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    Target's brand engagement off 85% after cyber stick-up

    "Trust and security" is the third-most-important engagement driver

    Robert Passikoff is President of Brand Keys. a retail consultancy.


    We figure that one in three of you are pretty concerned about this because, as it turns out, the cyber attack on personal and credit/debit card information previously reported to have included 40 million consumers, turns out to be closer to 110 million. So about one-third of the U.S. population.

    Neiman Marcus, working with the U.S. Secret Service and a forensics team, is investigating a similar, mid-December breach of yet-undetermined size, but the term "millions" is being bandied about. Neiman Marcus tweeted last Friday that they "are taking steps, where possible, to notify customers whose cards we know were use fraudulently after purchasing in our stores."

    Target ran full-page newspaper ads yesterday apologizing for not protecting the consumer information they gather when you shop with them, indicating what "next steps" they were taking to "earn back your trust and confidence and ensure that (they) deliver the Target experience you know and love," which we're pretty sure didn't include turning all your personal and financial information over to cyber criminals.

    A nice sentiment but ...

    OK, so a nice sentiment and an interesting turn of phrase. Apologies and contrition are always the first steps in trying to turn around a brand debacle of any magnitude, let alone one that touches a third of the population. But to avoid a real disaster you need to understand the degree to which and in what specific ways values –-- in this case – those of trust and security--– affect brand engagement.

    Looking at the Discount Retail category, "Trust and Security" (defined precisely as related to this specific set of circumstances) is the third most-important engagement driver and makes a 28% contribution to consumer engagement and loyalty. That's based off what consumers expect from the category Ideal. (BTW, it makes an even bigger contribution for Online Retailers).

    Before the breach the Target brand met consumer expectations for those values about as well as Walmart and Kmart. None of those three brands actually met expectations consumers held for those values for the Ideal. Consumers expect a lot these days, almost always more than brands deliver, but in this case all three retail brands fell within acceptable ranges, which is important even if we're not talking about personal and financial information. Brands that better meet expectations for specific values or on an overall category basis always do better than brands that don't.

    The engagement is off with Target

    Anyway, as you might have guessed, Target isn't meeting trust and security expectations in that acceptable range anymore, having lost nearly 85% of their brand equity on those values.

    In fact, according to assessments from the Brand Keys 2014 Customer Loyalty Engagement Index, Target's current brand engagement level --– the degree to which the brand is seen by customers to be able to meet their expectations for those values –-- is currently assessed at about 6%. So not doing too well and, based on metrics that correlate very highly with consumer behavior, not likely to in the near-term.

    Target has already seen impacts to consumer behavior, or, more precisely, the lack thereof, and has already reported sales as being "meaningfully weaker" after the cyber-hack was disclosed. They expect same-store sales to fall in the quarter through January. Based on these engagement measures, so do we.

    This has not, of course, been the first time retailers have been hit this way, but Target may turn out to be the biggest. In times past retailers had days to reach out to customers quietly to try and deal with breaches and mend brand fences. But with the kind of mobile and social networks in place, news of such attacks goes viral in hours.

    W. Edwards Demming, American statistician and professor, who made significant contributions to Japan's reputation for innovative, high-quality products by creating design and quality standards that exceeded customer expectations said, "In God we trust; all others bring data."

    But under the circumstances, perhaps satirist Jean Shepard's version is a better catchphrase for Target: "In God we trust; all others pay cash!"

    Robert Passikoff is President of Brand Keys. a retail consultancy.---We figure that one in three of you are pretty concerned about this because, as it ...

    Extra headaches for underwater mortgages in the military

    Active-duty military status complicates financial matters -- but help is available

    Last month, underwater mortgage holders whose loans are held by Ocwen Financial got some possible good news: as part of a consent order with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), authorities in 49 states, and the District of Columbia, Ocwen must offer $2 billion in principal reductions to underwater homeowners, and refund $125 million to the nearly 185,000 homeowners who have already been through foreclosure.

    When we reported this, we also shared stories from unhappy homeowners who reported bad experiences with Ocwen. And recently, we heard from yet another underwater homeowner whose situation is even more precarious than most: he is in the military and on the verge of being transferred to a new duty station — so he has to move regardless of whether or not he manages to clean up his mortgage mess. Here's what he wrote us last Friday:

    “I am unfortunately one of those whose policy was sold to Ocwen without my consent. Now I'm in over my head and have to deal with this extremely subpar company. I am not getting any help from Ocwen themselves in determining if I am eligible for the principal reductions and loan modifications. Do you happen to know if there is any other way or someone else to contact? I don't really know where to turn and now in the middle of a PCS move cross country and can't sell my house because it costs more than what it's worth.”

    The standard answer to that question is that borrowers seeking information about loan modification programs can contact Ocwen at 1-800-337-6695or ConsumerRelief@Ocwen.com.But active duty military status adds a few complications.

    If you have a security clearance, for example, your security manager must be informed of your financial difficulties. As a retired military friend of ours put it, “His security manager needs to know every time there may or may not be a hit on his credit rating.”

    Active duty personnel might find help through the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, which “covers issues such as rental agreements, security deposits, prepaid rent, eviction, installment contracts, credit card interest rates, mortgage interest rates, mortgage foreclosure, civil judicial proceedings, automobile leases, life insurance, health insurance and income tax payments” for active duty military personnel and their dependents.

    Legal assistance officers

    The justice department's SCRA page urges military personnel to “contact your nearest Armed Forces Legal Assistance Program office to see if the SCRA applies.... Please consult the military legal assistance office locator for each branch of the armed forces.”

    But the military's Legal Assistance program might not be enough. We spoke to a source who worked as a civilian attorney attached to various Judge Advocate General's (JAG) offices, and he told us the range of services provided by Legal Assistance is very limited in scope, and it is highly unlikely one would get the level of expertise available from the private bar.

    Despite this, the SCRA requires that any servicemember wishing to have his or her case reviewed by the Department of Justice must “must first seek the assistance of your military legal assistance office. ”

    Attorneys have one thing in common with doctors: in situations where there's a lot at stake, it often pays to get a second opinion. Military personnel facing foreclosure or loan-modification problems should definitely seek help through official Legal Assistance channels — but it wouldn't hurt to seek the advice of a private attorney, too.

    The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act and other laws might help...

    False "like" allegations lead to Facebook lawsuits

    Is Facebook monetizing opinions you don't actually hold?

    Like all social media companies, Facebook uses proprietary algorithms to determine everything from what advertisements you see on your “feed” to which of your friends' posts get priority over others. Because they're proprietary, nobody (save for a few high-ranking Facebook executives) can say exactly what they are, and such confusion might be the foundation for some odd lawsuits Facebook's been facing recently.

