Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Record 19 Million U.S. Homes Stood Vacant in 2008 (Update3)

By Kathleen M. Howley

Feb. 3 (Bloomberg) -- A record 19 million U.S. homes stood empty at the end of 2008 and homeownership fell to an eight-year low as banks seized homes faster than they could sell them.

The number of vacant homes climbed 6.7 percent in the fourth quarter from the same period a year ago, the U.S. Census Bureau said in a report today. The share of empty homes that are for sale rose to 2.9 percent, the most in data that goes back to 1956. The homeownership rate fell to 67.5 percent, matching the rate in the first quarter of 2001.

The worst U.S. housing slump since the Great Depression is deepening as foreclosures drain value from neighboring homes and make it more likely owners will walk away from properties worth less than their mortgages. About a third of owners whose home values drop 20 percent or more below their loan principal will “hand the keys back to the bank,” said Norm Miller, director of real estate programs for the School of Business Administration at the University of San Diego.

“When you’re underwater and prices continue to fall, you tend to walk,” Miller said in an interview. “It’s a downward spiral that’s tough to stop because it feeds on itself. Foreclosures encourage other foreclosures and falling prices discourage buying.”

Obama’s Plans

The figures demonstrate the intensity of the U.S. housing crisis as President Barack Obama considers ways to help homeowners.

The Obama administration is considering government guarantees for home loans modified by their servicers, seeking to stem the record surge of foreclosures that’s hammering U.S. property values.

The proposal, which may also have taxpayers share in the cost of reducing mortgage payments, is aimed at shielding lenders from default after they loosen loan terms for struggling borrowers. Comptroller of the Currency John Dugan, who regulates national banks, said yesterday that “working out the details of it is still something that’s ongoing.”

Congress and the new president are grappling with how to repair the housing market as the recession enters its second year and unemployment rises. The U.S. economy shrank the most in the fourth quarter since 1982, contracting at a 3.8 percent annual pace, the Commerce Department said on Jan. 30.

Legal Wrangling

The U.S. had 130.8 million housing units in the fourth quarter, including 2.23 million empty homes that were for sale, the Census report said. The vacancy rate was 3.5 percent in urban areas and 2.6 percent in suburbs, the report said.

In addition, the report counted 4.1 million vacant homes for rent and 4.8 million seasonal properties.

“Wealth loss and housing in combination with loss in the equity market will have ripple effects,” said George Mokrzan, senior economist at Huntington National Bank in Columbus, Ohio. “The silver lining is that while home prices are coming down, incomes have stayed about the same, and in a lot of markets we’ll hit equilibrium this year. That’s a good sign for the long term.”

Most foreclosures are contained in the report’s “other” category, which includes homes tied up in legal proceedings as well as properties that are empty because the owner is renovating and living somewhere else, according to the Census Web site. There were 7.8 million homes in that category in the fourth quarter, up from 7.3 million a year earlier, the report said.

Bank Holdings

There were 2.22 million new foreclosures in 2008, an average of 6,090 a day, according to Washington-based Hope Now Alliance. Those resulted in 917,000 property sales, according to the group that represents 27 mortgage lenders and servicers.

U.S. banks owned $11.5 billion of homes they seized from delinquent borrowers at the end of the third quarter, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. in Washington. That’s up from $5.4 billion a year ago.

The U.S. housing market lost $3.3 trillion in value last year and almost one in six owners with mortgages owed more than their homes were worth as the economy went into recession, said in a report today.

The median estimated home price declined 11.6 percent in 2008 to $192,119 and homeowners lost $1.4 trillion in value in the fourth quarter alone, the Seattle-based real estate data service said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kathleen M. Howley in Boston at

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"Pay what you want," UK restaurant tells diners

By Martina Fuchs

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - A London restaurant has decided to do away with bills for the next month, asking customers to pay only what they want for meals in an unorthodox bid to beat the credit crunch.

The Little Bay restaurant in central London, one of four owned by restaurateur Peter Ilic, will present diners with absolutely nothing when they ask for the cheque during February, leaving it up to them to decide what the meal was worth.

"Anything between a penny and 50 pounds ($70) will make me happy, it's entirely up to the customer to decide," Ilic said on Tuesday, sounding confident about the prospects as he sat on a purple couch is his brightly colored, arty restaurant, known for its bistro-style Mediterranean cuisine.

"It just seemed the right thing to do with everyone under the cash and feeling pretty miserable," he said.

Times have not been easy for London restaurants in recent months as the credit crisis and a deepening recession have hit everyone, from ordinary city workers to highly paid bankers.

Whereas once high-flying hedge-fund managers from the London financial district known as the City might seek out the most ostentatiously expensive lunch they could find -- and top London restaurants would willingly oblige -- now the order of the day is austerity and a decent, tasty bargain.

Ilic, a long-standing player in the London restaurant business, is well-known for his value gourmet food, but now he's gone one step further and effectively cut prices to zero.

"We have seen so many more City folk coming into the restaurant lately, looking for a better value lunch," he said, explaining what gave him the idea, similar to that used by major bands like Radiohead to sell their CDs.

If people like something, they'll pay for it, the idea goes, and already Ilic has seen evidence that it works.

"Customers have already paid 20 percent more than the original price," he said, confident that he will more than cover his expenses for the month. "People want to be polite and would be embarrassed not to pay enough."

Not only is the deal pretty attractive for those who might decide to pay nothing, the food is pretty tempting too.

Starters include crab tartelette, foie gras terrine and goat cheese souffle, while main courses range from duck breast to steamed butterfish and filet steak.

The only thing customers definitely have to pay for are their drinks. But for those really suffering in the credit crisis, the tap water is served free.

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Tiny charges on bank cards could presage bigger problems

By Mitch Lipka

The mystery of a tiny charge on credit and debit cards is heightening to one of anticipation - of when the other shoe is going to drop.

Fraud experts are concerned about these charges - from 21 cents to 48 cents - that have appeared on cardholders' accounts in at least 46 states. The fear is someone is trying to find usable card numbers so that they can use the cards to make bigger charges at some future date.

The small charge, showing up as being from either Adele Services or GFDL, is designed to try to fly under the radar of credit card companies' fraud detection programs. Those companies appear to be fictitious.

"More than likely, the perpetrators are attempting to test the waters," said Jeremy Cannon of the National White Collar Crime Center. "They are relying on their assumption that the victim will not be vigilant in monitoring their banking and credit statements."

The scope of this scam has caught the attention of the companies and the national Internet Crime Complaint Center (, run by the National White Collar Crime Center and the FBI. The site registered 800 formal complaints about the scam as of last week and officials issued a warning to consumers.

Separately, the consumer finance site notified 800 of its customers that a scan of their databases detected those charges on their credit or debit statements. Consumer complaint experts say those who complain tend to represent a tiny portion of those affected, particularly in cases such as this where many would not even know they had been affected.

Ben Woolsey of warns: "Consumers who have seen these micro charges should be doubly vigilant in monitoring their statements.

It might also be prudent for consumers who experience these charges to report their card as lost and request that a new card with a new account number be issued by their bank" rather than just requesting that the 25 cents be reversed.

Banks are reluctant to discuss such problems for fear of losing customers and increasing costs, he said. Bank of America, for example, said it is against policy to discuss any specific charge.

Chase Card Services vice president Gail Hurdis said she is aware of the charges and said the company has "sophisticated systems to monitor and detect fraudulent activity" and encouraged consumers to promptly call their card's toll-free number if they suspect fraud.

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Housing Affordability at Record High

One of the upsides of a crashing-and-burning housing market, as Edward Glaeser noted back in October, is that buying a home becomes more affordable.

And indeed, according to an index released by the National Association of Realtors, housing affordability was at an all-time high in December.

The Housing Affordability Index composite level for December was 158.8. A composite H.A.I. value of 158.8 means that a family earning the median income has 158.8 percent of the income needed to qualify for a mortgage on a median-priced home. (In other words, a higher index number means housing is more affordable; a lower index number means housing is less affordable.) The index had fallen during most of the housing bubble, when it became more and more expensive to buy a home. But as you’ll see in the chart below, December’s composite level was the highest the index has reached since the association began collecting this data in 1971.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONSource: National Association of Realtors, via Haver

'Buy American' Provision Draws Fire


A powerhouse economic roundtable faced off today on "This Week with George Stephanopolous" over the controversial "Buy American" provision of the economic stimulus package now before the Senate.

