 billion purchase. The deal means that Hertz will control about 25 percent of the U.S. rental car market. 

    So is this the end of Dollar and Thrifty? By no means, no. Hertz says the purchase "will create a global, multi-brand rental car leader offering customers a full range of rental options through its strong premium and value brands."

    Consumers rate Hertz

    In other words, you'll still be able to pay top price at the Hertz counter or, maybe, step over to the Dollar/Thrifty counter (or take a bus out to the rental shack) and pay a bit less. The company, of course, puts it a bit more elegantly than that.

    "We have always believed that a combination with Dollar Thrifty is the best strategic option for both companies," said Hertz Chairman and CEO Mark P. Frissora.  "The transaction provides Hertz instant scale with two new, well-established brands with airport concession infrastructure in the mid-tier value segment."

    No anti-trust worries

    How can this possibly pass anti-trust muster, you ask? Why, it's simple. Hertz will be getting rid of its Advantage brand. You perhaps haven't heard of Advantage. It's been Hertz' "value" (meaning low-end) brand, the one targeted to cheapskates, like consumer advocates and reporters.

    Snapping up the Advantage business is Franchise Services of North America ("FSNA") and Macquarie Capital.  FSNA's other properties include U-Save, Rent-a-Wreck, Practicar and X Press Rent-a-Car. 

    Once all the cards are shuffled and dealt, Enterprise, Hertz and Avis will control 95 percent of the U.S. car rental market. 

    As far as your typical consumer is concerned, this might be one of those ho-hum, who-cares stories, but here goes: Hertz is buying Dollar Thrifty, thereby ...

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      Apple Targets Eight Samsung Phones for Extinction

      Company stops short of asking for removal of all 28 devices found to violate patents

      Apple has asked a federal judge to order the removal of eight mobile devices made by Samsung from the marketplace, its first request made under its patent suit victory last week.

      A jury in California ruled Friday that 28 Samsung devices violated Apple patents and awarded damages of $1.05 billion. Samsung said it would appeal the verdict.

      The motion Apple filed Monday names eight Samsung devices that it wants banned from sale in the U.S. immediately. The devices are:

      • Galaxy S 4G
      • Galaxy S2 (AT&T)
      • Galaxy S2
      • Galaxy S2 (T-Mobile)
      • Galaxy S2 Epic 4G
      • Galaxy S Showcase
      • Droid Charge
      • Galaxy Prevail.

      The jury found that the devices are among those that infringe on Apple's patents in both design and technology. For its part, Samsung made clear that it would vigorously contest the request.

      Fighting back

      "We will take all necessary measures to ensure the availability of our products in the U.S. market," the company said in a statement.

      The Apple motion took some industry insiders by surprise because it targeted only eight phones, most of which are older models. In filing the motion Apple said it reserves the right to ask for a ban on all 28 Samsung devices later.

      Samsung's latest products, the Galaxy S III and Galaxy Note, are not on the list of 28 devices because they were issued after the lawsuit was filed. It's possible, however, that they could be the subject of a future action.

      Real target Google?

      Though not a target of the lawsuit, Google's Android operating system may feel the repercussions of the verdict. All eight of the smartphones targeted for a ban run on the Android system. The late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs railed against Android, telling his biographer Walter Isaacson at one point that he would not hesitate to "go thermonuclear" against his rival, whom he accused of stealing Apple ideas.

      Some think the verdict might provide a boost to Microsoft's mobile platform. A number of manufacturers, including Samsung, are working on Windows-based devices.

      Apple has asked a federal judge to order the removal of eight mobile devices made by Samsung from the marketplace, its first request made under its patent...

      Christmas Layaway Returns to Walmart

      Critics say layaway programs amount to "hideaways for sky-high interest rates"

      It's not too early to start shopping for Christmas, at least as Walmart sees it.  The giant retailer is bringing back its Christmas layaway program this year. Available nationwide Sept. 16 through Dec. 14, layaway at Walmart gives families an extra month to shop. 

      “Last year, millions of Americans relied on layaway at Walmart to provide a great Christmas for their families. Because of their feedback, we’re offering the service again this year and making it better than ever,” said Duncan Mac Naughton, chief merchandising and marketing officer, Walmart U.S.

      Not everybody thinks this is exactly a gift.

      “These layaway programs are nothing more than hideaways for sky-high interest rates that consumers would never tolerate with a credit card,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) as he lambasted Walmart last year. “The holiday season is supposed to be about giving and not taking, but these layaway programs are taking advantage of people and charging them outrageous interest rates, under the guise of making it easier and more affordable to shop.”

      Citing the prospect of layaway fees that are the equivalent of an 81% credit card APR for a $100 purchase, Schumer called on the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) and the National Retail Federation (NRF) to work with member stores to clearly and prominently display the sky-high interest rate equivalent of the fees these programs charge so that consumers are better informed about the total price they’re paying.

      New features

      Consumers rate Wal-Mart Customer Service
      Walmart may not have granted Schumer's every wish but it has expanded the program with these new features:

      • An expanded list of eligible categories, including small home appliances and select sporting goods such as basketball goals, trampolines and large exercise equipment. Customers can also use layaway for a broad selection of electronics, toys and jewelry.
      • Early layaway access for shoppers who "like" their local Walmart store on Facebook. Customers simply need to sign up on their local Walmart Facebook page beginning August 28 to be able to start their layaway two days early on Sept. 14. 
      • A full refund of the layaway open fee ($15) given on a Walmart gift card for customers who make their final payment.

