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December 2014

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Sprint 'Cramming' Lawsuit: What Consumers Need to Know

The federal government is continuing its crackdown against the so-called "cramming" of unauthorized charges on consumers' cellphone bills with a lawsuit against wireless carrier Sprint.

The lawsuit was filed Friday by the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, reports CNET. In the complaint, the Bureau alleges that Sprint allowed third parties to make unauthorized charges on Sprint customers' cellphone bills then failed to properly respond to customer disputes or warnings about the practice from consumer groups and government agencies.

The lawsuit marks the third action by a government agency against a wireless carrier for wireless cramming so far this year.

AT&T, T-Mobile Previously Accused of 'Cramming' Wireless Bills

The lawsuit against Sprint follows a similar lawsuit filed against wireless carrier T-Mobile earlier this year. In that lawsuit, the Federal Trade Commission alleged that T-Mobile had crammed hundreds of millions of dollars worth of unauthorized third-party charges on customers' bills, including subscription services for horoscopes, dating tips, ringtones, and other services that consumers often failed to notice were included on their monthly bills.

In October, it was announced that AT&T had agreed to a $105 million settlement with the FTC over allegations that the company also crammed unauthorized charges onto customers' wireless bills. In addition to the lawsuit filed this week against Sprint by the CFPB, the FCC is also reportedly planning to levy a $105 million fine against the company.

What is Cramming?

Cramming is the name given to unauthorized charges placed on landline telephone or cellphone bills, typically for services provided by third party companies. Consumers are often unaware that they are being charged a monthly fee for these services as the charges frequently go unnoticed on monthly bills. The government claims that this is often the result of deceptive billing practices on the part of wireless carriers.

In the lawsuit against Sprint, the CFPB is asking for civil damages and penalties against the company as well as restitution for Sprint customers who paid the unauthorized charges.

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BBB Warns About Work Email Scam

The Better Business Bureau has issued an alert regarding a new email scam targeting professionals through their work email accounts.

According to the BBB alert, the emails appear to be from your company's human resources department regarding your benefits. The emails are designed to look official and use urgent language regarding the cancellation, reduction, or suspension of your benefits to convince you to open the email and click on the links or attachments included.

Unfortunately, following the emails instructions may download harmful malware to your computer or direct you to a phishing website that may trick you into divulging personal information.

How to Avoid Being Scammed

The list of red flags for this particular email scam is also applicable to most other email scams. Although the targets of the scam and the methods used by the scammers may change, there are several general tips that can help you avoid getting ripped off by email scammers. These include:

  • Never opening unexpected, unfamiliar attachments. Even if the email appears to be from someone you recognize, you should always make sure the email is legitimate before opening any attachments that may be included with an unexpected email.
  • Watching for fishy URLs. Look closely at the URLs in any link included in an email; scammers often use web site addresses that look legitimate but may be one or two letters off or may actually be subdomains or different, unfamiliar websites.
  • Hovering over links. Scammers are often able to obscure the true destination of links included in emails. However, by hovering your mouse over the link without clicking it, you can usually see where a link will actually take you.

Social Security Email Scam

Scammers have found success targeting consumers with scams related to benefits. Earlier this year, the BBB warned about a different scam in using emails claiming that the recipient was eligible for new social security benefits. Those who clicked on an included link were directed to fill out a form in order to receive the new benefit. But the information was actually intended to allow scammers to redirect social security benefits into the scammer's own bank account.

Learn more about preventing identity theft and improving your online security at FindLaw's Learn About the Law section on Online Scams.

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What Are the ‘10 Worst Toys for Kids’ for 2014?

Consumer protection group World Against Toys Causing Harm (W.A.T.C.H.) has released its list of "10 Worst Toys" for kids for 2014.

In releasing this year's list, the group notes that many of the toys included are example of toys designed and marketed to increase sales at the expense of safety. Inadequate warnings or misleading instructions on products made for children can lead to injury or even death. The group also warns against assuming that toys purchased in stores are safe, even those from trusted toymakers or those purchased at major retailers. Many of these toys may have hidden dangers, such as small parts that may be detached and lead to choking or ingestion-related injury.

