Tax Day! Now Comes the Great Refund Rip-Off

It's become a growing problem--the crime of "stolen identity refund fraud".  Justin Gelfand, a former federal prosecutor in the Justice Department's Tax Division writes:  "If the problem continues unabated, Treasury estimates the IRS will lose 21 billion in fraudulent tax refunds over the next five years."  


Gelfand explains why it's not enough for the government to just investigate and prosecute more cases:  ",...the thieves stay one step ahead through the use of cutting-edge technology to mask IP addresses from which tax returns are filed, by directing stolen proceeds onto prepaid debit cards and stealing those cards from the mailboxes of strangers, and by stealing names and Social Security numbers from businesses that lack adequate security controls and firewalls.”  And because criminals can "make it look like the return was filed from one IP address when it was in fact filed from another," Gelfand says that makes it easier for innocent people, who are the victims, to get blamed for a crime they haven't committed.  


So what can be done? Here’s what Gelfand recommends:  “While the IRS claims otherwise, the solution isn’t particularly complex:  stop wire-transferring multiple tax refunds onto the same prepaid debit card; stop mailing hundreds of tax-refund checks to the same mailbox; stop accepting thousands of tax returns from the same IP address without looking into it; and stop paying tax refunds without actually verifying the accuracy of the information with existing IRS records.”

And he makes this point to taxpayers who may feel powerless to do anything about the problem:  "If we as a society are interested in actually stopping this problem, the solution cannot only be through law enforcement.  Citizens must ask the IRS why it is so easy to steal money in this way, and why the IRS is losing so much money to this crime alone."


The Wall Street Journal, 4/14/14

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Scaring young drivers into putting down their cell phones

Texting while driving could cost you your life.  Just ask 19-year-old Liz Marks who knows first-hand about the dire consequences of distracted driving.  Marks admitted that she was texting behind the wheel when she crashed into a stopped tow truck back in 2012.  Luckily she survived, but was left with a collapsed lung, fractured skull and traumatic brain injury.  Imagine how her mother, Betty, felt after finding out that she was the one who sent the last text to her daughter before the crash:  “And it was me.  That was the last text that was open.  She was reading my text.  I almost lost my little girl over a stupid text.”

Now, a national campaign is being launched to get the message across that distracted driving can be deadly.  In 2012 alone, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported over 3,300 people died and around 420,000 more were injured in accidents in which distracted driving was a factor.  It’s already against the law to text behind the wheel in 43 states, but the Department of Transportation hopes the $9 million campaign will help people realize that safe driving is far more important than a timely text message response.

CBS Evening News,4/3/14

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Shocked To Learn How Data Brokers Are Watching You?

How safe is your personal information? An investigation by the 60 Minutes team explains what you really need to know about data brokers and how they get your information. Producer Maria Gavrilovic explains: "The majority of these companies don't even consider themselves a data broker. They like to call themselves an app maker or a marketing company or a retailer." And as producer Graham Messick says, "There's not a lot of transparency out there because there's so much money to be made." So what are data brokers? They are the ones who gather and interpret details about you, based on your Internet searches, then sell it without you even knowing. 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft had this reaction: "I just didn't know it was going on. I had no idea. When you go on a website, when you visit it, you are in effect giving them permission to take any information they want- that's the standard for consent." Simply checking a news site or using a dating site can give data brokers details about you. Another problem, according to Gavrilovic: "They're able to marry what you're doing when you're offline- where you're shopping, where you're going, what you're buying- to the information that's online." So why is this a problem? Messick explains: "Ultimately the concern is everything gets put in one pool, one identifier, and they know everything about you from minute to minute to minute to what you eat, when you go to bed, when you're home, when you're not home. It gets a little scary. It's like a force multiplier effect."

60 Minutes, 3/9/14

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1 in 3 Americans has used tanning beds, upping skin cancer risk

We know that indoor tanning can cause skin cancer, yet a new study found that more than half of college students and 35% of Americans still report using tanning beds. "It is appalling how often exposure to indoor tanning takes place in presumably educated populations and particularly worrisome that we allow adolescents to be exposed to this carcinogen... We must do a better job at educating people of all ages about the risks of indoor tanning," explains Dr. Mark Lebwohl, chairman of the department of dermatology at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital. Lenox Hill Hospital dermatologist Doris Day agrees. She explains, "Over 1 million people visit tanning salons each day in the United States. Sadly, the majority of these are young girls and teens. Greater resources and studies are needed to help educate, and to decrease the use of tanning salons and help change the sentiment that a tanned took is more beautiful."