      Process and Pricing

      • A down payment of 10 percent or $10, whichever is greater, is required and is applied to the purchase. 
      • Individual items must be priced $15 or more, and the total layaway purchase must be at least $50.
      • If the order is cancelled or not paid in full, the open fee is not refunded; however, no additional cancellation fee will be charged.
      2011 Layaway2012 Layaway
      Days to Pay6090
      Open Fee$5$15
      Down Payment10% or $10, whichever is greater10% or $10, whichever is greater
      Cancellation Fee$10$0
      Total Refunded when Completed$0$15 (gift card)

      Schumer said last year that if merchants didn't more fully disclose the fees associated with their layaway programs, he would ask the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to get involved.

      There's no much evidence that's happened, although the FTC does offer some advice for layaway shoppers on its website, consisting mostly of reminders to read the layaway program's terms carefully. An excerpt:

      Look for details on:

      • the terms of the layaway plan: how much time you have to pay for the merchandise or service; when your payments are due; the minimum payment required; and possible charges for using the plan, like a service fee. Find out if there is a fee or a penalty for missed or late payments: Will your contract be cancelled? Will the merchandise be returned to inventory?
      • the refund policy: If you decide you don’t want the merchandise after you’ve made some or all the payments, can you get a refund? Retailers’ policies may differ: some give you all your money back; others may charge a non-refundable service fee; still others may offer a merchant credit for the amount you paid.

      For its part, Walmart notes that terms and conditions of its layaway program may vary from one start to another. Details of the program's open fees and refunds can be found at

      Shopping list 

      If you're wondering what to buy, Walmart says it has also worked with major brands to ensure the holiday season’s top electronics and toys are available in time for its mid-September layaway launch. A few of the season’s most coveted gifts include the following:

      • Apple iPad
      • FURBY by Hasbro
      • LEGO City The Mine
      • Vizio Smart, 3D HDTVs
      • Monster High® High School
      • HP Ultrabook Laptop PCs

      It's not too early to start shopping for Christmas, at least as Walmart sees it.  The giant retailer is bringing back its Christmas layaway program ...

      Consumer Confidence Index Down in August

      Now at lowest level since November 2011

      After showing improvement in July, The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index has declined in August. The Index now stands at 60.6 versus the reading of 65.4 in July.

      he Expectations Index decreased to 70.5 from 78.4. The Present Situation Index, however, was virtually unchanged, at 45.8 versus 45.9 a month ago.

      "The Consumer Confidence Index is now at its lowest level since late last year (Nov. 2011, 55.2),” said Lynn Franco, director of economic indicators at The Conference Board. “A more pessimistic outlook was the primary reason for this month's decline in confidence. Consumers were more apprehensive about business and employment prospects, but more optimistic about their financial prospects despite rising inflation expectations. Consumers' assessment of current conditions was virtually unchanged, suggesting no significant pickup or deterioration in the pace of growth."

      Mixed indicators

      Consumers' assessment of current conditions was little changed in August. Those claiming business conditions are "good" improved to 15.2 percent from 13.7 percent, while those saying business conditions are "bad" was unchanged at 34.4 percent. Consumers' appraisal of the labor market varied. Those stating jobs are "plentiful" declined to 7.0 percent from 7.8 percent, while those claiming jobs are "hard to get" edged down to 40.7 percent from 41.0 percent.

      Consumers' optimism about the short-term outlook deteriorated in August. The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months declined to 16.5 percent from 19.0 percent, while those anticipating business conditions will worsen increased to 17.7 percent from 15.1 percent.

      Consumers' outlook for the labor market was also less favorable. Those expecting more jobs in the months ahead decreased to 15.4 percent from 17.6 percent, while those anticipating fewer jobs rose to 23.4 percent from 20.6 percent. The proportion of consumers expecting an increase in their incomes, however, improved to 15.7 percent from 14.2 percent.

      The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen, a global provider of information and analytics around what consumers buy and watch. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was August 16.

      After showing improvement in July, The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index has declined in August. The Index now stands at 60.6 versus the reading...

      Lack of Sleep Tied to Aggressive Breast Cancer

      Risks increase only after menopause, researchers say

      If you are at risk of breast cancer, make a good night's sleep part of your routine. That, researchers say, will improve your odds of avoiding the disease.

      The team of researchers at Case Western Reserve University say their findings are the first to show an association between insufficient sleep and biologically more aggressive tumors as well as likelihood of cancer recurrence.

      The researchers analyzed medical records and survey responses from 412 post-menopausal breast cancer patients treated at University Hospital Case Medical Center with Oncotype DX, a widely utilized test to guide treatment in early stage breast cancer by predicting likelihood of recurrence.

      Six hours or less not enough

      The patients were recruited at diagnosis and asked about the average amount of sleep they had gotten in the last two years. Researchers found that women who reported six hours or less of sleep per night on average before breast cancer diagnosis had higher Oncotype DX tumor recurrence scores.

      The Oncotype DX test assigns a tumor a recurrence score based on the expression level of a combination of 21 genes.

      "This is the first study to suggest that women who routinely sleep fewer hours may develop more aggressive breast cancers compared with women who sleep longer hours," said Dr. Cheryl Thompson, Assistant Professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and lead author. "We found a strong correlation between fewer hours of sleep per night and worse recurrence scores, specifically in post-menopausal breast cancer patients. This suggests that lack of sufficient sleep may cause more aggressive tumors, but more research will need to be done to verify this finding and understand the causes of this association."

      Doesn't affect pre-menopausal women

      The link between lack of sleep and aggressive cancer appeared only in post-menopausal women, the researchers said. They say that's not surprising since there are different mechanisms underlying pre-menopausal and post-menopausal breast cancers.

      The data suggest that sleep may affect carcinogenic pathways specifically involved in the development of post-menopausal breast cancer, but not pre-menopausal cancer.