Video of THIS WEEK economy panel weighs in on Buy America

FedEx CEO Fred Smith argued the plan, which in part would require companies to buy iron and steel manufactured the U.S., would ultimately hurt global trade.

"The reason it's not the right thing to do is that the growth of global trade has been enormously beneficial to the United States," Smith said.

"The problem with trade is that the benefits are diffused and the pain is localized. But the benefits of having a global economy have created an export sector in this country that provides our highest-paying jobs.

"If the Congress passes this buy-American provision, I can assure you -- and we operate in 220-some-odd countries around the world and are a huge part of the import-export infrastructure of the United States -- we will get retaliation, and it will be American jobs at risk," Smith told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, agreed with Smith but argued that a better social safety net is needed to help people who are underemployed or out of work.

"The fact is that the average American feels that, even when there was growth, he and she wasn't getting a piece of it," said Frank. "And I appreciate you saying, Fred, that we need to take care of the people dislocated, but you have to broaden it.

"I will tell you, I believe, until you get a better social safety net, actions that you're not going to like are going to continue ... Until you relieve the localized pain better, the average American will block things like trade, like outsourcing that you think we ought to do."

The Obama administration appears to be of two minds when it comes to "Buy American." Vice-President Joe Biden said this week that he thinks it is "legitimate to have some portions of Buy American" in the stimulus.

However, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said "the administration is reviewing the provision. It understands all of the concerns that have been heard not only in this room but in newspapers produced both up North and down South."

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a member of the Joint Economic Committee, explained to the panel that "we all want to buy American... But then we have the highest corporate tax rate in the world. We've got a regulatory system that makes us less competitive.

"So we actually put these people out of work, ship jobs overseas with bad policy, and then we want to put our hand up and stop our imports from coming in. This is a government-managed economy which doesn't work. It's inefficient."

Sparks flew between Frank and DeMint on the broader issue of tax cuts versus spending in the stimulus plan. While Frank argued that spending in the $819 billion House bill passed Wednesday is indeed stimulative, DeMint claimed taxpayers would be better off with more tax cuts.

"The notion that everything is solved by a tax cut, of course there are sensible tax policies you could have. But there are public needs we have in this society ... that cannot be accomplished by a tax cut," Frank said. "No tax cut builds a road. No tax cut puts a cop on the street. No tax cut educates a child in -- in the way that it ought to be done. So this -- only tax cuts, at a time when I think we have a deficiency in some areas that are important for the quality of our life is a big disagreement."

DeMint fired back: "But let's don't say it's a stimulus when it's a government spending plan. And all of these things, the needs in our society, education, these are things we debate every year ... This is the largest spending bill in history, and we're trying to call it a stimulus when it's just doing the things that ... you wanted to do anyway."

Frank defended the package. "Spending can be stimulus," he said. "I don't understand what you think stimulus is.

"If we're going to talk about spending, I don't -- I have a problem when we leave out that extraordinarily expensive, damaging war in Iraq, which has caused much more harm than good, in my judgment. And I don't understand why, from some of my conservative friends, building a road, building a school, helping somebody get health care, that's -- that's wasteful spending, but that war in Iraq, which is going to cost us over $1 trillion before we're through -- yes, I wish we hadn't have done that. We'd have been in a lot better shape fiscally."

Google CEO Eric Schmidt argued for the stimulus to be a blend of short-term and long-term spending.

"There are plenty of cases where directed spending does help things to happen more quickly," he said. "The stimulus package -- most of the money actually goes to reasonably short-term things in education, state relief and various other things that help people in the short-term. Some combination of all that money's got to get out now to get people going again."

Schmidt also urged Congress to pass the stimulus package as soon as possible. "The business community needs action now," he said. "There's a sense that things are getting worse, people are saying the March quarter, the June quarter are going to be particularly difficult for business. It's time for government action."

DeMint was asked to comment on the failure of President Barack Obama's nominee for the Department of Health and Human Services, Tom Daschle, to pay roughly $128,000 in back taxes. The senator said the situation "may be" disqualifying.

"I want to find out more about it," DeMint told Stephanopoulos. "It's disheartening, obviously. I mean, people are struggling to pay taxes on a very small amount of income. And when he's got this huge amount of -- you know, I can see now why liberals don't mind if the tax rate goes up, because they're not going to pay it anyway. And so, yes, it frustrates me. It did with our Treasury nominee. But we need to look at it. And I would just -- I wish they would just say, 'Hey, our tax code is just incomprehensible. We need to change it.'"

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GM, Chrysler suing taxpayers with taxpayer money

by Todd Harrison

As I recall from my college Greek mythology course, arrogant mortals ultimately learn -- and quite harshly -- the folly of excessive ego. The stories usually end with Zeus smiting with a few choice lightning bolts. Arrogance never escapes punishment from the gods.

For a modern-day example, we can turn to the automakers. They are the mortals; President Obama, the god. Except this is no myth.

Earlier this week, Obama instructed the EPA to reconsider the case of California’s existing proposal to raise fuel-efficiency standards. The automakers have been fighting California and other states in court for several years. Last week, they pledged to continue that fight - despite the president's instructions and, to a larger extent, his consistent and unequivocal insistence on a “green” auto industry. Except, as it stands now, the automakers are basically using their bailout money -- from taxpayers -- to turn around and sue…the taxpayers themselves.

Last month, General Motors (GM) and Chrysler LLC begged the federal government for $14 billion to stay afloat. They got it - and now they're biting the hand that feeds them. As arrogance goes, not even Ovid could have crafted a finer tale. What remains to be seen is how the offended god will respond.

As California’s attorney general, Jerry Brown, pointed out on NPR:

“The irony here is the auto companies want a bailout, in many ways because they weren’t building the kind of cars that were compatible with today’s energy market – and at the same time, they want to keep going with their lawsuits, which have already cost millions and millions of dollars.”

During the Big 3’s testimony before Congress, several politicians asked the executives why it made sense to provide them with money: Wouldn't they just use it to continue fighting old battles. The heads of the Big 3 dodged the question, saying they’d prefer a single national standard. Well, they have now answered Congress's question, and in the affirmative.

“Keep in mind that the money that was given was to 2 manufacturers [GM and Chrysler],” Charles Territo, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which is a party to 2 of the lawsuits, told The New Yorker. “And all manufacturers have opposed the standards. Those lawsuits were brought by the entire industry, to protect the longstanding federal law that says that fuel-efficiency standards should be set at the federal level and not by individual states.”

According to The New Yorker, the auto manufacturers have so far lost all the cases that have gone trial.

Mr. Territo and the rest of the industry refuse to see the forest for the trees. Do they actually believe the federal government won’t eventually codify higher emission standards, following California’s lead? Gone are the days when the industry could deny climate change and break promises to voluntarily cut emissions. Waging a public-relations battle against the Obama administration -- especially given the Big 3’s well-documented tone-deafness to public opinion -- is just asking for harsh retribution. Just like in ancient mythology.

So how will Obama enact his revenge? I found one hint from his inaugural speech: “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply.”

The mortals of the Big 3 should watch where they're walking.

Top Stocks blogging partner Todd Harrison is founder & CEO of This post was written by Minyanville Contributor Ryan Goldberg.

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10 Confessions Of A Cash4Gold Employee

By Ben Popken

From the acid-cloud haze of the Cash4Gold processing center steps forth a shadowy figure, fingers stained with orange testing fluid. It's an ex-Cash4Gold employee and in-between tuberculosic wheezes he manages to pass you a yellow legal paid with 10 confessions about how his former employer taught him to rip people off. Then he evaporates leaving behind a pile of gold dust. You dip your finger in it and touch it to your tongue. Just as you thought: fool's gold.

If you decide to investigate the creaky clock tower, turn to page 4.
If you decide to read the confessions, to the post inside.

