Current Events in November 2010

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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 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.

    It’s time to re-calculate those retirement plans if you want to avoid outliving your money...

    No-Contract Cell Phones May Be Growing Trend

    Survey finds wide interest among contract customers in switching

    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.

    InMarch 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 planat 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 yourselfeverswitching 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$50a 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.

    Since the beginning of cell phones, providers have locked customers into long-term contracts, but a new survey suggests that trend is shifting....

    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

    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.

    Time To Check Your Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm Batteries Experts also recommend consumers test their home’s safety equipment when they return thei...

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      New York City Issues Water Warning For Lead

      Officials attribute cause to plumbing found in older homes

      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 theRun Your Tapcampaign, 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.

      New York City Health officials have begun urging residents to run tap water for 30 seconds before drinking, because of elevated lead levels....

      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.

      Kids With Food Allergies At Risk For Malnutrition Researchers say overly-restrictive diets based on unreliable blood tests to blame...

      What You Need to Know Before You Co-sign for Your Children’s Loan

      There are certain risks when you are a co-signer

      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.

      What do you do when your children ask you to co-sign for a loan or a rental agreement?...

      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

      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.

      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...

      Study Shows Technological Advancements Reduce Stress On Driver

      Testing shows not only a reduction in stress, but positive driver reaction to new technologies

      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."

      Study Shows Technological Advancements Reduce Stress On Driver Testing shows not only a reduction in stress, but positive driver reaction to new technol...

      Seven Ways To Avoid Medicare Traps and Costly Blunders

      Consumer 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.

      Seven Ways To Avoid Medicare Traps and Costly BlundersConsumer Reports Health offers free rankings of Medicare Advantage HMOs ...

      Fake Payday Loan Collector Scam Still Going Strong

      Callers use fear to shake down victims for cash

      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.


      Accusing people of owing money for a bogus payday loan debt obviously works. That's why so many scammers are still doing it....

      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

      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.

      Just because interest rates are low doesn’t mean you should refinance your mortgage, especially if you are of a certain age...

      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

      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.

      Injections of Drug Found In Tylenol Approved for Pain and Fever Management First and only intravenous formulation of acetaminophen approved for use in ...

      Costco Tops Consumer Reports™ List of Eyeglass Retailers

      Independent 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

      Costco Tops Consumer Reports™ List of Eyeglass RetailersIndependent local eyeglass shops and private doctor's offices also fared well...

      Hollywood Video Reaches From The Grave To Grab Consumers

      Former customers suddenly hearing from a collection agency

      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.

      Former customers of defunct Hollywood Video are being contacted by a collection agency claiming they owe late fees....

      Major Cities Could Be Hit With Water Shortages, Report Warns

      Ten major cities could experience a water shortage within the next few years

      When 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.

      Two reports show ten major American cities could experience a water shortage, some within the next two to three years...

      Feds Announce Chemical Test for Dispersant In Gulf Seafood

      All 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.

      Feds Announce Chemical Test for Dispersant In Gulf SeafoodAll samples test within safety threshold, posing no threat to consumers...

      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.

      Pension Plan Limitations for 2011 Announced The Internal Revenue Service changes from 2010 are few and small, with some areas remaining the same ...