Wednesday, March 10, 2010

360 News Briefs - Expanded Edition

US Woman Faces Online Terrorism Charges

A suburban Philadelphia woman "desperate to do something" to help suffering Muslims has been charged with using the Internet to recruit jihadist fighters and help terrorists overseas, even agreeing to move to Europe to try to kill someone, prosecutors said Tuesday.

Authorities said the case shows how terror groups are looking to recruit Americans to carry out their goals.

A federal indictment charges that Colleen R. LaRose, who called herself JihadJane online, agreed to kill a Swedish citizen on orders from the unnamed terrorists and traveled to Europe to carry out the killing. It doesn't say whether the Swede was killed, but LaRose was not charged with murder.

A U.S. Department of Justice spokesman wouldn't confirm the case is related to a group of people arrested in Ireland earlier Tuesday on suspicion of plotting against a Swedish cartoonist who depicted the Prophet Muhammad with the body of a dog.

But a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity said LaRose had targeted the Swedish cartoonist and had online discussions about her plans with at least one of the suspects apprehended in Ireland. The official wasn't authorized to discuss details of the investigation.

The official also said LaRose, who has blond hair and blue eyes, indicated in her online conversations that she believed her appearance would help her move freely in Sweden to carry out the attack.

LaRose is a convert to Islam who actively recruited others, including at least one unidentified American, and her online messages expressed impatience to take action, the official said.

U.S. Attorney Michael Levy said the indictment doesn't link LaRose, a U.S. citizen who moved to Europe in August 2009, to any organized terror groups.

LaRose, 46, lived in Montgomery County, Pa., before moving to Europe, authorities said. She called herself JihadJane in a YouTube video in which she said she was "desperate to do something somehow to help" ease the suffering of Muslims, the indictment said. According to the 11-page document, she agreed to obtain residency in a European country and marry one of the terrorists to enable him to live there.

"Today's indictment, which alleges that a woman from suburban America agreed to carry out murder overseas and to provide material support to terrorists, underscores the evolving nature of the threat we face," said David Kris, assistant attorney general for national security.

LaRose also agreed to provide her co-conspirators in Asia and Europe financial and passport help, the indictment charged.

LaRose has been in federal custody since her Oct. 15 arrest in Philadelphia, authorities said. She had an initial court appearance the next day but didn't enter a plea.

Web Scam Targets Madoff Victims

Internet con artists appear to be targeting victims of Bernard Madoff.

The Securities Investor Protection Corporation warned Tuesday that someone had set up a bogus Web site in an attempt to trick Madoff victims into turning over confidential financial information.

The site mimics the legitimate one set up by the agency and purports to belong to the International Securities Investor Protection Corporation. It offers victims a chance to apply for $1.3 billion in cash recovered from a Madoff hideout.

The group claims to be based in Geneva, but records show the site to be registered to an address in Lagos, Nigeria. SIPC said it is trying to have the site shut down, but without much success.

Madoff is in prison for orchestrating an epic scheme that wiped out life savings and entire charities.

Fewer Americans Saving For Retirement

For many workers in their 50s and 60s, retirement isn't an option right now. The prolonged recession is making it harder for many workers to set aside money for retirement.

A new survey released Tuesday by the Employee Benefit Research Institute shows the percentage of workers who say they've saved for retirement slid to 69 percent in January, down from 75 percent in 2009.

Perhaps more alarming is the increasing number of workers who say they have little or no retirement savings.

More than a quarter of those surveyed said they have less than $1,000 set aside. That's less than a mortgage payment for many homeowners.

The trend is largely the result of the financial markets dragging account levels down and some workers tapping into the accounts after they or their spouse lost a job, EBRI's research director Jack VanDerhei said.

Saving for retirement is important to them, but conditions right now require intense focus on keeping up with bills. Any extra money is going into an emergency fund instead of retirement savings, for many.

