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Dieters: Exercise healthy skepticism

By ANITA KUMAR

© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 21, 2001


IS IT REALLY DIET FOOD? If you're one of the many people watching what you eat these days, remember to add a healthy dose of skepticism when reading nutritional labels.

In a recent survey of low-calorie, low-fat and low-carbohydrate foods conducted by the state of Florida, all 67 items tested -- many of them desserts, such as cookies and cakes -- were found to be mislabeled in some way. And 57 of the problems related to nutritional analysis, many times involving carbohydrates, sugar, fat or protein.

For example, several brands of Atkins Nutritionals Inc. low-carbohydrates products were found to be mislabeled. The Atkins Vanilla Shake Mix, which the diet foods manufacturer claims has about 8 grams of fat, actually has 7.25 grams. But the shake mix also claims to have 1 gram of carbs, while the tests found that it has 2.2 grams per serving, which is considered a violation.

Michael Raymond Desserts of Hialeah makes an Atkins-style cheesecake that claims to have about 36 grams of fat per serving. But state tests found as much as 38.9 grams.

Customers are not only being misled but ripped off by manufacturers or stores that charge two or three times more for so-called "diet" food, state watchdogs say.

"This practice hits you both in the waistline and the pocketbook," said Charles Bronson, state consumer services commissioner.

Consumers need to use common sense when shopping, asking to sample food if possible and asking store employees questions about ingredients.

For information on the survey, call the state Division of Consumer Services at (800) 435-7352 or log onto 800helpfla.com. TRICK OR TREAT? The bins of candy at supermarkets and the stores with costumes are signs that it's almost ghost and goblin time.

A study by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that about four times as many children age 5 to 14 are killed while walking on Halloween than other evenings of the year. Of course, that may be partly because hordes of little kids aren't out walking in the dark most evenings.

Still, it's time for the annual safety reminders for parents who will allow their kids out this Halloween, despite our current national case of jitters. Make sure the trick-or-treaters are wearing well-fitted costumes that can be seen at night and are made of flame-resistant fabrics, said Dr. Leo Kremer Jr., founder of Kids Safe, an organization that promotes safety.

Other tips: Use reflective tape on bags, have children carry flashlights, and use flexible and soft material for swords, knives and other accessories. There's a Halloween safety checklist at www.BeSeenOnHalloween.com. FEE OR FRAUD? Most people have heard horror stories about loan sharks who offer easy access to money, then charge outrageous interest rates. But some Floridians have become victims of another type of fraud.

People are offered a credit card application or low-interest loan, usually over the phone, but only if they pay a processing fee upfront. Fees range from $25 to hundreds of dollars. After the fee is paid, applicants are told the loan has been denied.

Here's what you need to know: Those offers are illegal under state and federal law.

Legitimate lenders don't charge a fee for a loan or a card before you apply. That's different from preapproved credit offers that require only verbal consent but do not charge fees.

Never give your credit card number, bank account information or Social Security number over the phone or Internet unless you know the company. And if you don't have the credit confirmed in writing and a telemarketer asks you to pay a fee, hang up.

To report a company, call the Florida Comptroller's Consumer Hotline at (800) 848-3792. CREDIT MIXUP: Credit bureaus want you to know that a recent e-mail making the rounds on the Internet is spreading false information.

The anonymous e-mail says that a new law allows credit bureaus to release personal information to anyone who requests it. And, it says, a consumer can opt out by calling a number.

First of all, the only new law deals with financial institutions, such as banks, and it states that they can't provide a customer's nonpublic personal information to others without consent. Second, credit reporting agencies are exempt because they are involved in lending decisions.

It's true that you can call a number so you won't get any more preapproved offers of credit by major credit reporting agencies. You've been able to do that for years at 1-(888) 567-8688.

But it's a myth that credit reporting agencies provide personal data to anyone who requests it. Federal law doesn't allow it other than for a "legitimate business need," such as determining whether someone is eligible for a loan.

TRAVEL TROUBLE: Attention, Epic Travel customers.

As part of a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, the company, also known as Epic Resorts, will return money to customers who asked for, but didn't get, refunds within a 30-day cancellation period.

The FTC claims the companies misled consumers into thinking they had won or were selected to receive a vacation, misrepresented the cost of vacation packages and failed to disclose the packages' restrictions. The companies also sent out unsolicited faxes and e-mails to consumers who had registered to win vacations and called customers who had asked not to be contacted.

The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court in Tampa against Epic Travel as part of the August 2000 Operation Travel Unravel law enforcement sweep of companies allegedly engaged in travel fraud.

Want to know more? Contact the Federal Trade Commission at (877) FTC-HELP.

-- Consumer Notes is an occasional feature of Money & Business. Contact Anita Kumar at

kumar@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

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