Common Law - The FindLaw Consumer Protection Law Blog

January 2013 Archives

Toyota is recalling more than 1 million Corolla and Lexus sedans because of problems with airbags and windshield wipers.

It's the latest in a string of recent recalls for the world's largest automaker. Along with these Corolla and Lexus recalls, Toyota has also announced recalls in the past several years for problems including bad brakes, gas pedals, and floor mats, reports USA Today.

Toyota issued two new recalls Wednesday. The recalls involve:

  • 750,000 Corolla and Corolla Matrix models manufactured between December 2001 and May 2004, due to airbag problems.
  • About 270,000 Lexus IS sedans, from model years 2006 to 2012, due to a loose nut on the front wipers. Wipers on these models may not work properly during heavy snow, for example.

As you can imagine, the Corolla airbag recall is more involved. Toyota believes that the airbag control module for the supplemental restraint system could have been manufactured with faulty circuit boards, reports USA Today. If it malfunctions, the airbags could potentially deploy even if there is no accident. One can imagine how dangerous this could be if you're driving.

A Toyota spokesman said that there have been two crashes reported because of this problem. It's unclear if anyone was injured in the crashes.

If you own one of the vehicles subject to the recall, you should receive a letter from Toyota telling you to bring it in for repairs.

In addition, if you have been injured by one of the vehicles, you may want to speak with a product liability attorney to learn your options to recover damages.

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Unlocking Your Cell Phone Can Lead to Fines, Penalties

If you're stuck in a multi-year cell phone contract and considering other options, keep in mind that unlocking cell phones is now illegal.

Most cell phones are subsidized by a wireless carrier with the requirement that you sign a multi-year contract to stay with that carrier until the contract runs out. At that point, they conveniently offer you a new phone at a highly subsidized rate. Of course, you have to sign a new contract in order to get it.

As of Jan. 27, 2013, however, unlocking a cell phone is now illegal. To back that up, there could be some pretty serious penalties.

The decision comes from the Library of Congress, which determined in October that copyright protections allow phone carriers to lock a phone to their service.

Their reasoning is that carriers subsidize phone prices in the hopes of recouping the loss through long-term contracts. Allowing users to break the deal and put the phone on a new carrier's service would be taking that proposed profit from the company, reports the CTIA, a nonprofit wireless-industry trade organization.

But how much does this matter for consumers? After all, only carriers can know if a phone is unlocked and report it to law enforcement. It doesn't appear that these companies are enforcing that law, according to TechCrunch.

Unfortunately for those who want to unlock their cell phones without their carrier's permission, laws don't disappear or lose their power simply because no one is enforcing them.

While some old laws end up being unenforceable because of changes in constitutional analysis and new legislation, that's not what's happening here. This regulation is new and unless there is a legal challenge to it, it will likely remain in place regardless of enforcement.

The potential penalties make it clear this is one law you don't want to cross.

For a civil violation, the person unlocking a phone could get a fine of not less than $200 for their troubles. If that person is found guilty of breaking the criminal statute, willfully unlocking the phone or doing it for personal gain, the punishment is even steeper.

Fines for a first offense can be up to $500,000 and imprisonment for up to five years is a potential as well.

With those kinds of consequences, it seems that finishing out your cell phone contract is the better financial option than unlocking your cell phone.

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If you run a business, probably the last thing you want to see in your email inbox is a notification about a consumer complaint from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Fortunately for you, if you receive such an email it may not be an actual customer complaint.

Unfortunately for you, those email messages may link you to viruses and malware that can infect your computer.

The FTC reports that someone is sending out emails with the subject line: "NOTIFICATION OF CONSUMER COMPLAINT." The FTC wants you to know that the federal agency is not responsible for these emails. Instead, scammers are sending out these messages so they can access your private information.

The federal agency reports that individuals who click on the pictures and links in the email may inadvertently download viruses or malware onto their computers. The FTC suggests that anyone who receives these emails delete them immediately.

If you believe you have accidentally downloaded a virus, there are some steps you can take to protect your personal information:

  • Stop what you're doing online. If you're paying your bills, making online purchases, or performing any act that involves private information, you should stop immediately. This information may be compromised by viruses or malware.

  • Scan your computer for viruses. Run the virus check on your computer and delete any red-flagged programs that pop up.