Spotted on ComplaintsBoard: "I would like an article to be posted pertaining to the refinery Cash 4 Gold, located in Pompano Beach, Fl. I am a former employee, who would like to alert/warn the public on the scamming process involved with this company. There are many of us who would like to vouch on behalf of this fast growing scam. We would like to get the word out to everyone on this step by step scam which involves so many people in this country and their valuables.

Below I have attached the full details on the scam involving this company. We know this first hand, because this is how we were trained. Please take note of this information and do what you can to get the word out there, especially in a time when the economy has truly affected everyone for the worst. Thank you!

I am a former employee of Cash 4 Gold. I did not know much about the company before being hired. On my first day of being hired, I was taught the "Cash 4 Gold Scam" from beginning to end.

1. The "refiner's pack" that is used for you to put your jewelry is "insured for UP TO 100 dollars, " according to how much they determine from a description from you, the worth of your items to be, NOT an actual fully researched appraisal.

2. We receive your "Refiner's Pack" within 3-4 days, BUT we are instructed to tell you that it takes "7-10 business days, for us to receive your pack, ALTHOUGH many times, your package has already arrived.
(All cash4gold customers who have called customer service to track a package can vouch for this)

3. Your jewelry gets appraised by hand, a magnifying glass, a plastic container, a small weight pad, and a bottle of ORANGISH fluid, which your items are then determined a value for. Not million dollar equipment or specially trained jewelry experts. The company was temporarily closed recently due to health and code violations. I have witness testers being transported to Medical Centers, due to the testing department environment. There is literally a cloud of smoke in the air from acid and other testing material. If you were thinking it was some state-of-the-art testing facility, you thought WRONG.

4. Although the payment (check) for your item is dated within 24 hrs of testing your jewelry, we SOMETIMES DO NOT actually send out the check until up to 3-4 days later. (if you are a customer check the date the check was issued against the stamped date on the envelope.)

5. We do offer a 100% Satisfaction Guarantee or your jewelry returned, BUT THE CATCH IS, that the guarantee is to contact us within 10 DAYS from when your check is DATED. (This begins with the time it took for the accounts payables dept. to ISSUE the check and also including the TRANSIT TIME for you to receive your check in the mail. **** NOTATE THE COMMERCIALS THAT INSINUATE THAT YOU GET YOUR CASH IN 24 HRS.*** If you request (sign) for FAST CASH (direct deposit) you automatically WAIVE your rights to have your items returned, EVEN if you are not satisfied with amount of your deposit.

6. You generally receive your check around the "7th-10th" business day, AND majority of the time Customers are outraged when they lay eyes on the amount of their check. Some Customer's even receive a check for 0.01 cents.

7. There have been times when we have received your package and MISPLACED or LOST it at the facility. We CLAIM to not have received the items and even try to convince you that it was lost in the hands of USPS. At which point we begin an insurance claim process on your package. We ask you to send us an itemized list of the content of the package, trying to be as descriptive as you possible can (if you can remember everything in full detail) and a copy of your state issud ID. We then issue an INSURANCE CLAIM for UP TO 100 dollars. GOD FORBID your items are worth more then a 100 dollars. If you call customer service to check on the status of your shipment, and we actually have not received your package, we inform you of the insurance claim process. For those who know that their items are worth more than a hundred dollars, they become very upset and threaten to take action against the company, at that point we inform the customer that if they knew their items were worth more they should have added additional insurance at the Post Office. BUT unless you are paying to ship your items in a completely different package other then the refiner's kit, you are unable to add insurance to the package.

8. For those who do get in touch with us within the allotted time frame, we already know what you are calling about. Customers want their items returned, because there
check amount is so insultingly LOW. The first thing a Rep will
ask you is "HOW MUCH WERE YOU EXPECTING TO GET BACK?" This way we can know how much to "BONUS" you.

*Definition of a BONUS: We issue low checks just to have you call us back if you are smart enough to realize that you just got scammed. For the smart one's we are paid to offer u a bonus up to 3x the original amount of your check and you accept. For ex: Sally Smith receives a check for $27.86 for a Rolex watch(which we don’t issue value for), a class ring, a ring with diamond chips, a pair of earrings with emeralds, as well as a few sterling silver pieces, and maybe a few items that were really of no value. Now Sally Smith calls the cust srvc dept, where she speaks to a rep who seems so concerned and will see if she can do better with the amount by speaking to a "SUPERVISOR". We then place the caller on Mute, and speak to our neighbors or doodle on a sheet, or twiddle with our hair for about 45 seconds, while we are supposedly speaking to our supervisor about Ms. Smith's complaint. We then come back with an offer to "BUMP UP YOUR MELT DATE or any other lies the cust srvc reps can think of, and offer you a total amount of $53.20 which is a little under double the amount of your original check; in which case if you accept, the cust srvc rep makes a 15.00 bonus off of your transaction. If the customer service rep offers you under triple the amount of your orig check, he/she makes 10.oo in bonuses.

9. If you accept the offer, the deal is done, and you are told that the call is recorded (which most of the time, the record button does not work, or the box if full.)It’s just a way to make your feel binded by a verbal contract. IF you do not accept the deal, you have to return your check, and it takes sometimes up to a month to receive your items back after we receive the check.

10. If you only want the items that we do not find of any value back, you have to pay 10.00 shipping and handling fee to have your own items returned, which varies. Although it is listed under the terms and conditions, this charge varies from a 10.00-15.00 charge to NO charge, reason being, UNSURE.

Cash 4 Gold is definitely not a trustworthy or credible company to do business with. You are almost better off taking your items to a local pawn shop or shopping around for other companies. With the economy the way it is, Cash 4 Gold seems to be a way out of financial stress for some, but in actuality becomes a stress of its own. I would advise you to think twice before sending in valuables or items inherited and of sentimental value, its not worth it."

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Ponzi scam victims fight back online

By Jason Szep

BOSTON (Reuters) - Nearly four months before this week's arrest of the boss of a New York investment firm on charges of defrauding at least 1,500 investors of more than $370 million, Howard Stevens suspected the company was a sham.

Stevens went online and warned other investors. Using the nickname "hBomb," he wrote on an Internet message board that Agape World Inc, the firm run by Nicholas Cosmo who was arrested this week, "is a 100 percent fraud."

"Please DO NOT invest your money with these scam artists. Nick Cosmo should change his name to Nick Ponzi," he wrote.

The Internet is offering early warning signs, and in some cases filling a regulatory void, as the year-long recession exposes growing numbers of multimillion-dollar Ponzi schemes that pay older investors with money from new clients.

Stevens posted his warning on a week after meeting with Cosmo at Agape's office on New York's Long Island. In an interview with Reuters, he said Agape's office looked shoddy and unprofessional, and Cosmo dodged his questions.

"He gave us a hard time. When we tried to see some of the contracts, they refused to show us anything," he said. "Nick Cosmo wore a suit but we bumped into a few brokers that looked very out of place for a business handling so much money. They wore jeans, or had hats turned back or were wearing earrings."

Stevens invested $20,000 and lost $10,000. "I tried to take out all of the money but he said that I had to wait until January 27 before I could get back the other $10,000," he said.

Operating in the largely unregulated world of high-interest, high-risk commercial loans, Cosmo falsely promised big returns through short-term "bridge" loans to businesses provided by his company, according to federal prosecutors, the FBI and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

They accuse Cosmo, 37, of using investor money for personal expenses such as jewelry, limousine rides and hotel stays, and to pay more than $212,000 in court-ordered restitution to investors following a prior fraud conviction.

While the money is a fraction of the suspected $50 billion scheme masterminded by former Wall Street legend Bernard Madoff, federal regulators say the number of such Ponzi scams -- or "mini-Madoffs" -- in recent weeks is adding up.

"We're expecting a 25 percent increase this year in the number of cases that we actually file," said Stephen Obie, the head of enforcement at the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission. He said leads to possible Ponzi schemes had doubled in the past year. In January alone, the CFTC has filed three cases.

