Sustained Outrage

In 2009, we reported on the problems some West Virginians were having with a then-new unemployment program that gave  people their benefits on prepaid debit cards, rather than old-fashioned checks. People who were already struggling to pay the bills were getting hit with big fees when they went to some ATMs to withdraw their benefits.

Today, 40 states use debit cards instead of checks to distribute unemployment benefits. West Virginia contracts with JPMorgan Chase for its cards.

The program doesn’t cost the state anything. Instead, the banks shift the costs to the  jobless card users by charging them fees for checking their balance, using out-of-network ATMs, and other services.

A report released this week by the National Consumer Law Center examined each state’s program, and the organization rated West Virginia’s “problematic:”

The West Virginia card has the highest denied transaction fee [$1.75]  and out-of-network ATM fee [$2.75] of any state. The card could be improved by eliminating fees for balance inquiries and adding a paper statement option. On the positive side, the card offers unlimited free in-network ATM withdrawals, and the state recently added direct deposit, making it one of only three states to give recipients all three options: direct deposit, a prepaid card or a paper check.

The center has a summary of the report here, and you also can check out a chart comparing each state’s program.

Report: W.Va. doing little to fight oil addiction

Share This Article

A new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council concludes that West Virginia is among the states that is most vulnerable to increasing gasoline prices and among the states doing the least about its oil addition.

The report is available online here, and this is its basic conclusion:

America’s addiction to oil continues to threaten not only our national security and global environmental health, but also our economic viability. NRDC analyzed how heavily drivers in each state are affected by oil prices and ranked states on their adoption of solutions to reduce their oil dependence — measures they are taking to lessen their vulnerability and to bolster America’s security. NRDC found that gas prices, combined with the economic downturn, are making people more vulnerable to changes in oil prices. But many states are taking significant steps to reduce oil dependence through smart clean-transportation policies.

But in West Virginia, state officials have enacted only one of  10 reforms that would help make us less dependent on oil — idling restrictions for larger commercial vehicles. The report ranked West Virginia 46th in the nation for state efforts to to reduce oil dependence.

At the same time, West Virginians are at great risk to being hurt by rising gas prices, as they are ranked 21st in the country in terms of percentage of income spent on gasoline each year.

Finally, Gov. and Sen.-elect Joe Manchin has pushed the idea that building a series of coal-to-liquids plants around the state can make West Virginia more energy independent, but the NRDC report notes:

There are many promising oil alternatives that could advance energy security and climate change goals. Not all alternatives, however, are created equal. While debates continue with respect to the climate benefits of some biofuels, some alternatives are unquestionably harmful. For example, West Virginia provides an investment tax credit for coalbased synthetic fuels, which are incredibly GHG-intensive.

West Virginia has taken some positive steps toward better policies to encourage energy efficiency, but is still near the bottom of the national rankings, according to a scorecard issued this morning.

The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy ranked West Virginia 43 among the states on its scorecard, which considers state energy efficiency budgets, adoption or active consideration of energy efficiency standards, fixed efficiency savings targets, and other issues, such as adoption of energy-saving building codes.

Regarding West Virginia, the organization said:

West Virginia utilities do not currently have any customer energy efficiency programs in place, although some are pending. Recent progress has been made for energy efficiency and demand-side management programs as a result of a 2008 decision by the Public Service Commission. The Green Buildings Act and a bill to create an Energy Efficient Buildings Program failed in January 2010 (S 184; H 4008).

On positive step not mentioned in the report is a recent W.Va. PSC decision regarding energy efficiency programs at Appalachian Power, which the Gazette’s Eric Eyre previously covered in this story.

West Virginia did move up slightly, from its 45th-place ranking in the 2009 scorecard.

10 tips for avoiding international scams

Share This Article

Americans lose more than $1 billion a year to international scams, the Federal Trade Commission says. Considering that there were two e-mails waiting for me this morning, informing me that I had won $24,000,000 (or it may not have been dollars; I don’t really remember) in some overseas lottery, I thought I’d pass along these tips from the FTC for avoiding scams, particularly since the agency claims that mass-marketing scams are funding international crime rings.

