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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Office Depot Associates Routinely Lie about Notebook Stock

Slashdot It! Times are tough—apparently so tough that some associates at Office Depot are willing to turn notebook customers away if they aren’t spending enough on extras. According to several LAPTOP readers, including a current Office Depot employee we interviewed, the retailer’s sales staff are under such intense pressure to sell such “attachments” as Product Protection Plans and Tech Depot Services, that many will tell customers who turn down these services that the computer they asked for is not in stock, even when it’s sitting right in the stock room. We first became aware of this problem a few weeks ago, when we went to our local Office Depot, looking for a Gateway LT1004U netbook. We were surprised by how aggressively the sales associate tried to convince us not to buy the system and then, when we said we still wanted it, how aggressively he tried to convince us to buy its corresponding tech services. When we posted about our experience on the LAPTOP blog, some surprising comments starting coming in from several different readers claiming to work for Office Depot. Readers Raise the Alarm “Not only do [we] sales people depend on the extra cash we earn from add-ons, if we do not sell them and make a quota, we get the shaft from our bosses and their bosses and their bosses,” reader Chris H. wrote. A reader going by the moniker Office Depot Employee was more direct. This commenter wrote, “At store level, OD puts too much pressure on sales consultants and managers to sell the PPPs (Product Protection Plans) & TDS (Tech Depot Services). I know of several stores in my market that will ‘feel out’ the customer to see if they are the type to purchase these services. If the customer lets on that they only want the computer and no services … then that store simply claims to be out of stock! We are required to sell 30% + on both of these services or we get PIP’d (Performance Improvement Process) (or Written up) and get ultimately fired.” Another reader using the alias OD tech sales Manager wrote, “Unfortunately, what you all have been commenting is very close to the truth of the matter. But not all Office Depots practice this unethical decision making … I don’t hesitate from selling my laptops even though they deny wanting these services. Why? Because like you said before. (sic) the quota is 30% so I can lose out on 7 laptops but get 3 and be okay still.” Current Salesperson Spills the Beans While e-mails sent to these first three commenters went unreplied, we were able to make contact with a fourth reader named Rich (last name withheld), who was willing to talk to us and even provided us with a pay stub to prove that he currently works at an Office Depot. In an extensive phone and e-mail interview, Rich said that he was always honest with customers but had been instructed to lie about notebook stock both by one of his four store managers and by a district manager. “I have witnessed lying about the availability of a notebook, and have been told to do so myself,” Rich told us. ” Once I was talking to the customer and, while I am actually speaking, my manager comes on the radio and tells me to say it is out of stock if they aren’t getting anything with it. I always ignore him and sell it anyway because lying to the customer is flat-out wrong.” Sales Quotas for Associates, Percentages for Managers Rich told us that although lying about notebook stock is not official Office Depot policy, the chain’s tough quotas lead many managers and sales associates to game the system any way they can. Rich said that store managers are held to a strict minimum “attachment rating,” which is determined through a complex formula that weighs the value of “attachments”—services such as warranties and service plans or accessories like printer cables—against the number of tech products sold. If a store’s attachment rating falls below 30 percent, the manager could face disciplinary action from higher-ups. Sales associates like Rich, however, are not held to a percentage, but to a weekly dollar amount. Rich said his current dollar amount is $200, and if he doesn’t hit that number, he faces warnings, and then termination in short order. “Basically they drill it in your head that if you don’t sell PPPs, you’re gonna get fired. It’s gotten so bad to the point where the managers are starting to find loopholes in the system. They would rather sell one laptop with a PPP than ten laptops with nothing. They don’t care,” he said. Tough Weekly Goals Determine Commissions In addition to the stick of losing their jobs, Office Depot sales associates have the carrot of commissions for themselves and all of their co-workers if the store reaches or exceeds its attachment sales numbers. According to Rich, each store has its own daily sales goal for PPPs ($200 for Rich’s store; as much as $450 for others he knows). The daily goals are determined by a number of factors, including that store’s previous performance. At the end of each week, the commission rate for all of the store’s sales associates is determined based on where the total amount of PPP sales stands in relation to the store’s goals for that week. If the store achieved more than 120% or more of its goal, all associates get 15% commission for the previous week’s sales. If the store achieved 100 to 120%, they get 10% commission. Eighty to 99 percent nets a 5% commission for associates, while falling below 80% of the goal means that associates get no commission at all, no matter how much they sold as individuals. “One PPP could make or break how the entire store gets paid for commission that week,” he said. “That’s why they put such an emphasis on it.” According to Rich, the price of a PPP ranges from $100 on the low end to as much as $495 for a multiyear plan on an expensive notebook. Rich told us that Office Depot typically charges $125 for extended protection on a $300 netbook. Tech Depot Services vary widely in price. A local Office Depot associate tried to sell us software installation on an optical-driveless netbook for $30 per program, but Rich told us the most common services for notebooks are trialware removal, “optimization,” and a year of McAfee Anti-Virus. All three services combined