What toys made the list? Here are the group's choices for "10 worst toys" for 2014:

  1. Air storm firetek bow. This bow-and-arrow set is marketed as being able to shoot arrows "up to 145 ft." but then includes a warning in the instructions that "arrows should not be pulled back at more than half strength."
  2. Radio Flyer Ziggle. Made by the well-known maker of red wagons, this four-wheeled cycle includes a warning that riders should always wear a helmet, despite prominently featuring a photo of a child rider not wearing a helmet on the toy's box.
  3. Catapencil. This pencil-mounted slingshot sold online and in stores does not include any warnings or age recommendations but encourages children to use the device for "target practice."
  4. Alphabet Zoo Rock and Stack Pull Toy. With a 20-inch pull-cord, this toy presents the potential for strangulation or entanglement injuries.
  5. SWAT Electric Machine Gun. This realistic replica of an actual firearm includes a warning on the product's packaging that "[t]his product may be mistaken for an actual firearm by law enforcement officers and others." As the group notes, replica firearms have caused a number of deaths after being mistaken for the real thing by police, including the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice earlier this year.
  6. Wooden Instruments. These instruments are sold for babies as young as 12 months, despite including small parts that may lead to choking.
  7. Bottle Rocket Party. Although the instructions for this projectile kit instruct users to wear safety goggles, the goggles are not supplied.
  8. Lil' Cutesies - Best Friends. These dolls include decorative bows that may be detached from the doll, leading to choking.
  9. True Legends Orcs Battle Hammer. Recommended for children as young as three years of age, this two-foot plastic hammer can cause blunt impact injuries.
  10. Colored Hedgehog. Although not mentioned anywhere on the product or packaging, the long, fiber-like hair on this toy can easily be removed by a child, leading to ingestion or aspiration injuries.

Learn more about lawsuits for injuries caused by defective products or inadequate warnings at FindLaw's Learn About the Law section on Product Liability.

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Online Shoppers: Beware 'Order Confirmation' Email Scams

Online shoppers are being warned about a new scam involving fake order confirmation emails.

The emails in question ask consumers to confirm the purchase of online order or shipment of a package from a big name online retailer, reports Krebs on Security, timed to trick consumers who may have purchased holiday gifts online. Unfortunately, as with most email phishing scams, clicking the links or downloading the attachments included in a malicious email may give consumers an unwanted gift of their own: malware, viruses, and potentially compromised personal information.

How Does the Scam Work?

The emails are designed to look like they are being sent from trusted retailers including Target, Home Depot, Walmart, Amazon, and Costco and have been reported to use a variety of subject lines, including: "Acknowledgment of Order," "Order Confirmation," "Order Status," "Thank you for buying from [insert merchant name here]," and a "Thank you for your order." The text of the email typically references a vague order that is ready to be picked up or delivered and instructs consumers to click on a link or attachment in the email to find out more information.

Consumers who do click on the links or the attachments in the email may be exposing their computers to a malware bot known as ASProx, according to security company Malcovery. This malware not only harvests personal information such as usernames and passwords from infected computers, but also uses those computers as part of a botnet to relay junk email and perpetuate malware attacks on other computers.

Email Confirmation Scams

Email confirmation scams are becoming one of the more common forms of email phishing. In 2013, customers of Delta Airlines were warned not to click on a message purporting to be from Delta involving flight cancellations, as the emails were part of a phishing scam. Email scams can also be used for more old-fashioned forms of fraud. Sellers on eBay have reported receiving fake payment confirmation emails from PayPal. The emails are generated by buyers, hoping to induce the seller to ship the items before discovering that payment was never in fact made.

How to Avoid Being Scammed

To prevent being infected with malware or otherwise duped by fake confirmation emails, the best policy is to confirm orders, shipping, payment, and other steps in the online shopping process through a retailer or service provider's actual website. In most instances, phishing or fraudulent email confirmations also fail to stand up under close scrutiny, and grammatical errors or overly vague language should both be red flags.