      "Short sleep duration is a public health hazard leading not only to obesity, diabetes and heart disease, but also cancer," said Dr. Li Li, a study co-author. "Effective intervention to increase duration of sleep and improve quality of sleep could be an under-appreciated avenue for reducing the risk of developing more aggressive breast cancers and recurrence."

      If you are at risk of breast cancer, make a good night's sleep part of your routine. That, researchers say, will improve your odds of avoiding the disease....

      New Combination Pill Approved for HIV Treatment for Some Patients

      Drugs provide a complete treatment regimen for HIV infection

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved Stribild (elvitegravir, cobicistat, emtricitabine, tenofovir disoproxil fumarate), a new once-a-day combination pill to treat HIV-1 infection in adults who have never been treated for HIV infection.

      Stribild contains two previously approved HIV drugs plus two new drugs, elvitegravir and cobicistat. Elvitegravir is an HIV integrase strand transfer inhibitor, a drug that interferes with one of the enzymes that HIV needs to multiply. Cobicistat, a pharmacokinetic enhancer, inhibits an enzyme that metabolizes certain HIV drugs and is used to prolong the effect of elvitegravir.

      The combination of emtricitabine and tenofovir disoproxil fumarate, approved in 2004 and marketed as Truvada, blocks the action of another enzyme that HIV needs to replicate in a person’s body. Together, these drugs provide a complete treatment regimen for HIV infection.

      Evolving treatment

      Through continued research and drug development, treatment for those infected with HIV has evolved from multi-pill regimens to single-pill regimens,” said Edward Cox, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Office of Antimicrobial Products in FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “New combination HIV drugs like Stribild help simplify treatment regimens.”

      Stribild’s approval is the latest HIV/AIDS-related action taken by the FDA this year. Other actions include approval of the first over-the-counter home-use rapid HIV test; approval of the first drug for pre-exposure prophylaxis in combination with safer sex practices to reduce the risk of sexually acquired HIV infection in adults at high risk; and commemoration of the full or tentative approvals of more than 150 antiretroviral products for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to treat those in countries most affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

      Clinical trials

      The safety and effectiveness of Stribild was evaluated in 1,408 adult patients not previously treated for HIV in two double-blind clinical trials. Patients were randomly assigned to receive Stribild or Atripla, an HIV drug that contains Truvada and efavirenz, once daily in the first trial; and Stribild or Truvada plus atazanavir and ritonavir once daily in the second trial.

      The studies were designed to measure the percentage of patients who had an undetectable amount of HIV in their blood at 48 weeks. Results showed between 88 percent and 90 percent of patients treated with Stribild had an undetectable amount of HIV in their blood, compared with 84 percent treated with Atripla and 87 percent treated with Truvada plus atazanavir and ritonavir.

      Side effects

      Like labels of many other drugs used to treat HIV, Stribild’s label carries a Boxed Warning alerting patients and health care professionals that the drug can cause a build up of lactic acid in the blood and severe liver problems, both of which can be fatal. The Boxed Warning also states that Stribild is not approved to treat chronic hepatitis B virus infection.

      Common side effects observed in clinical trials include nausea and diarrhea. Serious side effects include new or worsening kidney problems, decreased bone mineral density, fat redistribution and changes in the immune system (immune reconstitution syndrome). Stribild’s label gives advice to health care providers on how to monitor patients for kidney or bone side effects.

      Gilead Sciences, Stribild’s manufacturer, is required to conduct additional studies to help further characterize the drug’s safety in women and children, how resistance develops to Stribild, and the possibility of interactions between Stribild and other drugs.

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved Stribild (elvitegravir, cobicistat, emtricitabine, tenofovir disoproxil fumarate), a new once-a-day comb...

      New Federal Standard for High-Powered Magnet Sets in the Works

      The sets pose a sever risk to kids' health

      The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has voted 4 to 0 to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking aimed at developing a new federal standard for small, high-powered magnet sets.

      CPSC staff estimates that small, high powered magnet sets were associated with 1,700 emergency room-treated injuries between 2009 and 2011. The majority of injuries (70 percent) have been to children 4 to 12 years of age.

      Many of these magnet sets are marketed as sculptures, puzzles, and stress relievers and are labeled not for use by children. However, CPSC staff believes these magnet sets have strong appeal to children and pose a potential for high-severity injuries.

      Danger to kids

      If swallowed, these magnets can link together inside a child's intestines and clamp onto body tissues, causing intestinal obstructions, perforations, sepsis and death. Internal damage from magnets can pose serious lifelong health effects.

      The proposed mandatory standard would set performance requirements for magnet sets based on their size and strength. Magnet sets that do not meet the performance requirement could not be sold as a manipulative or a desk toy.

      The proposed rule has a 75 day public comment period.

      The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has voted 4 to 0 to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking aimed at developing a new federal standard for...

      California Charges Real Estate Investment Broker With Fraud

      State says two Sacramento men were running a Ponzi scheme

      There are many ways to lose money in real estate. You can pay more for a house than it's worth, buy a home you can't afford and lose it to foreclosure, or invest money in a real estate investment fund without carefully checking it out.

      With foreclosed homes going for bargain basement prices, a number of savvy brokers have raised money from investors to purchase distressed properties for cash, fix them up and flip them. If you are tempted to invest in such an operation, California Attorney General Kamala Harris suggests investigating it thoroughly.

      Investment fraud

      Harris has brought charges against two Sacramento men, accusing them of stealing more than $3.2 million from investors who were told their money was being invested in a real estate venture to buy and re-sell foreclosed homes.

      “These individuals fraudulently represented themselves as a legitimate business but had no intentions of carrying out what they promised,” Harris said.

      The two men were arraigned earlier this month after being arrested on August 14. They face a combined 36 counts of theft and securities fraud.