cost $99, though trialware removal alone starts at $29. The Tech Depot Services are an especially vibrant profit center for Office Depot, with little cost and effort involved. According to Rich, some services are performed by remote workers who do little more than push a few buttons to install software. “The software installation the associates do. We will install everything,” Rich said. “The service where we install McAfee and get rid of all the trialware—the way it works is that we hook it up to our tech bench and a remote person will take over the computer and then they’ll basically run a little uninstall wizard that does everything for them. They’re basically just clicking a few buttons and it just does it.” Why Associates Lie Rich also told us that there is no commission at all just for selling a notebook without any attachments. So there’s no financial incentive for salespeople to help customers who don’t want protection plans or tech services. Considering that the manager is held to a minimum attachment rating, but the associates are only held to a total dollar amount, we wondered why the associates would lie to customers and tell them a notebook was out of stock when it neither harms nor helps their individual stats. Rich explained that sales associates are both concerned about the store’s attachment rating and about losing the opportunity to sell each an individual laptop to a PPP or TDS-buying customer. “Ideally, they want every single laptop to go out with a warranty, so if you sell one, that’s one opportunity that’s gone,” Rich said. “They figure if they don’t sell it, someone else will come in and get it, especially if it’s a laptop that’s in the ad that a lot of people are going to come in . . . They figure they’re going to sell it eventually. You might as well do it to someone that’s going to get something with it.” Rich said that a typical Office Depot has at most one or two of each regular-priced notebook in stock at any given time, with a maximum of 5 units for sale circular items. He told us that employees aren’t too concerned about running out of stock, because a truck comes with new supplies at least three times a week, more frequently during peak sales times such as back-to-school. The Scope of the Problem Without doing a comprehensive survey of dozens or hundreds of Office Depot employees, it’s difficult to tell just how widespread the problem of lying sales associates has become. We know from our reader comments that the problem is not limited to Rich’s store alone, but we hear from Rich that not every associate lies and not every manager encourages their sales people to lie. “As far as not-selling, I’ve heard about it from other stores. The original one [store] that I worked at, it wasn’t really too bad. They only time they told me not to sell something to someone was a customer who came in once a week and bought a computer and then returned it two days later. Other than that, that store was pretty good,” Rich recounted. “This one [the manager at his current store], his thing is to really get the warranty, to get as much as possible. He’s told me repeatedly to not sell a computer if you’re not getting anything with it.” According to Rich, the district manager once visited his store and told all the associates to lie. “We did get told by the district manager one time to talk to the customer, figure out what they want, do your normal sales routine, and figure out what they’re going to get,” he said. “Offer them the PPP. Offer them the TDS and then, if they’re going to get it, go check to see if we have it in stock and, if we do, bring it out to them. If they’re not going to get anything with it, just go check to see if we have it and then come back and say ‘oh, we’re out of stock on it.’” We tried more than once to investigate this very claim by visiting a local Office Depot branch here in Manhattan, but were told that the laptop we wanted was in stock when we sent a LAPTOP staff writer undercover to purchase a notebook without any PPP or TDS plans. So either our local Office Depot is an honest branch or we got an honest sales associate. Office Depot’s Response We contacted Office Depot corporate and shared some of the things Rich had told us, along with our other reader’s comments. Their response in its entirety is as follows: We certainly appreciate your bringing this situation to our attention. Our objective is to sell merchandise and to offer and recommend solutions to our customers, without regard to whether a customer purchases or does not purchase a service warranty or a software package. Office Depot has been recognized with numerous awards for our commitment to customer service, so please know that we take this issue very seriously and will take the necessary steps to ensure that we continue to enhance the customer experience and promote quality in our customer-related processes. With respect to your inquiry, we intend to look into the situation further, as part of our continuing commitment to ensuring customer satisfaction and consistent selling practices. Update: Office Depot has issued a more detailed response. How to Get What You Want So what do you do if you want to buy a notebook at Office Depot, but you don’t want a protection plan or Tech Depot Services? You have a few options: * Be honest with the sales associate in telling them you don’t want the services and hope that they are being honest with you about the stock. There’s a good chance they are. * Lie to the sales associate, tell them you want an extended warranty, and then pretend to change your mind after he brings your notebook out of the back room. * Use the store’s own inventory computer to check stock. Rich says that there are computers throughout the store that associates use that are also meant for customer use. If you grab the merchandise ticket for the notebook you want and enter its 6-digit SKU number into the item lookup box on the inventory computer, a screen will appear that shows whether the notebook is in stock. If the number of items in stock is either 1 or 0, it’s out of stock because item #1 is the floor model. Of course, it’s always possible a sales associate could still lie to you and tell you the remaining notebooks are on hold for another customer or that the computer is wrong. Get Daily Updates via Email Protect your computer with Windows Onecare

