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Netflix Supplier Complains About Comcast Fees

Pushes issue of 'Net neutrality' to the forefront

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

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.
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New Weight Watchers Plan Entices Members To Eat Healthier

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

New Weight Watchers Plan Entices Members To Eat HealthierEmphasis 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." 

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Iowa Charges Trilegiant With Consumer Fraud

Part of crackdown on negative option marketing abuses

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

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.

Complaints

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, ConsumerAffairs.com 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 ConsumerAffairs.com. "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.

 

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Social Networks Can both Help and Hurt Your Job Search

Twitter and LinkedIn can be useful in your job hunt but those party photos of you on Facebook could just as easily hurt it

What you post on social networking sites is seen by recruiters and hiring managers so make sure you portray yourself in the best possible light ...

They may be called social networking sites, but Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook could just as easily be named "first impression" job sites because that's where recruiters and hiring managers are more likely than ever before to get their first glimpse of you as a potential job candidate.

A survey of 600 human resources professionals and recruiters by the recruiting software company, Jobvite, found that 83% of them plan to use social networks to hire this year.

Job search experts will tell you that the best networking site today is LinkedIn. I can pretty much attest to that. When my colleague at Merrill Lynch got a job at UBS, I sent him a message through LinkedIn and dropped the hint, that if he ever needed any help to keep me in mind.

A couple of weeks later, he called after connecting to another colleague of ours via LinkedIn, my former boss at Merrill, who he asked what I was like to work with. He must have liked what my boss said because he hired me on the spot, without having to go through a gauntlet of interviews or jump through all those human resources hoops.

Here I was with a new job that paid me more than I ever made before without having to submit a resume, or references, or taking any personality tests.  And it happened because I was on LinkedIn.

Kevin Donlin, co-director of Guerrilla Job Search International, is quoted in U.S. News and World Report as saying, "If you're not on LinkedIn, you do not exist to recruiters." Donlin also says to make sure your bio is up to date and complete and that you have a professional-looking photo. He adds that once a comment or photo goes online, anyone might see it so don't complain about your job on Facebook or tweet when you've been drinking.

Think of these sites as where you'll be making your first impression to someone who has the power to hire you. If you're looking for a job, reach out to your contacts as well as those "special interest” groups and alumni chapters you can join on Facebook or LinkedIn. Both offer simple access to people working in your field or at companies you might like to join.

Twellow.com is the Yellow Pages for Twitter. You can search for potential networking contacts by writing job titles such as "communications manager" or "financial writer" in Los Angeles. What will come up is a list of people ranked with the most followers. Send them a tweet.

You can also connect with like-minded people by joining group chats and build relationships with potential contacts by sending them an article you think they'd be interested in. Re-tweeting is both an ego booster for the person you've re-tweeted as well as a way to connect. Another way is to simply replying to someone's tweet.

That's a recommendation from Jason Alba, CEO of job coaching website JibberJobber.com. He told U.S. News "that way you'll avoid looking desperate while you get on the radar of someone who can help you."

The trick I've learned with Twitter is that the more you help others, the more likely people are to help you. Twitter is no place for a hard sell. Give helpful information and you'll be loved. Tout yourself and you'll be loathed.

As for social networking sites, the rule is to keep it light and "social.”  When you connect to someone invite them for coffee or to chat by phone as a way of learning about them and their companies. Whatever you do, do not ask them for a job.

As an article in U.S. News Report on how to use social networking sites put it, "Make a friend before you make a sale."

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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

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

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?

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Higher Fines Encourage Seat Belt Use

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

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.

Conclusions

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.

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Costs for 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' Song Soar

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

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

photoDespite 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.

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Stores Have Profitable Black Friday But Not All Shoppers Leave Happy

Post-Black Friday complaints becoming a tradition

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

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 ConsumerAffairs.com 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 ConsumerAffairs.com. "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 ConsumerAffairs.com. "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 ConsumerAffairs.com 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."
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Banks Given New Guidelines For Overdraft Coverage

Consumers should have low-cost options, feds say

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

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 2008 Study of Bank Overdraft Programs that 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.


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Don't Get Zapped While Shopping Online

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

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."

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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

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

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.

 

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Did New Security Measures Push Passengers Over The Edge?

Passengers may have been primed for meltdown

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

photoThe 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.

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Photo credit: TSA

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Lawsuit Says Targeted Gmail Ads Illegal

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

Lawsuit Says Targeted Gmail Ads IllegalSuit 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."

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Wellness At Work Reaps Big Returns

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

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.

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Consumer Reports Lists Ten Best Black Friday Electronics Deals

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

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:

Laptops

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.

Desktops

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.

Camcorders

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).

Printers

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.

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Study Finds Giving Thanks has Psychological and Physical Benefits

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

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

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.

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Falls By Elderly Linked to Low Sodium Levels

Condition increases death risk by 21 percent

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

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.
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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 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.

ConsumerAffairs.com has hundreds of complaints from both men and women who encountered scammers on such popular online dating sites like Match.com, Chemsitry.com, and Eharmony.com.

Mary Weston from San Mateo, California said that shortly after joining Chemistry.com, 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 Match.com 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 OnGuardOnline.gov, 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.

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Many Airports Adding Healthier Meal Choices

But low-fat vegetarian options still hard to find in some cities

Many Airports Adding Healthier Meal Choices But low-fat vegetarian options still hard to find in some cities ...

With many of us likely to spend a chunk of the long Thanksgiving weekend in an airport somewhere, nutrition experts with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) are reporting that while many airport restaurants are adding healthier options to their menus, others still leave hungry travelers scrambling to find nutritious meals. 

PCRM dietitians studied 18 major airports in more than a dozen states and found that 82 percent of airport restaurants now offer at least one low-fat, high-fiber, cholesterol-free vegetarian entree -- three more than last year.

Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport received the highest score for the second year in a row, and the majority of airports surveyed increased their healthful offerings since last year. But healthful choices are still difficult to find at some airports, including Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Improvement noted

PCRM's 10th annual Airport Food Review finds considerable improvements since the inaugural review in 2001. Although some airports have lost points from year to year, the overall trend is toward offering passengers the healthful meals they need to handle the stress associated with air travel.

 In 2001, the average score was 57 percent. This score has risen 25 points to 82 percent. Detroit's airport is the decade's most improved, rising from last place in 2001 with a score of 33 percent to its current score of 96 percent.

A restaurant was rated as healthful if it served at least one low-fat, high-fiber, cholesterol-free breakfast, lunch, or dinner entree. Healthful entrees at airports covered in this report include the Berkeley Vegan Pizza at zpizza at the Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport and the Tofusion Bowl at Ufood Grill in Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. San Francisco International Airport's Harbor Village Kitchen offers a range of healthful options, including a vegetable curry and rice plate, veggie samosas, and vegetarian chow mein.

High-fiber, low-fat vegetarian foods have been shown to reduce the risk of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. A recent review published in the journal Diabetologia found that people who ate the most meat had the highest risk of type 2 diabetes. A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition linked meaty diets to weight gain and concluded that reducing meat consumption could lead to weight loss.

Results

Overall, 82 percent of the restaurants at the 18 airports examined for the report offered at least one healthful entree. Detroit remained in first place for the third year in a row. The nation's two busiest airports -- Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Chicago O'Hare International Airport -- both fell to near the bottom of this year's list.

While 12 of the 18 airports surveyed saw an increase in healthful options this year, five airports lost points. Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport was the biggest loser, with a seven point decrease from last year's score. Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport lost three points and landed in last place with a score of 67 percent.

Washington, D.C.,-area travelers looking for healthier options may want to consider flying out of Dulles International Airport, which was this year's most improved with a gain of 21 points from its 2009 score of 68 percent.

Other airports showing significant improvements include Las Vegas McCarran International Airport, which jumped 11 points from 2009, and Miami International Airport, which rose nine points.

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Oregon Sues California Modification ‘Consultants’

Big promises, few results

States continue their crackdown on companies charging big, upfront fees and then failing to produce promised help on mortgage modifications....

The State of Oregon has filed a lawsuit against a California company, accusing it of repeatedly violating Oregon's Unfair Trade Practices Act and Mortgage Rescue Fraud Protection Act.

The action accuses American Team Mortgage of charging more than $80,000 in fees from nearly three dozen Oregon homeowners in violation of Oregon law.

"Homeowners facing foreclosure need help, not false promises," said Keith Dubanevich, Chief of Staff and Special Counsel to Oregon Attorney General Kroger.

The lawsuit alleges that since January 2009, American Team Mortgage charged 32 homeowners a total of more than $80,000 in fees for mortgage loan modifications. Most of those fees were charged in advance of providing services in violation of Oregon law, the suit claims.

Poor results

The company obtained loan modifications for only a fraction of their Oregon clients, and possibly as few as two, the suit says. The state's complaint says the company solicited clients, saying it achieved successful results 95 percent of the time.

Despite American Team Mortgage's poor record of obtaining loan modifications and despite promises to refund clients it could not help, the company refunded only two of the 32 Oregon homeowners who paid advance fees for loan modifications.

By June 2010, the lawsuit alleges, American Team Mortgage effectively went out of business. Its phone number was disconnected. Mail was returned. Dozens of Oregon homeowners were left without a loan modification or a refund. At least one client lost his home to foreclosure. Others are facing foreclosure.

To protect Oregon homeowners from predatory mortgage relief scams and unscrupulous loan modification practices, the Oregon Legislature passed laws in 2008 and 2009 regulating companies involved in foreclosure counseling and loan modification services.

The lawsuit also alleges that American Team Mortgage failed to register with the state.

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Consumer Preference Is In the Genes

A new study that finds consumer preferences are often influenced by genetic inheritance

Consumer Preference Is In the Genes A new study that finds consumer preferences are often influenced by genetic inheritance ...

Genetics may be responsible for what we buy and when we buy it, according to a new study about the buying patterns of twins.

"Whether we like science fiction, hybrid cars, jazz, mustard, opera, and dark chocolate all seem to have a genetic component," says Aner Sela, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Florida, whose study will be published in the April 2011 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

"On the other hand," says Sela, "we didn't find such an effect for abstract art, body piercing, and cilantro, which people seem to either love or hate."

While previous research has shown a heritable effect for intelligence, personality, and even for divorce, drug addiction and voting patterns, Sela notes this is the first study to show genetics play a role in consumer choices. "It's interesting to know that a lot of what we want and what we do is determined by our ancestors," he says.

Twin study

Sela and Itamar Simonson, professor of marketing at Stanford University, surveyed 110 identical twins and 70 same-sex fraternal twins about their product preferences and buying patterns, such as whether they would spend $100 on necessary groceries or a pampering massage.

Similar choices were more common in identical twins, whose genetic coding is identical, than among fraternal twins, who share the same household environment but only half of their DNA.

Marketing lessons

The finding that consumer preferences are often determined by inherent factors could suggest that companies might sometimes be better advised to let consumers take the lead in expressive preferences and then react with certain products, rather than relying on marketing tactics to sway customers' buying behavior, Sela says.

"Consumer researchers have often demonstrated that consumers behave irrationally and choose inconsistently," he says. "While this is sometimes true, we show that people are not just sheep in terms of being subject to manipulative influences, but actually bring with them to the decision-making process their personalities, inherent tendencies, and innate preferences."

Decision-making styles

The findings suggest that even certain "irrational" choice tendencies may be inherent. Beyond specific product likes and dislikes, there is a genetic basis for selecting a compromise or middle option, choosing between a sure gain and a risky gamble, and favoring "vice" over "virtue" in the form of a utilitarian or hedonistic option.

These different styles of decision-making reveal themselves in a various ways when making consumer choices, Sela says. The tendency to select "vice" over "virtue," for example, might show up in using a $4 gift card for Godiva chocolates instead of a package of batteries.

"While these preliminary results can be interpreted in more than one way, we hypothesize that a predisposition for prudent behavior might be at the heart of these kinds of behavioral patterns," Sela says.

"The inclination to choose a compromise option -- selecting the middle option, going for the safe as opposed to the extreme choice, being risk-averse, preferring virtue over vice -- seem to relate to an underlying tendency to be prudent," he says. 

Prudence can encompass cautiousness, discretion, moderation, being mindful, and getting prepared, according to Sela. "In some respects, it might be represented by the distinction between 'living on the edge' versus 'living in the mainstream'."

A genetic component had not been established before in identifying a pattern for these individual differences that affect consumer behavior, Sela says. "Our research is groundbreaking with choice tendencies in general -- do I tend to be risk seeking, do I tend to be compromising, do I tend to be variety seeking -- making us really the first to show that those behaviors have a genetic basis."

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Beware Black Friday Shopping Scams

Mobs at stores aren't the only thing you have to worry about

Shoppers face a growing number of potential scams and rip-offs this holiday season....

For shoppers, Black Friday is about the biggest day of the year. It's becoming that for scammers, hopping to cash in on Americans' fixation on bargains.

Many of these scams use the Internet to lure their victims. Some are old stand-bys but some take advantage of new technology. Here are some common scam and rip-off tactics you should guard against:

'Smishing'

You may receive phishing emails that attempt to solicit personal information. But, scammers have advanced this ploy by trying to get the same information with a text a message.

Posing as a bank, con artists send text messages with a toll-free number, which is answered by a sham automated service that prompts callers to enter their account number and password.

Why does it work so well? Most people assume text messages come from trusted sources because they rarely give out their cell phone number. But, random-dialing telemarketing services can hit any cell phone number by chance.

If you receive a text about an account, check to make sure the call back number is legitimate by running a Google search or calling the institution's customer service line.

Small and frequent charges

'Tis the season to closely monitor your credit card statements, looking for frequent unauthorized charges of just a few dollars, or even a few cents. Scammers often make a series of these smaller charges to test if their victim catches them.

In some cases, if the small charges go unreported, scammers will make much larger charges thinking their target won't contact the financial institution. In other cases, con artists make these low deductions to many accounts, accruing millions of dollars.

Review your bank statement every month and carefully look at each item. Report any suspect charge within 60 days, as credit card companies are legally required to remove the charge while they investigate. If you do not report fraudulent charges, then you could be responsible for those payments.

Skimmers

This time of year, take extra precautions with your debit card. Con artists can set up skimming equipment designed to capture magnetic stripe and keypad information when you input your PIN at ATM machines, gas pumps, restaurants or retailers. By extracting this information, scammers can make counterfeit ATM or debit cards and pull cash from victims' bank accounts.

You can add a measure of security if you always process the debit card transaction as though you were using a credit card. That way, you do not have to type in your PIN and there is less liability for credit transactions in cases of fraud. Be vigilant about choosing credit at gas stations, which are notorious for skimming.

Stick with only using ATMs at banks, because consumers must use PINs to access their account. If you use an ATM that is located in a place like a shopping mall or convenience store there is a greater chance that it might have been tampered. Take note of any changes in ATMs you use regularly that might signal tampering, such as a color difference in the card reader.

Closely monitor your bank account to ensure no unauthorized charges have been made that could have resulted from skimming.

Membership Programs

With people spending more money online this season, be wary of unwanted membership programs that usually present themselves in online pop-ups and banner ads that appear when consumers make purchases from legitimate companies, such as online floral retailers.

These ads will tout offers like "$10 cash back on your next purchase," but by agreeing to the program, consumers actually sign-up for a Web discount program run by a separate company. And even though they sometimes weren't asked again for their credit card information, the unsuspecting consumers find they've been charged a fee to take advantage of the offer or inadvertently agreed to a monthly subscription.

Look out for pop-up windows that offer discounts or rewards. If you do click on the offer, make sure to read the fine print. Look at your credit card statement every month and report any unknown charge within 60 days. Check your inbox and spam folder for messages from Web loyalty programs preparing to charge your account. You might have a small window to unsubscribe to the program.

Stripped Gift Cards

When you purchase a gift card, be careful where you buy it. You are much safer buying it at a store where the cashier can place the amount of value on the card after you pay for it.

Otherwise, while a card may say it has $50, it might be stripped of its value. Scammers use handheld scanners to read the code behind the magnetic or scratch-off strip and combine that information with the card number on the front to steal the money off of the card. They place the defunct cards back on the racks for some unknowing customer to purchase.

Also, inspect the card to see if the magnetic strip appears to have been tampered with, and ask the cashier to scan the card to ensure it has money on it. Keep your receipts in case something does go awry.

Counterfeit Electronics

Fake products pose a threat to American consumers. While it is hard to see the harm in an imitation handbag, counterfeit electronics could have substandard wiring, faulty fuses, flammable plastic casings or dangerous chemicals.

When buying electronics this holiday season, consumers should look for labels verifying the product has been certified by CSA International Underwriters Laboratory. To see what a genuine label looks like, go to www.CSA -International.org and click on 'Certification Marks.'

Avoid buying fake products by checking for any misspellings on the package and the manufacturer's phone number and address. Also, ensure all listed components are in the package, including batteries, power cords and cases.

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What You Need to Know about Smart Phone Apps before You Install Them

They can contain viruses, spyware and malware that will take over your mobile phone

Check out that APP before you install it to make sure you're not getting more than you were hoping for such as viruses and malware...

Did you ever wonder where the term "killer app came from? At one time it meant an application so ingenious it killed the competition. Today, however with numerous viruses, spyware and malware infecting our gadgets, the term "killer App could take on a more negative connotation such as "that app just killed my cell phone."

With the advent of the iPhone and android, apps have become as common as texting in today's mobile world. An estimated five billion Apps have been downloaded to iPhones alone. And the Gartner research group says the average smart phone user downloads nine apps a week.

There are more than 225,000 apps in the App Store and Google's Android operating system has more than 80,000. It's a $7 billion market and it's less than three years old.

What you may not be aware of is that App developers track everything you do. They not only know all about you, but they know how you use their apps as well. "So what?" you might say. Well consider this. The app you just installed involves banking. What you thought was a legitimate nifty piece of software is actually something a malicious developer created to gain access to your account details.

John Hering is CEO of a mobile-security company called Lookout. He says Google, Apple and other vendors know which apps you bought, which you use and which you have erased from your phone. Developers and the analytics companies they employ access much more detailed data about how you use the app.

Peter Farago, VP of marketing at analytics firm Flurry, adds that they can see, for example, how often and for how long you played a game and everything you did in it. He says that all this data is invaluable to developers, who use it to improve their apps. They can also use it to build audience profiles in order to help attract ad dollars. Advertisers may be looking for gaming fans, for example, and want to target ads to people who spend lots of time using particular titles—information app developers then share with the middlemen who sell ads.

All the data that's tied to your smartphone gets circulated through a virtual system of companies. Jared Kaprove, former domestic-surveillance counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says there are no rules about what they can do with that data beyond some regulations about when it can be turned over to the government. Moreover, many of these companies have no policies for using and storing your data. That data can easily be stolen or misplaced, which can happen even at large corporations with good data-security practices.

 Kaprove adds that people aren't aware of how their data gets used and how valuable it is.  But fearing consumer concern over privacy issues, the industry is trying to be open about its use of data and allows users to opt out of having theirs collected, according to Kaprove.

Some developers don't even bother creating any useful content. They sit back and let their users do it for them. It's called crowdsourcing. For example, the app called Yelp offers free restaurant reviews. But their reviews are generated entirely by users of the app.

We're apt to download all kinds of apps without even thinking about security and that's a mistake. Anytime you download something onto your phone, you're taking a risk that it might include malware, spyware or a virus. Anyone of them is harmful. According to Smart Money, one game app hijacked Windows mobile phones and used them to place calls to Somalia, running up hundreds of dollars in phone bills.

Hering says the problem is only getting worse. His December 2009 surveys found there were four pieces of malware for every 100 smartphones. By May of this year that number it had jumped to nine.

For a development firm to be profitable it must get its offerings into Apple's App Store. An estimated two-thirds of all app downloads for smartphones are made from that store. It's easy to use, and consumers feel safe because all apps have been reviewed and checked for malware or spyware.

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Verizon Offers Faster FiOS Service

New speed said to be three times faster than regular FiOS

Verizon is rolling out a turbo-charged version of its FiOS high speed Internet service...

Verizon FiOS customers now have the option of increasing their Internet speed. The telecommunications giant has begun offering what it says is the fastest mass-market broadband service in the U.S.

The company has begun to roll out the ultra-high-speed service to the majority of the more than 12.5 million homes where FiOS is available, and will make the service available to Verizon FiOS small-business customers by the end of the year.

Verizon said its new Internet service provides three times the downloading speed previously available to FiOS customers.

"By offering the fastest mass-market Internet service in the nation, we're supporting the immediate and future speed needs of bandwidth-hungry consumers," said Eric Bruno, Verizon vice president of product management. "The new 150/35 Mbps FiOS Internet offer establishes a new benchmark for high-speed Internet in America, and paves the way for a flurry of emerging bandwidth-intensive applications to reach mainstream status."

The difference

How will consumers see the difference? Verizon says a downstream speed of 150 Mbps means consumers can download a two-hour, standard-definition movie (1.5 gigabytes) in less than 80 seconds, and a two-hour HD movie (5 GB) in less than four and a half minutes.

Downloading 20 high-resolution photographs (100 megabytes) would take less than five and a half seconds using the 150/35 Mbps service.  With the 35 Mbps upstream speed, consumers can upload those same 20 high-resolution photos in less than 23 seconds.

If you need that kind of speed, you'll pay a premium for it. Verizon says the 150/35 Mbps residential offer will be available to the majority of FiOS-eligible households, and sold as a stand-alone service starting at $194.99 a month when purchased with a one-year service agreement and Verizon wireline voice service.

Verizon will continue to offer on a stand-alone basis its next-fastest FiOS Internet speed of 50/20 Mbps, as well as its 25/25 and 15/5 speed tiers.  FiOS Internet speeds of 35/35 Mbps, 25/25 Mbps and 15/5 Mbps will continue to be available in bundled packages.

Bruno said the 150/35 Mbps tier takes advantage of Verizon's all-fiber-optic network, and will ultimately serve 18 million households. 

"Our new 150/35 Mbps offer will also support burgeoning bandwidth-intensive applications such as Internet video to TV and PC, 3D TV and movie downloads, high-definition and real-time video conferencing, and online data backup," said Bruno.

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What You Get to Keep and What You Don't in a Bankruptcy

When you file for bankruptcy protection that protection only goes so far

If you’re thinking about filing for bankruptcy you need to know what this drastic move means in terms of what you can keep and what you can’t...

Rising unemployment and reduced income has driven more than one and half million
Americans to file for bankruptcy protection this year. And with Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's prediction that it's going to take longer for the economy to recover than previously expected, we can expect even more bankruptcies next year.

People considering this drastic move need to know that in 2006 the bankruptcy laws changed making bankruptcy a less attractive alternative. Unfortunately, according to Smart Money magazine, it is the most responsible consumers who pay their mortgage on time and save for retirement that wind up losing the most in the bankruptcy process.

The American Bankruptcy Institute says nearly two thirds (65%) of those who filed for bankruptcy this year cited "income reduction” as the reason, while 42% listed "job loss” as a reason. Many chose both.

Steve Elias is a bankruptcy attorney in Lakeport, California and co-author of "How to File for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy.” In an interview with Smart Money, Elias said that bankruptcy filers who have been conscientious borrowers and consumers will often have equity in their homes, possess cars that are partly or fully paid for, and hold savings accounts designed to provide for them in the future. But there's no credit for being responsible when it comes to bankruptcy court — and the more responsible a consumer has been, the more they have for a trustee to take and sell off to pay creditors.

Your FICO credit score will also take a huge hit. Someone with a magnificent credit score of 780 will drop 240 points if they file for bankruptcy. But if your score is only 680, it will only go down 150 points due to a bankruptcy.

Two kinds

In an earlier column I wrote on bankruptcies ("Is Bankruptcy Your Personal Bailout?” ConsumerAffairs.com, October 25, 2008) I explained the two types of bankruptcies, Chapter 13 and Chapter 7, and how they worked.

A Chapter 13 bankruptcy is for someone who is trying to hold on to their assets and who also makes enough money to cover daily expenses and has something little left over to pay creditors a reduced amount. It works like this. A payment plan is set up through the court, but usually for less than the amount owed. Payments are made over a three-to-five year period, and must equal at least the amount of money creditors would have received if you filed for Chapter 7.

As for Chapter 7, it's for anyone who has no assets such as a home or car, and has just enough to possibly cover daily expenses, but nothing more for a payment plan. In Chapter 7, all non-exempt assets are sold and proceeds are given to creditors. Most debts are then forgiven.

In terms of what you can and can't keep in a bankruptcy often depends on where you live.

Homestead exemption

For example, Florida and Texas have what's known "homestead exemptions" which means your home is protected. Some states have rules governing occupancy and that you have to actually own the property. Other states only allow you to keep a home, provided you have a certain amount of equity invested in the property. There are a number of exemptions in each state that allow consumers to hold onto some assets.

One of them is a federal credit known as the "wild card” option of up to about $12,000 per person, which is available in 16 states and Washington, D.C. and can be used to help you keep items like cars or jewelry. Some states have their own wild card options, but they're far less generous. There are also assets that bankruptcy trustees aren't interested in taking because they won't yield profits to pay creditors, such as a home or car that you owe more on than it's worth.

Key assets

There are five key assets that might be protected in bankruptcy.

 1. The first is your home. But as I said, it all depends on where you live and the equity you have in your house. In Florida you can keep up to 160 acres outside of city limits and up to half an acre and a home in cities. Texans can protect up to 200 acres of rural property or up to 10 acres in the city. And in general, if a home is worth less than the mortgage balance, you can keep it as long as you stay current with the mortgage payments.

If you have equity in your home, most states offer an exemption, such as money from the bankruptcy trustee's sale of the home that stays with the homeowner. But over that amount, every penny of a sale is applied to outstanding debts and paying the trustee. In California, for example, the equity exemption is up to $175,000. Other states are far less generous: In Ohio, the state exemption for a home is only $45,600 if married or up to half that for singles. In Tennessee, the exemption is just $12,500 for singles and up to twice as much for couples.

2.      Next, tax-exempt retirement funds such as 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts (IRAs), are out of reach from creditors. IRAs are protected up to about $1.17 million per person. Howard Ehrenberg, a bankruptcy attorney and member of the Chapter 7 Panel of Trustees for Central District of California, says bankruptcy trustees view these accounts skeptically and will flag suspicious actions like dumping cash and investments - which are usually not protected in full in bankruptcy - into retirement plans. If you get caught trying to protect assets in that way you risk losing some of that amount.

3.      Whether you can keep your car varies from state to state as well. Usually, if you owe more than the car is worth you can generally keep it, as long as payments stay current. Free-and-clear car owners can keep a car if it's worth less than the state exemption, but drivers who have a car loan and some equity in their car can have their vehicle seized and sold, and recoup only their equity up to the exemption. Delaware and Nevada grant the most generous exemptions for cars, each up to around $15,000. In the 16 states that follow the federal exemptions, including Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the federal car exemption is just up to $3,450, but bankruptcy filers can also to dip into the federal "wild card” of up to roughly $12,000 to keep the vehicle. Married couples who jointly own the car can claim a federal exemption of up to $30,900. One of the strictest states is Florida, where the exemption is capped at $1,000 and there's a wild card option of up to $2,000 per person, assuming the couple hasn't claimed a homestead exemption.

4.      The fourth asset you can keep is a term life insurance policy. Whole-life insurance policies on the other hand are considered an investment vehicle. Depending on the state, there could be exemptions - Florida protects the entire policy, other states only protect a fraction. And in Ohio, life insurance policies remain intact when the beneficiary is a dependent; otherwise, there's no exemption, and the state's wild card is around $1,075 per person.

5.      Finally, a college savings plan such as a 529 plan may be exempt but it depends on a number of factors. If a 529 plan is less than two years old, protection is limited to $5,000 and creditors can take what's been saved beyond that. It's the same with college savings plans known as a Coverdell account. After that two-year period, the plan is safe, as long as the person filing for bankruptcy is not the beneficiary or if the beneficiary is not the child or grandchild. For example, if the bankruptcy filer is the beneficiary, that money can be used to pay creditors.

 

 

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'Pay For Play' Scandal Engulfs Better Business Bureau

Los Angeles chapter allegedly gave "A" rating to non-existent business that paid its dues

'Pay For Play' Scandal Engulfs Better Business Bureau. Los Angeles chapter allegedly gave "A" rating to non-existent business that paid its dues....

photoBowing to pressure from Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) has agreed to stop awarding rating points to businesses that pay dues to the organization.

The BBB also said it would "launch an immediate investigation" into an ABC News report that its biggest local chapter - the Los Angeles BBB - sold memberships to non-existent businesses that immediately received an "A" rating.

The ABC report of the alleged "pay for play" scheme said that "A+" ratings were only given to businesses that paid an accreditation fee, while "F" grades were routinely given to businesses that declined to join the BBB and pay dues.

The Los Angeles BBB is by far the largest of the 108 chapters in the U.S. It brought in $6.2 million in accreditation fees in 2008, the ABC News report said, and paid its president, William Mitchell, an annual salary of $409,490.

Mitchell is credited with devising the letter grade system to replace the "satisfactory/unsatisfactory" rating the BBB had used previously. The ABC News report said Mitchell has testified that his office employed over 30 sales representatives who earned a 45 percent commission for selling first-year memberships to business owners.

For his part, Blumenthal expressed concern that the BBB lacks sufficient resources to verify the information used for its ratings, which many consumers rely on when making purchasing decisions.

"I am pleased that the BBB is heeding my call to sever ratings from dues -- but more needs to be done," Blumenthal said. "Pay-to-play -- or its perception -- is unacceptable and unconscionable, as the BBB has rightly recognized. Cash can no longer inflate BBB ratings, as happened under the old system."

The BBB's executive committee approved the changes last week and said it would make a series of changes to its operations. In a statement, the organization said:

  • the BBB ratings system will no longer give additional points to accredited businesses because of their accredited status. BBB will continue to issue ratings based on the other 16 ratings factors currently used.

  • Immediately, BBB will make available on its website a streamlined process for receiving complaints on BBB sales practices, and will implement procedures for investigating each complaint.BBB will conduct a review of its process for accrediting businesses, and, as soon as possible, make changes that will apply system-wide.BBB will engage an independent third party to assist in its review process.

  • BBB will conduct a review of its process for accrediting businesses, and, as soon as possible, make changes that will apply system-wide.

  • BBB will engage an independent third party to assist in its review process.

"For nearly 100 years, the BBB has stood for public trust, and we are taking these steps to maintain that trust," said Steve Cox, president and CEO, Council of Better Business Bureaus. "Given the feedback, we feel it is our duty to take immediate steps to address the concerns raised, and enhance our ability to help consumers easily and quickly find trustworthy businesses."

Blumenthal said the changes, while admirable, left open the possibility that businesses would mislead consumers by providing inaccurate information to the BBB.

"At the very least, the BBB has an ethical -- and perhaps legal -- obligation to clearly and prominently inform consumers of the severe and significant limitations of its rating system," Blumenthal said.

"The BBB cannot rely on the word of businesses about licenses, state laws or other information; objective and independent confirmation is vital to accurate ratings."

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Administration, GOP May Collide Over Net Neutrality

Republicans warn regulators not to act unilaterally

Reports that federal regulators may announce Net neutrality rules this week could set up a White House - GOP showdown....

While the lame-duck Congress grapples with some unfinished business, the Federal Communications Commission may be preparing a major push to implement Net neutrality policies before the end of the year.

Various media reports late last week suggested the FCC is readying an announcement this week that it will impose rules to prevent Internet service providers from favoring one provider's content over another. The Financial Times reports that industry executives fully expect the new regulations before the new Congress is seated.

That has set off some Congressional Republicans, who are generally opposed to the Net neutrality concept. They appealed last week to the White House to wait until next year to address the issue.

Equal footing

Net neutrality refers to the principle that Internet content providers should have equal access to the Internet should suffer no restrictions on content, sites or platforms that may be attached. Network operators, such as AT&T, have objected to that principle, saying they have borne the cost of building and maintaining the network and should be allowed to control the amount of traffic traveling through it.

In April a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, DC ruled the FCC lacks the authority to impose Net neutrality regulations on Internet providers and operators of broadband networks.

The unanimous finding overturned the FCC's cease and desist order against Comcast, which had imposed measures to slow traffic to what it considered heavy users. The Court said the FCC, in issuing the order, failed to cite any specific law passed by Congress. In effect, the judges found that the federal agency could not impose restraints on Internet providers without the backing of Congress.

No Congressional action

With Republicans controlling the House in 2011, it may be unlikely that Congress will provide that backing. In fact, with Democrats controlling the White House and Congress for nearly two years, Net neutrality legislation hasn't gotten very far. President Obama has consistently supported Net neutrality and his choice of Julius Genachowski to head the FCC was seen as an additional statement of support, since Genachowski was known to be a strong proponent of the concept.

Before the November elections changed the political landscape in Washington, lawmakers were proceeding on a Net neutrality bill authored by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA).  That bill managed to gain the support of some of the industry's major players, but Republicans remained opposed.

Hoping to head off a unilateral move by the FCC, 18 Republican members of Congress have fired off a letter to Genachowski, asking him not to impose Net neutrality rules.

 "Reigniting the network neutrality debate will only distract us from other work and further jeopardize investment, innovation, and jobs,” the letter said.
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The Cheapest Cars to Insure Are Not Always the Cheapest Cars to Buy

According to a study by InsWeb.com a car’s sticker price is only part of what goes in to determining insurance costs

One expense you should consider when buying a car is how much it’s going to cost to insure...

When you buy a car, whether for cash or with monthly payments, one cost you should consider has nothing to do with those fancy options or dealer rip-offs. And that's how much the car you're about to buy is going to cost you to insure. Let's just say that a cheap sticker price doesn't always translate into cheap insurance.

A recent study by the online website that compares insurance providers, InsWeb.com, found that the cost of car insurance is based on a number of factors, including:

  • The age and driving record of the driver
  •  A combination of purchase price and a model's loss history
  •  An automobile's safety and security features
  •  A record of the model's involvement in insurance claims

That means a car that has a history of expensive liability and comprehensive claims will cost more to insure.

According to InsWeb.com, the cheapest vehicles to insure are the Kia Sedona, Mazda's Mazda5, Ford Escape, Hyundai Santa Fe and Mercury Mariner.

On the other hand, those vehicles topping the list of most expensive to insure are the Acura ZDX, Audi TTS, Audi A5, Cadillac Escalade and the Chevrolet Corvette.

InsWeb compared car-insurance rate quotes for more than 400 models requested by customers between January and September for 2010 model-year vehicles.

Brad Cooper, InsWeb's senior vice president of operations, says the least-expensive cars to buy often are not the cheapest to insure since they're commonly used by younger drivers. Instead, he adds that minivans tend to be the cheapest to insure because of their family-oriented drivers, while sports cars are usually the most expensive to insure.

Other cars that are inexpensive to insure are the Chrysler PT Cruiser, Ford Explorer, Subaru Outback, Kia Optima, and the Chevrolet Equinox.

Among the more expensive cars beyond what we've already mentioned are the BMW Z4, Lexus SC, Jaguar XF, Cadillac STS, 10 Dodge Challenger and the BMW 128i.

The most critical reasons that a car are more expensive to insure are generally the value of the vehicle and the vehicle model's loss history. A vehicle's value directly impacts what an insurance company will need to pay out in the event of a total loss. The loss history reflects a specific model's record of involvement in insurance claims. A model that has a history of expensive liability and comprehensive claims will cost more to insure.

Because driver behavior has such a strong influence on the incidents that cause claims, a model's loss history is directly impacted by the individuals who drive it. That's why the lowest-priced cars available are not necessarily the least expensive cars to insure. Younger drivers often drive inexpensive vehicles, and younger drivers tend to be involved in more insurance claims. Along those same lines, sports cars are generally driven by individuals who want to drive fast, and speed is a factor in many claims.

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Government Takes Aim At Foreclosure Relief Scammers

New rule makes it easier for struggling homeowners to spot a scam

New federal rule requires foreclosure rescuers to provide results before they get paid....

From now on, if you have a business offering to help struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure, you don't get paid until that homeowner has a written offer from their lender that the deal you negotiated is acceptable.

It's the result of a new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rule and is part of the government's effort to weed out the scammers who have, for the last several years, preyed on the growing number of people losing their homes.

"At a time when many Americans are struggling to pay their mortgages, peddlers of so-called mortgage relief services have taken hundreds of millions of dollars from hundreds of thousands of homeowners without ever delivering results," FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said. "By banning providers of these services from collecting fees until the customer is satisfied with the results, this rule will protect consumers from being victimized by these scams."

The FTC's Mortgage Assistance Relief Services (MARS) Rule is aimed at bogus operations that falsely claim that, for a fee, they will negotiate with the consumer's mortgage lender or servicer to obtain a loan modification, a short sale, or other relief from foreclosure. Many of these operations pretend to be affiliated with the government and government housing assistance programs. The FTC has brought more than 30 cases against operations like these, and state and federal law enforcement partners have brought hundreds more.

What it means for homeowners

One of the most important aspects of the new rule is the way it helps identify a scammer. From now on, if a company offers to help a struggling homeowner avoid foreclosure, but requires a fee to be paid in advance, it clearly identifies the company as illegitimate. No homeowner should have any conversation with a company that asks for payment in advance.

The  new rule also requires mortgage relief companies to disclose key information to consumers to protect them from being misled and to help them make better informed purchasing decisions. In their advertising and in communications directed at individual consumers, such as telemarketing calls, the companies must disclose that: 

  • they are not associated with the government, and their services have not been approved by the government or the consumer's lender;
  • the lender may not agree to change the consumer's loan; and
  • if companies tell consumers to stop paying their mortgage, they must also tell them that they could lose their home and damage their credit rating.

Companies also must explain in their communications to consumers that they can stop doing business with the company at any time, can accept or reject any offer the company obtains from the lender or servicer, and, if they reject the offer, they don't have to pay the company's fee. The companies also must disclose the amount of the fee.

Lawyers are generally exempt from the rule, but they must meet three conditions. They have to be engaged in the practice of law, they must be licensed in the state where the consumer or the dwelling is located, and they must comply with state laws and regulations governing attorney conduct related to the rule.

To be exempt from the advance fee ban, attorneys must meet a fourth requirement - they must place any fees they collect in a client trust account and abide by state laws and regulations covering such accounts.
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What Will Air Travel Be Like This Thanksgiving Holiday?

Some passengers may protest new screening measures

The long lines at security checkpoints last week and a planned protest against tough screening measures may be bad news if you plan to fly this week....

Thanksgiving week is traditionally the busiest week of the year for air travel. With newly installed security measures at major airports, what can travelers expect in the way of lines or delays?

As this traveler-posted video at Chicago's O'Hare airport last week suggests, the new security measures, requiring all passengers to pass through full body scanners or submit to a pat-down, have slowed things down a bit.

The wrinkles may have gotten worked out last week so that the process is smoother this week, but you might not want to count on it. Many in the traveling public have objected to the revealing body scans and intimate pat-downs, and at least one group have proposed a protest at the security gates this week to bottle-neck the process.

Organized opt-out campaign

A group of protestors who have launched the website wewontfly.com have urged travelers to "opt-out" of the body scans this week, forcing Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners to conduct more time-consuming pat-downs.