    Colorado resident Anthony DiTorro is suing Facebook for misrepresentation, claiming that he (DiTorro) has never visited the USA Today website, let alone “liked” it, yet a perusal of DiTorro's online Facebook activity allegedly shows that DiTorro “liked” USA Today, and Facebook even went so far as to mention this in sponsored posts pushing USA Today in the personal feeds of his friends.

    Know who your friends are

    A brief pause to explain Facebook terminology: if you have a Facebook account, you can choose exactly which people can see it or post on it; these people are your Facebook “friends.” The place where you actually do things – your virtual online hangout, if you will – is your Facebook “Wall.” You can post comments, pictures and links on your own Wall, or your friends' Walls. Your “Feed” is where you see various posts and comments your Friends made on their Walls or others'. Your Feed will also include “sponsored posts,” which are basically advertisements. And, finally: if you want, you can click a little button indicating that you “like” any given post or comment.

    So it's hard to discuss a Facebook lawsuit without sounding rather middle-schoolish, debating such questions as, “Do you or do you not 'like' this?” or “Are you or are you not his 'friend'?” But DiTorro's lawsuit ultimately is based on the allegation that DiTorro never made any Facebook posts or clicked any “Like” buttons in favor of USA Today, yet Facebook falsely let DiTorro's Friends think he did.

    It's tempting to chuckle over DiTorro's umbrage here (“USA Today? How dare you accuse me of reading a Gannett publication! Them's fightin' words”), but in all seriousness: imagine how you'd feel if your friends and family thought you supported something you actually found downright abhorrent: a politician whose policies you firmly oppose, say.

    DiTorro's is hardly the only lawsuit making such allegations against Facebook. Last month, just before the New Year turned, two Facebook users in California alleged that Facebook has been scanning the contents of private messages in order to boost various “like” counts.

    Awful politician

    Going back to the earlier example of the politician you despise: imagine you and a Facebook friend are having a discussion over the Facebook private message system, specifically discussing how much you dislike that politico. You send a link to his page, along with the comment “Look at this incredibly stupid new policy he's promoting now!” and your friend responds, “Terrible! He really is an awful politician, isn't he?”

    According to the lawsuit, your little discussion there ends up increasing said politician's “like” count, thus making him appear more popular than he actually is.

    But that lawsuit makes far more serious allegations: that such scans of private messages violate anti-wiretapping laws. The lawsuit alleges “Facebook misleads users into believing that they have a secure, private mechanism for communication -- Facebook’s private messaging function -- when, in fact, Facebook intercepts and scans the content and treats portions of that content no differently than a public 'Like' or post, broadcast openly across the Internet.”

    If you're worried that Facebook is using your own name to push products or causes you don't actually like, you might try posting a request on your own Facebook Wall, asking your friends to give you a heads-up if they see any announcements that you “liked” something. (But make sure you word your request very carefully, lest you find yourself inundated with messages saying “Hey, Facebook says you 'like' the fact that your friend just had a healthy baby!” Trust us on this.)

    Like all social media companies, Facebook uses proprietary algorithms to determine everything from what advertisements you see on your "feed" t...

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      DirecTV gives the Weather Channel the boot

      It's the latest fee dispute among the giants of the TV world

      If you like to sit around and watch The Weather Channel, you'll have to do it somewhere other than on DirecTV, which has ousted the Weather Channel from its line-up, replacing it with a start-up called WeatherNation.

      Both sides, as usual, accuse the other of being greedy and unreasonable, though in slightly more polite language.

      “This is unprecedented for The Weather Channel. In our 32 years, we have never had a significant disruption due to a failure to reach a carriage agreement. We offered DirecTV the best rate for our programming, and I am shocked they have put corporate profits ahead of keeping a trusted channel that subscribers rely on every day," said David Kenny, chairman and CEO of The Weather Company.

      "We are not looking for a large fee increase. We are simply looking for a fair deal that allows our company to continue to invest in the science and technology that enables us to keep people safe, deliver the world’s best weather, and tell weather stories to help people be prepared and informed," Kenny insisted.

      "Cheap start-up"

      Consumers rate DirecTV

      Kenny accused DirecTV of putting finances before safety, claiming that WeatherNation is a “cheap start-up that does weather forecasting on a three-hour taped loop, has no field coverage, no weather experts.”

      Not content to just gaze out the window, WeatherNation is beefing up its operations. Itannounced yesterday the deployment of sophisticated weather visualization tools from Baron Services, Inc., that will include tools for real-time weather forecasting software and 3D mapping.

      "We're pleased to bring aboard additional services from a premier weather technology company like Baron Services," said Michael Norton, President of WeatherNation. "With the addition of Omni Weather Systems, our WeatherNation meteorologists can provide viewers with a more accurate and realistic illustration of what the weather will be."

      DirecTV has not been too forthcoming about the dispute but told CNN that TV viewers have plenty of other options for weather information nowadays. “When information is readily available everywhere, it’s no longer necessary for people to have to pay a premium.”

      DirecTV's chief content officer, Dan York, also said he's hopeful the dispute will be worked out. 

      If you like to sit around and watch The Weather Channel, you'll have to do it somewhere other than on DirecTV, which has ousted the Weather Channel from it...

      Google buys wi-fi thermostat, smoke alarm company

      You can sleep well at night. Google is watching.

      We're always being told that the "Internet of Things" is the next big thing, and it must be true because Google has just agreed to pay $3.2 billion to buy Nest Labs, which makes Internet-connected devices for our nests a/k/a homes.

      The timing couldn't be better, since it was just a few weeks ago that I installed a Nest smoke and carbon monoxide alarm in the ConsumerAffairs Test Hallway -- you know, the upstairs hallway in my apartment.

      A regular smoke alarm goes for about $12 and is as simple to use as inserting the battery and attaching it to the ceiling. Of course, after a year or so the battery starts to die and it begins making that annoying beeping sound.

      Even worse, when the blackened redfish starts to smoke, the alarm can go off and drive your dogs crazy.

      Soothing voice

      The Nest smoke alarm -- price about $120 -- does none of these things. Instead, once you have gone through the rather simple but quite boring procedure of getting it initialized and jammed onto the ceiling, the Nest alarm talks to you in a soothing voice.

      It will tell you when its battery gets low. It will also murmur at you when the skillet starts to smoke, saying something like "Smoke in the hallway." The thing sort of sounds like the operating system in "Her," you know, the role voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

      Of course, it does more than just speak. It will send a text to your smartphone to tell you that your house is on fire.

      Not content merely to be alerted to fires and deadly carbon monoxide, I also added an Internet-connected thermostat -- not a Nest but something similar called Ecobee. Same idea: You can change the temperature setting in your Los Angeles apartment from Barbados or wherever you happen to be.