  1. Keep in mind that wiring money is like sending cash: the sender has no protections against loss. Con artists often insist that people wire money, especially overseas, because it’s nearly impossible to reverse the transaction or trace the money. Don’t wire money to strangers, to sellers who insist on wire transfers for payment, or to someone who claims to be a relative in an emergency (and wants to keep the request a secret).
  2. Don’t send money to someone you don’t know. That includes an online merchant you’ve never heard of — or an online love interest who asks for money or favors. It’s best to do business with sites you know and trust. If you buy items through an online auction, consider a payment option that provides protection, like a credit card. Don’t send cash or use a wire transfer service.
  3. Don’t respond to messages that ask for your personal or financial information, whether the message comes as an email, a phone call, a text message, or an ad. Don’t click on links in the message, or call phone numbers that are left on your answering machine, either. The crooks behind these messages are trying to trick you into giving up your personal information. If you get a message and are concerned about your account status, call the number on your credit or debit card — or your statement — and check it out.
  4. Don’t play a foreign lottery. First, it’s easy to be tempted by messages that boast enticing odds in a foreign lottery, or messages that claim you’ve already won. Inevitably, you’ll be asked to pay “taxes,” “fees,” or “customs duties” to collect your prize. If you send money, you won’t get it back, regardless of the promises. Second, it’s illegal to play foreign lotteries.
  5. Don’t agree to deposit a check from someone you don’t know and then wire money back, no matter how convincing the story. By law, banks must make funds from deposited checks available within days, but uncovering a fake check can take weeks. You are responsible for the checks you deposit: When a check turns out to be a fake, it’s you who is responsible for paying back the bank.
  6. Read your bills and monthly statements regularly—on paper and online.
    Scammers steal account information and then run up charges or commit crimes in your name. Dishonest merchants sometimes bill you for monthly “membership fees” and other goods or services you didn’t authorize. If you see charges you don’t recognize or didn’t okay, contact your bank, card issuer, or other creditor immediately.
  7. In the wake of a natural disaster or another crisis, give to established charities rather than one that seems to have sprung up overnight. Pop-up charities probably don’t have the infrastructure to get help to the affected areas or people, and they could be collecting the money to finance illegal activity. Check out ftc.gov/charityfraud to learn more.
  8. Talk to your doctor before buying health products or signing up for medical treatments. Ask about research that supports a product’s claims—and possible risks or side effects. Buy prescription drugs only from licensed U.S. pharmacies. Otherwise, you could end up with products that are fake, expired or mislabeled — in short, products that could be dangerous. Visit ftc.gov/health for more information.
  9. Remember there’s no such thing as a sure thing. If someone contacts you promoting low-risk, high-return investment opportunities, stay away. When you hear pitches that insist you act now, guarantees of big profits, promises of little or no financial risk, or demands that you send cash immediately, report them to the FTC. For more information about investment fraud, visit cftc.gov.
  10. Know where an offer comes from and who you’re dealing with. Try to find a seller’s physical address (not just a P.O. Box) and phone number. With VoIP and other web-based technologies, it’s tough to tell where someone is calling from. Do an internet search for the company name and website and look for negative reviews. Check them out with the Better Business Bureau at bbb.org.

Toyota to mount its own information campaign

Share This Article

Toyota is preparing to go on the offensive this week, several media outlets are reporting, particularly against those who have criticized the automaker’s response to allegations of problems with electronic throttle control systems in its cars.

From the Wall Street Journal:

With embarrassing vehicle recalls and testy congressional hearings behind it, Toyota Motor Corp. is planning an assault next week on its critics as the company digs in for a mammoth legal battle.

In a media event planned for Monday and a Tuesday address to 1,000 suppliers, the Japanese auto maker plans to defend its electronics systems.

It will roll out independent experts like the head of Stanford University’s auto-research center to discredit a study that suggests electronics are to blame for sudden acceleration in some Toyota vehicles.

The company is also challenging the credibility of a self-described whistleblower who has turned over internal company documents to congressional investigators. The company is providing reporters with court filings that it says show the former employee has a history of mental illness and poor performance reviews.

And the Financial Times:

Toyota will on Monday hit back at one of its most high-profile critics by staging a technical demonstration intended to rebut his claim to have uncovered a potentially dangerous flaw in the carmaker’s onboard electronic control systems.

Toyota’s rebuttal of tests carried out by David Gilbert, associate professor of auto technology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, comes amid growing pressure on the Japanese company to back up its insistence that electronic defects had nothing to do with reported acceleration problems suffered by its cars.

There was also a very interesting article published Sunday by Frank Ahrens of the Washington Post (registration required) that explored why it is so difficult for Toyota — or any company that markets complex products full of electronics — to definitively get to the root of the problem.