WOWK-TV, 1/31/14

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Got a charge for $9.84 on your credit card? Beware

A fraud alert was issued by the Better Business Bureau following complaints of a $9.84 charge showing up on many people's credit card statements. The charge may show up as "customer support" or as a charge from any one of a number of different websites. A blog named "KrebsOnSecurity," which is written by a former Washington Post reporter, sounded the alarm that these types of small charges are much more likely to go undetected by consumers than charges for large amounts. Since people are more aware of identity theft and fraudulent charges, Krebs says that consumers are now doing a better job of keeping track of their credit card charges and information. If your credit card statement shows a $9.84 charge that wasn't authorized by you, contact your credit card company immediately. You can also place a fraud alert on your account by filing with any of the three major credit bureaus. Closely monitoring your account is the best way to become aware of fraudulent charges and to protect yourself from identity theft.

CBS Money Watch, 1/25/14

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Consumer Reports: Too many sodas contain potential carcinogen

The caramel coloring used in many sodas contains a chemical called 4-methylimidazole, or 4-Mel, that may increase your risk of getting cancer, Consumer Reports says. The state of California now requires manufacturers to include a warning label on products that have more than 29 micrograms of the chemical. Yet, when Pepsi One and Malta Goya beverages were tested by Consumer Reports in California, the levels in a 12-ounce serving were still too high. Dr. Urvashi Rangan, a Consumer Reports toxicologist, explains, "We are concerned about both the levels of 4-Mel we found in many of the soft drinks tested and the variations observed among brands, especially given the widespread consumption of these types of beverages. There is no reason why consumers need to be exposed to this avoidable and unnecessary risk that can stem from coloring food and beverages brown." The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't currently regulate 4-Mel levels in foods and drinks, and levels of the chemical tested by Consumer Reports varied depending on which state the product was sold in. The FDA is investigating how safe 4-Mel is for consumers, but, in the meantime, if you drink soda regularly, would you consider reducing your consumption or opt for water instead?

CNN, 1/23/14

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Child deaths are tragic reminder that products pose risk long after recall

A hope chest recalled by Lane Furniture Company

Just because a product has been recalled doesn’t mean it isn’t still harmful. After the untimely deaths of two children from Massachusetts who got stuck in an antique chest, safety experts are advising parents to safeguard their homes and remove any items that have been recalled or that may not be safe for children. Nancy Cowles, the executive director of Kids in Danger, explains, “The majority of children’s products that are recalled remain in use.” She estimates that only about 30% of kid’s products that have been recalled are actually returned or repaired, saying, “It’s very dangerous. It’s a hidden hazard in the home. A recalled product doesn’t necessarily look dangerous, so unless you know it’s been recalled, your kids are at risk with the product.” Lane Furniture Company was the maker of the chest in which the two children lost their lives; the children were unable to open the chest from the inside. In 1996, the company issued a recall of 12 million chests made from 1912-1987 because of this concern, but some people still have the chests in their homes because they were unaware of the recall. Mark Massarella knows how deadly these products can be first-hand, since he lost his 15-year-old daughter Natalie in 1999 when she got trapped in an antique chest. Massarella says, “We always hope that we can help with our experience to publicize the fact that these are dangerous and that people need to take action. They’re passed down from one generation to the next. They last forever.” So how can parents keep their kids safe? Anthony Green, director of public policy for Safe Kids Worldwide, recommends: “Get on the floor again and think like a kid. What can my 5-year-old get into that I’m not thinking about?” To hear about all the latest recalls, parents can also sign up for alerts from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (C.P.S.C.).

NBC News, 1/16/14

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Cars with crash-avoiding technology ranked safest

The annual list of the safest new cars was released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Last year's list contained 130 cars, while stricter safety standards cut this year's list down to 39 cars. The cars that earned the best ratings were those that helped to prevent accidents by alerting drivers, or actually stopping or slowing down the vehicle to prevent a collision. That top ranking was earned by 22 vehicles, including the Honda Civic Hybrid, Ford Fusion, Volvo XC60, and the Honda Odyssey, just to name a few. IIHS President Adrian Lund says, "Consumers should be encouraged because this change in the ratings shows that the state-of-the-art of motor vehicle safety is changing, and it's changing for the better and it's changing rapidly."

