Current Events in November 2010

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    Netflix Supplier Complains About Comcast Fees

    Pushes issue of 'Net neutrality' to the forefront

    Level 3 Communications, a major supplier for Netflix, says Comcast has begun charging an extra fee anytime one of its customers orders a movie for online streaming.

    Net neutrality proponents say it's a perfect illustration of what Net neutrality is all about.

    Netflix supplies movie and other video content to millions of customers. Until recently customers received the content on DVDs through the U.S. Mail. But the company has encouraged subscribers with broadband Internet connections to download their movies instead.

    Not only does the customer get the movie instantly, there are no postage and handling costs. Netflix recently rolled out a new download-only service at a reduced price.

    Level 3 is one of the companies Netflix uses to actually provide the streaming technology. Now, all of a sudden, Level 3 says Comcast is taking on an extra fee anytime one of its subscribers downloads a Netflix movie.

    While Level 3 is crying foul, Comcast - and other major network operators - have pointed out that content that uses huge chunks of bandwidth should be subjected to a different rate structure.

    But under Net neutrality, that couldn't happen. If a policy of Net neutrality were in force, Comcast and other networks could not discriminate against different kinds of content, treating an email the same as a video.

    "This action by Comcast threatens the open Internet and is a clear abuse of the dominant control that Comcast exerts in broadband access," said Thomas Stortz, Level 3's chief legal officer.. "With this action, Comcast is preventing competing content from ever being delivered to Comcast's subscribers at all, unless Comcast's unilaterally determined toll is paid."

    Level 3 said it intends to register its complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, which reportedly plans to consider implementing a Net neutrality policy when it meets in mid-December.

    Net neutrality legislation has been introduced in Congress but has never made it to a vote. Democrats are generally in favor of Net neutrality while Republicans have generally been opposed. Industry analysts say Republican control of the House in the next Congress makes Congressional action on the issue less likely.

    Level 3 Communications says Comcast has begun charging an extra fee anytime one of its customers downloads a video from Netflix....

    There’s Turmoil in the Municipal Bond Market as Cities Struggle

    Does this mean municipal bonds are no longer the "safe" investment they once were?

    If you wanted to see your money grow without being clobbered by a hefty tax bill, Municipal Bonds were a good way to go. And in many cases they still are with their huge tax advantages that include exemption from federal, state and sometimes even local income tax.

    Unfortunately, the muni bond market has been in a state of turmoil over rising uncertainty over the financial strength of some of the municipalities issuing those bonds. It has become a highly fractured market.

    Prior to 2008, the muni world was homogenous. Many bonds were insured and considered safe. Today only about 7% fall into that category. The steady economic growth over the previous two decades meant government budgets were in good shape. But the financial crisis changed all that.

    One way to look at it is that before the financial crisis there was one municipal-bond market and now there are more than 20,000. Usually, the muni market is steady. Lately, it's been anythingbut. The recent selloff has caused the Bank of America/Merrill Lynch Municipal Bond Master Index to fall 3.6% this month.

    A number of factors are behind the mess and an unusual combination of events triggered a selloff. First, treasury yields rose and that led to losses on bonds across the board. Investors sold older bonds to make room for newer ones just as a large supply of muni-bonds hit the market. Then a number of states such as California found themselves staring at budget shortfalls and potentially being unable to meet pension obligations.

    The financial crisis also drained the muni market of liquidity. Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers were two major muni-bond dealers before they blew up. Other banks and brokers have been less willing to hold large amounts of muni bonds on their books, while some hedge funds that used "arbitrage" strategies in the municipal-bond market pulled back or disappeared.

    Also, now that congress is back from vacation, there's the question of whether the Republicans will be able muster enough votes to end the Bush tax cuts for everyone, even the upper income Americans who use munis as much as anyone to reduce their tax bite.

    The financial troubles of many municipalities, meanwhile, have created new winners and losers among different classes of bonds. Before the crisis, "general-obligation bonds," which are backed by the taxing authority of a state or city, were the top of the municipal food chain. It was thought that an issuer of a general-obligation bond would withstand tough times because of its ability to raise taxes to make good on their debt.

    But since the start of the recession, unemployment has increased, reducing income-tax revenue. Add to that the fact that property values have plunged along with real-estate taxes. Plus, the American consumer is saving more and spending less which means sales-tax revenue is down as well.

    With the market so fragmented, investors find it hard to value munis appropriately. They can't tell if the bonds are a good price or expensive.

    When more of the muni market was insured, the direction of interest rates was the primary driver of yields. Treasurys and municipal bonds typically moved in the same direction, with a fairly predictable ratio between their yields. But now the direction of interest rates is just one of many drivers of muni yields, and there is very little relationship between Treasurys and munis.

    Financial experts say muni investors who have been jarred by the recent volatility need to reassess their muni portfolio's quality and sensitivity to interest rate swings. With the expectation of rising interest rates, uncertainty about tax-law changes, and the uncertain financial position of many state and local governments, analysts expect the volatility to continue for some time.

    While it still is worthwhile to hold high-quality muni bonds for income, investors shouldn't expect much in the way of price appreciation in the months ahead. And anyone holding individual muni bonds should consider selling their big winners now, particularly those with longer maturities. The upheaval of the past few years has made most muni bonds and funds a trickier investment.

    For investors looking to exploit recent weakness, diversification is essential. With many state and local governments strapped for cash, investors should spread their bets widely among individual bonds even if it means giving up in-state tax benefits. 

    These are tough times for tax-sensitive investors who rely on municipal bonds now that municipalities across the country are struggling financially...

    New Weight Watchers Plan Entices Members To Eat Healthier

    Emphasis on natural, non-processed foods; fresh fruit and most veggies now zero points

    While many Americans were recovering from their Thanksgiving Day dinners (and subsequent lunches of leftovers) and probably not thinking about weight loss, Weight Watchers announced Saturday their new "PointsPlus" program for current and new members.

    "PointsPlus" replaces the popular "POINTS” program, which has been in use for over a decade.

    "Our new PointsPlus program is based on the latest scientific research and is designed to guide people to foods that are nutrient dense and highly satisfying, ensuring they will make healthful decisions, have successful weight loss and learn to keep their weight off long-term," said Karen Miller-Kovach, chief scientific officer, Weight Watchers International, Inc.  

    The "POINTS" system assigned every food a "point" value based on calories, fat, and fiber.  While those components still play a large role in the new "PointsPlus" formula, now protein and carbohydrates are factored in, along with how hard the body works to process them (conversion cost) as well their respective eating satisfaction (satiety).    

    So, it used to be that a 100-calorie bag of cookies and a banana were the same point value (2).  Now, the cookies are still two points, but the banana is zero.

    In fact, all fresh fruits and most vegetables now have zero "PointsPlus" values. (Now there's no excuse to avoid them.)

    There are also "Power Foods," an element Weight Watchers hopes will provide members an easy way to identify the best food choices among similar foods -- for example, foods with higher eating satisfaction, lower sugar, lower sodium, healthier fat and more fiber.

    Weight Watchers said they hope the new plan will educate and encourage people to favor foods the body works harder to convert into energy, resulting in fewer net calories absorbed, focus on foods that keep them fuller longer, eat more natural, unprocessed foods, and still feel able to allow for occasional indulgences.

    Despite the new plan and features, the fundamentals of Weight Watchers -- weight loss built on healthy eating, physical activity, behavior modification and support -- stay the same.