      It cost about $220 plus installation and it took a full two days to get it working properly, including plenty of time on the phone with the installer, the installer's supervisor and the folks at Ecobee, who are somewhere in Canada, where thermostats are very important.

      Kind of silly

      This stuff is great all right, but you know what? I personally find it kind of silly. And in a time when everyone claims to be worried sick -- sick, I tell you! -- about inequality, I have a hard time seeing how a $120 smoke alarm is of much benefit to anybody. It's sort of like the hedge fund manager who buys a Tesla because he wants to save the earth.

      Why would Google pay so much for a company that makes what could be considered over-the-top gadgets? 

      Well, the race to dominate the Internet of Things is underway and no one wants to get left at the gate. After all, someone -- someone other than you, that is -- is going to be controlling your "smart home" pretty soon. Will it be Google, Amazon, Microsoft, GE or the NSA?

      This is not easy for small minds to grasp, apparently. Nest CEO Tony Fadell recalled in a blog post that back in 2011 he showed Google co-founder Sergey Brin an early model of the thermostat. "He instantly got what we were doing," Mr. Fadell wrote. 

      Other connected gadgets now in the design stage include

      • Refrigerators that, like hotel room minibars, can keep a running inventory and order Greek yogurt, prosciutto and Pinot Grigio when your supplies run low;
      • Security alarms that, like the Nest, will text you if someone is breaking into your home to murder you;
      • Dog collars that keep track of what your hound is up to and whether he or she is eating and voiding properly;
      • Cars that text you when it's time to visit the gas station or, more likely, plug them in to recharge the battery; 
      • Medicine cabinets that keep track of your prescriptions, reminding you to take your medicine and ordering refills when needed; and
      • Bathroom scales that post your daily weight to Facebook, assigning "Likes" when appropriate.

      Maybe there will also be a device we can put in the marijuana stash to alert us and our dealer (or approved medicinal marijuana retailer) when we're getting down to sticks and seeds. You think?

      We're always being told that the "Internet of Things" is the next big thing, and it must be true because Google has just agreed to pay $3.2 billion to buy ...

      This flu season is hitting the young and healthy

      Hospitalizations are up sharply over last year

      The flu virus is widespread in at least 35 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which says the illness is hitting the young and healthy particularly hard.

      In flu cases severe enough to admit the patient to the hospital, 61.5% of the patients are between 18 and 64, ages considered young enough to withstand the worst of the flu's symptoms. That's nearly double the number from last year, the agency said.

      The CDC reports that, in a typical year, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized due to flu-related complications. While younger patients appear to be bearing the brunt of this flu season, the young and old are at special risk. For people who are especially susceptible to developing complications, such as children under the age of five, adults age 65 or older and women who are pregnant, coming down with the flu can result in serious complications that may even be fatal.

      A lot of swine flu this year

      Doctors at Northwestern Medicine, at Northwestern University, report a spike in flu cases in the last weeks of 2013 and the first weeks of this year. The hospital recorded a total of 101 confirmed cases as of January 4. At least 75% of those cases were caused by the H1N1, or “swine flu” strain, which first surfaced in humans in 2009.

      "Vaccination is the most important way to keep yourself from getting sick with influenza" said Dr. Gary A. Noskin, senior vice president and chief medical officer at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. "Patients who are reluctant to get the flu shot often believe that it is unnecessary for them. We know that between five to 20% of the population contracts the flu each year, and the majority of them have not been vaccinated."

      Flu myths

      It turns out there is a lot of misinformation about the flu. For example, many people believe that risk of coming down with the virus is greatest when it's cold in the winter. Staying warm and bundled up when they venture outside, they reason, will keep them safe.

      Actually, you can get sick with the flu during any time of the year. The CDC says that the peak of flu season can occur anywhere from late November through March. It isn't too late to get a flu shot in January, but it is usually best to get it earlier in the season.

      Some people who are healthy see no reason to get a flu shot. Again, that's something of a mistaken assumption. Being healthy, with a strong immune system, can help prevent someone from getting the flu, but no one is immune. As this year's large number of cases among the young and healthy shows, anyone can get sick if exposed to the virus.

      Another myth that Noskin said he would like to shoot down is the idea you can get the flu by getting the flu shot. You can't, he says.

      "The vaccination cannot give someone the flu,” Noskin said. “Every flu shot contains a form of the virus that is inactive and no longer infectious."

      Keep it clean

      While getting a seasonal flu shot can help prevent the flu, there are other things you should be doing to stay healthy. The simplest step is to wash your hands regularly with soap and water. Germs most often travel between people by way of their hands.

      "Everyday interactions and routines cause us to come in contact with surfaces that are frequently used by others, such as keyboards, phones and doorknobs,” Noskin said. “Because soap and water isn't always easily available, using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer can offer a quick and simple solution that is just as effective."

      Supermarkets and department stores often have hand sanitizer wipes available at entrances and exits. Making a habit of using them may reduce the chances of picking up flu germs from the handle of your shopping cart.

      The flu virus is widespread in at least 35 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which says the illness is hitting the...

      Appeals Court nixes net neutrality

      Court rules FCC doesn't have the authority to police Internet service providers

      Net neutrality is not one of those issues that makes consumers' blood boil, although maybe it should. Basically, it's the principle that Internet service providers should treat all traffic equally -- whether it's a movie from Netflix, Google search results or streaming music from Spotify. 

      Who wouldn't agree with that, right? Well, the big carriers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, among others. They would like to be able to give favored treatment to companies that pay for the bandwidth they use.

      Unfortunately, among those who don't agree with the principle is a federal appeals court in Washington, which today ruled that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does not have the authority to bar Internet carriers from favoring one type of traffic over another.

      In a prepared statement, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said, “I am committed to maintaining our networks as engines for economic growth, test beds for innovative services and products, and channels for all forms of speech protected by the First Amendment. We will consider all available options, including those for appeal, to ensure that these networks on which the Internet depends continue to provide a free and open platform for innovation and expression, and operate in the interest of all Americans.”

      No change?

      In a prepared statement, Verizon said nothing would in the ruling will change the way consumers access the Internet.

      "The court's decision will allow more room for innovation, and consumers will have more choices to determine for themselves how they access and experience the Internet," the company said.

      Also weighing in was Michael Beckerman, President and CEO of The Internet Association, who said the ruling could endanger the continued success of the Internet in creating jobs and new services for consumers.

      "The Internet creates new jobs, new technologies, and new ways of communicating around the globe," Beckerman said. "Its innovation without permission ecosystem flows from a decentralized, open architecture that has few barriers to entry. Yet, the continued success of this amazing platform should not be taken for granted.