      Harris says the pair sold securities in the form of real estate investment contracts to seven investors in California and other states. They allegedly told investors their money would be used to purchase foreclosed homes at low-cost in order to refurbish them to sell for significant profit. While this business model has proven profitable and lucrative in recent months, investors should exercise a high degree of caution, as they should with any investment.

      Ponzi scheme

      Harris says the men used the investment money for personal expenses, to pay unrelated third parties, and to transfer into foreign currency trading platforms.

      To keep up the façade that their money had been invested, Harris says the brokers paid “returns” to investors out of funds they received from other, unrelated third parties. In some cases, they paid investors with their own money.

      Harris says it turned out the brokers were not registered to sell securities in the state of California, which should have been a major tip-off that the deal wasn't legitimate. Before making any similar investment, a first step should be to check out the broker with your state's Secretary of State or State Corporation Commission.

      There are many ways to lose money in real estate. You can pay more for a house than it's worth, buy a home you can't afford and lose it to foreclosure, or ...

      Consumers Who Bought Bogus Supplements Getting Refunds

      Products claimed to help with weight loss and erectile dysfunction

      Consumers who bought widely-advertised supplements that claimed to remedy obesity and erectile dysfunction may still have their original problems but at least they'll be $40.45 richer.

      The Federal Trade Commission is mailing 153,109 checks in that amount to consumers who bought supplements from National Urological Group and Hi-Tech Pharmaceuticals. A federal district court ruled in favor of the FTC back in 2008 and ordered the defendants to provide money for refunds.

      The marketer made false advertising claims that two supposed weight-loss supplements, Thermalean and Lipodrene, were clinically proven to cause substantial weight loss, including a 19 percent loss in total body weight.

      A third supplement, Spontane-ES, supposedly treated erectile dysfunction. The ads deceptively claimed that the supplement was clinically proven to safely and effectively treat 90 percent of men with erectile dysfunction.

      The checks, totaling over $6 million, will be mailed by an administrator working for the FTC. Consumers who have questions about the refund process should call toll free, at 1-877-483-2883, or visit the FTC’s refunds website. The FTC never requires consumers to pay money or provide information before redress checks can be cashed.

      The checks will be valid for 60 days and must be cashed on or before October 23, 2012.

      Consumers who bought widely-advertised supplements that claimed to remedy obesity and erectile dysfunction may still have their original problems but at le...

      Industry Working Group to Study In-Flight Usage of Portable Electronics

      You may be able to play 'Words with Friends' while flying after all

      Given the widespread consumer use of portable electronic devices (PEDs), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is forming a government-industry group to determine when these devices can be used safely during flight.

      Current FAA regulations require an aircraft operator to determine that radio frequency interference from PEDs are not a flight safety risk before the operator authorizes them for use during certain phases of flight.

      With so many different types of devices available, we recognize that this is an issue of consumer interest,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Safety is our highest priority, and we must set appropriate standards as we help the industry consider when passengers can use the latest technologies safely during a flight.”

      Wide-ranging study

      The government-industry group will examine a variety of issues, including the testing methods aircraft operators use to determine which new technologies passengers can safely use aboard aircraft and when they can use them.

      The group will also look at the establishment of technological standards associated with the use of PEDs during any phase of flight. The group will then present its recommendations to the FAA. The group will not consider the airborne use of cell phones for voice communications during flight.

      We’re looking for information to help air carriers and operators decide if they can allow more widespread use of electronic devices in today’s aircraft,” said Acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “We also want solid safety data to make sure tomorrow’s aircraft designs are protected from interference.”

      Information gathering

      The government–industry group, established through an Aviation Rulemaking Committee, will be formally established this fall and will meet for six months. It will include representatives from the mobile technology and aviation manufacturing industries, pilot and flight attendant groups, airlines, and passenger associations.

      As the first step in gathering information for the working group, the FAA is seeking public input on the agency’s current PED policies, guidance and procedures for operators.

      The Request for Comments, which will appear in the Federal Register on August 28th, is part of a data-driven agency initiative to review the methods and criteria operators use to permit PEDs during flights.

      The FAA is seeking comments in the following areas:

      • Operational, safety and security challenges associated with expanding PED use.
      • Data sharing between aircraft operators and manufacturers to facilitate authorization of PED use.
      • Necessity of new certification regulations requiring new aircraft designs to tolerate PED emissions.
      • Information-sharing for manufacturers who already have proven PED and aircraft system compatibility to provide information to operators for new and modified aircraft.
      • Development of consumer electronics industry standards for aircraft-friendly PEDs, or aircraft-compatible modes of operation.
      • Required publication of aircraft operators’ PED policies.
      • Restriction of PED use during takeoff, approach, landing and abnormal conditions to avoid distracting passengers during safety briefings and prevent possible injury to passengers.
      • Development of standards for systems that actively detect potentially hazardous PED emissions.
      • Technical challenges associated with further PED usage, and support from PED manufacturers to commercial aircraft operators.

      Given the widespread consumer use of portable electronic devices (PEDs), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is forming a government-industry group t...

      Internal Revenue Services to be Limited During the Labor Day Weekend

      Maintenance and upgrading of an electrical system will curtail some activities

      A planned power outage around the Labor Day weekend will affect a number of Internal Revenue Service (IRS) systems and limit the availability of several services between Thursday, Aug. 30 and Tuesday, Sept. 4. 

      The systems will be unavailable due to maintenance and upgrading an electrical system. 

      Detailed information describing what systems are affected by the temporary outage can be found below: 

      Toll-free services 

      • Assistors who support the main toll-free lines can only provide limited service beginning early Thursday morning, Aug. 30 through 4 p.m. ET Friday, Aug. 31. During this time, help will be available for tax law issues, but the system will be unable to access or update tax account information.
      • The main toll-free system will be completely unavailable after 4 p.m. ET Friday until noon ET on Tuesday, September 4. For the tax practitioner community, the e-help desk toll-free service and the Practitioner Priority Service will be available during the dates and times indicated above. 