Palm Posts a Loss for a 7th Quarter

Slashdot It! Palm reported a wider third-quarter loss that fell short of analysts’ estimates. The net loss expanded to $95 million, or 89 cents a share, from $54.7 million, or 53 cents, a year earlier, Palm said in a statement on Thursday. Excluding costs for stock-based compensation and other items, the loss of 86 cents a share missed the average 57-cent estimate of analysts surveyed by Bloomberg. Sales in the period ended Feb. 28 fell 71 percent, to $90.6 million, from $312 million. Palm is preparing to release its new Pre smartphone in June and hopes the model will revive plummeting sales by winning over fans of the Apple iPhone and BlackBerry, made by Research in Motion. Palm has reported losses in the last seven quarters. The company, which introduced the pioneering Pilot device more than a decade ago, said on March 3 that sales declined because of dwindling orders for its older models. Get Daily Updates via Email Protect your computer with Windows Onecare

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Ultra-High-Power Lithium-Ion Batteries

Slashdot It! A lithium-ion battery electrode described this week in the journal Nature can deliver electricity several times faster than other such batteries. It could be particularly useful where rapid power bursts are needed, such as for laser weapons or hybrid race cars. Test batteries based on the new electrode--developed by Gerbrand Ceder, a professor of materials science at MIT--can be discharged in 10 seconds. In comparison, the best high-power lithium-ion batteries today discharge in a minute and a half, and conventional lithium-ion batteries, such as those in laptops, can take hours to discharge. The new high rate, the researchers calculate, would allow a one-liter battery based on the material to deliver 25,000 watts, or enough power for about 20 vacuum cleaners. This level of power output would put these batteries on par with ultracapacitors, gadgets that can rapidly discharge power but can't carry much energy for their size, says John Miller, a vice president for systems and applications at Maxwell Technologies, a manufacturer of ultracapacitors, who wasn't involved in the research. The new batteries would store nearly 10 times as much energy as an ultracapacitor of the same size. The combination of small size and extreme power could make the batteries particularly useful for race cars, he says. (Starting this year, new Formula One racing rules will allow race cars to store energy from braking to deliver very brief jolts of acceleration.) To improve the batteries, the researchers modified an electrode material called lithium iron phosphate to allow electrons and ions to move in and out of it much more quickly. The advance is based on computer models that Ceder developed in 2004. The models suggested a way to improve conductivity by directing lithium ions toward particular faces of crystals within the material. To exploit this, Ceder included extra lithium and phosphorus. This helps form a layer of lithium diphosphate, a material known for its high lithium-ion conductivity. He says that ions encountering the material are quickly shuttled to faces that can pull them in, allowing for very fast discharging. The fast-discharging materials may also recharge quickly, raising the possibility of cell phones that charge in seconds, Ceder says, but this would require expensive chargers. Ric Fulop, vice president of business development at A123 Systems, a battery maker based in Watertown, MA, that has licensed Ceder's new material, says that it could be useful for hybrids or for delivering the power needed for laser weapons. (Fulop notes that A123 is not developing batteries for the latter application.) Other researchers have already modified lithium iron phosphate to achieve power levels high enough for power tools and for most hybrid vehicles. Indeed, iron phosphate batteries are already being sold by more than one battery maker for such applications. Ultimately, the energy capacity of lithium iron phosphate is lower than that of other lithium-ion battery materials, making Ceder's advance of limited value, says Jeff Dahn, a professor of physics at Dalhousie University, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. This battery is good for acceleration, but not as much for long range. "A real breakthrough . . . would be a new positive electrode material with quantum-leap performance specs" in energy storage, Dahn says. Get Daily Updates via Email Protect your computer with Windows Onecare