"Should you decide to opt out, you must be aware that the TSA will perform a pat down instead of subjecting you to the WBI/AIT, AKA porno-scanner," the wbsite advises. "The TSA may try to pressure you into submitting to the scanners .You are not required by law to submit to imaging, however, many TSA employees may attempt to intimidate, coerce or insist that it is required."

The site, which also urges consumers not to fly, as a way of protest, does not identify the individuals or groups responsible for it.

Meanwhile, Flyers Rights, a consumer group formed in response to passenger strandings at airport tarmacs, has also entered the fray, calling on government transportation and safety officials to consult with consumer groups on the issue.

Ignored

"Airline Passengers have so far been ignored in this process," saidKate Hanni, Director of Flyers Rights. "Thus far, Secretary (Janet) Napolitano and Administrator (John) Pistole have taken meetings with airline executives, hotels, pilots unions, and flight attendant unions, but not a single meeting with the people who pay the money to fly. How is that possible or right?"

TSA has remained busy in the last week dealing with the uprising and has thus far remained firm in its stance that the new screening measures are necessary. The agency has also addressed what it calls a number of "myths" about the process that have circulated on the Internet in recent days.

For example, the TSA Blog said it is a myth that all children receive pat-downs when they pass through security. The agency responded after video showed up on the Internet of a shirtless young body receiving a pat-down from TSA personnel.

In this case, TSA said the boy received the pat-down after he triggered the metal detector. The agency said that is the only type of instance where children receive the intimate frisking. http://www.tsa.gov/travelers/index.shtm

TSA also denies that the pat-downs are invasive.

"Only passengers who alarm a walk through metal detector or AIT machine or opt out of the AIT receive a pat-down," the agency said on its blog. "For this reason, it is designed to be thorough in order to detect any potential threats and keep the traveling public safe. Pat-downs are performed by same-gender officers and all passengers have the right to a private screening with a travel companion at any time."

But according to various media reports over the weekend, the backlash is not dying down. How that affects Thanksgiving week travel remains to be seen, but passengers should probably give themselves a lot of extra time and prepare for the worst.

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Ground Zero Workers Reach Settlement

Agreement comes after years of protracted litigation, false starts

Ground Zero Workers Reach Settlement Agreement comes after years of protracted litigation, false starts...

As the ten-year anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks approaches, progress finally seems at hand: a recognizable building rises from a long-vacant lot in Lower Manhattan; waterfalls flow for the first time into the footprint of the former North Tower; and, this week, the vast majority of rescue workers accept a settlement providing for payouts relating to health-related claims rooted in work done in the months and years following the attacks.

Just over 95 percent of the over 10,000 rescue workers agreed to the settlement, bringing an end to years of high-profile and contentious litigation. The agreement provides for a total payout of between $625 million and $815 million.

Workers will receive payments of between $3,250 to $1.8 million, depending on the nature of their injuries. The lower figure represents the payout to workers who have suffered no actual injury but must live with the fear that they will eventually get sick; the higher figure correlates with plaintiffs who can show a connection between a loved one's death and that person's time at Ground Zero.

Ranking injuries

The agreement divides workers into four "tiers,” with the fourth tier representing the most severely injured workers. Those workers, who account for more than half of the plaintiffs, will get around 94 percent of the payment.

Under the settlement, the amount each plaintiff will receive is based, in part, on how closely that person's condition can be linked to exposure to the toxins present at the site. As a result, plaintiffs with asthma stand to receive a bigger payout than some plaintiffs with cancer, since the former is more strongly "linked” to the contaminants.

"A very good deal"

U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein, who is overseeing the litigation, in June called the settlement "a very good deal," and encouraged workers to opt in rather than continue litigation. The remark carried extra weight in light of the fact that Hellerstein had thrown out a previous agreement in March, ruling that it provided too much to attorneys and too little to plaintiffs.

That settlement would have resulted in aggregate payments of between $575 million and $657 million, with lawyers taking what Hellerstein called "a very large bite" -- nearly one-third of the total settlement.

Following that ruling, attorneys reached an agreement that provided $125 million more for plaintiffs while reducing lawyers' fees to 25 percent. Hellerstein found those terms acceptable, calling the agreement "imperfect but fair.”

In order for the settlement to take effect, at least 95 percent of workers needed to opt in; the final count, as of Friday, was just a hair over that, at 95.1 percent.

Lawyers, mayor satisfied with result

Judge Hellerstein wasn't the only one pleased with the outcome of the litigation.

"We negotiated for over two years to achieve this settlement for our clients, which we truly believe is the best result, given the uncertainty of protracted litigation," Paul Napoli, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told The Wall Street Journal.

And, in a statement, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg called the settlement "a fair and just resolution of these claims, protecting those who came to the aid of this city when we needed it most."

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What You Need to Know About the Job Interviewing Process

A veteran career coach exposes some myths about job interviews

There’s more to the job interviewing process than meets the eye so here are some things you should know before your next interview...

You can forget everything you've ever read in books about job interviewing. Whatever they say, today it's different. There may be one or two tips worth remembering but overall, if you go into an interview thinking that you're going to experience what you've read about in some book, be prepared for a shock.

It almost seems as if the hiring process has turned into the "wild west.” You would expect that those responsible for deciding who gets hired would at least know what they're doing. You expect them to be prepared, to know about your qualifications from your resume or even a pre-interview and to be able to answer questions about the company you might have.

It's no wonder we have unemployment verging on 10%. How does anyone get hired anymore when the people doing the hiring at out to lunch?

Veteran career coach David Couper tells Fortune magazine this month that job applicants should just toss their expectations out the window. And when it comes to the interview process, he's identified ten areas you need to know about before your next interview.

Couper calls them the ten myths of the interview process. Here they are in reverse order of importance, something like Dave Letterman's top ten lists.

Always prepared

So, job interview myth number ten is that the interviewer is always prepared. Actually, says Couper, the person you're meeting with is probably so overworked and stressed out about having to hire someone that they have no idea what they should do or say.

Couper's advice? Make it easy for him or her and just start talking about yourself.  Tell them why you're a great fit for this job. It will become obvious they haven't read your resume, so just recap it briefly, and then tie it to the job you want. Tell them what they everything they need to know, so they won't have to come up with more questions.

Thoroughly trained

As for myth number 9, most interviewers have been trained to conduct thorough job interviews. Right. Human resources professionals get training in job interviewing techniques, but not the average hiring manager or the person ultimately responsible for choosing the best candidate. They don't have a clue and usually just wing it.

Couper says it's going to be up to you to make up for their vague questions. So you need to be specific with two or three concrete examples of particular skills and experiences that highlight why they should hire you.

Refreshments?

Myth number 8 is that it's only polite to accept an interviewer's offer of refreshment. Forget it. They're just trying to be courteous when in reality they'd rather not have to bother. So unless the beverage in question is right there and won't take more than a second to get, just say, no, thank you.

Couper says he once interviewed a job candidate who said she would love a cup of tea, which, he recalls, "meant I spent half the allotted interview time looking for a tea bag, heating water, and so on. It was irritating."

Couper adds that another good reason decline a drink offer is that if the interview is long, you don't want to need a restroom halfway through the conversation.

References

Myth number seven is that interviewers expect you to hand over references' contact information right away. This almost never happens. Couper says to hold off until you're specifically asked for references and even then you can delay a bit by offering to send the information in an email in a day or two.

There are two good reasons for not rushing it. Couper says that first you may not know until the end of the interview who would be the best reference for this particular job. He says if you get a sense that the interviewer cares most about teamwork, you want to choose someone who can attest to your skills in that area. A reference who can only talk about some other aspect of your work is not going to help.

Second, you want time to prep your references, by gently coaching them on what you'd like them to say before the employer calls them.

The right answer

The next myth, number six, is a major one -- there's a right answer to every question an interviewer asks. Again, there often is no right or wrong answer.

Sometimes how you approach your answer is far more important than the answer itself. Couper says that if you're presented with a hypothetical problem and then asked to solve it, try to think of a comparable situation from the past and tell what you did about it.

Short answers

Myth number five is that you should always keep your answers short. Couper says here's where doing lots of research before an interview really pays off.  The more you've learned about the company and the job beforehand, the better able you are to tell why you are the right hire.

Don't be afraid to talk at length about it, partly because it will spare the interviewer having to come up with another question for you and partly because "in a good interview, you should be talking about two-thirds of the time. A colleague went to an interview recently and went on and on about the company and how he didn't know how it would fit in but because he knew so much about the firm, he was hired anyway.

Good looks

Myth number 4 -- if you've got great qualifications, your appearance doesn't matter. Actually, your physical attractiveness probably plays a bigger part in the hiring decision than your qualifications. Besides, it's nearly a given that everyone who gets to the interview has been pre-screened and is assumed qualified.

Couper says people care about your looks, so make the absolute most of what you've got. Even if you're not drop-dead gorgeous, it's impossible to overestimate the importance of looking healthy, energetic, and confident.

Five years

Myth number three is that when asked where you see yourself in five years, you should show tremendous ambition.

Unfortunately, the five-year question is a common one, but it's also very tricky. Couper says interviewers want you to be a go-getter, but they're also afraid you'll get restless if you don't move up fast enough. So you want to say something that covers all bases, like, 'I'd be happy to stay in this job as long as I'm still learning things and making a valuable contribution."

You might also consider turning the question around and asking, "Where do you see me in five years?" Sometimes the answer to that is "we'd expect you to keep doing the same thing we hired you to do.” There, you've just spotted a dead-end job.

Job still open?

The second greatest job interview myth is that if the company invites you to an interview that means the job is still open.

If only this were true. Unfortunately, some hiring managers schedule an interview because you have an interesting resume and they just want to meet you. Other times the job may never have existed in the first place.

This is some companies' way of doing market research on the cheap. They ask you about your current or recent duties, your pay scale, and so on, to get information for comparison purposes. Couper says that another possibility is that they may already have a strong internal candidate in mind for the job but just want to see if they come across someone better.

If you get an interview through a networking contact, he adds, "an employer may interview you simply as a courtesy to the person who referred you, if that is someone they don't want to disappoint."

But even if the job opening is phony, it's still worth going. Couper says that sometimes they discover you're a good fit for a different opening that really does exist. You never know where an interview might lead.

Biggest myth

And finally, the number one myth about job interviewing is that the most qualified person gets the job. You probably already guessed that one.

In at least one crucial respect, a job interview is like a date: Chemistry counts. Couper says that a candidate who is less qualified, but has the right personality for the organization and hits it off with the interviewer, will almost always get hired over a candidate who merely looks good on paper.

So, what can you do if you suspect you're not knocking an interviewer's socks off? At the end of the discussion, you'll probably be asked if you have any questions. Couper suggests that if you sense the person has reservations about your style ask what the ideal candidate for this job would be like. Then think fast.

Try to talk about how you fit that profile, addressing any concerns the interviewer might have. This could be your last chance to seal the deal. Just keep in mind that there may not be anything you could say that would make a difference if the chemistry isn't there.

Now you know how actors and actresses feel when they audition. Job interviewing is the same thing. It's your audition for the role of candidate. So don't take it personally if you don't get it. It has nothing to do with you or your qualifications.

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It's Time To Review Your Medicare Drug Plan

Seniors should check the federal website each year for the best Medicare drug plan

Medicare drug plans are always changing so even if you have one, it might be worth your while to go through the process again ...

If you're a senior over 65, you've probably gone through the painful process of enrolling in what's called a Medicare Part D drug plan. It's complicated and confusing and something you probably never want to have to go through again.

Well guess what?  You should and for two important reasons. First, you're getting older and the medication you're taking may have changed. Plus, there are different plans available next year, and a different plan could save you a lot of money.

And now is the time to do it while we're still in the open enrollment period which lasts until December 31.

Financial columnist and author Terry Savage says seniors should check the federal website www.Medicare.gov each year for the best Medicare drug plan. They can do it by using the "planfinder tool."

In a recent column for the Chicago Sun Times, Savage writes extensively about why seniors should bit the bullet and go through the process of selecting a Medicare Part D plan annually. She says they could be taking different medicines or dosages or the drug plan they now have could be changing its prices in January for the drugs they take.

She also points out that there is new competition among those who offer these plans -- most notably Wal-Mart who has partnered with Humana to create a program that promises savings of as much as 30% for the average senior's total cost.

For seniors who take a lot of medicines, they already know about the "doughnut hole" which is what they call the point where you have to pay for your drugs before the catastrophic coverage provided by the government kicks in.

Savage says that this year, as part of the health reform bill, if you fall into that doughnut hole category, you'll receive a discount on branded drugs. Again, that makes it important to figure out which plan has the lowest overall cost.

According to Savage, here's what you should know.

You must sign up for Medicare Part D -- even if you don't take prescription medicines. It's required. If you don't sign up, then when you do need coverage you'll always pay higher premiums. The only exceptions to the need to sign up are those seniors with "equivalent" or "creditable" drug coverage from an employer's health care plan or retiree health plan. Your employer will give you a letter attesting to that coverage. Also, those many who receive medical benefits from the VA can get equivalent coverage.

There are two ways to get Part D: You can buy Part D coverage from the private Prescription Drug Plan that is the least expensive based on the drugs you take. Each of these plans has its own monthly premium, deductible and co-pay per prescriptions above the deductible level. That's why you need to use the tool at Medicare.gov to figure out which plan is overall the least expensive for your situation.

Or you can sign up for a Medicare HMO, known as Medicare Advantage. Then you won't need a separate Part D plan because all of your drugs will be covered by your HMO.

Of the 27.7 million people enrolled in Medicare Part D drug plans, one-third are covered by Medicare Advantage plans.

There is assistance for low-income beneficiaries: If your income is below $16,245 and you have few other assets, you qualify for assistance.

As complicated as all this sounds, Savage says it's easier than you think. She says the only way to find the best and cheapest plan is to use the "planfinder tool" at www.Medicare.gov -- or call for help at (800) Medicare. All you need is your Medicare number and the names and dosages of all your prescriptions. Just enter that information, and the computer will generate a list of PDPs that are available in your neighborhood, with the least expensive on top, based on the drugs you're currently taking. You'll want to compare not only the monthly premium but the overall cost for the year before making a choice.

As for the Humana/Wal-Mart RX plan, Savage says you might be able to save an average $450 a year. And you can access the Medicare tool right from the Wal-Mart website.

If you're an adult child or grandchild, or neighbor of a senior, Savage encourages you to take the time to sit down with him or her and go through the process. In fact, she adds, you could probably do this while you're waiting for the turkey to cook on Thanksgiving. It will make them very thankful, says Savage.  

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Texas Takes Action Against Lubbock Mortgage Firms

Firms allegedly took advantage of owner-financers

If you are providing owner financing on a property sale, a new Texas case provides a cautionary tale....

The state of Texas has filed suit against two Lubbock, Tex., mortgage companies it says exploited home sellers who were providing owner financing to homebuyers.

Owner financing has become more prevalent in the last two years because people who want to buy homes have a more difficult time qualifying for a mortgage. If the seller of the home owns it free and clear, they are free to "hold the note” themselves, collecting monthly payments from the buyer.

It may be one way to expedite the sale of a property, but it means it could be 20 or 30 years before the seller receives all the money from the sale. While that may be acceptable for some, sellers who are near retirement age will often need the money soon.

Enter a mortgage company, which offers to buy the note from the seller for a lump sum cash price. In many cases, the offer is about half what the mortgage is worth. The mortgage company buys the note, then collects the monthly payments, which include principle and interest.

There is nothing wrong with such an arrangement as long as the seller fully understands the terms, and that's where Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has a problem with the two Lubbock firms. He says the companies and their owners orchestrated a complex scheme to defraud the original property owners.

Deceptive Trade Practices Act

The enforcement action names Enhance Mortgage Corp. and Templeton Mortgage Co. Inc. as defendants and charges both with violating the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

According to court documents filed by the state, Enhance and Templeton primarily targeted former property owners who had previously self-financed the sale of their property to independent purchasers.

According to state investigators, the defendants contacted former property owners who lacked knowledge about real estate transactions and offered to buy their owner-financed mortgages. Court documents indicate the defendants would offer to pay landowners up-front cash in exchange for their owner-financed mortgages—and therefore the right to receive monthly mortgage payments. Some of the former property owners were retirement-aged. State investigators believe they were targeted because they were likely to be enticed by the promise of up-front cash rather than a 20 to 30-year payment stream. 

Under Texas law, it is generally legal to purchase and sell interests in real property, including the rights of owner-financed mortgages. However, the defendants are charged with perpetrating a complex scheme that relied upon obscure contractual provisions to defraud former property owners with little or no financial or legal expertise.

Key appraisal

For example, one former property owner had previously sold his property to a buyer, who still owed $76,500 under the terms of the owner-financed mortgage. The defendants offered to pay the former property owner $30,000 cash in exchange for the right to receive the full $76,500 in future mortgage payments.

Once the former property owner agreed to the $30,000 offer, the defendants drew up a contract and had the underlying property appraised. Unbeknownst to the former property owner, the contract provided that the defendant's cash purchase price would be reduced if the property's appraisal amount was less than the purchase amount—despite the fact that the mortgage would still yield the same amount of money regardless of the property value. 

After learning that he would be paid the lower appraised amount—rather than the original $30,000 agreed-upon price—the former property owner attempted to reject the deal. In response, the defendants filed a lawsuit against the former property owner in an attempt to force him to accept the lower amount of money.

At one point, defendants Enhance and Templeton had as many as 75 lawsuits on file in the Lubbock County District Court. According to state investigators, the scheme orchestrated by Enhance and Templeton was specifically designed to defraud individuals who lacked knowledge or experience about complex real estate transactions.

The state's enforcement action alleges that the defendants' dealings with the former property owners were not only deceptive—but that they violated Texas property laws. 

In addition to restitution for affected property owners, the State is seeking civil penalties of up to $20,000 for each violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.
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Guess What Rental Car Company Consumers Like Best?

And it’s not Hertz or even Avis even though Avis says it’s still trying harder

The latest J.D. Power and Associates study of customer satisfaction says you like Enterprise better than other car rental companies...

We all have our favorite rental car company and it can be based on a number of factors from price to the kind of cars they offer and to the way we're treated when we go there, so don't get bent out of shape if yours didn't make the cut in J.D. Power and Associates latest study of customer satisfaction with airport car rentals.

After studying the customer evaluations of more than 11,500 car rental desks at airports around the country, J.D. Power and Associated have named an Enterprise car rental counter at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta the best.

In fact, Enterprise has ranked highest in customer satisfaction among rental car companies for a seventh year in a row. J.D. Power and Associates measures the responses from both business and leisure travelers who react to such factors as costs and fees, the pickup and return process and the rental car itself.

The second place slot went to National, followed by Hertz in third.

The researchers also found that customer satisfaction in general with renting cars at airports has returned to pre-financial crisis levels and that the number of reported problems fell from 11% to 9% from a year earlier.

Stuart Greif, vice president of the travel practice at J.D. Power and Associates, says the increase in customer satisfaction is due to improved operations by rental car companies as the market has started to come back, reversing the impact of downturn-related cuts.

 

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Nearly One Million Consumers Getting Refunds From LifeLock

Part of nationwide settlement

The Federal Trade Commission has begun distributing refund checks from LifeLock, part of a settlement involving the FTC and 34 states....

LifeLock, an identity theft security firm, has begun mailing checks to customers nationwide, part of a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and 34 states.

The settlement was reached in March of this year, following an investigation into the company's allegedly misleading advertising practices. 

LifeLock sells identity theft services that past advertisements allegedly claimed were "guaranteed" to protect consumers' personal information and prevent criminals from using it to open accounts in consumers' names. Some ads even included LifeLock CEO Todd Davis' social security number in an effort to demonstrate Davis' confidence in the services offered.

The FTC and various state attorneys general charged that the fraud alerts that LifeLock placed on customers' credit files protected only against certain forms of identity theft and gave them no protection against the misuse of existing accounts, the most common type of identity theft. It also allegedly provided no protection against medical identity theft or employment identity theft, in which thieves use personal information to get medical care or apply for jobs.

Not absolute

Even for types of identity theft for which fraud alerts are most effective, LifeLock does not provide absolute protection, the investigation found. They alert creditors opening new accounts to take reasonable measures to verify that the individual applying for credit actually is who he or she claims to be, but in some instances, identity thieves can thwart even reasonable precautions.

New account fraud, the type of identity theft for which fraud alerts are most effective, comprised only 17 percent of identity theft incidents, according to an FTC survey released in 2007.

The FTC's complaint further alleged that LifeLock also claimed that it would prevent unauthorized changes to customers' address information, that it constantly monitored activity on customer credit reports, and that it would ensure that a customer always would receive a telephone call from a potential creditor before a new account was opened. The FTC charged that those claims were false.

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum says more than 70,000 LifeLock checks will be mailed to consumer in his state. Consumers will each receive a check for $10.87 and will have 60 days to cash the checks. The distribution represents all consumers who were eligible for refunds and closes out the period for filing refund claims.

In addition to the refunds, LifeLock is prohibited from overstating the risk of identity theft to consumers, including whether a particular consumer has become or is likely to become a victim.

LifeLock is also prohibited from misrepresenting that its services can protect against or eliminate the risk of identity theft or that it will constantly monitor activity on each of its customers' consumer reports.

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Darvon and Darvocet Being Pulled From American Market

The painkilling medication poses a risk of fatal heart abnormalities

Darvon and Darvocet Being Pulled From American MarketThe painkilling medication poses a risk of fatal heart abnormalities...

Xanodyne Pharmaceuticals Inc., the maker Darvon and Darvocet -- the brand version of the prescription pain medication propoxyphene -- has agreed to withdraw the medication from the U.S. market.

The move comes at the request of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has also informed the generic manufacturers of propoxyphene-containing products of Xanodyne's decision and requested that they voluntarily remove their products as well.

Risk of heart problems

The FDA sought market withdrawal of propoxyphene after receiving new clinical data showing the drug puts users at risk of potentially serious or even fatal heart rhythm abnormalities. As a result of these data -- combined with other information, including new epidemiological data -- the agency concluded that the risks of the medication outweigh the benefits. 

"The FDA is pleased by Xanodyne's decision to voluntarily remove its products from the U.S. market," said John Jenkins, M.D., director of the Office of New Drugs in FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER). "These new heart data significantly alter propoxyphene's risk-benefit profile. The drug's effectiveness in reducing pain is no longer enough to outweigh the drug's serious potential heart risks."

Doctors notified

The FDA is advising health care professionals to stop prescribing propoxyphene to their patients. Anyone currently taking the drug should contact his or her health care professional as soon as possible to discuss switching to another pain management therapy.

Propoxyphene is an opioid used to treat mild to moderate pain. First approved by the FDA in 1957, the drug is sold by prescription under various names both alone (e.g., Darvon) or in combination with acetaminophen (e.g., Darvocet).

New information

Since 1978, the FDA has received two requests to remove propoxyphene from the market. Until now, the agency had concluded that the benefits of propoxyphene for pain relief at recommended doses outweighed the safety risks of the drug.

In January 2009, the FDA held an advisory committee meeting to address the efficacy and safety of propoxyphene. After considering the data submitted with the original drug applications for propoxyphene, as well as subsequent medical literature and postmarketing safety databases, the committee voted 14 to 12 against the continued marketing of propoxyphene products.

In making this recommendation, the committee noted that additional information about the drug's cardiac effects would be relevant in weighing its risks and benefits.

European precedent

In June 2009, the European Medicines Agency (EMEA) recommended that the marketing authorizations for propoxyphene be withdrawn across the European Union. A phased withdrawal of propoxyphene is underway.

In July 2009, the FDA decided to permit continued marketing, but required that a new boxed warning be added to the drug label alerting patients and health care professionals to the risk of a fatal overdose. In addition, the agency required Xanodyne to conduct a new safety study assessing unanswered questions about the effects of propoxyphene on the heart.

Further review

The agency now has reviewed the data from that study, which show that, even when taken at recommended doses, propoxyphene causes significant changes to the electrical activity of the heart. These changes, which can be seen on an electrocardiogram (EKG), can increase the risk for serious abnormal heart rhythms that have been linked to serious adverse effects, including sudden death.

The available data also indicate that the risk of adverse events for any particular patient (even patients who have taken the drug for many years) is subject to change based on small changes in the health status of the patient, such as dehydration, a change in medications, or decreased kidney function.

"With the new study results, for the first time we now have data showing that the standard therapeutic dose of propoxyphene can be harmful to the heart," said Gerald Dal Pan, M.D., M.H.S., director of the Office of Surveillance and Epidemiology, CDER. "However, long-time users of the drug need to know that these changes to the heart's electrical activity are not cumulative. Once patients stop taking propoxyphene, the risk will go away."

Xanodyne is based in Newport, Ky.

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The Nation’s Largest Banks Are Making It More Difficult for Some Potential Homeowners to Get a Mortgage

Wells Fargo and Bank of America have raised the minimum credit score required on FHA-insured loans

With the rate of home ownership at a ten year low, two of the nation’s largest banks have just made even more difficult to get a mortgage...

 The rate of home-ownership in this country is at a ten-year low according to the Census Bureau, primarily due to a rise in the rate of foreclosures. And now the fading dream of owning a home may have to be put on hold a little longer, at least for some Americans, as two of the nation's largest lenders tighten their standards on loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).

According to Bloomberg, Wells Fargo and Bank of America have raised the minimum required credit score on FHA-insured loans that they will buy to 640 from 620, which is far beyond what the FHA requires. That may not seem like such a big deal but it is for the 6.3 million Americans whose FICO scores just so happen to fall within that range.

FHA loans account for one in five of all home purchases and recently imposed minimum credit score requirement of 500 for most loans and 580 for loans that had smaller down payments of between 3.5% and 10%. Before then there was no minimum credit score for an FHA loan, but it was just that sort of lax oversight that contributed to the sub-prime mortgage mess.

As you may or may not know, credit scores as configured by FICO, range from 300 to 850. They're based on data such as whether borrowers have missed debt payments, balances on their credit cards relative to borrowing limits, and the length of their credit history.

Requiring a 640 credit score will eliminate as many as 15% of all FHA borrowers. FHA commissioner David Stevens says the hardest hit will be "minorities and any borrowers in communities hardest hit by the recession. In an interview with Bloomberg, Stevens said "we need to find a better way to provide access to these families who are being cut out simply because lenders are putting arbitrary overlays on top of our requirements.”

The increase in minimum credit scores by Bank of America and Wells Fargo have prompted smaller lenders to follow suit. Quicken Loans, which is the ninth-largest lender, has ended most of its FHA lending to borrowers with scores below 640. JPMorgan Chase, the third-largest lender, had already been generally requiring credit scores of at least 640 on FHA loans even before Wells Fargo and Bank of America raised their minimums.

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'New Password' Phishing Scam Email Targets Facebook Users

Email claims attached file contains 'new password' but actually contains info-stealing Trojan

New Password Phishing Scam Email Targeting Facebook Users Email claims attached file contains "new password" but actually contains info-stealing Trojan...

If you receive an email claiming to be from Facebook Support, telling you your password has been changed and the only way to see your new one is to download an attached .zip file, DO NOT download the file. It's yet another Facebook phishing scam.

The email has been arriving in Facebook users' inboxes this week. The subject line and content of the email vary slightly, perhaps in the hopes of throwing off as many unsuspecting users as possible.
 
The subject line reads: "Facebook Service. Your password is changed. ID510"

The body of the email reads:

"Dear client!
A spam is sent from your Facebook account. Your password has been changed for safety.

Information regarding your account and a new password is attached to the letter.

Read this information thoroughly and change the password to a complicated one.

Thank you for your attention,
Facebook Service."

In our email, the .zip file is called "Facebook_document_Nr0845.zip" although it could be named something slightly different in other emails.

But whatever it's called, that attachment is not your new password. It's a Trojan horse virus.

Graham Cluley of Sophos Security thinks hackers could be taking advantage of a recent Facebook bug that inadvertently disabled hundreds of valid accounts earlier this week.

"Reportedly many of the complaints against Facebook users were that they were using an 'inauthentic' name, and they were asked to upload a government-issued ID (such as a passport), ensuring that their full name, date of birth, and photograph were clear," said Cluley.

"You can understand why many Facebook users would be nervous at the prospect of doing such a thing, especially when their Facebook account had not committed any breach of the social networking site's terms and conditions."

The gaffe, according to Facebook was an attempt to weed out spambot profiles. Since most spambot profiles typically contain pictures of sexy women and are "friends" with mostly men, many real women with valid profiles got locked out, too.

Facebook claims to have fixed the problem, but as late as yesterday evening, complaints about being locked out of the social networking site were coming in to ConsumerAffairs.com.

photo

This is not the first password phishing scam showing up in Facebook users' emails.

Earlier this year, CNET.com reported of a similar scam email making the rounds, also containing a .zip file the user was urged to download.

The attachment contained a password stealing virus that targeted Windows computers and had the ability to access any username and password combination used on the computer, not just the login credentials for Facebook.

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Instant Redemption Opportunities Lure Loyalty Program Customers

However, consumers must exercise caution to avoid the unscrupulous

Instant Redemption Opportunities Lure Loyalty Program Customers However, consumers must exercise caution to be taken in by the unscrupulous ...

Loyalty programs are powerful marketing tools for credit card companies, supermarkets and restaurants, but how do consumers choose one program over another?

Mintel Compermedia, a provider of direct marketing information, did a little research on that topic. It found that instant redemption opportunities -- like cash back at the register -- were an incentive cited by almost half (47 percent) of consumers that could potentially entice them to use a particular loyalty program more than others.

Consumers are similarly attracted to relatively generous cash back opportunities -- an option that would be the deciding factor for 36 percent of respondents. On the other hand, consumers are somewhat disenchanted with airline miles. Only seven percent of those surveyed say a program that offers airline miles would be an effective incentive to choose one over another. These consumers tend to be in the higher income groups.

"In any sector that utilizes loyalty marketing, loyalty programs are fast becoming a very important part of the relationship with the customer," says Susan Menke, vice president and behavioral economist at Mintel. "It seems that now is the time to focus on adding or improving loyalty programs to help engage customers and maintain and even grow their relationship with the post-recession consumer."

What next?

So, once they've chosen a rewards program, what do consumers want to see more of? Sixty-one percent of respondents say lower overall costs for merchandise they would have purchased anyway is an important attribute of a loyalty or rewards program. Getting merchandise or taking trips that they wouldn't normally be able to take was deemed important by 25 percent of consumers.

"Loyalty program members are quite often the most profitable customers for marketers, and those who use loyalty programs tend to be more brand-loyal," adds Menke. "By personalizing redemption opportunities and offering easy to redeem savings, companies can lure and retain more customers."

Twenty-four percent of those surveyed say they actively examine credit card offers in order to compare rewards programs, while 10 percent have switched to a different primary credit card in the past because of a better rewards program.

Caveat

It is important to keep in mind that playing on a consumer's loyalty or affinity is a favorite tactic of scam artists.

In Kentucky, a trusted Bible teacher allegedly bilked the faithful out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

 In a recent column, ConsumerAffairs.com's Jan Yager quoted pointers from Tom Ajami, co-author with Bruce Kelly, of "The Financial Serial Killers," cautioning potential investors to be leery of finding an investment adviser through an affinity group -- your church, synagogue, or other house of worship, your country club, or some other shared association.

Ajami noted because that financial adviser is part of your affinity group, you are more likely to let your guard down. You do not scrutinize this new person as much as you should or need to.

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Prime Mortgage Foreclosure Rate At Record High

Rising unemployment beginning to affect foreclosure rate more than subprime loans

There was some encouraging news in the latest report on mortgage delinquencies, but also cause for concern....

At first the foreclosure wave was made up of subprime mortgages. People who couldn't really afford houses were given mortgages with very low introductory rates that adjusted several points higher a couple of years later.

If foreclosures were limited to that group, the crisis might not be as big as it is. But unfortunately, the foreclosure tsunami has rolled on to engulf a lot of homeowners with prime mortgages.

The evidence is contained in the latest mortgage delinquency report from the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA). In many respects, the report is encouraging. The percentage of loans on which foreclosure actions were started during the third quarter was 1.34 percent, up from the previous quarter but lower than the third quarter of 2009.

The percentage of loans in the foreclosure process at the end of the third quarter was 4.39 percent, down from both the previous quarter and the same period a year ago. The seriously delinquent rate, the percentage of loans that are 90 days or more past due or in the process of foreclosure, was 8.70 percent, again, a decrease from both the previous quarter and the third quarter of 2009.

Mixed signals

That suggests that things are improving. However, the report also reveals that the foreclosure starts rate increased for all loan types and the foreclosure starts rate for prime fixed loans in particular set a new record high in the survey, as more loans entered the foreclosure process.

"Most often, homeowners fall behind on their mortgages because their income has dropped due to unemployment or other causes,” said Michael Fratantoni, MBA's Vice President of Research and Economics.

Although the employment report for October was relatively positive, the job market improved only marginally through the third quarter. While there was a small improvement in the delinquency rate, the level of that rate remains quite high, according to Fratantoni. 

"As we anticipate that the unemployment rate will be little changed over the next year, we also expect only modest improvements in the delinquency rate,” he said.

Foreclosure paperwork mess

Fratantoni said the foreclosure paperwork issues announced by several large servicers in late September and early October are unlikely to have had a large impact on the third quarter numbers, but may well increase the foreclosure inventory numbers in the fourth quarter of 2010 and in early 2011.  The foreclosure inventory rate captures loans from the point of the foreclosure referral to exit from the foreclosure process, either through a cure like a modification, a short sale or deed in lieu, or through a foreclosure sale. 

The servicers that halted foreclosure sales temporarily may show higher foreclosure inventory numbers in the fourth quarter of 2010 and in early next year than would otherwise have been the case.  Any drop in foreclosure sales over the next few quarters may actually reduce the inventory of homes on the market, with almost four million properties currently listed.  However, these foreclosed homes are likely to come on the market in the medium term, so it is only a delay rather than a change in the underlying economics.

"One of the most important trends in terms of differences across products is the change in the composition of the market, with a rapidly shrinking pool of subprime and prime ARM loans, and a significant increase in the number and proportion of FHA loans,” Fratantoni said. "Prime fixed and FHA loans currently make up almost 78 percent of loans outstanding and these loan types now account for more than half of the foreclosures started in the quarter, compared to 39 percent a year ago.”
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College Grads Could See Improved Job Market in 2011

But don't expect a signing bonus

It has been extremely tough for new college graduates to find jobs lately, but a new survey offers a bit of hope....

Timing is everything. College grads entering the job market in 1999 often found a multitude of offers from businesses flush with cash and rapidly growing. Needless to say, that's not so much the case these days.

But there may be hope for the current crop of college seniors. The Michigan State University's 2010-11 Recruiting Trends report projects a slightly better job market next year. Many large corporations are expected to end hiring freezes and small, fast-growth companies continue helping reshape the economy, researchers say.

Overall hiring is expected to increase three percent, with bachelor's-level and MBA-level hiring both surging 10 percent, said Phil Gardner, director of MSU's Collegiate Employment Research Institute, which conducted the survey of some 4,600 employers.

Geographically, the Great Lakes region, which took the brunt of the recession, will see a robust 13 percent increase in bachelor's-level hiring, which is tops in the nation, Gardner predicts. The region consists of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.

But the good news should be taken with a word of caution, Gardner adds. An up-tick in job growth is simply the first step out of a very deep hole, and hardly represents a return to the heady economic days of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

"The national economy is certainly not returning to its previous high production base,” Gardner said. "And even though the economy has shown early signs of sustained recovery, the overall job market has remained relatively anemic.”

Who's doing the hiring?

From an industry perspective, hiring will be driven by a core group of employers in manufacturing, professional services, large commercial banking and the federal government, the annual survey found.

Gardner said smaller banks that didn't receive federal bailout money will continue closing their doors and slashing positions. And unlike the projected growth in federal government hiring, state governments and colleges and universities could see a drastic reduction in hiring, he said.

While mid-size companies, with 500 to 3,999 employees, will continue shedding positions, Gardner said large companies plan to hire 114 bachelor-level employers per company next year.

That's good news for graduates - but only if they are prepared and start working toward a position early in their college careers, said Kelley Bishop, MSU's career services director. That means making inroads with a potential employer while still in school.

Typically, Bishop said, large corporations now hire about 50 percent to 75 percent of new employees from their own intern pool.

Among the fast-growth companies (nine to 100 employees), hiring is expected to increase 19 percent, the survey said.

The new economy

"These fast-growth companies in many ways represent the new economy - that bold employer that can adjust quickly, that sees a niche and runs with it,” Bishop said. "This is an important group for our students getting jobs.”

Other details of the report:

  • Hiring is expected to decline for those with associate, master and professional degrees, with professional-degree hiring seeing the biggest drop at 13 percent. The professional category includes law, medical and veterinary degrees.
  • Ph.D.-level hiring, on the other hand, is expected to increase 5 percent.
  • Hiring of engineering majors appears sluggish, with the exception of computer science and information technology students. Demand should be very strong for IT workers.
  • The Northeast, Southeast and Pacific Northwest could see a much weaker expansion of jobs than the Midwest.
  • For the past two years, starting salaries have remained stagnant for college graduates.

"Remember the words 'signing bonus?'” Gardner asked. "Don't expect to hear them again anytime soon.”

Some 36 percent of all companies said they'd consider any major for a position - an all-time high.

"Most employers are out there are looking for the best candidate they can find, regardless of major,” Gardner said.
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FDA Wants To Decaffeinate Alcoholic Drinks

Agency gives four manufacturers 15 days to respond to warning letters

FDA Wants To Decaffeinate Alcoholic Drinks. Agency gives four manufacturers 15 days to respond to warning letters....

Caffeinated alcoholic beverages may be going the way of Joe Camel. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned four companies that make malt liquors containing caffeine that it considers the caffeine to be "an unsafe food additive."

The letters went to four companies: Charge Beverages Corp., New Century Brewing Co. LLC, Phusion Projects LLC (which does business as the Drink Four Brewing Co.), and United Brands.

The caffeinated malt beverages referenced in these warning letters are

  • Core High Gravity HG Green

  • Core High Gravity HG Orange

  • Four Loko

  • Joose

  • Lemon Lime Core Spiked

  • Moonshot  (This product is labeled as "premium beer with caffeine")

  • Max

The FDA said the manufacturers have failed to show that the direct addition of caffeine to their malt beverages is "generally recognized as safe" by qualified experts.  Rather, there is evidence that the combinations of caffeine and alcohol in these products pose a public health concern.

"Consumers should avoid these caffeinated alcoholic beverages, which do not meet the FDA's standards for safety," says Joshua M. Sharfstein, M.D., FDA's principal deputy commissioner. 

The agency has given the firms 15 days to respond to the warning letters and then may proceed to court to stop their sale. In addition, other alcoholic beverages containing added caffeine may be subject to agency action in the future if scientific data indicate that the use of caffeine in those products does not meet safety standards.

A troubling mix

The FDA said that the problem with the drinks is that caffeine can mask sensory cues that people may rely on to determine how intoxicated they are. This means that individuals drinking these beverages may consume more alcohol -- and become more intoxicated -- than they realize. 