      Taxpayer Assistance Centers 

      • The Taxpayer Assistance Centers (TACs) will remain open for their regular hours during the outage period. They will be able to answer your tax law questions, prepare your returns and perform limited service to your tax account. If you need to make a tax payment, the TACs can accept most forms of payment, including checks and money orders, but cannot accept cash payments during the outage period. 

      Taxpayer notice information 

      • If you have questions on a CP2000 notice, you received in the mail and you need to call the IRS, assistors will be available at the toll-free number included in the notice throughout the maintenance period.
      • Help will be available on other notices associated with a balance due or an open correspondence exam issue through 4 p.m. ET Friday, Aug. 31 and after noon ET on Tuesday Sept. 4.
      • Help on notices related to levies or liens will be unavailable Thursday, Aug. 30 until noon ET on Tuesday, Sept. 4. 

      Information for business filers 

      • If you are a business filer and in need of an Employee Identification Number or need to make a Federal Tax Deposit, it's best to do so before Friday, Aug. 31 at 4 p.m. Those services will not be available until the outage period ends and the systems are restored around noon ET on Tuesday, Sept. 4. 

      Information for student aid applicants 

      • If you need to file the Federal Application for Student Aid form, the FAFSA will be available electronically, but the fields requiring tax return information will not automatically populate during the outage. Keep these outage dates in mind as you or your student(s) need to submit this form, particularly if you don’t have access to previous year’s tax returns. 

      Interactive tax assistant availability 

      • The Interactive Tax Assistant will be available on throughout the outage period. 

      Electronic federal tax payment system 

      • You will be able to make payments through the EFTPS. Your account will be updated after the outage period and will reflect the date you made the payment.

      A planned power outage around the Labor Day weekend will affect a number of IRS systems and limit the availability of several services between Thursday, Au...

      GM to Stop Making Chevy Volt for a Month

      But it has nothing to do with sales, automaker says

      It was first reported in Automotive News. USA Today and other news outlets have since confirmed it. General Motors is going to stop making the electric vehicle Chevrolet Volt for a month at it's Hamtramck, MI plant.

      But the automaker says sales are fine and the stoppage has nothing to do with inventories of unsold Volts. USA Today quotes Chevrolet spokesman David Darovitz as saying the plant is switching over to producing the Chevrolet Impala, which is undergoing a redesign.

      Political football

      The Chevy Volt has become a political football, especially in a political year. Because it's an all-electric vehicle and because GM received a large government bailout, political conservatives have tended to question it's market viability. Political progressives tend to laud it as a big step toward green transportation.

      In a recent interview with Fox News, Lee Speakerman, CEO of Speakerman Media, a conservative media consultant hired to promote the Volt, said there are a number of political myths surrounding the car. Speakerman said his fellow conservatives are simply wrong about the Volt.

      "They're perpetuating this myth that the Volt was some kind of Obama administration green energy fantasy that was forced on General Motors during the bailout," Speakerman said. "It was in development two years before Obama was elected. The tax break for buying the Volt was implemented by the Bush administration."

      Runs on fossil fuel

      Since the Volt is a "plug-in," meaning its batteries are charged by plugging it into an electric outlet, Speakerman says the Volt actually runs on fossil fuel and is the quickest and easiest way to convert natural gas -- which is plentiful and cheap and powers many electric utilities -- to a transportation fuel.

      GM says it has sold more than 10,000 Volts through July, more than three times the number sold in the same period a year ago. The car looks a lot like the Chevy Cruze but costs about twice a much, mainly because of the bank of batteries that allows the Volt to go about 38 miles before a small gasoline engine kicks in to recharge.

      Safety probe

      Politics aside, there are a few issues that engineers are checking out with the Volt. Last year the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) opened a formal safety defect investigation after a Volt caught fire after a crash at a federal test site. NHTSA said the probe would determine whether the batteries in the car are safe.

      NHTSA said it knows of no highway accidents that caused Volts to catch fire, but as of late 2011 there had been two reports of fires involving Volts parked in garages. People who have purchased a Volt, meanwhile, appear undeterred.

      The Volt topped 2011's Consumer Reports owner-satisfaction study with 93 percent of Volt owners saying they "definitely" buy one again.

      It was first reported in Automotive News. USA Today and other news outlets have since confirmed it. General Motors is going to stop making the electric veh...

      Two Scams in Pacific Northwest Target Seniors

      Officials in Washington and Oregon caution consumers about giving out personal information

      Senior citizens have always been scammers' favorite target and now they are the focus of two new scams that have arisen in the Pacific Northwest.

      Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum says her office has received an "influx" of reports from seniors who got unsolicited telephone calls regarding updates to their medical cards. The scam artist making these calls asks for the consumer's bank account and/or routing number in order to process the update.

      Rosenblum says the crooks behind the scam may already have some personal information about their victims, which makes this scheme even more dangerous. The senior at the other end of the line is more inclined to believe the call is legitimate. It's not.

      Rosenblum says consumers should never share their personal or financial information with anyone by email or over the phone.

      Washington scam alert

      In neighboring Washington, Attorney General Rob McKenna is receiving reports from seniors who say they've had calls from solicitors posing as state agents for a senior property tax relief program.

      Specifically, the seniors report the callers try to sell them reverse mortgages while falsely claiming to work for the state. McKenna said consumers reported a flurry of calls last week came from a group calling itself "Seniors First," in which callers either implied or overtly started that they were affiliated with the Washington state government.

      There actually is an organization called Seniors First, but McKenna said the group denied it is making the bogus claims.