AMD launches AM3 Phenom II CPUs

Slashdot It! You might think that launching a new processor socket in the current economic climate would be a decision bordering on the suicidal, but AMD is trying to make the transition to AM3 as upgrade-friendly as possible. As you probably already know from the AM3 motherboards that have already been announced, AM3 is AMD's first foray into DDR3 memory support. As Phenom CPUs have integrated memory controllers, it's more accurate to say that it's the new range of Phenom II CPUs (see below) that are DDR3-compatible. However, the new DDR3-compatible Phenom II range is also compatible with DDR2 memory. As the new CPUs and the new AM3 socket are pin-compatible with the current AM2+ socket, you can put a new AM3-compatible CPU into an existing AM2+ motherboard. This means that you can upgrade your CPU now without needing to change your motherboard or buy pricey new DDR3 memory. AMD has today announced six new 45nm Phenom II CPUs that use the AM3 socket, and they all have a quoted maximum TDP of 95W, as well as the usual 512KB of L2 cache per core. Each core also gets 64KB of L1 data cache and 64KB of L1 instruction cache, although the amount of shared Level 3 cache varies between the range, with some chips getting 4MB and others getting 6MB. Of particular note is the Phenom II X3 720 Black Edition, which has an unlocked multiplier and is aimed at taking on Intel’s Core 2 Duo E8400 with the advantage of an extra core under its belt. Overclockers currently has these CPUs available for pre-order for £126.49 inc VAT. Meanwhile, the quad-core Phenom II X4 810 is available for pre-order for £156.39 inc VAT. This chip has less cache than the 720, which has helped AMD to get the price down, and AMD is hoping that it will rival Intel’s Core 2 Quad Q8200. Get Daily Updates via Email Protect your computer with Windows Onecare

