The Public Eye

Reports from the Bee's investigative team

April 4, 2011
"Do Not Track Me" laws seek to protect consumer privacy online

Privacy advocates are backing legislation that requires Internet companies doing business in California to provide consumers with a mechanism to prevent their online activities and information from being monitored. SB 671, the so-called "Do Not Track Me" law, would allow people to opt out of the "collection, use, and storage" of personal data by any firm.

Consumer Watchdog, a backer of the bill, has challenged Google to support such privacy protection. Google recently agreed to a comprehensive privacy plan and independent auditing as part of a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over the company's mishandling of its Buzz social network.

The California legislation is modeled on the federal Do Not track Me Online Act sponsored by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.). That bill would "direct the Federal Trade Commission to prescribe regulations regarding the collection and use of information obtained by tracking the Internet activity of an individual." In introducing the law, Speier cited the recent Wall Street Journal investigation which exposed the extent to which companies track, aggregate and sell consumer data.

January 11, 2011
Feds to launch consumer product database

Wouldn't it be nice if the average consumer could know about a harmful or potentially harmful product before it's eventually recalled?

That's the goal of a new government database set to debut on March 11. In November the Consumer Product Safety Commission voted to establish an online system to house reports of unsafe or potentially hazardous merchandise. The database won't include mere complaints about product reliability or quality -- only information about serious defects that can lead to death or injury. It's also limited to CPSC-regulated goods, so excludes cosmetics, food, tobacco, and other items handled by other federal agencies.

Advocates of the system say it will provide consumers, government regulators, health professionals and others with an easy way to file incident reports. It will also allow consumers to quickly and easily research products they are considering for purchase.

Manufacturers have expressed concerns about the project, saying it invites false and possibly fraudulent product reports. In response, CPSC rules allow companies to challenge complaints and to post rebuttals alongside complaints in the database.

Once launched, consumers can go to the SaferProducts.gov to use the database.  

Hat tip: Washington Post.

December 8, 2010
Debit card use up as Fed mulls fee controls

debitcard.jpgDebit card use has jumped in the United States, according to the Federal Reserve in a report on non-cash payments issued today. The Fed says debit card transactions grew 14.8 percent between 2006 and 2009. During the same period check transactions fell by 7.2 percent. For many consumers debit cards have become the dominant form of non-cash payment.

Legislation passed earlier this year will impose limits on "interchange fees," that is, the fees banks charge merchants for debit card transactions, which many believe are excessive. Next week the Federal Reserve will unveil its rules for such fees and the banking industry anticipates the loss of millions of dollars as a result of the new restrictions.

Major banks are reportedly shifting their marketing to reloadable prepaid cards that are not subject to Fed regulation. These cards are used increasingly by low-income families who don't have bank accounts. But Consumers Union and other advocacy groups warn that prepaid cards harbor a bevy of hidden fees buried in fine print. A CU report details the complicated fee structure of specific products, such as the WalMart Money and Account Now cards (p. 13). 

PHOTO CREDIT: A shopper swipes his debit card at a supermarket in Omaha, Neb., in 2007. AP Photo/ Nati Harnik

August 21, 2010
Wall Street Journal tracks the web trackers

Thursday's NPR Fresh Air interview with Wall Street Journal reporter Julia Angwin should be of interest to anyone concerned about their privacy on the Internet. Angwin is the lead writer of a disturbing investigation into the high tech ways advertisers and marketers monitor activities of people browsing the web. The Journal looked especially at tracking software -- "cookies" and "beacons" -- that records consumer activity across the Net. Companies compile that data to build up profiles (dossiers) based on people's online interests and purchases. These dossiers are then used to customize advertising and other content a person sees on particular web sites.

Angwin and her team set up a dummy PC to track the tracking files typically installed on people's computers by the top 50 most visited web sites. They found as many as 234 distinct "trackers" on one site, Dictionary.com. Other prominent web destinations also hosted many such files:  Merriam-Wester.com (131); Comcast.net (151); Careerbuilder.com (118); Photobucket.com (127); and MSN.com (207). Even the Wall Street Journal plops 60 trackers on users' computers.