  • Contact customer support for your computer. To ensure your computer is truly virus-free, you may be able to bring your computer back to the manufacturer if you are covered by a warranty or other provision.

  • Contact your banks and credit card companies. If your personal information is compromised, you will want to make sure your bank and credit card accounts aren't affected. Contacting them can ensure that you are not charged for purchases you did not make.

  • Check your credit report. For the next few months, you will also want to check your credit reports to make sure that unauthorized activity did not occur.

For more tips on how to protect yourself online, check out FindLaw's free Guide to Online Fraud and Identity Theft and head over to the Online Safety section of our website.

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Don't Fall for 'Do Not Call' Registry Scams

There are some Do Not Call Registry scams that you should be aware of, and they're being conducted via email and telephone.

Connecticut's Department of Consumer Protection (DCP) says hoax emails are being sent out to cell phone users claiming that the numbers they registered on the federal Do Not Call registries will soon be disclosed to telemarketers.

Some email messages, and even some unscrupulous telemarketers, have suggested that consumers call another hotline to register their numbers again. But that may be a scam to get your personal information.

In the email hoax, consumers are warned that telemarketing companies will soon be able to place sales calls to cell phones, and that consumers will be charged for such calls. However, the DCP wants consumers to know that there is no merit to such claims.

So you can rest assured knowing that your cell phone numbers will not go public, that your number will not be forwarded to telemarketers, and that telemarketers will not be able to call your cell phone penalty-free.

In fact, regardless of whether you placed your cell number on the Do Not Call Registry, it is a federal crime for telemarketers to call cell phones without the consumer's consent. So unless you specifically OK receiving telemarketing calls on your cell, you should not receive these annoying calls.

To further avoid falling for a Do Not Call scam, you should be aware that:

  • There is only one Do Not Call Registry, the federal registry operated by the Federal Trade Commission.
  • You can register both land lines and cell phone numbers on the registry. There are no separate registries.
  • There should never be a reason to have to reregister your number.
  • Once registered, telemarketers should stop calling within a month.
  • You may still receive marketing calls from nonprofit entities, companies you have done business with, and organizations whom you have given prior consent.

If you have a complaint about a potential violation of the Do Not Call Registry, or if you believe you have fallen victim to a scam, you can file a complaint with the FTC through its website, DoNotCall.gov.

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Signing Up for Credit Card Fraud Alerts Can Pay Off

You know that email from your credit card company, inviting you to sign up for their credit card fraud alerts?

Well, in most cases this isn't spam, or a scam. And if you haven't already signed up, you should definitely think about it.

A credit card fraud alert can save you major headaches down the road by letting you know of suspicious transactions almost immediately after they occur, anywhere around the world. This prevents that unpleasant surprise when you open your monthly credit card statement and see a bunch of transactions you did not make.

Here are some things to know about credit card fraud alerts:

  • What are they? Your credit card company monitors all of your transactions. They know where you typically purchase goods and in what amounts. So if they start getting strange transactions (like a $300 charge at a gas station in Argentina, when you live in Omaha), the company may alert you and verify whether you made the purchase.

  • How do I sign up? Every credit card company has a different process for signing up. Typically, if you log in to your account online, you can find a link there. Or you can always call your bank or credit card company and have them sign you up.

  • What happens if fraud is detected? If the credit card company notices fraudulent activity quickly enough, it will typically suspend your account, remove the fraudulent charges, and issue you a new card and account number. So while it may be a hassle to change all your automatic payment setups, you are saved the hassle of arguing the fraudulent charges on your next bill.

  • What future steps should I take? If your credit card information was stolen, you may want to check to see if your other accounts have been compromised too. In general, if you place a fraud alert on your credit report, you will be entitled to a free look at your report, reports Fox News. You will also want to closely monitor your accounts in the next month or two to ensure that everything is secure.

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The 10 Safest Songs to Listen to While You're Driving

Want to be a safely distracted driver? Listen to Coldplay.

That's what the results of a recent driving experiment has shown. Interestingly, these crooners from across the Pond make for some relaxed drivers. According to the creator of the driving app MotorMate, Coldplay's "The Scientist" makes the list of "ultimate safe driving songs."

Distracted driving is a huge problem and doesn't only encompass texting while driving. While it's not illegal to listen to music while driving, distracting music can still lead to car accidents.

This is not unlike the case against texting while driving, which is against the law in many states.

Confused.com, the maker of MotorMate, came up with a study in which they asked four female and four male drivers to take a test drive for 250 miles. The drivers had to use the MotorMate app, which monitored their driving. They were asked to drive the first 250 miles without playing any music.

For the next 250 miles, the drivers were asked to play music and were each given a different playlist.

The findings, including the data from the app, were given to a psychologist from London University. Here's what he found:

Music that is upbeat and noisy caused for an increased heart rate.

Another observation was that the best music volume for driving is at 5 to 65 decibels, and the best tempo for music is that which mimics the human heartbeat.

As a result, the psychologist from the study created a Spotify playlist of what he called the 50 safest driving songs.

Here's a peek at the Top 10:

  • “Come away with Me,” Norah Jones
  • “Billionaire Feat. Bruno Mars,” Travie McCoy
  • “I’m Yours,” Jason Mraz
  • “The Scientist,” Coldplay
  • “Tiny Dancer,” Elton John
  • “Cry Me a River,” Justin Timberlake
  • “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” Aerosmith
  • “Karma Police,” Radiohead
  • “Never Had a Dream Come True,” S Club 7
  • “Skinny Love,” Bon Iver

And here are 10 of the most dangerous driving songs:

  • "Hey Mama," The Black Eyed Peas
  • "Dead on Arrival," Fall Out Boy
  • "Paper Planes," M.I.A
  • "Walkie Talkie Man," Steriogram
  • "Paradise City," Guns N’ Roses
  • "How You Remind Me," Nickelback
  • "Hit the Road, Jack," Ray Charles
  • "Get Rhythm," Johnny Cash
  • "Heartless," Kanye West
  • "Young, Wild and Free," Snoop Dogg & Wiz Khalifa

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FTC Finds POM Wonderful's Ad Claims Deceptive

Ads for POM Wonderful make the drink seem like it will make you instantly healthier. But the Federal Trade Commission calls the ads deceptive, and has told the company to take them down.

The FTC regulates advertising, among other things, and requires that all claims made in ads be truthful. For health claims, that means the company needs to back its statements with scientific research, which is where POM ran into trouble.

Since 2010, the FTC has been telling the company that it needs evidence to support its promises of improved health. That culminated in an ultimatum for POM.

The ads for POM Wonderful products claim that pomegranate juice helps reduce the risk of heart disease and will improve your general health too. One ad even says simply, "Cheat Death." That's what is bothering the FTC.

To make that kind of health claim, the FTC commissioner wants the company to have actual proof that POM improves health. In this case, that means having scientists conduct at least two randomized human trials to support the claims, reports The Wall Street Journal.

But POM is balking at that requirement. It's already appealing the FTC's decision, which would require the company to pull its ads.

POM has spent millions in research to prove its health claims. They're arguing that the controlled trials requirement would put an unreasonable burden on companies that want to talk about the potential health benefits of fruit and vegetables.

But burdens on advertisers don't necessarily concern the FTC. The agency is designed to protect consumers from false or deceptive advertising.

That doesn't mean things don't slip through the cracks. Sometimes a company manages to put out claims that the FTC later determines are misleading, like what happened in this case.

While advertisers should make sure that their statements are truthful, as a consumer you should still evaluate the truth of ads. If it sounds too good to be true, it might be.

There's also the problem of claims that sound good, but turn out to be untrue. In a best case scenario it's just an annoyance, but you could also end up injured because of false claims.

If that happens, the company could potentially be held responsible for your injuries. To get compensation, you'll likely need to pursue a legal claim, perhaps with the help of a consumer protection attorney.

The problematic ads for POM have appeared in Parade, Fitness, and Prevention magazines, according to Reuters. But the company isn't ready to take them down until they've had their day in court.

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The 5 Most, Least Expensive Cars to Insure

Most state laws require that drivers carry insurance. So as a responsible adult, or at least one looking to save money, you've probably wondered about the most and least expensive cars to insure.

Car insurance rates are based on a number of factors including a driver's experience, past accidents, and where you live. But another factor in terms of liability is the car you drive. So which vehicle is going to incur higher rates?

Wonder no more, since it's easy to find out the answer to this question. The bigger question is what does it mean when state law requires insurance?

All states require that drivers show that they're able to cover a certain amount of damage if they're found liable in a motor vehicle accident. Insurance is a very easy way to do this.

The vast majority of states require drivers to carry a certain amount of insurance mandated by law. The coverage required varies by state, but most major insurance companies will know the minimum required by your state.

You can also easily find out the insurance minimums in your state since the information is freely available.

A small handful of states don't require insurance, but that doesn't mean you don't have to pay. Those states require uninsured drivers to post a large bond or otherwise prove an ability to cover liability in an accident.

Those rates may or may not be based on similar factors to insurance. But in all states, driving without sufficient coverage results in a fine and can lead to a suspended license.

Since you're going to have to get insurance, it's good to know which vehicles won't break the bank. Luckily, a website called Insure.com has produced a list of the five least expensive vehicles to insure.They are:

  1. Ford Edge SE
  2. Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo
  3. Subaru Outback 2.5i Premium
  4. Kia Sportage
  5. Jeep Patriot Sport

The list isn't entirely comprised of trusty four-door sedans, but there aren't any flashy sportscar-like options either. It makes sense that these all have inexpensive insurance, reports Forbes.

The most expensive cars to insure on Insure.com's list aren't a surprise either. But it's good to know what will run you top-dollar insurance. The most costly cars to insure are all made by the same company:

  1. Mercedes-Benz CL600
  2. Mercedes-Benz CL65 AMG
  3. Mercedes-Benz S65 AMG
  4. Mercedes-Benz SL65 AMG
  5. Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG

Mercedes-Benz models round out eight of the top 10 most expensive cars to insure as well. You certainly have to pay extra for that kind of luxury and power.

Of course, if you're in a position to buy a Mercedes-Benz, or any of the sporty cars in the "most expensive" category, you're probably not concerned about high insurance costs. But at least you'll have that knowledge the next time you're in the market for a new car.

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The Department of Homeland Security issued a warning Thursday, urging people to disable Java on their browsers. Yes, that means you.

There's a good chance you have Java installed even if you think you don't. It's a piece of software that's often used for Internet applications, especially online games. To access webpages that use it, you have to have a plugin installed on your browser.

The first time you used it, you probably installed it without thinking, just like Acrobat, Flash, QuickTime, and other plugins that are commonly used. But now might be the time to undo that.

The security issue is a potentially serious one. It could allow a remote attacker to put malicious code on your computer through a security vulnerability in Java 7, according to The Next Web.

The attacker gets a user to open an HTML document, either through a phony email message or a popup window. From there, that person can wreak havoc.

It doesn't help to use an older version of Java since those have security vulnerabilities too. The best move is to disable Java entirely, which works a little differently depending on your browser:

  • If you own a Mac and use Safari, go to the Menu and select Preferences. Click the tab labeled "Security" and then uncheck "Enable Java."
  • For Chrome users, simply type “chrome://plugins/” into the URL box. Then find Java and click "disable."
  • For Firefox users, find the "Adds-on" tab or line; it may be under Tools or General depending on your version, on in the "Firefox" tab on the top left. When the Add-ons manager tab comes up, select Plugins from the list on the left and click the "Disable" button for anything that mentions Java or Java Applet.
  • For Internet Explorer, the directions are more complicated, so check out this tutorial on PC Magazine's website for how to do it.

Once Java is uninstalled, you may not even notice that it's gone. But if you do find that you regularly use websites that require Java, there is a safe way to get it back.

Install a browser that you don't regularly use and enable Java on it. Then only use it for the websites that need Java. That will minimize the risk that you'll be using it when you click a malicious link.

In general, it's not a good idea to click on links from people you don't know or that pop up on your computer.

Also be wary of email from people you know that seem strange or uncharacteristic. That person could have been the victim of a virus so if you're unsure, send an email to ask them what's up before clicking on a link.

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The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is set to announce new mortgage rules and consumer protections that will take effect next year.

Some of the protections in the new rules will include prohibiting banks and lenders from making home loans that offer deceptive teaser rates or require no documentation from borrowers, reports The New York Times. In addition, banks and lenders will be required to take steps to ensure that borrowers have the capability to repay the loans in the first place.

However, while the new CFPB rules appear to be in the consumers' best interests, there are almost as many provisions that protect banks from consumers.

First, along with the provisions mentioned above, some new rules that will protect consumers include:

  • Mortgage originators generally cannot charge excessive upfront points and fees.
  • Loans typically cannot be made if they will load a borrower with payments exceeding 43 percent of income.
  • Limits will be set on interest-only and negative-amortization loans where the balance grows over time.