"The challenge in investigating these cases is that most of these miscreants are unregistered, operate below the radar and create an illusion of profitability through deceit," he said in a telephone interview.


That's keeping Jeff and Shawn Mosch busy. The Minneapolis couple run and saw a huge spike in page views since Cosmo's arrest on Monday.

"The first day the news broke my husband was checking the hits on the site before he went to lunch. He came back and was like 'Oh my God, we have had 2,000 hits while I was away from my desk for half an hour,'" she said.

The site has grown steadily since they launched it in 2002 after losing thousands of dollars in a counterfeit check scam when they tried to sell a 1961 Buick online.

The site is the Moschs' attempt to fill a regulatory gap by protecting consumers from institutions, including some private banks or lenders, that do not need licenses and do not fall under jurisdiction of a specific regulatory agency.

Shawn Mosch once recorded all the money that visitors to her site reported saving by heeding its warnings. The tally reached $2 million in the first two years. After that, she gave up counting. "It got too overwhelming to track," she said.

Other nonprofit anti-fraud sites report a steady surge in traffic in recent months, along with an apparent increase in financial scams. One site,, says more people are getting entangled in a vast array of online scams.

"There is massive ignorance out there. People who are coming to us are already starting to feel the pressure from the economy when they get involved with one of these scams," said Annie McGuire, who founded the site in 1999.

"We don't see the people who think it can't happen to me."

Another nonprofit site, www.scamwarners, is seeing a jump in reports of a fast-growing and sophisticated international version of a classic check-fraud scam, along with loan scams and false offerings of employment.

"People are definitely targeting the desperate," said Jillian Gerard, who runs the site.

But Obie at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission said swindlers also exploit the Web, citing a case in which a phony investment company told clients that it was registered with a regulatory agency that didn't exist. But it created a separate web site for the fake regulatory agency.

"The entity claimed they were regulated by the American Futures and Options Trading Commission. They copied portions of our website to create a website" for this fake agency. "The Internet can be a great sword for popping the balloon of a fraud. But it can also be a weapon swindlers use," he said.

The rise in suspected Madoff-style investment scams -- and the work of websites in policing them -- underline the need for greater regulation of brokers, said Tamar Frankel, a Boston University law professor and expert on financial regulation.

"We have a very different situation now. This is not the 1930s anymore," she said.

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MySpace: 90,000 sex offenders removed in two years

By Edith Honan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The online networking site MySpace has identified and barred some 90,000 registered sex offenders from using the site over the last two years, MySpace revealed to an investigative task force on Tuesday.

The "shocking" number was 40,000 more than MySpace had previously acknowledged, according to Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, a co-chairman of the task force of state attorneys general looking into sex offenders' use of social networking.

MySpace, owned by News Corp.'s Fox Interactive Media digital division, disclosed the figures to the task force in response to a subpoena.

"This shocking revelation, resulting from our subpoena, provides compelling proof that social networking sites remain rife with sexual predators," Blumenthal said in a statement.

Blumenthal's office said it was awaiting a response to a similar subpoena issued to Facebook, another popular social networking site that his office said also might host "substantial numbers of convicted offenders."

Facebook's Chief Privacy Officer Chris Kelly said in a statement it was working with Blumenthal's office but said the site had "not yet had to handle a case of a registered sex offender meeting a minor through Facebook."

"Unlike MySpace or other social networking sites, Facebook has always enforced a real-name culture and has developed and deployed social verification and powerful privacy rules that allow people to interact in a safer and more trusted environment," the statement said.

Two years ago, MySpace commissioned background verification firm Sentinel Safe Tech Holdings Corp. to create a national database of sex offenders after reports that some of its teenage users were abducted by sex predators.

Sentinel operates a U.S. database of sex offenders that includes as many as 120 details for each offender, from their names and addresses to their scars and tattoos, Sentinel Chief Executive John Cardillo said.

Before the national database was created, information on convicted sex offenders was available only locally.

MySpace said on Tuesday the technology had enabled it to identify 90,000 users as registered sex offenders -- people who have been found guilty of sex crimes and ordered to register with law enforcement officials -- and had removed and blocked them from the site.

"We can confirm that MySpace has removed these individuals from our site and is providing data about these offenders to any law enforcement agency including the Attorney General's in Connecticut," MySpace's Chief Security Officer Hemanshu Nigam said in a statement.

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Obama's Aunt, Zeituni Onyango, Must Be Deported, Says Anti-Illegal-Immigration Group; Aunt has April Court Hearing

Onyango Zeituni.jpg
Tom Pilston/The Times
Obama's "Auntie Zeituni"

An anti-illegal-immigration political group is calling on Barack Obama today to deport his aunt, Zeituni Onyango, who apparently remains an illegal immigrant fugitive from justice in Cleveland.

Americans for Legal Immigration posted its "public demand" on its Web site, basically telling Obama he's a hypocrite if he won't have his aunt arrested and removed to her native Kenya:

"Actions speak louder than words, Mr. President," said William Gheen. "If you do not execute the deportation order for your aunt, then your lip service about the Rule of Law is no CHANGE from George Bush."

The 56-year-old Onyanga was found living in an impoverished Boston neighborhood by the news media in October. Then, on the first of November, an Associated Press story appeared that detailed how Onyango -- now in Cleveland -- had actually been an illegal immigrant living under a deportation order for four years.

Last week, it was revealed that the Homeland Security Department under Bush had issued an order days before Obama's election that required high-level approval for fugitive immigrant arrests -- apparently to head off the inevitable media blitz that would occur if Onyango was taken into custody at the wrong time.

Onyango's story is another fascinating story of a decrepit immigration system, but ALIPAC's logic has a major flaw:
The above AP article mentions that Onyango's deportation order was stayed in December, and she now has an April court hearing.

How's that for Rule of Law? Obama has no reason to screw over his aunt by somehow having her deported before the hearing, even if he had that power.

We called Onyango's Cleveland lawyer, Margaret Wong, to find out how Obama's aunt managed to get her deportation stayed, but Wong wouldn't take our call. Instead, we were referred to a guy named Mike Rogers, "Margaret Wong's spokesman on that issue." But Rogers never called back, either.

Then we phoned ALIPAC (not to be confused with ALIPAC) at its home base in North Carolina to find out if the author of the "demand" knew about Onyango's court date.

"She's already had her day in court," the gentleman we reached snarls, pointing out she's lived in the country illegally for five years. (We couldn't get his name -- he was too busy lambasting us for various Feathered Bastard columns, some of which they post on their site).

But, as mentioned, ALIPAC is wrong -- Onyango's day in court still awaits her.

The ALIPAC article is based on a false premise.

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Treasure hunters claim historic warship found

By Josh Levs

(CNN) -- Deep-sea explorers say they have solved "one of the greatest mysteries in naval history" with the discovery of what was "the world's mightiest and most technically advanced warship" when it sank in 1744.

The HMS Victory sank in 1744.

The HMS Victory sank in 1744.

The HMS Victory -- the predecessor to a historic British flagship of the same name -- was found "far from where history says it was lost," Odyssey Marine Exploration said in a news release Monday.

The find in the English Channel exonerates Adm. Sir John Balchin, one of "the greatest admirals in English history," because it shows that the ship went down in a violent storm, not due to any mistakes he made, Odyssey said.

It did not specify the ship's exact location. Maritime lore said the ship went down in the northern part of the Channel Islands, south of England near the coast of France.

Stories about treasures -- including gold -- that may have been on the ship have existed ever since its disappearance.

This HMS Victory was a predecessor to the historic British ship that took the same name and which served as Admiral Nelson's flagship in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

In court papers seeking exclusive salvage rights, Odyssey says the wreck site "consists of cannons and other unidentified objects. Odyssey believes that potentially valuable cargo may be located at or near the site."

The papers were filed in U.S. District Court in Tampa, Florida, where Odyssey is based, seeking exclusive salvage rights.

There were nearly 1,000 people aboard -- "900 sailors, plus a complement of marines and 50 volunteers drawn from the noblest families of England," Odyssey said in information about the ship released together with the Discovery Channel, which chronicled the find.