The EBRI survey also indicates most workers have no clue about how much they need to save for retirement. Less than half of workers surveyed saying they've tried to calculate how much they'll need to live comfortably.

With the growing access to financial information, including Web sites providing tools to figure it out, financial experts say it's hard to imagine why people don't do the math.

"I'm still disappointed, as a guy that's been around 26 years in this industry, that more people aren't taking the time to do the calculation to understand, 'Do I have enough money for retirement?'" said Dan Houston, president of retirement and financial services for 401(k) provider Principal Financial Group Inc.

Principal is one of 20 companies that paid for the survey.

Young Adults Lose Faith In American Dream

Young adults are financially anxious, worried that they can't meet their educational, housing and health care needs, according to a new poll that exposes a growing pessimism about achieving the American Dream.

The poll by Harvard's Institute of Politics found that six out of 10 of those surveyed worry they may not meet their current bills and obligations. Nearly half of those attending college wonder whether they will be able to afford to stay in school. And more than eight out of 10 said they expect difficulty finding a job after graduation.

Fewer than half said they believe they will be better off than their parents when they reach their parents' age.

With the country in the midst of a slow economic recovery with nearly 10 percent unemployment, the data finds a deep sense of gloom among 18-29 year olds. The grim mood could have immediate political consequences, and it could also shape that generation's long-term faith in government and in its ability to improve their daily lives.

"We have a generation that is committed to their community, but unless they can restore their levels of trust in some of the big American institutions, we will have lost a great opportunity to engage some of the best and brightest," Institute of Politics polling director John Della Volpe said.

Four out of 10 respondents described themselves as politically independent, 36 percent affiliated themselves with Democrats and 23 percent said they considered themselves Republican. But young Republicans displayed more enthusiasm for the 2010 midterm elections, with those who said they disapproved of President Obama's job performance saying they were more likely to vote than those who said they approved of his performance.

Still, Obama enjoys a 56 percent approval rating among young adults, even though majorities of 51 to 56 percent disapprove of how he has handled high-profile issues during his first year in office, including health care, the economy, the federal deficit, Iran and Afghanistan.

The distinction that these voters make between the president and the issues worries Democratic politicians who fear they will not benefit from Obama's appeal.

Nearly four out of 10 of those surveyed said the country was on the wrong track. About as many said they were unsure about the country's direction. Only 23 percent said the country was headed in the right direction.

The economy dwarfed health care and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as the issue that concerned young adults the most. Forty-five percent cited the economy as their top worry, while only 17 percent mentioned health care and 6 percent cited the wars.

Despite their immediate financial concerns, 51 percent of these young adults said the president and Congress should seek to keep the budget deficit down, "even though it may mean it will take longer for the economy to recover."

The poll surveyed 3,117 U.S. citizens between the ages of 18 and 29. It was conducted between Jan. 29 and Feb. 22, and it has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.

The survey was conducted by Knowledge Networks, which initially contacted people using traditional telephone and mail polling methods and followed up with online interviews. Those chosen who had no Internet access were given it for free.

Nicotine Rises Gradually In Smokers' Brains

Nicotine builds up gradually in smokers' brains rather than spiking after each puff, according to a study that might help point to new ways to help people quit smoking.

Dr. Jed E. Rose of Duke University reports in Monday's online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that nicotine buildup in the brain was gradual over several minutes.

Scientists have theorized that there is a spike of nicotine in the brain about seven seconds after each puff, but almost no measurements had been taken until now, Rose said in a telephone interview.

"We were surprised to find that the rate of uptake was much different from what one commonly hears," said Rose, who directs the Duke Center for Nicotine and Smoking Cessation Research, a part of the university's School of Medicine.

Rose used brain scans to measure the nicotine levels in 13 regular smokers and 10 people who smoke only occasionally, an indication they were not addicted to nicotine.

Maximum brain levels of nicotine were reached in 3 to 5 minutes, and built up slower in addicted smokers than in casual ones, the researchers found.