After receiving complaints about unintended acceleration, the company has to try to reproduce the incident, and then try to determine what may have caused it, Ahrens noted.

Then follows a process of elimination. It’s not dissimilar to a doctor diagnosing an illness: Take a thorough reading of the symptoms, then begin eliminating causes. Treat what you think is the illness. If it doesn’t go away, treat your second guess at the illness.

Toyota appears from the start to have removed its electronic throttle control from the list of possible causes of the runaway acceleration and focused on two mechanical issues: floor mat entrapment and sticky gas pedals.

Ahrens draws a parallel between Toyota’s predicament and that of software developers, who test and test and test their product before releasing it, only to have glitches and errors they never envisioned pop up during public use.

If you put a lot of parts together to form a complex electromechanical machine and make it talk to itself via software, it can behave, sometimes, in ways you cannot anticipate. It can fail for reasons you cannot anticipate.

That’s the problem Toyota faces. And, after thorough testing by Toyota, NHTSA and garage mechanics trying to win the $1 million Edmunds.com prize, no single answer may be found. Obviously, this will not stop juries from awarding damages in the liability lawsuits already filed.

Toyota testimony, day one: What about the electronics?

Share This Article
There was some pretty gripping testimony yesterday before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, particularly from Rhonda Smith, of Sevierville, Tenn., about her experience when her new Lexus 350 ES sedan suddenly raced to 100 miles per hour in October 2006.

On this Thursday, I had planned on visiting my 85 year old father in Knoxville. I was driving my 2007 Lexus 350 ES from my home in Sevierville down Hwy 66 to I‐40 East. Upon entering I‐40 I accelerated with everyone else, into the flow of traffic. At this point, I merged over into the second lane, NOT going into passing gear.

It is at this time I lost all control of the acceleration of the vehicle. The car goes into passing gear and the cruise light comes on. At this time, I am thinking that maybe the cruise is what has caused the car to accelerate, as my foot is NOT on the gas pedal. I take off the cruise control. The car continues to accelerate. The car is now up to 80 mph. The brakes do not slow the car at all. Now I am at 85‐90 mph. I push the car into NEUTRAL and it makes a revving noise. I push the emergency brake on… nothing helps. I continue hitting and slamming the brakes. Now I am at 85‐90 mph. I look at the traffic ahead to see if I can maneuver in and out of the upcoming cars and trucks, or if I am going to need to put the car into the guardrail and into the trees.

The last time I looked at the speedometer it read 100 mph. At this time, I had the emergency brake on while frantically shifting between ALL the gears (besides park) but mainly had it in REVERSE and with the emergency brake on. I finally figured the car was going to go to its maximum speed and was praying to God to please help me. After about 3 miles had passed, I thought it was my time to die, and I called my husband (on bluetooth). I knew he couldn’t help me in this particular situation, but I just needed to hear his voice. What an awful 911 call he received at work.

At almost exactly 6 miles God intervened. I had not tried anything different that I had frantically tried before to slow the vehicle, yet the car began to slow down ever so slowly. It slowed enough for me to pull to the left median, with the motor still revving up and down. At 35 mph it would not shut off. Finally, at 33 mph I was able to turn the engine off. However, the radio remained on and I was not about to touch ANY button on that car, or ever again.

Smith’s testimony should serve as a harrowing rebuke for all of those people who, in response to reports of cars speeding out of control, suggest that the driver should have just shifted into neutral, or turned the car off.

Incredibly, the dealer told Smith and her husband, in writing, that “when properly maintained, the brakes will always override the accelerator.” Ultimately, an arbiter with the National Center for Dispute Settlement denied the Smith’s claim, and an investigator with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told them it was “probably” floor mats, which were the subject of a major safety advisory by Toyota in September 2009.

Smith continued:

In summary, we would like to inform this committee and the American public that we feel we put forth our best effort in 2006 and 2007 to inform Toyota Motor Company and NHTSA of the potential for SUA to become a deadly issue.

Our hopes were that our efforts might help spare the unnecessary injury and loss of innocent lives. However, we failed miserably, all due to Toyota and NHTSA’s uncaring attitude and total disregard for human life.

One would think that Toyota, along with NHTSA’s help, would have stepped up and used some of their massive profits to address this now major, deadly problem.