Based on reports from the time, there may be as much as four tons of gold on the ship, Odyssey and the Discovery Channel said.

"Additional research indicates that there were large quantities of both silver and gold coins aboard. ... Research suggests that this prize money will also likely be located at the wreck site.

"... However, no coins have been located at the site to date, and no accurate assessment as to their value can be made prior to location, recovery and analysis."

The potential treasure also comes in another form -- bronze weaponry. "The site's anticipated ordnance collection" includes "the single largest collection of bronze cannon in the world" and "the largest consignment of bronze guns ever manufactured and preserved today," Odyssey said.

Two cannons have been recovered -- "a 12-pounder featuring the royal arms of George II" and a "42-pounder bearing the crest of George I," it said.

"The huge 42-pounder recovered is the only known example of a gun of this type and size currently in existence on dry land. The only other artifacts recovered to date were two small brick fragments that were brought into U.S. federal court in order to file an admiralty arrest of the site."

Admiralty arrest is a step mandated under international maritime law.

The discovery could set up a legal battle with the British government.

If it really is the HMS Victory, "her remains are sovereign immune," the British Ministry of Defense (MOD) said in a statement on its blog Monday.

"The wreck remains the property of the Crown. We have not waived our rights to it. This means that no intrusive action may be taken without the express consent of the United Kingdom."

In its statement, Odyssey said it "has been cooperating closely" with the ministry, and "all activities at the site have been conducted in accordance with protocols agreed with MOD and Royal Navy officials."

The ship has deteriorated to the point that recovering it is impossible, Odyssey said. "A plan is being developed for an archaeological excavation of the site, and artifacts will be recovered in accordance with a scientific project plan, which will be submitted to the UK MOD for review and approval."

The company has proposed that it be paid "with either ... a percentage of the value of the collection that has been recovered, conserved and presented to the UK government, or a percentage of the coins or other artifacts that the government decides to (sell)."

The ship was found nearly 100 km (62 miles) "from where the ship was historically believed to have been wrecked on a reef near the Channel Islands," Odyssey's statement said.

"Having discovered it in deep water far from where history says it was lost has served to exonerate Admiral Balchin and his officers from the accusation of having let the ship run aground on the Casquets due to faulty navigation," said Greg Stemm, Odyssey's chief executive officer, in the statement.

Odyssey said the "prevailing belief" about the ship's fate was that it had "smashed into the Casquets, a group of rocky islets" north of Guernsey, the second largest of the Channel Islands.

But the evidence, Odyssey's statement said, suggests "the ship sank as the result of a violent storm and suggests that the design and construction of the ship contributed to her loss."

Odyssey released press materials about the ship in cooperation with the Discovery Channel, which chronicled the find and will be showing it in a program this week called Treasure Quest.

"The English Channel is a treacherous place to navigate," Discovery Channel President John Ford told CNN Radio.

"The ship was returning from Portugal and got caught up in a storm. And despite being judged unsinkable at the time, sort of like the Titanic was, this very, very large ship went down in a storm and vanished without a trace."

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Man killed by 'exploding mobile phone'

A man has died after his mobile phone exploded, severing a major artery in his neck, according to reports.

The man, thought to be a shop assistant in his twenties at a computer shop in Guangzhou, China, died after he put a new battery in his phone. It was believed that he may have just finished charging the battery and had put the phone in his breast pocket when it exploded.

According to the local Chinese daily Shin Min Daily News, the accident happened on January 30 at 7.30pm. An employee at the shop told Chinese media that she heard a loud bang and saw her colleague lying on the floor of the shop in a pool of blood. The employee said the victim had recently changed the battery in his mobile phone.

Chinese authorities have yet to determine the make and model of the phone and its battery. Some reports indicated the store was a Lenovo shop, but it was thought that this might be because the shop advertised Lenovo computer products. Police were investigating whether the phone and battery were counterfeit.

Local reports said that this was the ninth recorded cellphone explosion in China since 2002. In the most high profile recent incident, in June 2007, a 22-year-old welder, Xiao Jinpeng, died from chest wounds when his mobile phone exploded while he was at work at an iron mill in Gansu province.

A local government inquiry found that the mobile phone battery had exploded due to the heat of the iron mill. Lithium batteries are widely used in mobile phones - but if they are overcharged or exposed to heat, the inflammable liquid inside can explode.

Motorola and Nokia, two of the world's biggest mobile phone makers, denied links to the distributors of problem batteries in China, suggesting they were counterfeit.

After the latest incident, the Shin Min Daily News published advice for consumers on how to avoid mobile phone explosions. The tips included:

- Always use original batteries. Be sure that batteries by the manufacturer are meant for your mobile phone.

- Never modify your phone

- Always use original battery chargers

- Do not expose your mobile phone to high temperatures, and avoid exposing it to direct sunlight

- Avoid long phone conversations

- Do not make or answer calls when the phone is charging

- Try to keep your phone in a bag instead of in a pocket

- Do not use damaged batteries

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CORRECTED - CORRECTED-Japan sewage yields more gold than top mines

Resource-poor Japan just discovered a new source of mineral wealth -- sewage.

A sewage treatment facility in central Japan has recorded a higher gold yield from sludge than can be found at some of the world's best mines. An official in Nagano prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, said the high percentage of gold found at the Suwa facility was probably due to the large number of precision equipment manufacturers in the vicinity that use the yellow metal. The facility recently recorded finding 1,890 grammes of gold per tonne of ash from incinerated sludge.

That is a far higher gold content than Japan's Hishikari Mine, one of the world's top gold mines, owned by Sumitomo Metal Mining Co Ltd (5713.T), which contains 20-40 grammes of the precious metal per tonne of ore.

The prefecture is so far due to receive 5 million yen ($55,810) for the gold, minus expenses.

It expects to earn about 15 million yen for the fiscal year to the end of March from the gold it has retrieved from the ashes of incinerated sludge.

"How much we actually receive will depend on gold prices at the time," the official said.

Some gold industry officials expect prices this year to top the all-time high above $1,030 per ounce set in 2008, on buying by investors worried about the deepening economic downturn. (Reporting by Miho Yoshikawa; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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US Army, Mental Health Experts Team Up to Fight Rising Suicide Rate

The U.S. Army said the number of soldiers who committed suicide last year has increased for a fourth straight year. Army officials said despite an increase in funding for programs to help soldiers, they are having a hard time fighting the stigma attached to seeking professional help.

At least 128 soldiers committed suicide in 2008, an increase from 2007 when a total of 115 suicides were recorded among active duty and those in the Army Reserve and National Guard. Officials said the number may go even higher pending the examination of 15 additional cases that could be self-inflicted.

Highest Suicide Rate Since Vietnam War

US Army Secretary Pete Geren (file photo)
US Army Secretary Pete Geren (file photo)
This is the first time since the Vietnam War that the rate of suicide in the Army, about 20 deaths per 100,000 soldiers, has surpassed the civilian suicide rate.

"Why do the numbers keep going up? We cannot tell you. But we can tell you that across the Army, we're committed to doing everything we can to address the problem," promised Secretary of the Army Pete Geren.

Geren and other Army officials Thursday announced a handful of prevention programs that will either be introduced or enhanced. One such initiative will be a day-long "stand-down" in which all active duty soldiers will receive suicide prevention education, with an emphasis on escorting someone who might be in trouble to seek help.

Military-Civilian Partnership to Combat Suicide

The Army is also entering into an unprecedented five-year, $50 million partnership with the National Institute of Mental Health, in an effort to better understand what causes soldiers to commit suicide.

Col. Elspeth Ritchie, a doctor in the Office of the Army Surgeon General, discusses efforts to study and understand suicide among American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan (2008 file photo)
Col. Elspeth Ritchie, a doctor in the Office of the Army Surgeon General, discusses efforts to study and understand suicide among American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan (2008 file)
Colonel Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatrist in the Army Surgeon General's office, said while the army is hiring and training more medical workers, more involvement is needed.

"We do need the help of the American public. Many of these suicides happen when somebody is on leave or away from their unit. As I've said before, this really has to be a national effort, where everyone is reaching out to soldiers and their families to recognize there is a difficulty," she said.