"This slower rate resulted from nicotine staying longer in the lungs of dependent smokers, which may be a result of the chronic effects of smoke on the lungs," Rose suggested.

"Now that we know there are not these spikes" that had been expected, Rose said, researchers may be better able to develop new approaches to help smokers get what they need from cigarettes, but in a way that's not addictive.

His laboratory, for example, is working on a mist inhaler to deliver nicotine without any combustion.

Still in question: Why do some people become addicted to cigarettes and others don't? The difference in the rate of nicotine buildup in the brain doesn't explain this, the researchers said.

The research was funded by the giant tobacco companies Philip Morris USA and Philip Morris International. The researchers said the companies had no role in designing or carrying out the research or analyzing the results.

Rose's findings confirm his earlier work on blood levels of nicotine, and "the brain is what really matters," commented Dr. Kenneth A. Perkins, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh who also studies smoking addiction.

The assumption was that a critical effect of smoking was a shot of nicotine with each puff, then another shot with the next puff, and so on, Perkins said.

IRS Eases Rules On Tax Settlements

As tax day approaches, the Internal Revenue Service is giving agents more flexibility to work with taxpayers who have seen their incomes drop during the recession.

IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman announced Tuesday that the agency is loosening its rules for negotiating tax settlements for less than the amount owed. The agency also plans to open about 1,000 offices on various Saturdays, beginning March 27, to give taxpayers more opportunities to work with IRS employees to resolve their tax debts.

The IRS expects to process 138 million individual tax returns this year. Most will qualify for refunds, but with the economy shedding more than 8 million jobs since the start of the recession, many taxpayers will be unable to make timely payments.

Under an IRS initiative started a year ago, agents can negotiate new payment plans and postpone asset seizures for delinquent taxpayers who are financially strapped but make a good-faith effort to settle their tax debts.

The new rules will provide even more relief to people who have been laid off or have had their incomes cut.

Shulman cautioned that those seeking help will have to demonstrate their inability to pay. Those who fail to file tax returns, or who simply ignore collection notices, will not be eligible for help. Individual tax returns are due April 15.

"A lot of people think of the IRS and have a little bit of fear of the IRS and we want to make sure they know that our doors are open, our people are empowered to make decisions and our goal is to resolve your problem," Shulman said in an interview.

Shulman said new rules for negotiating tax settlements, known as offers in compromise, better reflect the economic problems many taxpayers face. IRS agents can only accept settlements for less than the full amount owed if they determine there is little chance the taxpayer will be able to pay.

Under the old rules, agents calculated a taxpayer's ability to pay based on past income. However, many people who were laid off in the past year don't make nearly as much money as they did in previous years. Under new rules, agents will be able to use current income to calculate a taxpayer's ability to pay, Shulman said. If their incomes increase in the near future, the IRS will rework the settlement.

"It's really part of the ongoing effort of making sure taxpayers out there know that we want to collect the money that's due, but if you want to work with us, you should give us a call," Shulman said.

To qualify for a tax settlement, taxpayers must file detailed financial statements, listing all their assets, liabilities and income, said Jackie Perlman, an analyst with the Tax Institute at H&R Block. Taxpayers could be required to sell assets to help settle tax debts.

"You can't just call up the IRS and say, 'Hey, I lost my job, I can't pay the bills. Can you cut my taxes in half?'" Perlman said. "Nice try, but it doesn't work that way."

Shulman said the IRS wants to keep struggling taxpayers in the system, rather than having them fall behind on payments and drop out, which would put them at risk for bigger penalties, including property seizures.

The IRS will continue to go after taxpayers who ignore notices or stop making payments altogether. For example, the number of IRS liens filed last year increased by 26 percent over the previous year, to 965,600, according to IRS statistics.

On the Web:

IRS website

Local IRS taxpayer assistance centers

US Dept of Justice; SIPC; Employee Benefit Research Institute; The Principal Fiancial Group; Harvard University; Duke University; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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