Tracking technology has grown in number and sophistication, but consumers can fight back. There are ways to block commercial tracking and "opt out" of so-called behaviorial advertising.

August 5, 2010
Some for-profit colleges encourage fraud

Recent undercover testing by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, a research arm of Congress, found that some for-profit colleges encourage fraudulent practices. And all the tested colleges made "deceptive or otherwise questionable" statements to applicants, such as misrepresenting the benefits of their degree or certificate programs, according to the agency's report.
gao graphic.JPGNearly 1.8 million students attend for-profit institutions of higher learning, according to the report, and they received more than $24 billion in Pell grants or federal loans. The agency's investigators posed as prospective students to 15 such colleges, and in four cases were encouraged by officials to "to falsify their financial aid forms to qualify for federal aid." In some cases, college admissions staff also pressured applicants to enroll before they received advice about costs and financial aid.

In one case, an undercover tester was falsely told that unlike consumer loans, if students loans are not repaid, "no one would 'come after' the applicant."

-Charles Piller

July 26, 2010
Kids most vulnerable in E. Coli outbreaks

PK_LETTUCE 0128.JPGIf history is any lesson, the state's latest round of contaminated food products will hit one population the hardest: Kids under 5.

A study by the California Department of Public Health shows that the rate of E. coli infection cases in 2008 was at least 12 times higher in children ages 1 to 4 than in adults 25 and 54.The study, which analyzed Escherichia coli outbreaks between 2001 and 2008, found that children in that age group were consistently more susceptible to the bacteria.

The rate of E. coli infection in young children averaged about 3.3 cases per 100,000 population in the eight-year span, compared with an average rate of only about 0.2 cases in adults 25 to 54, the data shows. Among all adults, the rate of infection was higher in those over 65.

Most people infected with E. coli develop diarrhea and abdominal cramps after swallowing the organism, but serious complications - including a form of kidney failure -- are most common in children under 5 and the elderly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The health department has not announced any serious illnesses or deaths in California from the contaminated romaine lettuce that was recalled earlier this month. The product was packaged by Fresh Express and distributed to retailers in 19 states.

Here are links to a state health fact sheet on E. Coli and the federal CDC site where outbreaks are announced and analyzed.

- Marjie Lundstrom

July 21, 2010
Today's wars costlier than all other U.S. conflicts except WWII

Since 9/11, military outlays beyond the normal expenditures of maintaining a standing military capacity have topped $1.1 trillion -- an impressive price tag for a budget-strapped nation -- according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service. Corrected for inflation, the agency estimated the price of the ongoing Iraq and Afghanistan wars as higher than any other conflict in U.S. history, except World War II, which cost more than $4 trillion in today's dollars. (An explosion in Kandahar, Afghanistan pictured here. AP photo by Allauddin Khan.)Afghanistan.jpg

The report contains a fascinating chart that compares every military conflict in the nation's history, including American Revolution ($2.4 billion), the Vietnam War ($784 billion) and World War I ($334 billion).

The author, defense specialist Stephen Daggett, warns that such comparisons can't be made with the same precision the numbers might suggest. That's in part because different historical eras experienced different demands for ever-more costly war-fighting technologies. And as a percentage of the nation's GDP, today's war costs are far lower than nearly all prior wars. Still, as a rough gauge, the new study shows that the current wars already rank among the costliest in history.

Other analysts, such as Nobel prize winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes, have calculated vastly higher costs when including such items as support for soldiers who return from recent wars with grave medical or psychological problems.

-Charles Piller

July 20, 2010
Reusable shopping bags: Spreading germs or spreading fear?

The Yuck Factor has entered California's contentious shopping-bag debate.

As the state moves closer to passing a ban on single-use plastic bags, researchers at Loma Linda University and the University of Arizona have unveiled a wrinkle in the reusable shopping bag movement.

