New Study Shows Death/Cancer Risk with Sleeping Pills

February 28, 2012

Millions of people turn to sleeping pills to get a better night’s rest, but a new study shows the pills could cause an increased risk of death and cancer.  That’s enough to keep you up at night!  Click here to learn more and watch a report by CBS News.

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Top Gripes of People while Driving

February 28, 2012

What annoys you when you drive?

Texting while driving.  Going too slow in the left lane.  Drivers who cut you off.  Tailing too closely.  Taking too long to go when the light turns green… and the list goes on and on.

The top gripes that drive you crazy when you’re on the road are revealed in a new survey by Consumer Reports.  The annual auto issue is just out and in addition to the always interesting car rankings is this story on what bugs people when they drive.

Consumer Reports asked 895 Americans to score 20 common driver gripes on a 1-to-10 scale, with 1 meaning a behavior “does not annoy you at all” and 10 means it “annoys you tremendously.” About two-thirds of respondents rated two things in particular as most annoying giving both a 10:  people who text while they drive and able bodied people parking in handicapped spaces.  Tailgaters (who follow too closely behind your car), drivers who cut you off, and speeding drivers who swerve in and out of traffic filled out the top five spots.

Here are the top 10 gripes, starting with the most annoying:

1. Texting on a cell phone while driving

2. Able-bodied drivers parking in handicapped spaces

3. Tailgaters

4. Drivers who cut you off

5. Speeding and swerving in and out of traffic

6. Taking up two parking spaces

7. Talking on a cell phone while driving

8.  Not letting you merge into a lane

9. Not using turn signals

10. Slow drivers dawdling in the passing lane

Click here to read more.

Pain at the Pump: Rising Gas Prices Drive Inflation

February 22, 2012

Rising gas prices are taking a big bite out of consumer wallets and driving up inflation in the process. Gas prices ended last month at a national average of $3.443 a gallon, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report. This month, the trend continues as world instability drives up the price of oil. Click here to watch this report by CNNMoney.

Don’t Be the Victim of Cramming on Your Phone Bill

February 22, 2012

You probably didn’t realize your telephone bills may contain charges for products or services other than telephone service, much like charges on a credit card. It’s called “cramming.” Perpetrators hack the telephone billing system and place unauthorized, misleading or deceptive charges on your telephone bill. As a result, you could be paying for goods or services you never ordered or received.

The scammers who pull this off tend to keep crammed charges small, to increase the likelihood that you will pay your bill without noticing the false charges. They do this on both consumer and business telephone bills, on landline and wireless bills.

The Consumer Protection Branch in the Justice Department’s Civil Division is working on trying to catch these crooks, but in the meantime, here are a few things you can do if you notice a problem on your bill:

If you see unfamiliar or suspicious charges on your telephone bill, you should:

  1. Contact your local telephone company, tell the telephone company of the cramming, and instruct the company to remove the false charge and give a credit for false charges on any previous bills, and
  2. Submit a complaint summarizing the false charges to the Federal Trade Commission.

Many telephone companies will, upon request, exclude third-party billing from a customer’s telephone bill. Doing so may prevent crammed charges from appearing on telephone bills in the future.

Click here to read more on The Justice Blog.

IRS “Dirty Dozen” Tax Scams

February 22, 2012

By Angie Moreschi:

Tax day is fast approaching for all of us, and so, the Internal Revenue Service is putting out its annual warning of the top tax scams for us to beware of and avoid.

The IRS releases the yearly “dirty dozen” reminding taxpayers to exercise caution during tax season.  There are plenty of scam artists out there looking to help you part with your money, so don’t fall for it.  Here are the top scams to look out for in 2012, according to the IRS:

1. Identity theft

Identity theft tops the IRS’s list of “dirty dozen” scams this year. Identity theft cases are the ones in which criminals obtain living or deceased people’s names and Social Security numbers to defraud the government.

In addition to the law-enforcement crackdown, the IRS said its has stepped up its internal reviews to spot false tax returns before tax refunds are issued as well as working to help victims of the identity theft refund schemes. “An IRS notice informing a taxpayer that more than one return was filed in the taxpayer’s name or that the taxpayer received wages from an unknown employer may be the first tip off the individual receives that he or she has been victimized”, the department noted.

2. Phishing

Phishing ranks second in the list. Phishing is a scam typically carried out with the help of unsolicited email or a fake website that poses as a legitimate site to lure in potential victims and prompt them to provide valuable personal and financial information. A criminal can commit identity theft or financial theft using that information.

If someone receives an unsolicited email that appears to be from either the IRS or an organization closely linked to the IRS, such as the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System, he or she should report it by sending it to phishing@irs.gov.

3. Return preparer fraud

Questionable return preparers have been known to skim off their clients’ refunds, charge inflated fees for return preparation services and attract new clients by promising guaranteed or inflated refunds. Taxpayers should choose carefully when hiring a tax preparer.

This year, every paid preparer needs to have a Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN) and enter it on the returns he or she prepares.

4. Hiding income offshore

U.S. taxpayers who maintain financial accounts abroad and who do not comply with reporting and disclosure requirements risk significant penalties and fines, as well as the possibility of criminal prosecution.

The IRS has reopened the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program this year following continued strong interest from taxpayers and tax practitioners after the closure of the 2011 and 2009 programs.

“Since 2009, 30,000 individuals have come forward voluntarily to disclose their foreign financial accounts,” The IRS noted. “And, with new foreign account reporting requirements being phased in over the next few years, hiding income offshore will become increasingly more difficult.”