      "The Internet Association supports enforceable rules that ensure an open Internet, free from government control or discriminatory, anticompetitive actions by gatekeepers. We look forward to studying the D.C. Circuit’s opinion and working with the FCC and policymakers on the Hill to protect Internet freedom, foster innovation and economic growth, and empower users," he said.

      Net neutrality is not one of those issues that makes consumers' blood boil, although maybe it should. Basically, it's the principle that Internet service p...

      Top three risk factors for child obesity

      Illinois study looks at 22 variables, finds top three risk factors

      Most people think they know what causes kids to be overweight. They'll often name over-eating, fast food and lack of exercise as the primary villains.

      But a new study from the University of Illinois, published in Childhood Obesity, looked at 22 variables and found three that emerged as the strongest predictors:

      1. inadequate sleep,
      2. a parental BMI that classifies the mom or dad as overweight or obese, and
      3. parental restriction of a child's eating in order to control his weight.

      "What's exciting here is that these risk factors are malleable and provide a road map for developing interventions that can lead to a possible reduction in children's weight status," said Brent McBride, a U of I professor of human development and director of the university's Child Development Laboratory. "We should focus on convincing parents to improve their own health status, to change the food environment of the home so that healthy foods are readily available and unhealthy foods are not, and to encourage an early bedtime." 

      The researchers reached their conclusions after compiling the results from an extensive survey distributed to 329 parent-child dyads recruited from child-care programs in east-central Illinois.

      The survey yielded wide-ranging information on demographics, health histories of both child and parent, and pertinent feeding practices. Research assistants also did home visits with each participant, checking height and weight and taking further information about the parents' history. The data was then subjected to statistical analysis.

      What to do

      As a result of that analysis, McBride and U of I nutritional sciences graduate student Dipti A. Dev offer some recommendations for families.

      Parents should recognize that their food preferences are being passed along to their children and that these tastes are established in the preschool years, Dev said.

      "If you, as an adult, live in a food environment that allows you to maintain an elevated weight, remember that your child lives in that environment too. Similarly, if you are a sedentary adult, you may be passing on a preference for television watching and computer games instead of playing chasing games with your preschooler or playing in the park," she added.

      Consider too that restricting your children's access to certain foods will only make them want those foods more, she said.

      "If kids have never had a chance to eat potato chips regularly, they may overeat them when the food appears at a friend's picnic," McBride said.

      Instead, work on changing the food environment in your home so that a wide variety of healthy choices such as fruits and vegetables are available while unhealthy options are not, he added.

      "And remember that it takes a certain number of exposures to a food before a child will try it, let alone like it, so you have to offer it to them over and over and over again. And they have to see you eat it over and over," McBride noted.

      Don't use food to comfort your children when they are hurt or disappointed, do allow your preschoolers to select their foods as bowls are passed at family-style meals (no pre-plating at the counter — it discourages self-regulation), and encourage all your children to be thoughtful about what they are eating, the researcher said.

      Most people think they know what causes kids to be overweight. They'll often name over-eating, fast food and lack of exercise as the primary villains.But...

      Mortgage relief scammers will pay $3.6 million to settle FTC charges

      The defendants charged troubled homeowners hundreds of dollars but failed to help them

      A group of South Florida defendants will pay nearly $3.6 million to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that they operated a mortgage relief scam that took advantage of financially troubled homeowners.

      It's the FTC's largest judgment to date against supposed mortgage assistance providers.

      The settlement follows charges brought in 2012 by the FTC against 11 companies and five individuals who operated under various names, including Prime Legal Plans.

      Using Reaching U Network, which the FTC called a sham non-profit front, and a maze of other companies, the scheme reeled in consumers with promises that enrollment would save their homes from foreclosure or result in lower mortgage payments.  The FTC obtained a court order shutting down the operation and freezing the defendants’ corporate and personal assets pending settlement of the case.

      “Rather than make good on their promise to offer people relief from mortgage trouble, these schemers put their targets even further behind financially,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.  “They broke the law by taking money upfront and making false promises.”

      The FTC charged that the defendants promised consumers that they would prevent foreclosure or significantly lower their mortgage payments by conducting audits of consumers’ loans and providing access to full-service, expert legal representation to fight their lenders. 

      The defendants, who marketed their programs in English and Spanish through a national outbound telemarketing campaign, allegedly told consumers that “80 percent of mortgages contain some fraud” and, in some cases, that even a small error in their loan documents could nullify the mortgage. 

      The defendants also allegedly told consumers that they would be assigned an expert mortgage foreclosure defense attorney in their state who would “halt the foreclosure process” and save their homes. 

      But instead of helping consumers, the defendants charged them illegal advance fees ranging from $595 to $750 per month, while delivering little or no help and driving them deeper into debt.  

      Under the settlements announced today, the defendants are banned from participating in the mortgage relief and debt relief industries, and are prohibited from misrepresenting various features of any product or service or making advertising claims that are unsupported by competent and reliable evidence.  They also are prohibited from placing unsolicited calls both to numbers listed on the Do Not Call Registry and to any number in an area code for which they have not paid the fee to access the list of numbers on the Do Not Call Registry. 

      A group of South Florida defendants will pay nearly $3.6 million to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that they operated a mortgage relief scam...

      SRAM recalls hydraulic bicycle brakes

      The brakes can fail, posing a crash and injury hazard

      SRAM is recalling SRAM Hydraulic Road Rim Brakes and Hydraulic Road Disc Brakes for bicycles. The brake systems can fail, posing a crash and injury hazard.

      The recalled bicycle brake models include SB Red Hydraulic Road Disc, SB Red Hydraulic Road Rim, SB 700 Hydraulic Road Disc and SB 700 Hydraulic Road Rim, used as   either front or rear brakes. The SB RED brake lever is labeled “RED” on the body of the lever assembly.  The SB 700 brake lever is labeled “S-Series” on the body of the lever assembly.  The serial numbers for the recalled brakes have the digit “3” as the fourth digit of the serial number.  The serial number can be found on the bottom of the caliper body. 

      The firm received 95 reports of brakes failing in the U.S.One minor injury was reported in the U.S. and another in Australia

      Consumers should immediately stop using bicycles equipped with the recalled SRAM brake systems and contact any SRAM dealer to arrange for a free replacement product to be installed and to receive a $200 product voucher or cash per customer.

      Specialty bicycle retailers nationwide from May 2013 to December 2013 for between $285 and $581 for the disc or rim brakes. Bicycles sold with the SRAM disc or rim range from $2,500 to $7,500. 

      SRAM is recalling SRAM Hydraulic Road Rim Brakes and Hydraulic Road Disc Brakes for bicycles. The brake systems can fail, posing a crash and injury ha...

