Common Law - The FindLaw Consumer Protection Law Blog

December 2011 Archives

Verizon's $2 fee is no more. The nation's largest wireless announced a new few that was to appear on invoices each time a customer makes a one-time payment via phone or Internet.

But the next day Verizon backed down.

The company has reversed its decision to charge a $2 fee for one-time ill payments after a storm of criticism from consumers and the U.S. communications regulator, Reuters reports.

The biggest U.S. wireless operator retracted its decision on Friday, just a day after it announced the fee, which was to have begun January 15.

Verizon had insisted the fee was necessary to make ends meet.

The Verizon fee for single bill payments was all set to begin Jan. 15, CNN reports. The fee aims to offset Verizon's costs in offering one-time payments as an option for customers, the company said in a statement.

Verizon Wireless has 91 million subscribers, but it's not clear how many make one-time payments that would incur the new Verizon fee, CNN reports.

Some critics, like Kyle Wagner at the tech website Gizmodo, blasted Verizon's fee as "preposterous."

"It almost certainly costs Verizon more to handle your bill if you pay by check/mail," Wagner wrote for Gizmodo. He suggested Verizon customers protest the new fee by sending payments only via U.S. mail. "Let's bury them under a mountain of paper and see how they like that."

Others say Verizon's fee is very similar to recent proposed bank fees, such as Bank of America's proposed $5 fee for debit-card use. Those fees caused a consumer uproar in late 2011, and banks soon backed down, CNN reports.

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1-800-GET-THIN Used Misleading Lap-Band Ads, FDA Says

If you've driven around Southern California, chances are you've seen a few 1-800-GET-THIN ads. The billboards tout the ability to lose weight with the Lap-Band. But, they say little about the potential risks of the Lap-Band surgery. The FDA has now issued a letter to the marketing company and eight affiliated surgical centers.

The FDA wants them to adequately address the risks associated with the Lap-Band. They say that the current ads are simply too misleading.

And, maybe they are. When you hear the term "Lap-Band," do you automatically know what the product is?

The Lap-Band is a silicone ring . It's implanted around a patient's stomach. The ring discourages patients from eating too much. The procedures cost between $12,000 and $20,000. It's covered by many insurance policies.

Though widely available, there are risks to the surgery. Several patients died after receiving the procedure at various surgical centers. Those centers were affiliated with the 1-800-GET-THIN campaign, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Yet, none of these risks are heavily advertised on the banner advertisements. Some billboards, reports NPR, only read: "Lose weight with the Lap-Band! Safe 1 hour, FDA approved; 1-800-GET-THIN; 1-800 953-5000; PPO insurance; free insurance verification."

The FDA calls this type of advertising misleading. It doesn't adequately inform consumers of the risks associated with the Lap-Band. "Consumers, who may be influenced by misleading advertising, need to be fully aware of the risks of any surgical procedure," said head of regulatory compliance at FDA's device center Steven Silverman in a statement.

Under federal law, advertisements for medical devices typically need to contain relevant warnings. Warnings may include information about risks and possible side effects.

None of this information is prominently displayed on the 1-800-GET-THIN ads. This is why the FDA sent the letter about Lap-Band's risks to the marketing company. The ads do have some warnings about risks, but all in small typeface, according to the Los Angeles Times.

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Redeeming Gift Cards Online? 3 Legal Reminders

Ready to redeem your Christmas gift cards and e-certificates online?

You're definitely not alone. A survey by the National Retail Federation found 57.7% of shoppers wanted a gift card for Christmas this year -- the highest in the survey's history. (Here's hoping you got what you wanted!)

But did you know the law offers some protections for the money on your gift cards? And there are other legal considerations as well when redeeming your gift cards online.

Here are three legal issues to keep in mind:

1. Money on your gift card is good for five years.

You have time to carefully consider what to get with your gift card, thanks to a federal law. The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009, known as the Credit CARD Act, requires the money on your gift card to be good for at least five years from the date of purchase. If any money is added to your gift card later, that money must also be good for five years, according to The Washington Post.

2. Read the fine print.

Still, you may not want to wait too long before redeeming your gift card. Some gift cards charge "dormancy fees" if your card sits unused -- but thanks to the Credit CARD Act, a card must be unused for at least one full year before a dormancy fee can kick in.