In a new study, the researchers found that environmentally conscious shoppers almost never wash those reusable cloth bags, exposing their food purchases and themselves to bacteria.

The researchers, who randomly collected reusable bags from shoppers in California and Arizona, found large numbers of bacteria in almost all the bags, and coliform in half. When meat juices were added to the bags and stored in vehicle trunks for two hours, bacteria increased almost 10-fold.

"These results indicate that reusable bags can play a significant role in the cross contamination of foods if not properly washed on a regular basis," the authors concluded. "It is recommended that the public needs to be educated about the proper care of reusable bags by printed instructions on the bags or through public service announcements."

Supporters of the plastic-bag ban, set to go before the Senate Appropriations Committee, accused the American Chemistry Council -- which sponsored the study -- of using a scare tactic to scuttle the measure. If AB 1998 passes, California would be the first in the nation to ban grocery, liquor and drug stores from providing free paper or plastic bags.

June 11, 2010
Buyer Beware: No need for costly public records service

Sacramento County officials are warning residents that there's no need to pay a Los Angeles-area company to obtain public records that are easily available from the County Clerk-Recorder's offices.

Some area residents have been receiving an offer in the mail from a company calling itself the State Record Retrieval Board. The company claims that for the low, low cost of $87 a homeowner can get a copy of his or her deed and a property profile. The company, which has an Agoura Hills address, is not a government entity or in any way affiliated with the county, state or other government agencies.

County officials say residents can get the same information for an average cost of $15 directly from the Clerk-Recorder's offices.

For more information on the Clerk-Recorder's office visit their website at www.ccr.saccounty.net or give them a call at (916) 874-6334. For information on the assessed value of your property, you can visit the assessor's website at www.assessor.saccounty.net or give them a call at (916) 875-0700.

June 1, 2010
Griping online about a company can get you SLAPPed

The New York Times yesterday described the dilemma of a Kalamazoo college student who created a Facebook page to complain about a towing company that hauled away his car from his apartment lot despite his having a permit to park there. The firm responded with a $750,000 defamation suit. Such lawsuits, says the Times, are becoming more common as consumers turn to blogs and social media to vent their feelings about products and services. Some first amendment advocates see this type of legal retaliation as a way for businesses and government to intimidate potential critics into silence. They refer to these seemingly meritless suits as SLAPPS (strategic lawsuit against public participation).

The public radio program On the Media recently reported on SLAPPs. The segment pointed out that federal anti-SLAPP legislation has been introduced in Congress. It's based on similar laws enacted by 27 states, including California, which is said to have the strongest statute. There's an advocacy group, the California Anti-SLAPP Project, whose mission is "protecting the right to participate in government and civic affairs and to speak freely about public issues." CASP has a useful chronology of the development of the California anti-SLAPP law.

-- Pete Basofin

May 22, 2010
Shopping for a kid's gift? Buyer beware
About that cute holiday gift you got last year for the small child in your life...You might want to check in from time to time with the Consumer Products Safety Commission's recall list. During the last month alone, a raft of apparel, blankets and toys were recalled. Among them, Step2 Co.'s Push Around and Whisper Ride buggies, sold at major retailers through March, caused at least 28 injuries to young children when the buggy handle suddenly detached.buggy.jpg

Fly Dragonfly (aka Queen Bee), a remote-controlled helicopter toy distributed by Imagine Nation Books Unlimited/Books Are Fun of Boulder, Colorado, has the inconvenient tendency to burst into flames. It was sold at gift fairs in hospitals and offices nationwide.

helicopter.jpg

According to the consumer agency's archives, 16 toys have been recalled so far this year - the same number as had been by this time in 2009.

-Charles Piller





About The Public Eye

Welcome to The Bee's newest blog: Public Eye. In the coming months, you will see us breaking news here as well as following up on investigations we have published with tidbits, news breaks and behind-the-scenes descriptions of our news-gathering process. Know of a wrong we could right? Send our fraud squad your tips at: fraudsquad@sacbee.com.

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