While these new rules may sound great, those consumers who have been actively house hunting may sarcastically note: "big deal." Just about all of these restrictions have already been implemented by banks, and so there may be little change on the lending environment. In fact, many of these protections help to explain why it's been so hard for borrowers to get a loan.

So how do the new rules motivate banks to lend again? And what are the benefits of the new rules on banks and lenders?

For starters, banks will be offered a "safe harbor" in which they cannot be sued for allegedly reckless or abusive lending practices, reports the Times. To come within this safe harbor, lenders will have to lend to borrowers who have the ability to repay and provide documentation of this ability -- both of which banks already likely do. So banks will basically be immune from certain consumer lawsuits.

The mortgage laws and regulations are complicated and convoluted. If you have a question about your loan or mortgage, you will want to work with a consumer protection attorney. This is especially true when laws that ostensibly protect consumers insulate lenders from liability.

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The 13 Safest Cars for 2013

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is out with its list of the 13 safest cars for 2013.

All 13 vehicles earned the IIHS' designation of "Top Safety Pick+" for 2013. It's interesting to note that the IIHS only ranked 29 cars total for this highest mark. So almost half the cars they tested earned this "top" designation.

However, this may be a good sign, as it may indicate that vehicles across the board have enhanced their emphasis on safety. Here's a look at the 13 safest cars, followed by what makes them so safe:

  • Acura TL
  • Dodge Avenger
  • Chrysler 200 (two-door)
  • Ford Fusion
  • Honda Accord (two-door)
  • Honda Accord (four-door)
  • Kia Optima
  • Nissan Altima (four-door)
  • Subaru Legacy
  • Subaru Outback
  • Suzuki Kizashi
  • Volkswagen Passat
  • Volvo S60

In determining the 13 safest cars, the IIHS stated that it rated the vehicles based on performance in a moderate overlap frontal crash, a small overlap frontal crash, a side impact and rollover crash, along with evaluations of seat/head restraints. Each of the top safety picks earned good ratings for occupant protection in at least four of the five evaluations.

It's interesting to note the lack of luxury vehicles in the IIHS' list of safest cars. While the Volvo S60 and Acura TL may be considered expensive, the other award winners are moderately priced cars. It's refreshing to see that consumers do not necessarily have to pay more to obtain a safe car. Therefore, there is no excuse for car purchasers of any financial means to not purchase a safe vehicle.

And it's not just safety at stake, either. In general, a safer car means you'll pay lower auto insurance rates as well.

Along with the Top Safety Pick+ winners, an additional 117 vehicles earned the IIHS' "Top Safety Pick" designation. You'll notice the lack of the "+" sign in the lesser award. These cars scored just slightly lower on the IIHS standards.

With 130 top safety picks to choose from, there should be plenty of options for safe cars in 2013.

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Subaru Recalls 630K Vehicles Over Fire Risk

Subaru is recalling several vehicle models citing a possible fire risk. The Subaru recall is believed to affect nearly 634,000 vehicles in the United States.

The company stated that the fire hazard may stem from problems with the car's lighting system.

Apparently, the vehicles' accessory puddle light system, which lights the areas under the doors, may be defective and could lead to smoke and potentially fires, reports Reuters. A short circuit can develop when the light or connector is exposed to certain types of moisture, such as road spray with road salt in it.

The vehicles affected by the Subaru recall include popular models like the Subaru Forester (model years 2009 through 2012), Legacy (2010 and 2011), Outback (2010 and 2011), and some Tribeca vehicles (2006 through 2012).

A Subaru spokesperson said that only 53,999 vehicles equipped with the puddle lights are actually affected by the recall. However, the company had to issue the much wider recall including all of the above vehicles because the company is not sure which vehicles have the puddle lights installed, reports Reuters.

So far, there have been no reports or accidents related to the lighting/fire issue, though there were reports of one car owner who noticed smoke coming from the lights, reports Reuters.

Subaru will notify owners of the affected vehicles. If you receive such a notice, it's recommended that you bring it in to the dealer to immediately to have the problem fixed.

If you have already suffered vehicle damage or other injuries due to the lighting problem, you should be aware that you may be able to seek legal remedies on top of the recall remedies and repairs.

In such a case, you may want to talk to an experienced product liability attorney who can review your claim and examine your options to recover damages.

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