At the same time, caffeine does not change blood alcohol content levels, and thus does not reduce the risk of harm associated with drinking alcohol. 

Studies suggest that drinking caffeine and alcohol together may lead to hazardous and life-threatening behaviors.  For example, serious concerns are raised about whether the combination of alcohol and caffeine is associated with an increased risk of alcohol-related consequences, including alcohol poisoning, sexual assault, and riding with a driver who is under the influence of alcohol.

Malt versions of premixed alcoholic beverages come in containers holding between 12 and 32 liquid ounces. Some may also contain stimulant ingredients in addition to caffeine.  Their advertised alcohol-by-volume value is as high as 12 percent, compared to standard beer's usual value of 4 to 5 percent.

These alcoholic beverages are available in many states in convenience stores and other outlets. They often come in large, boldly colored cans comparable in size to "tall" cans of beer -- or in containers resembling regular beer bottles.

States approve

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden called the FDA's action "a significant and necessary step forward in removing these dangerous products from the market."  Wasden was one of several state attorneys general who urged the FDA to take action against the drinks.

As a result of action by the state AGs, MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch have agreed to stop producing caffeinated alcohol beverages but smaller manufacturers have stepped in to fill the gap, producing drinks with alcohol contents as high as 12 percent. 

Four Loko was blamed for the hospitalization of 23 students at Ramapo College in New Jersey and to the hospitalization of nine students after a party Central Washington University.  Both incidents happened in October and the drink was subsequently banned from both campuses.

The Michigan Liquor Control Commission banned all alcohol-infused energy drinks earlier this month.

Thorough investigation

FDA's action follows an examination of the published peer-reviewed literature on the co-consumption of caffeine and alcohol, consultation with experts in the fields of toxicology, neuropharmacology, emergency medicine, and epidemiology, and a review of information provided by product manufacturers. FDA also performed its own independent laboratory analysis of these products.

"FDA does not find support for the claim that the addition of caffeine to these alcoholic beverages is 'generally recognized as safe,' which is the legal standard," said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, Principal Deputy Commissioner. "To the contrary, there is evidence that the combinations of caffeine and alcohol in these products pose a public health concern."

Dangerous drinks

Experts have raised concerns that caffeine can mask some of the sensory cues individuals might normally rely on to determine their level of intoxication. The FDA said peer-reviewed studies suggest that the consumption of beverages containing added caffeine and alcohol is associated with risky behaviors that may lead to hazardous and life-threatening situations.

The agency said the products named in the warning letters are being marketed in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). Each warning letter requests that the recipient inform the FDA in writing within 15 days of the specific steps that will be taken to remedy the violation and prevent its recurrence.

If a company does not believe its products are in violation of the FFDCA, it may present its reasoning and any supporting information as well.

If the FDA believes that the violation continues to exist, the agency may pursue an enforcement action that could include seizure of the products or an injunction to prevent the firm from continuing to produce the product until the violation has been corrected.

The agency's action follows a November 2009 request to manufacturers to provide information on the safety of adding caffeine to their products.

Positive step

FDA says it is aware that on November 16, Phusion Projects, LLC -- the maker of Four Loko -- announced its intention to remove caffeine and other stimulants from its drinks, and calls the announcement "a positive step."

But the agency notes that it has not yet heard officially from the company about this announcement, including how quickly it will remove present product from circulation and how quickly it will reformulate its product.

Says it will work with Phusion the other manufacturers to assure their products meet safety standards.

---

This story includes reporting by James Limbach.

 

 

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Three Strategies To Combat Declining Credit Scores

Consumer Reports Money Adviser says you don’t have to surrender

Three Strategies To Combat Declining Credit Scores Consumer Reports Money Adviser says you don’t have to surrender...

Due to the recession, consumer credit scores are declining, and since April 2008, approximately 1.2 million people have fallen out of the top credit-scoring tier of 800-850.

Continuing unemployment, falling home values, shrunken investment portfolios, and excess borrowing have made debt repayment more difficult for many consumers.

"Banks tie borrowers loan qualifications and interest rates to credit scores, and many have reset their 'subprime' score thresholds to 660 from 600 before the recession," said Noreen Perrotta, editor, Consumer Reports Money Adviser (CRMA).  "Declining scores are an unpleasant fact of life for many in this recession."

Consumer Reports Money Adviser offers the following three strategies to help consumers fight back:

Shop harder for credit

One thing the recession hasn't changed is consumer choice. You're likely to find that your credit score will have a varying impact on the rates that different lenders might charge you, so it's worth it to do some work to find the best deal.

Big savings can be found by shopping around for the best rate on an auto loan. Car loans can be all over the board for the same credit score. Diligent shoppers can knock two to four percentage posts off the cost of an auto loan. That can be worth $890 to $1,780 over the 48-month term of a $20,000 loan.

Shopping might also save you as much as one percentage point on an adjustable-rate or jumbo mortgage. That can be worth $113,000 over the 30-year life of a $500,000 mortgage.

Find cheaper insurance

Another possible cost of a declining credit score is higher auto and home insurance premiums. Most insurers now base a major part of their premium calculations on a consumer's credit-based insurance score, a close cousin of the credit score. Almost all states allow that use.

The impact of a reduced insurance score varies because different insurers use different methods to calculate scores and convert them into premiums -- all of which are kept secret from consumers. If your insurer hiked your rate because of your score, CRMA's experts advise shopping for a lower premium somewhere else. Start by checking if your state insurance department provides rate comparisons here to find a link to your state's agency. Also consider forming a relationship with an independent insurance agent, who can periodically check rates for a range of carriers.

Improve your score

There are steps you can take to improve your credit score and keep it from moving in the wrong direction including:

  • Fix errors. Your score can be hurt by inaccurate information on your credit reports. So regularly check them by requesting a free copy each year from each credit-reporting bureau.
  • De-leverage. If you can manage it, paying down your credit balances is one of the most effective ways to improve your score. The reason is that less debt owed reduces your credit utilization -- the amount of your total debt as a percentage of your available credit lines. The closer your revolving debt gets to your credit limits, the more your credit score suffers. So try to keep your credit card balances low.
  • Don't close old credit accounts. It might be tempting to dump your credit-card company if it reduced your borrowing limit or slapped you with sky-high interest rates or unfair penalty fees. But closing a card account reduces your total credit line while the total debt on all your cards might remain the same. That increases your credit-utilization level, which depresses your score. If the account is old, closing it will also affect your score because a long credit history is a plus.
  • Get help sooner rather than later. If you're struggling to keep your head above water, the sooner you get things back in order, the better. Your score will probably take a negative hit, but it will be temporary, and each passing month after that your score will gradually recover if you stay on the right track. A credit counselor can set you up with a five-year repayment plan with more favorable terms than you might be able to arrange on your own.  Seek out reputable, nonprofit agencies that employ trained and certified counselors and members of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies or the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
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Hulu Plus Officially Launches at $7.95 a Month

Begins service with a price cut

Hulu LLC, the video streaming website, has officially launched its Plus service at a cost of $7.99 a month....

Hulu, the TV streaming site, has launched its long-awaited Hulu Plus, offering subscribers unlimited viewing of current season television shows over the Internet for a monthly fee.

The company is offering a free one-week trial, with a subscription cost of $7.95 a month after that. It has been offering a free trial since June, with a stated subscription cost of $9.99 a month. The actual launch price amounts to a 20 percent discount.

Hulu began in March 2007 as an independently operated video content website. Major content producers, like  NBC Universal, News Corp., and The Walt Disney Company share in the ownership of the company.

The site offers a free selection of TV shows, clips and movies, designed for viewing on PCs, TVs, mobile phones and tablets. Hulu's selection of premium programming is provided by more than 225 leading content companies, including FOX, NBC Universal, ABC, Lionsgate, MGM, National Geographic, Paramount, A&E Television Networks, PBS, and Warner Bros. Television Group.

Until now, Hulu users have only been able to access older episodes of TV shows. Episodes from the current seasons aren't available until at least the following season. That changes with Hulu Plus, the new pay service.

"Hulu Plus gives you exclusive access to every episode, all season long, of Glee, Modern Family, House, and dozens of other popular shows - some featuring full series runs - from ABC, Fox, NBC, and more,” the company says on its website.

As with the basic service, you can watch programming on your TV, mobile device or computer. Subscribers will be able to stream episodes instantly in 720p HD to a supported device.

Increasingly, viewers with high-speed Internet connections have opted out of cable TV and satellite TV services in an effort to save money. Instead, they watch video content using the Internet.

The missing ingredient, of course, has been access to the most recent shows on the broadcast networks. Hulu has supported its free service through the use of advertising, but the Wall Street Journal reports some investors have "viewed that business model as a disappointment.”

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iPhone Customers Stand to Benefit From Lawsuit Settlement

Class action took on AT&T's allegedly illegal taxes

iPhone Customers Stand to Benefit From Lawsuit SettlementClass action took on AT&T's allegedly illegal taxes...

Late last week, a swath of AT&T smartphone customers received text messages letting them know that a recent class action settlement may put some extra money in their pockets.

The settlement applies to AT&T customers who bought smartphones or mobile data services between November 1, 2005 and September 7, 2010. Users who were charged taxes, fees, or surcharges for internet access are eligible to receive a refund after March 2011, when the settlement is slated for final approval.

The lawsuit was filed as a nationwide class action, with one plaintiff representing each state, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. The complaint alleged that, while AT&T's customer agreement authorizes the company to charge customers for internet access -- as well as state and federal taxes applicable to the agreement -- the contract "does not permit AT&T to charge Plaintiffs for 'taxes' that are not due under law, including taxes for access to the internet."

Despite the agreement's terms, the suit said, AT&T imposed taxes on consumers' internet use in direct violation of a federal statute -- the Internet Tax Freedom Act -- that makes such taxes illegal.

Busy year for iPhone lawyers

The iPhone has been the subject of a good amount of litigation in just the past year alone. Earlier this month, a class action lawsuit filed in San Diego alleged that a subpar software upgrade turned the class members' iPhones into "vitrually useless iBricks."

In July, two class actions were filed over the disastrous antenna problem that has plagued the iPhone 4 since its summer rollout.

And, also in July, a class of consumers took to the courts to protest the exclusivity agreement between Apple and AT&T that keeps the iPhone out of Verizon, Sprint, and TMobile stores. That lawsuit might prove moot if Apple teams up with Verizon in the near future, a move that is increasingly widely expected.

According to a statement posted to AT&T's website, the parties to the tax suit disagree about "whether AT&T Mobility's charging of Internet Taxes was proper, and if it was improper, how much the plaintiffs would have been entitled to."

The settlement money could take a while to reach consumers; AT&T has to first request a refund from state governments, and then disburse the funds to class members.

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Will Facebook's New Messaging Service Kill Email?

We tweet, we text, we Skype, who has time for email anymore?

Facebook introduces its new messaging service as a way to communication so we may no longer need email...

photoFirst it took our children, and we had to join just to find out what they were up to and now Facebook is about to take on the app that made the Internet the communications behemoth that it is today - email.

Email has been on the ropes for some time now, what with kids turning first to instant messaging and then text while others tweet and Skype. There just doesn't seem to be as much reason to check your emails on a minute by minute basis the way we Internet junkies used to.

The final nail in email's coffin arrived this week when Facebook-founder Mark Zuckerberg rolled out his company's new messaging service proclaiming it will add "a lot of friction and cognitive load" to communications whatever that means.

Zuckerberg seems to think his new service which he affectionately refers to as that "Gmail killer" will help us older folks wean ourselves off email entirely. There are a quite a few folks who would disagree.

As far as AOL is concerned, email is making a comeback even if it is a bit old-fashioned. Besides, even Facebook's new messaging system is just another form of email that includes chat, text messaging, and status updates.

Zuckerberg says it's really a way of bringing various messaging systems together in one place, so you don't have to remember and separately track how each of your friends prefers to be contacted. He also promised that Facebook's system will be in real time -- no delayed e-mails about conference calls or meetings you've already missed. But of course, the biggest draw will be that users get their own @facebook.com e-mail address. So much for the end of email.

As for AOL, its new messaging service, called Project Phoenix, won't integrate everything into one stream of messages. AOL's new web based e-mail program will focus on keeping things separate but equal within the same screen, under different headings for text and chat messages. It will, however, gather all your e-mail from various accounts, public, private, and professional, into one e-mail in-box. More importantly, AOL promises that unlike other services, it would be easy for non-technical users to make it work.

AOL's Phoenix is due to arrive early next year and will also have a few convenience features. A "quick bar" allows you to send responses, whether the original message was an IM, text or e-mail. Attachments (up to 25 MB and unlimited storage) will also appear as thumbnails in a right-hand preview window and an address in a message invokes MapQuest directions. For security, you can set it to only preview attachments from friends in your contact list.

Stepping back, I'm starting to think that having a service that throws everything at me in one place, could be a little overwhelming. In fact, I'm starting to get nostalgic over another old-fashioned communications device that lets you interact with people in real time. I think it was called the telephone. Maybe it's time to dust it off and give someone a call. The thought just gave me a chill.

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Illinois Legislature to Consider Foreclosure Reforms

One of the first states to address issue with new law

The Illinois state legislature will take up a bill designed to reform the foreclosure process to protect homeowners....

Illinois is set to become one of the first states to take up legislation designed to reform the foreclosure process to protect homeowners.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who drafted the bill, says the legislation is the first of its kind in the country to address revelations that major banks and mortgage giants recklessly "robo-signed” foreclosure fillings across the country. The bill would significantly tighten the requirements for affidavits filed in foreclosure proceedings to ensure their accuracy.

The measure, introduced this week, drew sponsorship from state Sen. Jacqueline Collins, and state Reps. Marlow H. Colvin and Mary Flowers, all of whom have worked closely with Madigan's office in recent years to increase the protections for Illinois families facing foreclosure.

"Too often, Illinois families are struggling to pay their mortgages because banks put them into risky loans that they did not understand and could never afford. Now, we must make Madigan said. "This legislation is designed to ensure that banks and loan servicers cannot cut corners or ignore homeowners' rights in the foreclosure process.”

The legislation was prompted after major loan servicers across the country, namely GMAC/Ally, Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase, admitted their employees signed inaccurate foreclosure documents in court. These employees may have approved thousands of foreclosures without personal knowledge of the facts involved and without verifying underlying loan information, Madigan said.

 Putting law on the side of homeowners

"As Illinoisans lose their homes, we have to continue to fight to put the law on their side so they don't once again become the victims of fiscal gluttony,” said Collins.

The bill is aimed at ensuring the integrity of foreclosure documents filed and that lenders are complying with the requirements of federal loan modification programs. It would also make sure each homeowner knows the amount they owe, who owns their loan, the terms of their original loan and whom they can contact. Specifically, the proposed legislation would:

  • Ensure affidavits filed as part of the foreclosure process contain a detailed description of how the person who signed the affidavit has personal knowledge of the facts, including what he or she did to verify that the amount owed is accurate.
  • Require that banks verify in writing all efforts they have undertaken to keep the homeowner in the home, including loan modification efforts.
  • Require that banks provide a detailed summary of the borrowers' payments to ensure the borrowers know why the foreclosure is happening and can contest the foreclosure if the banks' payment history is inaccurate.
  • Require that a bank prove that it holds the loan and has the right to foreclose.

"This legislation continues our aggressive work to implement laws that provide homeowners with assistance while holding lenders accountable,” Colvin.

"If banks and mortgage companies cannot produce the proper paperwork to verify a foreclosure needs to take place, they shouldn't be kicking Illinois homeowners out of their homes in the first place,” said Flowers. "It is up to the state, with this legislation, to step in to protect these vulnerable residents.”

The legislation is part of the Attorney General's response to the recent foreclosure document scandal. Madigan also has asked Washington lawmakers to support the re-introduction of legislation drafted by U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., to permit bankruptcy court judges to reduce principal amounts on mortgages and thereby save homes.

Madigan, along with the 49 other state attorneys general and 37 state bank and mortgage regulators, is also continuing a multi-state probe into the servicers and foreclosures filed in courts across the country. In Illinois, the filing of false court documents could be a violation of the state's Consumer Fraud Act and other laws.

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California Jury Awards $2.4 Million for Herpes Infection

Litigation, and disease, surprisingly common

California Jury Awards $2.4 Million for Herpes Infection Litigation, and disease, surprisingly common...

A Beverly Hills man has been hit with a $2.4 million judgment in a suit alleging that he negligently infected his soon-to-be-ex wife with genital herpes.

The suit highlights the unsettling prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and the ease with which they can be spread.

The unfortunate transmission occurred after the defendant and his wife reconciled following a month-long split in mid-2007, according to the complaint. Not long after they kissed and made up, the plaintiff began experiencing "severe burning, itching and swelling," and was diagnosed with genital herpes shortly thereafter.

It was only after this diagnosis that the plaintiff learned that her husband engaged in unprotected sex with several women outside their marriage, behavior that the complaint described as "high-risk.”

The award, which was handed down by a Los Angeles jury, gave the wife $500,000 for past pain and suffering, $1.63 million for future pain and suffering, $250,000 for future medical damages, and $62,000 in punitive damages.

Disease surprisingly prevalent

Herpes litigation is surprisingly common, although less so when one takes a look at the prevalence of the disease itself. According to statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 16 percent of Americans are infected with HSV-2, the strain most commonly associated with genital herpes. The disease is much more prevalent among African-Americans, with more than 39 percent of all blacks -- and a stunning 48 percent of black women -- carrying the disease.

HSV-1, which is the main cause of oral herpes, or "cold sores,” is more prevalent, affecting somewhere between 50 and 90 percent of the public.

The disease's prevalence also varies by geographic region. A 2008 study, for example, found that fully one in four people living in New York City are infected with genital herpes.

The amount awarded in the aforementioned case may seem large, but it pales in comparison to awards that have been handed down in similar cases. Just last year, another California jury awarded $6.7 million to a woman who said she contracted herpes after sleeping with a wealthy businessman. That award broke down to $1.5 million for pain and suffering, $2.5 million in compensatory damages, and $2.75 million in punitive damages.

The plaintiff's attorney in that case said the eye-popping verdict was "a clear message to all persons infected with a sexually transmitted disease that this type of behavior simply will not be tolerated."

High-profile cases

Several well known celebrities have been accused of infecting their sexual partners with herpes in recent years. Most memorably, in 2006, then Atlanta Falcons (and now Philadelphia Eagles) quarterback Michael Vick settled a lawsuit brought by a woman who claimed that Vick gave her herpes after they had unprotected sex in April 2003. The lawsuit claimed that Vick secretly sought treatment at herpes clinics using the alias "Ron Mexico."

Herpes is an especially insidious disease; 80 percent of individuals carrying the virus never experience outbreaks or even know that they are infected. But these individuals can still pass the disease on to others, who may or may not themselves experience symptoms. Anyone who is sexually active should always use protection, and regularly be tested for herpes, along with other relatively common STD's such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, HPV (which can cause genital warts), and, of course, HIV.

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Social Media More Credible with Consumers Than Drug Company Websites

Fundamental shift in how Americans get their medical information

A new survey implies a certain level of distrust of drug companies among Americans seeking medical advice on line ...

A new survey shows that U.S. consumers seeking medical advice are more likely to turn to medical, informational and social media sites and online communities than pharmaceutical company websites.

According to the survey conducted by Accenture, of the more than two thirds (68%) who go online for health information, nine out of ten (92%) preferred other online resources to a pharmaceutical company's website when seeking information about an illness or medical condition.

The survey of more than 850 consumers suggests that consumers may not believe what pharmaceutical companies have to tell them as much as other sites and that the drug companies are missing a real opportunity to address the online audience.

It also demonstrates that there's a fundamental shift from a predominantly company-to-patient dialogue to patient-to-patient through the evolution of social networks and online communities.

Tom Schwenger, global managing director for Accenture's Life Sciences Sales & Marketing practice, says that pharmaceutical companies should embrace social networking and communications via mobile devices and integrate and align their communication strategy across multiple channels. He says if they do that they'll "have a much greater influence on their patients' choices and consequently, realize significant increases in revenue, profitability and sustained competitive advantage.”

According to the survey, 69% of respondents expect pharmaceutical companies to provide information about the medical condition or illness for which they are taking drugs.

To address that expectation, Accenture believes pharmaceutical companies must not only provide the right information, but upgrade their websites to create a more dynamic, interactive experience, demonstrate an understanding of their patients' needs, provide holistic solutions and clearly reinforce their brand identity in a two-way dialogue.

Schwenger adds that "there is a clear disconnect” in how drug companies communicate with their customers and that they "need to reevaluate their marketing campaigns” to "meet customer demand for health solutions, increase trust and brand loyalty and enhance customer perceptions.”
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Why Breaking Up With A Brand Hurts So Much

New study finds consumers act like scorned lovers when a company they love betrays them

Why Breaking Up With A Brand Hurts So Much New study finds consumers act like scorned lovers when a company they love betrays them...

To paraphrase a popular saying: Hell hath no fury like a consumer scorned.

New research shows consumers feel as deeply hurt over a bad transaction with a company they love as they would if jilted by a lover. They feel betrayed and sometimes want to get revenge.

The study, authored by Allison R. Johnson of the University of Western Ontario; Maggie Matear of the Queens University, in Kingston, Ontario; and Matthew Thomson of the University of Western Ontario, and featured in the Journal of Consumer Research, examines why.

What happens when people turn their backs on the brands they once loved?

First up: revenge.

"Customers who were once enthusiastic about a brand may represent a headache for the associated firm beyond the lost revenue of foregone sales because they sometimes become committed to harming the firm," the study authors wrote.

A quick glance at the complaints on ConsumerAffairs.com will show angry consumers who were once staunchly loyal to a brand, but now want nothing to do with them. And want everyone to know about it.

Lisa Spieker of North Mankato, MN bought a Maytag Neptune washing machine in 2005 that needed servicing six months later, only to find the problem continues to persist, even today, despite numerous visits from the repairman.

"We have been brand loyal and have owned Maytag appliances of all different types, but this experience has changed our mind," said Speiker. "We will never buy a Maytag washing machine again!"

Brandi McFarland of Roy, UT was double-charged at a local Target store and claims the manager not only refused to credit the second charge, but was rude to her as well. She vows never to go back.

"I will actually go out of my way to make my business and personal purchases anywhere except Target," said McFarland.

Why do these people feel so strongly about brands they once favored? According to the study authors, some people identify so strongly with brands that they become relevant to their identity and self-concept. Thus, when people feel betrayed by brands, they experience shame and insecurity.

"As in human relationships, this loss of identity can manifest itself in negative feelings, and subsequent actions may (by design) be unconstructive, malicious, and expressly aimed at hurting the former relationship partner," the authors write.

What to do?

What's a company to do to prevent such heightened emotions? "Rather than trying simply to win customers back, which may only exacerbate the situation, companies may want to explore responses that promote forgiveness, indifference, or effective disengagement," the authors suggest.

This may explain why so many consumers report the company they're upset with refuses to work with them or ignores them. Like an ex-boyfriend or -girlfriend who won't return your calls.

Sometimes a company may want to help embarrassed customers move on—even if it means directing them to a competitor.

"The sooner the customers are happily involved with a new brand, the faster one might expect damage to their self-concept to be repaired and the faster the motive to harm the offending firm might dissipate," the authors conclude.

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Economic Recovery Limps along While Paychecks for CEOs Soar

Imagine the number of jobs that could be created if these leaders showed some real leadership and took smaller salaries

CEOs of some of the nation’s top companies saw their multi-million dollar salaries rise an average of 13.4% while most Americans salaries barely budged...

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The New Medicare Rules Will Make Coverage More Expensive for Some

Anyone who pays more for doctor’s visits and other “Part B” coverage will also pay more for “Part D” prescription drug coverage

Starting January 1, 2011, new rules for Medicare go into effect and the cost for coverage is going to be more if you are single and earn more than $85,000...

There's some good news and some bad news once the new Medicare rules go into effect January 1. The changes will benefit some recipients but it will also make coverage more expensive for people with incomes over $85,000 or $170,000 for couples.

It's all part of the health-care reform and while premiums for most beneficiaries will remain relatively stable in 2011, those who already pay higher premiums for doctor's visits and other "Part B" coverage will also pay more for "Part D" prescription drug coverage starting January 1.

Medicare's annual open-enrollment period starts this week so it's important to know what's in store for you next year. It could impact your decision as to whether to change your current plans or if you're just starting out what to begin with. During the annual open-enrollment period, anyone in the federal health insurance program for people 65 and older — and their caregivers — can make changes to their coverage by December 31.

Moreover, many insurers are eliminating or consolidating hundreds of Medicare-related plans to comply with recent regulations aimed at reducing duplicative plans. As a result, according to the AARP, as many as one million Medicare recipients will have to choose new coverage.

How the changes being instituted might impact you will depend on whether you have plain-vanilla Medicare or a federally subsidized private Medicare Advantage plan. That works like a conventional insurance plan and often includes prescription-drug coverage.

Many who choose the traditional fee-for-service Medicare also buy a "Medigap" policy, as well as a separate prescription-drug policy, to cover gaps in their coverage.

For those with traditional Medicare, the biggest change on the horizon is an expansion of benefits. Starting January 1, Medicare will completely cover the cost of many preventative services, including mammograms, Pap tests and screenings for prostrate and colorectal cancer, as well as one annual physical examination.

Benefits will also grow richer under the Part D prescription-drug program. Currently, privately managed plans cover 75% of a participant's drug costs up to a limit that will rise to $2,840 in 2011. After that, participants fall into a "doughnut hole" gap where they are required to pay 100% of their drug costs until expenditures reach $6,440. Then catastrophic coverage kicks in, capping outlays at 5%.

Under the health-care overhaul, the estimated 14% of Part D participants who fall into this coverage gap will start to receive discounts that will reduce the amount they pay—from 100% in 2010 to 50% for brand-name drugs and 93% for generics in 2011. As a result, those who have "enhanced" Part D plans, which provide some coverage in the doughnut hole, should consider whether it makes sense to pay the extra premiums.

For single participants who have a modified adjusted gross income of more than $85,000 a year—and couples who exceed $170,000—will pay between $12 and $69.10 more in monthly premiums for Part D than other beneficiaries.

Partial solution

According to the Wall Street Journal, there is a way to get around the increase: Move into a Medicare Advantage plan. They offer medical and drug benefits with lower monthly premiums than what's charged for original Medicare plus supplementary policies. But some of these plans change their benefits or fees from year to year, and some restrict where policyholders can seek care.

Participants will also enjoy some new protections. Advantage plans must cap — at $6,700 — recipients' annual out-of-pocket expenditures for Medicare-covered services within their networks. The plans will also be barred from charging higher copayments or coinsurance rates for some services, including chemotherapy, than patients would pay under traditional Medicare — although the plans can charge higher deductibles and copayments for other services.

Starting in 2011, Advantage participants who wish to switch to another Advantage plan will no longer be allowed to do so between January 1 and March 31. Instead, they must make such a move by December 31. From January 1 to February 14, participants can still drop an Advantage plan, but they'll have to switch to traditional Medicare. 

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Watch Out for the ‘The Twelve Scams of Christmas’

Cybercriminals use the holiday season aiming to steal money, identities and financial information

Watch Out for the ‘The Twelve Scams of Christmas’ Cybercriminals use the holiday season aiming to steal money, identities and financial information ...

With Black Friday and Cyber Monday just around the corner, consumers are urged to beware of the most commons scams of the season.

To help you do that, McAfee, the Internet security firm, is revealing its "Twelve Scams of Christmas" -- the 12 most dangerous online scams that computer users should be cautious of this holiday season.

"Scams continue to be big business for cybercriminals who have their sights set on capitalizing on open hearts and wallets this holiday season," said Dave Marcus, director of security research for McAfee Labs. "As people jump online to look for deals on gifts and travel, it's important to recognize common scams to safeguard against theft during the busy season ahead."

Here, then, are McAfees's Twelve Scams of Christmas:

1) iPad offer scams

With Apple products topping most shopping lists this holiday season, scammers are busy distributing bogus offers for free iPads. McAfee Labs found that in the spam version of the scam, consumers are asked to purchase other products and provide their credit card number to get the free iPad. Of course, victims never receive the iPad or the other items -- just the headache of reporting a stolen credit card number.

In the social media version of the scam, users take a quiz to win a free iPad and must supply their cell phone number to receive the results. In actuality they are signed up for a cell phone scam that costs $10 a week.

2) 'Help! I've been robbed' scam

This travel scam sends phony distress messages to family and friends requesting that money be wired or transferred so that they can get home. McAfee Labs says there's been an increase in this scam and predicts its rise during the busy travel season.

3) Fake gift cards

Cybercrooks use social media to promote fake gift card offers with the goal of stealing consumers' information and money, which is then sold to marketers or used for ID theft.

One recent Facebook scam offered a "free $1,000 Best Buy gift card" to the first 20,000 people who signed up for a Best Buy fan page, which was a look-a-like. To apply for the gift card they had to provide personal information and take a series of quizzes.

4) Holiday job offers

As people seek extra cash for gifts this holiday season, Twitter scams offer dangerous links to high-paying, work-at-home jobs that ask for your personal information, such as your email address, home address and Social Security number to apply for the fake job.

5) 'Smishing'

Cybercrooks are now "smishing," or sending phishing SMS texts. These texts appear to come from your bank or an online retailer saying that there is something wrong with an account and you have to call a number to verify your account information. In reality, these efforts are merely a ruse to extract valuable personal information from the targets.

Cybercrooks know that people are more vulnerable to this scam during the holiday season when consumers are doing more online shopping and checking bank balances frequently.

6) Suspicious holiday rentals

During peak travel times when consumers often look online for affordable holiday rentals, cybercrooks post fake holiday rental sites that ask for down payments on properties by credit card or wire transfer.

7) Recession scams continue

Scammers target vulnerable consumers with recession related scams such as pay-in-advance credit schemes. McAfee Labs has seen a significant number of spam emails advertising pre-qualified, low-interest loans and credit cards if the recipient pays a processing fee, which goes directly into the scammer's pocket.

8) Grinch-like greetings

E-cards are a convenient and earth-friendly way to send greetings to friends and family, but cybercriminals load fake versions with links to computer viruses and other malware instead of cheer. According to McAfee Labs, computers may start displaying obscene images, pop-up ads, or even start sending cards to contacts that appear to come from you.

9) Low price traps

Shoppers should be cautious of products offered at prices far below competitors. Cyber scammers use auction sites and fake websites to offer too-good-to-be-true deals with the goal of stealing your money and information.

10) Charity scams

The holidays have historically been a prime time for charity scams since it's a traditional time for giving, and this year is likely to be no exception. Common ploys include phone calls and spam e-mails asking you to donate to veterans' charities, children's causes and relief funds for the latest catastrophe.

11) Dangerous holiday downloads

Holiday-themed screensavers, jingles and animations are an easy way for scammers to spread viruses and other computer threats especially when links come from an email or IM that appears to be from a friend.

12) Hotel and airport wi-fi

During the holidays many people travel and use free wi-fi in places like hotels and airports. This is a tempting time for thieves to hack into networks hoping to find opportunities for theft.

McAfee advises Internet users to follow these five tips to protect their computers and personal information:

  • Stick to well-established and trusted sites that include trust marks (icons or seals from third parties verifying that the site is safe), user reviews and customer support. A reputable trust mark provider will have a live link attached to its trust mark icon, which will take visitors to a verification Web site of the trust mark provider.
  • Do not respond to offers that arrive in a spam email, text or instant message.
  • Preview a link's web address before you click on it to make sure it is going to an established site. Never download or click anything from an unknown source.
  • Stay away from vendors that offer prices well below the norm. Don't believe anything that sounds too good to be true.
  • Make sure to use trusted wi-fi networks. Don't check bank accounts or shop online if you're not sure the network is safe.
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There Are Some Snack Foods that Could Make You Sick Which is Why Some Countries Have Banned Them

The next time you have a snack attack read the ingredients carefully, your stomach will thank you

The ingredients in popular snack foods, even those claiming to be light, could cause stomach cramps or worse...


Snack foods are a big business in this country and for good reason. Americans love to snack. And to compete with our desire to cut down on unsaturated fats while we do, some snack foods bearing the word "light” on their packaging include the fat substitute olestra.

You may not know this but olestra has been banned in Canada and the United Kingdom. According to Smart Money, it's still legal here and used by companies like Proctor & Gamble for its low or non-fat chips, crackers and cookies.

This is the same ingredient that Smart Money says caused a Manhattan dermatologist to become so sick with abdominal cramps that she had to cancel her appointments. The advocacy organization Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says no one should eat olestra, even though P&G says 6.5 million servings of food containing its version olestra, Olean, have been consumed since 1996. That's when the FDA approved olestra.

Olestra isn't the only banned substance we're snacking on. Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone, or rBGH (sold under the name Posilac) is a synthetic hormone injected into cows to stimulate milk production. Smart Money says it appears in many dairy-based snacks like ice cream, but not in Europe or Canada, where it has been banned.

There are fears that a hormone associated with cancer might be higher in people who drink milk treated with rBGH. Eli Lilly, the company that manufacturers Posilac, denies these claims. A division of Eli Lilly bought Posilac for more than $300 million in 2008 and studies show it can increase milk production in a cow by 15% or more, meaning more milk to sell.

Beetle bits

Why stop here? Would you like some pulverized insects in your snack? Smart Money says beetles are often boiled and ground up and used in snack foods to create shades of red, purple and pink in everything from fruit juice to ice cream and candy.

Reading the labels might not even spare you from eating an insect. According to Smart Money, you won't find the word "beetle” anywhere on food labels. Instead, you'll likely see the less cringe-worthy "carmine,” "carminic acid” or "cochineal extract" which is basically, beetle remains. 

Questionable ingredients aren't the only things snack food companies don't want you to know. Smart Money says expiration dates on highly-processed foods can be significantly longer than the date on the package. Karen Duester, MS, RD is president of the Food Consulting Company, which advises companies on food labels and FDA regulations. She says that if the product is well-sealed, kept away from light, and has a low fat and dairy content, it could last for years. That's particularly true for canned snacks like maraschino cherries.

These "use by” dates are provided voluntarily by the manufacturer even though the products could be safe to eat after their expiration. Duester says the reason they do it is because it encourages retailers to restock - and reorder - the product more often. Plus, she adds, an expiration date of 2015 isn't that appealing.

What about those energy and power bars? Smart Money says that if you look closely, you'll see that their ingredients look a lot like what you'd find in a candy bar. They are basically concentrated doses of sugar that provide an immediate burst of energy from the sugar rush but then you crash and feel even more tired than if you hadn't eaten the bar.

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Twitter Helps College Kids Get Better Grades

Study found "Tweeted" discussion topics engaged students, helped them get better grades

Twitter Helps College Kids Get Better Grades Study found "Tweeted" discussion topics engaged students, helped them get better grades...

Many people have criticized Twitter for dumbing down communication, but new research shows college students actually engaged their professors and each other more when it was used as part of a class curriculum. And because of that, they got better grades.

Authors Rey Junco of Lock Haven University, Greg Heiberger of South Dakota State University and Eric Loken of The Pennsylvania State University carried out the research, published Nov. 12, 2010, in the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning.
 
The fieldwork used a group of 125 students -- 70 in the experimental group that used Twitter and 55 in a control group -- taking a first-year seminar course for pre-health professional majors.

"The idea that student engagement can be increased outside of the classroom in a low-credit course through the use of technology is one of the key findings. Students are able to engage with faculty regularly in short exchanges," said Heiberger, coordinator of pre-health professional programs in SDSU's Department of Biology and Microbiology.

"It was a one-credit course and the contact we had with students was daily. That's not common with many one-credit courses," said Heiberger.

In the experimental group, instructors and students used Twitter for various academic discussions. Researchers measured engagement by using a 19-item scale based on the National Survey of Student Engagement.

Results showed that the experimental group had a significantly greater increase in engagement than the control group, as well as higher overall grade point averages for the entire semester.

Analysis of Twitter communications showed that students and faculty were both highly engaged in the learning process in ways that transcended traditional classroom activities.

This study provides experimental evidence that Twitter can be used as an educational tool to help engage students and to mobilize faculty into a more active and participatory role.

"It was clear that students were highly engaged with us and with each other on Twitter and that had a significant effect on their overall academic success," said Junco.

"To some extent, it does add to the faculty member's level of commitment but it allows for them to leverage technology to directly connect with students throughout the day," Heiberger said. "Faculty could Tweet five minutes after dinner and answer a couple of quick questions. Communications outside of class, such as these, are important factors in student engagement and success."

Heiberger said Twitter not only increased students' contact with instructors, but also their contact with each other. That made it made it possible for students to support each other in a vibrant virtual learning community.

Such social networking technologies raise new possibilities for cooperative/collaborative learning, learning communities, media in education, post-secondary education, and teaching/learning strategies, Heiberger said.

Heiberger and his colleagues are currently conducting follow-up studies on the impact of social media on retention of college students in their first and second years.

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Restaurants Will Be Walking a Fine Line In 2011

New healthcare law means eateries will be serving two masters: the government and their customers

Restaurants Will Be Walking a Fine Line In 2011Mintel Menu Insights says the new healthcare law means eateries will be serving two masters: the governm...

The foodservice industry demands change as often as the limited-time offers (LTO) at your favorite restaurant, and this year has been no exception.

In light of the new healthcare law that requires restaurants with 20 or more units to list calorie counts on the menu, operators now face the task of balancing federal regulations with the differing demands ahd whims of their customers.

Restaurant patrons value menu transparency, but still want the occasional indulgent dining experience. The forecast of foodservice trends for 2011 from Mintel Menu Insight, a supplier of consumer, product and media, is all about walking that fine line between open disclosure and customer satisfaction.

"Both the government and consumers want healthier menu options, but restaurant-goers are also very concerned about value and how their food tastes," according to Eric Giandelone, director of foodservice research at Mintel. "Keeping both parties satisfied might be a challenge as we move into 2011."

Trend #1: Healthy by association

Sixty-two percent of consumers say they plan to eat healthier in the upcoming year, but many complain that healthier food doesn't taste as good without the added sugar, sodium and fat. Restaurants will address this problem by swapping in "healthier" ingredients to their patrons' favorite dishes, and positioning them to appear better for you.

For instance, Taco Bell has quietly reduced sodium at 150 stores in the Dallas market, while Jason's Deli promotes its food as being free from high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), trans fats or pesticides. Consumers enjoy visiting restaurants that are perceived as healthy because these venues make them feel good about themselves and their meal choices. They might opt to visit the "healthy" restaurant, but be wooed by the not-so-healthy LTOs offered at these places (see Trend #5).

Trend #2: Automated Menus

Convenience and technology will form the perfect union this year, as restaurant-goers will see an increase in automated menus at their favorite establishments. These electronic order-takers will provide customers with the opportunity to order food to their specifications in do-it-yourself style, thus reducing the restaurant's reliance on front-of-house staff, as well as full-time employees. Automated menus, in addition to mobile applications, will help restaurants reach a younger, more mobile consumer.

Trend #3: Transparency

Consumers want to know what they're eating, and the new healthcare call mandates such disclosure. Restaurants with 20+ units are now required to list calorie counts on their menus. Consumers seem happy with the impending disclosure, as 61 percent agree that restaurants should post nutritional information, like calorie counts and fat grams, on menus. More cities will start forcing restaurants to display their letter grades from local health departments, further increasing menu transparency.