Colonel Ritchie said problems within family or marital relationships back at home were significant factors leading to suicides, but she noted that legal, financial and occupational difficulties contributed as well.

Younger Soldiers More Vulnerable

Timothy Schulz has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and knew two fellow soldiers who took their lives. He said the strain is particularly difficult on younger recruits.

"They feel more, I'd say, trapped than the older people. The older people have a little more experience and they say, "Okay, you know this is going to be over at some point." Whereas the younger guys, they just get into the army and they start to go through these experiences and they kind of get that sense of hopelessness," he explained.

He said one soldier he worked with shot himself soon after his unit arrived in Afghanistan.

"He was having difficulties with his relationships at home, and now we had almost just gotten to Afghanistan, and it's a pretty new experience. He's up at night; he's in the guard tower, and whatever else. And he had too much. It was too much for him," he said.

The Army found about 35 percent of suicides came after soldiers returned home from deployment, while another 35 percent of suicides occurred among soldiers with no history of deployment. 30 percent occurred while soldiers were in the field.

Seeking Help

One of the key issues the Army has been trying to address is the feeling among many soldiers that seeking psychological help is a sign of weakness and could be harmful to a career.

General John Hawkins, deputy chief of staff for personnel, said the Army is committed to overcoming the stigma attached to seeking professional help.

"This is not a practice that resonates with what we are about in the United States Army, and some of the methods that we're going to use to get at this will leverage the warrior ethos - and the way we treat ourselves and our fellow soldiers throughout the Army," he said.

Officials acknowledged there is no quick fix, but said more will be done to help the troops deal with the additional stresses that have developed in an age of persistent conflict.

Original here

Charges against George Obama dropped

From David McKenzie

NAIROBI, Kenya (CNN) -- All charges against George Obama, half-brother to U.S. President Barack Obama, have been dropped after his arrest in a drug raid, according to police in Kenya.

George Obama was arrested in Kenya on suspicion of marijuana possession, according to police.

George Obama was arrested in Kenya on suspicion of marijuana possession, according to police.

He was released on Saturday hours later, police added.

Obama was arrested in a Nairobi slum, and he was picked up with people who possessed marijuana, said police spokesman Eric Kiraithe.

"Being found with people who are in possession of cannabis is a petty offense," Kiraithe said.

Earlier, police had told CNN that Obama had been arrested for possessing cannabis and resisting arrest, which can carry a sentence of up to a year in jail or hefty fines.

"Police in Kenya do not look at criminals in light of associations with relatives," Kiraithe said.

Obama and the president barely know each other, though they have met. George Obama was one of the few people closely related to the president who did not attend the inauguration in Washington.

In his memoir, "Dreams from My Father," Barack Obama describes meeting George as a "painful affair." His trip to Kenya meant meeting family he had never known.

CNN tracked down George Obama in August 2008 and found him at a small house in Huruma, a Nairobi slum, where he lives with his mother's extended family. His birth certificate shows he is Barack Obama's half brother.

The two men share the same Kenyan father.

In the memoir, Barack Obama struggles to reconcile with his father after he left him and his mother when he was a child.

Barack Obama Sr. died in a car accident when George was 6 months old. And like his half brother, George hardly knew his father.

George was his father's last child and had not been aware of his famous half brother until he rose to prominence in the Democratic primaries last year.

Unlike his grandmother in Kogela, in western Kenya, George Obama received little attention from the media until reports about him surfaced in August 2008.

The reports sprung from an Italian Vanity Fair article saying George Obama lived in a shack and was "earning less than a dollar a day."

The reports left George Obama angry.

"I was brought up well. I live well even now," he said. "The magazines, they have exaggerated everything.

"I think I kind of like it here. There are some challenges, but maybe it is just like where you come from, there are the same challenges," Obama said.

Obama, who is in his mid-20s, said at the time that he was learning to become a mechanic and was active in youth groups in Huruma. He said he tries to help the community as much as he can.

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Japan volcano Mount Asama erupts, ash dusts Tokyo

TOKYO (Reuters) - A volcano near Tokyo erupted on Monday, spewing hot rocks, ash and a plume of smoke up to 2 km (1.2 miles) into the air and covering parts of the Japanese capital in a light dusting of ash.

There was no major damage in the volcano's sparsely populated vicinity, officials said. No one lives within 4 km (2.5 miles) of the volcano but people working in the area were told Sunday to evacuate, said Meteorological Agency official Kazuya Kokubo.

NHK public television showed white smoke coming out of the crater of the 2,568 meter (8,425 feet), snow-capped Mount Asama, which erupted at 1:51 a.m. (1651 GMT Sunday), with some grey dust near the top.

No lava could be seen from the side of the volcano, Kokubo said.

Ash drifted as far as Tokyo, about 140 km (90 miles) to the southeast.

Visibility in the capital was not affected but television footage showed residents dusting off cars and farmers worrying over ash-covered vegetables.

"I'm 65, but this is the first time this has happened," one farmer told NHK.

The Meteorological Agency had raised its warning level on Sunday after signs of increased seismic activity, telling people not to approach the volcano. Agency official Osamu Inaba said traffic in the area was being restricted.

The agency is keeping its warning level at three out of five, which warns people not to approach the volcano. Residents in cities and villages nearby have also been warned against flying rocks and ash.

Mount Asama, one of Japan's more active volcanoes, had its biggest eruption in 21 years on September 1, 2004, spewing hot rock and raining ash as far as 200 km (124 miles) away. That eruption, however, did not cause any major damage.

The volcano is known for a huge eruption in 1783 that caused widespread damage and killed about 1,500 people.

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UK workers to be hit hard as drugs giant Glaxo ready to axe 10,000 jobs in global cull

By Becky Barrow

Workers at drugs giant Glaxo-SmithKline will become the latest victims of the jobs bloodbath.

The company is expected to announce plans to axe up to 10,000 worldwide jobs on Thursday, when it publishes its latest financial results.

Glaxo, the world's second-biggest drugs company, employs about 18,000 workers in the UK, who are likely to be hit hard by the cuts.

Cull: Drugs company GlaxoSmithKline is expected to announce plans to axe up to 10,000 worldwide jobs

Cull: Drugs company GlaxoSmithKline is expected to announce plans to axe up to 10,000 worldwide jobs

The move comes just days after its rival, AstraZeneca, said its job cutting programme, which began in 2007, will total around 15,000 by 2013.

On Sunday a Glaxo spokesman refused to comment on speculation of a massive jobs cull at the firm, equal to about 10 per cent of its global workforce.

It comes as a report warns today that more than 70 per cent of firms expect to axe workers this year in the hope of surviving the recession.

Despite making jobs cuts last year, many fear they will be forced to introduce a second round of redundancies as the downturn continues.

In a further blow, the report, from the pay specialists Industrial Relations Services, said desperate bosses will resort to other cost-cutting measures.

These include cutting back on hiring agency or contract staff, imposing recruitment freezes on permanent staff and not replacing those who retire or quit.

The report's author, Noelle Murphy, said: '2009 is going to mean job cuts on a wide scale.' She urged bosses to communicate with workers as early as possible if they need to make redundancies.

But some are trying their best to avoid redundancies by making other changes, according to the research which received responses from 268 firms.

One in five said it was looking at pay cuts or pay freezes to avoid making redundancies. Recently, Virgin Atlantic said it was forcing all its 9,000 workers to take a pay freeze this year 'to help protect staff from any redundancies'.

Every day, the number of casualties in Britain is growing, from tiny firms with a handful of workers to corporate giants cutting thousands of jobs.

The Federation of Small Businesses said it feared 110 small and medium- sized firms would fail every day this year with the loss of around 150,000 jobs.

The recession is hitting every part of the economy, but some are worse hit than others, with the car industry one of the biggest casualties.

Last week, Honda workers finished their final shift before a four-month halt in production. The 4,200-strong Swindon workforce will collect full basic pay for the first two months, then 60 per cent for the rest of the shutdown.

There was speculation at the weekend that Jaguar Land Rover is considering a company-wide pay cut to avoid further layoffs in the UK.