5. “Free Money” from the IRS & tax scams involving Social Security

Flyers and advertisements for free money from the IRS, suggesting that the taxpayer can file a tax return with little or no documentation, have been appearing in community churches around the country. Low income individuals and the elderly are normally the victims of such ads. The IRS warned that intentionally filing incorrect returns can result in a $5,000 penalty.

6. False/inflated income and expenses

Claiming income one did not earn or expenses one did not pay in order to secure larger refundable credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit could have serious repercussions. This could result in repaying the erroneous refunds, including interest and penalties, and in some cases, even prosecution.

7. False Form 1099 refund claims

“In this ongoing scam, the perpetrator files a fake information return, such as a Form 1099 Original Issue Discount, to justify a false refund claim on a corresponding tax return.”

8. Frivolous arguments

“Promoters of frivolous schemes encourage taxpayers to make unreasonable and outlandish claims to avoid paying the taxes they owe. The IRS has a list of frivolous tax arguments that have been thrown out of court.”

9. Falsely claiming zero wages

“Filing a phony information return is an illegal way to lower the amount of taxes an individual owes. Typically, a Form 4852 (Substitute Form W-2) or a “corrected” Form 1099 is used as a way to improperly reduce taxable income to zero. The taxpayer may also submit a statement rebutting wages and taxes reported by a payer to the IRS.”

10. Abuse of charitable organizations and deductions

“The IRS is investigating schemes that involve the donation of non-cash assets — including situations in which several organizations claim the full value of the same non-cash contribution. Often these donations are highly overvalued or the organization receiving the donation promises that the donor can repurchase the items later at a price set by the donor.”

11. Disguised corporate ownership

“Third parties are improperly used to request employer identification numbers and form corporations that obscure the true ownership of the business. These entities can be used to underreport income, claim fictitious deductions, avoid filing tax returns, participate in listed transactions and facilitate money laundering, and financial crimes. The IRS is working with state authorities to identify these entities and bring the owners into compliance with the law.”

12. Misuse of trusts

Unscrupulous promoters urge taxpayers to transfer assets into trusts. “While there are legitimate uses of trusts in tax and estate planning, some highly questionable transactions promise reduction of income subject to tax, deductions for personal expenses and reduced estate or gift taxes,” the IRS said. “Such trusts rarely deliver the tax benefits promised and are used primarily as a means of avoiding income tax liability and hiding assets from creditors, including the IRS.”

“IRS personnel have seen an increase in the improper use of private annuity trusts and foreign trusts to shift income and deduct personal expenses.”

Travel Clubs — Scams or Bargains?

February 14, 2012

By Terry Smiljanich:

Have you received a sales pitch telling you of the wonderful bargains that you could get if you joined a travel club? For a lifetime membership of just $5,000, you, your spouse, and children can participate in thousands of incredible trips at half the cost, including airfare, luxury hotels, and other amenities. Only one problem – it may very well be nothing but a slick scam.

Unfortunate Victims

CWN recently heard from a senior citizen couple who unfortunately got suckered into such a scam. Owners of a timeshare in a condo, they traded for a vacation at a beach resort in Daytona Beach, Florida. There, they were invited to an “owners welcome dinner,” where a sales representative pressured them to join a “travel club,” promising thousands of locations worldwide, with savings of between 40% and 70% below retail. This included airfare, hotels and car rentals.

It all sounded great, so they paid more than $5,000 for a lifetime membership, which included their adult children as well. They looked over the contract, which seemed harmless, and could find nothing on the web to warn them off.

Then they discovered that all they were being offered were second rate travel options at bargain prices they could have found on their own. As for the thousands of potential trips, every one they checked on turned out to be “unavailable.”  They tried to cancel their membership, but got nothing more than unanswered phone calls.

A Prevalent Problem

Many travel clubs have given the travel industry a bad name. Consumer protection sites often contain numerous stories of people who have been scammed by such clubs.

If a travel club costs more than just a few dollars to join, it is most likely a very bad idea. If you join, you will be given a discounted menu of trips, but the restrictions will be prohibitive. For example, trips within 10 days of a holiday may be excluded, which means that in a calendar year there are only about 32 travel days that meet this restriction. And that luxury hotel on Waikiki may turn out to be a second rate hotel on a busy street eight blocks from the beach.

To add insult to injury, many such clubs tack on a “handling charge” to the cost of your booking. If you don’t like your travel accommodations or schedule, you can “upgrade” for an additional charge.

Consumer protection agencies like Florida’s have warned citizens about falling for such grandiose promises. “Major hotels” might mean a Super8 in a business district. “Major airlines” might include Turkmenistan’s national airline. Online searches will probably uncover bargains equal to or better than those being offered by the travel club (without the $5,000 fee).

The Better Business Bureau has called travel clubs a “suspect industry,” in which consumers rarely make back in savings the cost of joining the club.

What You Can Do

The main thing you can do to avoid being cheated is to simply stay away from any travel club that costs more than a few dollars to join. Travel clubs don’t control discounts. Only the suppliers of travel (airlines, hotels, etc.) can offer such discounts, and these are usually available directly to you.

If you are being promised the use of “major hotels” and “major airlines,” demand to know the actual names so you can judge for yourself. And while you’re at it, don’t rely on the phone numbers or web links offered to you by the travel club to double check on the quality of the travel accommodations.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to do your own search for travel bargains, you can always turn to a reputable travel agent who knows how and where to find deals, and who is working to keep you satisfied.

Travel can be a wonderful way to unwind from a stressful job, or expand your horizons. The last thing you need is to find out you’ve been cheated out of $5,000.