Trend #4: Indigenous Ingredients

While the local food movement continues to grow, the push toward indigenous ingredients takes that trend a step further. Mintel expects that in 2011 restaurants will incorporate more traditional or authentic ingredients into their ethnic or globally-positioned entrees.

One example of this trend is Frontera Grill's Panucho Yacateco, an entree that boasts a traditional Yucatan crispy tortilla filled with black beans and hard-boiled egg with shredded chicken in tangy escabeche. "Local" as an ingredient marketing claim has grown by 15 percent from the second quarter of 2009 to the second quarter of this year, according to Mintel Menu Insights -- and it's likely that number will increase in the coming year.

Trend #5: Exemptions to the Rule

A vast majority of restaurants will have to disclose calorie counts on their menus, but that rule doesn't apply to LTOs. Operators will take advantage of this loophole by offering less-than-healthy novelty or seasonal menu items, allowing customers to indulge in a guilty treat, without feeling pressured to make a healthier menu choice.

As it stands, 43 percent of consumers say they're likely to change what they order when calorie counts are listed on the menu. LTOs give consumers the occasional opportunity to indulge in a meal out.

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Activists Critical of Camel Cigarettes' 'Cities' Campaign

Group says new marketing campaign targets young people

Campaign For Tobacco-Free Kids claims new Camel Cigarettes marketing campaign is a back door appeal to kids....

No longer able to use well-known advertising symbols like Joe Camel, Camel cigarettes has adopted a "cities” campaign, decorating packages with images from Seattle, Austin, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and other trendy American cities.

But the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids is crying foul, calling the campaign an effort to make Camel cigarettes cool, fun and rebellious - and appealing to kids.

The group said it is reacting to parent company RJR's announcement that it will sell limited edition cigarette packs with the city names in December and January.

"It is deeply disturbing that RJR is using the good name and hard-earned reputation of these great American cities to market deadly and addictive cigarettes, especially in a way that blatantly appeals to children,” said Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "Certainly the citizens and leaders of these cities do not want to be associated with a product that kills more than 400,000 Americans every year. RJR showed truly shameless disregard for the death and suffering its products cause by calling this campaign a 'celebration' of the locations involved.”

Cigarette companies are prohibited from promoting their products on television and some other media, but not on the Internet. The activist group says RJR launched the campaign online and with direct mail. In the "Break Free Adventure" campaign, the Camel brand "visits" 10 different U.S. locations over a 10-week period. Visitors to the Camel web site can win prizes by reading a clue and guessing where Camel is that week.  

Each week, a new package design for Camel cigarettes is unveiled that features the name of that week's location and some of its iconic images. Other locations include Route 66; Bonneville Salt Flats, UT; Sturgis, SD; and Winston-Salem, NC.

The group says the locations involved have several qualities in common, including an association with independent music, fun times, rebellion and freedom of the road.

"By associating Camel cigarettes with these locations and their trendy reputations, RJR is continuing its longstanding efforts to make the Camel brand appealing to youth,” Myers said. "It truly is the Joe Camel campaign all over again.  It echoes many of the youth-appealing themes of the Joe Camel campaign, in which the now-banned cartoon camel was often depicted with fast cars and motorcycles or having fun at parties.”

The Campaign called on RJR to immediately end the marketing campaign and withdraw its plans to introduce the special edition cigarette packs. The group said it is also appealing to state attorneys general to investigate whether the promotion violates the 1998 state tobacco settlement's prohibition on tobacco marketing that targets children.

The group also said it wants the government to step up the implementation of proven measures to reduce tobacco use, including effective regulation of tobacco products and marketing, the graphic cigarette warnings unveiled this week by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; well-funded tobacco prevention and cessation programs nationally and in every state; higher tobacco taxes; and smoke-free workplace laws.


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Report Shows Prices Rising At Wal-Mart

Fed chairman may not see inflation, but consumers are beginning to

A retail analyst's survey of an assortment of consumer items at Wal-Mart suggests inflation is beginning to show up....

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Air Travel Security Screening Gets More Intimate

Passengers subjected to body scans, pat-downs

Airport screeners are using full body scanners and intimate pat-downs in stepped up security measures, leaving many passengers angry and embarrassed....

Since late last week, when new security screening measures went into effect at several of the nation's largest airports, passenger have been subjected to full body scans and, in some cases, intimate pat-downs.

Despite complaints from travelers that the revealing scans, touching and probing are inappropriate, the Transportation Security Administration says it's something passengers will just have to learn to live with.

"As always, the safety and security of the American public is our highest priority,” said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitan. "The threats of terrorism we face are serious and evolving, and these security measures reflect our commitment to using current intelligence to stay ahead of adversaries — working closely with our international, federal, state, local and private sector partners every step of the way."

The new security measures were put in place, in part, in response to the failed attempt to bomb cargo planes, using explosives-laden printer toner cartridges. Some of the measures aren't seen by the public. They include "adapting inbound cargo targeting rules to reflect the latest intelligence and ordering a ground halt on all cargo coming from Yemen."

Virtual strip search

But it's the measures at the security gate that are causing tempers to flare and more modest passengers to blush. Passengers are ask to walk through a scanner that, in effect, sees right through their clothing, leaving little to the imagination.

It a passenger refuses to be scanned, or if the scan reveals an unidentifiable object beneath their clothing, they then undergo a new, more thorough pat-down, the type one might expect when entering prison or meeting a Mafia don.

For example, the Washington Post reports the new security measures now in place at the city's three airports routinely involve touching breasts and genitals. The searches are performed by security officers of the same sex as the passenger.

ConsumerAffairs.com's Truman Lewis encountered nothing out of the ordinary as he traveled through Washington Dulles International Airport Sunday.  He found security lines no longer than usual and said that if full body scans were being conducted, there was no visible sign of it.

The TSA says it understands how passengers might not like the new up-close and personal approach, but says it's essentially for everyone's own good.

"The weapons and other dangerous and prohibited items we've found during pat-downs speak to this," the agency said on its website.

Disputing passenger's account

Last week a female passenger in Los Angeles told a radio talk show that she had been handcuffed to a chair during an encounter with TSA screeners, after refusing a full body scan. TSA posted video of the woman entering and exiting the screening area, disputing the account.

"We diligently review claims of improper conduct," TSA said on its blog. "But when inaccurate passenger accounts are made either via media outlets or on the blogs, TSA works to resolve them and present both sides of the story.”

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader told the Post he thinks the new screen procedures are "extremely voyeuristic and intrusive." He predicts TSA will be forced to back down.

The agency, meanwhile, shows no sign of that yet. It says only a small percentage of passengers end up getting a pat-down.

"The best way to be prepared at the checkpoint is to remove everything from your pockets prior to screening,” the agency advises. "Also, if you have a hidden medical device, you may want to bring it to the officer's attention before screening. We'll be better able to help expedite your screening that way.”

However, there appears to be a backlash movement, and according to media reports, it includes pilots and flight attendants, who must also undergo the enhanced security check, on a daily basis.

A newly launched protest website, WeWontFly.com, is organizing a national screener opt-out day for November 24, the day before Thanksgiving, which happens to be one of the busiest travel days of the year.

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New Rules Governing Credit Reports Go Into Effect January First

The Federal Reserve has provided an online guide on how they will impact you

You may want to check out a new consumer’s guide provided by the Federal Reserve that shows how new rules will impact your credit report ....

Who says the government moves slowly? You get no argument here. After eight years of being passed as part of the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003, new consumer protection regulations are scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2011.

To prepare us for these new rules, the Federal Reserve has made available an online consumers' guide to credit scores and credit reports which not only outlines the new rules but gives you a refresher course on what a credit score is, how it is used and why it's important to protect your credit history, as if we didn't already know.

What you probably don't know are the new that rules Congress passed eight years ago. They will require lenders to tell you when negative information on your credit reports is going to mean you will have to pay higher interest rates and fees for loans such as mortgages and credit cards.

Basically, the new rules require creditors to provide consumers with what's known as a "risk-based pricing notice" when the creditor provides credit on less favorable terms than it provides other consumers. Under the rules, consumers hit with the less favorable credit terms can also obtain a free credit report to check its accuracy.

The Consumer's Guide to Credit Reports and Credit Scores  tells you what you should do if you find errors. First contact the credit bureau to formally dispute any mistakes. But then you have to wait for the credit bureau to investigate, which usually takes 30 days.

The goal with the new rules is to alert you to any negative information on your credit reports so you can make any corrections, which could lead to better loan terms. Creditors offer better terms to consumers with good credit histories and more costly credit to consumers with poor credit histories.

While a step in the right direction, consumer advocates say more needs to be done to address concerns about credit scores and inaccurate credit reports. They say once you finds an error on a credit report, it's difficult to correct it.  

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Study: High-Speed Rail Can Boost Economy, Reduce Traffic

Job creation, reduced dependence on oil are among the benefits cited

Study: High-Speed Rail Can Boost Economy, Reduce Traffic Job creation, reduced dependence on oil are among the benefits cited ...

Drawing lessons from other countries, a new study from U.S. PIRG contends that high-speed rail can boost the U.S. economy, save energy, curb pollution and provide a popular alternative to congested roads and airports.

The report, "A Track Record of Success: High-Speed Rail Around the World and Its Promise for America,” details a number of examples from around the world that make a variety of cases for high-speed rail.

Benefits listed

Some of the benefits, according to the study, include:

  • Jobs: About 8,000 people were involved in the construction of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link between the tunnel and London.
  • Development opportunities near stations: The amount of office space in the area around the rail station in city of Lyon, France has increased by 43 percent.
  • Economic growth: In Germany, the counties surrounding the towns of Limburg and Montabauer experienced a 2.7 percent increase in their gross domestic product as a result of the increased access to markets provided by the Frankfurt-Cologne high-speed rail line.
  • Reduced road congestion: High-speed rail service between Madrid and Seville reduced the share of car travel between the two cities from 60 percent to 34 percent.
  • Reduced oil dependence: A typical Monday morning business trip between London and Paris via high-speed rail uses approximately a third less energy as a car or plane trip.

Growing demand

Over the last two years, the federal government has distributed $10.4 billion in grants to construct or plan high-speed rail, including incremental measures that increase the speed and reliability of existing passenger rail.

In these two rounds, 37 states and the District of Columbia have applied to the Federal Railroad Administration to support 341 project applications. Those requests totaled over $65 billion - about six times the amount made available by Congress.

"Now that the elections are behind us, it's time to get serious about high-speed rail. There is no such thing as a Republican or a Democratic rail track," said U.S. PIRG transportation associate Dan Smith, "Leaders from both parties should support long-term investment in high-speed rail for the economic, environmental, and quality-of-life benefits."

In a statement about U.S. PIRG's report, Glen Bottoms of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation agrees: "This report reinforces our view that building a high-speed rail network is a prudent and cost effective use of America's resources over the long-term."

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Bank of America Wants Robo-Sign Suit Tossed

Lender says plaintiffs might have lost their homes anyway

Bank of America Wants Robo-Sign Suit Tossed Lender says plaintiffs might have lost their home anyway...

Bank of America says that a lawsuit over its practice of "robo-signing” foreclosure affidavits should be thrown out, arguing that the plaintiffs suffered no harm since they could have possibly lost their homes anyway.

The suit, filed last month in federal court in Indiana, concerns the bank's alleged routine practice of using "robo-signers” - people who signed affidavits by the pile and never asked questions. The practice was allegedly kicked off by the financial crisis and the increasing number of borrowers who defaulted on their loans, sending the bank into "a never-ending game of catch up.”

As a result, the complaint alleges, the bank hired workers with little experience or relevant knowledge -- "what one industry insider characterized as the 'Burger King kids'” -- to prepare documents to be used in foreclosure proceedings, including affidavits that contained "essential allegations” concerning the bank's rights under the mortgages.

Affidavits signed "by the hundreds"

The robo-signers, according to one lawyer, were made up of Wal-Mart employees, hair stylists, and assembly line workers. Florida attorney Peter Ticktin told the Associated Press that the banks' "mortgage servicers hired people who would never question authority.”

These individuals "signed the affidavits by [the] hundreds, and had no actual knowledge of the facts contained therein,” according to the suit. Unfortunately for Bank of America, signing an affidavit without knowledge of its contents constitutes perjury, not an inconsequential crime by any definition. Bank of America knew the documents were perjured, the suit alleges, but continued to submit them to courts hearing foreclosure proceedings.

Lead plaintiffs Dwayne and Melisa Davis say that Bank of America foreclosed on their home in 2008, attaching an affidavit signed by Keri Selman. Selman, according to the suit, "is a nationally known robo-signer and, in fact, has been called a 'robo-signer extraordinaire.'” The complaint alleges that the statements in the Selman affidavit "are necessarily purjured,” since it would be impossible for Selman to read all the documentation in the Davis's case "and still read all of the accompanying documentation to all of the other affidavits she signed that same day.”

BofA: You brought the wrong claim

The Davises are asking for monetary damages on behalf of themselves and a class consisting of anyone whose property was foreclosed on by Bank of America between October 18, 2006, and the present.

But Bank of America says that the Davises haven't shown that, by taking the robo-signers out of the equation, the result would be any different.

"Plaintiffs plead no facts to support their claim that the result, i.e., a judgment of foreclosure, would have been any different,” Matthew Strzynski, an attorney with Krieg DeVault LLP, wrote in response to the complaint.

The bank also argued that the plaintiffs brought suit under a statute that doesn't apply to their situation. The complaint alleged, among other things, violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, arguing that Bank of America "filed false, deceptive, misleading, and perjured affidavits in connection with the collections of debts.” Bank of America argues, however, that foreclosures are not initiated for the purposes of collecting a debt, but rather to protect the lender's interest in the subject property.

The suit comes at the same time as news that foreclosures were down nine percent in October, likely due to a moratorium on the practice by several major banks. Bank of America announced on October 9 that it was suspending foreclosures in all 50 states, although it partially lifted the ban less than two weeks later.

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Weight Loss Tip: Stop Using Credit Cards

New study finds link between weight and credit card use

Researchers have discovered a possible link between obesity and credit cards ...

It's not likely that credit card companies will be forced to post the warning that using these cards could be hazardous to your waistline. But if researchers from Cornell University and the State University of New York are right, they may have uncovered a link between credit card use and obesity.

A new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research shows that people who use credit cards for food tend to buy more junk food than those who use cash.

This could be a major discovery for the two-out-of three Americans who are either obese or overweight. They could kill two birds with one stone just by not using credit cards. Lose weight and reduce their debt.

Authors of the grocery study say they originally tried to find the link between unhealthy food purchases and payment methods. They began by collecting shopping data from an unnamed American store chain. They found that 41% used credit cards, 9% used debit cards, and the remaining 50% paid cash. Further study showed that shoppers who paid with plastic spent far more and bought more junk and impulse items than customers who paid cash.

To replicate their findings, the researchers conducted a similar test on students, who were told that a large retail chain was opening a store in town and wanted to understand what shoppers buy during a typical trip.

Computer screens showed subjects 10 healthy items such as oatmeal and 10 junk or unhealthy items such as Oreo cookies. Credit-card shoppers ended up with about three unhealthy items costing $14.07 while cash shoppers bought only two healthy unhealthy items and spent $9.89 on them.

Next, according to Smart Money magazine, the researchers performed a similar experiment on consumers referred by a market research group, but this time they surveyed participants on their feelings.

Card shoppers again spent far more on junk than cash shoppers, with no difference in spending on healthy food. Both groups reported paying attention to prices and being aware of the nutritional merits of the items they chose. Members of the cash group, however, found paying far more painful.

 

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Researchers Develop Quick Alzheimer's Test

If approved, new test might reveal results in 30 seconds

Researchers say they have developed a new screening test for middle-aged people that can predict the onset of Alzheimer's disease in about 30 seconds....

Worried you or a loved one might be showing signs of Alzheimer's disease? Researchers say a new test can let you know for sure in about 30 seconds time.

A new study, led by Professor David Bunce, while at the Center for Mental Health Research at The Australian National University, has revealed that some apparently healthy adults aged between 44 and 48 years have tiny, white matter lesions in areas of their brains similar to those found in persons with Alzheimer's later in life.

These lesions can potentially be predicted via a 30-second test that measures a patient's response time. With further research, the test could become commonplace in GPs' surgeries within two years.

The research also suggests that the neurological decline thought to lead to the development of Alzheimer's disease may begin much earlier in people's lives than was originally thought.

Signs can be present in people in their 40s

"Although we cannot be certain that these middle-aged people will go on to get dementia, the results are important," Bunce said. "First, the study is one of the first to show that lesions in areas of the brain that deteriorate in dementia are present in some adults aged in their 40s. Second, although the presence of the lesions was confirmed through MRI scans, we were able to predict those persons who had them through very simple tests."

If the findings are repeated in laboratories elsewhere, Bunce says the study lays open possibilities for screening, early detection and intervention in healthcare settings.

"The earlier we can intervene with people vulnerable to eventual dementia, the greater the chances of preventing or delaying the disease onset,” he said.

The researchers' paper, 'Cognitive Deficits are associated with Frontal and Temporal Lobe White Matter Lesions in Middle-Aged Adults Living in the Community' is published in the open-access journal Public Library of Science-One.

Looming problem

With the huge baby boom generation headed told old age, health officials are worried that Alzheimer's could reach epidemic proportions in the years ahead. For that reason researchers have refocused their efforts, not just on early detection but an effective treatment.

As of now, there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease, though some recent research has shown promise. In July, Researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London reported that a simple blood test could soon give Alzheimer's patients ten years advance warning that they will get the disease. The breakthrough came after researchers found high levels of a protein can be an early sign of the condition.

Alzheimer's is a brain disease that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior. Symptoms usually develop slowly and get worse over time, becoming severe enough to interfere with daily tasks. Although current Alzheimer's treatments cannot stop the disease from progressing, they can temporarily slow the symptoms and improve the quality of life for those with the disease and their caregivers.

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Nevada Steps Up Mortgage Fraud Crackdown

Investigation has uncovered wide range of related crimes

Nevada has just received a large federal grant to assist local officials in prosecuting the increasing number of mortgage fraud cases....

From the beginning of the housing meltdown, Nevada has been among the hardest-hit states when it comes to foreclosures. With so many homeowners in distress, unscrupulous operators have moved in to exploit the situation.

"Nevada's standing as number one in home foreclosures in the nation has made us a ripe target for mortgage fraud scammers," said Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto.

But Masto is fighting back, in part with a $1,700,500 grant from the U.S. Office of Justice Program. The money will enable the Mortgage Fraud Unit within the Nevada Office of the Attorney General to expand services to deal with Nevada's mortgage fraud and vacant property crimes.

"The money will assist my Mortgage Fraud Unit in investigating and prosecuting the more than 200 companies for which we've received complaints from Nevadans," Masto said. "These complaints average 50 per company and in some cases, they number into the hundreds."

More investigations

The grant will enable the unit to increase the number of cases investigated and prosecuted, increase the amount of funds recovered through restitution for victims and create a plan to sustain the program after grant funds have been exhausted. To date, the Office of the Attorney General has been working in partnership with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, federal prosecutors, local law enforcement and state and community agencies to investigate and prosecute mortgage fraud cases.

The unit has criminal litigation files open against 18 loan modification companies in Clark County, Nev. An additional 51 cases have been designated for civil handling and are at various states of prosecution.

In the past 12 months, the Mortgage Fraud Unit has executed 15 search warrants and presented 14 large scale mortgage fraud and loan modification cases to the grant jury - each involving hundreds of victims and thousands of pages of documentary evidence.

The unit has obtained indictments against 20 mortgage fraud defendants for a combined total of 128 felonies. It has successfully obtained convictions against nine defendants to date, resulting in seven felony convictions, four gross misdemeanor convictions and one misdemeanor conviction for mortgage fraud related crimes.

More than $300,000 for victims

Prosecutions have resulted in restitution orders totaling more than $306,332 payable to victims. The unit currently has 10 cases awaiting jury trial against 12 defendants. Over 184 cases are pending investigation.

Masto said the ongoing investigations have uncovered a wide range of wrong-doing. Utilizing a number of state laws, she has prosecuted cases ranging from forgery; embezzlement; obtaining money by false pretenses; false, deceptive or misleading advertising; deceptive practices; money laundering and racketeering.

In 2007 the Nevada legislation passed a mortgage fraud law, expanding the kinds of activities that have come under investigation.

While investigating mortgage fraud cases, Masto's office has also uncovered extenuating issues and multiple criminal activities including organized crime; racketeering; overseas call centers; use of offshore bank accounts; international extradition issues; large scale, sophisticated forgery and identity theft; fake social security cards; fake drivers licenses; homes and vehicle purchased illegally and leased to members of an organized prostitution ring; drugs; child pornography; a possible homicide; misuse of overseas Swiss bank accounts; international fraudulent transactions with investors from overseas companies; and an individual on the United Kingdom's top ten most wanted list.
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Female Veterans Less Likely To Abuse Drugs, Alcohol

Study finds male veterans more susceptible to substance abuse problems

Female Veterans Less Likely To Abuse Drugs, AlcoholStudy finds male veterans more susceptible to substance abuse problems...

Could women be more mentally equipped to deal with life after they've served their country?  

According to a new spotlight by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), female veterans aged 20-39 are far less likely to engage in binge drinking or the use of substances such as cigarettes and illicit drugs than male veterans of the same age group.

The results were drawn from SAMHSA's 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). The survey collects data by administering questionnaires to a representative sample of the population through face-to-face interviews at their places of residence.

The differences were most pronounced in terms of binge drinking, which is classified as drinking five or more drinks on the same occasion.  

While 22.9 percent of female veterans reported binge drinking in the past month, 43.2 percent of male veterans in this age group had engaged in it within the same period.

There was also a significant difference in the levels of substance abuse between female and male veterans age 20-39 regarding illicit drug use. While 13.1 percent of male veterans used illicit drugs in the past month only 9.6 percent female veterans used drugs.
 
Similarly there was a significant difference in cigarette use levels. Past month cigarette use for males was 40.9 percent, while it was 33.4 percent for female veterans.

However, female veterans did report similar habits as their male counterparts when it came to non-medical use of prescription drugs such as pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, or sedatives -- about 4 percent for men and approximately 3.5 percent for women.

SAMHSA Administrator Pamela S. Hyde, J.D. said that while female veterans may not abuse drugs or alcohol as much as male veterans, they still may have other critical health care needs due to the unique conditions they may have experienced during their service. Hyde said it's essential that comprehensive behavioral health care systems are provided to meet the challenges facing all veterans.

"The nation's service women and men have sacrificed much for their country and the nation must do everything it can to provide comprehensive health care to meet their behavioral health needs and those of their families," said Hyde.

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Federal Reserve Provides Clarity On Credit Reports and Credit Scores

New online publication answers questions about credit reports and their importance to consumers

Federal Reserve Provides Clarity On Credit Reports and Credit Scores New online publication answers questions about credit reports and their importance...

A new online resource from the Federal Reserve provides practical answers to questions about credit reports, credit scores, and the importance of protecting personal credit histories.

The Consumer's Guide to Credit Reports and Credit Scores describes the content of a credit report, explains how a credit score is used, and discusses the role of credit bureaus in collecting and disseminating this information.

Mortgage lenders, banks, insurers, utilities, employers, and other businesses may obtain credit reports from credit bureaus to assess how an individual manages his financial responsibilities.

Consumers need to know what's in their credit report and understand how negative information, such as late payments or a bankruptcy filing, might affect a lender's decision to grant credit.

The guide answers questions ranging from "What is a credit score?" to "How can I get a free copy of my credit report?" to "How long does negative information stay on my credit report?" It contains tips to help consumers improve their credit scores and provides step-by-step instructions for correcting an error in a credit report.

More help available

The Consumer's Guide to Credit Reports and Credit Scores is one of several online Federal Reserve publications, such as 5 Tips for Improving Your Credit Score. It contains such nuggets of information as the importance of making sure information in your credit report is accurate and understanding how your credit score is determined.

Another Fed publication 5 Tips for Getting the Most from Your Credit Card, discusses with consumers the importance of paying bills on time and making more than the minimum payment on a credit card bill.

Many of these publications are available in Spanish.

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Lottery Dreams Aren't All About Spending Sprees

They do however reflect today’s economic picture

Most people say that if they won the lottery they would use the money first to pay off their debt before anything else...

photoWhat would you do if you won the lottery? What do you think most people would say? If you answer go on the biggest spending binge of my life, you'd be wrong/

No, according to a survey conducted by Market Strategies International, most people say the first thing they'd do is pay off their debt.

In fact, paying off debt was the top choice of consumers, regardless of income level. Over one-third responded that it would be the first thing on their list should they be lucky enough to win the lottery.

Market Strategies, a global market research and consulting firm, conducted its new Consumer Financial Outlook study in September.

Mark Willard, senior vice president of Market Strategies' Financial Services Division, says the top answer seems to correlate with the shift to the more conservative "pay as you go, live within your means" financial approach his firm is seeing in other parts of our research results. Willard adds that "we believe this to be a long-term effect of the recent economic challenges and perhaps the most fundamental change in economic outlook since the Great Depression."

As the for next six choices in order of popularity seem to follow what you would expect lottery dreams to be made of:

  • 25 percent would buy a house
  • 15 percent would either (a) help family and friends, or (b) save or invest (tie)
  • 11 percent would buy a car
  • 10 percent would take a vacation
  • 6 percent would help others or donate to charity

Surprisingly, the age of the respondent has little effect on the choice. Willard said every respondent from age 30-70 chose to pay off debt first. Only Gen Xers, those age 21-29, put it second, behind buying a house. Of course, that seems logical in that they may not yet have been old enough to amass a lot of debt or have been able to purchase a home at their age.

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Photo source: New York State Lottery

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Four in Ten Americans Will Be Spending Less for Thanksgiving Dinner This Year

The biggest change according to one survey is in the number of people being invited to dinner

The economy will be the main reason 40% of American families will be spending less to give thanks this Thanksgiving...

As you sit down for Thanksgiving this year and look around the table, don't be surprised to see fewer people or desserts for that matter. A new survey says nearly 40% of American families will be cutting back on expenses for Thanksgiving this year because of economic reasons.

The survey by First Command Financial Services also says that biggest change will be in the number of people coming to dinner. One in five are planning to limit this year's Thanksgiving to only family members.

Coupons.com household savings expert Jeanette Pavini told CNN-Money that "people are looking at areas in their life where they have some control over the spending and Thanksgiving is one of those areas where people can go overboard.”

Americans are finding themselves trending toward the lower end of the expenses. And one quarter of the survey respondents said despite a recovery, this new mentality marks a permanent change in perspective. "We've been seeing a real move towards a more frugal approach to spending, not only in holiday spending, but in general," said Mark Leach, a spokesman for First Command.

Not so lavish

0:00 /1:09Ready for holiday shopping?

Marketing and media consultant Joe Cockrell says he used to throw lavish Thanksgiving parties for 150 people, but not this year. In the past, he said, "it was a time to gather with friends before the crazy holiday season hits. Last year it was complete with bartenders, catered food and a D.J."

Since then, Cockrell was put on notice at his firm and had to short-sell his condo because his new business was slow get off the ground. With a much smaller budget for extravagant entertaining this year, Cockrell is scaling back to just a few close friends for what he calls a "B.Y.O.B” get-together. I wonder if the second "B” stands for "booze" or "bird?”  

Lifestyle expert Susie Coelho specializes in economical entertaining. She told CNN-Money that "it's not cool to overdo things when people are suffering and most people are suffering. People are concerned about their homes and their jobs." 

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Alcohol Abuse Can Lead To Holiday ER Visits

Doctors issue pre-holiday appeal for moderation

The doctors who staff emergency rooms have some advice: go easy on holiday celebrations this year, when it comes to alcohol....

The holidays lead to celebrations and celebrations often involve alcohol. Too much alcohol can lead to all sorts of problems, not least of which are unwanted visits to the hospital emergency room.

The nation's emergency physicians, who sometimes are forced to work overtime around the holidays, are warning against excessive alcohol consumption and urging people to use good judgment.

"Very few things are more heartbreaking than to see a family suffer the loss of a loved one because of an alcohol-related tragedy, and during the holidays, people take risks," said Dr. Sandra Scheider, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians.  "A fun holiday celebration can turn into a nightmare in the blink of an eye, and it can happen to anyone, and we don't want that to happen."

People impaired by alcohol are a danger to themselves and others. Seventy-nine thousand deaths occur annually as a direct result of excessive alcohol use, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Many more are injured.

All kinds of accidents

"Alcohol-related injuries are not always driving-related incidents like some may assume," said Schneider. "Emergency physicians have treated patients who have been seriously injured while decorating a home for the holidays."

For example, Schneider says its not a good idea to get up on the roof to string holiday lights after having several drinks. She said emergency physicians have seen alcohol-related injuries that range from serious falls to using dangerous power tools incorrectly and doing tasks that require significant amounts of balance.

"These activities are dangerous under any circumstances," said Schneider. "When you add alcohol to the mix, all of a sudden cognitive skills are lessened, personal judgments change, and your ability to think coherently is decreased."

Health problems

Not only can too much alcohol cause accidents, heavy drinking over time can also lead to high blood pressure and even damage the heart.  Those with heart conditions can put themselves at great risk if they drink or eat excessively during the holidays.  

Some people can also be affected by a condition known as "holiday heart syndrome."   This condition is basically an irregular heartbeat pattern that may develop largely because of excessive drinking in people who are otherwise healthy individuals.

Of course, drunk driving is also a major concern throughout the year, especially around the holiday season.  

"Drunk driving is 100-percent preventable," said Schneider.  "Don't get behind the wheel of a car if you've had too much to drink.  You are not only a danger to yourself, but also to everyone else on the road."

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Washington State Bans Alcoholic Energy Drinks like Four Loko

The potentially harmful drinks now banned in two states

Washington State Bans Alcoholic Energy Drinks like Four LokoThe potentially harmful drinks now banned in two states...

Washington State is following in Michigan's recent footsteps and is banning sales of all alcoholic energy drinks, including the much-buzzed-about Four Loko.

Gov. Chris Gregoire joined Washington State Liquor Control Board Chair Sharon Foster on Wednesday to announce an emergency rule that bans the sale of alcoholic energy drinks in Washington state.

"At my request, the board this morning voted to ban this new breed of alcoholic drinks in our state. I applaud its members for their action," Gregoire said. "I was particularly concerned that these drinks tend to target young people. Reports of inexperienced or underage drinkers consuming them in reckless amounts have given us cause for concern."

The emergency rules will be in effect for 120 days, during which time the WSLCB will seek to make the rules permanent.

The vote comes after nine Central Washington University students became dangerously ill after drinking Four Loko.

Law enforcement officers reported the students had blood alcohol levels ranging from 0.12 to 0.35 percent, more than four times the legal limit.

A blood-alcohol concentration of 0.30 percent is considered potentially lethal.

"Quite simply, these drinks are trouble. They contain up to 12 percent alcohol -- more than twice the amount found in most beer," Gregoire said.

"Added to that are large amounts of caffeine, which can mask the effects of alcohol. By taking these drinks off the shelves we are saying 'no' to irresponsible drinking and taking steps to prevent incidents like the one that made these college students so ill."

Foster said the board is acting in the interest of public safety and acting now so alcoholic energy drinks cannot do anymore harm in the state before the Food and Drug Administration can act.

Mixing alcohol with caffeine drinks isn't new, but energy drinks like Four Loko have been recently gaining popularity with underage drinkers because they're cheap, potent, and so sweet they mask the taste of alcohol.

Mixing alcohol with caffeine is also not a good idea. Research suggests that the combination of caffeine and alcohol create a so-called "wide-awake drunk" and may impair a person's ability to judge his or her level of intoxication.

Risky behavior

This can lead to continued consumption of alcohol and risky behaviors such as driving while intoxicated, assaults and other violence.

A University of Florida survey of 800 randomly selected, college-age bar patrons found that those who consumed alcohol and caffeine were more intoxicated than those who only had alcohol, and four times more likely to say they wanted to drive home.

Combining stimulants such as caffeine and depressants such as alcohol is also bad for the body. It can place undue strain on the heart and central nervous system, dehydrate the body and hinder the body's ability to metabolize alcohol.

The combination can also cause a depressed respiratory system and vomiting during sleep when the stimulants wear off.

Critics of Four Loko and other alcoholic energy drinks say the companies appear to target teens and college students, using social networking sites, interactive fan websites and product giveaways at events.

Critics and officials also worry these potentially harmful drinks can easily be confused with their non-alcoholic energy drink counterparts.

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Thinking about Remodeling Your House? Here Are Some Tips to Keep the Costs Down

These suggestions will help give your home a quality make-over for less than you’d expext

Here are some ways to save on the cost of re-modeling your home...

If you live in your home long enough, sooner or later you're going to have to do things to maintain it such as replace the roof, or paint the outside. And in many cases, you may even want to do some remodeling as a way of giving your old house that new house look, especially if you are getting it in shape to sell. 

Home improvements aren't cheap. And if you try to do them cheaply it usually ends up costing you more in the end because inexpensive materials don't last as long as those of better quality and contractors will make low bids only to be followed by low-quality work. 

To help in your efforts to keep remodeling costs contained without sacrificing quality here are six solid tips supplied by CNN Money to get good quality for less.

The first tip is to renovate during an economic slump like the one we're having because contractors are eager for work. They tend to be more willing to cut deals when they have a lot free time on their hands.

Second, do the work off season. If you do a project when other homeowners aren't, you could save you about 10%, according to Robert Wilkos, who runs an HVAC and plumbing business in Panama City, Florida. For example, in autumn, put in a new patio or lawn irrigation system even though you won't be using it until the following spring. And in winter, finish the basement or install central air. Then wait until summer to replace your old furnace or install a gas fireplace. Get the bids during the busy season, then ask, "If I'm willing to wait, will you give me a discount?"

Third, look for a mom-and-pop contractor. If you have a choice between large outfits where the boss or a salesman bids on the job, then sends a crew to work and a small, or family-run one where the boss is the lead laborer, choose the small one. It will have leaner operations and lower overhead so they can charge less than the big guys.

Fourth, combine small jobs into one. If a handyman charges $75 for a service call, you get more for your money by saving up odd jobs such as replacing a faucet or installing a ceiling fan.

Fifth, you might be able to get a tax deduction. Give your demolition castoffs -- sinks, paneling, doors, and the like -- to a building product reuse center. Call your local Habitat for Humanity Re-Store. You can find it through habitat.org. They'll send a truck to collect the stuff. Get a receipt and you can deduct the value of the items as a charitable donation.

Sixth, put some of your own sweat into the process. Take on some simple projects yourself, such as sealing your new fencing or staining the deck. Or pay your teenager a modest amount to do it. Who knows? If the kid's good, the contractor might even give him a job next summer.

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More Shoppers Are Using Cash Instead of Credit

Remember the days when cash was king? They may be returning

New data shows consumers are turning their backs on credit cards in a shift back toward spending with cash...

Government figures show Americans are shopping again and that consumer spending up 2.2% so far this year, but with a difference.  Instead of putting their purchases on credit cards, they are paying with cash in the form of paper money or debit cards.

The Nilson Report (not to be confused with Nielsen) tracks payment systems and it says customers are already showing a strong preference for cash. Even though consumer spending is up, none of the four major credit-card companies have benefited from the increase.

According to the Nilson Report, Visa credit-card transactions were down 1.2% in the first half of the year, compared with the same period in 2009 while MasterCards were used for about 10.2% of all card transactions, also down. Discover transactions also dipped slightly. Only American Express reported unchanged card usage.

Consumers appear to be spending money they currently have, paying for purchases with a debit card or actual cash. The dollar amount paid with debit cards has grown 15% this year while spending on credit cards was up just 1.9%.

Debit-card usage is expected to grow 8% to 12% annually, according to the TowerGroup, which tracks bank cards.

James Brown, emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and former director of the university's Center for Consumer Affairs told Smart Money that a lot of people "are leery of credit cards and don't want to fall back into debt - that's why you're seeing this migration."

Out of favor

 

There are other signs as well. Gift cards have fallen out of favor. After nine consecutive years of gains, gift cards are on the wane. Sales of gift cards are expected to drop to $86.2 billion, an 11% decline from their peak in 2007, according to CardHub.com.

Why would gift cards suffer? Aren't they like cash? Not really. Shoppers want to avoid pitfalls like expiration dates and inactivity fees that can quickly erode a card's value. Even if you use a portion of the gift card, these inactivity fees can kick in if the rest of the card remains unused for at least 12 months.

Some consumers are selling their gift cards for around 10% to 20% less than face value to third-party sites like GiftCards.com, CardHub.com, PlasticJungle.com and GiftCardRescue.com. Sales at GiftCardRescue.com are up 1,000% through October of this year compared to the same period in 2009. PlasticJungle.com says sales have more than doubled through the middle of this year.

Dan Horne, professor of marketing who tracks the gift-card industry at Providence College, spoke to Smart Money about this trend. He says people would rather use the cash anywhere they like than be restricted to a specific store.

Within a few months, consumers could save up to 2.5% on most purchases by paying with cash. A clause in the financial reform bill allows merchants to discount items for shoppers who pay with dollars. And the Justice Department settlement last month with MasterCard and Visa allows retailers to discourage the use of rewards credit cards or other credit cards they deem expensive in order to avoid the high fees that card issuers charge when a store customer pays with plastic.

The result, according to Smart Money, could be a system of price tiers, where retailers offer different prices for each product based on method of payment - with cash the cheapest. Doug Kantor, counsel to the Merchants Payments Coalition, a coalition of retail trade groups, said retailers would "love to be able to offer discounts for cash” and that could soon happen.

To counter this shift to cash, credit-card companies are offering cash to encourage consumers to sign up and make purchases. Odysseas Papadimitriou, CEO of CardHub.com, which tracks credit card offers says that to qualify for up to $100 cash bonuses, consumers need a FICO credit score of at least 720. Of course, just like cash for checking account offers, credit card issuers expect to make thousands of dollars off these accounts. These cards are mainly offered to consumers who pay in full every month, represent a low risk of default, but who are heavy credit-card users who net credit-card issuers about 1% of the total purchase price each time they swipe their card fees that merchants pay the card companies, he says.

To get the $100 sign-up bonus, you'll have to give up cash, too, at least in the short term. With the Chase Freedom Visa card, consumers have to charge at least $799 in the first three months to get $100, and with the Discover More card, you'll have to charge at least $500 in the first three months for $100. And even then, most issuers post the money as a credit to your statement. Just like the old saying puts it, "you have to spend money to make money."

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You're Not Too Busy To Exercise During The Holidays

Adding a few extra steps to regularly scheduled holiday preparations can burn calories

You're Not Too Busy To Exercise During The Holidays Adding a few extra steps to regularly scheduled holiday preparations can burn calories...

Americans busy with holiday preparations may not even want to think about trying to go to the gym for the next couple months. But since the average person gains about 10 pounds between Halloween and New Year's, staying active is an important part of fighting off holiday bulge.

Experts at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center say by adding heart-pumping twists to tasks already on a holiday to-do list, men and women can get daily exercise throughout the holiday season

"It's important to maintain your fitness as much as possible during the holidays, but don't worry if you're too busy to go to the gym," says Karen Basen-Engquist, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Behavioral Science at MD Anderson.

"Many holiday activities offer ways to get the 30 minutes of daily moderate physical activity that your body needs to help fight off many forms of cancer and other diseases."

Exercising also helps the body burn off the mini candy bars, mashed potatoes, sugar cookies, and champagne Americans indulge in between October to January.

"You can break up your 30 minutes of daily exercise into three 10-minute or two 15 minute chunks as your schedule allows," said Basen-Engquist.

Here's how to turn exercise excuses into heart rate-boosting opportunities this holiday season.

Shopping?

Stop driving around in search of a parking space near the door. Park far from the entrance or, if you're taking the bus or train, get off a stop or two early. This way, you'll pack in some extra walking.

"For walking to count as exercise, you should be a little out of breath and feel your heart beating a little faster," Basen-Engquist says. "You should be able to talk in short sentences, but not sing holiday songs."

Once you're inside, opt for the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator and, if possible, carry your purchases instead of using a shopping cart. This will help get your heart pumping and strengthen your muscles.

Hosting guests?

Readying the house for guests -- and cleaning up after they leave -- is a great way to sneak in aerobic activity.

Basen-Engquist recommends focusing on activities that use large muscle groups, like the legs and back. This includes vacuuming, mopping, scrubbing, gardening and even taking multiple trips upstairs to put away laundry or holiday decorations.

"The most important thing is to get your heart rate up at a consistent level," Basen-Engquist says. "You should sustain the activity for at least 10 minutes without stopping."

Traveling?

Use these tips to speed up your heart rate when on the road:

Flying or taking the train or bus? While waiting to depart, take a brisk walk around the terminal -- and avoid moving sidewalks. When you arrive at your destination, make your walk to baggage claim or the exit a quick one.

Driving? Add physical activity to gas and bathroom breaks. Kick a soccer ball, throw a Frisbee or take a brisk walk.

Staying at a hotel or with friends or relatives? Many hotels offer gyms and even exercise classes. If that's not an option, maybe use an exercise DVD or check the TV for exercise shows. Or explore the area by taking a jog, walk or hike.

None of these work for you?

If you can't fit exercise into your holiday activities, try these tips:

  • Use your lunch break to jog or take a brisk walk.
  • Take the stairs at work.
  • Schedule workouts in advance.
  • Enlist a friend or partner to walk with you during the holidays. Buddying up provides motivation and gives you a chance to catch up and stay connected.
"Remember, it's hard to start exercising after you've gotten out of the habit,” Basen-Engquist says. "By making physical activity part of your holiday plans, you'll ensure you have the momentum to keep exercising in the New Year.”
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How Would Like to Get Your Next Flu Shot Without Getting Stuck with a Needle?

There’s a new device that uses a high-velocity liquid stream to deliver medicine

If your anxiety over needles prevents you from getting a vaccine or a flu shot, you now have no excuses because of needle free technology...

Have you been postponing getting that vaccine or flu shot? Does going to the doctor fill you with dread over the possibility the visit might require getting injected with a long needle? Well now you can stop worrying.

A new device that uses needle-free injection technology uses a high velocity stream of liquid that delivers vaccines or medications without piercing the skin.

Kathleen Callendar is the 69-year-old founder of PharmJet, a startup company based in Golden, Colorado that produces these gadgets. She told CNN-Money that the process takes less than one-third of a second and while it may not be entirely painless, it is more gentle than a needle and feels "like a tiny rubber band snapping against you."

Analysts say PharmaJet's spring-powered device has big potential, and not just for people who are afraid of needles. They estimate 16 billion injections are given each year in developing countries and that in some cases the needles are reused or improperly thrown away. In those situations vaccines meant to prevent diseases end up spreading them instead.

Carlos Castillo-Solorzano is a doctor with the immunization unit of the Pan American Health Organization, which is affiliated with the United Nations and based in Washington, D.C. He's quoted by CNN-Money as saying research on developing needle-free devices has been ongoing for decades. But it has always been too expensive for broad usage particularly in the developing countries where they're most needed.

PharmaJet won federal clearance for its first product in early 2009, following a rigorous U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval process that included testing injectors more than 30,000 times each and exposing them to extreme heat and humidity. Last year, the company's needle-free injector was used to give seasonal flu and H1N1 shots in a handful of public clinics in New Jersey.

In an interview with CNN-Money, Herbert Yardley, health officer at the Department of Environmental and Public Health Services in New Jersey's Sussex County, says it's now in "the second year and we have people asking for the needleless option." Yardley adds that he doesn't like needles "and this way, we don't have to pay for medical waste disposal or worry about needle-stick injuries."

Yardley says that more than 10 clinics in his county now offer needle-free injections using PharmaJet technology. About 30% of patients opt for the needle-free shot. Yardley sees it as the wave of future.”

According to CNN-Money, this year, around 40 pilot programs using PharmaJet injectors were launched across the United States and abroad. Customers include American pharmacy chain The Little Clinic and Los Angeles County's public health clinics, along with Brazil's Ministry of Health, which has rolled out needle-free injections in the Sao Paulo region. PharmaJet won't disclose how much revenue it's pulling in at the moment, but says executives say sales for the first quarter of 2010 topped their revenue for all of 2009.

The company still has a long way to go. For starters, it's not the only needle-free solution on the market. Competitors, say CNN-Money, include MedImmune, which has developed a nasal spray vaccine, and Bioject, maker of a needle-free gadget powered by a carbon dioxide cartridge.

And though PharmaJet's durable injectors are cheaper than the competition, they're still not cheap enough for use in the developing world. Currently, PharmaJet injectors -- which can be reused thousands of times -- cost about $100 a pop. The single-use, needle-free syringes feed into the injector cost from 30 cents to $1.

Callendar told CNN-Money that, as production volume rises, the cost of PharmaJet's injectors will drop low enough for it to become a viable option for developing countries.

In the meantime, she's hard at work on getting FDA clearance for a second device: a needle-free injector that uses the same high-velocity technology as its predecessor, but injects medicine into the top layer of skin, rather than penetrating into the muscle.

Scientific studies suggest that a smaller amount of vaccine can be used to get the same antibody effect when drugs are injected this way. If it works, the new device could immunize five people with the same amount of vaccine now used for just one patient. 

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Samsung Galaxy Tab Hits The Tablet Computer Market

T-Mobile starts selling it today, Verizon tomorrow

Samsung's Galaxy Tab is the latest device to take on Apple's iPad....

photoThe tablet competition got more crowded today when T-Mobile started selling the Samsung Galex Tab. Verizon Wireless begins selling the tablet computer tomorrow.

Sprint will begin selling the product November 14.

Verizon will sell the Galaxy Tab for $599.99. The T-Mobile price, with a two-year agreement, is $399.99.

The handheld device runs the Android 2.2 system and features a seven-inch touch screen. It comes with a Web browser and has full support for for Adobe Flash 10.1 for video and mobile gaming; and a 1GHz Cortex A8 Hummingbird Application processor.

"This is an incredible time in mobile technology, and as a company we're excited to add the Samsung Galaxy Tab to our portfolio," saidMarni Walden, vice president and chief marketing officer for Verizon Wireless. "The Samsung Galaxy Tab brings together the reliability of Verizon Wireless' 3G network and the power of Android 2.2 to deliver on our promise of providing consumers and business customers with a host of options to help manage their lives."

Popular mobile applications, including V CAST Music and V CAST Song ID, VZ Navigator, Slacker Radio, Kindle for Android, BLOCKBUSTER On Demand presented by V CAST Video, and the exclusive golf game, 'Let's Golf,' will be available on the Samsung Galaxy Tab. In addition to text, picture and video messaging, the Samsung Galaxy Tab will also feature V CAST Apps, Verizon Wireless' mobile storefront offering hundreds of applications for businesses and consumers at launch.

Verizon Wireless customers can add a monthly access plan beginning at $20 a month for 1 GB on their Samsung Galaxy Tab.

Faster speed

T-Mobile says its HSPA+ mobile broadband network will deliver a speed boost allowing the 3G-enabled device to load Web pages and videos even faster than in areas of 3G coverage. The company calls is a complete entertainment device.

"Customers want richer, deeper interactions with entertainment and online content through connected, portable mobile broadband devices that are small enough to carry and big enough to share with friends and family," said Jeremy Korst, director of broadband products and services, T-Mobile USA. "T-Mobile's unique offerings on the Galaxy Tab paired with the power of T-Mobile's new network allow us to bring a truly differentiated portable entertainment offering to market."

The Galaxy Tab is widely viewed as competition for the iPad, which is mostly used on AT&T's network, though Verizon will soon begin selling a model. Time Magazine technology writer Harry McCracken says the Galaxy is not as polished and complete as the iPad. But he says in many ways it's different, offering consumers "a genuine choice, not an echo."

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Stress, Not Hormones, Cause Depression in Women Undergoing IVF

The short-term IVF protocol is no less likely to cause depression than long-term

Stress, Not Hormones, Cause Depression in Women Undergoing IVF The short-term IVF protocol no less likely to cause depression than long-term...

Between 20 and 30 percent of women who undergo in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures suffer from significant symptoms of depression.

Many practitioners believe that the hormone therapy involved in IVF procedures is primarily responsible for this. But new research from Tel Aviv University shows that, while this is true, other factors are even more influential.

According to Dr. Miki Bloch of Tel Aviv University's Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv, stress, pre-existing depression, and anxiety are more likely than hormone therapy to impact a woman's depression levels when undergoing IVF.

Combined, these factors may also affect IVF success rates -- so diagnosis and treatment of this depression is very important.

Recently reported in the Journal of Fertility and Sterility, Bloch's research clarifies the involvement of different hormonal states as triggers for depression during IVF, both for long- and short-term protocols.

In the long-term IVF protocol, women receive injections which block ovulation, resulting in a sharp decline in estrogen and progesterone levels.

This state continues for a two-week period before the patient is injected with hormones to stimulate ovulation, at which point the eggs are harvested and fertilized before being replanted into the womb.

The short-term IVF protocol does not include the initial two-week period of induction of a low hormonal state.

Women wanting to avoid potential depression may be advised by their doctors to go with the short-term protocol, as some doctors assume depression is more likely to occur due to those first two weeks of hormonal repression that goes with the long-term protocol.

But Bloch's research has demonstrated the difference between the two different procedures is negligible -- depression and anxiety rates for women who undergo the long protocol and short are exactly the same.

Bloch and his fellow researchers conducted a random assignment study, in which 108 women who came to the Sourasky Medical Center for IVF were randomly assigned to either the long- or short-term protocol.

They were given questionnaires and interviews at the start of the therapy and at four other points during the IVF treatment.

The results, said Bloch, show consistently increasing depression rates among patients in both groups, regardless of which protocol they underwent.

The first two weeks of hormonal repression had no impact on whether a woman experiences depression during IVF.

"Once the patient begins ovulating, her estrogen rises to high levels. Then, after the ovum is replanted in her uterus, there is a precipitous drop in these hormonal levels," he explains.

It's the severity of the estrogen drop, a feature of both protocols, that was found to affect the patient's emotional state.

What did have an effect, however, was the patients' stress and anxiety levels.

When compared to a "normal" population, women undergoing IVF experience very high levels of anxiety and depression even before the treatment begins.

And as the protocol advances, women experience increased anxiety about the success of the implantation.

Women who have a previous history of anxiety or depression disorders before the IVF treatment are even more susceptible.

According to Bloch, this is likely due to the fact that these women are more emotionally vulnerable to the toll of the IVF process, rather then increased reactivity to changing hormonal levels.

When it comes to depression rates, the type of protocol a patient undergoes, whether short-term or long-term, has no impact, Bloch concluded.

While doctors should look at their patient's individual needs when deciding on an IVF protocol, the current report suggests the type of protocol is not an important factor in the induction of depression.

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Houston Gas Stations Overcharged Motorists, Jury Finds

State found gas pumps calibrated to dispense less than full gallon

A Houston gas station chain faces $30 million in damages after a jury confirmed the state's findings that it cheated customers....

A Harris County, Texas jury has decided the Houston-based owner of SunMart convenience stores must pay $30 million in damages for overcharging customers. $18 million of that will go to consumers.

The verdict follows an investigation by the State of Texas that found SunMart's gas pumps at 86 stations in Texas provided less than a full gallon of fuel for each gallon charged.

Consumers must put their faith in the accuracy of the gas pump, believing that when it shows one gallon of fuel has been dispensed, that is the actual amount. State governments routinely monitor gas stations, to ensure that faith is not misplaced.

In July 2008, Texas Attorney General Abbott charged the parent company, Petroleum Wholesale, L.P. (PWI) with defrauding gasoline purchasers. At the time, gasoline prices were at a record high.

Less than a full gallon

"The jury's verdict reflects a significant and well-deserved rebuke to SunMart's fraudulent pump calibration scheme," Abbott said. "After carefully considering the evidence during an eight-week trial, the jury concluded the defendant illegally set its gasoline pumps to deliver less than a full gallon of fuel."

Texas Agriculture Commission Todd Staples, whose department conducted the initial investigation, said the jury's verdict sends a strong message.

"In Texas, we demand that we get what we pay for," Staples said. "One Texan cheated is one too many. The Texans who served on this jury have made a decision that will further strengthen consumer confidence and sends a clear signal that Texans will not tolerate deceptive sales practices by anyone."

In July 2008, dozens of state inspectors conducted Operation Spotlight - a multi-county effort to inspect and test 1,701 gasoline pumps at 86 SunMart stores. After testing 1,701 SunMart pumps, TDA investigators determined that 985 were dispensing less than a full gallon of fuel.

Calibrated to dispense less than a gallon

According to court documents filed by the State, 58 percent of SunMart's pumps were calibrated to dispense less than a full gallon of fuel. The state maintained that, while Operation Spotlight was still ongoing, PWI attempted to cover-up its improper calibration scheme by dispatching company personnel and third-party contractors to recalibrate pumps before TDA inspectors could reach all 86 SunMart locations.

Staples launched Operation Spotlight after he learned that PWI routinely failed TDA inspections. Under Texas law, the Agriculture Commissioner is charged with regulating weights and measures - including gasoline pumps. Later, TDA referred their findings to the Texas Attorney General's Office, which charged PWI with violating the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. The State's enforcement action indicates PWI illegally calibrated and maintained their fuel pumps in a manner that defrauded their customers.

During the eight-week trial, a team of four Assistant Attorneys General provided jurors 48 boxes of fuel receipts - which covered 5,766,243 gallons of gasoline and 727,339 fraudulent sales transactions. The jury's $30 million verdict was based upon consumer transactions and penalties per violation of the DTPA. The jury found Petroleum Wholesale, L.P. liable for $18,765,411 in restitution, $8,494,212 in civil penalties and more than $2.7 million in fees to the State.


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Phony Debt Collector Scam Reported In Mississippi

Mississippi consumers confronted with phony payday loan debt

The fake payday loan debt collector scam has been spreading across the country this year, and has now shown up in Mississippi....

A frightening new scam, which first appeared earlier this year, has moved into Mississippi, according to that state's attorney general, Jim Hood. Hood said his office has gathered reports from consumers who said they received threatening phone calls from phony debt collectors attempting  to collect for a payday loan. 

"While you might think you can spot some scams from a mile away, this latest one uses your own information against you," Hood said.

The scammers often have the victim's Social Security number, old bank account numbers, driver's license numbers, home addresses, employer information, and even the names of personal friends and professional references, suggesting the victims are not being contacted at random.

The scammers accuse the victim of defaulting on a payday loan, and in some instances even claim the victim is being, or will be, sued. They may threaten that  if the victim doesn't pay immediately via wire or by providing bank account or credit card numbers, he or she will be arrested. Many call themselves federal investigators, and use methods of fear and intimidation.

Don't reveal information

"One consumer who felt threatened lost $1,300 after she gave out her bank account information," said Hood.

Hood says that there are things you can do to protect yourself from these scams.  Under the Federal Trade Commission's Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, debt collectors may not harass, oppress, or abuse any person while attempting to collect a debt.  This includes threats of arrest or removal from your home.

Here of some tips to follow if you receive a suspicious phone call from a supposed debt collector:

  • Ask the debt collector to provide official documentation in writing which substantiates the debt.
  • Do not provide or confirm any bank account, credit card or other personal information over the phone until you have confirmed the legitimacy of the call.
  • Review recent copies of your credit reports to ensure that the alleged debt is not affecting your credit.






Consumers should always use caution when disclosing any personal information, particularly on a website. Be cautious of any lender that does not ask you for background information outside of your bank account number, which may be a sign that the payday loan offered is not legitimate.

If you believe the scammer is in possession of your Social Security number of other sensitive information, you should consider contacting the three credit bureaus and placing a freeze on your credit accounts.

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Your Taxes Are Probably Your Biggest Expense But Do You Know How that Money Is Spent?

Most of us don’t so here’s an abbreviated itemized list

You pay your taxes every year but you may be surprised to find out how the government uses that money...

When it comes to taxes, most of us just pay them and forget about it. If you're working for a company, chances are you don't even have to think about paying them because they're withheld from your income automatically.

Do you ever wonder where all this money goes? We have a general idea that it goes to pay for the government and indeed some of it does. But then what does the government do with it?   

Most of us don't have a clue. In fact, a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that 40% of us thought foreign aid was one of the largest federal-budget expenses. Actually, foreign aid doesn't even make the top ten. In reality, for every dollar Washington spends on foreign aid, it spends $14 on Medicare, which according to some, is the second-largest expense, after Social Security.

Actually, it depends on how you view certain expenses as to how the government uses tax-payer money. In fact if you calculate the numbers a different way, the government actually spends more on defense than anything else. Unfortunately, there is no category called "defense” only a number of separate categories that could be construed as supporting the defense of our country either directly or indirectly. 

Clearer picture

To gives us a clearer picture of how our tax money is used a not-for-profit Washington-based group called Third Way has produced an itemized taxpayer receipt which the Wall Street Journal has graciously published. The list is limited and some off-budget items aren't included nor is a figure for our ever-growing national debt.

We're going to use the Third Way's receipt for the federal taxes of two couples that was published as a way to calculate percentages. That's because everyone's tax bill is unique. Even the two couples profiled pay very different taxes since one pair is retired so there isn't even an apples to apples comparison. Instead, I intend to use one couple's total income and payroll tax bill for the year as a base to which I will assign percentages for things like "defense””social security””medicare and medicade” as well as others.

So, here we go. For every tax dollar the government spends:

  • Defense and National Security ... 20%
  • Social Security .... 19%
  • Medicare and Medicaid ... 19%
  • Interest on National Debt ... 5%
  • Veterans Benefits, Health Care and Military Retirement ... 3%
  • Food Stamps ... 1%
  • Federal Highways ... 1%
  • National Institutes of Health ... less than 1%
  • Foreign Aid ... less than 1%
  • Housing subsidies for the poor ... less than 1%
  • Pell Grants for low-income college students ... less than 1%

The rest of the list, which accounts for about 30% is made up of a number of items, including the IRS, FBI, (CIA is included in Defense and National Security), NASA, Department of Energy, Federal Prisons, Agricultural subsidies, Head Start, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Centers for Disease Control, National Parks and the Food and Drug Administration to name a few. As I said the list was incomplete, but at least now you have a better picture of how the government is spending you tax dollars.

To calculate the figure for Defense and National Security I added the expenses for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, military operations outside Iraq and Afghanistan, Military personnel, military weapon, military research and testing, CIA, Border Security, and Coast Guard.  
  

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The End of Class Actions?

Supreme Court case could spell end of class litigation

The End of Class Actions?Supreme Court case could spell end of class litigation...

Are class action lawsuits about to be snuffed out?

A number of legal practitioners and scholars say that might be the ultimate outcome of AT&T Mobility Services v. Concepcion, a case being argued before the Supreme Court on Tuesday.

Brian Fitzpatrick, a law professor at Vanderbilt University, writes in a San Francisco Chroniclecolumn that the case "could be [the Supreme Court's] most important case in years."

"If the case is decided the way many observers predict, it could end class-action litigation in America as we know it," Fitzpatrick warns.

Case rooted in arbitration clauses

 

The case owes its very existence to our old friend, arbitration clauses. The plaintiffs, Vincent and Liza Conception, who sued AT&T for deceptive practices, challenged a clause in their user agreement mandating that all claims be resolved through binding arbitration, rather than litigation in the courts. The same provision prohibited consumers from bringing class actions, either in arbitration or litigation form.

While a California federal court ruled that the class action prohibition violates public policy and is thus unenforceable - a commonly-cited argument against class action waivers - AT&T says that the Federal Arbitration Act preempts state laws and mandates enforcement of the class action waiver.

Fitzpatrick - who points out that "the current court is very friendly to businesses" - says that many observers expect the Supreme Court to side with AT&T, allowing class action waivers to be enforced all over the country.

Because of previous decisions making personal injury class actions very difficult to certify, Fitzpatrick says that a ruling in AT&T's favor could constitute a death knell to class actions altogether. That's because almost all remaining class action lawsuits are "between parties who are in transactional relationships with one another,” meaning that, with a win by AT&T, would-be plaintiffs could be forced to sign away their right to bring a class action right from the beginning.

Wide-ranging consequences

The ramifications of a class action ban would be profound. Plaintiffs who bring the kinds of suits that end up as class actions - those concerning defective products, misleading contracts, or unfair working conditions - usually don't suffer economic damage great enough to justify bringing a suit all by themselves. The class action gives them an incentive to fight a case that wouldn't otherwise be worth it.

And perhaps more importantly, class actions serve as a deterrent to companies who would otherwise be able to nickel-and-dime consumers without consequence.

"The marketplace is fairer for consumers and workers because there's a deterrent out there," Deepak Gupta, an attorney with Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog group, told The Los Angeles Times. Gupta is arguing the case for consumers.

"Companies are afraid of class actions," Gupta said. "This helps keep them honest."

Long time coming?

That the conservative Supreme Court would like to end class actions is not a completely surprising concept. Recently, in staying a class action ruling against tobacco companies, Justice Scalia ominously warned that such a day might come. Scalia took issue with class action defendants' inability to cross-examine witnesses who allege that they broke the law, an issue that he said might amount to a violation of due process.

"The extent to which class treatment may constitutionally reduce the normative requirements of due process is an important question," Scalia wrote, adding that the issue is reflective of what he says is "national concern of the abuse of the class action device."

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A Great Credit Score Alone May Not Get You a Great Interest Rate

Banks use a number of methods beyond your FICO score to determine your credit worthiness

If you’re looking for a loan, credit card or mortgage, you need to get more than your credit score in order...

The financial crisis may be behind us but bankers and other lenders are still anxious when it comes to handing out loans. These days, you need more than a great FICO score to impress them. Banks are looking beyond your credit score into other areas of your financial life to make sure you are a good risk before approving a loan.

Some of the new areas coming under scrutiny include your rent and utility payments, your income and home value. Some even look at your banking habits such as whether your direct deposits have stopped. You could be considered a high credit risk if the value of your home declines too much or you have just an interest-only mortgage which means you aren't paying down your principal.

According to the Wall Street Journal, here are some newer ways lenders and financial-services companies are sizing up your financial behavior and credit-worthiness:

Bank-depositor behavior scores. Fair Isaac, the creator of the widely used FICO credit score, is marketing bank-depositor behavior scores, which are used by banks to assess their own customers. The scores are based on balances, deposit records and withdrawal activity. Unlike credit scores — which are most affected after payments are late or credit is maxed out — behavior scores can be a leading indicator of credit risk. They also can help banks identify customers who might need special attention because their direct deposits had stopped.

Income estimation. This business took off earlier this year after the Federal Reserve allowed lenders to use credit bureaus' income estimates to satisfy new requirements that credit-card applicants show the ability to pay their debts. The bureaus use credit-record information, such as the size of your credit lines and the age and size of your mortgage, and plug it into models to predict your earnings. Those estimates also may be used to double-check the income you report on credit applications or to determine if you should be preapproved for credit. You can't see those estimates. But if you are denied credit because of them, you must be given a chance to provide additional information.

Rent payments. An estimated 40 million consumers, including young people and people who prefer to pay in cash, have too little credit experience to generate a useful credit score. But they are likely to pay rent or utility bills, which could help credit bureaus assess their credit-worthiness better.

Credit bureaus say they also would like to offer data on cellphone payments, but have run into concerns over privacy issues, which may require legislation to untangle.

Collection triggers. Credit bureaus can now send daily reports to collection companies when a debtor's financial status changes. For example, if new employment information appears or if a debt starts to decline, a drop in credit use would indicate that the consumer has more capacity to pay and a better chance of repaying other outstanding debts.

Home values. As home values have plummeted and foreclosures have soared in many states, lenders of all stripes have become more cautious. Using home values as a factor in credit decisions doesn't appear to be widespread.

Your wealth. Information about your assets other than homes and cars, which aren't part of the credit record, may soon play a bigger role in your financial life. With a better sense of a consumer's balance sheet, lenders might be able to target potential customers better and also have a fuller sense of their likely risk. Equifax, another of the big three credit bureaus, offers financial-service providers an estimate of liquid wealth as part of a financial "suite" of information.

As all of this becomes a widespread practice, those who are prompt and careful in all aspects of their financial life may have more options — and those who have been sloppy with, say, their bank accounts may be penalized for that.

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Spotting BPA-Free Receipt Paper Just Got Easier

Wisconsin paper company hopes to set themselves apart with red fibers

Spotting BPA-Free Receipt Paper Just Got EasierWisconsin paper company hopes to set themselves apart with red fibers...

Now that holiday shopping is in full swing, consumers concerned about BPA will have a visual cue telling them whether the controversial chemical is in their cash register receipts or not.

Appleton, the only producer of BPA-free thermal receipt paper in the United States, announced Monday it has added easy-to-see red fibers to its paper.

In July 2010, laboratory tests commissioned by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a consumer group, found high levels of BPA on 40 percent of receipts sampled from major U.S. businesses and services, including outlets of McDonald's, CVS, KFC, Whole Foods, WalMart, Safeway and the U.S. Postal Service.

The chemical is used to coat the thermal paper used to print receipts used by major retailers, grocery stores, convenience stores, gas stations, fast-food restaurants, post offices and ATMs and are handled by millions of Americans every day.

Until now, consumers had no way to know exactly whether the receipts they received contained BPA or not since not every receipt contained it. The EWG study found receipts from Target, Starbucks, Bank of America ATMs and other important enterprises were BPA-free or contained only trace amounts.

Appleton says the red fibers will be in about 75% of the thermal receipt paper that they ship by the end of November. Appleton expects to have the red fibers in all of its thermal receipt paper before the end of first quarter 2011.
 
Appleton dropped BPA from its thermal paper formulation in 2006 out of growing concerns about the safety of the chemical.
 
"Four years ago, after reviewing toxicology reports and available studies, Appleton acted quickly to remove BPA from its thermal products," said Kent Willetts, Appleton's vice president of strategic development.



"We are committed to actively managing the safety of all our products and removing BPA was the responsible thing to do," said Willetts.
 
In the last few years, concerns over BPA have grown. In January 2010, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration expressed concern about the potential adverse health effects of BPA in infants and children, especially for applications with direct contact to food. 
 
Appleton found a solution to the BPA-problem in its security papers business.
 
"We took technology that is used for authenticating documents like bank checks, and we applied it to thermal receipt paper," Willetts explained.





The new receipts from Appleton are good for the environment, too.

The small red fibers are made of rayon, a recyclable cellulose fiber that is more biodegradable than cotton. The thermal receipt paper itself is also recyclable.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency invited Appleton representatives to participate in a partnership program called Design for the Environment, which involves multi-stakeholder alternative assessments to help reduce environmental releases of, and subsequent exposure to, BPA.

The first assessment focuses on finding safer alternatives to BPA for use as a developer for dyes in thermal paper.

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Three Debt Collectors Settle With West Virginia

Companies were attempting to collect old, charged off debts

West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw has reached a settlement with three debt collectors he said were operating without a license....

Three debt collection agencies have agreed to cancel $1,277,337 in debts for 161 West Virginia consumers. In addition, some consumers will get cash refunds.

West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw had opened an investigation against the companies - Trailhead Capital, LLC, a debt buyer based in Chicago, IL; Hollis Cobb Assoc., Inc., Trailhead's affiliated collection agency in Norcross, GA; and Troy Capital, LLC, a debt buyer based in Las Vegas, NV - after receiving complaints that revealed the three businesses were collecting debts in West Virginia without a license and surety bond as required by state law. 

Records also showed that the debts the companies were attempting to collect were primarily charged-off credit card accounts originally owed to Chase, Wells Fargo Bank, and GE Capital. In other words, the banks were no longer attempting to collect the debts.

In West Virginia, businesses that purchase defaulted debts for collection, as Trailhead and Troy Capital did, cannot avoid being licensed and bonded by hiring other agencies to assist them in collecting the debts. 

"Our nation suffers from an explosion of credit card debt resulting largely from companies that extended credit without due regard to consumers' ability to repay and without clearly disclosing the terms of financing," McGraw said. "Rather than working with consumers to develop plans that might enable them to pay their debt over time, banks increasingly sell defaulted credit card debt for pennies on the dollar to collection agencies called debt buyers."

McGraw said companies that buy bad debt often take overly aggressive collection actions that include the filing of lawsuits - even when they have little proof of the debts they seek to collect from consumers. 

"My office will continue its vigilance in ensuring that all debt buyers are licensed and bonded as well as follow the letter of our state's consumer protection laws," he said.

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Be Careful With Timeshare Memberships and Resale Companies

While timeshares can be convenient for vacationing, there are some caveats

Be Careful With Timeshare Memberships and Resale Companies While timeshares can be convenient for vacationing, there are some caveats ...

Planning your next vacation? Perhaps timesharing -- the use of a vacation home or campground for a limited, pre-planned time—is on your list of options. Timesharing may be a popular way to take a vacation, but problems can occur.

Timeshare sellers offer gifts to get you to listen to a sales presentation. Many giveaways are of little or no value. Free airline tickets may be tied to the purchase of expensive hotel accommodations. Other vacation "awards" are often of questionable value.

Timeshares can cost as much as $15,000, based on location and amenities, season, and length and type of ownership. Annual maintenance fees of up to $500 may also apply. In addition, buyers may be responsible for major repairs. What some consumers realize too late is that renting may:

  • Be a lot cheaper,
  • Allow more flexibility and variety in vacations,
  • Prevent being locked into yearly maintenance fees until death or bankruptcy.

No quitting

Some resorts refuse to "take back" unwanted memberships. This is because the income generated by annual maintenance fees may be more valuable than the member's title to real estate. According to the Wisconsin Bureau of Consumer Protection, some timeshare/campground members state they have been unable to even give away their membership, much less being able to find a buyer.

Timeshare owners who discontinue to use the resort facilities must continue to pay their annual maintenance fees and any special assessments. If the member refuses to pay annual dues, the condominium association may sue and recover back dues, interest, and attorney fees. Some members say they feel trapped for life.

An investment it isn't

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found only 3.3 percent of owners reported reselling their timeshares during the last 20 years. You may face competition from the original seller. Or local real estate agents may not want to include the timeshare unit in their listings.

Some resorts have a resale office to try to assist the owners of unwanted timeshares. In addition, some resorts will allow an unhappy timeshare owner to give back his interest in the resort, but rarely will a resort guarantee that it will buy it back.

Be wary of offers from timeshare resale companies. Some desperate timeshare owners report paying resale companies $500 to list a timeshare, but promised buyers never materialized. These consumers report the loss not only of the original purchase price of the timeshare, but also the money paid to timeshare resale companies.

Purchasing tips

  • Practical Factors. Consider whether you'll be able to use a timeshare facility year after year. Are your vacation plans sometimes subject to last minute changes, or do they vary in length and season from year to year? Does the property have flexible use plans? Are you -- and will you be -- in good enough physical and financial health to travel to your timeshare?
  • Total Costs. The total cost of your timeshare includes mortgage payments and expenses, such as travel costs, annual maintenance fees and taxes, closing costs, broker commissions, and finance charges. Annual maintenance fees can range from $300 to $500. Since these fees can rise at rates that equal or exceed inflation, it's important to ask if there's a fee cap for your plan. Keep in mind that these fees must be paid whether or not you use the unit. To help evaluate the purchase, compare your total timeshare costs with rental costs for similar accommodations and amenities for the same time and in the same location.
  • Document Review. Don't act on impulse or under pressure. Take the documents home to review. Ask a professional or someone familiar with timesharing to review the paperwork before you buy. If the seller will not let you take the documents, perhaps this isn't the deal for you. A good offer today usually will be a good offer tomorrow. Legitimate businesses don't expect you to make snap decisions. Find out if the contract provides a "cooling-off" period during which you can cancel and get a refund. If not, ask to include this clause. Most states where timeshares are located require a cooling-off period. If there is no cooling-off period, be sure you understand all aspects of the purchase and carefully review all materials before you sign.
  • Oral Promises. Make certain all promises made by the salesperson are written into the contract. Exchange Programs that allow you to arrange trades with other resort units in different locations for an additional fee usually cannot be guaranteed. There also may be some limits on exchange opportunities. For example, you may need to make your request far in advance. Or, even at an additional cost, you may not be able to "trade up" to a better unit at peak time in an exotic location. When you trade, expect a unit of approximately the same value as your own.
  • Reputation Research. Your resort will be a good place to vacation only if it is run properly. Research the track record of the seller, developer, and management company before you buy. Ask for a copy of the current maintenance budget. Learn what will be done to manage and repair the property, replace furnishings as needed, and provide promised services. Will these arrangements be adequate? Will they extend over a long period of time, or just the near future? Visit the facilities and talk to current owners about their experiences. Local real estate agents, Better Business Bureaus, and consumer protection offices also are good sources of information.
  • Unfinished Facilities. Purchasing an undeveloped property is extremely risky. But if you decide to do so, commit money to an escrow account. This protects your financial investment if the developer defaults. Also get a written commitment from the seller that the facilities will be finished as promised.
  • Default Protection. Learn your rights if the builder or management company has financial problems or defaults. Check to see if your contract includes two clauses concerning "non-disturbance" and "nonperformance." A non-disturbance provision should ensure that you'll continue to have use of your unit in the event of default and subsequent third party claims against the developer or management firm. A non-performance protection clause should allow you to keep your ownership rights, even if a third party is required to buy out your contract. Contact an attorney who can provide you with more information about these provisions.
  • Foreign Properties. Be especially wary of offers to purchase timeshares or vacation club memberships in foreign countries. If you sign a contract outside the United States for a timeshare located in another country, U.S. federal or state contract property laws generally will not protect you.
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Feds, Industry Team Up To Push Pool Safety

Pool and spa industry association to serve as information hub for industry and consumers

Feds, Industry Team Up To Push Pool Safety Pool and spa industry association to serve as information hub for industry and consumers ...

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals (APSP) are partnering for the agency's Pool Safely: Simple Steps Save Lives public safety campaign.

The partnership, announced at the International Pool, Spa, & Patio Expo in Las Vegas, includes APSP working with CPSC in 2010 and into 2011 to promote the Pool Safely campaign to the pool and spa industry. The campaign is designed to reduce the number of drowning, near-drowning, and entrapment incidents each year by.

APSP will work with its members and customers to make compliance with the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool & Spa Safety Act and education priorities. This campaign is part of CPSC's national information and education program associated with the Act.

"The industry will be an important partner in delivering the campaign's safety message through its national network of pool and spa professionals," said Kathleen Reilly, CPSC's Pool Safely Campaign Leader. "We appreciate that APSP will use its role as an industry leader to help promote the Pool Safely campaign and make campaign materials and other resources available to its members and their customers."

Educational materials

APSP will provide Pool Safely materials at industry events, in publications, on industry videos, on its Website, and through social media channels, such as Facebook and Twitter. In addition, the group will develop a specific Pool Safely page within the "safety" section of its Website, where visitors can find information on the campaign and order campaign materials. Finally, it will incorporate Pool Safely messaging and materials into new safety videos for its industry members.

"The safe use of pools and spas is a priority for everyone, from companies that build and service pools, to facility management, to parents and individuals who enjoy the benefits of aquatic activities," said Bill Weber, President and CEO of APSP. "We're proud to partner with CPSC on the Pool Safely campaign and hope the combined efforts of CPSC with the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals, along with other organizations, will serve to focus attention on the importance of water safety to all stakeholders."

In the months leading up to the partnership announcement, the Pool Safely campaign released a series of print and broadcast Public Service Announcements (PSA) and a new educational video. The PSA and the video can be viewed YouTube. The campaign also debuted a new parent-child activity with tips about pooling safely; the activity can be played on the Pool Safely Website.

The Pool Safely campaign has partnered with other leading organizations, including American Red Cross, The YMCA of the USA, Safe Kids USA, National Drowning Prevention Alliance (NDPA), Home Safety Council, World Waterpark Association (WWA), Abbey's Hope, and the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals (APSP).

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New Laws Haven’t Stopped Credit Card Issuers from Using New Ways of Getting Your Money

Despite new regulations on credit card fees, consumers still end up on the losing end

The Credit Card Act was supposed to help consumers not give banks and card issuers an excuse to raise interest rates and create new ways to charge more ...

You have to hand it to the credit card companies. They didn't become the giant profit-churning machines they are today by being stupid. No sooner had the ink dried on the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act limiting certain fees did those crafty card companies come up with new and devious ways of charging us even more.

Put a limit on how you can raise interest rates at 29.99%. Okay, then that's the new default rate for anyone who doesn't have a stellar credit rating.

Tack a cap on certain fees. No problem, Bank of America, Discover, Citigroup and J Morgan Chase among others, have simply raised minimum payments on certain customers' accounts in order to increase late penalties. How does that work you ask? Well, apparently the banks have determined that a sudden jump in the minimum payment can increase the likelihood that borrowers will be late on payments. Pretty sneaky, right?

Meanwhile, others are jacking up credit-protection insurance programs and charging customers for coverage without even asking permission.

Want to hear more? A few are aggressively pushing people into prepaid cards that are exempt from the new rules but carry sky-high fees.  

Computer says 'no'

Have you tried to get a lower interest rate lately? It used to standard for loyal customers to get their interest rates lowered just by calling to complain. It's not so easy any more. In fact, with the new card rules you would think the issuer's hands are tied. "Sorry, I tried to get you a better rate, but the computer wouldn't let it go through,” was the bank rep's explanation. So now it's "the computer's” fault.

When asked why my default rate had ballooned to 29.99% a bank representative said it was due to the new financial environment. Translation, the new credit card limits said we could so we did.

Some of the new fees are even worse than the high interest rates. Discover and HSBC are pushing insurance that promises to make minimum payments for borrowers who lose their job, and then imposing the fees without borrowers' permission. J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America have raised minimum payments on credit cards, perhaps in order to increase late-fee charges.

It doesn't stop there. Cards have revived their annual fees; shortened billing cycles; levied new charges on cards with low credit limits; increased balance-transfer fees, cash-advance and foreign-exchange fees; and they've begun to push what's known as "professional cards."  These cards are not subject to the restrictions of the Card Act.  

The Federal Reserve tried to do something last month when it announced proposals to ban hefty activation fees and prevent issuers from raising interest rates on promotional card offers until a borrower is more than 60 days late.

The Card Act was expected to hurt bank profits and that lenders could lose an estimated $11 billion in fee income next year alone. This new action is intended to offset that loss. So who gets to pay? We do of course.

Profits from debit cards were also impacted. Earlier this year, the Senate passed a law ordering the Federal Reserve to limit "interchange fees." Those are fees banks charge to merchants each time a card is swiped. Last year, banks collected $22.8 billion in such fees on debit-card transactions, according to CardHub.com, a consumer information site.

So how do the banks react? J.P. Morgan Chase says it's moving away from debit cards. Starting in February, it won't issue debit reward cards to new customers.

So what can we do? Consumer advocates say we should be on guard from the start. Before signing up for a new card offer, find out whether services like payment protection are automatically included. Once you use a card, check statements each month for any billing changes. If you notice a higher minimum payment or a new fee, contact the card issuer immediately.

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Ban Imposed On Marketers of 'Detox' Foot Pads

Advertising claimed 'ancient Japanese secret' could treat medical conditions

Ban Imposed On Marketers of ‘Detox’ Foot Pads Advertising claimed 'ancient Japanese secret' could treat medical conditions ...

photoA federal judge has banned marketers of Kinoki "Detox" Foot Pads -- that would purportedly remove toxins from the body through a person's feet -- from selling a wide variety of products.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charged that the marketers falsely claimed the pads could treat numerous illnesses and medical conditions. In a recently announced settlement, the judge banned the marketers from promoting or selling any dietary supplement, food, drug, or medical device, and from assisting others in doing the same.

As part of its efforts to crack down on bogus health claims, the FTC last year charged the promoters of the foot pads with running deceptive ads on television and the Internet that touted the "ancient Japanese secret to perfect health" for treating wide-ranging medical conditions. The defendants --Yehuda Levin and his company, Xacta 3000, Inc. -- sold a two-week supply of Kinoki Foot Pads for $19.95, plus $9.95 for shipping and handling.

Bogus claims

Xacta falsely claimed to have scientific proof that the foot pads removed toxic materials from the body, according to the FTC complaint. The company also advertised that when applied to the soles of consumers' feet at night, the food pads could remove toxins, metabolic wastes, heavy metals, and chemicals from the body; treat headaches, depression, parasites, fatigue, insomnia, diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure, cellulite, and a weakened immune system; and cause weight loss.

In its complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey on January 27, 2009, the FTC charged that these advertising claims were false or unsupported.

Levin and Xacta have agreed to a judgment of $14.5 million, which represents the total revenues from the sale of Kinoki Foot Pads. The entire judgment is suspended based on the defendants' inability to pay, but will become due if they are found to have misrepresented their financial condition.

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Chemicals Lurking in Microwave Popcorn Bags

Harmful chemicals found in many types of food packaging leeching into foods

Chemicals Lurking in Microwave Popcorn BagsHarmful chemicals found in many types of food packaging leeching into foods...

Junk food addicts may want to consider kicking the habit; if not to avoid eating so many calories, but to avoid eating so many chemicals.

University of Toronto scientists have found that chemicals used to line junk food wrappers and microwave popcorn bags break down and become perfluorinated carboxylic acids or PFCAs which leech into foods when ingested, contaminate the blood.

These chemicals can be found in anything from non-stick kitchen pans to clothing to food packaging.

PFCAs, the best known of which is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), are found in humans all around the world.

"We suspected that a major source of human PFCA exposure may be the consumption and metabolism of polyfluoroalkyl phosphate esters or PAPs," says Jessica D'eon, a graduate student in the University of Toronto's Department of Chemistry.

"PAPs are applied as greaseproofing agents to paper food contact packaging such as fast food wrappers and microwave popcorn bags."

In the U of T study, rats were exposed to PAPs either orally or by injection and monitored for a three-week period to track the concentrations of the PAPs and PFCA metabolites, including PFOA, in their blood. Human exposure to PAPs had already been established by the scientists in a previous study.  

Researchers used the PAP concentrations previously observed in human blood together with the PAP and PFCA concentrations observed in the rats to calculate human PFOA exposure from PAP metabolism.

Major source of exposure

"We found the concentrations of PFOA from PAP metabolism to be significant and concluded that the metabolism of PAPs could be a major source of human exposure to PFOA, as well as other PFCAs," said Scott Mabury, the lead researcher and a professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Toronto.

"This discovery is important because we would like to control human chemical exposure, but this is only possible if we understand the source of this exposure.  In addition, some try to locate the blame for human exposure on environmental contamination that resulted from past chemical use rather than the chemicals that are currently in production," said Mabury.

While the effects of PFCA exposure is currently unknown, there is growing evidence that other chemicals used in food packaging leech into foods and cause harm to people when ingested.

Bisphenol-A, or BPA, a chemical the linings of cans used for food and beverages, has already been linked to low sperm count in men and aggressiveness in girls.

Perhaps because of this, regulatory interest in human exposure to PAPs has been growing.  

Governments in Canada, the United States and Europe have signaled their intentions to begin extensive and longer-term monitoring programs for these chemicals.  The results of this investigation provide valuable additional information to such regulatory bodies to inform policy regarding the use of PAPs in food contact applications.

The study was conducted by Jessica D'eon and Scott Mabury of the University of Toronto's Department of Chemistry and is published today in Environmental
Health Perspectives.  Research was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

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Mortgage Modifications Sound Good But Beware -- They Could Cost You Your House

Not all loan modifications are created equal and some may be worse than your current loan

Lawsuits are sprouting up across the country by homeowners who feel betrayed by banks who used mortgage modifications to make things worse...

When I tried to get my mortgage modified in order to lower my monthly payments, I was rejected and I remember at the time feeling pretty angry about it. But now, I feel kind of lucky my mortgage modification application didn't go through.

According to the Wall Street Journal, homeowners across the country are suing their lenders for not living up to their end of the deal when they agreed to trial mortgage modifications. The article highlights, as an example, southern California grocery store owners William and Esperanza Casco who bought their home 17 years ago with a mortgage.

The Cascos were actually making enough money to stay current on their mortgage, but then their bank, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. offered to a trial modification plan to reduce their payments. They could certainly use the extra cash, so they signed up. They say they never missed a subsequent payment, so they were shocked when the bank decided the smaller payments weren't enough and foreclosed on their home.

Wait a second. Wasn't the government supposed make sure this didn't happen. As part of that $700 billion bail out, some of that money was designed to be used by the government's payment reduction program.

It turns out struggling homeowners didn't get as much help from the bailout as originally planned. In fact, according to the Journal, Treasury statistics show that only about one-third of the nearly 1.4 million homeowners who were accepted into the government's payment reduction program had their reductions made permanent.

As for the Cascos, a Chase spokesman Gary Kishner told the newspaper the bank "worked with the borrower to give him as many opportunities as possible to qualify for a permanent modification, they were not able to do so and therefore we were forced to foreclose on the property."

The Journal says several federal lawsuits filed in Boston accuse major lenders of breach of contract under the government's Home Affordable Modification Program which is what the banks agreed to participate in the bailout. The lawsuits say the banks agreed to grant permanent mortgage modifications to borrowers who make all payments during the trial modifications.

Attorney Shennan Alexandra Kavanagh told the Journal that several of the plaintiffs lost their homes after their payments reverted to their original sums that they were unable to pay. She said she believes tens of thousands of borrowers in Massachusetts alone could be covered by the suits if they get class-action status.

One of the lawsuits is against Bank of America, which was consolidated earlier this month with similar complaints in five other states. To be fair, a Bank of America spokeswoman Shirley Norton said in an e-mail that the lender will continue aggressively defending itself against the cases.

Meanwhile, the Journal reports that lawsuits have been piling up against other lenders elsewhere. In San Francisco, the Housing and Economic Rights Advocates legal services group sued Chase, accusing it of profiting from collecting payments during long trial modifications that ultimately end in foreclosure.

A lawyer involved in that lawsuit, James C. Sturdevant, says the banks are basically "participating in the crisis they had helped to foment by refusing to honor loan modifications they had already agreed to.”

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Netgear Offers Way to Wirelessly Connect TVs to the Internet

Netgear's new wireless router is designed for connecting TV sets, not computers

Netgear's new wireless router is designed for connecting TV sets, not computers....

Netgear, a company best known for making equipment to connect computers, is jumping into the area of connecting computers and television sets.

Netgear has just introduced a new category of wireless router that will enable you to watch Internet-based programming on your TV, with no wires. The new product is actually four new products, known collectively as the ReadyNAS Ultra Series.

The ReadyNAS Ultra Plus series is designed to transform home media networks, delivering media content to local or remote handhelds, desktops and game consoles. TiVo users may use the ReadyNAS Ultra Plus to expand their DVR capacity.

The system also shifts movies and music onto DLNA networked screens. Remote file access is now available for iPhone users with the new ReadyNAS Remote iPhone App.

Company officials note that many new, Internet-ready TV sets come with an Ethernet port. This product, they say, is a natural way to help consumers be part of this emerging trend. 

"The explosion of digital content has resulted in large personal media collections that are often unmanaged and scattered," said Norm Bogen, industry analyst at In-Stat. "As media collections grow, so has the demand for home media servers. Consumers want simplicity and flexibility."

Netgear says its 3DHD Wireless Home Theater Networking Kit can stream 1080p high-definition video throughout the home. If you have a large home or outbuildings on your property, you can boost the signal to reach those areas using hubs.

The equipment will go on sale later this month as prices starting at $400.

The concept of convergence between the Internet and television got another boost in October when Google introduced Google TV.  Sony followed up the announcement by introducing a line of sets, specifically designed for watching content through Google.

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Distressed Homeowners Still Critical Of Mortgage Modification Process

Those whose trial modifications are rejected are much worse off

Complaints continue to mount about the government-backed mortgage modification program....

The foreclosure process is under scrutiny after revelations that some loan servicers violated the rules. Now the focus may be shifting to the loan modification process, which has failed to prevent as many foreclosures as once hoped.

Lawsuits have proliferated this year, filed by homeowners desperately trying to hang onto their homes, and who say loan servicers lied to them, gave them erroneous information and lost their paperwork as they tried to modify their loans.

San Francisco's Housing and Economic Rights Advocates, a legal services group, has sued JPMorgan Chase, accusing the bank of exploiting homeowners with trial modifications, only to foreclose on their homes.

The government-backed modification effort, the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), launched in April 2009, has encouraged lenders to help struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure. About 1.4 million homeowners have entered the program but only 500,000 have emerged with modified mortgages. The rest? Most have lost their homes to foreclosures.

Complaints Mount

Since January 1, 2010 there have been 1,756 complaints about home modifications posted on ConsumerAffairs.com. One of them is one from Debi, in Scranton, Pa., who said she was both shocked and relieved to see so many other complaints that mirrored the problems she was experiencing with American Servicing Corporation.

"The company offered to 'help' us by setting us up on a modification program," she told ConsumerAffairs.com.  "All seemed fine for two years. They dropped approximately $200 from our payment of $1.350. Then in March 2010 they put is on their 'trial' basis of three months. Still not sure why."

Debi said the bank continued to withdraw their modified payment of $1176 from her account for four months. Then the following month she received a check from the bank for $946.

Calling to inquire why the bank would be sending her money, Debi was told that she had been withdrawn from the trial modification because she had not sent all the required documents. Debi says she sent every requested document, at least twice. While she was reapplying for the modification program, she said she received notice from the bank that they were putting her in a short sale. She was losing her home.

What do we do now?

"We have been in this house for over 20 years," she said. "Are we just supposed to stop fighting, give in and move out?”

Countrywide Finance customer Janette, of Simi Valley, Calif., believes the whole modification process is seriously flawed. She complains that she can't obtain accurate information and the process is drawn out over a year or more.

"The longer it takes the further behind we fall,” she says. "Then, if the modification is approved the payment is higher, as there's more past due payments included. Something needs to be done now.”

John, of Forest Lake, Minn., says Chase has been giving him the runaround for 18 months. He said he tried to work out a modification but the bank eventually rejected it and began foreclosure proceedings.

"I found a credit union that was willing to pay off the loan and start fresh but Chase has added $37,000 to my loan and now the credit union is not so interested in loaning this extra money,” John told ConsumerAffairs.com. "My loan officer said it's unheard of to charge anyone this kind of fee and refused the loan. I'm tired of dealing with the number of people at Chase that hand off my phone calls. You never get the same person and no one can give you an answer. They just pass you on to the next number and it can go on for hours till you give up. The Attorney General's office is tired of hearing the calls come in and you would think someone would help the general public. What's their job? But this bank has figured out how to strip its customers of the little cash they have in their home or pocket and have no fear of anyone telling them what they are doing is wrong.”

In her testimony before Congress last month, Julia Gordon, of the Center For Responsible Lending, said HAMP's performance has been disappointing, despite the half-million families that have gotten a second chance.

Fallen fall short

"HAMP has fallen far short of its initial goals for helping individual homeowners and has remained well behind the curve of additional foreclosures," she said. "Worse, many families encounter an incompetent or even predatory mortgage servicing system once they apply to the program, experiencing delays or denials that are inconsistent with the promise of the program guidelines.”

Gordon said hundreds of thousands of people who received trial modifications during HAMP's initial phase have ended up in a worse financial situation as a result of their participation in the program if they do not get converted to a permanent modification.

The reason? During the trial period, when they are making reduced payments at the direction of their lender, their lender is also reporting them as delinquent to the

credit bureaus. Not only that, but late fees and interest continue to accumulate, resulting in a large addition to the debt at the end of the trial modification.

Like a dangerous, high stakes roll of the dice, those who enter the modification process but come up short often find them in even more dire financial straits.

"The continued insistence by Treasury officials that HAMP is working has contributed to deep cynicism in those who have interacted with participants,” Gordan said.The credibility of the program has been further undermined because it has not been transparent and has not created adequate enforcement mechanisms.
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Many Restaurant Chefs Hesitant To Make Their Food Healthier

Fear of low sales or bad reputation to blame

Many Restaurant Chefs Hesitant To Make Their Food HealthierFear of low sales or bad reputation to blame...

Because of busy schedules, many Americans choose to eat most meals in restaurants.  But as entrée portion sizes grow, so do our waistlines.  

According to Penn State researchers, restaurants could play an important role in helping to reduce the growing obesity epidemic by creating reduced-calorie meals.

The researchers surveyed chefs, restaurant owners, and culinary executives from across the country to assess their perceptions of serving healthy foods in restaurants.

In the survey, 72% of the 432 respondents said they could trim off 10% of the calories in meals without customers noticing differences in taste, and 21% said they could trim off at least 25% of the calories. This small change could lead to a major impact on the obesity epidemic.

"Reducing intake by as little as 100 calories per day can amount to a significant weight loss over a year," says Liane Roe, research nutritionist in Penn State's Department of Nutritional Sciences and co-author on the team's findings, which appeared in Obesity.

Roe and co-author Barbara Rolls, holder of the Helen A. Guthrie Chair in Nutrition, found that many chefs were not familiar with the calorie content of the meals they served. 49% were only somewhat familiar with how many calories their meals contained and stunningly, 7% had no idea at all.

"If a large number of chefs don't know the calorie content of their food, they will be limited in their ability to modify what they serve to guests," said Roe.

Chefs in the study were much more willing to create new reduced-calorie foods rather than modifying existing meals. Rolls explains that chefs might not want to modify their signature dishes for fear of losing sales or affecting their restaurant's reputation.

This highlights a common idea chefs have about restaurant food: that promoting a dish as healthy is the "kiss of death."

According to Rolls, they believe that very few customers will want that food. However, that doesn't mean they have to tell the public if they make any alterations.

"Silent change goes on all the time in the food industry," said Rolls.

In the study, chefs rated their perceptions of obstacles to increasing healthy food in restaurants. 32% thought healthier meals would equal low consumer demand. 24% figure their kitchen staffs will need training. 18% were worried about high ingredient cost .

The majority of chefs, 71%, indicated that the success of a low-calorie meal hinged primarily on taste.

When asked about the most effective method for reducing calories in meals, chefs favored reducing portion sizes over "reducing calories per bite" -- reducing fat or adding fruits or vegetables.

Making portions smaller is probably a good idea, since they have grown to absurdly epic proportions in the last generation. But many consumers may not want to pay the same amount for less food. That's why reducing the amount of calories in many popular dishes might be the way to go.

However, when asked to pick specific strategies for reducing calories for two popular meals -- beef stew and apple pie a la mode -- chefs most often chose methods of reducing fat. Rolls said this seeming inconsistency most likely shows a knowledge gap in the culinary field; the chefs surveyed may not fully understand the terminology of "reducing calories per bite."

Rolls has shown in past research that people typically eat the same volume of food over a one- or two-day period. By adding water-rich foods -- fruits and vegetables -- that are low in calories per bite, people can maintain the total weight they eat while reducing the calorie count. Some of her past research shows that people do not notice calorie reductions of up to 30 percent.

Not only would substituting fruits and vegetables reduce calories in meals, but it would improve nutrient intake, which has dropped off sharply in recent years.

A recent study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that fruit intake among Americans has fallen significantly within the last ten years, while vegetable intake has remained steady. However, the majority of Americans are not eating the recommended amounts of fruits or vegetables, the CDC study suggested.

Other recent studies show that people are increasing the frequency at which they eat out, that people who eat out frequently are more likely to be overweight. By better understanding the attitudes of chefs, Rolls, Roe, and their team at Penn State hope to improve methods for making meals healthier and promote those methods among restaurants.

"It's important to figure out how to reduce the calorie content in meals in a way that keeps food just as enjoyable at the same price," said Rolls. "We're all responsible for what we eat, but restaurants can make it easier for us."

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Ways to Profit from Low Interest Rates besides Refinancing Your Mortgage

Interest rates this low aren’t going to last forever so you should take advantage of them

It’s only a matter of time when inflation returns and interest rates rise so take advantage of the current low interest rates to save money...

No one knows how long these record low interest rates are going to be around. We've heard Fed Chairman  Ben Bernanke proclaim the only way to grow the economy is through inflation, which usually means interest rates would go up.

The Fed announced another round of quantitative easing, or QE2 for short, and that it was going to buy up some $600 billion worth of government debt. While that could push interest rates even lower, some analysts are saying that would be temporary and that the ultimate goal was to spark a rise in consumerism and an increase in prices. Translation: inflation and eventually higher interest rates.

That's why you should take advantage of the current low interest rate environment and U.S. News has put together a list of ways you can do that:

Obviously, you could either buy a home or refinance the mortgage you already have. But since most people may not be in a position to do that, here are three other ways to profit from low interest rates.

1. Get free money from your credit cards. Some of the best balance transfer offers give you interest-free money for 21 months. Just a year ago, the best deal was for 12 months. Add to the longer transfer periods, the fees on these offers are back down to 3 percent from what use to be 5 percent. These deals offer a great way to pay off high interest credit cards, and they can enable you to climb out of credit card debt faster while paying no interest.

2. While most think of refinancing a mortgage, you can also save a lot of money by refinancing your auto loan. It's easy to compare rates and apply for refinancing loan entirely online. In fact, you never even have to go into the bank. If your current car loan is charging a high interest rate, refinancing can save several hundred dollars a month.

3. Finally, debt consolidation can be a great way to take advantage of low rates. By combining high interest car loans, school loans, credit cards, and other debt into a single low interest loan, you can not only save money, but also reduce the number of payments you make each month. One option is to consolidate high interest debt into a home equity line of credit. If that option is not available, you may consider a bank loan or other line of credit, so long as you can qualify for an interest rate that makes sense.

 

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Michigan Bans All Alcohol-Infused Energy Drinks

State officials cite drinks, like Four Loko, aimed at underage drinkers

Michigan Bans All Alcohol-Infused Energy DrinksState officials cite drinks, like Four Loko, aimed at underage drinkers...

People looking to purchase alcoholic energy drinks in Michigan will now have to cross state lines to get their fix.

The Michigan Liquor Control Commission (MLCC) has rescinded the approval of all alcohol-infused energy drinks, like the headline-making Four Loko, in light of several studies regarding the popular drinks, the widespread community concerns aired by substance abuse prevention groups, parent groups and various members of the public, as well as the FDA's decision to further investigate these products.

Four Loko has been making headlines in the last few weeks since being banned from Ramapo College in New Jersey and Central Washington University in Washington state. The fruity malt liquor is being blamed for sending countless kids in both states to hospitals with alcohol poisoning.

These recent events along with other concerns from emergency room doctors quoted throughout the country have prompted Chairperson Nida Samona and Commissioner Patrick Gagliardi to take action.

The Commission believes the packaging is often misleading, and the products themselves can pose problems by directly appealing to a younger customer and encouraging excessive consumption while mixing alcohol with various other chemical and herbal stimulants.

Critics of the drinks say Four Loko is especially targeted at kids because of its colorful packaging, its cheap price (usually about $3 a can) and its high sugar content which appeals to younger palates and masks any taste of alcohol.

A typical alcoholic energy drink is 24 ounces and has a 12 percent alcohol content, compared to a 12 ounce can of beer, which normally has an alcohol content ranging from 4 to 5%. It's almost three to four times the alcohol content of a 12 ounce beer.

"One can, one serving, is enough to get you intoxicated. Alcohol energy drinks cost on average $2 to $5 per can making these products easily accessible and affordable,” said Commissioner Patrick Gagliardi.

The high amounts of caffeine slows the effects of drunkenness, which might explain why kids are drinking several cans of the potent beverage while they party and end up with near-fatal blood alcohol levels.

"The Commission's concern for the health, safety and welfare of Michigan citizens and the fact that there is not enough research to validate that these products are safe for consumption has made me believe that until further research is done by the FDA, they should no longer be on Michigan shelves,” said Samona.

"Alcohol has been recognized as the number one drug problem among youth, and the popularity of alcohol energy drinks is increasing at an alarming rate among college students and underage drinkers.”

One has to wonder if banning drinks like Four Loko won't just make them more appealing. Four Loko appears to be gaining fans on Facebook, not losing them, and die-hard fans are lamenting the recent Michigan ban.

"This sucks!” said one Michigan resident on a Four Loko Facebook fan page, "Places have thirty days to get them off their shelves...so get them while you can!”

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Oklahoma Debt Collector Charged With Fraud In Texas

Payday lender accused of impersonating a government official

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has accused an Oklahoma payday lender of impersonating a Texas government official....

Debt collectors are bound by strict rules when dealing with consumers and Texas officials accuse an Oklahoma of violating several of the.

Specifically, if you are trying to collect a debt, you can't tell the debtor you are a police officer or any kind of government official.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has charged Patrick D. "Dylan” White and his businesses - CASHMAX, Fed Cash, TOPCASH and Cash Service Center - with illegally misrepresenting itself as an official Dallas County government agency.

Abbott went to court and obtained an order against the defendants, prohibiting them from continuing to distribute fraudulent mailings.

Abbott says White incorporated his firm under the name Federal Cash Advance of Oklahoma, LLC, and maintains offices in Dallas County.

According to state investigators, the defendant sent deceptive collection letters to Texans with outstanding debts. The letters were delivered in envelopes that contained the Dallas County Clerk's forged signature and improperly bore the official seals of both the State of Texas and Dallas County.

Inside the envelopes, the defendant inserted notices of debt collection that instructed recipients to call a telephone number, which belonged to Federal Cash Advance's CASHMAX offices.

Illegal threats

The notice letters illegally threatened criminal prosecution, referenced a phony "case number” and cited fictitious criminal penalties of up to five years in prison and heavy fines.

The Texas Finance Code prohibits debt collectors from threatening debtors with prison sentences. It also bans deceptive collection notices that improperly pressure debtors to pay their debts.

In addition, the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act also prevents debt collectors from misrepresenting themselves to debtors and otherwise engaging in abusive behavior.

The State is seeking court-ordered penalties of up to $20,000 per violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act and the Finance Code.

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Because We’re Living Longer, More Americans Will Run Out of Money in Retirement than Previously expected

Financial planners now predict we could live an average of 30 to 40 years in retirement not the 20 to 30 years as previously believed

It’s time to re-calculate those retirement plans if you want to avoid outliving your money...

It's been fairly standard for some time now for financial planners to recommend that you should be prepared to spend from 20 to 30 years in retirement and to save and invest accordingly. That no longer may the case as innovations in health care and technology begin to extend our lifespan into the 90s and 100s.

According to Census Bureau data the fastest growing segment of the population is people over 85. Currently, actuarial tables say that if you're a 65-year-old man retiring today, you have, on average, 18 years of life remaining, taking you to age 83. Women of the same age have 21 more years, to 86.

That kind of information helps insurance companies who rely on averaging the life spans of their customers. But who's average. And who's to say whether you fit into that statistical model.

You could die tomorrow, or like my aunt, live until you're 97. She retired at 65, but had a pension and Social Security so she was all right up to the end. But what if all you have is your Individual Retirement Account or your 401(k) and Social Security? Are you going to make it to 97 without living on a meager monthly Social Security check?

So if you are planning for 20 years, you could easily end up outliving your wealth. It's estimated that there are about 55,000 people in the U.S. who are over 100 years old. That's not so many today, but in the next 20 to 30 years, our life expectancy could double. Then what are we going to do? One thing at a time.

The message we're trying to get across today is that if you're going to plan for retirement, plan for 30 or 40 years and not just 20.

Here's an even scarier statistic. According to the Employment Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), more than 40% of Americans are at risk today of running out of money in retirement. For those in the lower income spectrum, it's even worse. EBRI says one of five of them will run out of money within ten years of retirement.

What to do

Are you scared yet? Are you ready to do something about it? Okay. Here's what you need to do.

Depending on your age, the earlier you begin saving for retirement the better. It's never too early. For most of us, it's a different story. For us, the most important thing we can do is work as long as we can so we can save more, and investing more effectively. Also, the longer you wait to take Social Security, the more you'll get. The break-even age is somewhere around 79 so if you're in good health, chances are you'll live that long. So try if possible to take Social Security when you're 70. It will be nearly twice what you get at 62.

The next step is to build up a nest egg that you can draw from. And then draw as little as possible in the beginning so the rest can keep growing. It used to be you could withdraw 5% or 6% a year and still have enough left over to keep growing. Those days are gone. This is a new era and a new kind of market. The slow growing kind. Retirement experts now recommend keeping annual withdrawals to 3.5% or lower, especially if you need your savings to last 40 years.

That means you're going to have a pretty stable investment strategy. Either that or buy an immediate fixed annuity. With an annuity, for a mire $300,000, a 65-year-old man can receive about $2,000 of income per month for the rest of his life. Granted, that's not cheap but it's kind of like buying a winning lottery ticket. You just have to pay a bit more for it. It still gives you the piece of mind that comes with a steady income that you will never outlive.

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No-Contract Cell Phones May Be Growing Trend

Survey finds wide interest among contract customers in switching

Since the beginning of cell phones, providers have locked customers into long-term contracts, but a new survey suggests that trend is shifting....

A constant source of irritation for cell phone customers is the two-year contract, and a hefty early termination fee if you break it.

So perhaps it's not surprising that a new survey of cell phone customers suggests one in five consumers with contract-based service - an estimated 24.6 million American adults - is likely to switch in early 2011 to less expensive unlimited prepaid wireless service with no early-cancellation penalty.  

Nearly one in 10 additional contract-based cell phone users said they would consider switching if they were not currently subject to an early-cancellation penalty, according to the first annual "Net10 Prepaid Wireless Consumer Trends National Poll" conducted by Infogroup/ORC for the independent New Millennium Research Council (NMRC), a policy and market research organization.

In March 2009, NMRC forecast an imminent shift by cell phone consumers from more expensive contract-based cell phone service with often hefty cancellation penalties to less expensive no-contract prepaid service.   In March of this year, NMRC reported that - for the first quarter ever - the number of new prepaid wireless phone customers in U.S. eclipsed the number of new contract-based phone customers during the final three months of 2009.

Growing interest

The survey found that overall, roughly half (47 percent) of U.S. cell phone users with contract-based service - an estimated 57.8 million consumers - are "very likely" (23 percent) or "somewhat likely" (24 percent) to switch to "a no-contract or prepaid phone" when "your cell phone early-cancellation penalty period ends and you can switch at no cost."  

Among U.S. cell phone consumers with contract-based service who say they are unlikely to switch to no-contract/prepaid service in the next six months well over half (56 percent) are "very or somewhat open to switching to a no-contract or prepaid cell plan at some point in the future, but aren't planning to do so now."  Fewer than two in five contract-based phone users (38 percent) indicated they "don't see yourself ever switching to a no-contract or prepaid cell phone."

The top four reasons cited for U.S. consumers to switch to a no-contract/prepaid cell phone (including "major" or "somewhat" of an impact): 68 percent "needed or wanted to cut cell phone bill costs"; 58 percent were "paying too much for a Smartphone with features you didn't need or use"; 49 percent were "unhappy with (an) early-cancellation penalty for contract-based phone service"; and 48 percent cited the "recent availability of unlimited talk, text, Web and email access on no-contract basis for about $50 a month."

"With millions of recession-weary consumers looking to trim even more fat from their household budgets, 2011 is shaping up to be the Year of the Prepaid Cell Phone Consumer,” said Sam Simon, senior fellow, New Millennium Research Council. "Even without the need to pinch pennies during the current economic downturn, consumers are clearly fed up with the high prices of contract-based cell phone service and the gouging that goes on with early-termination fees.   We were the first to forecast a big shift to no-contract/prepaid cell phone service by U.S. consumers, but we may have actually underestimated just how quickly this trend would catch on"  

Should you switch?

Prepaid plans — also called pay-as-you-go plans — allow you to purchase minutes in advance, as you need them. There is no contract, credit check or deposit, and most plans won't make you pay an activation fee.

Prepaid wireless isn't for everyone, especially if you're a heavy wireless user or want certain types of phones. However, you might consider going prepaid if:

  • You want to budget your expenses

  • You or your teen need a limited-use phone 

  • You need a phone only for emergencies 

  • You have bad credit 

  • You want to test-drive the carrier before signing a contracted plan.

Just because you don't sign a contract doesn't mean that choosing service can't be confusing. You still have to do your homework, and do it well.

What to consider

There is nothing wrong with shopping based on the type of phone or the per-minute rate, but none of that matters if the service doesn't work in your area. Start with checking the coverage map, but understand that it's only a "general information” guide and nowhere near perfect.

Just as with a postpaid plan, a cell phone is basically a small radio. Weather, terrain, and buildings can play havoc with the quality of service. A phone can work fine on one block but not the next.

Until you know the service works well where you need it, you're typically better off by starting with the minimum amount of minutes needed to get the service off the ground.

Options for prepaid service have increased in recent years. Discount providers like Tracphone pioneered the concept, but left many customers dissatisfied. Recently major carriers like Verizon and Virgin Mobile have also begun offering a pay-as-you-go alternative.

Earlier this year Wal-Mart began offering a "post-paid" cell phone market with a $45-per-month, unlimited talk/texting plan that it says could save a family of three up to $1,200 per year. 

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Time To Check Your Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm Batteries

Experts also recommend consumers test their home’s safety equipment when they return their clocks to standard time

Time To Check Your Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm Batteries Experts also recommend consumers test their home’s safety equipment when they return thei...

When you set your clock back this weekend, don't forget about changing the batteries in your smoke alarms and carbon monoxide (CO) alarms too.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) urges consumers to make a habit of replacing smoke and CO alarm batteries when the time changes. Daylight Saving Time ends on Sunday, November 7 this year.

"Properly working smoke and carbon monoxide alarms can save lives by alerting you to a fire or to poisonous carbon monoxide in your home,” said CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum. "In order to work properly, alarms need fresh batteries at least once every year.”

Device check

In addition to changing batteries every year, CPSC recommends consumers test their alarms monthly. Place smoke alarms on every level of the home, outside sleeping areas and inside each bedroom.

CO alarms should be installed on each level of the home and outside sleeping areas. However, they should not be installed in attics or basements unless they include a sleeping area. Combination smoke and CO alarms are available to consumers.

Fire departments responded to an estimated 385,100 residential fires nationwide that resulted in an estimated 2,470 civilian deaths, 12,600 injuries and $6.43 billion in property losses annually, on average, from 2005 through 2007.

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless, poisonous gas that consumers cannot see or smell. An average of 181 unintentional non-fire CO poisoning deaths occurred annually associated with consumer products, including portable generators, from 2004 through 2006.

Safety contest

CPSC is sponsoring a nationwide carbon monoxide poster contest to increase awareness about the dangers of CO in the home. The poster contest is open to all middle school students in grades 6, 7 and 8 through December 31.

Each of nine finalists will receive $250 in prize money. The grand prize winner will be awarded an additional $500. More information about the contest is available online.

GFCI test

CPSC also urges consumers to test electrical outlets in their homes that are equipped with ground fault circuit interrupters, also called GFCIs or GFIs. A GFCI is an inexpensive electrical device that can be installed in a home's electrical system to protect against severe or fatal electric shocks. If you don't have GFCIs, have them installed by a qualified electrician.

Test the GFCI after installation, at least once every month, after a power failure and according to the manufacturer's instructions. See our GFCI Fact Sheet for more information about GFCIs, where to install them and how to test them.

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New York City Issues Water Warning For Lead

Officials attribute cause to plumbing found in older homes

New York City Health officials have begun urging residents to run tap water for 30 seconds before drinking, because of elevated lead levels....

New York City has warned residents about lead found in the tap water of older homes, but officials stress the contamination is not in the city's reservoir system; it's in the plumbing of older homes.

"NYC Water is safe and healthy to drink," said Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Cas Holloway. "DEP carefully monitors water quality at the city's 19 upstate reservoirs and at nearly 1,000 sampling stations within the distribution system to determine if any contaminants, such as lead, are present. We conduct 500,000 tests each year, and they show that our water supply is virtually lead free.

But Holloway says some older buildings in the city have lead pipes, or pipes with lead fixtures, which can impact the tap water of private homes by introducing lead into water that has been sitting in the pipes for several hours or more.

Reducing the possibility of exposure to lead in drinking water, he says, is simple and inexpensive: run the tap for at least 30 seconds, until the water is noticeably colder, before drinking, cooking or making baby formula.

Run your tap

Holloway and Health Commissioner Thomas Farley have launched the Run Your Tap campaign, a public service campaign to educate city residents about simple precautions that can reduce potential exposure to lead from internal plumbing systems.

"Water is the healthiest of all beverages, and we encourage people to drink tap water," said Farley. "Still, the plumbing in some buildings can cause lead levels to rise when water sits in the pipes for long periods. The elevations seen in the city's recent tests have been too small to pose clear health threats — lead-based paint is the primary source of exposure in New York City, and we will continue to focus on it. But the best level of lead exposure is zero, especially for children and pregnant women. So remember to run your tap for half a minute, until it's cold, before drinking or cooking with water from the faucet."

As part of the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act, DEP conducts tap water testing at a sample of homes in New York City known to have lead service lines or lead solder in pipes. The results of this year's sampling show an increase in the number of samples above 15 parts per billion (ppb), the EPA standard for lead in water.

This year's test results show that 14 percent (30 samples) of 222 samples were elevated. Whenever more than 10 percent of the samples exceed 15 ppb, EPA requires public notification by the water supplier. New York City is not unique in experiencing this. Cities such as Boston, Washington D.C., Providence, and Portland, Oregon have all exceeded the action threshold in the past decade.

The city said it is investigating the cause of this increase. Drinking water is rarely the primary cause of lead poisoning, but elevated lead levels in water can increase a person's total lead exposure. Lead in tap water has declined since 1992, when DEP began anti-pipe corrosion water treatments.

Health Effects of Lead

Lead is a common metal found in the environment. In the past, lead has been used in pipes, plumbing fixtures and solder, paints, gasoline and other products. Lead may be found in air, water and soil from past uses of these products.

Lead poisoning is a preventable health problem and young children are at greatest risk, health experts say. Lead poisoning may cause learning and behavior problems as well as delays in growth and development in children.

In New York City and across the country, peeling lead paint in homes is the primary cause of lead poisoning. Landlords must inspect and safely repair peeling paint if a young child lives at a residence.

Blood lead levels in children have been dropping precipitously over the past several years. Since 1995, there has been a 93 percent drop in the number of children with elevated blood lead levels from 19,232 cases in 1995 to 1,387 cases in 2009.

 

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Kids With Food Allergies At Risk For Malnutrition

Researchers say overly-restrictive diets based on unreliable blood tests to blame

Kids With Food Allergies At Risk For Malnutrition Researchers say overly-restrictive diets based on unreliable blood tests to blame...

According to researchers at National Jewish Health, many children, especially those with eczema, are unnecessarily avoiding foods based on incomplete information about potential food-allergies and as a result, are at risk for malnutrition and poor weight gain.

The food restrictions tend to be based primarily on data from blood tests known as serum immunoassays.

Immunoassays detect antibodies in the blood to specific foods, which can potentially cause allergic reactions. Interpretation of the results, however, can be tricky.

The tests' ability to predict true food allergy has been validated for only five foods - cow's milk, hen egg, fish, peanut and tree nuts. For all other foods, the numbers derived from lab testing are suggestive but not definitive.

Low test values suggest that a child's immune system is sensitized to the food, but not necessarily to the extent that it will cause an allergic reaction. Higher values suggest an increasingly likelihood of true food allergy.

None of the tests are 100 percent accurate, however, in predicting clinical food allergy on their own.

Many factors, including patient history, including any previous reactions to food, the type of reaction, the patient's age, family history, physical examination, and blood and skin tests, are used as evidence when evaluating potential food allergies. 

Doctors say the "gold standard” of food allergy tests is the oral food challenge, where the patient actually eats the suspected allergenic food. The oral food challenge is usually only performed when evidence is mixed and doctors want a definitive answer to the food allergy question.

Because of this, researchers found many kids are being denied foods that can only be determined allergenic based on the oral food challenge, putting them at risk for malnutrition and poor weight gain.

"People with known food allergies, especially those with a history of anaphylactic reactions, should by all means avoid those foods," said David Fleischer, MD, lead author of the study and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at National Jewish Health.

"However, a growing number of patients referred to our practice are being placed on strict, unproven food-elimination diets that have led to poor weight gain and malnutrition. These overly restrictive diets have been chosen for a variety of reasons, but over-reliance on immunoassay tests appears to be the most common cause."

The researchers conducted a retrospective chart review of 125 children evaluated at National Jewish Health for suspected food allergies.

Children in the study were avoiding 177 different foods based primarily on previous blood test results.

In many cases, especially those with high test results for egg, milk, shellfish, peanut and tree nut, National Jewish Health elected not to perform oral food challenges.

They did perform oral food challenges for 71 foods or about 40 percent of the cases where the clinical allergy was equivocal and it was important to determine whether or not the patient had food allergy. In 86 percent of those cases, the child passed the food challenge and the food was restored to the child's diet.

Overall, 66 of the 177 foods avoided because of blood tests were restored to children's diets. For the entire study, 325 foods were restored to the diets of 125 children.

"When you are able to restore foods such as dairy products, egg, peanut, wheat, and vegetables to a child's diet, it improves their nutrition, reduces the need for expensive substitute foods and makes meal time easier for families," said Donald Leung, MD, PhD, senior author and Edelstein Chair of Pediatric Allergy and Clinical Immunology at National Jewish Health.

The problem can be especially acute among patients with eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis. Research suggests that specific foods can cause flare-ups in about one third of eczema patients. They commonly have high immunoassay tests to a variety of foods, many of which are not truly allergenic.

As a result, many mistakenly avoid foods they believe are causing flare-ups, but neglect basic skin care that is vital to improving the eczema. One hundred and twenty of the 125 children in the study had eczema.

The researchers published their study online in The Journal of Pediatrics on Oct. 29. It will appear in a later print version of the journal.

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What You Need to Know Before You Co-sign for Your Children’s Loan

There are certain risks when you are a co-signer

What do you do when your children ask you to co-sign for a loan or a rental agreement?...

As children get older their requests become more adult as well including asking you to co-sign for a loan or possibly a rental agreement. It's all part of life in this dreary economy and young people just starting out are having as hard a time at finding meaningful employment as anyone.

You first had to deal with the co-signing issue when they were in college and wanted a credit or debit card. Most students under 21 can't get one without an adult co-signing.

Then when they graduate and want to go off on their own, they haven't lived long enough to create a credit history let alone get a well-paying job, so they may hit you up to co-sign or help with the rent on their first apartment.  

Then come the loans. Even when they can get them on their own, the rates they qualify for may be prohibitively high. So you have to decide whether to offer your signature to guarantee your child will pay it back and if they don't you will.

Before you sign on the dotted line, consider this. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that three out of four co-signers are asked to repay loans because the primary borrower has defaulted.  Ouch.

Now what do you do?  Should you sign knowing there's a good chance you'll end up paying if off? Here, according to Money magazine, are some things you should consider and steps you should take.

First, find out why your child is required to have a co-signer. Then ask the same questions the lender or landlord will: Can your kid afford this obligation? How much of his or her pay will it represent? How does he or she plan to cover the bills if he or she loses a job?

Second, before co-signing a credit card agreement, know how your child will use the plastic. For an apartment lease, consider whether your kid can control his friends because you'll be responsible for damages if a party gets out of hand.

Third, forget the notion that you're secondary when you co-sign: Creditors and landlords will come after you if your child fails to pay the bills. So don't agree unless you can afford the payments yourself.

 

 

Fourth, FICO credit scoring treats credit card, car loan co- borrowers no differently than primary account holders. That means your score could dip if your child is delinquent and defaults.

If you were planning to apply for credit soon yourself, you could be denied because a co-signed loan is reported as outstanding debt on your credit file, impacting your ability to borrow.

If you do decide to co-sign, take precautions to curtail losses. Make sure the limit on your child's credit card stays low, such as $500 to $1,000.

On a lease, get the parents of your child's roommates to co-sign with you. That way, it's less likely you'll have to foot the bill for someone else's kid.

If you're helping your child borrow for a car, put the title in both your names. That way if he stops paying, you can sell the car to pay off the debt.  

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More Banks are Giving Away 'Free Money' So Watch Your Wallet

Beware the free money come-ons because they come with strings attached and that money is anything but free

Don’t be fooled by banks’ ploy to give you money so you’ll bank with them only to be hit later with hidden fees and costly restrictions...

There's nothing like cash as an incentive to do something. But you should always be wary when something sounds too good to be true. Like banks giving away free money just so you'll open a checking account. Those cash incentives are quickly erased by hidden fees and restrictions.

Still, these "free money" offers have more than doubled over the last year. Schwark Satyavolu, CEO ofBillShrink.comtracks bank account trends. He says Citigroup has started to lure in new customers with up to $300. Meanwhile, Capital One is offering $200 while JPMorgan Chase is handing out a miserly $125. Not to be outdone by Citigroup, the online bank WTDirect.com is also offering to $300 for opening a new savings account.

So what's going on? Even in the last month, more than half a dozen small banks have also rolled out similar cash incentives of up to $220. Have the banks suddenly become generous? Don't count on it. For the banks, this is a calculated tradeoff.

You see as soon as the banks start lending again and many of them have, they need more cash to help fund car loans and mortgages. Where do think they get it? From all those checking and savings account deposits. So while you may think you've just found some free money, the bank is the real winner because they've just taken in your money in that new checking or savings account.

As Satyavolu explains it, banks are targeting "good" would-be customers, who are likely to maintain high balances and use their debit cards frequently. In exchange, they hope new account-holders will raise banks' revenues and apply for loans down the road. When customers need a mortgage, they tend to turn to the bank they have their core relationship with.

No free lunch

 

We all know there's no such thing as free money. You're going to have to do some serious depositing to even qualify for that incentive.

Let's say you go to Citigroup. It's going to take you about two weeks to get the money and that's provided you open a Citigold interest checking account, which offers an interest rate of 0.15%. Wow! How do you even compute such a low rate? That's a whole 15 cents on $100.00.

Then you have to deposit at least $1,000 by November 18 and maintain an average daily balance of $1,000 through the end of the month. You'll also have to sign up for three more Citi products -- like a savings account, certificate of deposit or a credit card --within two months of opening the account.

When you do finally get the money, you'll have to pay taxes on it. Cash incentives are taxed as regular income. So if you're in the 25% tax bracket, that $300 award drops to $225 in after-tax dollars.

That's not all. Even after you get the money, you could lose it to other new and increased fees such as a failure to meet the minimum balance requirements. According to Bankrate.com, the average minimum balance requirement is $3,883 for a no-fee interest-bearing checking account. That's an increase of 15% from last year.

Bankrate.com says the minimum falls to $249 on non-interest checking but that is 34% higher than last year. The average customer who falls below the threshold pays a fee of around $13. So try to find accounts that have zero minimum balance requirements. ING Direct has one but it doesn't give out as much "free" money either. The ING Direct account doesn't require a minimum balance and has no fees associated but only gives out $50 as a new account bonus.

Bank of America offers you $25 for signing up a friend, who also gets $25. But that doesn't go very far once service fees kick in. Bank of America charges a $12 maintenance fee for its regular checking accounts that fall under its minimum daily balance requirement of $750 and that fee is going up to $14 on November 4 for balances that dip below $1,500. You can, however. link your checking account with a savings account at the bank, but even then, you'll need to keep at least $2,000 total between the two accounts to avoid the fee.

At Chase, you can open an account with just $25 and still receive a $125 cash bonus. But you'll be charged $6 per month if you don't buy something with their debit card five times each month or have at least one monthly direct deposit posted to their account. That's similar to ING which requires three transactions - debit card purchases or transfers from your account to someone else's - within the first 45 days to get the bonus. 

Overdraft fees

 

Then there are those overdraft fees. Banks want you to get what's called "overdraft coverage" on your checking account. Don't. In 2009, banks took in $37.1 billion in overdraft fees. These fees get charged any time a consumer withdraws more money from their checking account than they have in it.

As of August, new Federal Reserve rules prevent banks from automatically enrolling consumers in debit-card overdraft coverage. It's that coverage which permits purchases to go through even if the consumer doesn't have enough money in their checking account. This is what allows banks to collect their fee. Now, customers who do nothing will have their overdraft purchases declined, which may be humiliating but it's not going to cost you extra fees.

The fee per overdraft averages $30. To further confuse you, sometimes banks will post transactions out of order. So let's say you have $150 in your checking account. You buy something for $100 and then something else for $200. If the bank posts the $200 purchase first, you'll get hit with two overdraft fees. There is an option that could help save you money. Ask the bank to link your checking to your savings account to avoid overdraft fees. Chase and Bank of America offer this service, but it costs $10 each day the checking account is overdrawn.

See, nothing's really for free.

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Study Shows Technological Advancements Reduce Stress On Driver

Testing shows not only a reduction in stress, but positive driver reaction to new technologies

Study Shows Technological Advancements Reduce Stress On Driver Testing shows not only a reduction in stress, but positive driver reaction to new technol...

Research conducted by Ford Motor Company and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) New England University Transportation Center (NEUTC) shows drivers are less stressed when using selected new technological advancements in the car.

The nine-month study was part of a continuing alliance between Ford and MIT to improve driver focus, wellness and safety through the integration of vehicle technology.

"Ford's collaboration with MIT and NEUTC is an important pathway to the future of transportation," said Joe Coughlin, director of MIT's New England University Transportation Center. "This study, which yielded significant results, showed ways we can use new technology to improve well-being and performance behind the wheel."

Tracking drivers

The study monitored drivers as they performed perceived "high-stress" tasks such as parallel parking and backing out of parking spaces with restricted visibility. The results showed a reduction in both self-reported stress levels and objective physiological measures used to monitor driver stress load.

The findings were strongest in the parallel parking study, where use of Ford's Active Park Assist feature in the Lincoln MKS helped to significantly reduce stress on drivers compared to the manual operation of performing the same task.

When backing out of parking spaces with Cross-Traffic Alert, drivers were more likely to stop and yield to an approaching vehicle than when the  system was unavailable.

Reversing stress

Today's consumers are seeking every edge they can in the pursuit of healthier and happier lives, yet record levels of stress are being reported. According to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, people in their late 30s to mid-50s are actually reporting the lowest state of well-being over their lifetimes.  Just as stress builds up incrementally throughout the day, taking proactive steps to decrease stress is important to counterbalance and maintain overall well-being.

"The fact is that middle-aged Americans are at the highest point of stress and unfortunately at the lowest point of well-being in their entire life span," said Coughlin. "The volume, velocity and the complexity of today's lifestyle is causing individuals to report an increase in stress and a decrease in enjoyment behind the wheel."

For the past seven years, Ford and MIT's New England University Transportation Center have been collaborating to understand the correlation between stressors and driving performance and identify technological advancements that both mitigate stress and create a more enjoyable experience.

Research results

The research objective of the study was to measure and monitor physiological changes in heart rate during and following the completion of driving challenges, including parallel parking and backing out of a concealed parking space. Using biometric results as well as self-perception evaluations, the research measured the impact of new parking technologies on stress levels.

In the study of Ford's Active Park Assist system, data were collected from 42 people equally distributed between males and females across three age groups -- drivers in their 20s, 40s and 60s. Prior to testing, each of the subjects was given an in-depth briefing and demonstration of both the technology at the focus of the study as well as related systems.

They then gained experience with the systems prior to the defined assessment period. For example, in the parallel parking study, drivers were given three practice opportunities to both manually parallel park and use Ford's Active Park Assist feature to grow accustomed to the technology and experience parking the Lincoln MKS.

Physiology of driving

Following this introduction, each of the test drivers was monitored using heart rate as an objective method of assessing driver workload and stress on the road. In addition, a subjective measure was monitored by asking subjects to rate their perceived stress level at the completion of each driving maneuver. Detailed evaluations of their experience and impressions of the technology were also collected at the end of the experiment.

"The test subjects averaged more than 12 beats per minute lower heart rate when using the Active Park Assist system compared to manually parallel parking the vehicle in what was a highly statistically significant decrease," said Bryan Reimer, associate director of research, New England University Transportation Center at MIT. "The substantial changes in the objective physiological markers of driver stress, coupled with changes in perceived stress, suggest that the driver's well-being can be increased through this technology."

Data from the initial 10-second anticipatory period prior to initiating the functional maneuvering of parking also had relevant results. During this period, there was a moderate but highly significant difference in heart rate depending on whether the driver was about to use Active Park Assist or park manually.

Manual vs. tech

During the evaluation trials when drivers were anticipating engaging in a manual parking exercise, mean heart rate was 75.9 beats per minute. During the evaluation trials when drivers were anticipating parking using Active Park Assist, heart rate was 72.5, or 3.4 beats per minute lower.

This indicates that prior to the physical work involved in maneuvering the steering wheel to manually park, the anticipation alone associated with undertaking the task was more stressful than when drivers were anticipating parking with Active Park Assist.

This difference is particularly notable in that it was observed in individuals who had only had the opportunity to develop experience and trust in this technology for a relatively limited period of time.

"While more than 76 percent of the participants indicated that the Active Park Assist system made it easier for them to parallel park, developing a better understanding of the participants' other responses can provide important insight into how further gains in technology adoption and stress reduction can be obtained," said Bruce Mehler, research scientist at New England University Transportation Center at MIT and a study collaborator.

Dev Kochhar, technical expert at Ford Research & Advanced Engineering, said the research findings are important "because they provide evidence that, in real-world situations, drivers can adjust to new technology when it is designed with the user in mind, and presented in a helpful manner."

Second test

A second experiment focused on Ford's Cross-Traffic Alert technology. Using a methodology similar to the parallel parking study, drivers were given an opportunity to experience backing out of a blinded parking spot with and without Cross-Traffic Alert.

The most notable finding was that at one point in the experiment, all drivers who received a traffic alert warning from the technology stopped and yielded to an approaching vehicle, while only 71 percent of the drivers backing out without the aid of the technology appropriately stopped.

"A meaningful take-away from this work is how objective measurement techniques, such as heart rate monitoring with a high level of sensitivity to changes in stress, can deepen our understanding of the extent to which individuals trust and are comfortable working with new technologies," said Reimer. "This represents an important step in enhancing the design of future technology, improving safety, minimizing stress and contributing to well-being."

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Best Places for Single Seniors

There’s been speed dating, and on-line dating, how about geographically favorable dating?

Here are some cities that make dating easier for older single people according to the Census Bureau...

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Seven Ways To Avoid Medicare Traps and Costly Blunders

Consumer Reports Health offers free rankings of Medicare Advantage HMOs

Seven Ways To Avoid Medicare Traps and Costly BlundersConsumer Reports Health offers free rankings of Medicare Advantage HMOs ...

If you're about to turn 65, you'll be part of the first wave of baby boomers signing up for Medicare. Consumer Reports Health recommends signing up as early as three months ahead of your birthday.

Failing to do so could potentially cost you thousands of dollars down the road. That's one of seven tips for navigating the Medicare maze available in the December issue of Consumer Reports.

"If you don't stay on top of the process when you first sign up, you can blunder into decisions that could lock you out of certain types of coverage, costing you thousands in extra premiums and out-of-pocket costs,” said Nancy Metcalf, senior program editor, Consumer Reports Health. "Medicare is filled with traps so it's well worth your time to dig into the details of the program and make sure you choose wisely based on your individual needs.”

In addition to the do's and don'ts spelled out in the report, free rankings of 183 Medicare Advantage HMOs are available online. The rankings are produced by the non-profit National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA), the main U.S. group that sets measurement standards for health insurance, accredits plans, measures the quality of care they achieve, and publicly reports the findings.

Navigating the Medicare maze:

  • DO sign up for Medicare before you turn 65. Even if you're still working and have health benefits, you need to sign up for Medicare Part A, which covers hospital expenses. The initial enrollment period spans the three months before, the month of, and the three months after your 65th birthday.

If you sign up during the first three months, your Medicare coverage starts at the beginning of your birthday month. If you sign up during your birthday month, then coverage starts at the beginning of the following month. If you wait until the last three months, you'll face increasingly lengthy delays in the start of your coverage.

  • DON'T delay Medicare Part B signup after you stop working. While Medicare Part A is free to anyone who has paid Medicare taxes for more than a decade (or is married to someone who has), Medicare Part B has a monthly premium ($96.40 or $110.50). Part B covers most other medical expenses, except for prescription drugs.

If you don't sign up for Medicare Part B the minute you or your spouse stops working, then you will fall into what is potentially Medicare's biggest trap and you'll be hit with a permanent increase in your premium of 10 percent for every year that you could have signed up but didn't.

  • DO understand that Part D, the prescription-drug benefit, has different rules. Part D is delivered exclusively through private plans with an average premium of about $41 a month in 2011. As with Part B, you will pay a premium penalty for late enrollment, but for Part D, it's one percent extra for every month that you could have enrolled but didn't.

If you have low drug bills now and feel that Part D is unnecessary, think through that calculation and weigh your immediate savings against the penalty later on should you need costly prescription drugs. Use Consumer Reports' Best Buy Drugs, which provides drug ratings for more than 35 common medical conditions, to gauge the cost of drugs. The free program provides ratings based on cost, safety and efficacy, detailing the costs associated with different doses for most available drugs in each category.

  • DON'T confuse original Medicare and Medicare Advantage. There's the original government-run Medicare that comes with substantial deductibles and co-insurance (for example, an $1,100 deductible for a hospital stay and 20 percent of outpatient doctor visits). People who don't have a secondary retiree plan from their employer usually buy a separate private Medigap policy to help with those deductibles and coinsurance. About one in four Medicare recipients opt for the newer Medicare Advantage plans.

These are private plans -- mostly HMOs -- that take the place of original Medicare plus Medigap, and usually the Part D drug plan as well. While you'll probably pay lower monthly premiums, bear in mind that you will not have Medigap to cover any deductibles and co-pays, which can vary from plan to plan. Thus, one of the downsides of an Advantage plan is potentially higher out-of-pocket costs if you get seriously ill.

  • DO find out how your retiree plan works with Medicare. Retiree plans take many forms such as stand-alone plans and plans similar to active-employee plans. Either type will pay secondary to Medicare. Declining your retiree coverage and signing up for a Medicare Advantage plan on your own can become a major pitfall. It's worth noting that your employer might not let you re-enroll if you leave your retiree plan, so before signing up for anything, find out exactly how your retiree plan works with Medicare.
  • DON'T accidentally lock yourself out of Medigap coverage. Buying a Medigap plan can be tricky, particularly if you have developed a pre-existing condition. State laws vary, but in most locations you have the right to buy a Medigap plan without medical screening only at certain times, such as when you first sign up for Medicare Part B, when you lose your Medicare Advantage coverage because a plan shuts down or you move out of its service area, or when you lose your retiree coverage. Find out the rules of Medigap in your state by checking with your State Health Insurance Counseling and Assistance Program.
  • DO recheck your Plan D formulary every year. All Part D plans have a formulary, a list of covered drugs. Bear in mind that the formulary can change from year to year, meaning that your drug could drop off the formulary or move to a more expensive payment tier. Plans can also put new restrictions on drugs, such as requiring your doctor to get approval from the insurer before prescribing them. You can change to a new plan once a year if your plan makes changes that don't work for you. Use the interactive formulary finder at Medicare.gov and stay on top of the best drug choices for your condition by using drug reports published for free at www.ConsumerReportsHealth.org.
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Fake Payday Loan Collector Scam Still Going Strong

Callers use fear to shake down victims for cash

Accusing people of owing money for a bogus payday loan debt obviously works. That's why so many scammers are still doing it....

For more than a year frightened consumers have reported getting aggressive and belligerent calls from someone claiming to be a debt collector seeking payment of a payday loan.

The calls are scams, since the victims have never had a payday loan or a relationship with any of the companies the caller claims to represent. In some cases the caller names an actual payday loan company. In others, he simply makes up a name.

Laura, of Englewood, Colo., recently reported an encounter with one of these scammers. Her description might help other victims recognize this scam as it unfolds.

"I received a call at 7:00 am this morning from a man stating that he wanted to know who my attorney was,” Laura told ConsumerAffairs.com.

Note the time of the call. It's early in the morning, when someone could be expected to be rushing around getting dressed for work and getting the kids off the school. The victim is already somewhat stressed. Calls late at night can also find victims in a vulnerable state.

"I asked who was speaking and he claimed to be an attorney who had been retained by Cashnet for theft and fraud, stating that I owed almost $7,000 for a payday loan taken in 2009,” she reported.

It's no crime to owe money

Note the words "theft” and "fraud.” These words describe criminal activity, not simply being delinquent on a debt - a debt that doesn't exist, mind you. Still, the scammer is planting the seeds of fear of the victim. Next, he turns up the intimidation.

"He stated that they had sent me 15 to 20 emails,” Laura said. "He demanded that I send three faxes requesting that I not be arrested today, that I authorize them to take payments from my bank account and a copy of my drivers license.”

Note the scammer plants the fear of being arrested just before demanding payment. A debt collector cannot have you arrested and is not even allowed to raise that possibility. But the purpose is to induce panic.

"He knew my bank account information and everything. He stated that if I could pay $786.87 today he would not have me arrested,” she said.

This could be bad

Okay, this part is very, very troubling. If the caller did, in fact, have Laura's bank account information, then he did not simply choose her at random. He has a list of people that includes sensitive information about them, including bank information and even Social Security numbers.

Without the scammer possessing this information, Laura could simply laugh in his face and hang up. But if the scammer possesses her personal information, her identity is at risk. She should take immediate steps to freeze her credit reports and notify her bank and credit card fraud departments of the call.

How did the scammer obtain the information about Laura and possibly thousands of others getting these calls? There are several possibilities. They may have purchased stolen data from another criminal enterprise on the black market.

Or, they may have simply purchased "uncollectable” debt data from a legitimate source for pennies on the dollar. But instead of trying to collect an old credit card debt, the scammer is trying to extort much more money using fear.

Meanwhile, consumers should not believe anyone who claims to be a debt collector and who makes threats. Learn more about what debt collectors can and can't do here.


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Record Low Interest Rates Make Mortgage Refinancing Look Pretty Good

But refinancing your mortgage may not be such a good idea if you’re going to retire in a few years

Just because interest rates are low doesn’t mean you should refinance your mortgage, especially if you are of a certain age...

Refinancing your mortgage may seem pretty tempting right now with interest rates near record lows. I know some folks who just refinanced a year ago who are thinking about doing it again just to lock in these low rates. Plus, wouldn't you just love to have some extra cash around or pay down some credit card or student loan debt?

It all sounds good until you realize that there's more to consider than just a lower rate, especially if you are over 50. It's never been wise to still have a mortgage if you've retired. In fact, you want to be as debt-free as possible when living on a fixed income such as a pension or Social Security.

Today, however, things are a little different. More new retirees have mortgage debt. In fact according to the Society of Actuaries, about half of retirees say they carried mortgage debt in 2009. And that trend is likely to continue as baby boomers enter retirement age.

With the interest rate for a 30-year mortgage hovering just above 4%, the temptation to refinance is strong. The Mortgage Bankers Association says refinancing applications make up about 82% of total mortgage loan applications compared to 55% back in April. The payoff is hundreds of dollars in "savings" each month. A $200,000 mortgage balance at 6.5% refinanced to 4.5% could cut monthly payments by $200 or more.

Still, even at such low rates, financial advisors recommend that it may not be the right move if you are over 50 or let's say an older boomer in spitting distance of retirement. Granted, more and more boomers are saying they intend to keep working, which is fine provided they can remain employed. But what if you're forced into retirement at age 66, and you still have a recently refinanced 30 year mortgage to pay off?

Consider this

So here's the deal. If you're determined to refinance or are thinking hard about refinancing and you're nearing retirement, here are some things you need to consider.

If you're thinking about using the extra money you save from refinancing to invest in the stock market, don't. Over the long-term the stock market has historically generated high returns and the average annual gain of the S&P 500 from 1926 to 2010 was 9.8%. Do you have another 80 years to get those average returns? No. The last ten years have been a wash. You made zip in the stock market. So if you're less than 10 years from retirement, don't use that extra monthly savings from refinancing to invest in stocks. Instead, pay down your mortgage or other loans as quickly as you can. You'll get a much better return.

Do you plan on staying in your house at least three more years which is just long enough to recoup the closing costs? If not, don't refinance. However, if you're thinking maybe you'll move in five or six years to a smaller less expensive home in retirement, and your finances are in fairly good shape, meaning not much other debt, then refinancing could help you buy that retirement home while you still have a job. It may be harder to finance a mortgage once you retire because your income is considered to be irregular. Also prices in many popular retirement areas are still depressed, so this might be a good time to score a deal on a home. You could even rent out one of the homes to help pay for the extra mortgage.

Some people over 50 who are thinking about refinancing may justify the move by saying they plant to work longer. In fact, 75% of workers aged 50 and older expect to have jobs when they are retired, according to a 2010 study by the Families and Work Institute and the Sloan Center on Aging & Work. Now that  might make extending your mortgage into retirement seem fine, but getting a job over the age 65 isn't a guarantee. Plus, you could get sick or become incapacitated for any number of age-related reasons. The unemployment rate for workers ages 55 and older has remained at a record high since December 2009 and for those 65 and older the rate is even higher, nearly double what it was just five years ago.

If you really need the cash now, refinancing may be the right thing to do. Savings aren't earning much interest and a one-year CD is yielding a mere 1%. Essential expenses like health care are rising and more people are strapped for cash. If refinancing lowers your monthly payments even as it extends the term of your loan, it might still be worth it.

If you're over 50, try to get a 15-year mortgage when you refinance. It will leave more money in your pocket because you'll pay much less in interest over the life of the loan. Plus, interest rates tend to be lower on 15 year mortgages. It just means a higher monthly payment.

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FDA Approves Injections of Main Tylenol Ingredient for Pain and Fever Management

First and only intravenous formulation of acetaminophen approved for use in the United States

Injections of Drug Found In Tylenol Approved for Pain and Fever Management First and only intravenous formulation of acetaminophen approved for use in ...

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of the injection of acetaminophen, the drug found in Tylenol, for the management of pain, and the reduction of fever.

Sold under the brand name OFIRMEV by Cadence Pharmaceuticals, Inc., this is the first and only intravenous (IV) formulation of acetaminophen to be approved in the United States. 

"IV acetaminophen is the unit market share leader among all injectable pain medications in Europe,” said Ted Schroeder, President and CEO of Cadence. "With our planned launch early in the first quarter of 2011, we believe that OFIRMEV will fill a significant gap in the United States for the treatment of pain and fever in the hospital setting."

Need for better pain management

Acute pain, particularly following surgery, often requires treatment with two or more painkillers. U.S. physicians already prescribe acetaminophen frequently in combination with opioids -- or opium-based painkillers -- for oral management of pain, where it is the most widely used non-opioid in fixed combination therapies. In clinical studies, OFIRMEV improved pain relief, reduced opioid consumption, and improved patient satisfaction when used as part of a multi-modal regimen.

"OFIRMEV is a long-awaited and much needed addition to postoperative pain management," said Eugene R. Viscusi, M.D., director of Acute Pain Management at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. "With the approval of OFIRMEV, clinicians will now be better able to use a multi-modal approach to pain management in the hospital setting, when oral medication can't be used." 

Clinical trial results

The FDA approval of OFIRMEV was based on data from clinical trials in which a total of 1020 adult and 355 pediatric patients received IV acetaminophen. These trials included two studies evaluating the safety and effectiveness of OFIRMEV in the treatment of pain, and one study evaluating OFIRMEV in the treatment of fever.

In a study of 101 orthopedic patients undergoing hip or knee replacement surgery, 1000 mg of OFIRMEV every six hours was statistically superior to placebo for the reduction of pain intensity over 24 hours with significantly reduced morphine consumption.  In a second study of 244 patients undergoing abdominal laparoscopic surgery, 1000 mg of OFIRMEV every six hours, or 650 mg every four hours, demonstrated a significant reduction in pain intensity over 24 hours compared with placebo.

In a study of adult volunteers with induced fever, a single 1000 mg dose of OFIRMEV demonstrated a statistically significant reduction in temperature through six hours in comparison with placebo with an onset of action within 15 minutes after treatment.

OFIRMEV was well tolerated in clinical trials assessing safety in a range of patient and surgery types.

The safety and effectiveness of OFIRMEV for the treatment of pain and fever in pediatric patients older than two years is supported by evidence from adequate and well-controlled studies in adults and additional safety data for this age group. The effectiveness of OFIRMEV for the treatment of acute pain and fever has not been studied in pediatric patients under two years of age.

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Costco Tops Consumer Reports™ List of Eyeglass Retailers

Independent local eyeglass shops and private doctor's offices also fared well

Costco Tops Consumer Reports™ List of Eyeglass RetailersIndependent local eyeglass shops and private doctor's offices also fared well...

Shopping for eyeglasses isn't easy, especially when frames can cost well over $200 a pair  -- even without the fancy add-ons and logos. But a Consumer Reports survey found that a great pair of eyeglasses doesn't have to break the bank.

The magazine surveyed more than 30,000 of its bespectacled readers about their most recent purchase of a pair of glasses and found that Costco topped the ratings of eyeglass retailers, which included large chains, independent local optical shops, and private doctors offices.

"A new pair of glasses can cost you a pretty penny, especially when you add on higher-quality lenses, designer logos, or fancy coatings,” said Jamie Hirsh, associate editor for Consumer Reports Health. "We surveyed our readers to find out not only how much they paid at the eyeglass retailer, but also their overall experience including things like frame selection, customer service and employee expertise.”

Strongest showings

Costco Optical earned the highest score for overall satisfaction among chains, and also beat out most of its competitors for price -- a pair of glasses cost a median of $157 compared with a median of $211 at independent optical shops and $212 at eye doctors' offices. Costco was also the only retailer that stood out for lack of problems, such as loose lenses, distorted or blurred vision, or damaged frames in the first few weeks after purchase.

However, Mary of Madison, WI, is not at all happy with her experience at Costco. She tells ConsumerAffairs.com that 14 days after ordering her glasses, she had not received them, even though she was promised delivery in seven business days. "Not only do I not have my glasses," she writes, "the optical department isn't sure where they are. My biggest complaint is that they do not call me to let me know what is going on. I continue to wander in a no-man's-land."

With the exception of price, doctor's offices and independent optical boutiques typically scored high marks across the board, particularly when it came to employee know-how, service, and the quality of the finished glasses. Independent boutiques are also the place to go for great frame selection.

Eighty-three percent of readers who purchased their glasses at an indie shop were highly satisfied with the variety of frames available, compared with 68 percent at the big retailers.

Some chains were subpar

The one overarching reason respondents gave for choosing to get their glasses at a chain store was price. However, Consumer Reports found that LensCrafters (the most frequented chain in the survey) charged a median price of $244 per pair of glasses, even with coupons, which some 60 percent of LensCrafters customers said they used. LensCrafters customers enjoyed faster turnaround and above-average follow-up service, though.

Customers at Pearle Vision, which is owned by the same company as LensCrafters, also paid more than those who shopped at an independent shop or doctor's office, at an average of $228 per pair.

Three eyewear chains -- Visionworks, America's Best Contacts & Eyeglasses, and JCPenney Optical -- stood out for below-average ratings in most purchase factors including inferior-quality frames and subpar service during and after the purchase. Respondents still reported pretty high satisfaction overall, but as the ratings show, there are better choices.

"I went to America's Best Contacts & Eyeglasses to get my daughter glasses," Lee of White Bear Lake, MN, tells ConsumerAffairs.com. "The sign there said ALL frames $69 are two for $109.95 and included plastic lenses. When my daughter picked out two $69 frames, I asked the store manager how much they would cost. She said even though she picked out $69 frames it would be an additional $132.00 because they required polycarbonate lenses."

According to Lee, the sign said all $69 frames were two for $109.95 and all included plastic lenses. But, she says, she was told that polycarbonate lenses were mandatory with the $69 frames she chose. "I feel their advertising should disclose this additional cost or they should honor their printed ad," Lee concludes.

How to choose

Shoppers looking for a deal without sacrificing good vision correction should keep a few things in mind when considering an eyeglass retailer:

  • Know who excels at what. Independent stores, Empire Vision Centers, and, LensCrafters are good options for urgent matters, such as replacing a lost or broken pair of glasses quickly. If quality, service, and selection are paramount, try a doctor's office or independent. Either way, find out what follow-up service is provided and what recourse there is if there are problems, such as a faulty prescription or frames that break.
  • Spring for only what's needed. Glasses come in a dizzying array of lens types and coatings so don't hesitate to ask questions.
  • Don't be a slave to brand names. Brand names could cost hundreds of extra dollars, but designer frames usually aren't made by those designers. They're made by manufacturers that license the brand names. Those same manufactures also make high-quality non-designer frames that can have a similar style for a fraction of the designer price.
  • Look for coupons. One-third of readers who visited an optical chain used coupons, and at chains like JCPenney Optical and LensCrafters, 62 percent of respondents had used one. Some health insurance providers will also cover a portion of an eyeglass purchase. About 43 percent of respondents said at least part of their purchase was covered by insurance.

If cost and quality are paramount, Consumer Reports recommends going to Costco or another highly rated chain. To see how independent stores, doctors' offices and 18 eyeglass chains did in Consumer Reports survey in terms of quality, selection, price, and customer service, pick up the December issue of the magazine now on newsstands.

Read more about vision care

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Hollywood Video Reaches From The Grave To Grab Consumers

Former customers suddenly hearing from a collection agency

Former customers of defunct Hollywood Video are being contacted by a collection agency claiming they owe late fees....

When the parent company of Hollywood Video filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year, its customers lost more than a source of the latest games and DVDs. Some of them feel like they are now being held up by a collection agency working for the now defunct company.

In the last 60 days ConsumerAffairs.com has received 65 complaints about Hollywood Video or its collection agency, Consumer Collection Services (CCS). The stories are remarkably similar.

In most cases, the consumer is contacted by CCS with a claim that the consumer owes a specific amount - almost always $90 or more - due to either unpaid late fees for games and DVDs that were never returned. There is no paperwork offered and the consumers say they were completely unaware of any debt. Several consumers said the collection agency was very willing to settle for substantially less than the money allegedly owed.

Christina of Chandler, Ariz., says she is sure she has never been late on a return.

"I remember that the day we turned in our videos the store was closed and we thought it was strange because it was in the middle of the day, but we put our videos through the slot anyways so we wouldn' be counted late," she told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Well, come to find out that the store never reopened again. I called CCS to dispute the amount and she said that we had two videos from January 2009 that Hollywood Video claims were missing, so they are charging full price for each video and late fees."

What's that smell?

Christina says she thinks the whole thing reeks of a scam, and Yuvonne of Seattle, Wash., agrees.

"I was just issued a threat from CCS that if I do not pay $91 for some unknown Hollywood video they say was returned late, they will damage my perfect credit score," she said. "I never even received a notice of a late fee. How can this be legal? You can just say that someone owes money with no evidence and send it to collections before even contacting the person? Why doesn't every business start making false claims to Credit Collection Services? Where is the consumer protection? How can this be anything but a scam?"

The case of Pricilla, of Pharr, Tex., gets even odder. She received a notice from CCS in the amount of $395.33 for late fees and rentals. But she paid extra so that she would never have to pay late fees.

"I did have an account with Hollywood video and was enrolled in a program in which my bank account would be debited once a month in order to have unlimited movie and game rental and that I would not have late fees," she said. "My account was in good standing and I have been incorrectly billed."

Know your rights

Melanie, a consumer in Brooklyn, N.Y., had the same experience but found a way to fight back. When she received the written notice from CCS, she read the fine print, learning she had 30 days to contact them in writing to dispute the claim.

She also went to the Federal Trade Commission website where she said she learned how to respond.

"Send them (the collection agency) a letter asking for details about the alleged debt - things like store location, dates, times, titles of DVD's allegedly turned in late or not returned," she said. "It is their job to prove you owe them money, not the other way around. Also, refer to the Fair Debt collection Practices Act and say that you would not like to be contacted again except with the information you requested and only by mail to an address you can specify. If they cannot produce sufficient proof you owe money with written records then you do not have to pay them and they cannot report you to a credit company. There are laws to protect you against these things. Please take the time to look at the above site. Make sure you send the letter via certified mail and get a receipt proving the agency received your letter."

Meanwhile, the Hollywood Video store brand is up for sale, raising the possibility that another company will resurrect the name and begin contacting old customers again. The parent company, Movie Gallery, received approval last month from a federal bankruptcy judge in Richmond, Va., to auction its brand names, Internet domain names and customer databases.

The auction is set for next week.
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Major Cities Could Be Hit With Water Shortages, Report Warns

Ten major cities could experience a water shortage within the next few years

Two reports show ten major American cities could experience a water shortage, some within the next two to three years...

photoWhen you think of problems with water, you probably think about dry desert regions of Africa or the Middle East. Even, parts of the American West have had their issues. But what about the big cities like Los Angeles, or San Francisco. How about Atlanta and Orlando?

Believe it or not, the water problem is worse than most people realize, particularly in several large cities which are occasionally low on water already but will face definite shortfalls in the next few years.

A report issued in October on water risk by environmental research and sustainability group Ceres and another study from the Natural Resources Defense Council were analyzed by 24/7 Wall Street which identified ten major cities at high risk of a water shortage.

Now when they talk about severe water shortages they're not just talking about drought conditions that require us to not water our lawns or take shorter showers. These are the kinds of severe shortages that could make life in some of America's largest cities nearly unbearable.

For example, besides the competition over available drinking water, a number of industries rely on regular access to water. Without it, some people would be out of work if the industries had to shut down. Another problem is not so direct. Very low water supplies creates issues for cities that have sold bonds based on their needs for infrastructure to move, clean and supply water. Extreme disruptions of the water supply of any city would have severe financial and human consequences.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report says the risk to water sustainability is based on the following criteria: (1) projected water demand as a share of available precipitation; (2) groundwater use as a share of projected available precipitation; (3) susceptibility to drought; (4) projected increase in freshwater withdrawals; and (5) projected increase in summer water deficit.

There are ten cities with the greatest exposure to problems that could cause large imbalances of water supply and demand. There are also a number of other metropolitan areas that could face similar problems but their risks are not quite as high.

Water shortage in U.S. cities is one of the major issues facing urban areas over the next ten years and most of us aren't even aware of it.

Here, according to 24/7 Wall Street are the ten largest cities by population that have the greatest chance of running out of water.

Orlando, Fla.

North-central Florida, especially Orange County where Orlando is located, has experienced frequent droughts in the last decade. As a consequence, the area has implemented extreme conservation measures, including aggressive water-rationing policies and lawn-watering bans. After the drought and resulting wildfires subsided, however, Orlando faced another problem. As of 2013, Orlando will no longer be able to increase the rate at which it uses water from the city's main source of fresh water supply. This presents a major problem for city officials: how does the limited water supply continue to meet demand for one of the fastest-growing regions in the state? Orlando Utilities Commission water usage trends show Orlando water demand exceeding the supply by approximately 2014 if no action is taken. There are plans in the works to tap the St. John's River for irrigation, and eventually drinking water. Many, however, are skeptical that even this will be enough to meet Orlando's growing demand.

Atlanta

Between 2007 and 2008, the Southeast experienced a major drought, which depleted the region's major water supplies. No city in the south suffered more than Atlanta, the second-fastest-growing metropolitan area in the last eight years. The crisis began when the Army Corps of Engineers released more than 20 billion gallons of water from Lake Lanier, the city's primary source of water. Continued poor rainfall brought the lake to its lowest recorded levels. At one point, city officials reported there was only three months left of stored fresh water to supply Atlanta. The drought eventually subsided and consistent rain returned the lake to less dangerous levels. However, Atlanta may continue to be at risk, as the lake is the site of an ongoing legal conflict between Georgia, Alabama and Florida, all of which rely on the reservoir for fresh water. Last year, a federal judge declared Atlanta's withdrawals from the lake illegal, and if the ruling stands, the city will lose roughly 40% of its water supply by 2012.

Tucson, Ariz.