Most importantly: Even when an email appears to be from a trusted source, if the email is unsolicited or seemingly out of the blue, avoid clicking any included links or opening any included attachments. An order confirmation from a legitimate business will almost always include references to order numbers or transaction information that may be used to confirm the order online or over the phone.

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Nissan Recalls 470,000 Vehicles Over Possible Fuel Leaks

Japanese carmaker Nissan has issued a worldwide recall for 470,000 cars and SUVs that may be affected by a fuel leak problem.

The recall includes both Nissan and Infiniti vehicles, reports The Associated Press, including about 134,000 vehicles in the United States and more than 230,000 in Japan. Model years affected by the recall range from 2012 to 2015.

Defective Fuel Pressure Sensor Installation

The recall was issued after it was discovered that fuel pressure sensors may not have been installed properly when the vehicles were manufactured. This can lead to a fuel leak over time due to heat and vibration, a potential fire hazard. According to Nissan, no fires or injuries caused by this problem have been reported to the company.

Owners of recalled vehicles will be able to bring the vehicles in to have the sensors tightened, which will fix the problem, according to Nissan. U.S. models affected by the recall include Nissan's Juke SUV and Infiniti's M56, QX56, QX70, and QX80.

Some of the vehicles subject to the latest recall were previously recalled in 2012. That recall involved 80,000 vehicles along with the same fuel pressure sensor issue. Though no injuries or fires were reported with the 2012 recall, vehicle owners had reported the smell of gas within the vehicles.

Vehicles that were repaired in the 2012 recall are not covered by this latest recall.

Is Your Vehicle Is Subject to the Recall?

Nissan plans to mail notifications to vehicle owners in January. Vehicle owners can also find out whether a vehicle is in need of repairs required by any vehicle recall within the last 15 years by using the NHTSA's Online Recall Search (although recently announced recalls may not immediately be included in the database).

Vehicle owners can enter a vehicle's VIN and see whether recall repairs have been completed. Vehicle makers are also now mandated to have recall information searchable be VIN on the manufacturer's own website.

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Honda Expands Takata Airbag Recall

Japanese carmaker Honda has expanded its recall of vehicles with potentially defective Takata air bags.

The move comes at the request of the U.S. government, reports The Detroit News, and came after the manufacturer of the air bags, Japan's Takata Corp., refused to expand their own recall. The Honda recall also follows an expansion of recall efforts by Toyota last week linked to the same defective air bag issue in which the company added 50,000 vehicles to its own international recall.

So far defective Takata air bags have been linked to five deaths, four of which have been in Honda cars. Since 2013, more than 7.8 million vehicles with Takata air bags have been recalled in the United States, with millions more being recalled internationally.

Defective Inflator Mechanism May Explode Causing Death, Injury

The air bags in vehicles subject to the recall may have defective air bag inflator mechanisms. When the air bags inflate, these mechanisms have been reported to explode, sending metal fragments into the passenger compartment and causing serious injury or death.

Initial recall efforts in the United States were focused on areas with high humidity, as that was believed to be linked to problem with the air bags' inflator mechanisms. However, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently requested that five automakers -- Honda, Ford, Chrysler, Mazda, and BMG -- expand their recalls nationwide, with Honda being the first of the five to do so.

How To Determine Whether Your Car Is Included in Recall

Consumers can determine whether a vehicle is subject to this, or other recalls, by using the searchable recall database set up by the NHTSA. Using a vehicle's unique Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), consumers can go to the NHTSA's Safercar website and see whether a vehicle has had recall repairs completed for this or any safety recall issued within the last 15 years.

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Toyota Expands Dangerous Air Bag Recall

Japanese carmaker Toyota has added 57,000 more of its vehicles to the growing number of automobiles being recalled due to potentially defective Takata airbags.