    "Research shows that after following the Weight Watchers program, we've seen improvements in healthy eating habits, successful weight loss and even changes in peoples' innate response to hunger and food -- ultimately aiding in long-term weight loss success," said Miller-Kovach.

    Weight Watchers said the "PointsPlus" program was tested in a rigorous, independent clinical trial and beta-tested by thousands of people across the United States who not only lost weight but reported feeling healthier and more satisfied, cut back on energy dense, processed foods and ate more fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.

    "We are confident that PointsPlus is the best program Weight Watchers has ever offered not only to help Americans lose weight and make smarter food choices but also to combat the nation's growing obesity epidemic," said David Kirchhoff, president and CEO of Weight Watchers International, Inc.

    "We are changing the way Americans view calories and select their food. Our new PointsPlus program will not only deliver weight loss success, it will help transform America's eating habits and the way we make our food choices." 

    New Weight Watchers Plan Entices Members To Eat HealthierEmphasis on natural, non-processed foods; fresh fruit and most veggies now zero points...

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      Iowa Charges Trilegiant With Consumer Fraud

      Part of crackdown on negative option marketing abuses

      The State of Iowa has filed a consumer fraud lawsuit against Trilegiant, a major marketer of discount buying clubs that are often sold to consumers through third-party and negative option market arrangements.

      Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who filed the suit, claims the company unfairly and deceptively charged Iowans for memberships in discount buying clubs or other programs, in many cases without consumers' knowledge.

      "We allege that a large number of Iowans were paying monthly fees for so-called memberships that they didn't approve, they didn't use and didn't ever want," said Miller.

      According to the lawsuit, Trilegiant, a Delaware Corporation under the Affinion Group, Inc., since at least 2001, enrolled Iowans in "memberships" for programs that offer savings on products and services such as home improvement purchases, health products, and entertainment expenses.


      Based on an investigation prompted by more than 200 complaints, the lawsuit alleges that many Iowans whose credit cards are charged periodically by the defendants are unaware that they are members of the defendants' buying clubs, and would object to these unwanted and/or unauthorized charges if made aware of them. 

      According to the lawsuit, the memberships typically involve an elusive premium used to lure the consumer in, and an allegedly "risk-free" trial period followed by charges to a consumer's credit card, bank account, or other financial account if the consumer fails to cancel. 

      Over the years, has received numerous complaints about Trilegiant and other buying clubs, like this one from Debra of Columbus, Ohio.

      "I looked last week on my bank statement and discovered that i had a recurring charge on my account," Debra told "I went to the bank and they stopped the charges and gave me the number. I never signed up for this service or gave them authorization for them to take money from my account."

      Membership club charges may appear under one of more than two dozen names, such as "Buyers Advantage," "Everyday Values," or "Shoppers Advantage."

      "Many consumers likely didn't realize what would result from accepting some sort of 'free trial' offer or other types of promotions," said Miller.  "What really happened, we allege, was Iowans paid time and time again for memberships they didn't know they had and never used."

      The lawsuit, filed in Polk County District Court, alleges that Trilegiant violated Iowa's Buying Club Memberships Act and Iowa's Consumer Fraud Act.  The lawsuit seeks a civil penalty of up to $40,000 for each separate violation of law, in addition to unspecified monetary judgments. 

      The lawsuit also alleges that many Consumer Fraud Act violations were committed against older people and qualify for additional civil penalties provided by Iowa law.

      Iowa's Buying Club Memberships law requires covered memberships to be sold through written contracts that expressly notify the customer of a three-day right to cancel, and that require the customer's signature.  Membership buyers also must be provided "Notice of Cancellation” forms that they can use to cancel the transaction within three business days, and avoid any obligation.

      After Miller filed another buying club case, an Iowa judge ruled in March that Vertrue, Inc. used deceptive and unfair practices to market so-called buying club "memberships” to almost a half million Iowans, with revenues exceeding $36 million.  The final remedy, such as restitution and penalties, has yet to be determined.

      "Free Trial Offer" is often a trap

      According to Miller, here are some ways to avoid unwanted memberships:

      • Be wary of "free trial" offers.  Get the details: Will you be billed automatically if you don't cancel?  By when must you cancel?  How do you cancel?  Will you receive a mail notice?  Remember, they already may have your bank or credit card number to charge you.
      • Examine your credit card bills every month, and also your checking account, other financial accounts, and phone bills.  Watch for unauthorized charges, and dispute them at once, in writing.
      • Watch your mail and e-mail for notices that you will be billed unless you cancel.  These mailings may look like "junk mail."
      • Beware of cashing a check that comes in the mail with a "free trial offer."  The fine print may obligate you to future payments.

      Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller has sued Trilegiant, saying it broke the law in signing up consumers for membership clubs against their will....

      A Dying Investment Banker Reveals Market Truths for Everyday Investors

      A virtual deathbed confession reveals one of Wall Street's biggest secrets: there are no secrets

      It could become one of the best-selling, self-published books of all time. The Investment Answer written by Gordon Murray and Daniel Goldie is already number 6 on Amazon's best-seller list.

      In a mere 93 pages, it tells everyday investors nearly everything they need to know about investing in the stock and bond markets to beat 95% of Wall Street's best money managers.

      Goldie self-published the book in August, 2010 but I didn't hear about it until last week whenRon Lieber mentioned it in his Your Money column in the Saturday, November 27 edition of New York Times. When I checked Amazon this morning I was told it was "temporarily out of stock.”

      What sets this book apart from the gazillion other books on investing is that one of the co-authors, Gordon Murray is dying of a brain tumor and he told Lieber that he wrote it to get the word out to as many everyday investors as he could. And that word is you don't need an MBA or even a money manager to invest well in the stock and bond market.

      The basic premise is a simple one and hardly unique: no one can predict the future with any regularity, so why would you want to pay the hefty fees charged by active money managers who rarely beat their respective stock or bond indexes over time? Murray and Goldie encourage you to take a mostly passive investment approach with some rebalancing now and then to keep your investment goals on track.

      Interestingly, we made a similar recommendation in February, 2007 when we urged investors not to overlook index funds. In that article I made the point that most of us don't have the time, knowledge or inclination to spend hours a day studying market fluctuations, analyzing economic data or researching a company's growth forecast to decide where to invest our hard-earned money.

      Index fund

      I then suggested an alternative to paying hefty fees or commissions to a professional money manager or brokers by investing in Index Funds. You'll not only save a lot of money but they'll do as well or better than most funds actively run by so-called expert money managers.

      For those who may not know what an index fund is, they match the performance of a particular market index such as Standard & Poor's Index of 500 stocks. Investing in index funds is known as "passive" investing because you don't really have to do anything. "Active" investing is where you "actively" buy and sell individual stocks hoping to out-perform the market.

      While also categorized as passive investing, Murray and Goldie's approach is slightly different. They have a five-step plan.

      First, you should decide whether you want to do this on your own or hire a financial advisor. If you decide to use an advisor, they recommend finding someone who earns all of his money from you and not from any of the companies offering the funds he or she is recommending. That way his pay is tied to the performance of your investments.

      Second, allocate your assets among stocks and bonds and diversify among large and small capitalized companies in different industries and different investment criteria such as value, growth and income producing securities. Value usually means under-priced, growth indicates it will grow across market cycles and income pays in dividends or with bonds, in yields.

      Their third step is something we've also recommended. Divide your investments between foreign and domestic because foreign securities tend to outperform the U.S. market over time.

      Fourth, decide whether you want to save money by investing in passively managed mutual funds instead of actively managed funds.