Researchers find ways to sniff keystrokes from thin air

Slashdot It! That PC keyboard you're using may be giving away your passwords. Researchers say they've discovered new ways to read what you're typing by aiming special wireless or laser equipment at the keyboard or by simply plugging into a nearby electrical socket. Two separate research teams, from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne and security consultancy Inverse Path have taken a close look at the electromagnetic radiation that is generated every time a computer keyboard is tapped. It turns out that this keystroke radiation is actually pretty easy to capture and decode -- if you're a computer hacker-type, that is. The Ecole Polytechnique team did its work over the air. Using an oscilloscope and an inexpensive wireless antenna, the team was able to pick up keystrokes from virtually any keyboard, including laptops. "We discovered four different ways to recover the keystroke of a keyboard," said Matin Vuagnoux, a Ph.D. student at the university. With the keyboard's cabling and nearby power wires acting as antennas for these electromagnetic signals, the researchers were able to read keystrokes with 95 percent accuracy over a distance of up to 20 meters (22 yards), in ideal conditions. Laptops were the hardest to read, because the cable between the keyboard and the PC is so short, making for a tiny antenna. The researchers found a way to sniff USB keyboards, but older PS/2 keyboards, which have ground wires that connect right into the electric grid, were the best. Even encrypted wireless keyboards are not safe from this attack. That's because they use a special algorithm to check which key is pressed, and when that algorithm is run, the keyboard gives off a distinctive electromagnetic signal, which can be picked up via wireless. Vuagnoux and co-researcher Sylvain Pasini were able to pick up the signals using an antenna, an oscilloscope, an analog-digital converter and a PC, running some custom code they've created. Total cost: about US$5,000. Spies have long known about the risk of data leaking via electromagnetic radiation for about 50 years now. After the U.S. National Security Agency found strange surveillance equipment in a U.S. Department of State communications room in 1962, the agency began looking into ways that radiation from communications equipment could be tapped. Some of this research, known as Tempest, has now been declassified, but public work in this area didn't kick off until the mid-1980s. The idea of someone sniffing out keystrokes with a wireless antenna may seem ripped from the pages of a spy thriller, but criminals have already used sneaky techniques such as wireless video cameras placed near automated teller machines and Wi-Fi sniffers to steal credit-card numbers and passwords. "If you are a company using highly confidential data, you have to know that the keyboard is a problem," Vuagnoux said. If pulling keystrokes out of thin air isn't bad enough, another team has found a way to get the same kind of information out of a power socket. Using similar techniques, Inverse Path researchers Andrea Barisani and Daniele Bianco say they get accurate results, picking out keyboard signals from keyboard ground cables. Their work only applies to older, PS/2 keyboards, but the data they get is "pretty good," they say. On these keyboards, "the data cable is so close to the ground cable, the emanations from the data cable leak onto the ground cable, which acts as an antenna," Barisani said. That ground wire passes through the PC and into the building's power wires, where the researchers can pick up the signals using a computer, an oscilloscope and about $500 worth of other equipment. They believe they could pick up signals from a distance of up to 50 meters by simply plugging a keystroke-sniffing device into the power grid somewhere close to the PC they want to snoop on. Because PS/2 keyboards emanate radiation at a standard, very specific frequency, the researchers can pick up a keyboard's signal even on a crowded power grid. They tried out their experiment at a local university's physics department, and even with particle detectors, oscilloscopes and other computers on the network were still able to get good data. Barisani and Bianco will present their findings at the CanSecWest hacking conference next week in Vancouver. They will also show how they've been able to read keystrokes by pointing a laser microphone at reflective surfaces on a laptop, such as the screen. Using the laser's very precise measurements of the vibrations on the screen's surface caused by typing, they can figure out what is being typed. Previously researchers had shown how the sound of keystrokes could be analyzed to figure out what is being typed, but using the laser microphone to pick up mechanical vibrations rather than sound makes this technique much more effective, Barisani said. "We extend the range because with the laser microphone, you can be hundreds of meters away," he said. The Ecole Polytechnique team has submitted their research for peer review and hopes to publish it very soon. Get Daily Updates via Email Protect your computer with Windows Onecare

Executive From Google to Replace Two at AOL

Slashdot It! Time Warner abruptly fired the two top leaders of its struggling AOL unit Wednesday and replaced them with one of the top executives from Google. AOL’s new chairman and chief executive will be Tim Armstrong, who joined Google in 2000 to start a sales operation for the then-tiny search engine. Since then, Google has grown to sell more advertising than any newspaper, magazine or television network. Mr. Armstrong, who was the president of American operations, looked after both advertising sales and relationships with publishers. He replaces Randy Falco, a former top executive of NBC, who was brought in to run AOL in November 2006 by Jeffrey L. Bewkes, Time Warner’s chief executive. Ron Grant, a former aide to Mr. Bewkes who was the No. 2 executive at AOL under Mr. Falco, was also fired Wednesday. Mr. Falco’s reign has been marked by turmoil in AOL’s ranks, with many top executives leaving of their own accord and others fired by Mr. Falco. He also oversaw the elimination of thousands of jobs, as the company’s revenue from its original subscription business dwindled. AOL today is a different company than when it was the country’s leading Internet access provider, helping a generation learn how to send e-mail and instant messages and use the Web. It still has a large number of users of its e-mail service and portal and has developed specialized Web sites, like Engadget for technology news and TMZ for celebrity gossip. AOL has also bought a series of companies that sell advertising on other Web sites. Mr. Falco’s biggest move was to buy Bebo, a social network popular in Britain, for $850 million last spring, just a bit before the stock market began its free fall. Many in the Internet industry say that Mr. Falco paid far more for Bebo than it was worth, especially given Facebook’s continued rise in social networking. In a short interview, Mr. Armstrong declined to say much about his plans but said that the company, despite its troubles, has potential. “You can argue about its reputation, but everybody in the world knows AOL,” he said. On a personal level, he said that he had left Google in order to take advantage of a better opportunity. “I’m 38 years old, and this gives me the opportunity to move on my own and lead a company forward,” he said. Get Daily Updates via Email Protect your computer with Windows Onecare