Toyota is recalling Vitz (known as the Yaris in some markets) subcompact cars and RAV4 crossover models made in 2002 and 2003, reports Reuters. The latest recall includes 40,000 vehicles in Japan and 6,000 in Europe, with the remaining vehicles spread throughout the globe, not including North America or the United States.

However, a recall issued earlier this year by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration brought the number of vehicles in the U.S. recalled due to similar safety issues with Takata airbags to more than seven million, including 877,000 Toyota vehicles.

Airbag Defect Linked to Five Deaths

Toyota's recall came after a fifth death was linked to problems with airbags manufactured by Japan's Takata Corp. Defects in the airbags' inflator mechanisms can cause the inflators to explode upon deployment, sending metal shrapnel into a car's passenger compartment.

Worldwide more than 16 million cars have been recalled since 2008, reports Reuters. In the U.S., regional recalls were initially limited to cars in areas with high humidity, as the problem with airbag inflators was believed to be linked to high humidity. More recently, however, recalls have expanded to vehicles nationwide.

How to Determine If Your Call Has Been Recalled

To determine whether your car is included in this or other recalls issued by automobile manufacturers, the NHTSA has set up a searchable database. Consumers can search using a vehicle's Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and see not only whether the vehicle has been subject to a recall within the last 15 years but also whether recall repairs have been made.

The NHTSA searchable database can be found at the website. In addition, individual auto manufacturers are now mandated to maintain an online database of recalled vehicles searchable by VIN.

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Don’t Fall for 'Grandparent Scam' This Thanksgiving

Consumer groups and authorities across the country, including New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, are advising families to be on the lookout for a scam targeting grandparents this Thanksgiving.

In a press release, Schneiderman asked colleges in the state of New York to help stop the spread of a phone scam known as the "grandparent scam." The scam typically involves a phone call or an email to a senior citizen in which the scammer pretends to be the victim's grandchild. The scammer claims that he or she is in trouble and needs the grandparents to wire money immediately.

According to the FTC, more than 40,000 of these so-called grandparent scams have been reported since 2010, with many more likely going unreported.

How the Scam Works

According to the Consumer Federation of America, the scammers may target victims at random, but may also use information gathered through marketing lists, social networking sites, obituaries, or other online information to get the names of a victim's grandchildren or other relatives

Often, however, scammers don't need to know the names of a victim's grandchildren, or even whether the victim has any grandchildren at all. Rather, the scammer will simply address the victim as grandma or grandpa and wait for the grandparent to ask "Sally, is that you?" Scammers often call in the middle of the night, relying on the late hour to add to the victim's confusion.

Once the grandparent is convinced the person on the phone is indeed his or her grandchild, the scammer then makes a plea for money, usually for some form of legal or travel-related emergency, such as needing to get out of jail or get through customs. Whatever the issue, the request is always the same: Wire money immediately, using a service such as Western Union of MoneyGram.

According to one admitted scammer (currently awaiting sentencing in California) interviewed by CBS News, scammers can make as much as $10,000 a day running the grandparent scam. The scammer said that he would target those over 65, because "[o]nce you get them emotionally involved, then they'll do anything for you, basically."

What You Can Do to Prevent Being Scammed

Some ways to prevent being taken in by the grandparent scam include:

  • Being suspicious any time you are unexpectedly asked to wire money;
  • Verifying an emergency by calling a family member or friend who may be able to help (even if it's late);
  • Limiting what you share, such as vacation plans, on social media and other websites; and
  • Giving your family members a secret codeword to be used in the event of an emergency.

Those who have been the victim of a grandparent scam or attempted grandparent scam can file a complaint with the FTC using the online complaint assistant or by calling 1-877-382-4357

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Minn. Ground Beef Recall May Affect Your Thanksgiving

Just in time for Thanksgiving, a Minnesota meat company has issued a recall for 1,200 pounds of ground beef after testing revealed possible E. coli contamination.