      Australian study debunks extrasensory perception

      Researchers say they can prove that what seems like ESP really isn't

      Many consumers willingly pay for the services of people who claim to be psychics, who supposedly use extrasensory perception to learn things that can't be detected through sight, sound, smell or touch. Some of us even think we have this ability ourselves.

      But researchers at the University of Melbourne say it's just not so. And furthermore, they say they an prove it that what sometimes seems like ESP isn't.

      Their study, published today in the journal PLOS ONE, found that people could reliably sense when a change had occurred, even when they could not see exactly what had changed.

      For example, a person might notice a general change in someone’s appearance but not be able to identify that the person had had a haircut.

      Lead researcher Dr. Piers Howe, from the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, said the research is the first to show in a scientific study that people can reliably sense changes that they cannot visually identify.

      Common belief

      “There is a common belief that observers can experience changes directly with their mind, without needing to rely on the traditional physical senses such as vision, hearing, taste, smell and touch to identify it. This alleged ability is sometimes referred to as a sixth sense or ESP.

      “We were able to show that while observers could reliably sense changes that they could not visually identify, this ability was not due to extrasensory perception or a sixth sense,” he said.

      In the study, observers were presented with pairs of color photographs, both of the same female. In some cases, her appearance would be different in the two photographs. For example, the individual might have a different hairstyle.

      Each photograph was presented for 1.5 seconds with a 1-second break between them. After the last photograph, the observer was asked whether a change had occurred and, if so, to identify the change from a list of nine possible changes. 

      The results showed that study participants could generally detect when a change had occurred even when they could not identify exactly what had changed. For example, they might notice that the two photographs had different amounts of red or green but not be able to use this information to determine that the person had changed the color of their hat.

      This resulted in the observer “feeling” or “sensing” that a change had occurred without being able to visually identify the change. Thus, the result that observers can reliably feel or sense when a change has occurred without being able to visually identify the change could be explained without invoking an extrasensory mechanism.

      The research was led by Senior Lecturer Dr. Piers Howe in collaboration with researcher Margaret Webb at the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, University of Melbourne.

      Source: University of MelbourneMany consumers willingly pay for the services of people who claim to be psychics, who supposedly use extrasensory percep...

      The plot thickens: Neiman Marcus admits security breach, three others implicated

      Congressional action seems likely as confidence in credit cards is shaken

      The Target security breach may have been the biggest but it wasn't the only holiday-season incident that exposed millions of customers' credit and debit card information to thieves.

      Neiman Marcus says some of its customers' data was also intercepted by hackers. And reports say at least three other major retailers have discovered similar incidents but have not yet gone public with the news.

      Banks and retailers are beginning to worry that the seemingly endless stream of thefts will erode consumers' confidence in credit cards and cut into retail sales.

      On Capitol Hill, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) is calling for a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation of the Target breach, which reports now say may have affected more than 70 million customers.

      “Disclosures about Target's even broader breaches of customer information will rightly add alarm and anger," said Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Banking Committee. "Now, more than ever, an FTC investigation is necessary – and should be publicly confirmed – so that consumers know their rights and interests are protected."

      Blumenthal said new laws may  be needed to ensure that retailers do more to protect customers endangered by data breaches.

      "I am pleased that Target already heeded my calls to provide credit monitoring and identity theft protection for the shoppers who were notified earlier of the breech. They should do the same for all affected consumers. I will pursue legislation to deter, punish, and prevent failures to properly protect confidential consumer information,” he said.

      Luxury thefts

      In the Neiman Marcus case, the retailer said late Friday that it had been notified of fraudulent charges on some of its customers' cards but had not yet determined the extent of the problem.

      In a prepared statement, the luxury retailer said a forensics firm it had hired to investigate "discovered evidence that the company was the victim of a criminal cyber-security intrusion and that some customers’ cards were possibly compromised as a result."

      "We have begun to contain the intrusion and have taken significant steps to further enhance information security," the company said. "We are taking steps, where possible, to notify customers whose cards we know were used fraudulently after making a purchase at our store.”

      Neiman Marcus said there is no indication the breach is related to the Target theft that exposed the data of an estimated 70 million consumers to thieves.

      Answer: Unequivocal "maybe"

      Whether related or not, the incidents all left consumers wondering whether their cards were among those compromised and whether they would face credit difficulties as a result.

      The answer is an unequivocal "maybe."

      In theory, consumers are not responsible for fraudulent charges to their credit cards but it is generally up to consumers to discover and report the fraud. Debit cards, on the other hand, do not offer such protection and consumers may be out of luck.

      The advice retailers generally offer is to monitor your account closely. Target is offering one year of free credit monitoring and identity theft protection.

      But the surest way for consumers to avoid problems is to immediately cancel the card and ask the bank or retailer to issue a new one. Businesses don't like to do this and often charge the consumer a fee. No one has yet heard Target offering to reimburse consumers the cost of a replacement card.

      In fact, retailers generally follow the path chosen by Target -- meaning they do little more than offer platitudes and credit-monitoring, which does nothing to prevent fraudulent charges and may or may not detect them retroactively.

      Banks and credit unions are a bit more willing to replace cards in some cases. J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., for example, says it has issued more than two million new debit cards to its customers whose cards were exposed in the Target case.

      As Blumenthal's battle cry makes clear, Congress may soon wade into all of this. You can expect to hear a lot of sympathetic chatter from Capitol Hill about protecting consumers, although the real action will revolve more around protecting banks, who have long pressed for legislation that would forced retailers like Target to reimburse banks and credit unions for the costs they incur from retailers' security lapses.

      The Target security breach may have been the biggest but it wasn't the only holiday-season incident that exposed millions of customers' credit and debit ca...

      Consumer journalism awards announced

      The top award honors Martin H. Bosworth, ConsumerAffairs' late managing editor

      A new series of awards recognizing outstanding reporting of consumer issues launches this year, a joint project of the Media Policy Center, ConsumerAffairs, and Woodbury University.

      Awards will be given for the best reporting in five major categories: print, the internet, radio, television and magazines.

      The overall winner will also receive the Martin H. Bosworth Award for Outstanding Consumer Reporting. The award is named for the late managing editor of ConsumerAffairs, a consumer news and information center now in its 16th year. Bosworth was 35 when he died at his Los Angeles home in 2010 of a circulatory disorder.

      “Martin was a tireless and fearless crusader for the everyday consumer. His outstanding work benefited millions of individuals and lives on to this day in ConsumerAffairs’ reporting and consumer empowerment efforts,” said James R. Hood, the site’s founder and editor. “He was a big guy with a big voice and consumers lost a real champion when he was taken from us long before his time.”