It is our hope that this testimony will in some way help the families of those killed and those that sustained serious injuries from SUA. We also hope they will somehow benefit from the knowledge that we provided critical information to Toyota and NHTSA showing that the problem was not floor mats but in the electronics of their vehicles at least 3 ½ years ago.

Also on Tuesday, Dr. David Gilbert, an associate professor of automotive technology at Southern Illinois University, told lawmakers that he was able to recreate runaway acceleration, something that both Toyota officials and NHTSA investigators have said is very hard to do, by tinkering with the wiring in his 2010 Toyota Tundra.

The importance of these issues raised in the electronic throttle control system fail‐ safe strategies should not be underestimated. Sudden unintended acceleration of a vehicle a very serious safety concern that should be addressed without delay.

Continue reading…

Toyota’s disclosures: Savings before safety?

Share This Article
Akio_Toyoda_001In the coming weeks, Toyota officials — including President and CEO Akio Toyoda (right), a grandson of the company’s founder — will testify before Congress to answer questions about when the company knew what about various safety issues, including unintended acceleration in some models.

In preparation, Toyota has turned over thousands of pages of company documents. These include, as the New York Times and many others reported, an internal memo that claimed that the company saved $100 million when it “negotiated an equipment recall” with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2007 in response to reports of unintended acceleration in certain Camry and Lexus ES 350 sedans. Consequently, 55,000 floormats were recalled, and the agency did not find a defect. As the Associated Press noted:

The savings are listed under the title, “Wins for Toyota – Safety Group.” The document cites millions of dollars in other savings by delaying safety regulations, avoiding defect investigations and slowing down other industry requirements.

The documents could set off alarms in Congress over whether Toyota put profits ahead of customer safety and pushed regulators to narrow the scope of recalls.

The memo, from July 2009, observed that Toyota faced a challenge from an “activist Administration and Congress.” Policito.com has posted part of the document here.

Under the heading “Key Safety Issues,” the memo lists the following bulletpoints:

  • U.S. DOT/NHTSA under Obama Administration not industry friendly
  • OEMs [origina equipment manufacturers] anticipate a more challenging regulatory and enforcement environment, with a potential for revisiting key regulatory proposals
  • NHTSA’s new, more aggressive management includes more attorneys at the agency, even in the leadership of Rulemaking and Enforcement
  • The new team has less understanding of engineering issues and are primarily focused on legal issues.

And Toyota wasn’t the only one taking notice of issues with unintended acceleration well before the recent recall. Again, from the Associated Press report:

Separately, the government said Sunday it was already investigating reports of sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles when the nation’s largest auto insurer shared complaints about the issue.

The Transportation Department released documents showing that in December 2003 it began investigating 39 complaints of sudden acceleration involving 2002-03 Toyota Camry sedans. That was about three months before State Farm shared with NHTSA complaints of sudden acceleration in 2003-04 Lexus ES300s and 2002-04 Camrys.

And today, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, Toyota confirmed that it has received subpoenas from both the Securities and Exchange Commission and a federal grand jury in the Southern District of New York.

Toyota recap: Tough talk from NHTSA

Share This Article

toyota-logo.jpgIt’s been quite a week for Toyota.

On Monday, the automaker announced its “comprehensive plan” for fixing sticking gas pedals, and Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. president and COO James E. Lentz did a series of media appearances, trying to address concerns about the massive recall.

Lentz’s statements prompted members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce to send him a letter on Tuesday, asking him to clarify the apparent discrepancies in information provided by Toyota to the public and to Congressional staffers.

On Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said: “My advice is, if anybody owns one of these vehicles, stop driving it,” he said. “Take it to a Toyota dealer because they believe they have a fix for it.” He later clarified his comments, and here’s a statement LaHood made on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Web site on Feb. 3:

lahood.jpgI want to encourage owners of any recalled Toyota models to contact their local dealer and get their vehicles fixed as soon as possible. NHTSA will continue to hold Toyota’s feet to the fire to make sure that they are doing everything they have promised to make their vehicles safe. We will continue to investigate all possible causes of these safety issues.

LaHood’s tough stance on holding Toyota accountable for producing safe cars stands in marked contrast to previous NHTSA investigations. As the Gazette-Mail reported on Jan. 30, Toyota employee Christopher Santucci, hired directly away from NHTSA, admitted under oath in a December deposition that he discussed the 2004 investigation with his former colleagues at the federal safety agency. Following those discussions, NHTSA’s Office of Defect Investigations limited the scope of the investigation, excluding incidents of unintended acceleration that lasted longer that one second and where the car couldn’t be controlled by applying the brake.