CBS Evening News, 12/19/13

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Prove those antibacterial soaps are better and safe, FDA tells makers

Does your antibacterial soap or body wash actually do more harm than good? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is calling on all soap makers to ensure that all added ingredients, such as triclosan, are safe and effective at killing germs. "The proposed rule covers only those consumer antibacterial soaps and body washes that are used with water. It does not apply to hand sanitizers, hand wipes or antibacterial soaps that are used in health care settings such as hospitals," the FDA shared in a blog post. The FDA and other experts have worked to set regulations on the use of triclosan since 1978, and they hope to have a rule established by 2016. While the effects of triclosan on humans aren't yet known, Mae Wu, a lawyer for the National Resource Defense Council's health program, points out that triclosan can cause hormonal changes in animals, so the link to humans needs to be explored. Wu lends further support, saying, "In addition, laboratory studies have raised the possibility that triclosan contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Such resistance can have a significant impact on the effectiveness of medical treatments." This is a concern, as antibiotic-resistant infections have also been on the rise. The FDA's Dr. Sandra Kweder says there are about 2,000 types of soaps that have triclosan, but it's not too hard to find versions that don't have the chemical. If you are unsure, it's suggested that you use plain soap and water to clean your hands.

NBC News, 12/16/13

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Dr. Oz warns against health dangers of processed chicken from China

The USDA is working to allow chicken from China to be sold to consumers in the U.S., but China has different standards when it comes food safety. The proposal calls for chicken to be sent to China for processing after it is raised in the U.S. or Canada, then sent back to the U.S. to be sold in grocery stores in the form of products like frozen wings and soups. Dr. Mehmet Oz wants people to know about the risks, saying, "This has me outraged. I'm calling on the USDA to shut down this proposal. You have America's health in your hands." Many other health experts agree that chicken processed in China can make Americans sick, especially because the Chinese don't have food safety boards like the FDA or USDA to regulate. In the past few years, imported Chinese products have caused many health problems, ranging from tainted baby formula to rat meat being passed off as lamb. Plus, an outbreak of bird flu this year struck Chinese chickens. Another incident in March of 2013 occurred when over 11,000 pig carcasses were dumped into a river in Shanghai because farms didn't have enough room. Charles Schumer, the democratic Senator from New York, is also against the proposal, arguing, "China has been a massive source of food poisoning here in America for years. China has a terrible record on health safety, and chickens are one of the things that need the most care and inspections."

Examiner, 12/10/13

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Hackers steal millions of passwords; Tips to protect your security online

Is your information safe online? The user names and passwords of almost 2 million people (most of them outside the U.S.) were compromised online for sites like Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, and Google, according to security firm Trustwave SpiderLabs. It's become clear that weak passwords are easier to guess, often leading to accounts being compromised. Combining letters and numbers, capitalizing letters, and making your passwords longer can help to prevent your profile from being hacked. Use different passwords for all of your accounts to help keep your personal information safe. You can add extra protection on sites such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter by opting in for dual authentication, which requires two steps to access your account. Also, be sure to update your passwords and security software frequently.

CBS News, 12/5/13

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Energy drinks speed heart contractions, MRIs show

Energy drinks led almost 21,000 people in the U.S. to the emergency room in 2013, according to a report from the Substance and Mental Health Services Administration. This influx of emergency room visits led a team of cardiac radiologists to seek a reason behind the problems caused by energy drinks. Consuming lots of caffeine can cause your heart to beat much faster and can cause palpitations, an increase in blood pressure, or even more severe consequences, such as seizures or death, according to Dr. Jonas Dörner, a member of the research team and resident at the University of Bonn in Germany. The researchers used an MRI scanner on study participants both before and after they had consumed an energy drink, finding that the heart was strained more after consuming the energy drink. Dr. Dörner says, "We don't know exactly how or if this greater contractility of the heart impacts daily activities or athletic performance. We need additional studies to understand this mechanism and to determine how long the effect of the energy drink lasts."

Los Angeles Times, 12/3/13

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  • “We show we care about others when we ask others to play. I also hope that new friendships will be made because of the buddy bench.”

    –Second-grader Christian Bucks, who brought the “buddy bench” to his Pennsylvania school to help peers find new friends