      One of the first peer review sites on the Web, ConsumerAffairs, founded in 1998, publishes consumer reviews that empower consumers to collaboratively find the products and services that best suit their needs and helps them identify shoddy practices and outright scams. Its news reports deal with automotive, personal finance, health, travel and other consumer issues.

      The Media Policy Center addresses issues of social welfare, public policy, education, the environment, and health care. Its primary goal, through media, is to inform, challenge, and ultimately engage a responsive citizenry and to encourage full and meaningful debate and participation across the political, social, and economic spectrum.

      Dr. Edward Clift, Dean of the School of Media Culture & Design will be representing Woodbury in this new enterprise. “We are excited to be working with Jim Hood and the team at MPC,” said Dean Clift.

      This is the second project to come from Woodbury’s new alliance with the Media Policy Center. The School of Media Culture & Design is also partnering with MPC in a new Masters graduate program, Media for Social Justice set to begin in September 2014.

      The University seeks to transform its students into liberally educated professionals and socially responsible citizens by integrating transdisciplinarity, design thinking, entrepreneurship, and civic engagement into all programs. Woodbury achieves academic excellence by creating external partnerships, implementing effective internal processes, and ensuring quality in all programs and services.

      Award competition entries must be submitted by April 15. An entry form is available at www.mpcawards.org.

      Martin Bosworth (staff photo)A new series of awards recognizing outstanding reporting of consumer issues launches this year, a joint project of the Med...

      Why it's never been safer to fly

      In the last decade, fatal accidents have become a rarity

      One can make the case that commercial air travel has never been a bigger hassle. There are security bottlenecks, crowded planes and fewer direct flights.

      On the other hand, the chance of arriving at your destination alive has never been greater if you travel on a U.S. commercial jetliner.

      On July 6, 2013 Asiana Airlines Flight 361, a Boeing 777, crashed short of the runway at San Francisco International Airport, killing three of the 307 people on board. The three fatalities were the only U.S. commercial jet aviation deaths in 2013, but what's remarkable about that is not the low number, but that there were any fatalities at all.

      Previous fatal accident

      In 2007 through 2012 there we no airline fatalities in the U.S. To find a fatal U.S. airline accident before that you have to go back to 2006 when 49 people died on a Comair commuter jet that took off on the wrong runway at Lexington, Ky., and crashed.

      As recently as the 1980s U.S. airlines routinely suffered two or three fatal crashes each year, sometimes resulting in the loss of all on board. As recently as the early 1990s, however, the fatal accident rate began to fall.

      Aircraft manufacturer Boeing compiles an annual report on airline safety. In its latest report it shows the annual fatal accident rate for North American airlines has been approximately 0.3 per million departures, meaning one fatal accident per 10 million departures. In the early 1960s the rate was one death per one million departures – 10 times higher.

      Equipment and training

      What's behind the dramatic and relatively recent increase in jet airline safety in the U.S.? For answers we turned to Michael Braasch, director of the Ohio University Avionics Engineering Center. Braasch says that today a variety of factors, including better equipment in the air and on the ground – along with better training – have made air travel the safest it's been since commercial jet service was introduced in the 1950s.

      “The very first commercial jet aircraft was the de Havilland Comet,” Braasch said. “In the first half of 1954, two Comets, operated by the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) broke up in flight over the Mediterranean. An intensive investigation determined that metal fatigue was the culprit.”

      Investigators soon learned that pressurized cabins for extended time at high altitude caused enough stress that the metal couldn't stand up to it. Over the years, lessons gained from other accidents went into improved systems and safety protocols.

      Wind shear

      In the past, weather was a major cause of fatal accidents. In particular wind shear – a sudden change of wind direction during a thunderstorm – could cause an airliner on final approach to suddenly lose all lift and plunge to the ground. Wind shear still exists but U.S. crashes caused by the phenomenon have largely disappeared. The reason is fairly simple; planes don't try to land when wind shear conditions exist.

      “The weather radars, both on the ground and in the airplanes themselves, are excellent and the computer prediction models are too,” Braasch said. “The bottom line is that air traffic control – and the pilots -- both have much better pictures of the kinds of weather that are dangerous, thunderstorms and wind-shear causing storms, in particular.”

      On April 4, 1977 a Southern Airways DC-9 encountered a heavy thunderstorm over Georgia. Hail from the storm knocked out both engines, forcing the pilots to try to crash land on a two-lane highway, resulting in 72 deaths. Such an occurrence today would be highly unlikely because pilots in the skies have better information about the weather.

      “We don't fly into bad storms anymore,” Braasch said.

      Avoiding disaster

      Even though fatal accidents are rare there are still mishaps in the air and on the ground, some of which cause injury. On April 1, 2011 a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 was forced to make an emergency landing in Arizona after a rupture caused a hole to open in the fuselage at 37,000 feet. Two people on board suffered minor injuries.

      Perhaps the most memorable recent non-fatal accident occurred January 15, 2009 when US Airways Flight 1549, an Airbus A320, ingested a flock of geese in its engines on take off from New York's LaGuardia Airport. The plane's captain, Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger, glided the jet to a landing on the Hudson River, evacuating the passengers and crew safely. Braasch says the “miracle on the Hudson” does say something about improved aircraft design and pilot training, but also about luck.

      “The USAir flight was essentially a situation in which, after the initial geese ingestion, everything went right,” Braasch said. “The skies were completely clear, the Hudson river was not too busy, the plane was close enough to get there, and the pilot was one of USAir's safety trainers, an expert in handling aircraft in hazardous situations.”

      International air travel not as safe

      Today, most fatal jet airline accidents occur outside the U.S. In 2013, for example, there were 10 additional fatal airline crashes around the world. Braasch says the safety discrepancy is primarily due to lesser quality maintenance and pilot training and not-as-capable air traffic control infrastructure. The safer skies, he says, are made possible by all the lessons learned from previous crashes.

      “Every time a pilot made a fatal error, the cause was investigated and the lessons learned were passed on to current and future pilots,” he said.  

      One can make the case that commercial air travel has never been a bigger hassle. There are security bottlenecks, crowded planes and fewer direct flights....

      Supreme Court agrees to hear arguments in Aereo-broadcasters dispute

      TV broadcasters say online TV distribution violates their rights

      If you can put an antenna on your roof to pull in television signals, why can't you let Aereo put an antenna in its equipment rack and send you the signal via the Internet?

      That's the David vs. Goliath question the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to answer. David in this case is Aereo, a start-up company that has been growing rapidly since it began its $8 per month service in New York City less than two years ago.

      The broadcasters -- ABC, CBS and NBC -- have sued Aereo, claiming it is upsetting their business model, which by itself isn't exactly the strongest legal argument ever. So, the broadcasters are also claiming that Aereo is violating their intellectual property rights.