On Saturday, a CBI survey showed that small and medium manufacturers in the UK were laying off workers at a faster rate than at any time since the early 1990s.

In total, 38 per cent of UK firms surveyed cut jobs during the final quarter of
2008. The latest figures show 1.92million jobless in the UK between September and November last year, the highest level since September 1997.

  • Homeowners should brace themselves for the biggest-ever fall in house prices this year, a report warns today.

The Centre for Economics and Business Research says prices could plunge 20 per cent this year to an average of just £132,000.

It describes the crumbling housing market, which dropped 16 per cent last year, as being at the epicentre of 'the biggest economic crisis for a generation'.

The report warns prices could end up collapsing a total of 40 per cent from the peak in 2007 to the trough in 2010. It said this was the worst-case scenario which assumes the Government's attempts to stimulate mortgage lending fails.

Its most gloomy forecast is that house prices, which peaked at an average of £196,000 in 2007, will fall to £122,000 in 2010, a drop of £74,000.

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Iraq's Shocking Human Toll: About 1 Million Killed, 4.5 Million Displaced, 1-2 Million Widows, 5 Million Orphans

By John Tirman

We are now able to estimate the number of Iraqis who have died in the war instigated by the Bush administration. Looking at the empirical evidence of Bush's war legacy will put his claims of victory in perspective. Of course, even by his standards -- "stability" -- the jury is out. Most independent analysts would say it's too soon to judge the political outcome. Nearly six years after the invasion, the country remains riven by sectarian politics and major unresolved issues, like the status of Kirkuk.

We have a better grasp of the human costs of the war. For example, the United Nations estimates that there are about 4.5 million displaced Iraqis -- more than half of them refugees -- or about one in every six citizens. Only 5 percent have chosen to return to their homes over the past year, a period of reduced violence from the high levels of 2005-07. The availability of healthcare, clean water, functioning schools, jobs and so forth remains elusive. According to Unicef, many provinces report that less than 40 percent of households have access to clean water. More than 40 percent of children in Basra, and more than 70 percent in Baghdad, cannot attend school.

The mortality caused by the war is also high. Several household surveys were conducted between 2004 and 2007. While there are differences among them, the range suggests a congruence of estimates. But none have been conducted for eighteen months, and the two most reliable surveys were completed in mid-2006. The higher of those found 650,000 "excess deaths" (mortality attributable to war); the other yielded 400,000. The war remained ferocious for twelve to fifteen months after those surveys were finished and then began to subside. Iraq Body Count, a London NGO that uses English-language press reports from Iraq to count civilian deaths, provides a means to update the 2006 estimates. While it is known to be an undercount, because press reports are incomplete and Baghdad-centric, IBC nonetheless provides useful trends, which are striking. Its estimates are nearing 100,000, more than double its June 2006 figure of 45,000. (It does not count nonviolent excess deaths -- from health emergencies, for example -- or insurgent deaths.) If this is an acceptable marker, a plausible estimate of total deaths can be calculated by doubling the totals of the 2006 household surveys, which used a much more reliable and sophisticated method for estimates that draws on long experience in epidemiology. So we have, at present, between 800,000 and 1.3 million "excess deaths" as we approach the six-year anniversary of this war.

This gruesome figure makes sense when reading of claims by Iraqi officials that there are 1-2 million war widows and 5 million orphans. This constitutes direct empirical evidence of total excess mortality and indirect, though confirming, evidence of the displaced and the bereaved and of general insecurity. The overall figures are stunning: 4.5 million displaced, 1-2 million widows, 5 million orphans, about 1 million dead -- in one way or another, affecting nearly one in two Iraqis.

By any sensible measure, it would be difficult to describe this as a victory of any kind. It speaks volumes about the repair work we must do for Iraqis, and it should caution us against the savage wars we are prone to. Now that Bush is gone, perhaps the United States can honestly face the damage we have wrought and the responsibilities we must accept from it.

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Office worker Sharon Hegyi fired weeks after saving the life of her boss in the Northern Territory

By Nigel Adlam

Sharon and David Hegyi
Get out ... Sharon and David Hegyi have been sacked weeks after Sharon saved the life of her boss. Picture: Justin Sanson.
  • Trained nurse saves life of boss
  • She's fired weeks later
  • Kicked out of company house

A MOTHER-OF-FIVE has been made redundant and told to get out of her company house only weeks after saving the life of one of her bosses.

Sharon and David Hegyi have been sacked after seven years at Tipperary Station in the Northern Territory - just weeks after Sharon saved the life of one of her bosses, the Northern Territory News reports.

Office worker Sharon Hegyi, 39, is devastated by the decision.

She and her mechanic husband David had worked on Tipperary Station, 200km south of Darwin, for seven years and had planned to stay there until they retired.

"We loved the lifestyle," Ms Hegyi said. "We loved bringing up our kids there.

"We don't drink or smoke. We just worked hard and went home to our family."

A letter from Tipperary's human resources boss, Elise Dunlea, says the couple were laid off because of "down-sizing".

"I could understand it if we'd done something wrong," Ms Hegyi said. "But we didn't."

Station finance manager David Breed had a severe heart attack at work in September.

Ms Hegyi, who is a registered nurse, rushed to help.

She gave him medication, hooked him up to oxygen and called an ambulance from Adelaide River.

"But he deteriorated rapidly and I thought he was going to die," Ms Hegyi said. "So we put him in a car and David drove towards Adelaide River.

"The ambulance met us half way."

Mr Breed was taken to Royal Darwin Hospital and was off work for several weeks.

"I honestly believe that I saved his life," Ms Hegyi said.

The couple were shocked when they returned from holiday after Christmas and were told they were being made redundant.

They were given a separation package and told to leave their company house within two weeks.

"We're shattered," Mr Hegyi said. "We've got no jobs, no house and five kids.

"I know we'll be able to get work easy enough but we just want our old jobs back."

Tipperary general manager David Warriner confirmed that Ms Hegyi saved the life of one ofhis managers.

He said the couple had been laid off for economic reasons. "It's a redundancy," he said. "It's unfortunate and difficult for everyone."

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Iraq Vote Goes Smoothly, but Results Are Another Story


Iraqi men look at the electoral lists at the entrance of a polling station in the eastern town of Khanaqin, in Diyala province near Iraq's border with Iran, on January 31, 2009.
Iraqi men look at the electoral lists at the entrance of a polling station in the eastern town of Khanaqin, in Diyala province near Iraq's border with Iran, on January 31, 2009. Millions of Iraqis voted in provincial elections on Saturday.

The Arabic phrase you hear again and again in Iraq is "schwaya, schwaya," which is usually said along with cupped hands held out for emphasis. The translation varies somewhat depending on the circumstances, but generally "schwaya, schwaya" means "hold on" or "go slow" or more formally "patience please." The day after Saturday's nationwide provincial balloting election officials essentially urged Iraqis to take the saying to heart as they wait up to three weeks for the official tally.

"We hope that by the end of the week we will have some initial results for you," said Qassim al-Abodi, the chief electoral officer for the Independent High Electoral Commission of Iraq (IHEC). "In two to three weeks, we will have the final, ratified results, we hope. And we please ask you to be patient until the final ratified results are announced by IHEC. We would like to remind you that only IHEC has the authority to announce the results."

Iraqi officials say about 7.5 million voters cast ballots across central and southern Iraq Saturday, making for a turnout of roughly 51%. The semi-autonomous northern region of Kurdistan did not participate, but throughout most of Iraq hundreds of polling stations opened early Saturday morning. Some 500,000 independent observers watched over polling centers nationwide, and Iraqi officials say no major incidents or serious complaints were reported. (See TIME's Special Report: "Life Returning to Iraq's Streets")

The vote marked Iraq's second provincial elections, which determine the makeup of provincial councils that in turn elect regional governors. The political stakes in the vote were low compared to politicking at the national level. But the election took on added importance in the eyes of American and Iraqi officials, because it offered a chance for Iraq's Sunni minority, who boycotted the 2005 provincial elections, to rejoin the political process in areas where they have strong numbers such as Anbar and Diyala province. Election day was also seen as a key test for the Iraqi security forces, which staged a massive operation to secure the streets. Iraqi authorities put the country in virtual lockdown, sealing the borders, closing the airports and banning all but essential traffic in downtown areas. Thousands of Iraqi army soldiers and police officers stood watch as voters headed to the polls. American military patrols were also on the scene in Baghdad, but U.S. forces largely stayed in the background.