      And five, continue to rebalance your portfolio by selling off winners to buy more of the losers because, believe it or not, this will improve your returns over time.

      Nothing new, really

      Now, none of this advice is news to anyone who has been around the markets for any length of time. What makes this somewhat newsworthy is where the advice is coming from.

      Murray is a former bond salesman who worked for Goldman Sachs before moving over to Lehman Brothers and Credit Suisse First Boston where he was a managing director. He told Lieber than nine years ago he had an epiphany about how futile it was to try to predict the market. And when his death sentence arrived in the form of a tumor, Murray knew he had to work quickly to expose one of Wall Street's greatest secrets ─ active money management is in most cases a waste of money.

      According to Lieber, Murray is one the highest-ranking Wall Street veterans to take back much of what he and his colleagues worked for during their careers. He calls the failings of active portfolio management "shocking." Murray also testified before congress about the financial collapse and asks in the Times article "how is it possible that prosecutors had not yet won criminal convictions against anyone in charge at his old firms and their competitors."

      As of this writing, Murray was still alive, but he told Lieber that he didn't expect to see his 61st birthday in March.

      Plentiful praise

      As for his book, the reader's praises on Amazon have been plentiful. One professor plans on making it required reading for his graduate and undergraduate personal finance classes. He adds that any negative reviews will probably come from Wall Street brokers who earn their living by exploiting our ignorance about investing.

      Anyone who feels they don't know enough about investing should probably read this book. Sure beats spending a hundred grand on an MBA, doesn't it?

      New book by dying investment banker exposes the market’s biggest secret and shows you how to beat Wall Street’s best and brightest ...

      Higher Fines Encourage Seat Belt Use

      A new study says changing how laws are written and enforced can also make a difference

      Increasing seat belt usage in the United States has proved to be a slow and difficult task.

      It has taken about 30 years since the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) conducted the first seat belt and child restraint workshops in 1978 to reach 84 percent usage in 2009. In general, seat belt laws and their enforcement have received the greatest emphasis since 1984. 

      There has been less emphasis on increasing fine amounts as a means to increase usage, in spite of positive circumstantial and research evidence.

      To remedy this, Bedford Research and the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation conducted a study for NHTSA to determine the relative impact of primary seat belt laws and fine amounts on seat belt usage. The research examined changes in usage associated with past activities and estimated gains that might be expected in the future.

      Conducting the study

      The study determined the impact of various predictors on two measures of seat belt use. The first was the percentage of buckled front-seat occupants over age eight killed in passenger vehicles, as found in NHTSA's Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), which is a census of all crashes involving fatalities in the United States. Because seat belt use among the fatally injured is consistently measured, FARS use is a reliable estimate of belt use.

      The second measure was the percentage of front-seat occupants of passenger vehicles observed to be buckled up in annual statewide observational surveys conducted by each state in accordance with criteria established by NHTSA.

      Penalties for violations

      Based on information obtained from the states, penalty amounts (fines plus fees and court costs) have increased over the past decade. The sum of these charges averaged $35 in 2000 and $49 in 2008. Twenty-six states increased their total penalty by at least $5. In these states, the average penalty increased from $39 to $70. FARS use increased by an average of about 9.1 percentage points.

      In the remaining 24 states, there was a small decline (on average) in total fine-and-fee amount, from $30 in 2000 to $26 in 2008. FARS use increased by six points in these 24 states -- about two-thirds the gain experienced by the 26 states that increased their total fine plus fee assessments.

      High-belt-use states versus low-belt-use states

      States were ranked by their two most recent years of observed seat belt use (2007-2008) and placed into three groups based on these rankings. They were: "Top 10,” "Bottom 10,” and a "Middle” group of 30 states plus the District of Columbia.

      Nine of the 10 states with the highest use had primary seatbelt laws; nearly half of the middle group had such laws; and only three of the 10 states with the lowest use had primary laws. New Hampshire, among the 10 states with the lowest use, has no adult seat belt law.

      Impact of law type

      There were two time periods examined in the study: 1997-2002 -- a period of Operation Always Buckle Children (ABC) mobilizations -- and 2003-2008 -- a period of Click It or Ticket (CIOT) enforcement mobilizations.

      Primary seat belt laws (versus secondary laws) had the most consistent impact on seat belt usage across the two time periods. Primary laws accounted for 10- to 12-percentage-point increases in seat belt usage among occupants observed during daytime hours (observed use) and 9-point increases among occupants killed in crashes (FARS use).

      Higher fines were associated with higher seat belt use, particularly in the most recent time period (2003-2008). The results showed that increasing the fine amount from $5 to $25 had approximately the same effect as changing the fine from $25 to $60; both were associated with three- to four-point increases in usage in primary or secondary law states.

      A fine increase of $60 to $100 was associated with gains of two to three percentage points in belt use. Little improvement was associated with fines above $100, but there were few states with fines above this level.

      Enforcement, as reported during the two weeks of the mobilizations each year, was related to higher FARS and observed seat belt use. These measures, however, were deemed too unreliable to estimate potential gains in annual seat belt use because of reporting limitations.

      Media expenditures as reported during the two CIOT weeks were not associated with increases in usage after accounting for variations associated with laws, fines, and enforcement. Some low-use states focused on media more than actual enforcement.

      Effect on the odds of seat belt use

      The analysis also examined the change in the odds of seat belt use associated with each predictor. The odds ratio is a measure of the odds of being buckled up in any given year, divided by the odds of being buckled in the baseline year. This measure is more sensitive to relative change for states that already have high use rates.

      Primary laws (versus secondary laws) were associated with 7.9 to 26.2 percent increases in the odds of belt use. A fine increase from the median $25 to $100 was associated with 11.3 to 29.6 percent increases in belt use.


      The analyses confirmed that primary seat belt laws and fine increases were associated with higher use rates and with increases in the odds of being buckled.

      Fine amounts were consistently associated with seat belt use across the two time periods and for both FARS and observed belt use. An increase in fine level from $25 (the current median value in both primary and secondary law states) to $60 was associated with a three- to four-percentage-point increase in both FARS and observed seat belt use. Increasing a state's fine level from $25 to $100 was associated with a 6- to 7-point increase in both use rates.

      An upgrade from secondary to primary enforcement was associated with a 10- to 12-percentage-point increases in observed use and 9-point increases in FARS use. This increase is additive to the increase associated with a fine increase.

      In summary, the study found that increasing fine levels is a strategy that has potential to further raise seat belt use, in addition to primary law upgrades and high-visibility enforcement.

      Although the analyses did not find a statistically significant effect associated with media, experts believe the public needs to be aware of laws and fine changes before compliance is likely. "Publicizing fine increases is essential for maximizing their effectiveness," they conclude.

      Higher Fines Encourage Seat Belt Use A new study says changing how laws are written and enforced can also make a difference ...

      Costs for 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' Song Soar

      Items spike due to price increases for commodities, performers and birds

      Despite a sluggish economy and low inflation, the 2010 PNC Christmas Price Index surged 9.2 percent in the whimsical economic analysis by PNC Wealth Management based on the gifts in the holiday classic, "The Twelve Days of Christmas."

      According to the 27th annual survey, the price tag for the PNC CPI is $23,439 in 2010 -- $1,974 more than last year. This is the second highest jump ever and largest percentage increase since 2003 when the index rose 16 percent. A year ago, the increase was a modest 1.8 percent.

      Commodity prices surge

      "This year's jump in the PNC CPI can be attributed to rising gold commodity prices, represented by the Five Gold Rings which went up by 30 percent, in addition to higher costs for wages and benefits impacting some entertainers," said James Dunigan, managing executive of investments for PNC Wealth Management.