      According to the complaints, the callers asked for personal information such as employment status, income and age under the guise of helping them determine whether they qualify for Washington’s property tax relief programs, or for aid and assistance programs for veterans.

      McKenna said consumers should never give out personal information over the phone to someone they do not know. If they want to find out more about property tax relief programs, he says they should contact their county assessor’s office.

      Senior citizens have always been scammers' favorite target and now they are the focus of two new scams that have arisen in the Pacific Northwest.Oregon A...

      Limiting TV Time is Effective Strategy for Preventing Weight Gain In Children

      New study highlights how parents can help their youngsters achieve a healthier lifestyle

      Turn off the tube! That's the advice of a study on ways to keep your kids from becoming obese couch potatoes. 

      The study, released in the September/October 2012 issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, found that reducing television viewing may be an effective strategy to prevent excess weight gain among adolescents. 

      Careful tracking 

      Findings were based on a one-year community-based randomized trial that enrolled 153 adults and 72 adolescents from the same households. During that year, researchers from the University of Minnesota, School of Public Health Obesity Prevention Center conducted six face-to-face group meetings, sent monthly newsletters, and set-up 12 home-based activities. 

      In addition, each household agreed to allow researchers to attach a "TV Allowance" to all televisions in the household for the one-year study period. Television viewing hours, diet, and physical activity levels were measured before and after the intervention. 

      A clear association was observed among adolescents between reduction in TV hours and decreased weight gain over one year. The TV hours' impact on weight gain was not significant for adults. These findings suggest that television viewing is a risk for excess weight gain among adolescents. The implication is that parents who limit their adolescents' television viewing may help their adolescent maintain a healthy body weight. 

      According to national survey data [NHANES] 2003-2006, about 31% of US children and adolescents are overweight or obese, therefore finding the causes for weight gain in this population is growing increasingly important. 

      Baby steps 

      "We tried to intervene on behaviors that are related to energy balance, such as television viewing, sugar-sweetened beverage intake, physical activity, and consumption of packaged convenience foods,” said Simone A. French, PhD, principal investigator of the study and the director of the University of Minnesota's Obesity Prevention Center. “Although the individual contribution of each of these behaviors to excess weight gain and obesity may be small, it is important to examine their possible role individually and together in promoting excess weight gain. Associations between these behaviors and risk for excess weight gain may differ among adults and adolescents because of their different physical and social developmental stages. 

      "This study is an important piece of evidence that reducing TV hours is a powerful weight gain prevention strategy parents can use to help prevent excess weight gain among their children by changing the home environment and household television viewing norms," French concluded.

      Turn off the tube! That's the advice of a study on ways to keep your kids from becoming obese couch potatoes....

      Four Keys to a Healthy Blood Pressure

      Researchers say a healthy lifestyle will keep blood pressure in a healthy range

      If you ask your doctor the cause of high blood pressure, she'll probably tell you that there's no way to know for sure. But researchers increasingly say there are things you can do to reduce your risks of developing it.

      A healthy lifestyle -- getting exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding tobacco, using alcohol in moderation and eating a balanced diet -- reduces the risk of hypertension by two-thirds, according to research by Professor Pekka Jousilahti from the National Institute for Health and Welfare, in Helsinki, Finland.

      High blood pressure, or hypertension, has increased with obesity. According to the World Health Organization, hypertension is the leading cause of death in the world. It now contributes to over seven million deaths a year.

      Alcohol, activity, vegetables and body weight

      The study examined people who were assigned to one of four different categories, based on their level of healthy living. Those categories were made of moderate alcohol consumption, leisure time physical activity at least three times per week, daily consumption of vegetables, and normal body weight.

      Smoking was not included in the analysis because Jousilahti said it was not associated with the development of hypertension in the team's analyses.

      "The risk of hypertension was only one-third among those having all four healthy lifestyle factors compared to those having none," said Jousilahti. "Even having one to three healthy lifestyle factors reduced the risk of hypertension remarkably. For example having two healthy lifestyle factors reduced the risk of hypertension by nearly 50 percent in men and by more than 30 percent in women."

      Bigger impact on men

      Jousilahti said the study suggests that maintaining a healthy lifestyle may have more of an impact on risk of hypertension in men than women.

      "This could be because of the stronger association of obesity and alcohol consumption with the risk of hypertension in men than in women," he said.

      While consumers spend billions of dollars each year on medication to control blood pressure, Jousilahti says the control may be within the grasp of each individual, at much less cost.

      "Four modifiable lifestyle factors: alcohol consumption, physical activity, consumption of vegetables and keeping normal weight have a remarkable effect on the development of hypertension," he said. "Lifestyle modification has a huge public health potential to prevent hypertension."

      If you ask your doctor the cause of high blood pressure, she'll probably tell you that there's no way to know for sure. But researchers increasingly say th...

      Mom and Pop Stores: How Do The Succesful Ones Survive?

      There's still a spot for some kinds of local stores, but they need to be digitally savy

      A record store. Remember records? Remember stores? Photo credit - Sirylok,

      Even with all of the technology we have at our disposal today, the earth still holds its fair share of mysteries. Like how come water can't be duplicated? Or how high does the sky really go?

      Another earthly mystery — although more solvable — is how do mom-and-pop stores survive in today's world of big store chains and giant franchises?

      This question always plagues me whenever I see a small storefront window in the midst of large shopping centers with their brightly lit windows and multitudes of people. It's baffling to me. How do they stay in business?

      Take record stores for example. Between the double whammy of the Internet and big-box retailers, mom-and-pop record stores have pretty much spun their last. 

      Not so long ago going to a brick-and-mortar store to thumb through rows of vinyl, cassettes and CDs was a joyful part of the music listening experience. Today consumers seek out music with the expectation that it should not only be received immediately but also for free, or close to it.