And it’s nice to see the national media is catching on to the chummy relationship between Toyota and the agency that was supposed to be monitoring it. It only took five days for the New York Times and ABC News to publish their own stories about Toyota, NHTSA and Santucci. Here’s ABC’s lead from yesterday’s “Revolving Door: From US Safety Agency to Toyota Representative” story:

Federal safety investigators agreed to exclude reports of the most serious cases of alleged “runaway Toyotas” after the intervention of a former safety official hired to be a Washington, D.C. representative of Toyota, an ABC News investigation has found.

According to this latest update on the recall, Toyota is still focusing on floor mats and sticking accelerator pedals. It’s also looking at issues with software that controls the braking system in 2010 Prius models.

Congress to Toyota: We want answers

Share This Article
jameslentz.jpgOn Saturday, the Gazette-Mail reported that there are those who think that Toyota’s massive recall may not be big enough, because it doesn’t include every model and year with an electronic throttle control system, or ETCS.

Toyota has acknowledged problems with sudden, unwanted acceleration in certain models, but the explanations provided by the carmaker have mostly focused on loose floor mats becoming entangled with the gas pedal, or with the gas pedal itself sticking.

Yesterday, Toyota announced its “comprehensive plan” to fix accelerator pedals. Previously, in November, the company had issued warnings about “potential accelerator pedal entrapment.”

During several damage control interviews yesterday, James E. Lentz (pictured), president and COO of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., stuck to this party line. But his version apparently differed from information provided to House Committee on Energy and Commerce staffers on Jan. 27.

Today, committee chairman Henry Waxman (D-Ca.) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairmain of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, sent Lentz a strongly worded letter demanding answers:

On the Today Show, when asked whether electronics in Toyota vehicles could be causing unintended acceleration, you replied that electronics were not to blame and that both Toyota and “other independents” had “thoroughly” tested your vehicles’ electronics systems. On CNBC, you reiterated this conclusion. When you were asked whether “there is a gremlin in the electronics system that is causing these problems,” you said: “We’re confident that there is not. We’ve tested it, outside agencies have tested it.” In a brief interview on ABC News, you insisted that you are “confident there are no electronic problems.” Please provide to the Committee all analyses and documents that substantiate this claim. If Toyota has any analyses or documents that conflict in whole or in part with this claim, please provide those to the Committee too.

Waxman and Stupak asked for the documents by Feb. 5.

Continue reading…

wvastate.jpgEarlier this week, the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee released state-by-state snapshots of the economy. For West Virginia, it’s a classic good news, bad news situation.

First, the bad: In December 2009, unemployment reached 9.1 percent, a big jump from December 2008 (4.5 percent) and December 2007 (4.3 percent). The 2009 percentage translates to 72,000 West Virginians out of work.

“In West Virginia, employees in transportation and utilities, construction, and financial services faced the largest job losses (as a percent of employment within an industry) over the recession,” the release states.

But, and this is what qualifies as good news these days, it could be worse. Nationwide, unemployment was at 10.0 percent in December 2009, and job losses attributed to the recession were 5.2 percent. So, with 9.1 percent unemployment and 3.0 percent recession-driven job loss, West Virginia was below the national average.

And there are other encouraging figures in the snapshot. While inflation-adjusted total personal income dropped 2.4 percent nationally between the 4th quarter of 2007 and the 3rd quarter of 2009, in West Virginia, real per capita personal income is up, from $28,637.70 in 3rd quarter 2007 to $29,593.20 in 3rd quarter 2009.

Similarly, median household income in West Virginia increased from $37,307 in 2000 to $40,851 in 2008 while nationally it dropped from $52,532 to $51,233. (Granted, it’s problematic to be so far below the national average.)

Over the same period between 2000 and 2008, poverty decreased modestly in West Virginia, from 15.2 percent to 14.6 percent, while nationally it crept up from 11.6 percent to 12.9 percent. (Again, West Virginia’s numbers are alarmingly high, but at least they’re moving in the right direction.)

Meanwhile, the percentage of people without health insurance in West Virginia has remained stable,  with a tiny increase from 14.5 percent to 14.6 percent. The national figure has jumped, from 13.9 percent to 15.3 percent.