Hitachi Fined $31 Million For LCD Price Fixing

Slashdot It! It's not like Hitachi Displays really needs any bad news considering just how poorly LCD sales are going right now, but regardless of that, it's still facing a fine that none of us would be fond of facing. The Japanese electronics manufacturer has just agreed (begrudgingly we're sure) to pay a staggering $31 million fine for its role in a conspiracy to fix prices in the sale of TFT-LCD panels sold to Dell, Inc. The United States Department of Justice made the proclamation, and details show that Hitachi has plead guilty to a one-count felony. The charge, which was filed in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, blames Hitachi Displays Ltd., a subsidiary of Hitachi Ltd., with "participating in a conspiracy to fix the prices of TFT-LCD sold to Dell for use in desktop monitors and notebook computers from April 1, 2001 through March 31, 2004." We're also told that according to the plea agreement -- which is subject to court approval -- Hitachi Displays has agreed to cooperate with the Department's ongoing antitrust investigation. If you're thinking this all sounds familiar, you'd be correct. Hitachi is disgracefully joining three other multinational companies who have "admitted to their involvement in fixing prices for LCD panels sold to U.S. companies and that have already paid criminal fines totaling more than $585 million," in the words of Scott D. Hammond, Acting Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Department's Antitrust Division. We tend to agree with his thoughts that this case should sent a stiff message to companies even considering pulling this trick while doing business in the United States of America. Specifically, the following is what Hitachi Displays has been charged with carrying out: Participating in bilateral meetings, conversations and communications in Japan, Korea and the United States to discuss the prices of TFT-LCD to be sold to Dell; Agreeing, during those bilateral meetings, conversations and communications, to charge prices of TFT-LCD to be sold to Dell at certain predetermined levels; Issuing price quotations in accordance with the agreements reached; and Exchanging information on sales of TFT-LCD sold to Dell, for the purpose of monitoring and enforcing adherence to the agreed-upon prices. This is the fourth plea agreement by a company charged with participating in conspiracies to fix the prices for TFT-LCD. On Dec. 15, 2008, LG Display Co. (LG) pleaded guilty to participating in a worldwide conspiracy to fix the price for TFT-LCD and was sentenced to pay a $400 million criminal fine -- the second-largest fine in Antitrust Division history. On Dec. 16, 2008, Sharp Corp. pleaded guilty to participating in three separate conspiracies to fix the prices of TFT-LCD sold to Dell, Apple Computer Inc. and Motorola Inc. and was sentenced to pay a $120 millionJan. 14, 2009, Chunghwa Picture Tubes Ltd. (Chunghwa) pleaded guilty to participating in the same worldwide conspiracy as LG, and was sentenced to pay a $65 million criminal fine. criminal fine. On In February 2009, former Chunghwa CEO Chieng-Hon "Frank" Lin and two Chunghwa executives, Chih-Chun "C.C." Liu and Hsueh-Lung "Brian" Lee, pleaded guilty to and were sentenced for participating in the same conspiracy as LG and Chunghwa. Lin was sentenced to serve nine months in prison and pay a $50,000 criminal fine. Liu was sentenced to serve seven months in prison and pay a $30,000 criminal fine. Lee was sentenced to serve six months in prison and pay a $20,000 criminal fine. Also in February 2009, LG executive Chang Suk "C.S." Chung$25,000 criminal fine. pleaded guilty for his role in the same conspiracy as LG and Chunghwa. Chung was sentenced to serve seven months in prison and pay a On Feb. 3, 2009, a federal grand jury in San Francisco returned an indictment charging two former Chunghwa executives, Cheng Yuan Lin, aka C.Y. Lin, and Wen Jun Cheng, aka Tony Cheng, and one former executive from LG, Duk Mo Koo, for their participation in the same conspiracy as LG and Chunghwa. Warrants have been issued for the arrest of all three individuals. Today's charge is the result of a joint investigation by the Department of Justice Antitrust Division's San Francisco Field Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in San Francisco. Get Daily Updates via Email Protect your computer with Windows Onecare

Pet Beds

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Friday, March 20, 2009

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Friday, March 13, 2009


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