      Newly-released music is treated almost as if it's disposable, which has even made large retail stores suffer. I mean think about it, when was the last time you went to Best-Buy to purchase a CD? It's probably been a while, which shows that all stores — big and small — are suffering in this particular area.

      But somehow not all mom-and-pops are hurting, which brings me back to my point of being amazed whenever I see one wedged between two chain stores. I always think it's beautifully defiant.

      It's like seeing an older person at a music concert full of twenty-something’s. It's like two people from completely different cultures finding common ground or even falling in love despite social norms.

      It's a way of small family-owned businesses saying, "Hey, we're still here and we're providing a type of service you big guys can't."

      Some mom-and-pop stores have learned through the years that a certain number of consumers just won't deviate from the way they use to purchase things. This has helped many independent store owners stay competitive, especially in the area of music sales. Others have harnessed the Internet to turn their brick-and-mortar store into a real community that exists both offline and on.

      Digital hurts and helps

      Amoeba's Hollywood store

      Although both retail chains and the Internet have hurt mom-and-pop stores, Johnson Lee, owner of  Joe's Record Paradise, a D.C.- area store, says successful stores are using the web to their advantage as a way to bring their niche consumers together for proper advertising and community-building.

      “At this point digital is big for us, i.e. Facebook, emails, lists, groups. You go on the Internet you find jazz vinyl lovers [for example], where all they do all day is talk about is 1950s jazz,” says Lee.

      “If you can get into that, and say, hey guys we got lots of that, then promoting has become a little bit easier. You used to have to pay a newspaper to print something for you and now you can sort of get around that a little bit,” he explains.

      One of the most spectacular examples of using digital media to sell older forms of music and entertainment is Amoeba, the California stores that have expanded beyond the mom-and-pop category but are still essentially local retailers surviving in a category that's supposed to be obsolete.

      Amoeba operates stores in Hollywood, Berkeley and San Francisco and sells nearly every conceivable kind of music and movies "from the top 40 to the best in underground rock and hip-hop, soul, electronica, new and classic jazz, world music, roots music and experimental music," as the stores' website proclaims.  Amoeba sells and buys mostly vinyl LPs, CDs and DVDs, both new and used, but it also stocks turntables and other gear, sells downloads of some recordings and sponsors all kinds of in-store and around-town activities.

      Inside Amoeba's Hollywood store

      "We're more than just a record store-- we're a 21st century music outlet, a website, a popular live performance venue, and together with our customers we're a meeting place for California's most colorful community of progressive and creative minds," Amoeba says. 

      My colleague Truman Lewis, an Amoeba fan, says that Amoeba is "what Borders Books was trying to be -- a community gathering place that attracts a wide range of consumers looking for a shopping experience and social outing that amounts to a little more than sitting in front of a computer screen." 

      Besides buying and selling records, CDs and DVDs, you see live performances, listen to poetry readings, go to a cookbook party, meet recording artists and even register to vote. 

      At the Amoeba store on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood, you also have a shot at running into some of the actors and artists whose work you admire -- not to mention bumping into actors and artists whose work you may admire a few years from now. The place is routinely packed right up until its 11 p.m. closing time each night.   

      Niche market

      Johnson Lee, Joe's Record Paradise

      “It's a niche market that really never went away," said Johnson Lee. “A lot of people thought vinyl died when it just hibernated for a bit. There was always the core group of people that would never switch to a different format because they're addicted to vinyl.

      “They love the sound, the feel of it, the artwork,” and the liner notes he said. “Big business corporate guys, they don't want small businesses around because it challenges their supremacy.”

      Lee also said that mom-and-pop's survival sometimes depends on consumer trends returning from the past and younger generations being exposed to the buying ways of yesteryear.

      “For at least ten years kids thought that's all there was, [digital music]” he says. “I've got young kids now and you turn on Nickelodeon and there will be a waffle commercial and the kid is DJ'ing a waffle, so the kids are being indoctrinated again to the vinyl side of things, which may be an industry move after all.

      “At least the industry is somewhat supporting this move because you can't download vinyl, he adds. “If they [the music industry] print a vinyl record, they actually get to sell it instead of having the new Britney Spears album get spread to the millions of teenage girls that have Dropbox.”

      Lee notes there is practically a universe of content that has not yet made it into digital form, and perhaps never will. 

      “There's so much music from the 50, 60s, 70s, 80s, that never made it to CD,” says Lee. “So you come in here and you spend two or three hours, you're going to find 150 new artists that you never heard of that may interest you and lead you to other bands that they were in.”

      Original form 

      Lee also says people of the older generations are bringing their kids and grandkids into mom-and-pop stores not only to introduce them to products of the past, but also to introduce them to the way things were bought in previous times. “It's a cultural point to come and check out American soul,” he says.

      Lee took over the music shop, located in Silver Spring, Md. from his father Joe back in 2008, and the 36-year old says the family-owned business actually started in Los Angeles on Hollywood Boulevard, under the name Platypus Records.

      After Lee's parents wanted to settle down in a more residential area, they decided to return to Joe's childhood stomping ground within the Washington, D.C., area.

      Despite taking over the store around the time the current recession hit, Lee says he's been able to expand his location twice over and at the moment the store is in good financial standing.

      What advice does Lee have for people starting small businesses in today's risky business climate?

      “You just have to be smart, work hard, make good decisions and hopefully you'll survive, he says. “No one here is getting rich, but it’s a tradeoff. If you've got enough luck you'll make it.”

      Even with all of the technology we have at our disposal today, the earth still holds its fair share of mysteries. Like how come water can't be duplica...