      No one argues that if you record a TV program and redistribute it for profit later, you're violating the broadcaster's copyright. But the Aereo argument is that it's just an antenna, not a redistributor.

      Juicy fees

      The broadcasters currently get juicy carriage fees from the cable systems that many consumers use as their source of over-the-air television. They presumably want Aereo to pay up or go away. But paying those big fat fees would force Aereo to charge a lot more than $8 a month, which would upset its business plan.

      The broadcasters -- who are used to getting their way -- have been flummoxed to find that the courts have not immediately run Aereo out of town. After a U.S. District Court judge refused to issue an injunction cutting off Aereo's feed, the broadcasters appealed to the 2nd Circuit Appeals Court, only to be turned down there.

      The pattern was repeated elsewhere and, in desperation, the broadcasters appealed to the Supreme Court, which has now agreed to hear the case.

      What if the broadcasters lose? It could happen, after all. To hear the networks tell it, a loss before the Supremes would be the end of the TV world as we know it.

      Last May, broadcasters issued the Ultimate Threat -- they said they would take themselves off the air and, in essence, become cable channels if Aereo and similar services didn't bow to their wishes. 

      There is an old saying about cutting off your nose to spite your face, which seems like it might apply here, but it looks like we won't know about that until the next thrilling episode. 

      Network-approved antennaIf you can put an antenna on your roof to pull in television signals, why can't you let Aereo put an antenna in its equipment r...

      Lame lawsuit alleges weaponized Nikes

      Kicking people in the face: bad idea no matter what brand of shoe you wear

      Nike-brand sneakers tend to be considerably more expensive than other-brand sneakers, so if ever you hear us say “Buying Nikes is a bad idea,” we mean that specifically from a financial-prudence angle: if you need new sneakers, there's better uses for your money than paying a high premium markup for a shoe with a trademarked swoosh logo on it.

      That swoosh makes the sneakers pricier than most but surely does nothing to make the sneakers more dangerous, despite the claims of Sirgiorgio Clardy, currently serving a 100-year prison sentence for various brutal violent crimes, including repeatedly jumping on a man's face.

      Clardy wore Nike Air Jordans at the time – a detail not mentioned in original news accounts of Clardy's trial and conviction, due to its utter irrelevance – but Clardy, while serving as his own attorney, has also produced a handwritten lawsuit seeking $100 million in damages from Nike because their sneakers don't come with labels warning that they might be a deadly weapon.

      As Clardy wrote: “Under product liability there is a certain standard of care that is required to be upheld by potentially dangerous product … Do (sic) to the fact that these defendants named in this Tort claim failed to warn of risk or to provide an adequate warning or instruction it has caused personal injury in the likes of mental suffering.”

      Nike was quoted as saying it had not seen the suit and had no comment.

      Nike-brand sneakers tend to be considerably more expensive than other-brand sneakers, so if ever you hear us say “Buying Nike is a bad idea,” we m...

      Vermont goes after VerMints

      Vermont products need to be made in Vermont

      Disclaimer: during a trip to Vermont a couple years ago, we vaguely recall a tourist trap offering “VerMints” for sale. Specifically, we recall wrinkling our nose and saying, “Vermin? Who names candy after vermin?” although we soon realized the mints were supposed to evoke thoughts of “the Green Mountain State” rather than “rats spreading the Black Death throughout Europe.”

      We were not impressed by the name but Vermont's attorney general was, impressed enough to file a lawsuit against the company — not over possible association with vermin and varmints, but because, as the AG's office said in this January 13 press release:

      VerMints, Inc., violated the law by labeling its flavored mints as “Vermont” products when in fact they were made in Canada largely from out-of-state ingredients. The settlement requires VerMints and its President, Gary Rinkus of Braintree, Massachusetts, to donate $35,000 to the Vermont Foodbank, pay the State of Vermont $30,000, and add corrective labeling to its products for 18 months. …. VerMints’ products come in metal tins, and from 2006 to 2011, they were prominently labeled as “Vermont’s All-Natural Mints.” …. The corrective advertising provision of the settlement requires VerMints to add the words “Produced in Canada” to the front of tins sold to states in the northeast United States, to counter the impression that the products come from Vermont.

      Vermont has a proven track record of taking its image (and that of its locally made products) very seriously. In January 2011, for example, McDonald's then-new offering of “Fruit and Maple Oatmeal” drew the ire of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, because the state's maple laws forbid adding the word “maple” to a food product unless the food contains actual maple syrup, not just maple “flavoring.”

      Genuine maple syrup and maple sugar are considerably more expensive than ordinary cane and beet sugars and syrups because in order to harvest syrup, it's not enough to merely have a healthy sugar maple tree of the right age; you also need a sustained period of time each year when temperatures drop below freezing every night yet rise above freezing every day.

      In the continental US, sugar maples are fairly common, and can grow as far south as Texas — though local temperatures usually make maple sugar production impossible. Canada produces the majority of the world's maple syrup, though a good percentage of domestic U.S. production comes from Vermont.

      Disclaimer: during a trip to Vermont a couple years ago, we vaguely recall a tourist trap offering “VerMints” for sale. Specifically, we recall...

      Robocallers pitched "free" medical alert devices to seniors

      The bills started arriving even before the units were activated, the FTC charges

      It sound like a great deal, almost too good to be true. Robocallers told seniors that a relative or friend had purchased a medical alert device for them, a sales pitch that the Federal Trade Commission's Jessica Rich says was "100 percent false."

      The FTC and the Florida Attorney General are seeking a court order that would permanently bar the promoters of the scam. In the meantime, a U.S. district court has ordered the scheme halted and has frozen the assets of the Florida group allegedly responsible.

      “They lied about the product, about whether health organizations had endorsed it, and about its cost.  And all the while, their M.O. was to take advantage of older people's concerns about their health. We're so glad to work with our partners in Florida to stop this fraud,” Rich said. 

      Many of the consumers who received the defendants’ calls were elderly, live alone, and have limited or fixed incomes.

      Consumers who pressed one on their phones for more information were transferred to a live representative who allegedly continued the deception by saying that the medical alert systems are recommended by the American Heart Association (AHA), the American Diabetes Association (ADA), and the National Institute on Aging (NIA).

      In addition, the telemarketers falsely stated that the monthly monitoring fee for the system will be charged only once the medical alert system has been installed and activated, the complaint stated. In reality, the defendants started charging consumers who agreed to receive the system immediately, regardless of whether the system had been activated or not.