The biggest problem of the day appeared to be the inability of some displaced voters to access polling centers. Voters had to be listed on an official registry at specific polling stations in order to cast ballots. Iraqi officials acknowledged that some internally displaced voters were confused about where they should vote and wound up turned away from polling stations, despite a public awareness campaign aimed at avoiding just such a snafu. But overall, Iraqi officials said, that was a minor issue that would not seriously impact the vote.

"The polling center locations were widely advertised," said Qassim, who addressed reporters in Baghdad alongside other IHEC officials. "It's simply that some citizens had not made good use of the information."

Not everyone agreed, however, that it was such a minor snafu. At polling station No. 65 in Baghdad's Karada district, volunteer observer Hafa'a Latif said the number of people who were turned away could call the vote into question.

"A lot of voters didn't have names on the registry," said Latif. "And that in my opinion should be considered a breach by the independent commission."

Um Ahmed, who was displaced from her home in southern Baghdad during sectarian violence, managed to cast a vote at station No. 65 the central part of the city. But she said many Iraqis like her had trouble. "The whole operation is a failure," said Ahmed. "And certainly we will find evidence of a lot of fraud. The problem of displaced people is not solved."

For the most part, however, Iraqis have considered the election a success so far. No major violence broke out, and the complaints seemed no more serious than the inevitable problems that occur when millions of people cast ballots all at once anywhere, including in the U.S., much less in a fragile new democracy like Iraq.

Who gained in the election is of course unclear. But already many in Baghdad are speculating that the tickets headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi appear poised to make the best showing. Iraqis largely seem content to wait for the final results in any case.

"Predictions are difficult," said Khalid Oglah, the chief election official overseeing polling station No. 65. "The ballot boxes will reveal who is the winner."

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Obama says most US troops in Iraq home within a year

By Ross Colvin

WASHINGTON, Feb 1 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama told Americans on Sunday a substantial number of the 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq would be home within a year, saying Iraqis were now ready to take more responsibility for their own security.

Obama, who inherited two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, pledged during his presidential campaign to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq within 16 months, at a rate of one or two brigades a month.

In an interview with NBC television, Obama praised the provincial elections held in Iraq at the weekend, the most peaceful polls since U.S.-led forces invaded in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein.

Asked in the NBC interview whether a substantial number of troops would be home in time for next year's Super Bowl, the National Football League's championship game being played on Sunday, Obama replied: "Yes. We are going to roll out in a very formal fashion what our intentions are in Iraq as well as Afghanistan."

The Obama administration has launched a comprehensive review of America's strategy in Afghanistan, where NATO-led forces are struggling to cope with spiraling violence and a resurgent Taliban militancy.

The administration is considering almost doubling the U.S. force in Afghanistan from 36,000 to more than 60,000 within 18 months.

Obama, who held talks with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon last week, has said he wants a responsible and phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. The United States signed a a military deal with Iraq last year that set a 2011 deadline for U.S. forces to quit the country.

"In conversations I have had with the joint chiefs, with commanders on the ground, I think we have a sense, now that the Iraqis just had a very significant election with no significant violence, we are in a position to put more responsibility on the Iraqis," Obama said in the interview.

He also said one of the more sobering moments of his young presidency was having to sign letters to send to families of slain soldiers.

Some 644 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan and 4,236 in Iraq. (Additional reporting by Andrew Sullivan; editing by Chris Wilson)

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Rep. Barney Frank Goes There. . .

Transcript over the jump

DeMint: Let's not say it's a stimulus when it's a government spending plan. All of the things, the needs in our society, education, these are things we debate every year.

Frank: Spending can be stimulus. I don't understand.

DeMint: It's the largest spending bill in history and we're trying to call it a stimulus.

Frank: The largest spending bill in history is going to turn out to be the one in Iraq. If we're going to talk about spending, I have a problem when we leave out that extraordinary expensive, damaging war in Iraq, which has caused much more harm than good in my judgment. I don't understand from my conservative friends, building a road, building a school, helping to get health care, that's wasteful spending. But that war in Iraq, that's going to cost us over a trillion dollars, yeah, I wish we hadn't done that we would have been in a lot better shape fiscally.

STEPHANOPOULOS: That is a whole another show, so I'm going to...


FRANK: That's the problem. The problem is that we look at spending and say, "Oh, don't spend on highways. Don't spend on health care. But let's build Cold War weapons to defeat the Soviet Union when we don't need them. Let's have hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars going to the military without a check." Unless everything's on the table, then you're going to have a disproportionate hit in some places.

While Republicans whine about the spending in the proposed bill, no one seems to want to mention how much money we are wasting in this war of CHOICE overseas in Iraq.

Tonight in his pre-show interview President Obama said that most of the troops in Iraq will be home by the next SuperBowl, imagine how much money that will save.

I like seeing Barney Frank in interviews because he's one of the FEW Democrats that won't simply let the interviewer and/or Republicans just run over him. Remember when he went at it with Bill O'Rielly?

UPDATE: Some of you may not remember this, but President Obama gave a speech titled "The Cost of War" during the campaign, here's the video and a partial transcript:

Link to full transcript

The costs of war are greatest for the troops and those who love them, but we know that war has other costs as well. Yesterday, I addressed some of these other costs in a speech on the strategic consequences of the Iraq war. I spoke about how this war has diverted us from fighting al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and from addressing the other challenges of the 21st Century: violent extremism and nuclear weapons; climate change and poverty; genocide and disease.

And today, I want to talk about another cost of this war - the toll it has taken on our economy. Because at a time when we're on the brink of recession - when neighborhoods have For Sale signs outside every home, and working families are struggling to keep up with rising costs - ordinary Americans are paying a price for this war.

When you're spending over $50 to fill up your car because the price of oil is four times what it was before Iraq, you're paying a price for this war.

When Iraq is costing each household about $100 a month, you're paying a price for this war.

When a National Guard unit is over in Iraq and can't help out during a hurricane in Louisiana or with floods here in West Virginia, our communities are paying a price for this war.

And the price our families and communities are paying reflects the price America is paying. The most conservative estimates say that Iraq has now cost more than half a trillion dollars, more than any other war in our history besides World War II. Some say the true cost is even higher and that by the time it's over, this could be a $3 trillion war.

But what no one disputes is that the cost of this war is far higher than what we were told it would be. We were told this war would cost $50 to $60 billion, and that reconstruction would pay for itself out of Iraqi oil profits. We were told higher estimates were nothing but "baloney." Like so much else about this war, we were not told the truth.

What no one disputes is that the costs of this war have been compounded by its careless and incompetent execution - from the billions that have vanished in Iraq to the billions more in no-bid contracts for reckless contractors like Halliburton.

What no one disputes is that five years into this war, soldiers up at Fort Drum are having to wait more than a month to get their first mental health screening - even though we know that incidences of PTSD skyrocket between the second, third, and fourth tours of duty. We have a sacred trust to our troops and our veterans, and we have to live up to it.

What no one disputes is that President Bush has done what no other President has ever done, and given tax cuts to the rich in a time of war. John McCain once opposed these tax cuts - he rightly called them unfair and fiscally irresponsible. But now he has done an about face and wants to make them permanent, just like he wants a permanent occupation in Iraq. No matter what the costs, no matter what the consequences, John McCain seems determined to carry out a third Bush-term.

That's an outcome America can't afford. Because of the Bush-McCain policies, our debt has ballooned. This is creating problems in our fragile economy. And that kind of debt also places an unfair burden on our children and grandchildren, who will have to repay it.

UPDATE: In the comments some people are pointing out that this is the argument that needs to be made, well we need to put it out there then. Please DIGG this diary so more people can see the video of Frank and the one of President Obama.

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