      Although these trends affect both indexes, the PNC CPI's surge is in marked contrast to the government's CPI, which grew a mere 1.1 percent, illustrating the difference in size of the two baskets of goods and services.

      Among the 12 gifts in the PNC CPI, only four items (Pear Tree, Four Calling Birds, Six Geese a-Laying and the Eight Maids-a-Milking) were the same price as last year.

      The 11 Pipers Piping ($2,356) and 12 Drummers Drumming ($2,552) saw modest increases -- both up 3.1 percent. However these higher costs give greater weight to the index. Lords-a-Leaping leaped eight percent to $4,766, but the biggest dollar increase this year was for the Nine Ladies Dancing, up $820, a 15 percent boost. None of these performers received a pay raise last year, and were playing catch-up in 2010.

      Birds soar

      After modest increases last year, prices for the birds flew higher in this year's index, in part due to the costs of feed as well as the availability and demand for certain feathered friends that amplified several prices. The Two Turtle Doves increased 78.6 percent to $100 and the Three French Hens surged 233 percent to $150.

      The Partridge in a Pear Tree is up 1.3 percent to $161. But the partridge alone was up 20 percent to $12 and the pear tree is identical to a year ago at $149.

      The cost of the Seven Swans-a-Swimming, which generally provides the biggest swings from year to year in the PNC CPI, rose this year by 6.7 percent to $5,600 following last year's surprising 6.5 percent drop. As the most volatile component in the index, the swans are removed to determine underlying inflation or core PNC CPI, which pushed the rate up 10 percent this year.

      As part of its annual tradition, PNC Wealth Management also tabulates the "True Cost of Christmas," which is the total cost of items given by a True Love who repeats all of the song's verses. This holiday season, very generous True Loves have to fork over $96,824 for all 364 gifts, an even more eye-popping 10.8 percent increase from last year.

      No raise for the Milkmaids

      As the only unskilled laborers in the PNC CPI, the cost of the eight Maids-a-Milking is represented with the minimum wage. They received no increase in pay in 2010 as the federal minimum wage did not rise for the first time in three years. With the minimum wage flat at $7.25 per hour, hiring the maids this year cost $58.

      Monetary policy based on PNC CPI?

      Should the Federal Reserve set policy based on the PNC CPI, given its huge jump? Not so fast, said Dunigan.

      "Typically we see more parallels between our index and the federal government's," Dunigan said. "This year, we hope, is an aberration. But let's keep in mind that we are talking about a small basket of goods and services here compared to the Consumer Price Index."

      The PNC CPI's sources include retailers, the National Aviary in Pittsburgh and the Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania Ballet Company.

      Cyber prices: the cost of convenience

      For those True Loves who prefer the convenience of shopping online, PNC Wealth Management calculates the cost of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" gifts purchased on the Internet.

      This year, the trends identified in the traditional index are repeated in the Internet version, with the core rates more than total rates. True Loves will pay a grand total of $34,336 to buy the items online. That is 9.2 percent more expensive than last year and almost $11,000 more than this year's traditional index.

      "In general, Internet prices are higher than their non-Internet counterparts because of shipping costs for birds and the convenience factor of shopping online," said Dunigan.

      Costs for ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ Song SoarItems spike due to price increases for commodities, performers and birds...

      Stores Have Profitable Black Friday But Not All Shoppers Leave Happy

      Post-Black Friday complaints becoming a tradition

      If Black Friday has become an after-Thanksgiving tradition in the retail world, complaints about the Black Friday shopping experience appear to be something of a new tradition as well.

      There were isolated reports of pushing andshoving at stores around the country, but no major incidents. And no one was killed, as was the case two years ago when a Wal-Mart employee was trampled by an early-morning crowd.

      This year, many of the complaints received at over the weekend were from disappointed Wal-Mart customers who were hoping to purchase one of the chain's advertised Black Friday specials.

      $198 laptop

      Bernadetti, of Los Banos, Calif., said she arrived at her local Wal-Mart at 6:00 pm on Thursday and was eighth in line when the doors opened at midnight. She had her sights set on a $198 laptop.

      "My husband and I were number one in the $198 Laptop group," Bernadetti told "We asked for three laptops. At that time my husband asked how many laptops were available for sale and he was told 97."

      After filing out the paperwork for the purchase, Bernadetti was told to return at 6:00 am to pick up the merchandise.

      "When we got to the area and showed our wristband we were told that they were all gone,” she said.

      Store personnel, she said, told them they had overestimated how many computers were available by two thirds.

      Amy of Bainbridge, N.Y., had a similar, recounted a similar experience at Radio Shack.

      "I was impressed with the Acer netbook sale price for Black Friday," Amy told "I was at the Norwich store as soon as they opened at 5:30am Friday morning to purchase this item."

      Sold out?

      But Amy said she didn't see any of the Acer Netbooks in the store and when she asked, she said she was told the store had already sold out.

      "The sale started today and I was there when the doors opened," she said. "How could they already be sold out?"

      Consumers who get up early and think they are playing by the rules are angry when they perceive the retailers aren't following their own rules.

      "The sign on the pallet said limit one per customer," Mike, of Milwaukee, Wis., told in a complaint about Target. "The pallet was empty. Numerous people in the checkout lanes had two or three of the items in their cart. I informed an employee and their response was 'it's not my problem'. Apparently the store cannot enforce their own rules."

      'Mac of the masses'

      Obviously, plenty of shoppers were more successful in their Black Friday purchases. In a note today, Piper Jaffrey analyst Gene Munster predicted Apple racked up huge sales of its iPad Friday, calling the tablet introduced earlier this year "the Mac of the masses.”

      Nintendo said it had a very good week last week. During the seven day period that included Black Friday, the electronics company said it sold 900,000 DS systems and 600,000 Wii consoles.

      ShopperTrak, a retail sales analyst, reports shoppers spent $10.69 billion on Black Friday, a small increase over the year before. One reason, the company said, is many retailers rolled out their holiday specials much earlier in the month.

      "Retailers were very conscious of driving traffic early in November and in doing so some might have thinned Black Friday spending a bit," said ShopperTrak founder Bill Martin.  "The reality is we have a deal driven consumer in 2010 and that consumer responded to some of the earliest deep discounts we've even seen for the holidays. Additionally, a percentage of retailers concentrated on pushing folks to their Websites with various online-only sales."

      By all accounts stores rang up profitable Black Friday sales, but there were plenty of consumers who felt they got a raw deal....

      Banks Given New Guidelines For Overdraft Coverage

      Consumers should have low-cost options, feds say

      Thanks to a change in the law, bank customers have the right to "opt in" for overdraft coverage that used to be mandatory, carrying with it hefty fees whenever a consumer exceeded their account balance.

      But even though consumers no longer have to be covered by these plans, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) is telling its member banks they must still maintain "robust" oversight of the overdraft programs for consumers who choose to remain enrolled. FDIC has issued guidance to make sure member banks comply with the rules.

      "This guidance promotes common sense overdraft programs by setting out our expectations. While many community banks already prudently manage their overdraft programs, some banks operate automated programs that lead to excessive use of these high-cost, short-term credit products," said FDIC chairman Sheila C. Bair. "When banks spot a pattern of excessive use of an automated overdraft program, they should contact their customers about a more appropriate and lower-cost alternative that better suits their needs."

      In response to concerns about automated overdraft programs, the FDIC on August 11, 2010, proposed guidance for public comment on how the banking institutions it supervises should monitor and oversee overdraft programs. The proposed guidance stemmed from both the FDIC's November 2008Study of Bank Overdraft Programsthat disclosed growing use of such programs and increases in consumer complaints related to overdraft programs.

      The FDIC said it received more than 900 written comments on the proposed guidance from financial institutions, their industry trade groups, individual consumers, consumer advocacy and public interest groups, and one member of Congress. The final guidance incorporates suggestions from commenters to refine and clarify expectations.

      The guidance won enthusiastic support from at least one consumer group.

      "Unfair transaction posting—especially the practice of reordering checks and debit card transactions to deduct the largest checks and charges first—significantly increases the number of overdraft fees customers are charged," said Michael Calhoun, president of the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL). "Customers are charged a separate fee—usually about $35 per item-for each charge that is posted to an overdrawn account. By posting the largest items first, the balance dips below zero sooner, and each subsequent, often small transaction, triggers a fee."

      Calhoun said the FDIC guidance sets a standard he thinks other federal regulatory bodies should follow.

      The final guidance provides information to assist FDIC-supervised institutions in identifying, managing and mitigating risks associated with overdraft payment programs, including risks that could result in serious financial harm to certain consumers. The guidance focuses on automated overdraft programs and encourages banks to offer less costly alternatives if, for example, a borrower overdraws his or her account on more than six occasions where a fee is charged in a rolling 12-month period.

      Additionally, to avoid reputational and other risks, the FDIC expects institutions to institute appropriate daily limits on customer costs and ensure that transactions are not processed in a manner designed to maximize the costs to consumers, such as by processing checks from the largest to the smallest. The guidance also reminds institutions of existing requirements under applicable laws and regulations.

      The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation has given banks new consumer-friendly guidelines for their overdraft protection programs....

      Don't Get Zapped While Shopping Online

      'Cyber Monday' brings a host of pitfalls, but you can avoid them

      With "Cyber Monday" now in full swing, it's important to remember the potential hazards of online shopping.

      Coined in 2005, the marketing term reflects an increase in computer-based sales on the Monday after Thanksgiving. But, the increased convenience and choice that shopping from your home computer brings, also means consumers need to take certain precautions when doing business in cyberspace.

      "This is especially important during the holiday shopping season," says Janet Jenkins, administrator of the Wisconsin Division of Trade and Consumer Protection. "Scam artists are well aware of the increased Internet activity this time of year and may be 'phishing' for your personally identifiable information."

      Protect yourself

      Before making an online transaction, make sure your computer is protected by installing a firewall along with virus and spyware protection software. These tools will help combat hackers and identity thieves. Keep in mind some programs provide greater security protections than others so, explore your options.

      While it is safest to shop from your own computer, if you need to use a public computer be certain it has encryption software to scramble the purchase information. In addition, Websites that begin with "HTTPS" are designed for payment and other sensitive transactions -- the "S" stands for secure.

      "Scammers will continue to find new ways to beat technology," added Jenkins. "Being an informed consumer is always your best bet when it comes to protecting your pocketbook and your identity."

      Online shopping safety tips

      • Know whom you are dealing with. ID thieves can create Websites that imitate and look like a legitimate business site. Don't trust a Website based solely on its appearance. Always confirm the online seller's information by looking up the business in your browser. If you're asked to provide your Social Security number, consider that a red flag. Legitimate merchants almost never require a SSN. Never give out personally identifiable information unless YOU initiate the contact and know you're dealing with a legitimate business.
      • Know exactly what you are buying. Read the fine print. Words like "refurbished”"or "close-out" may mean a product isn't what you think it is. Name-brand items with "too good to be true" prices could be counterfeits.
      • Know what it will cost. Visit other Websites for product price comparisons. Remember to figure in shipping and handling costs. Most importantly, never pay in cash! If you are the victim of fraud, the chances of getting your money back are slim to none.
      • Pay by credit or charge card. The Fair Credit Billing Act gives you the right to dispute charges under certain circumstances and temporarily withhold payment while the credit card company investigates. Some companies also offer an online shopping guarantee that ensures you will not be held responsible for any unauthorized charges made online.
      • Check out the terms of the deal. Can you return the item for a full refund? Who pays the shipping costs? When will you receive your order? Legitimate companies will spell out their refund and delivery policies. Most of the time, sellers are required to ship items -- as promised -- within 30 days after the order date.
      • Print and save records of your online transactions. This includes the product description and price, the online receipt and copies of any email correspondence. Review your credit card statements as you receive them and be on the lookout for unauthorized charges. Report any errors to your credit card company within 60 days of receiving your statement.

      Watch the auctions

      "Many of these tips also apply to purchases made through online auction sites and online classifieds," said Jenkins. "We encourage consumers to avoid doing business with unidentifiable sellers, especially those who use a 'pop up' or other ways to lure you away from the site with promises of a better deal."

      Consumers using online classifieds, such as Craigslist, are advised to deal with local sellers who you can meet in person. When making a purchase, never use wire transfer services to send money -- anyone who asks you to do so is likely a scammer. And, never give out personally identifiable information including your Social Security number and bank account number.

      According to Forrester Research, a national marketing company, online shopping could top $52 billion this holiday season. That would be a 16 percent increase over last year's numbers.

      "With more consumers doing their holiday shopping on the Internet, there are more opportunities for scammers and identity thieves," concluded Jenkins. "If you're not careful, you could get a whole lot more than you bargained for -- and, in this case, that is not a good thing."

      Don't Get Zapped While Shopping Online 'Cyber Monday' brings a host of pitfalls, but you can avoid them ...

      How to Tell if a Financial Advisor's Certificate Is Worth the Paper It's Printed on

      Some groups that train financial pros are real and some aren’t

      Anytime we look for a professional whether it's a doctor, a lawyer or a financial advisor, one of the things we tend to do is to check out all those plaques on their walls. Some tell you what schools they went to and others reveal board certifications that relate to their specialties.

      In financial services, some of the most common and prestigious are the CFAs and CFPs. These stand for Chartered Financial Analysts and Certified Financial Planners and are just two of the more than 200 other credentials available to financial professionals.

      How then can you tell if their certification is real or a great con job?

      According to the Wall Street Journal, if a financial advisor calls themselves a "certified retirement financial adviser," "certified estate adviser," "registered financial consultant," or "registered financial associate," you should be wary.

      Some of the people who help run the groups that grant these and other financial credentials have been disciplined by regulators or promote controversial sales techniques, according to examinations of court records and interviews with advisers, attorneys and regulators.

      A financial credential, or designation, is a professional title that often includes the words "certified" or "chartered." Some, including the CFP and CFA, are earned only after rigorous course work and lengthy exams. Others can be obtained more easily.

      The Wall Street Journal says there are at least 210 credentials in the financial-services industry, more than twice the number tracked by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA).

      Securities regulators say the organizations that grant credentials operate virtually unchecked, while medical schools have accrediting bodies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, and most law schools have accreditation requirements from the American Bar Association. There is no process for accrediting the groups that grant most financial designations.

      Many of the groups that train advisers are legitimate and offer students meaningful preparation in financial management. They have highly experienced teachers who must pass tough screening requirements before they are allowed to prepare advisers for careers in financial planning—and have continuing education requirements to ensure that advisers stay sharp.

      But some groups, says the Journal, have lower standards. According to the Journal, the Society of Certified Retirement Financial Advisors appointed an education chairman who had lost his state securities and insurance licenses. An advisory-board member of the National Association of Financial and Estate Planning was barred from the securities industry in his state for his alleged role in an investment blowup. The International Association of Registered Financial Consultants recently encouraged advisers to sell annuities in ways that might violate regulatory rules.

      The lesson for investors: Before entrusting your money to an adviser, do some legwork. Start by looking into advisers' records via the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority's BrokerCheck and browse data from state securities regulators and state insurance officials.

      The Journal recommends that you interview potential financial advisers as you would any other employee. Note how they describe their credentials. Ask them what percentage of the people who apply for that credential earn it, and what qualifications did their instructors in that program have?" If they can't or won't answer, that's a red flag.

      The certified-estate-adviser credential, or CEA, was created by the National Association of Financial and Estate Planning, or NAFEP, which also teaches advisers how to prepare legal documents for financial and retirement planning. NAFEP's seven-person "advisory board" includes William E. Hopkins, described on NAFEP's website as a "broker dealer" with William E. Hopkins & Associates, a Jackson, Tennessee firm that has "integrated NAFEP estate planning as a key element of the brokerage's service.

      According to the Journal, the website doesn't disclose that in 2005, Mr. Hopkins was barred from the insurance and securities industries in Tennessee for two years for his role in an investment blowup, according to a consent order from the Tennessee Securities Division. For at least six years, Mr. Hopkins sold debt instruments that purported to pay 9% annual interest, according to the consent order. The consent order said Mr. Hopkins misled investors about potential returns and safety. After the Tennessee regulators barred Mr. Hopkins, Finra ordered him to pay back $43,000 in commissions, pay a $5,000 fine and serve a two-year suspension.

      If that's not enough, the Journal charges, that some groups that grant designations might be teaching their students questionable sales techniques, too. The International Association of Registered Financial Consultants, or IARFC, grants two credentials: registered financial consultant, or RFC, and registered financial associate, or RFA.

      The June issue of its membership newsletter, the Register, featured an article called "The Ultimate CD Buster" by Matthew J. Rettick, president of Covenant Reliance Producers in Nashville. The article advised IARFC members on how to persuade investors into incurring an early withdrawal penalty on a certificate of deposit in order to buy a fixed annuity that would generate a sales commission.

      Mr. Rettick urged advisers to tell clients that they can use bonus income from the annuity to offset the penalty for early withdrawal from the CD—but didn't mention that such income is "contingent," since it may be subject to surrender charges if clients have to sell the annuity earlier than expected.

      Those impressive looking certificates on your financial advisor’s wall are not always what they seem...

      Did New Security Measures Push Passengers Over The Edge?

      Passengers may have been primed for meltdown

      The nation's airports have not been happy places since new passenger screening policies went into effect this month.

      Many passengers have objected to being subjected to full body scans, allowing a security agent to, in effect, see beneath their clothing. Others have objected to the more intimate pat downs that have been offered as an alternative.

      While passengers are angry, Transportation Security Administration screeners are bearing the brunt of the emotion. Last week the union representing screeners called on TSA to provide protection for its members, some who said they felt intimidated by passengers' hostility.

      Despite media reports, it's not exactly clear how the majority of the flying public feels about the new security measures. A poll by Zogby International found that 61 percent of those surveyed oppose the new measures, with 48 percent saying they would seek alternatives to flying in the future.

      But a USA Today/Gallup survey, conducted at about the same time, found that most people don't object.

      Intimidated screeners

      Still, it's clear that many people do. John Gage, the president of theAmerican Federation of Government Employees thinks TSA should have done a better job of preparing passengers for the new procedures.But Josh Klapow, a professor at the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB) School of Public Health, thinks airline passengers were primed for a meltdown.

      "Invasive body scanners and pat downs are the tipping point that is putting us over the edge regarding air travel,"Klapow said. "We're so frustrated by air travel in general: the cost, the inconvenience, the almost de-humanizing experience. So it's not surprising that people are rising up to object to the latest humiliations, the full body X-rays or the dreaded pat-down. It's the last straw."

      Intellectually, passengers may understand that this sort of security is important and necessary, Klapow says, but emotionally, it pushes them over the edge.

      A little civility

      So what's the solution? Since the backlash to the enhanced screening techniques largely stems from an emotional response to the long list of indignities associated with air travel, Klapow says that to restore civility to flying, we need to understand and examine the entire flying experience. It's not just pat downs; it's pat downs on top of everything else associated with modern flying.


      Photo credit: TSA

      The airport screening controversy just may have been the last straw for frustrated air travelers....

      Lawsuit Says Targeted Gmail Ads Illegal

      Suit says “scanning” violates non-Gmail users' privacy

      Have you ever noticed that the content of those ads next to your Gmail inbox are eerily similar to the email you just received?

      So has Keith Dunbar.

      The Texas resident has filed a class action lawsuit contending that Gmail, Google's vaunted web-based email service, scans users' emails and then uses those messages to decide which ads will be of most interest to the user.

      Dunbar's suit, filed in the Eastern District of Texas, says that Google's terms of service, which users are required to accept before setting up a Gmail account, "[do] not contain an acknowledgment of consent by Gmail account holders for Google to use information obtained from non-Gmail account holders' emails," and, in fact, "specifically [forbid] a Gmail account holder from using Gmail to violate the legal rights (such as rights of privacy and publicity) of others."

      Google uses "scanning technology"

      The suit quotes a Google statement titled "More on Gmail and privacy" as admitting that "users will see text ads and links to related pages that are relevant to the content of their messages," and that "Google ... uses [a] scanning technology to deliver targeted text ads and other related information."

      The suit contends that this practice, which Google says "is completely automated and involves no humans," is illegal insofar as it extends to messages sent by non-Gmail users. According to the complaint, that practice violates a federal law that prohibits an intentional interception of "wire, oral, or electronic communication."

      In a statement, a Google spokesperson said the allegations in the suit are old news.

      "Gmail -- like most Web mail providers -- uses automatic scanning to fight against spam and viruses," the statement says. "We use similar technology to show advertisements that help keep our services free. This is how Gmail has always worked."

      Latest headache for Google

      The suit marks the latest action in a year packed with privacy headaches for Google. A suit filed earlier this month says that Google's toolbar provides the search giant with "the address of every web page viewed by the user, along with information that identified the individual user," even when the user thought the feature had been deactivated.

      A suit filed in February said that Buzz, Google's attempt at social networking, violated consumers' privacy by automatically revealing user information to people they rarely, if ever, interacted with. And Google had to fight mightily to finalize a settlement concerning Google Books, after privacy advocates said the agreement gave Google too much latitude over how to use consumers' private information.

      Dunbar's suit requests the greater of $10,000 or $100 every day that the alleged violations continue, along with punitive damages and an injunction prohibiting Gmail from continuing the practice. It is being brought on behalf of everyone in the United States who sent email from a non-Gmail account to a Gmail address "from within two years before the filing of this action up through and including the date of judgment in this case."

      Lawsuit Says Targeted Gmail Ads IllegalSuit says “scanning” violates non-Gmail users' privacy ...

      Wellness At Work Reaps Big Returns

      Lower costs, greater productivity and higher morale are just some of the rewards.

      Wellness programs are smart for employees and the bottom line, a new study shows. The return on investment is sometimes as high as six to one.

      To achieve those kinds of results, employers cannot merely offer workers a few passes to a fitness center and nutrition information in the cafeteria, researchers report in the December issue of Harvard Business Review.