Then there's the clickwrap license, or click-through agreement -- that screenful of legal language that requires you to click "Agree" to complete your purchase. A recent FindLaw survey found more than half of consumers either quickly read, skim, or plain ignore those agreements. That may be to your detriment, as you're usually agreeing to give up some of your rights to sue.

3. Be familiar with delivery rules.

The Federal Trade Commission enforces rules about online shopping shipments. For example, if a retailer did not specify a shipment date, the FTC's default rule requires shipment within 30 days. Retailers must also notify customers about delays, and must get a customer's written consent for indefinite delays. Otherwise, a retailer must refund your money.

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Hackers Stole $3 Million from Subway Customers

Popular sandwich chain Subway was hacked by Romanian nationals. The Subway credit card hack took place over several years, exposing some 80,000 customers to approximately $3 million worth of fraudulent charges.

The hackers targeted around 150 Subway franchises and 50 other retailers. The hackers broke into 200 point-of-sales (POS) systems and installed keyloggers that allowed them access to credit card data.

POS systems are used in many stores. They allow customers to swipe cards, type in their ATM PIN numbers, and sign receipts.

They also make customer information vulnerable. The hackers allegedly targeted specific POS systems via remote desktop access software. The remote access software provided a simple way for hackers to get access to POS systems, according to Ars Technica.

This security risk is exactly why the PCI Security Standards Council bans the software from its systems. The council provides rules and governs credit card and debit card payments security.

Essentially, this backdoor would not exist if the companies were PCI compliant.

Smaller businesses aren't subject to the more stringent rules. Subway franchises are. However, some franchises simply ignored the standard POS configurations. This is despite the fact that the corporate Subway office mandated that they use point-to-point encryption, Ars Technica reports.

Even if you never purchased a sandwich at a Subway shop, you should be vigilant. Check your credit card statements and monitor your accounts closely. If you see suspicious activity, contact a credit bureau to put a fraud alert on your file. Call your credit card company and dispute the charges. It's also best if you close the affected account.

The Subway credit card hack is unfortunately news that may happen with greater frequency. Many Americans have their identity stolen each year. Identity theft is even going global: Subway was hacked by Romanian nationals overseas.

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The Pampered Chef has recalled around 20,000 of its ice cream dippers. The ice cream dipper recall comes after reports of damages to homes and 6 reports of bodily injuries.

The ice cream scoopers are metallic gray aluminum. The words "Pampered Chef" are inscribed on the product.

The dippers have a plastic cap on the base of the handle. Inside the dipper is a non-toxic liquid, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The liquid conducts heat from a consumer's hand. This helps users scoop normally hard and frozen ice cream.

Unfortunately, if the dipper is exposed to warm water the bottom of the cap and seal may fly off with "substantial force." The net effect is that the innocent looking ice cream dipper may suddenly turn into a projectile. There is a real danger that the cap and seal can injure consumers who are standing close by.

The recalled products were sold between July 2010 and September 2010. They were available for purchase online at pamperedchef.com or through Pampered Chef consultants. They cost about $15 each.

Consumers who own a Pampered Chef ice cream dipper should check to see if theirs is under recall. If they are, they should not be used. The company may be contacted at (877) 917-2433 between the hours of 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. Monday through Friday. They may also be contacted on Saturday between 8:30 a.m. or 4:30 a.m.

The Pampered Chef is also maintaining a website with recall information. You may also email your questions and concerns to productalert@pamperedchef.com. Customers that contact the company will receive a replacement or a refund.

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Can Toxic Mold Kill You?

Brittany Murphy's mother has filed a lawsuit claiming that toxic mold is responsible for the actress' pneumonia-related death. Though the coroner did not find mold during the autopsy, the presence of mold in her house was never disconfirmed.

Though it's just a theory, the story still has some wondering whether toxic mold can kill you.

You might be happy to know that such deaths, if they do occur, are rare.

Toxic mold can cause allergies, asthma, headaches, coughing and other symptoms associated with the common cold. It can also cause Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis, which the CDC calls "a lung infection [that] can be mistaken for pneumonia." HP can cause permanent damage.

All of these ailments could arguably lead to death if left untreated. But even severe allergic reactions and aggravated asthma have been known to kill vulnerable people when mold is not present.

As for more serious illnesses, the research is unclear. Some believe that toxic mold causes bleeding in the lungs, but the CDC says that research is contradictory. Mold's connection to memory loss and brain damage is also tenuous.

The key to dealing with toxic mold and related illnesses is to seek medical treatment and mold remediation. Let your doctor know that you've been exposed to mold so that you can receive the proper medication and advice. Be especially careful with young children, the elderly and people with immune system disorders.

While you and your family are medically treated, have the mold treated as well. Hire a professional mold remediation company so that you do not suffer from further exposure. Then close up the source of the water that allowed the mold to appear.

Hypothetically, toxic mold can kill you. But if you act fast, it probably won't.

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Beware of Lawsuit Advances: Some Charge 70% Interest

Lawsuit advance are an attractive option for those plaintiffs who can't wait for a settlement or jury award. Money can be used to pay medical bills, lawyer fees, and generally keep the household afloat.

Unfortunately, such loans are often too good to be true. Ask Joseph Gill, who currently owes $116,000 on a $4,000 lawsuit advance. One loan cost him 58% in annual interest, while the other came in at 70%. They compounded monthly.

Plaintiffs tend to forget that lawsuit advances are loans. In fact, they have such high interest rates because they are high-risk loans.

Companies have to assess the likelihood that a plaintiff will recover at trial or in settlement. They speak to the plaintiff's attorney, determine the strength of the case, and decide on a potential outcome. Even if the odds are in the plaintiff's favor, he or she may not win. Juries are fickle and new evidence may appear.

And if the plaintiff does win, it may have taken four years to reach a verdict.

For these reasons, lawsuit advances have the potential to get out of hand. Many people owe tens of thousands of dollars after only borrowing $3,000. And if they don't earn enough from their lawsuit, they're worse off than when they began.

There are other, more reasonable alternatives to lawsuit advances. You can seek a loan from a friend or family member. You can take out a second mortgage on your home. You can obtain an unsecured personal loan from a bank or credit union.

The beauty of all of these options is that they have significantly lower interest rates than lawsuit advances. And if you borrow from a bank, the terms are subject to strict anti-usury regulations.

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An irate smartphone user in Illinois is seeking class-action status for a Carrier IQ lawsuit that alleges illegal wiretapping of 130 million cell phones nationwide.

Lawyers filed the suit in St. Louis federal court on behalf of cellular customer Erin Janek, PCWorld reports. The suit claims phone maker HTC and Carrier IQ violated federal wiretap laws by allowing a pre-installed app, also referred to as Carrier IQ, to capture and record phone users' keystrokes and location data.

Carrier IQ denies the allegations. The company says its software only allows cellular providers to diagnose the health of their networks, and has been in use for years without controversy. Keystrokes are neither recorded nor disseminated, the company claims.

But a software researcher's findings suggest otherwise. Trevor Eckhart posted videos online in November after discovering Carrier IQ on his smartphone. The videos show Carrier IQ logging Eckhart's keystrokes as he taps his phone's touchscreen.

That could be a violation of the Federal Wiretap Act, some legal experts suggest. The Act prohibits the intentional interception of any electronic communication, and calls for possible fines of $100 a day per violation.

Janek's Carrier IQ lawsuit seeks punitive damages and a possible court order to stop the companies from further alleged violations. Janek's lawyers hope to include all U.S. users of HTC phones equipped with Carrier IQ -- a number that could be in the millions, PCWorld says.

The Carrier IQ lawsuit is one of at least seven others filed in recent weeks against Carrier IQ and a variety of mobile phone makers including Apple, Motorola, Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile, eWEEK reports. The suits all allege unlawful wiretaps.

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Tanning beds and skin cancer risks are widely known to be related. Now, a new study shows that tanning's cancer risk is not only tied to the deadliest type of skin cancer, but can also lead to development of the most common type: early-onset basal cell carcinoma (BCC).

Young individuals who used tanning beds had a 69% increased risk for developing BCC, according to scientists at the Yale School of Public Health.

This figure is particularly alarming because skin cancer increases in frequency as one gets older, reports MSNBC. In fact, 1/3 of the study participants that reported a case of BCC said they had an additional case before they reached the age of 40.

This is in addition to deadlier cancer risks that can arise from tanning. Individuals who use tanning beds -- regardless of how long they used it for and what type of tanning bed they used -- are 74% more likely to develop melanoma. Melanoma is one of the most serious forms of skin cancer and could be fatal.

Despite the risks, about 30 million Americans use tanning beds. There are some states that regulate tanning salons by restricting the age of potential tanners.

In California, teens under the age of 18 will soon be barred from using tanning beds. This new legislation was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown and will go into effect on January 1st. Previously, the state allowed teens between the age of 14 and 17 to tan if they received parental consent.

California's tanning bed law is one of the strictest in the nation, according to ABC News.

Though, that might change as other states are also contemplating similar bans. Considering the new study shows that tanning bed increases skin cancer risks, it seems that it's likely that more legislation will soon come down the pipeline.

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Rejoice! The FCC Bans Loud TV Commercials

Persons with sensitive ears have a good reason to give thanks to the Federal Communications Commission this holiday season. The agency has unanimously voted to adopt rules banning obnoxiously loud commercials.

The new rules, which will take effect next December, were made at Congress' direction. Last year, legislators passed the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act (CALM Act), requiring the agency to deal with the noisy problem.

Loud commercials have apparently been a top consumer complaint for years, according to Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. He's responsible for introducing the CALM Act into the Senate.

Under the new regulations, U.S. broadcasters, cable and satellite companies must ensure that commercials are no louder than the television programs that surround them, reports Bloomberg. Larger companies will also be expected to spot-check channels on a frequent basis to ensure compliance.

Television providers will need to purchase equipment to regulate commercial volume, notes Bloomberg. This is because commercials are inserted by networks that then provide the programming to broadcasters. Noise reduction becomes the responsibility of broadcasters if networks fail to do it themselves.

Broadcasters have long chosen not to correct the noise disparities because they believe it is too costly. But the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the equipment upgrade will only cost the industry a collective $141 million, notes Bloomberg.

Infrastructure upgrades such as these are commonly passed onto the consumer, which means you might see a minimal uptick in your monthly television bill. But on the bright side, you won't have to deal with overly loud commercials after December 2012.

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Teen Hit with $200 in Bank Fees for $4.85 Checking Account

What started as a lesson in the basics of banking proved costly for an Illinois teenager. He racked up $229 in bank fees in two weeks, with just $4.85 in his account.

Daniel Ganziano, 18, of McCullom Lake, Ill., was just doing what his mom told him to: Open a savings account and learn how to manage money. Instead, Ganziano told the Chicago Tribune, he learned not to trust banks.

Ganziano opened his account at a TCF Bank branch inside a local grocery store. Soon his balance dwindled to less than $5, and Ganziano chose to ignore it.

But the bank's computers took notice. Because Ganziano's balance fell below the required threshold for his type of account, TCF charged him a $9.95 inactivity fee, the Tribune reports.

Of course, subtracting $9.95 from the $4.85 in Ganziano's account meant his account was overdrawn -- by just 10 cents over the limit. That triggered $28 per day in overdraft fees.

By the time Ganziano and his mom tried to close his account, he'd racked up bank fees totaling $229.10. The bank refused to close the account until the balance was paid.

Fuming that the inactivity fee triggered more than $200 in additional fees, the Ganzianos called the Tribune's consumer watchdog for help. Under media scrutiny, TCF eventually cut a reimbursement check.

The incident serves as a reminder for consumers to be fully aware of their bank account's terms. For example, TCF's policy is to charge $28 a day for up to 14 days for overdrafts, a spokesman said. Inactivity fees, or "monthly maintenance fees," are also not uncommon if the funds in your account fall below a certain amount.

Ganziano's mother is still upset by the automatic bank fees, considering her son did not personally overdraw his account. "What TCF did is not right," she told the Tribune. "Money is tight right now and if this is their way of making money, they need to be stopped."

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Cilantro Recall Sparks Salmonella Fears in 7 States

Thousands of cartons of fresh cilantro are being recalled after a sample tested positive for Salmonella, which could be deadly if ingested.

No illnesses have been reported, but the company that sold the cilantro, Pacific International Marketing, announced the cilantro recall Dec. 9.

The Food and Drug Administration found Salmonella in a sample of Pacific cilantro, but the source of the Salmonella is not known, Pacific said in a press release.

Salmonella can cause serious and potentially fatal infections, especially in young children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems. Healthy people can also experience symptoms such as fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, or abdominal pain.

The recalled cilantro was sold in bunches in California, Arizona, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Indiana, South Carolina, and Missouri, between Nov. 16 and Dec. 10. The word "Pacific" is on the twist tie of each bunch, along with a UPC code of "33383 80104."

The cilantro is also sold in separately marked three-bunch packages. When packaged together, there is a UPC code on the plastic bag that reads "40695 80104."

The FDA's website shows photos of the bags and twist ties affected by the cilantro recall. In all, 6,141 cartons of Pacific cilantro are being recalled.

Pacific International is based in Salinas, Calif., but the cilantro affected by the recall came from a farm near Phoenix, Ariz., the company said.

Consumers affected by the Pacific cilantro recall can return it to the store where they purchased it for a refund. Consumers can also contact Pacific International at 831-755-1398.

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Should You Lend Money to Family or Friends?

You're doing it to be nice -- to help out your favorite uncle or best pal. But if you take a look at FindLaw Answers, you'll see that lending money to family and friends doesn't always turn out well.

Things happen. There's a falling out or the exciting business opportunity turned out not to be so exciting. Whatever it is, you're going to want your money and it'll probably be difficult to get it back.

If this doesn't discourage you from lending money to family, then go ahead. But protect yourself. Write it down. And include the following terms.

1. The amount. At the very least, you and Uncle Buck should both sign a piece of paper saying that you lent him $5,000.

2. The interest rate. This is up to you. But if you choose to charge interest, include the percent and the accrual rate. If you're not sure where to start, get some estimates for similar sized loans from local banks. Adjust from there.

3. Repayment plan. When will you be paid? Will it be in installments or a lump sum? Is there a penalty for a late payment?

4. Collateral. If it's a large sum of money, you might want to "secure" your loan against a piece of property. Select property that approximates the value of the loan. If Uncle Buck fails to repay you, you get to take the items.

Just note that using real estate to secure a loan will probably require the help of a lawyer.

5. Date and sign. It may seem obvious, but it's really not. Both you and Uncle Buck need to sign that piece of paper and date it

The above may seem a bit formal, but lending money to family and friends is risky. And it may cost you.

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The FDA is cracking down on weight-loss remedies containing the HCG hormone, saying there's no proof the placental protein helps people lose weight.

The so-called remedies, coupled with restrictive diets, can be dangerous when used as directed, the Food and Drug Administration warns.

The agency has asked seven companies to take their HCG weight-loss products off the market, the Associated Press reports. The companies have 15 days to come up with a plan to do that.

FDA scientists are concerned about the hormone HCG, which stands for human chorionic gonadotropin. It's a protein produced by a woman's placenta that's often marketed in the form of weight-loss pills or sprays.

But HCG has not been approved by the FDA for use in over-the-counter weight-loss products, USA Today reports. The FDA's warning says the companies are violating federal law by selling products with HCG.

For years, HCG hormone treatments have been marketed as homeopathic remedies -- diluted drugs derived from natural sources. Homeopathic remedies have the same legal status as other pharmaceuticals, according to a federal law passed in 1938.

The FDA regulates which substances can be used in homeopathic drugs. HCG is not one of them.

The products targeted by the FDA claim to fix "abnormal eating patterns," the AP reports. They also claim to help people lose as much as 30 pounds in 30 days.

If customers do lose weight while taking HCG weight-loss products, it's most likely their diet, not the hormone, an FDA official told the AP.

If the companies fail to comply with the FDA, they could face legal action. That includes the possibility of criminal charges, for continuing to profit off the HCG hormone's unproven claims.

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Honda Recalls 273,000 More Vehicles Over Airbag Concerns

Airbag pressure problems have sparked another round of Honda recalls. This time, Honda Motor Co. is recalling 273,000 vehicles over the airbag issue, which could pose a danger to drivers.

In some incidents, the driver's airbag has deployed with such force in a crash that it shot pieces of metal into the driver, The New York Times reports.

More than a dozen drivers have been hurt and two have been killed, a Honda spokeswoman told the Times.

The problem appears to lie in the airbag's propellant, a Consumer Reports editor told the Associated Press:

Honda has already issued four other recalls since 2008 over the same airbag issue. The problem popped up again in August, in a model not previously recalled, the Times reports.

The new Honda recall, announced Dec. 2, affects popular models manufactured in 2001, 2002, and 2003. Vehicles recalled are the:

  • 2001 and 2002 Honda Accords;
  • 2001, 2002, and 2003 Honda Civics and Honda Odysseys;
  • 2002 and 2003 Honda CR-Vs;
  • 2003 Honda Pilot;
  • 2002 and 2003 Acura 3.2 TL; and
  • 2003 Acura 3.2 CL.

Owners of these vehicles should go to an authorized dealer for repairs, Honda says. The company is set to mail notices to affected owners later this month.

Honda has also set up two toll-free hotlines for concerned customers. Honda owners can call 1-800-999-1009; Acura owners can call 1-800-382-2238.

In all, more than 2.5 million vehicles have been recalled because of the airbag pressure problem, making this the largest Honda recall in history.

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There May be Arsenic in Your Apple Juice

Before you take a sip of your favorite fruit beverage, be warned. There may be arsenic in your apple juice. About 10% of sampled fruit juices in a new Consumer Reports study was found to contain arsenic and lead. The levels found were higher than those allowed in federal drinking-water standards, which is stricter than FDA rules for juices.

The study went through 88 different samples of apple and grape juices. Samples were taken from juices purchased at stores in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

What was found was troubling: 10% had arsenic levels higher than the federal limit for water. 25% had lead levels higher than the federal limit.

The study also found that the arsenic was inorganic. This means that it's a carcinogen, reports Fox News.

Arsenic is naturally found, and can get into water from runoff as it's used in some industries. Low level exposure to the compound can change the color of a person's skin, and can cause some skin irritation like corns or warts. High levels of arsenic can be fatal.

The FDA has long regulated the amount of arsenic in drinking water and juices. Specifically, it limits the amount of inorganic drinking water to 10 parts per billion (ppb). Juice has a higher arsenic limit at 23 ppb. The rationale for the limits was that people drink more water than juices.

In response to the study's findings the FDA released a written statement stating that it would look into collecting additional data, reports MSNBC. A spokesman for the Juice Products Association said that if the FDA changed its standards manufacturers would comply.

Does arsenic in your apple juice make it dangerous to drink? The FDA says it's still safe, despite the Consumer Reports study.

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Fast-food restaurants in San Francisco are now charging 10 cents for toys in response to the city's so-called "Happy Meal ban" -- a move that could start a nationwide trend.

Most McDonald's and Burger King restaurants in the city by the bay began charging the 10-cent fee Dec. 1.

That's the same day a new San Francisco law kicked in, prohibiting free toy giveaways with fast-food meals that don't meet certain nutritional standards, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

Those standards specify less fat, salt, and sugar in fast-food meals, and require more fruits and vegetables.

The law's sponsor, Supervisor Eric Mar, said he hoped it would encourage fast-food chains to go healthier, especially in light of the growing childhood obesity problem nationwide.

Instead, Mar calls the 10-cent fee a "marketing ploy" -- an easy way to technically comply with the Happy Meal ban, without having to make-over unhealthy menus.

Fast-food companies say they won't fight San Francisco's new law. Local governments are generally allowed to enact laws like this under what's known as "police powers" -- the authority to impose reasonable restrictions on private rights to ensure the public's well-being.

Fast-food franchisees are trying to put a happy face on their new 10-cent toy fees. McDonald's will donate proceeds toward building a new Ronald McDonald House in the city, for families with sick children in the hospital. Burger King has not announced plans for its proceeds.

As other locales around the country look into similar laws, San Francisco's "Happy Meal ban" has spurred McDonald's to tweak its menus. All U.S. McDonald's are set to add apples to Happy Meals, and offer smaller french-fry servings, beginning in March.

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U.S. Airways: No Refunds Means No Refunds

Airline refund policies--they have a tendency to apply at the most inopportune times.

One such instance involves Lynn McKain, a Maryland woman diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. McKain thought she had the disease beat in 2009, prompting her and her family to buy five roundtrip tickets to Belize. But just months before the big trip, Fox News reports that the cancer had returned, and in a more aggressive manner.

Armed with a doctor's note advising her to cancel the trip, McKain sought a $4,200 refund from U.S. Airways. They said no.

Lynn McKain had purchased non-refundable tickets. Under most airline refund policies, non-refundable tickets are simply non-refundable. Very few, if any, make exceptions for those who cannot fly due to illness.

However, a number of airlines, including U.S. Airways, will allow you to apply the value to a new ticket. Subject to a fee, of course. As McKain suggested to various news outlets, this option does her no good.

Such a policy is completely legal, and only in the very rare circumstance will an airline refund policy be void. So if you're spending a large sum of money on an airline ticket and other vacation necessities, consider protecting yourself with travel insurance.

For a relatively small sum, you can insure yourself against any unexpected cancellations. Policies will generally refund the cost of airfare, lodging, and any pre-planned activities. They may also provide medical insurance as an added bonus.

Don't let airline refund policies get in your way. Planning ahead will make a trip cancellation a little less painful.

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