      “We will not tolerate unscrupulous individuals targeting the elderly. This company received more than $13 million in commissions since March 2012, and we will do everything in our power to compensate consumers who lost money due to the fraudulent medical alert scheme,” said Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. “I thank the Federal Trade Commission for its partnership in this effort, which involved thousands of affected consumers, and the numerous other agencies who joined in the effort to stop these business practices.”

      According to the joint agency complaint, the defendants violated the FTC Act, the Commission’s Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR), and Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act (FDUTPA).

      The defendants include: 1) Worldwide Info Services, Inc., also doing business as (d/b/a) The Credit Voice; 2) Elite Information Solutions Inc., also d/b/a The Credit Voice; 3) Absolute Solutions Group Inc, also d/b/a The Credit Voice; 4) Global Interactive Technologies, Inc., also d/b/a The Credit Voice Inc.; 5) Global Service Providers, Inc.; 6) The Credit Voice, Inc, also d/b/a TCV; 7) Live Agent Response 1 LLC, also d/b/a LAR; 8) Arcagen, Inc., also d/b/a ARI; 9) American Innovative Concepts, Inc.; 10) Unique Information Services Inc.; 11) Michael Hilgar; 12) Gary Martin; and 13) Joseph Settecase.

      Stock photoIt sound like a great deal, almost too good to be true. Robocallers told seniors that a relative or friend had purchased a medical alert dev...

      New lung cancer cases are declining

      But prostate cancer remains a serious threat for men

      It's been a half century since the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report on January 11, 1964 linking cigarette smoking and lung cancer. Since then there has been an ongoing campaign against tobacco as lung cancer cases rose.

      Now, health officials say that relentless campaign is beginning to yield tangible results. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has documented a significant drop in lung cancer among U.S. adults from 2005 to 2009. The sharpest decline was among those aged 34-44.

      The study found that lung cancer rates went down 2.6% per year among men, from 87 to 78 cases per 100,000 men and 1.1% per year among women, from 57 to 54 cases per 100,000 women. Rates fell 6.5% for adults aged 35-44.

      Landmark 1964 report

      The Surgeon General's 1964 report declared that cigarette smoking was responsible for a 70% increase in the mortality rate of smokers over non-smokers. It estimated that average smokers had a nine- to ten-times greater risk of developing lung cancer compared to non-smokers. The more you smoked, the report found, the greater the risk. It also found that the risk diminished if people stopped smoking. Since then health advocates have repeatedly urged Americans to kick the habit.

      "These dramatic declines in the number of young adults with lung cancer show that tobacco prevention and control programs work – when they are applied," said CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden.

      Still, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death and the second most commonly diagnosed cancer among both men and women in the U.S. Health officials say most lung cancers are attributable to cigarette smoking and secondhand smoke. Now that smoking behaviors among women are similar to those among men, women are now experiencing the same risk of lung cancer as men.

      "While it is encouraging that lung cancer incidence rates are dropping in the United States, one preventable cancer is one too many," Frieden said. "Implementation of tobacco control strategies is needed to reduce smoking prevalence and the lung cancer it causes among men and women."

      The Tobacco Master Settlement of 1998 provided billions of dollars from tobacco companies to the states, but the CDC notes that little of that money is actually being used to combat smoking. The agency cites research showing that, in 2010, states only appropriated 2.4% of their tobacco revenues for tobacco control. An earlier CDC study showed that states meet with widely varying results in their efforts to control tobacco and reduce new cases of lung cancer.

      Prostate cancer

      While lung cancer cases are in decline, health officials say prostate cancer continues to be the most common cancer in men. According to recently published data in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, it accounts for about 25% of new cancer cases in male patients.

      However, researchers say prostate cancer is not increasing, with estimated new cases and death expected to fall three percent and one percent respectively. Still, prostate cancer remains a major health threat.

      "Every week I talk with at least one family man in his 40s who has prostate cancer," said Jamie Bearse, CEO of ZERO, a prostate cancer awareness organization. "Men are dying. Families are suffering. We need to stand together and make fighting prostate cancer a national priority in order to see a real change in the number of lives being saved from the disease."

      The group says prostate cancer continues to be the second most deadly cancer in men, accounting for 10% of estimated new cancer deaths in 2014. The report estimates that 233,000 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer this year, and 29,480 will die from the disease.

      It's been a half century since the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report on January 11, 1964 linking cigarette smoking and lung cancer. Since then there has...

      Taxpayer advocate calls for Taxpayer Bill of Rights

      Taxpayers might be more willing to pay if they were treated more fairly

      The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) needs to adopt a comprehensive Taxpayer Bill of Rights.

      So says National Taxpayer Advocate Nina E. Olson in her 2013 annual report to Congress. The report also says the tax agency -- go figure -- needs more money.

      “A Taxpayer Bill of Rights would serve as an organizing principle for tax administrators in establishing agency goals and performance measures, provide foundational principles to guide IRS employees in their dealings with taxpayers, and provide information to taxpayers to assist them in their dealings with the IRS,” the report says.

      The advocate has long recommended adoption of the guidelines. In a prior report, Olson analyzed the IRS’s processing of applications for tax-exempt status and concluded its procedures violated eight of the ten taxpayer rights she has proposed. The 2013 report argues that the rationale for a Taxpayer Bill of Rights is much broader.

      “Taxpayer rights are central to voluntary compliance,” the report says. “If taxpayers believe they are treated, or can be treated, in an arbitrary and capricious manner, they will mistrust the tax system and be less likely to comply with the laws voluntarily. If taxpayers have confidence in the fairness and integrity of the system, they will be more likely to comply.”

      The report calls on the IRS to take the taxpayer rights that already exist and group them into ten broad categories, modeled on the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. The report says the “simplicity and clarity” of a thematic, principle-based Taxpayer Bill of Rights would help taxpayers understand their rights in general terms.

      Mo money

      Olson also expressed deep concern that the IRS is not adequately funded to serve taxpayers, pointing out that the agency annually receives more than 100 million telephone calls from taxpayers and that -- in fiscal year 2013 -- it could answer just 61% of calls from taxpayers seeking to speak with an IRS customer service representative.

      “The year 2013 was a very challenging one for the IRS. Because of sequestration, the IRS’s funding was substantially cut, which translated into a reduction in taxpayer service,” Olson said in releasing the report. “And because of the 16-day government shutdown, the agency could not complete preparations for the upcoming tax filing season on time, delaying the date on which taxpayers can first file returns and claim refunds.”

      The report reiterates the advocate’s longstanding recommendation that the relevant congressional committees work together to develop new procedures to fund the IRS, with the goal of maximizing tax compliance, particularly voluntary compliance, with due regard for protecting taxpayer rights and minimizing taxpayer burden.

      The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) needs to adopt a comprehensive Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TBOR). So says National Taxpayer Advocate Nina E. Olson in her...