      The most successful wellness programs are supported by six essential pillars:

      1. engaged leadership at multiple levels;
      2. strategic alignment with the company's identity and aspirations;
      3. a design that is broad in scope and high in relevance and quality;
      4. broad accessibility;
      5. internal and external partnerships; and
      6. effective communications.

      The researchers from Texas A&M University and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center studied 10 organizations that have financially sound workplace wellness programs.

      They conducted interviews with senior executives, managers of health-related functions and focus groups of middle managers and employees -- in all, about 300 people.

      A broad range of companies -- including Johnson & Johnson, Lowe's, H-E-B, and Healthwise -- have built their employee wellness programs on all six pillars and have reaped big rewards in the form of lower costs, greater productivity, and higher morale.

      Those benefits are not easy to achieve, and verifiable paybacks are never a certainty, but the track record inspires emulation, especially when the numbers are studied, the report states.

      Wellness At Work Reaps Big Returns Lower costs, greater productivity and higher morale are just some of the rewards. ...

      Consumer Reports Lists Ten Best Black Friday Electronics Deals

      Magazine says good deals abound, but it takes some skillful shopping to sniff them out

      The folks at Consumer Reports have been poring over early Black Friday ads for several weeks now and staffers say they've found a lot of good deals.

      But some of the bargains they've uncovered on electronics might just make it worthwhile to wake up far too early and brave the consumer crowds on the day after Thanksgiving:


      In a doorbuster deal, Best Buy is selling a Sony laptop with a Blu-ray drive for $500. It includes a Blu-ray video, a subscription to a security software package, and a laptop bag. To take advantage of this early-bird deal, you need to pick up a ticket at Best Buy (they'll be doled out starting at 3 a.m. Friday morning), and quantities are limited to 10 per store.


      Best Buy will also have the HP Pavilion p6624y with a quad-core AMD processor, 8GB of memory, and a 1TB hard drive. It comes with a 23-inch monitor and a wireless printer. The Black Friday price will be $600; it's currently on the Best Buy site for $700, without the monitor and printer.

      E-book readers

      The best deal will demand an early morning. Early-birds at Best Buy can save about $50 on the Nook Wi-Fi, which is selling at $99.99 rather than its usual price of $150.

      32-inch LCD TVs

      There are a number of deals on 32-inch LCDs. So far, the cheapest Consumer Reports is aware of is the Emerson 720p set at Walmart (model LC320EM1) priced at $198.

      50-inch or larger TVs

      Walmart also will be breaking the $500 barrier for a 50-inch plasma with a $498 price on a Sanyo 720p set (DP50740); its regular retail price is $650.

      SLR cameras

      Best Buy is offering a package that bundles the magazine's highly Rated Canon EOS Rebel T2i with two lenses (18-55mm and 55-250mm zooms) and accessories (an 8GB SDHC memory card and camera bag), for just under $1,000. The bundled lenses are a plus: With an SLR generally, the more lenses you have, the better.

      Point-and-shoot cameras

      If you're shopping for a child or teen, Staples is selling the rugged Olympus Stylus Tough-3000 for $150 (originally $210). Since it's waterproof and shockproof, it should be able to withstand some common mishaps.


      Among pocket models, Best Buy has a Flip Video UltraHD "package," which includes a few accessories along with the cam, such as an extra battery pack and bag, for $120 (originally around $200, without any accessories). And Best Buy has an HD model on sale: Sony Handycam HDR-C150 for $400 (originally $500).


      For an all-in-one printer that can scan, copy and fax, the HP OfficeJet 6500 Wireless is reasonably fast, quite economical and one of just a handful of inkjets that printed excellent-quality text when CR tested it. Staples has it on sale for $79.98 (regular price: $199.98).

      Digital photo frames

      Sears has the Consumer Reports "Recommended" Pandigital PAN7000DW 6.9-inch frame on sale for $39.99, regularly $59.99. The frame has a gigabyte of memory, and an optional Wi-Fi adapter lets you get photos from your computer and specific photo-sharing sites.

      Consumer Reports Lists Ten Best Black Friday Electronics Deals Magazine says good deals abound, but it takes some skillful shopping to sniff them out ...

      Study Finds Giving Thanks has Psychological and Physical Benefits

      Researchers have uncovered a whole new reason to be thankful this Thanksgiving

      Scientists on both coasts have determined that being grateful can improve your psychological, emotional and physical well-being.

      Researchers at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York and the University of California at Davis say that adults who frequently feel grateful have more energy, more optimism, more social connections and more happiness than those who do not.

      According to studies conducted over the past decade people who maintain an attitude of gratitude are also less likely to be depressed, envious, greedy or alcoholics. They earn more money, sleep more soundly, exercise more regularly and have greater resistance to viral infections.

      Researchers are also finding that gratitude brings similar benefits in children and adolescents. In fact, children who feel and act grateful tend to be less materialistic, get better grades, set higher goals, complain of fewer headaches and stomach aches and feel more satisfied with their friends, families and schools than those who don't, studies show.

      Jeffrey J. Froh is an assistant professor of psychology at Hofstra University who has conducted much of the research with children. He says a lot of these findings are things we learned in kindergarten or our grandmothers told us, but we now have scientific evidence to prove them.

      Adding to that, Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Davis and a pioneer in gratitude research says that with the realization that one has benefited comes the awareness of the need to reciprocate.

      The research is part of what the Wall Street Journal calls the "positive psychology" movement. It focuses on developing strengths rather than alleviating disorders. Cultivating gratitude is also a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy, which holds that changing peoples' thought patterns can dramatically affect their moods.

      Gratitude can also be misused to exert control over the receiver and enforce loyalty. Dr. Froh says you can avoid this by being empathic toward the person you are thanking—and by honestly assessing your motivations.

      In an upcoming paper in the Journal of Happiness Studies, Dr. Froh and colleagues surveyed 1,035 high-school students and found that the most grateful had more friends and higher GPAs, while the most materialistic had lower grades, higher levels of envy and less satisfaction with life.

      Much of the research on gratitude has looked at associations, not cause-and-effect relationships; it's possible that people who are happy, healthy and successful simply have more to be grateful for. But in a landmark study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2003, Dr. Emmons and University of Miami psychologist Michael McCullough showed that counting blessings can actually make people feel better.

      The researchers randomly divided more than 100 undergraduates into three groups. One group was asked to list five things they were grateful for during the past week for 10 consecutive weeks. The second group listed five things that annoyed them each week and the third group simply listed five events that had occurred. They also completed detailed questionnaires about their physical and mental health before, during and after.

      Those who listed blessings each week had fewer health complaints, exercised more regularly and felt better about their lives in general than the other two groups.

      Being grateful also forces people to overcome what psychologists call the "negativity bias"—the innate tendency to dwell on problems, annoyances and injustices rather than upbeat events.

      Delivering your thanks in person can be particularly powerful. One study found that fourth-graders who took a "gratitude visit" felt better about themselves even two months later—particularly those whose moods were previously low.

      So check it out. See how you feel this Thanksgiving as you sit around the table share what you have to be grateful for and see how it makes you feel.

      Would you believe that gratitude can improve your health and wellbeing?...

      Falls By Elderly Linked to Low Sodium Levels

      Condition increases death risk by 21 percent

      The danger associated with falls increase as a person ages, but maybe it doesn't have to. What if there were ways to make the elderly less susceptible to falling down and fracturing a bone?

      A study presented this week at the American Society of Nephrology's 43rd Annual Meeting and Scientific Exposition may hold an answer. It found that older adults with even mildly decreased levels of sodium in the blood - a condition known as hyponatremia - experience increased rates of fractures and falls.