The NRDC study rates Pima County, Ariz., where Tuscon is located, as an area with extreme risk of water shortage. The city is in the Sonora Desert, an extremely arid region that receives less than 12 inches of rainfall each year. Currently, the Tucson region uses about 350,000 acre-feet of water per year. At this rate, Tucson's groundwater supply, which now provides the majority of the city's water, has a very limited life span. In addition to this, the city is currently bringing in 314,000 acre-feet per year from the Colorado River under the Central Arizona Project. However, Tuscon is growing rapidly. This, combined with the political uncertainty of the Central Arizona Project allocation, places Tucson at extreme risk for future water shortages.

Las Vegas

In the middle of the Mojave Desert, with an annual precipitation rate of only 10 cm, Las Vegas must rely on distant sources for its fresh water. The city's main source is Lake Mead, which supplies 85% of the water used in the Las Vegas Valley. Unfortunately, the lake is 59% empty and is approaching its first water shortage ever. In addition to Las Vegas, it would affect other areas of Nevada and Arizona. Moreover, it could potentially stop the Hoover Dam from producing electricity -- as soon as 2013. This would affect many big California cities that receive hydroelectric power through the dam.

Fort Worth, Texas

As Fort Worth continues to grow, the amount of water demand has continued to exceed the amount of water available through local supply. As a result, the city, which is in Tarrant County, must rely on storage water, making the system much more exposed to the worst effects of prolonged drought. To remedy this problem, the Tarrant Regional Water District is trying to bring in more water from Oklahoma's Red River. Oklahoma, wishing to preserve its water sources, limits interstate water sales. Fort Worth has countered with a lawsuit, which is pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals.

San Francisco Bay Area

Much like the Southeast in the early 2000's, California has experienced intermittent droughts that have brought the area's water supply to the brink of disaster. After several years of drought between 2005 and 2007, the Bay Area, which represents more than 3.7 million people, was forced to adopt aggressive water usage restrictions. Legal battles ensued between San Fransisco area legislators and those in the Sacramento delta who believed they deserved Bay Area water from major sources, like Lake Hetch Hetchy. According to the NRDC and Ceres studies, the San Fransisco Bay Area, including adjacent cities San Jose and Oakland, are "very likely" to experience a severe crisis as a result of water shortage sometime within the next 50 years.

San Antonio, Texas

Bexar County, Texas, where San Antonio is located, possesses the highest rating given by the Natural Resources Defense Council with regards to water sustainability. This means that the area is at extremely high risk for water demand exceeding supply by 2050 if no major systematic changes are made. As most surface water from lakes and rivers in Texas have already been claimed by varying districts across Texas, most counties are now looking at groundwater to meet future demand. San Antonio has attempted to secure water from a number of Texas groundwater conservation districts. Due to legal obstacles, this has proven to be difficult. Today, many experts, including members of the Texas Water Development Board, recommend undertaking a major project to ensure future sustainability, such as a desalination plant on the Gulf Coast.

Phoenix

Like many of the other western cities on this list, Phoenix is extremely dependent on water imported from the Colorado River. This is because nearly half of the water the city's residents use comes from this significant source. As the Colorado River Basin enters the eleventh year of its drought, the city's reliance on the river may soon become a serious problem. If the drought continues, water deliveries to Arizona could potentially be cut back. To keep up a sufficient water supply, Phoenix is adopting an aggressive campaign to recycle water, replenish groundwater and try to dissuade over-consumption. Time will tell if it these measures will be enough.

Houston

Throughout most of its history, the city of Houston primarily drew water from the Jasper Aquifer, located along the southeastern coast of Texas. Over the last 30 years, the city began to suffer from dramatic rises in sea level of nearly an inch a year. Geologists eventually realized that the cause was Houston's withdrawal of fresh water from the aquifer located under the city. This discovery forced city officials to use nearby Lake Houston and Lake Conroe for municipal water instead of the aquifer. Since 2000, Houston has been the fifth fastest-growing city in the country, and its presence in an area with high drought likelihood makes it an immediate risk for serious water shortages.

Los Angeles

In the 1980's, Los Angeles suffered a major crisis when the city was forced to stop using 40% of its drinking water due to industrial runoff contamination. Like Las Vegas, the city now relies on importing water from the Colorado River via hundreds of miles of aqueducts. The Colorado may only be a temporary solution, however, as the city continues to increase its demand at an unsustainable rate. In its utility risk rating, Ceres gave the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power the highest likelihood of risk among the cities it assessed. That list included Atlanta and the Forth Worth area. On top of this, the Hoover Dam, which is the main source of electricity for L.A. and much of the greater Southwest, is also producing at a lower rate than it has historically. Some scientists suspect this drop-off will continue to a point where its electricity production is too small to sustain the dam economically. Los Angeles, even if the dam doesn't cease production in 2013, as some predict, still faces serious water shortages.

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Feds Announce Chemical Test for Dispersant In Gulf Seafood

All samples test within safety threshold, posing no threat to consumers

Feds Announce Chemical Test for Dispersant In Gulf SeafoodAll samples test within safety threshold, posing no threat to consumers...

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have developed and are using a chemical test to detect dispersants used in the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon-BP oil spill in fish, oysters, crab and shrimp.

Trace amounts of the chemicals used in dispersants are common, and levels for safety have been previously set.

Experts trained in a sensory analysis process have been testing Gulf seafood for the presence of contaminants, and every seafood sample from reopened waters has passed sensory testing for contamination with oil and dispersant.

Nonetheless, to ensure consumers have total confidence in the safety of seafood being harvested from the Gulf, NOAA and FDA said they have added this second test for dispersant when considering reopening Gulf waters to fishing.

No health hazards

Using this new, second test, in the Gulf scientists have tested 1,735 tissue samples including more than half of those collected to reopen Gulf of Mexico federal waters. Only a few showed trace amounts of dispersants residue (13 of the 1,735) and they were well below the safety threshold of 100 parts per million for finfish and 500 parts per million for shrimp, crabs and oysters. As such, they do not pose a threat to human health.

The new test detects dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate, known as DOSS, a major component of the dispersants used in the Gulf. DOSS is also approved by FDA for use in various household products and over-the-counter medication at very low levels. The best scientific data to date indicates that DOSS does not build up in fish tissues.

Confidence factor

"The rigorous testing we have done from the very beginning gives us confidence in the safety of seafood being brought to market from the Gulf," said Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D., under secretary for Commerce and NOAA administrator. "This test adds another layer of information, reinforcing our findings to date that seafood from the Gulf remains safe."

"This new test should help strengthen consumer confidence in Gulf seafood," said Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. "The overwhelming majority of the seafood tested shows no detectable residue, and not one of the samples shows a residue level that would be harmful for humans. There is no question Gulf seafood coming to market is safe from oil or dispersant residue."

Rigorous testing

The 1,735 samples tested so far were collected from June to September and cover a wide area of the Gulf. The samples come from open areas in state and federal waters, and from fishermen who brought fish to the docks at the request of federal seafood analysts. The samples come from a range of species, including grouper, tuna, wahoo, swordfish, gray snapper, butterfish, red drum, croaker, and shrimp, crabs and oysters.

Previous research provided information about how finfish metabolize DOSS, and at FDA's Dauphin Island, Alabama lab, scientists undertook further exposure experiments on fish, oysters and crab; similar experiments on shrimp were held at NOAA's Galveston, Texas, lab.

These exposure studies further support that fish, crustaceans and shellfish quickly clear dispersant from their tissues, and provided samples with known concentrations for use as standards for validating the methodology. Samples undergoing chemical analysis are always accompanied by standards with known concentrations of DOSS, to verify the equipment continues to measure the compound accurately.

Nearly 9,444 square miles, or about four percent of the federal waters in the Gulf are still closed to commercial and recreational fishing.

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Pension Plan Limitations for 2011 Announced

The Internal Revenue Service changes from 2010 are few and small, with some areas remaining the same

Pension Plan Limitations for 2011 Announced The Internal Revenue Service changes from 2010 are few and small, with some areas remaining the same ...

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has announced cost of living adjustments affecting dollar limitations for pension plans and other retirement-related items for 2011 tax year. By and large, the limits will either be unchanged, or the inflation adjustments for 2011 will be small.

Among the highlights:

  • The contribution limit for employees who participate in section 401(k), 403(b), or 457(b) plans, and the federal government's Thrift Savings Plan remains the same at $16,500.
  • The catch-up contribution limit under those plans for those aged 50 and over is unchanged at $5,500.

IRA contributions

  • The deduction for taxpayers making contributions to a traditional IRA is phased out for singles and heads of household who are active participants in an employer-sponsored retirement plan and have modified adjusted gross incomes (AGI) between $56,000 and $66,000 -- unchanged from 2010.
  • For married couples filing jointly, in which the spouse who makes the IRA contribution is an active participant in an employer-sponsored retirement plan, the income phase-out range is $90,000 to $110,000 -- up from $89,000 to $109,000.
  • For an IRA contributor who is not an active participant in an employer-sponsored retirement plan and is married to someone who is an active participant, the deduction is phased out if the couple's income is between $169,000 and $179,000 - an increase of $2,000 in both instances.

The AGI phase-out range for taxpayers making contributions to a Roth IRA is $169,000 to 179,000 for married couples filing jointly, up from $167,000 to $177,000 in 2010. For singles and heads of household, the income phase-out range is $107,000 to $122,000, up from $105,000 to $120,000. For a married individual filing a separate return who is an active participant in an employer-sponsored retirement plan, the phase-out range remains $0 to $10,000.

Saver's credit

The AGI limit for the saver's credit (also known as the retirement savings contributions credit) for low-and moderate-income workers is $56,500 for married couples filing jointly, up from $55,500 in 2010; $42,375 for heads of household, up from $41,625; and $28,250 for married individuals filing separately and for singles, up from $27,750.

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Ever Wonder How Those Factory Outlets Work?

Why are they always so far out of the way?

Bargain shoppers swear by Factory Outlet malls and will drive hundreds of miles to save a few dollars on brands they could get as cheaply during sales...

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Brazilian McDonald's Manager Wins Obesity Lawsuit

Employee said that food sampling, free lunches made him pack on 65 pounds

Brazilian McDonald's Manager Wins Obesity LawsuitEmployee said that food sampling, free lunches made him pack on 65 pounds...

McDonald's has lost a high-profile obesity lawsuit, with a Brazilian court ordering the fast food giant to pay $17,500 to a former manager who says he gained 65 pounds while working at a franchise.

The employee, whose identity was not made public, said he went from around 155 to 231 pounds during his time with the company. The plaintiff said that the random presence of "mystery clients" -- who are tasked with visiting franchises and evaluating their food quality, cleanliness and customer service -- made him feel obliged to sample the food every day.

He also scolded McDonald's for offering free lunches to its employees, charging that those meals -- which consisted mostly of hamburgers, French fries and ice cream -- increased his daily caloric intake.

Follows CPSI suit

The suit is further evidence that obesity-related litigation is still going strong, despite criticism that such suits absolve consumers of the responsibility of making healthy choices. In June, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) served McDonald's with notice that it would file suit against the company unless it stopped selling its famed Happy Meals, which CSPI called "unhealthy junk food."

CSPI said that McDonald's "make[s] parents' job nearly impossible by giving away toys and bombarding kids with slick advertising," and compared it to a "stranger in the playground handing out candy to children."

In a sharply-worded response written in July, McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner said that "the public does not support [the] lawsuit," adding that "parents, in particular, strongly believe they have the right and responsibility to decide what's best for their children, not CSPI. It really is that simple."

True to its word, CPSI announced last month that it was proceeding with the suit.

Previous class actions

In 2005, McDonald's agreed to pay $7 million to the American Heart Association as part of a settlement concerning its use of trans fats in its food. It also agreed to pay $1.5 million for a public advertising campaign telling the public of the dangers posed by those fats.

And in 2008, a judge allowed a class action by consumers who alleged that McDonald's food made them obese to proceed, overturning a lower court's dismissal of the case. That action, Pelman v. McDonald's, alleged that "certain [McDonald's] foods [are] substantially less healthy than represented."

The lead plaintiffs in that case, Ashley Pelman and Jazlyn Bradley, both minors, brought suit on behalf of all consumers who bought and ate McDonald's food from franchises in New York. Their suit alleged that the food increased consumers' chances of developing "obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol intake, and/or other detrimental and adverse health effects and/or diseases."

McDonald's is considering whether to appeal the Brazilian ruling, which was issued by Judge Joao Ghisleni Filho in Porto Alegre, in southern Brazil. In a statement, the company stressed that it "offers a large variety of options and balanced menus to cater [to] the daily dietary needs of its employees."

Perhaps the plaintiff should have spent more time taste-testing the salads.

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Teens' Addictions To Texting Cuts Into Sleep Time

Study shows teens regularly miss out on sleep to keep talking to their friends

Teens' Addictions To Texting Cuts Into Sleep Time Study shows teens regularly miss out on sleep to keep talking to their friends ...

Jeff is a 19 year old college student who usually climbs into bed around 1:00 AM and gets up about six hours later. That's not to say Jeff is sleeping those 6 short hours; his TV is on for awhile, but then Jeff and his friends sometimes text each other throughout the night.

Jeff's case is becoming more typical.  National and international studies are drawing the same conclusions:

"Mobile phone use after lights out is very prevalent among adolescents," according to a study by the JFK Medical Center in Edison, N.J. "Its use is related to increased levels of tiredness. There is no safe dose and no safe time for using the mobile phone for text messaging or for calling after lights out."

The study finds that older students tended to be awakened by a text message more often during the night than their younger counterparts. Researchers also found that older teens who are awakened by text messages reported being more tired than those who are never awakened during the night.

"Concerns about media use should not be limited to television," the authors conclude. "Mobile phone use for text messaging and Internet use are related to sleep behavior as well."

For the JFK Medical Center study, 40 kids, ages 8 to 22, filled out questionnaires regarding their phone habits. The hospital also conducted research, in part, with teenaged patients, with hospital staff getting a firsthand look at teen's almost compulsive need to stay connected.

The medical center said it has a video tape of a nurse asking a teenage patient if his cell phone is off.  The patient answers, "Yes", but is then seen texting as he is monitored on videotape during a night's stay at the center.

A 2010 Neilsen Company study showed teens aggressively use their cell phones to text, surf the web, listen to music, play games, and sometimes talk.

But more and more, kids are staying up late, sometimes four hours past their bedtimes, to feed their addictions. And if they receive texts after they've fallen asleep, they'll usually wake up to answer them.

While this may seem like nothing more than an annoying form of teen rebellion, doctors worry the lack of sleep could lead to serious mood and cognitive problems, like anxiety, depression, ADHD and learning difficulties.

Lack of sleep at night might not be the only reason to worry about teens and their texting addictions. They could develop physical injuries in their hands, wrists, and fingers.

Doctors report more patients complaining of tingling, numbness and pain in their fingers and wrists. Since this is a relatively recent complaint, at least in large numbers, physicians are looking around for a recent phenomenon that might explain it. Their attention quickly fell on texting.

With over 152.7 billion text messages sent per month in the United States alone, it is becoming clear that people are shifting their primary method of communication from voices to hands and fingers. Does this shift explain the injuries?

While these complaints can all be signs of tired, overused hands, these symptoms can also indicate something more serious, such as a repetitive stress injury, tendonitis, aggravation of arthritis or sprains, and even carpal tunnel syndrome, doctors say.

"It is important that patients don't dismiss symptoms of sore fingers, occasional numbness and tingling", says George Kardashian, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon and hand specialist at The Center for Bone and Joint Disease in Hudson, FL. "These symptoms are all the body's way of saying it needs a break or a more serious injury will occur."

Kardashian suggests patients take frequent breaks from texting and typing and stretch the affected areas if experiencing any symptoms. If pain and/or swelling exist, use ice packs to reduce swelling while giving your hands a rest.

Or maybe turn off the cell phone and get a full night's sleep.

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Where to Find Work When Your Unemployment Runs Out

There are certain jobs even in this recessionary climate that still need workers

If you need money to survive here are a few jobs that seem to be always in demand despite the economy...

These can be difficult times for people looking for work, especially if you work in a particular industry hard hit by layoffs and restructurings. And if you've been out of work for a long time, your unemployment eligibility may have run out and you need money to survive.

There are jobs that appear to be in demand no matter how poorly the economy is doing. And depending on the extent of your education and your skill set, these just may help you get through the lean periods until a more permanent job comes along.

Here are few occupations that need people now and will probably need people for sometime to come. They don't pay great, but you can earn enough to survive.

As a freelance writer, I decided to investigate the need for writers and what I found was that there is more than enough writing to go around and not nearly enough writers to do it all. You can thank the hungry beasts known as the Internet for creating a nearly insatiable need for content, but it text, or audio or video. No matter what the content is, some writing is required.

Writer

So the first survival job is that of writer. Writing for the internet pays a lot less than writing for print publications, but there is a need for constant written content whether it is answer to search engine questions, or articles about new restaurants. The demand is huge. Your only qualification is to be a half-way decent writer.

Clear and simple is the name of the game here. No fancy words. No creative sentence structure, just straight talk using clear and simple language and grammar. Some websites looking for writers include helium.com and demandstudios.com, just to name a couple. Google websites for freelance writers and hundreds will pop up.

If the Internet isn't your cup of tea, you may want to try your hand at greeting card companies. According to the Greeting Card Association, writers may be paid between $25 and $150 for a submission that's accepted. Humor or punch line writing pays the most.  To find out which companies accept submissions, look for guidelines on their websites or call them directly. You can also check out the latest edition of Writer's Market to find freelance opportunities at everything from websites to national and regional magazines and trade publications.

Elder Care

The next job where people will always be needed is in elder care. We're all getting older and sooner or later if we're lucky, or unlucky depending on how you look at it, you may need someone to take care of you. Your kids would seem like the most logical choice but they're going to be too busy taking care of themselves. So they're going to want to hire somebody else to watch over mom and dad, in the capacity of a professional companion. Sort of an escort for the elderly.

You might end up reading to them, or pushing their wheelchairs outside so they get some sun. This job doesn't even require any special skills. It helps to know how to read, but that's about it.

Pet Care

If caring for old people isn't your thing, how about a dog or a cat. Deborah Jacobson is the author of Survival Jobs: 154 Ways to Make Money While Pursuing Your Dream. She says that regardless of what's happening in the economy, pet owners will continue to need help caring for their animals.

Put an ad on Craigslist or flyers at your church or local coffee shop that promote pet-sitting services. This will appeal to pet-owners who are out of town or working, or for elderly people who may need someone to walk their dog.

Catering

Chances are you wouldn't think of catering as a survival job, but I have friends who have fallen into the catering business by accident because word got around that they could cook a mean vegetarian spread for several people. Now that's what they do. And no matter how bad the economy seems to get, there are some people who still want to throw parties and get married. So you have children's birthday parties, and weddings and even some businesses who still have lunch meetings.

They difference here is that catering will require a certain amount of experience. You will have to know how to cook.  

Substitute teacher

A fellow I used to work with at in the UBS marketing department was laid off a few months before I was and couldn't find similar work. So he became a substitute teacher. He didn't have his teacher's license or any advance degree in education but that didn't matter. Education and certification requirements for substitutes vary by state and school district, and usually they're not as strict as for full-time teachers. For some reason substitute teaching jobs seem to be easier to find at private schools where experience and certification are often not required.

The downside is that the average pay for a substitute teacher $105 a day. I know cleaning ladies who make more than that and we wonder why our education system is so miserable.

Teach a skill

Let's say you don't have your Bachelors. You can still be a teacher, just not a school teacher. You could teach a skill. Do you play the guitar or some other musical instrument? There are a lot of folks who'd like to learn. Nearly everybody can teach something. Do you speak and write Spanish? There's a huge demand for Spanish language teachers. What about gardening, carpentry, do-it-yourself skills of all kinds are in demand.

Offer to teach a class at a local community college, or community center. Offer a course for an adult continuing education program.  

Hotel Worker

I'm told that the hospitality industry has a high employee turnover rate and an abundance of seasonal positions. Call hotels in your area and see if there are any openings for bellhops, concierges, or desk clerks. Many of these positions require no experience.

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Scientists Find Possible Cause of Peanut Allergies in Children

Eating peanuts during pregnancy may be the cause

Scientists Find Possible Cause of Peanut Allergies in Children Eating peanuts during pregnancy may be the cause...

photoRoughly 3.9% of American children suffer from peanut allergies and scientists are scrambling to understand how these life-altering, possibly life-threatening sensitivities are brought on.

Researchers have found that women who eat peanuts during their pregnancy may put their babies at risk for developing peanut allergies.

The data is published in the November 1 issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

Led by Scott H. Sicherer, MD, Professor of Pediatrics, Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, researchers at five U.S. study sites evaluated 503 infants aged three to 15 months with likely milk or egg allergies or with significant eczema and positive allergy tests to milk or egg, which are factors associated with an increased risk of peanut allergy. The study infants had no previous diagnosis of peanut allergy.

Of the 503 infants, a total of 140 had strong sensitivity to peanut based on blood tests, and their mothers consuming peanuts during pregnancy was a significant predictor of this test result.

"Researchers in recent years have been uncertain about the role of peanut consumption during pregnancy on the risk of peanut allergy in infants," said Dr. Sicherer. "While our study does not definitively indicate that pregnant women should not eat peanut products during pregnancy, it highlights the need for further research in order make recommendations about dietary restrictions."

In 2000, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that women whose infants were at increased risk of allergies based upon family history consider avoiding peanut products while pregnant and breastfeeding. However, the recommendation was withdrawn in 2008 due to limited scientific evidence to support it.

The Consortium of Food Allergy Research (CoFAR), which was just awarded a renewed $29.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, is conducting this ongoing, observational study to help better understand the risk factors behind a child's developing peanut allergy, as well as allergies to milk and egg.

The Consortium is also studying novel treatments for food allergies.

The authors caution that the study has limitations, such as relying on the women self-reporting their dietary habits.

Importantly, the study has thus far only shown an increased risk for positive allergy test results to peanuts.

Despite its limitations, the study has identified a potential risk factor that, if verified, could present an opportunity for risk reduction.

The authors conclude that controlled, interventional studies should be conducted to explore these findings further.

"Peanut allergy is serious, usually persistent, potentially fatal, and appears to be increasing in prevalence," said Dr. Sicherer. "Our study is an important step toward identifying preventive measures that, if verified, may help reduce the impact of peanut allergy."

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Online Retailers Fined for Failing to Post EnergyGuide Information for Appliances

Three firms will pay more than $400,000 in total penalties; two other sellers facing stiff fines as well

Online Retailers Fined for Failing to Post EnergyGuide Information for Appliances Three firms will pay more than $400,000 in total penalties; two other ...

Three online retailers have agreed to pay more than $400,000 in total penalties to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that they failed to post EnergyGuide information on their websites to inform consumers about the energy use of major home appliances they sell.

The agency also notified two other online sellers that it will seek a total of $640,000 in fines from them.

Labels omitted

According to the FTC, the online appliance retailers knowingly violated the agency's Appliance Labeling Rule, which requires them to provide EnergyGuide information for certain products such as refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers, air conditioners, water heaters, and washing machines. The information estimates the annual cost to operate the appliance.

"Companies selling appliances covered by the FTC's rules, either online or in stores, have an obligation to provide EnergyGuide labels," said David Vladeck, Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection. "The information on the labels helps shoppers make smart buying decisions that take into account energy use."

The civil penalty cases are the first the agency has brought against online retailers for Appliance Labeling Rule violations.

Nationwide retailers

The FTC used its authority under the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA) to assess civil penalties for knowing violations of the Appliance Labeling Rule against five online retailers, which also operate brick-and-mortar stores in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, and California.

Three of those companies have settled with the agency and agreed to pay the following amounts: P.C. Richard & Son, Inc., $180,000; Abt Electronics, Inc., $137,500; and Pinnacle Marketing Group, Corp., $100,000. Two other companies, Universal Computers and Electronics, Inc. and Universal Appliances, Kitchens, and Baths, Inc., have not agreed to settle the FTC charges.

Before the FTC may assess civil penalties under the EPCA, it must notify the non-settling companies of the proposed penalty amounts. The companies can then choose to pay the proposed penalty or be sued by the FTC in an administrative proceeding. The FTC has proposed penalties of $540,000 against Universal Computers and Electronics, Inc. and $100,000 against Universal Appliances, Kitchens, and Baths, Inc.

The administrative complaints and consent orders were issued against:

  • P.C. Richard & Son, Inc and P.C. Richard & Son, LLC, doing businesses as (d/b/a) Pcrichard.com, based in Farmingdale, New York; 
  • Abt Electronics, Inc., d/b/a abt.com, based in Glenview, Illinois; and
  • Pinnacle Marketing Group, Corp., d/b/a homeeverything.com, based in Brooklyn, New York.
The notices of proposed civil penalties announced today were issued against:
  • Universal Computers and Electronics, Inc., d/b/a appliancebestbuys.com, based in Jamaica, New York; and
  • Universal Appliances, Kitchens, and Baths, Inc., d/b/a universal-akb.com, based in Studio City, California.
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When China Coughs the U.S. Stock Market Gets Sick

The Economic Version of the Butterfly Effect gets acted out on a daily basis in America’s Securities Markets

Individual investors need to know how what happens in the rest of the world can impact your portfolio even it’s entirely in domestic securities...

In science, the butterfly effect is a metaphor from the chaos theory that goes something like this. If a butterfly flaps its wings in Asia, there is some kind of causal effect that triggers a tiny atmospheric change that could in theory lead to a hurricane in Chile. Similarly, in economics, such seemingly small changes in one part of the world could have an enormous impact somewhere else.

Case in point. Today, China released a report that showed its factories had increased production last month in response to a boost in new business. Based on that report, U.S. stock futures shot up after being lower for a good deal of the pre-market morning. Some dismal salary figures came in shortly thereafter and this brought them back down but they still remained in positive territory, mostly because of the Chinese manufacturing report.

The message for investors struggling to get their portfolios back in shape following the nearly two-year bear market is that we are in a global arena, whether you are invested in international securities such as emerging markets or not. What happens in China and India and in many other fast growing economies plays a major role in the sale of goods made in the U.S.

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about the importance of investing in emerging markets as a way to improve your returns. And while I maintain that strategy, investors should remain cautious about how much of their portfolio should be invested in these more volatile markets.

In fact, there's research reported in the Wall Street Journal that shows you actually may do better by being partially invested in U.S. and emerging markets instead of just the developing countries even though the lure of huge returns beckons.

According to the Journal, if investors simply are increasing ownership of emerging-markets stocks from very low levels that's good. But some strategists warn that putting too much money into this market could cause an asset bubble and they point to recent data showing almost $50 billion flowed into emerging-markets equity funds this year through September, while $78 billion flowed out of developed-market funds.

That was based on data from fund-flow tracker EPFR Global. In the week ended October 6, emerging-markets equity funds attracted $6 billion, the largest weekly inflow in about three years.


One study by University of Florida finance professor Jay Ritter looked at market returns in 32 nations since the 1970s. It concluded that stock gains and economic performance can diverge dramatically. Speaking to the Journal, Dr. Ritter said, "a healthy economy isn't a guarantee that established companies will attract enough capital and labor to expand sales and earnings strongly—partly because they have to compete with newer ventures for resources."

Some investors have done very well investing in emerging-markets stocks. In fact, according to the Journal, anyone who invested in emerging-markets equities at the end of 2008, during the global financial crisis, could have realized a gain of around 75% in 2009 as global stock markets rebounded sharply from depressed levels. In contrast, the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index rose only 23% in 2009.

Still, an analysis by economists from Vanguard, the mutual fund giant, says that generally, over the past decade, emerging-markets investors were rewarded for the additional risk they were taking not because of high economic growth but because of comparatively low equity valuations.  

The Vanguard analysts use the price/earnings ratio for the MSCI Emerging Markets Index on a trailing basis and it, according to the Journal, suggests that valuations for U.S. and emerging-markets stocks have moved much more closely into alignment recently.

To translate all this financial services speak, you should continue to own some emerging market stocks but if you are just now getting into the market, maybe you should wait or at least limit your exposure.

The Journal offers these tips:

1.      Don't make an outsized wager on emerging markets. Emerging-markets stocks should represent around 10% to 15% of an investor's total equity portfolio, about in line with the proportionate share of emerging-markets stocks to total global stock-market capitalization, many investment pros say. Much more than that represents a move beyond diversification.

2.      Avoid funds that focus narrowly on hot regions or countries. Deciding whether to invest in a single country or region requires skill in active management that most individuals don't have.

3.      Instead, you might consider buying a broadly diversified emerging-markets fund—or even an international-equity fund that includes emerging-markets shares. That way, you aren't tying performance to a single economy.

4.      Make a long-term commitment to emerging-markets positions. Markets in emerging nations can be volatile, increasing the risk that investors pull out at precisely the wrong time.

5.    Consider getting some emerging-markets exposure via a large-cap U.S.-equities fund. By some estimates, the performance of more than half the companies in the S&P 500 depends more on global growth than on U.S. growth.

 


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Do Happy Workers Increase Productivity?

Many companies seem to think so and are spending a lot of money to make their employees happybb

Studies show happy works are more productive than unhappy workers so some companies are investing in ways to make employees feel better about work...

Do you whistle while you work? Do you walk through the door of your workplace with a big smile because you're just so glad to be there? Are you worried that you're having too much fun at work and someone will find out and they'll stop paying you? Hey, if it's this much fun, why do they even call it work?

Would you believe corporations are spending considerable dollars to make their employees smile, or at least feel better about where they work?

According to Harvard University researcher Shawn Achor, employees who feel positive outperform employees who are negative in terms of productivity, energy levels, turnover rates and even health care costs. Achor is the author of "The Happiness Advantage" and he says optimistic  salespeople, outperform pessimistic salespeople by 37%.

Sales isn't the only field impacted by how you feel. Achor says he's seen across many industries and many jobs. He points out that doctors with a positive mindset are 50% more accurate when making diagnoses than those who are negative.

There are a number of companies that are investing in the happiness of their employees to increase both innovation and boost productivity. Smart Money actually has a list of some of the happiest companies to work for.

One of them is Google and its chief culture officer, Stacy Sullivan says "if you infuse fun into the work environment, you will have more engaged employees, greater job satisfaction, increased productivity and a brighter place to be."

Google has often been used as an example of a firm known for its forward thinking campus-like atmosphere and perks. For example, it offers its 23,000 employees onsite daycare, dry-cleaning, oil changes and free breakfast, lunch and dinner. Google even hosts "TGIF" staff meetings in which staffers can ask questions of the CEO.

Has all this paid off? Well, Google asked employees to use 20% of their work time on a project outside the scope of their jobs. This led to the creation of Gmail and Google Talk.

Some other companies that may not be as well known for their creative work atmosphere as Google  are beginning to find ways to increase workplace happiness. Financial firm UBS offers employees a nap room and a Friday beer cart. Beverage company PepsiCo encourages associates to get outside by offering them plots of land to start organic gardens.

According to the research, here are few companies along with Google and UBS who are spending money to make their employees happier.

Adobe offers employees positive psychology training; onsite cafeterias, fitness facilities and bocce courts; and 80 associations like knitting and book clubs bring employees together based on personal interests.

American Express encourages flexible schedules like telecommuting, job-sharing and compressed workweeks; employees are offered paid sabbaticals; gay partners receive health benefits.

At IBM researchers found the more social employees were the better they performed. Each additional e-mail contact added $948 in revenue so IBM launched a program to facilitate employee introductions to increase overall happiness.

KPMG invests in happiness training; allows employees to take partially paid leaves for up to 12 weeks; encourages flexible scheduling and formal mentoring programs.

 

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Get Set for Winter Illness Season

Health experts offer tips on staying healthy during cold and flu season

Get Set for Winter Illness Season Health experts offer tips on staying healthy during cold and flu season ...

In much of the Northern Hemisphere, this is prime time for colds, flu, and other respiratory illnesses.

While contagious viruses are active year-round, fall and winter are when we're all most vulnerable to them. This is due in large part to people spending more time indoors with others when the weather gets cold.

Most respiratory bugs come and go within a few days, with no lasting effects. However, some cause serious health problems. Although symptoms of colds and flu can be similar, the two are different.

Cold vs. flu

Colds are usually distinguished by a stuffy or runny nose and sneezing. Other symptoms include coughing, a scratchy throat, and watery eyes. No vaccine against colds exists because they can be caused by many types of viruses. Often spread through contact with mucus, colds come on gradually.

Flu comes on suddenly, is more serious, and lasts longer than colds. The good news is that yearly vaccination can help protect you from getting the flu. Flu season in the United States generally runs from November to April.

Flu symptoms include fever, headache, chills, dry cough, body aches, fatigue, and general misery. Like colds, flu can cause a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, and watery eyes. Young children may also experience nausea and vomiting with flu.

Fighting flu

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • More than 200,000 people in the United States are hospitalized from flu-related complications each year, including 20,000 children younger than age five.
  • Flu-associated deaths number in the thousands each year. Between 1976 and 2006, the estimated number of flu-related deaths every year ranged from about 3,000 to about 49,000.

Flu vaccine, available as a shot or a nasal spray, remains the best way to prevent and control influenza. The best time to get a flu vaccination is from October through November, although getting it in December and January is not too late. A new flu shot is needed every year because the predominant flu viruses may change every year.

All people six months of age and older should be vaccinated. However, you should talk to your health care professional before getting vaccinated if you

  • have certain allergies, especially to eggs
  • have an illness, such as pneumonia
  • have a high fever
  • are pregnant

Flu vaccination for health care workers is urged because unvaccinated workers can be a primary cause of outbreaks in health care settings.

Certain people are more at risk for developing complications from flu; they should be immunized as soon as vaccine is available. These groups include:

  • people 65 and older
  • residents of nursing homes or other places that house people with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and heart disease
  • adults and children with heart or lung disorders, including asthma
  • adults and children who have required regular medical follow-up or hospitalization during the preceding year because of chronic metabolic diseases (including diabetes), kidney dysfunction, a weakened immune system, or disorders caused by abnormalities of hemoglobin (a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen)
  • Young people ages 6 months to 18 years receiving long-term aspirin therapy, and who as a result might be at risk for developing Reye's syndrome after being infected with influenza

This year's flu shot

Note that only one vaccine is needed for the 2010-2011 influenza season.

During last flu season, two different vaccines were needed; one to prevent seasonal influenza and another to protect against the 2009 H1N1 flu virus. This year's seasonal flu vaccine protects against three strains of influenza, including the 2009 H1N1 flu virus.

Also, a vaccine specifically for people 65 years and older is available this year. Called Fluzone High-Dose, this vaccine induces a stronger immune response and is intended to better protect the elderly against seasonal influenza.

This vaccine -- which was approved by FDA in 2009 -- was developed because the immune system typically becomes weaker with age, leaving people at increased risk of seasonal flu-related complications that may lead to hospitalization and death.

Good sanitation

Wash your hands often. Teach children to do the same. Both colds and flu can be passed through coughing, sneezing, and contaminated surfaces, including the hands. CDC recommends regular washing of your hands with warm, soapy water for about 15 seconds.

FDA says that while soap and water are undoubtedly the first choice for hand hygiene, alcohol-based hand rubs may be used if soap and water are not available. However, the agency cautions against using the alcohol-based rubs when hands are visibly dirty. This is because organic material such as dirt or blood can inactivate the alcohol, rendering it unable to kill bacteria.

Try to limit exposure to infected people. Keep infants away from crowds for the first few months of life. This is especially important for premature babies who may have underlying abnormalities such as lung or heart disease.

Practice healthy habits

  • Eat a balanced diet.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Exercise. It can help the immune system better fight off the germs that cause illness.
  • Do your best to keep stress in check.

Also, people who use tobacco or who are exposed to secondhand smoke are more prone to respiratory illnesses and more severe complications than nonsmokers.

Already sick?

Usually, colds and flu simply have to be allowed to run their course. You can try to relieve symptoms without taking medicine. Gargling with salt water may relieve a sore throat. And a cool-mist humidifier may help relieve stuffy noses.

Here are other steps to consider:

  • First, call your doctor. This will ensure that the best course of treatment can be started early.
  • If you are sick, try not to make others sick too. Limit your exposure to other people. Also, cover your mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, and throw used tissues into the trash immediately.
  • Stay hydrated and rested. Fluids can help loosen mucus and make you feel better, especially if you have a fever. Avoid alcohol and caffeinated products. These may dehydrate you.
  • Know your medicine options. If you choose to use medicine, there are over-the-counter (OTC) options that can help relieve the symptoms of colds and flu.

If you want to unclog a stuffy nose, then nasal decongestants may help. Cough suppressants quiet coughs; expectorants loosen mucus so you can cough it up; antihistamines help stop a runny nose and sneezing; and pain relievers can ease fever, headaches, and minor aches.

In addition, there are prescription antiviral medications approved by FDA that are indicated for treating the flu. Talk to your health care professional to find out what will work best for you.

OTC products

  • Be wary of unproven treatments. It's best to use treatments that have been approved by FDA. Many people believe that products with certain ingredients -- vitamin C or Echinacea, for example -- can treat winter illnesses.

Unless FDA has approved a product for treatment of specific symptoms, you cannot assume the product will treat those symptoms. Tell your health care professionals about any supplements or herbal remedies you use.

  • Read medicine labels carefully and follow directions. People with certain health conditions, such as high blood pressure, should check with a health care professional or pharmacist before taking a new cough and cold medicine. Some medicines can worsen underlying health problems.
  • Choose appropriate OTC medicines. Choose OTC medicines specifically for your symptoms. If all you have is a runny nose, use only a medicine that treats a runny nose. This can keep you from unnecessarily doubling up on ingredients, a practice that can prove harmful.
  • Check the medicine's side effects. Certain medications such as antihistamines can cause drowsiness. Medications can interact with food, alcohol, dietary supplements, and each other.

The safest strategy is to make sure your health care professional and pharmacist know about every product you are taking, including nonprescription drugs and any dietary supplements such as vitamins, minerals, and herbals.

  • Check with a doctor before giving medicine to children. Get medical advice before treating children suffering from cold and flu symptoms. Do not give children medication that is labeled only for adults.

Don't give aspirin or aspirin-containing medicines to children and teenagers. Children and teenagers suffering from flu-like symptoms, chickenpox, and other viral illnesses shouldn't take aspirin.

Reye's syndrome, a rare and potentially fatal disease found mainly in children, has been associated with using aspirin to treat flu or chickenpox in kids. Reye's syndrome can affect the blood, liver, and brain.

Some medicine labels may refer to aspirin as salicylate or salicylic acid. Be sure to educate teenagers, who may take OTC medicines without their parents' knowledge.

When to See a Doctor

See a health care professional if you aren't getting any better or if your symptoms worsen. Mucus buildup from a viral infection can lead to a bacterial infection.

With children, be alert for high fevers and for abnormal behavior such as unusual drowsiness, refusal to eat, crying a lot, holding the ears or stomach, and wheezing.

Signs of trouble for all people can include:

  • a cough that disrupts sleep
  • a fever that won't go down
  • increased shortness of breath
  • face pain caused by a sinus infection
  • worsening of symptoms, high fever, chest pain, or a difference in the mucus you're producing, all after feeling better for a short time
Cold and flu complications may include bacterial infections (e.g., bronchitis, sinusitis, ear infections, and pneumonia) that could require antibiotics. 

Remember: While antibiotics are effective against bacterial infections, they don't help against viral infections such as the cold or flu.

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