      Report Shows Consumers' Incomes Declined During Recovery

      The recession is over, except for U.S. households

      The Great Recession officially ended in June 2009 but for many consumers, it feels like it has continued. That may be because for consumers, it has.

      Consider that a recession is defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the total of all goods and services bought and sold in the economy. One small part of GDP is consumers' household income.

      While the overall economy has managed at least some growth in each quarter over the last three years, consumers' incomes have declined during that same period, according to a report by Sentier Research, a survey and data analysis company. It might not be much of a stretch to suggest that while the recession has ended for the economy as a whole, it is continuing for consumers.

      Income, not net worth

      Keep in mind we are not talking about net worth, which would include the value of homes and financial investments. It has previously been documented that net worth has declined since the Great Recession. What the Sentier report focuses on is just income -- the money consumers receive from jobs, businesses, investments, pensions, etc.

      According to the Sentier report, median annual household income declined during the recession, from $54,916 in December 2007 to $53,508 in June 2009. That's the point at which the economy began to register positive growth.

      But the downward trend in household income continued, according to Sentier. During the last three years of economic recovery, real median annual household income has fallen to $50,964 -- a decline of 4.7 percent over the last three years. During the same period, the economy has grown an average 3.9 percent per quarter.

      A consumer recession?

      If consumer households were considered businesses, that would be negative annual growth of 1.5 percent, which would constitute a deep and prolonged recession.

      “This latest report continues our efforts to help chronicle one important dimension of the economic hardships now being experienced by a large number of American households,” said Gordon Green of Sentier Research. “In many ways, median household income provides a measure of the net effect of economic activity on the middle class and how well they are able to buy food, housing, and other necessities every month, especially now during this unprecedented period of economic stagnation.”

      Drilling deeper into the numbers, Sentier reports almost every consumer subgroup is worse off now than it was three years ago.

      For households made up of consumers between 25 and 34 years old, income declined by 8.9 percent. Among households in which the householder has some college but no degree, real median annual income declined by 9.3 percent. For households headed by a self-employed person, income declined 9.4 percent. Among households with a householder between 55 and 64 years old, income fell 9.7 percent.

      The only group that saw its income rise over the last three years were people over age 65, who presumably receive Social Security and funds from retirement accounts as a major part of their income.

      The Great Recession officially ended in June 2009 but for many consumers, it feels like it has continued. That may be because for consumers, it has.Consi...

      Facebook Feels No Love From Wall Street or Some Users

      Stock price has plunged from May's IPO and users continue to grumble

      When Facebook stock began trading in May, lots of people dreamed of striking it rich by getting in early on the initial public offering (IPO). That's turned out to be one of the year's most bitter miscalculations.

      Those who brought on day one at the IPO price of $38 a share have seen their investment fall by 50 percent. Facebook opened this week's trading at $19.41. So what happened to one of the Street's can't miss opportunities?

      It turns out that at $38 a share, Facebook's IPO was way overvalued. The underwriters who set the price assumed that traders would buy "potential," the way they did during the dot-com boom when Wall Street bid up the prices of Internet companies that had never turned a dime in profit.

      Still overvalued?

      Even at $19.41 a share there are some who think Facebook stock is still overvalued. It's price-to-earnings (PE) ratio is 67 - meaning investors must pay $67 for every $1 of company profit. When the PE ratio is that high, the company must promise incredible growth to justify such a valuation. Meanwhile, you can buy another fast-growing company, Apple, and pay less than $16 for each dollar of earnings. Which looks like the better buy?

      That's not to say that Facebook isn't now turning a profit and has the potential to earn more in the future. After all, when you have 900 million or so users, there should be a way to monetize all those eyeballs.

      But what if having such a huge customer base turns out to be a giant Achilles heel? A review of recent consumer complaints about Facebook shows many users are frustrated with a particular aspect of the company but can find no way to communicate it.

      Complaints about a lack of response

      For example, an anonymous user in San Diego posted a complaint at ConsumerAffairs about an individual he claims is running a real estate investment scam on Facebook.

      "He steals deposits, investment funds and is not a licensed real estate person," the user writes. "Facebook continues to host his page with no regard to the members that he is stealing money from. Facebook has been notified of the fraud. There has been no contact from Facebook with regard to any investigation."

      Some users continue to express surprise when Facebook suspends their accounts because they have "friended" other users who say they don't know them. The suspended user expresses surprise because Facebook frequently suggests these people as potential new "friends."

      "I was banned for seven days for befriending people online," Ricky, of Canaan, NH wrote at ConsumerAffairs. "When playing blackjack, people 'friend' people all the time, who they don't know and you people give extra money for friending. I think it's my right to choose who I can be friends with or not. If they accept, fine. If they don't want to be your friend, then don't accept them."

      Customer service challenge

      Consumers rate Facebook

      While Apple may be the world's biggest company in terms of market cap, Facebook is probably the world's largest in terms of "customers," though it collects no money directly from its users. But while having 900 million "customers" gives Facebook enormous potential, it also gives the company enormous headaches.

      How do you deal with 900 million people? It's not like you can set up call centers all over the world to take phone calls -- though clearly many of the users who post complaints would like them to.

      Meanwhile, Facebook's disappointing Wall Street debut has soured the mood for other IPOs, according to Jeffrey Goldberger, Managing Partner of KCSA Strategic Communications.

      "With great anticipation, the US capital markets embraced the next generation of Internet sensations such as Facebook, Groupon and Zynga only to see the stocks prices of these companies plummet to levels well below their IPO price," Goldberger said. "So while initial backers, management and public investors have taken their lumps in the form of decreased stock value, the fallout of this negative sentiment has had an astonishingly detrimental effect on the IPO market."

      When Facebook stock began trading in May, lots of people dreamed of striking it rich by getting in early on the initial public offering (IPO). That's turne...