      Falls are a serious health problem for that age group. They account for about 50 percent of deaths due to injury in the elderly.

      "Screening for a low sodium concentration in the blood, and treating it when present, may be a new strategy to prevent fractures," said Dr. Ewout J. Hoorn, of the Erasmus Medical Center, Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

      However, hyponatremia does not appear to affect the risk of osteoporosis, as defined by low bone mineral testing, so more research is needed to understand the link between sodium levels and fracture risk.

      Study finds a link

      The study included more than 5,200 Dutch adults over age 55, all with initial information on sodium levels and six-year follow-up data on fractures and falls.

      "A number of recent studies suggested a relationship between hyponatremia, falls, osteoporosis, and fractures," Hoorn said.

      The authors' goal was to confirm these possible associations using prospective, long-term follow-up data. About eight percent of the study participants, all community dwelling adults, had hyponatremia.

      This group of older participants had a higher rate of diabetes and was more likely to use diuretics (water pills) than those with normal sodium levels. Subjects with hyponatremia had a higher rate of falls during follow-up: 24 versus 16 percent. However, there was no difference in bone mineral density between groups, so hyponatremia was not related to underlying osteoporosis.

      Nevertheless, the group with low sodium levels had a higher rate of fractures. With adjustment for other risk factors, the risk of vertebral / vertebral compression fractures was 61 percent higher in the older adults with hyponatremia. The risk of non-spinal fractures, such as hip fractures, was also significantly increased: a 39 percent difference.

      21 percent increased risk of death

      The relationship between hyponatremia and fracture risk was independent of the increased rate of falls in the low-sodium group. Subjects with hyponatremia also had a 21 percent increase in the risk of death during follow-up.

      Hyponatremia is the most common electrolyte disorder, usually developing because the kidneys retain too much water.

      "Although the complications of hyponatremia are well-recognized in hospitalized patients, this is one of the first studies to show that mild hyponatremia also has important complications in the general population," said Hoorn.

      Further study will be needed to clarify the mechanism by which low sodium levels increase fracture risk. In the meantime, screening older adults for and treatment of hyponatremia in older adults may be an important new strategy to prevent fractures, the authors say.

      It should also be noted that many older people consciously try to reduce sodium levels as a way to combat high blood pressure. No one should make changes to their diet, however, without consulting with their physician.

      A Dutch study finds that elderly people with too little sodium in their blood are at a higher risk of potentially fatal falls....

      Less-Wealthy People More Adept at Reading Emotions; Upper-Class People Struggle

      Study authors hope findings will help eliminate class-based stereotypes

      Upper-class people have more educational opportunities, greater financial security, and better job prospects than people from lower social classes, but that doesn't mean they're more skilled at everything.

      A new study finds lower-class people are better than upper-class people at reading the emotions of others.

      The researchers were inspired by observing that, for lower-class people, success depends more on how much they can rely on other individuals.

      For example, if you can't afford to buy support services, such as daycare service for your children, you have to rely on your neighbors or relatives to watch the kids while you attend classes or run errands, says Michael W. Kraus of the University of California-San Francisco.

      He co-wrote the study with Stephane Cote of the University of Toronto and Dacher Keltner of the University of California-Berkeley and it is is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

      One experiment used volunteers who worked at a university. Some had graduated from college and others had not; researchers used educational level as a proxy for social class.

      The volunteers did a test of emotion perception, in which they were instructed to look at pictures of faces and indicate which emotions each face was displaying.

      People with more education performed worse on the task than people with less education.

      In another study, university students who were of higher social standing (determined from each student's self-reported perceptions of his or her family's socioeconomic status) had a more difficult time accurately reading the emotions of a stranger during a group job interview.

      These results suggest that people of upper-class status aren't very good at recognizing the emotions other people are feeling. The researchers speculate that this is because upper-class people tend to more easily solve their problems, like the daycare example, without relying on others. They aren't as dependent on the people around them.

      A final experiment found that, when people were made to feel that they were at a lower social class than they actually were, they got better at reading emotions.

      This shows that "it's not something ingrained in the individual," Kraus says. "It's the cultural context leading to these differences."

      He says this work helps show that stereotypes about the classes are wrong.

      "It's not that a lower-class person, no matter what, is going to be less intelligent than an upper-class person. It's all about the social context the person lives in, and the specific challenges the person faces. If you can shift the context even temporarily, social class differences in any number of behaviors can be eliminated."

      Lower-Class People More Adept at Reading Emotions; Upper-Class People Struggle Study authors hope findings will help eliminate class-based stereotypes...

      As Online Dating Gains Popularity, So Does The Risk Of Getting Scammed

      Con-men and -women prey on lovelorn to get money, expensive gifts

      As Christmas turns into New Year's and then Valentine's Day, many single people's thoughts turn to finding love. And an increasing amount of people turn to online dating websites for help in finding their perfect match.

      As online dating becomes more popular -- Americans are expected to spend as much as $932 million on Internet dating sites in 2011 -- it also attracts a growing number of scammers eager to bilk money from unsuspecting users.

      The Federal Trade Commission warns Americans to tread carefully when entering the sometimes-murky waters of online dating, where the promise of love dupes many people into opening their wallets or giving access to bank accounts or credit cards.

      The FTC lays out a typical scenario:

      The scam artist creates a fake profile, gains the trust of an online love interest, and then asks that person to wire money -- usually to a location outside the United States.

      The warning signs you may be dealing with a scammer:

      • Wanting to leave the dating site immediately and use personal e-mail or IM accounts.
      • Claiming instant feelings of love.
      • Claiming to be from the United States but currently overseas.
      • Planning to visit, but being unable to do so because of a tragic event.
      • Asking for money to pay for travel, visas or other travel documents, medication, a child or other relative's hospital bills, recovery from a temporary financial setback, or expenses while a big business deal comes through.
      • Making multiple requests for more money. has hundreds of complaints from both men and women who encountered scammers on such popular online dating sites like,, and

      Mary Weston from San Mateo, California said that shortly after joining, she was contacted by a man who claimed to be from nearby San Ramon, California but was currently on business in the United Kingdom.  When he started calling her and asking for money, Weston knew something was up.

      After some quick investigating, Weston discovered the man was calling from Nigeria, not the U.K.  She cut off communication with him.

      "Thankfully, I did not fall for his scam, and the only damages I incurred were for changing my telephone number," said Weston.

      Unfortunately, some dating site users don't realize they're being scammed until it's too late.

      Kathleen Marana of Iron Mountain, MI signed up for and was immediately contacted by a man who claimed to work in international logging and was overseas on business. 

      "We chatted for about 2 weeks and even talked on the phone. He said he...would fly to meet me when he was done with his current job. After two weeks in Nigeria, he called me for money and said he couldn't cash his checks there. I told him to go to an international bank and stop calling me."

      Marana says the man harassed her with phone calls for three weeks until she gave in and sent him more money.

      "To make a long story short, he continued to come up with one story after another to scam more money out of me," said Marana.

      Scammers will oftentimes ask for money to be wired to them via Western Union or Moneygram. The FTC warns consumers that wiring money to someone they haven't met is the same as sending cash.  Once it's gone, it can't be recovered.

      For more information on Online Dating Scams visit, the federal government's online safety website.

      OnGuardOnline provides practical tips from the federal government and the technology industry to help you be on guard against Internet fraud, secure your computer, and protect your personal information.

      As Online Dating Gains Popularity, So Does The Risk Of Getting Scammed Con-men and -women prey on lovelorn to get money, expensive gifts...