Ranchers Legacy Meat Company issued the recall when a routine inspection by the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service discovered the contamination, reports WISC-TV. The recall includes all meat products that were produced on November 19, the same day as the product that tested positive for E. coli

E. coli is a form of bacteria that can cause severe and sometimes fatal food borne illness in humans. Although there have been no reports of any illnesses associated with the recalled meat, E. coli can cause dehydration, bloody diarrhea, and cramps, with symptoms typically appearing two to eight days after exposure.

Recalled Products

According to the USDA news release, the products subject to the recall all have a use-by date of 12/10/2014 and bear the establishment number "Est 40264" inside the USDA mark of inspection.

The products, all of which are ground beef products sealed in plastic packets, include:

  • Ranchers Legacy Ground Beef Patties 77/23
  • Ranchers Legacy Ground Chuck Patties 80/20
  • Ranchers Legacy USDA Choice Ground Beef 80/20
  • Ranchers Legacy USDA Choice WD Beef Patties 80/20
  • Ranchers Legacy RD Beef Patties 80/20
  • Ranchers Legacy Chuck Blend Oval Beef Patties
  • Ranchers Legacy WD Chuck Blend Patties
  • Ranchers Legacy USDA Choice NAT Beef Patties 80/20
  • Ranchers Legacy NAT Beef Patties 80/20
  • Ranchers Legacy USDA Choice NAT Beef Patties 80/20
  • Ranchers Legacy Ground Chuck Blend
  • Ranchers Legacy Chuck Blend Bulk Pack NAT Patties
  • Ranchers Legacy Chuck Blend NAT Beef Patties
  • OTG Manufacturing Chuck/Brisket RD Patties

The recall is a Class I recall, defined as a "health hazard situation where there is a reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death."

What Should Consumers Do?

According to the USDA, the products subject to the recall were shipped to distributors for sale nationwide and may have been purchased by consumers. Consumers should avoid consuming any of the products subject to the recall. Those who may have already consumed potentially contaminated beef should look for signs of potential food borne illness and contact a health care provider if symptoms appear.

Consumers with questions about the recall can call Jeremy Turnquist, Vice President of Operations for Ranchers Legacy Meat Co. at (651) 366-6575.

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Ford Recalls 65K Fusion Sedans Over Ignition Issue

Ford Motor Company is recalling 65,000 Fusion sedans in the United States, Canada, and Mexico because of an ignition switch issue.

The recall was issued after it was discovered that the vehicle's key can be removed from the ignition switch 30 minutes after the car is turned off when the car is left in gear. This increases the risk of the car inadvertently rolling away and violates safety regulations, reports New York's WNBC-TV.

What do Fusion owners need to know about this latest auto recall?

Includes 2014, 2015 Model Years

The recall includes Ford Fusion sedans from the 2014 and 2015 model years. Owners of Ford Fusion vehicles can determine if their vehicle is included in the recall by entering their vehicle's VIN at Ford's online recall search tool.

When an automobile defect prompts a safety recall, automakers are typically responsible for providing consumers a recall remedy at no cost. In this recall, owners of affected Fusion models can have the car's instrument cluster reprogrammed by a dealer at no cost.

No Injuries Reported

No injuries have been reported in connection with the Ford Fusion ignition switch defect, reports WNBC-TV. Last month, Ford recalled 850,000 vehicles for an electrical glitch affecting airbag deployment, including some Fusion models. No injuries were reported in connection with that recall, either.

However, Ford is among the automakers involved in the ongoing Takata airbag recall, which has so far been linked to at least four deaths. In that recall, airbag inflator mechanisms may explode when the airbag is deployed, causing metal shards to fly into the vehicle's passenger compartment.

The airbags, manufactured by Japan's Takata Corporation, were installed in vehicles made by Ford, GM, Toyota, Honda, and BMW, among other automakers. Consumers can determine whether their vehicle is in need of recall repairs under these, or any other recall issued in the last 15 years, by searching the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's online database using their vehicle's VIN.

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Common Law Vanguard Panel

The following firms have assisted the FindLaw editorial team in identifying emerging trends in consumer protection law and topics of importance to readers of this blog: