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Potential E. Coli Prompts Organic Beef Recall

California firm reports possible contamination

An organic meat packer has recalled more than 34,000 pounds of beef for possible E. coli contamination....

California-based First Class Foods, Inc., is recalling approximately 34,373 pounds of organic ground beef products that may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced today.

The following products are subject to recall:

  • 16-oz. packages of "NATURE'S HARVEST ORGANIC GROUND BEEF BRICK" sold singly with one of the following "USE or FREEZE by" dates: "12/30/10" or "01/08/11."
  • 16-oz. packages of "ORGANIC HARVEST ORGANIC GROUND BEEF BRICK" sold singly and in three-packs with one of the following "USE or FREEZE by" dates: "12/28/10" or "01/06/11."
  • 16-oz. packages of NATURE'S HARVEST GROUND PATTY" containing four (4) 4-oz. patties with the following "USE or FREEZE by" date: "12/30/10" or "01/08/11"

According to the manufacturers, each package label bears the establishment number "EST. 18895" as well as the identifying Pack Date of "10341 and 10350 Julian date.

The ground beef products in question were produced on Dec. 7, 2010, and Dec. 16, 2010, and were shipped to retail establishments in Calif., N.J., N.Y., N.C., Wis., and Wash. State. When available, the retail distribution list(s) will be posted on FSIS' website.


According to FSIS, the problem was discovered through company microbiological sampling which confirmed a positive result for E. coli O157:H7. FSIS and the company have received no reports of illnesses associated with consumption of these products. However, individuals concerned about an illness should contact a physician.

FSIS routinely conducts recall effectiveness checks to verify recalling firms notify their customers of the recall and that steps are taken to make certain that the product is no longer available to consumers.

E. coli O157:H7 is a potentially deadly bacterium that can cause bloody diarrhea, dehydration, and in the most severe cases, kidney failure. The very young, seniors and persons with weak immune systems are the most susceptible to foodborne illness.

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Borders Can't Afford to Pay Publishers for Books

Are bookstores going the way of the drive-in movie theater?

Borders Can't Afford to Pay Publishers for Books. Are bookstores going the way of the drive-in movie theater? ...

When was the last time you were in a bookstore? Exactly. On-line books sales and electronic readers have replaced our primary need for going there. There are other reasons to go to a book store, to socialize, or see what new books are out, but they have little to do with actually buying a book.

And that's the conundrum facing the nation's second largest bookstore chain, Borders. Shares of Borders fell to below $1 after it announced that it couldn't afford to pay publishers for their books at this time and would have to delay payment.

That news followed an earlier report in which Borders said a third party had lowered the value of its inventory in the event it had to sell the company or go out of business. That hurt Borders' ability to borrow and forced it into talks with senior credit facilities to refinance its debt.

Borders spokeswoman Mary Davis says that as part of this potential refinancing, it is necessary for Borders to restructure its vendor financing arrangements and is delaying payments to some of its publishers. Davis added that Borders has notified the publishers and will be working with them to restructure payment arrangements.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Borders admitted that there can be no assurance that its refinancing efforts will be successful. The company reiterated an earlier disclosure that without refinancing, it could violate its existing credit agreements in the first quarter of 2011 and experience what it called "a liquidity shortfall."

Earlier this month, there was a report that Bill Ackman, who runs the Pershing Square Capital hedge fund, was going to help finance a Borders-led takeover of Barnes and Noble, the nation's largest bookseller.

Analysts say that deal would have made sense because it would put Borders deeper into the digital book store and hardware game, via Barnes and Noble's Nook. Now, however, they say the real problem isn't where Borders needs to be, it's where it is now, with a lot of property no one is visiting, or if they are visiting, just not buying books when they do.

Fewer books

Consumers are simply buying less published material in stores than ever before. That trend is not likely to change. But both Borders and Barnes and Noble have excessive real estate holdings that need to be cut.

In December, Borders reported a loss of $74.4 million for the third quarter, nearly twice as deep as the loss posted a year earlier.

Meanwhile, sales of electronic books and the devices used to read them exploded in popularity. Amazon, which sold about 2.4 million Kindles in 2009, is expected to at least double that number in 2010. Apple has sold about 7.5 million iPads since April.

Barnes and Noble announced that same-store sales fell more than 3% in the most recent quarter at the same time the Nook, its e-reader, was breaking sales records.

Barnes and Noble, which even put itself up for sale, so far hasn't attracted any buyers other than possibly Borders. But then that would appear to be like the Hindenburg buying the Titanic.

Meanwhile both Borders and Barnes and Noble are closing stores. Borders is scheduled to close its downtown Portland store on January 7. The rest of the chain could be right behind.

If you wonder what the future is for books, just think about the last time you bought a CD or even a DVD. It's unlikely that the physical book is going away completely, just as some audiophiles still prefer to listen to their music on vinyl. But there will probably be fewer print versions of books than there are today.

Studies show people with e-readers are reading more than they did before. I know that's true among the people I know who have them, and they love their iPads, Kindles and Nooks. Still, it's a little sad to see bookstores close, even though I never go there anymore.

I guess I just like to see them there when I drove by.

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Feds: Avoid Rock Hard Extreme and Passion Coffee

Sexual enhancement products contain undeclared drug ingredient

Feds: Avoid Rock Hard Extreme and Passion Coffee Sexual enhancement products contain undeclared drug ingredient...

Consumers are being advised not to purchase or use Rock Hard Extreme and Passion Coffee -- products promoted and sold as dietary supplements for sexual enhancement.

These products are promoted and sold on various Websites and possibly in some retail stores.

Users in jeopardy

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) laboratory analysis confirmed that Rock Hard Extreme and Passion Coffee contain the undeclared ingredient sulfaildenafil. Sulfaildenafil is structurally similar to sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra, an FDA approved prescription drug for Erectile Dysfunction (ED).

The undeclared ingredient may interact with nitrates found in some prescription drugs such as nitroglycerin and may lower blood pressure to dangerous levels. Men with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or heart disease often take nitrates.

Do not use

Consumers should stop using these products immediately and throw them away. Anyone who has experienced any negative side effects is advised to consult a health care professional as soon as possible.

Healthcare professionals and patients are encouraged to report adverse events or side effects related to the use of these products to the FDA's MedWatch Safety Information and Adverse Event Reporting Program online, download the form or call 1-800-332-1088 to request a reporting form, then complete and return to the address on the pre-addressed form or submit by fax to 1-800-FDA-0178.

Expanding marketplace

FDA says there is a growing trend of products marketed as dietary supplements or conventional foods with hidden drugs and chemicals.  These products are typically promoted for sexual enhancement, weight loss, and bodybuilding, and are often represented as being “all natural.” 

The agency is unable to test and identify all products marketed as dietary supplements on the market that have potentially harmful hidden ingredients.  Consumers should exercise caution before purchasing any product in the above categories.

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Where the Jobs Are Most Likely To Be In 2011

New survey tells you where to look amid signs that employment trends could be stronger

If you’re looking for work, a new survey shows the top ten fields in which companies will be hiring in 2011...

If you're one of the millions of Americans looking for work, here's a bit of good news. According to a survey by CareerBuilder.com, your prospect for finding work could be improving.

But it will depend on the field you're in as well as where you are in the country.

Hiring blitz?

According to CareerBuilder's annual job forecast, more employers plan to add full-time, permanent headcount in 2011 compared with 2010, with a continued emphasis on hiring in technology and revenue-producing fields.

The survey was conducted by Harris Interactive from November 15 to December 2 and included more than 2,400 hiring managers and human resource professionals across industries and company sizes.

Matt Ferguson, CEO of CareerBuilder says more than half of employers reported they are in a better financial position today than they were one year ago and that 2011 will usher in a healthier employment picture as business leaders grow more confident in the economy.

He added that although the survey indicates more jobs will be added in 2011 than 2010, job creation will remain gradual.

Hiring plans

The survey found 24 percent of employers plan to hire full-time, permanent employees in 2011, up from 20 percent in 2010 and 14 percent in 2009. Meanwhile, seven percent plan to decrease headcount -- a slight improvement from the nine percent in 2010 and 16 percent in 2009. Another 58 percent anticipate no change in their staff levels while 11 percent are unsure.

As for part-time hiring, 13 percent expect to hire part-time employees in the next 12 months, up from 11 percent in 2010 and nine percent in 2009. Some five percent plan to decrease part-time help, an improvement from eight percent in 2010 and 14 percent in 2009. Approximately 71 percent anticipate no change in their staff levels while 12 percent are unsure.

Businesses will be relying on interim solutions to help shoulder growing workloads. One-third of hiring managers (34 percent) reported they will hire contract or temporary workers to supplement leaner staffs in 2011, up from 30 percent last year and 28 percent in 2009.

Of those hiring, nearly one-in-four (24 percent) expect to add more than last year. Some 39 percent plan to transition some contract or temporary staff into full-time, permanent employees.

Hiring areas

Among employers who plan to increase their full-time, permanent headcount in 2011, Sales is the most popular functional area they will be hiring for as they focus on expanding their customer base and market penetration.

The top ten functional areas for recruitment include:

  • Sales - 27 percent
  • Information Technology - 26 percent
  • Customer Service - 25 percent
  • Engineering - 21 percent
  • Technology - 19 percent
  • Administrative - 17 percent
  • Business Development - 17 percent
  • Marketing - 17  percent
  • Research/Development - 15 percent
  • Accounting/Finance - 14 percent Hiring

 

By region

Similar to last year's forecast, more employers in the West plan to recruit new employees in 2011 than other regions. About 26 percent of hiring managers in the West reported they plan to add full-time, permanent headcount followed by 24 percent in the Northeast and 23 percent in the Midwest and South.

Plans to downsize staffs are trending below the last two years with eight percent of employers in the South expecting to decrease headcount followed by seven percent in the Northeast, Midwest and West.

Company size

While small businesses have been slower to recover, hiring is gradually improving among companies of all sizes. About 30 percent of employers with more than 250 employees plan to increase full-time, permanent headcount in 2011, followed by 27 percent of employers with 51 to 250 employees, and 14 percent of employers with 50 or less employees.

Compensation

As for compensation, 41 percent of employers are concerned that their best talent will leave their organizations once the economy improves, as heftier workloads and longer hours take their toll on worker morale. Therefore, 67 percent said they will increase compensation for their existing staff in 2011, compared with 57 percent in 2010. While most employers estimate the average raise will be three percent or less, one-in-ten (10 percent) expect the average increase will be five percent or more.

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10 Ways To Make Your Smartphone More Secure

When it comes to security, treat your phone like your PC

A security firm offers advice to protect your smartphone from malware...

If 2010 was the year of the smartphone, 2011 could be the year of dangerous malware that targets those devices.

Despite the huge sales of iPhones, Droids, Blackberries and others during the year, millions of consumers received new smartphones as Christmas gifts. All this creates a target-rich environment for hackers.

“This year people will be doing more with their phones than ever before,” said John Hering, CEO and founder of Lookout Mobile Security. “As millions of new smartphone users come online this holiday season, we want to give them some simple tips to stay safe.”

For anyone with a smartphone in the new year, Lookout Mobile Security created a quick list of tips to help smartphone owners stay safe:

1. Set a password.

One of the most common challenges for smartphone owners is losing the phone and all the personal data on it. Setting a strong password for your phone and enabling the screen auto-lock time to be five minutes is the simplest way to keep your personal information private during this busy season.

2. Download the updates for your phone.

Always take the extra time to download software updates. Often, they include patches to security flaws recently found in the software. Just like a desktop or laptop computer, staying up to date is your first line of defense from hackers and viruses.

3. Treat your phone like your PC.

As phones become more powerful and consumers do more with them, they become more attractive targets for malicious attacks. Protect yourself and your private data from malware, spyware and malicious apps by downloading a security app.

4. Use discretion when downloading apps.

One of the most exciting things to do with a new smartphone is explore all the great applications you can download onto it. As you begin to explore, make sure you download responsibly. Only download apps from sites you trust, check the app’s rating and read the reviews to make sure they’re widely used and respected.

5. Pay attention to the private data accessed by apps.

Applications have the capability to access a lot of information about you. When you install an app, take the time to read the data and personal information that it needs to access. Whether it is access to your location, your personal information or text messages, it should make sense that the application needs access to those capabilities.

 6. Download a “find your phone” app.

 No matter how diligent you are about keeping your phone on you at all times, you’re bound to lose it once, or it may even get stolen at some point. Download an app that helps you find your phone in case it is lost or stolen. Make sure you can remotely lock your phone if it is lost or stolen.

7. Exercise caution with links in SMS messages.

Smishing, or a combination of SMS texting and phishing, is when scammers send you a text to a malicious website or ask you to enter sensitive information. Don’t click on links in text messages or emails if you don’t know the sender or they look suspicious. Trust your instincts.

8. On Public WiFi, limit email, social networking and only window shop.

Public WiFi networks have become ubiquitous, but unfortunately securing the Websites you may access haven’t. Many Websites, email programs, instant messaging programs and social networking sites are not entirely safe to browse or access from a public WiFi network. Also, trying to limit your online shopping to “window shopping” on a public network.

9. Never enter your credit card information on a site that begins with only “http//”.

If a website ever asks you to enter your credit card information, you should automatically look to see if the web address begins with “https”. On unsecured networks, (those that have only have http://), a hacker could easily steal information like usernames, passwords and credit card numbers, which could lead to identity theft.

10. Enable a Wipe feature on your phone.

If you find yourself (or your phone) in a difficult situation, and you won’t be able to get your phone back, a Wipe application will clear all the data so your private information won’t fall into the wrong hands. If you can, try to download an app where you can wipe your SD card too.

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German Company Claims Successful Treatment of Parkinson's

An artist with Parkinson's Disease is painting again After receiving adult stem cell therapy

An adult stem cell treatment center in Germany claims it has successfully treated such debilitating diseases as Parkinson’s, diabetes, cerebral palsy and...

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More Jobs Going to Freelance Workers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics finds freelancers one of the few growing "job" categories

Some possible good news for all you self-employed freelancers out there as hiring of freelancers appears to be on the rise ...

Research by The Human Capital Institute indicates that one-third of the U.S. work force is now composed of freelancers, also known as contract workers. And the institute says the pool of these workers, who often are part-time, is growing at more than twice the rate of the full-time work force.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, freelancers were one of the few groups that continued to see job growth throughout the recession and the slow economic recovery. The bureau adds that this trend has been building for a number of years. From 1990 to 2008, the bureau says the number of contract positions grew from 1.1 million to 2.3 million and includes a larger share of workers in higher-skill occupations.

Another labor bureau study found that about one in nine American workers is self-employed. It's not just entry level, or even midcareer, job hunters who are joining the freelance world. Increasingly, top-level managers and executive teams are being shaken from established bureaucracies, replaced by temporary CEOs and troubleshooters brought in for their expertise in solving specific problems.

Corporations are sitting on piles of cash rather than investing in new employees to replace the ones they downsized in cost-cutting moves. Employers are waiting to add to permanent payrolls until they're more certain about the recovery, their future taxes and health care expenses.

Furthermore, it's simply easier to bring in or release temporary freelance workers as needed. There's less expense in hiring or firing and less worry about employment-related lawsuits. To underscore this trend, Freelancer.com, which claims to be the world's largest outsourcing marketplace, connecting small business with freelancers from around the world, says it has now registered two million professional freelancers.

Freelancer.com recently acquired the New York based outsourcing company LimeExchange. It says the two million freelancers and small businesses are from 240 countries, regions and territories worldwide. The largest country represented is the United States, with over 21% of users. Second is India with 19%.

To date over 890,000 projects have been posted on Freelancer.com, from projects as simple as designing a website or a logo to designing a fully functional dune buggy. One project called for the composition of a Rap Song to help Chinese students learn English. Each gig only pays a few hundred dollars and the average is under $200. Still, freelancer.com claims there are some who earn hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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Could Google Become Your Telephone Company?

Some think the search giant is angling to become a wireless carrier

Google took on Apple’s iphone with the Android smart phone operating system and now some believe it wants to be your telephone carrier as well...

Google already dominates the internet search market, owning an estimated 80% plus of all online searches. It's competing in the online shopping business with Google Shopping. Then there's Google TV, which is being held back for a re-tooling before it gets re-booted into our living rooms. And not long ago, Google took on Apple's iphone and RIM's Blackberry with its hot-selling Android smart phone operating system.

Now, according to some, Google wants to become your telephone company as well. According to a report on CNN.com Money from David Goldman, Google already has the technology necessary to become a mobile provider like Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint.

Goldman writes that currently Google licenses its ultra-popular Android smartphone operating system and it is trying its hand at becoming an Internet service provider. But its biggest weapon appears to be Google Voice, a low-cost calling service that launched in May 2009. Just five months later, the service had 1.4 million users -- almost half of whom were using it every single day.

Google currently relies on the other carriers to sell and support its devices. But Goldman says that over the years, Google has been assembling the pieces that would allow it to be its own carrier. He notes there are rumors that Google is buying up "dark fiber," broadband cables that have been laid but are not in use. Google refused to comment on those rumors.

Goldman adds that in February 2010, the company announced that it will become an Internet provider of "ultra high-speed broadband" for up to 500,000 customers for a U.S. city. That project is still under development, but Google is about to start testing its service out at Stanford University.

Goldman says Google already allows people to bypass their mobile carrier's service because the new version of Android ("Gingerbread") supports VoIP Internet calling, allowing users to make calls over Wi-Fi networks. Android by the way is currently the fastest-selling smartphone operating system with about 300,000 new Android devices being activated every day. Android is free for device manufacturers to license, so it has caught on like wildfire. Google makes its money by driving search traffic on Android phones.

As for the phone market, Google began selling the Nexus One Android phone directly to consumers online. Even though it wasn't very successful, Goldman says Google has laid the foundation for a future in retail.

The key question according to Goldman is would Google really be willing to give up its strong relationships with the carriers, most notably Verizon -- the largest network -- to go head-to-head with them in the wireless space?

Goldman says it's probably not going to happen in the immediate future because Google relies so much on other carriers to adopt its software and drive customers to its search site. But down the road, Goldman says it's a real possibility.

The Federal Communications Commission recently declined to enact strong Net neutrality rules for the wireless community. That leaves open the option for carriers to continue restricting their subscribers' access to some of Google's offerings. Goldman points out that there have already been a number of battles. Verizon made Microsoft's Bing the default search engine in some of its Android phones, depriving Google of that coveted spot, and it took more than a year of fighting to make Google Voice available for iPhone users.

Not everyone agrees with Goldman. Forrester Research Analyst Jeffrey Hammond is quoted as saying, "While I think Google could become a mobile provider, I'd view it as a nuclear option." Hammond believes that as long as Google can get 300,000 new phones a day into customers' hands via the existing carriers, and as long as those devices allow consumers to download anything they want, there's no reason for them to compete as a carrier.

Also Goldman points out the extensive regulatory scrutiny Google would face if it were to become a wireless provider. It has very little customer service or retail experience. And becoming a telecom carrier is an expensive business that could weigh on its margins. But when you have as much money as Google has, are such expenses are hardly an obstacle.

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Ohio Courts Take Action In Foreclosure Cases

Ohio Attorney General urges courts to do more to help homeowners dealing with foreclosures

Homeowners are beginning to fight foreclosures in court and one Attorney General urges courts to take strong action against fraudulent paperwork....

After a lull in foreclosure action in the last three months, many housing experts expect the process to crank up again as lenders put forward changes in their paperwork policies.

But many homeowners are likely to fight their foreclosures, claiming lenders have abused the system with robo-signers and other steps to expedite the process. In Ohio, Attorney General Richard Cordray has requested that the state courts continue to pay close attention to foreclosure cases that may have affidavits signed by robo-signers.

Taking action

In support of continued vigilance, Cordray highlights several courts that have taken action to address the situation.

"In tracking these cases throughout the state, we have found that judges are finding different ways to handle them," said Cordray. "Judges from Cuyahoga to Trumbull to Butler Counties have all found ways to deal with affidavits that may be fraudulent. I strongly urge other courts to consider options that will work best for them as our office decides how to handle the individual cases."

  • In Butler County, Ohio, Cordray says Judge Charles Pater issued an order denying GMAC's motion to ratify a judgment because "neither the Ohio Civil Rules nor the local rules of this court provide a procedure for or authorize a court to 'ratify' a final appealable order." The judge further stated that "the proper course of action would be for GMAC to first file a motion to set aside its judgment and then, once the court grants that motion, to refile its motion for summary judgment with a correctly executed affidavit in support."
  • In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, Judge Nancy Russo has scheduled a hearing requiring a foreclosure plaintiff "to provide the court with proof of integrity of all documents submitted." Another judge, Cordray says, has issued an order in a foreclosure case requiring that foreclosure counsel "personally certify the authenticity and accuracy of all documents submitted in support of judgment."
  • In Trumbull County, Ohio, a court sent a letter to foreclosure counsel requiring that affidavits state that the signatory "has personal knowledge of the file and has personally reviewed the documents."

 

Courts to the rescue

If courts are stepping in to help homeowners deal with foreclosure issues, it might offset the reduced help they are getting from the government, through official assistance programs. Officials in the Office of Thrift Supervision say fewer than a half million homeowners received help on their mortgages in the July-September quarter.

That's down about 17 percent from the second quarter and down 32 percent from the third quarter of 2009. Officials say the decline is due to a recent slowdown in foreclosures and a shrinking pool of homeowners who qualify for modification programs.

 

 

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Can Anything Be Done About Cyber-Bullying?

Experts think parents and teachers can help put an end to the problem by getting involved early

Can Anything Be Done About Cyber-Bullying? Experts thinks parents and teachers can help put an end to the problem by getting involved early...

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Rising Gas Prices Put a Chill in SUV Sales

Compact SUVs still popular but full-size models may be hit hard

Rising Gas Prices Put a Chill in SUV Sales Compact SUVs still popular but full-size models may be hit hard...

With gas prices climbing steadily, car dealers are taking a wary look at full-sized SUVs. Nationwide pump prices are now averaging $3.05, up nearly 45 cents from a year ago and are already well into $4 territory in California and other fuel-hungry states.

While SUV sales have not yet gone over the cliff, dealers surveyed by the trade journal Automotive News say they're not taking any chances. Dealers remember being stuck with lots full of hulking Expeditions, Hummers and Suburbans the last time gas prices spiked in the spring of 2008.

Dealers fear they will soon find themselves drowning in SUVs again. “There are far more truck-based SUVs being traded in than customers to buy them,” said Mike Jackson, CEO of AutoNation.

Rising gas prices and falling SUV demand can also hurt consumers who paid top dollar for a gargantuan family hauler when they try to trade it on a more economical vehicle.

While electric cars like the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt have garnered rock-star-style press attention lately, dealers say that most consumers who might have bought a full-sized SUV a few months ago are now opting for compact crossovers – the Ford Escape, Nissan Rogue, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 being the big sellers at the moment.

The compact crossovers, or mini-SUVs, are built on car platforms instead of light-truck bodies, making them lighter, more economical and more maneuverable.

Yours truly has been piloting a Volkswagen Tiguan with optional 4motion all-wheel-drive the last week or so through the snowy and icy roads of the Washington, D.C. area. It has been unfailingly sure-footed on slippery surfaces. Better yet, it is ready to rumble as soon as the pavement is dry, acting more like a Mini Cooper or VW Jetta on hilly, curvy roads.

Most auto analysts think the smaller SUVs will satisfy all but the biggest families or most dedicated off-roaders while providing superior fuel economy and safety. The latest generation of crossovers are less top-heavy than earlier versions, they have stronger roofs and nearly all come with electronic stability control, invaluable in preventing rollovers.

“The American consumer still generally wants to have a vehicle that offers a lot of utility but at the same time they are conscious of the fuel economy that the vehicle offers and what they are going to pay at the end of the month,” said Kelley Blue Book's Alec Gutierrez in a statement to Automotive News.

Speaking of Kelley Blue Book, it and other online and print publications may not yet have caught up with falling SUV values, as their statistics are based primarily on transactions that have already happened and may not be truly up to the minute.

In other words, just because you find an online or print estimate that your 2003 Expedition is worth $7,700, that doesn't mean you'll get that on a trade or that your neighbor will rush to buy it from you at that price.

On the other hand, a vehicle's value is not measured only in dollars.  Some hardy Northeasterners say they would have been hopelessly marooned during this week's blizzard had it not been for their big SUVs and say they will keep driving them until the wheels fall off.

 

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iPhone, Android, Mac OSX Likely Malware Targets in 2011

Hackers turn attention to newly popular devices, systems

Internet security firm McAfee has issued its 2011 threat assessment....

The most popular smartphones with consumers appear to be in the greatest danger of viruses and malware in the coming year, according to the security firm McAfee.

In its 2011 Threat Predictions report, the company's list comprises 2010's most buzzed about platforms and services, including Google's Android, Apple's iPhone, foursquare, Google TV and the Mac OSX platform, which are all expected to become major targets for cybercriminals.

McAfee Labs also predicts that politically motivated attacks will be on the rise, as more groups are expected to repeat the WikiLeaks paradigm.

"We've seen significant advancements in device and social network adoption, placing a bulls-eye on the platforms and services users are embracing the most," said Vincent Weafer, senior vice president of McAfee Labs. "These platforms and services have become very popular in a short amount of time, and we're already seeing a significant increase in vulnerabilities, attacks and data loss."

URL-shortening services

Social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook have created the movement toward an "instant" form of communication, a shift that will completely alter the threat landscape in 2011. Of the social media sites that will be most riddled with cybercriminal activity, McAfee Labs expects those with URL-shortening services will be at the forefront.

The use of abbreviated URLs on sites like Twitter makes it easy for cybercriminals to mask and direct users to malicious websites. With more than 3,000 shortened URLs per minute being generated, McAfee Labs expects to see a growing number used for spam, scamming and other malicious purposes.

Geolocation services

Locative services such as foursquare, Gowalla and Facebook Places can easily search, track and plot the whereabouts of friends and strangers. In just a few clicks, cybercriminals can see in real time who is tweeting, where they are located, what they are saying, what their interests are, and what operating systems and applications they are using.

This wealth of personal information on individuals enables cybercriminals to craft a targeted attack. McAfee Labs predicts that cybercriminals will increasingly use these tactics across the most popular social networking sites in 2011.

Mobile attacks

Threats on mobile devices have so far been few and far between, as "jailbreaking" on the iPhone and the arrival of Zeus were the primary mobile threats in 2010. With the widespread adoption of mobile devices in business environments, combined with historically fragile cellular infrastructure and slow strides toward encryption, McAfee Labs predicts that 2011 will bring a rapid escalation of attacks and threats to mobile devices, putting user and corporate data at very high risk.

Creases in Apple's armor?

Historically, the Mac OS platform has remained relatively unscathed by malicious attackers, but McAfee Labs warns that Mac-targeted malware will continue to increase in sophistication in 2011. The popularity of iPads and iPhones in business environments, combined with the lack of user understanding of proper security for these devices, will increase the risk for data and identity exposure, and will make Apple botnets and Trojans a common occurrence.

Privacy leaks—from your TV

New Internet TV platforms were some of the most highly-anticipated devices in 2010. Due to the growing popularity among users and "rush to market" thinking by developers, McAfee Labs said it expects an increasing number of suspicious and malicious apps for the most widely deployed media platforms, such as Google TV.

These apps will target or expose privacy and identity data, and will allow cybercriminals to manipulate a variety of physical devices through compromised or controlled apps, eventually raising the effectiveness of botnets.

Disguised as a friend

Malicious content disguised as personal or legitimate emails and files to trick unsuspecting victims will increase in sophistication in 2011. "Signed" malware that imitates legitimate files will become more prevalent, and "friendly fire," in which threats appear to come from your friends but in fact are viruses such as Koobface or VBMania, will continue to grow as an attack of choice by cybercriminals.

McAfee Labs said it expects these attacks will go hand in hand with the increased abuse of social networks, which will eventually overtake email as a leading attack vector.

Botnets

Botnets continue to use a seemingly infinite supply of stolen computing power and bandwidth around the globe. Following a number of successful botnet takedowns, including Mariposa, Bredolab and specific Zeus botnets, botnet controllers must adjust to the increasing pressure cybersecurity professionals are placing on them. McAfee Labs predicts that the recent merger of Zeus with SpyEye will produce more sophisticated bots due to improvements in bypassing security mechanisms and law enforcement monitoring.

Additionally, McAfee Labs said it expects to see a significant botnet activity in the adoption of data-gathering and data-removal functionality, rather than the common use of sending spam.

Hacktivism

Next year marks a time in which politically motivated attacks will proliferate and new sophisticated attacks will appear. More groups will repeat the WikiLeaks example, as hacktivism is conducted by people claiming to be independent of any particular government or movement, and will become more organized and strategic by incorporating social networks in the process.

McAfee Labs said it believes hacktivism will become the new way to demonstrate political positions in 2011 and beyond.

A whole new category

Operation Aurora gave birth to the new category of advanced persistent threat (APT, a targeted cyberespionage or cybersabotage attack that is carried out under the sponsorship or direction of a nation-state for something other than pure financial/criminal gain or political protest. McAfee Labs warns that companies of all sizes that have any involvement in national security or major global economic activities should expect to come under pervasive and continuous APT attacks that go after email archives, document stores, intellectual property repositories and other databases.

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Ringing In the New Year Could Be Bad for Your Health

Dangers abound for pedestrians, immune systems and waistlines around the country

Ringing In The New Year Could Be Back For Your Health Dangers abound for pedestrians, immune systems and waistlines around the country...

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Consumer Groups Oppose Federal Reserve Home Lending Rules Changes

Consumer groups coalition says the proposals enable loan scams on senior citizens

Consumer Groups Opposes Federal Reserve Home Lending Rules Changes Consumer groups coalition says the proposals enable loan scams on senior citizens...

Proposed changes to home lending rules from the Federal Reserve Board not only exceed its authority, but could actually encourage predatory lending targeted at senior citizens, according to a coalition of consumer groups.

In response to the "flawed proposals", the Center for Responsible Lending, the National Consumer Law Center (on behalf of its low-income clients), the National Association of Consumer Advocates, the California Reinvestment Coalition, the National Fair Housing Alliance and others have urged the Federal Reserve Board to withdraw its proposed regulations under the Truth in Lending Act. The Fed’s proposals involving reverse mortgages and the right to cancel illegal loans "would be particularly harmful to senior citizens," the groups contend.

Reverse mortgage concerns

The Fed has issued a wide-ranging proposal on reverse mortgages -- a loan product that represents a growing market for lenders, but which the coalition believes can pose major risks for older homeowners. In comments submitted to the Board, the groups detail how the Board’s proposal would permit several negative outcomes:

  • Bundling harmful and unnecessary products with reverse mortgages.  When seniors get a reverse mortgage, the lender would be allowed to also sell them harmful or unnecessary financial products after a 10-day waiting period.
  • False advertising. Would allow advertisers to make false statements, such as “you can never lose your home,” as long as they present additional information.
  • Gouging homeowners unfairly.  Would open the door for a harmful new type of reverse mortgage where borrowers could owe much more than the home is worth.  As it stands now, borrowers cannot owe more than the home is worth if they pay off the reverse mortgage by selling the home.
  • Undermining the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Clashes with specific requirements in the financial reform bill passed last summer, which calls on the CFPB to study reverse mortgages and issue regulations based on its findings.

 

Right of rescission

Another major issue involves the “right of rescission,” which provides homeowners up to three years to refinance or restructure a mortgage if a lender made the loan without providing timely and accurate disclosures about the loan’s terms and conditions.

Under the new proposal, the definition of "accurate" disclosures would be relaxed, allowing -- for example -- a lender to tell a homeowner that the monthly payment was $100 less than it actually was. The groups urge the Fed to preserve this right of rescission, which has been a major tool in combating predatory lending.

The groups, which also included Consumers Union, Consumer Action, the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project and the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, say that although some parts of the Fed’s proposal are positive, on balance they believe “some of the proposals are extremely damaging to consumers and to preservation of homeownership, and are beyond the Board’s authority.”

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Bank of America Ends Year With Flurry of Lawsuits

Plaintiffs allege a variety of offenses against bank

Bank of America Ends Year With Flurry of Lawsuits Plaintiffs allege avariety of offenses against bank...

Bank of America (BOA) is facing an onslaught of litigation, with plaintiffs accusing it of everything from wrongfully foreclosing on their homes to failing to comply with loan modification obligations.

The bank received some unwanted attention last week when a California woman filed suit, saying her home had been wrongfully repossessed. When she returned from a ski trip to her home in Truckee, Mimi Ash found that the locks had been changed. And once she finally managed to get inside, Ash discovered that all of her possessions had been swept from the house -- furniture, clothing, even her son’s ski medals and her deceased husband’s ashes.

“This is in essence a burglary, but when a burglar goes in, they don’t take your photos and your husband’s ashes,” Ash told the New York Times, adding that the house had turned into a “sad reminder that 22 years of my history vanished.”

Other snafus

Ash’s story, though nightmarish, was far from unique. Last October, BOA foreclosed on a Pittsburgh house, incorrectly labeling it as vacant and in default. The bank cut power and water lines, poured antifreeze down the drains, and took a macaw that was living inside.

And a Texas resident found his paid-up home padlocked with the power shut off, leaving 75 pounds of frozen fish to slowly roast in the southern heat. Both homeowners filed suit.

TARP suits

The bank is also facing at least three suits claiming that it reneged on duties it undertook by accepting $25 billion under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). 

The suits, filed by the attorneys general of Nevada and Arizona, and by private plaintiff Susan Fraser of Missouri, say that, by accepting TARP money, Bank of America agreed to engage in a TARP-authorized foreclosure prevention program.

Fraser alleges that in April 2009, the bank promised the U.S. Treasury Department that it would comply with provisions in the Treasury Department Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) relating to loan modifications and other foreclosure prevention methods. She contends that the bank reneged on that obligation out of a desire to maximize its profit margin.

“Under HAMP, the federal government incentivizes participating servicers to make adjustments to existing mortgage obligations in order to make the monthly payments more affordable,” Fraser’s complaint alleges. “However, this incentive is countered by a number of financial factors that make it more profitable for a mortgage for a mortgage servicer such as Bank of America to avoid modification and to continue to keep a mortgage in a state of default or distress and to push loans towards foreclosure.”

Litigious year at BofA

It has been a busy -- and litigious -- year for Bank of America. In February, the bank was hit with a suit accusing it of duping shareholders when merging with Merrill Lynch. That suit, filed by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, alleged that the bank failed to disclose Merrill’s huge losses in order to complete the deal more quickly. And in June, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan charged that the bank discriminated against minority borrowers when making lending decisions.

The latest suits suggest that BOA wasn’t entirely serious when it committed in January to redouble its loan modification efforts. At that time, the bank announced the launch of its “Second Lien Modification Program,” which was intended to reduce the monthly payments on qualifying home equity loans and lines of credit under certain conditions, such as completion of a HAMP modification on the first mortgage on the property.

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New Facebook Message Asks For More Info In the Name of Security

Security expert weighs in on whether giving Facebook additional info will keep you safe

New Facebook Message Asks For More Info in The Name of Security Security expert weighs in on whether giving Facebook additional info will keep you safe ...

If you were wary of a message from Facebook about your profile security levels being low, you’re not alone.

Considering the recent rash of profile hack-ins and password breaches, many Facebook users are thinking before clicking these days.

And with good reason: hackers have been able to access thousands of profiles this year either due to user error or other sites’ negligence (see: Gawker’s massive password snafu from two weeks ago).

But this message, appearing on profiles everywhere, despite looking similar to fake anti-virus and phishing virus pop-ups, is actually from Facebook.

According to the social networking site, many (if not all) profiles have low or “very low” account protection statuses -- even the profiles run by very tech-savvy users.

Solution?

Facebook’s apparent solution to this problem is what leaves some Internet security experts scratching their heads. Is it making your password harder to guess? Or disabling rogue applications?

Nope. It’s giving Facebook more of your personal information.

Once the note’s “increase protection” link is clicked, Facebook asks for an additional email address; a different one than was used to create the profile.

“Facebook's thinking is that if you lose control of the, say, Hotmail or Gmail account that you normally log into the site with, you'll be able to regain access to your Facebook account by giving them an alternative email address. They could then use this, for instance, to communicate with you,” said Graham Cluely, senior technology consultant at Sophos.com.

Which is all well and good, but Cluely wonders if Facebook’s intentions are not purely security-related.

Where does it go?


Along with the obvious issue of people who use the same password for their email accounts and their Facebook profile (don’t, by the way), Cluely points out Facebook makes no mention of what else, exactly, they possibly plan to do with users’ alternate email addresses.

“Not only would you be right to be concerned about whether you are increasing the potential for data loss by sharing alternative email addresses with online companies, but is it possible that Facebook might also use this secondary email address to further interconnect you with possible contacts?” said Cluely.

While Cluely points out Facebook has good intentions, attempting to cull data from users to help them regain control of compromised profiles, the company is going about it in a curious way. They also want your phone number.

Along with another email address, Facebook claims your profile security will be beefed up if you provide your cell phone number (for those users who haven’t already).  

Facebook is possibly asking for this so users will be able to utilize the new “one-time password” feature they announced plans for in October 2010.

For users whose profiles have been compromised, they can receive a one-time temporary password to access their account via text -- only if Facebook has the mobile phone number on file, of course.

Unanswered questions

Again, all well and good, but Cluely brings up some interesting, real life problems with this “security fix.”

“What happens if you lose your mobile phone, or someone else briefly swipes it from your jacket pocket? Then an unauthorized individual -- whether they be a potential identity thief or a jealous partner -- could potentially access your account via the system,” he said.

Plus, if Facebook has your cell phone number on hand, what else are they planning to do with it?

Lastly, Facebook wants you to pick one of their “security questions” and provide an answer only you would know. This would also act like a password in a pinch. But again, Cluely points out the flaw in Facebook’s plan.

The questions, including “In what city or town was your mother born?” and “What was the first name of the first boy or girl you ever kissed?” are ones whose answers could, relatively easily, be guessed based on… wait for it… information culled from people’s profiles.

“Where's the advice from Facebook that you shouldn't answer these questions honestly? Where's the option to write your own question?” wonders Cluely.

While Facebook appears concerned about profile security, many users are unhappy with the way, intentional or not, they‘re presenting the issue.

“The suggestion that users' accounts currently have a protection status of ‘very low’ is entirely misleading and stinks of scare tactics,” said Cluely.

Simple fixes


For users who don’t want to provide additional information to Facebook, but are still concerned about keeping their profiles safe, there are some simple fixes:

  • Choose a Facebook password that is completely different from all your other passwords. Mixing upper-and lower-case letters along with a few numbers is always a safe bet. If you’re scared about forgetting it, write it down and keep it in a safe place.
  • Log out of your account every time you’re finished with it. Even if you think you’re the only one using that computer or handheld device.
  • Don’t use the word “password.” Seriously.
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Is Your Checking Account Looking a Little Light?

Maybe it's time to plug up those slow financial leaks

Money could be flowing out of your checking or cash management account and you don’t even realize it until you read your monthly statement...

Do you read your bank and financial statements every month? You probably scan them, just to make sure there's enough money there to cover expenses, right?

That's what I used to do until one day something jumped out at me. It was a monthly charge of $19 for AOL. Wait, wasn't AOL free now? So I called them and was told that I had the option of using AOL for free or for paying a monthly charge to have extra benefits. I said in that case I'll take the free version thank you.

I then started to scrutinize the statement more carefully and realized there were a number of things I was being charged for every month that I no longer use or need, such as a subscription to an investment newspaper I get for free at work, or an upgrade to a jobsite that I could just as easily access for free. By time I was done cancelling these small but annoying charges, I had saved close to $300 a month.

So here's a list of some of the things you may be paying for each month that are draining your checking account. Some of these tips are supplied by the Motley Fool while others come from yours truly.

1. Banking fees. These can often be hard to spot. But the Motley Fool says that if you're being over-charged for banking, it may be time to evaluate your choice of financial institutions. Things to watch out for include being double charged for fees for both online and paper statements. There are banks that give you online service for free. You might also want to approach your existing bank to see if you qualify for an account upgrade that will offer you free checks or other perks and save you money in the process.

2. Programs through your employer. This has happened to me a few times. I once continued to pay for legal services even though I realized I was probably never going to use them. Unfortunately, I just forgot about it until my year-end payroll statement showed the $200 that had gone out my pay check in small amounts each month. I immediately plugged that leak. So don't just look over your bank statement. Check your monthly pay statement for anything your employer may withholding, that you forgot to stop.

3. Netflix. Here's a no-brainer and I hope Netflix doesn't cancel my subscription over it because I need my Netflix. I used to pay around $20 a month so I could have three DVDs out at the same time. Today, I pay $11. The difference is that now I watch many of the movies streaming online through my Blu-ray player on my television. I reduced my plan to I can watch as many streaming movies as I want and still get one DVD at a time in the mail.

4. Web hosting.  Are you paying for any web hosting fees for a site you no longer use or for something you could be getting for free, like access to AOL and AOL email?

5. Cable charges have always been one of my pet peeves. Mine got to over $250 a month before I realized something was very wrong. Who in their right mind pays that much just to watch television? I immediately canceled my cable subscription and went to a competitor who gave me one of those great $99 a year combo deals that includes hi-def television, telephone and high speed internet. If you don't want to cancel cable television completely, you could always drop some of those premium channels you never watch. Go from a gold to a silver plan and you'll probably save $30 or $40 a month depending on the provider.

6. Gym membership. This one's up to you. If you go to the gym a lot, the more power to you, but if you're like a lot of us, who sign up right after the first of the year and then seem to be unable to fit another trip to the gym into our busy schedules for the rest of the year. If that's you, take a look at your contract and figure out when it makes sense to opt out. You can use that money to pay all those other bills you still have to pay.

7. Credit protection programs. This is basically a scam that credit card companies try to pull in order to scare you into thinking you should pay for extra protection against fraud or theft. Check out the fine print on your credit card agreement. Chances are they already offer this protection and you don't need any upgrade and additional charges.

8. Credit monitoring services. Here's another waste of money. There are basically three credit monitoring services and they charge monthly fees to keep you apprised of your credit report. But according to federal law, you're supposed to be able to get a credit report every 12 months from each of the credit bureaus for free. If you space out your requests, and ask for Experian's report on January 1, Trans Union's four months later in May, and your Equifax credit report in September, you can monitor your own credit all year long and it won't cost you anything. Go to https://www.annualcreditreport.com/cra/index.jsp.

9. The Library. Today, you can get most anything you want to either read, watch or listen to at the library and you won't have to pay for it, unless you're late bringing it back. Want to save a bundle? Use your local library. They have everything from books, magazines, newspapers, computers, DVDs, and Blu-ray Discs, and CDs (remember those?) They also have access to data bases you and I would have to pay for that you can use for free. They're also great places to meditate because they tend to be quiet.

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Full-Body Scanners on Incoming Congress' Radar

Scanner industry books non-stop lobbying flights to protect its turf

Full-Body Scanners on Incoming Congress' Radar...

Grumbling over weather-related delays this holiday season temporarily displaced consumer complaints about the full-body scanners that are being rushed into service at airports around the country, but the debate is likely to resume as soon as the snow melts.

Passengers' complaints – traditionally given little more than lip service – may find a friendlier reception among at least some of the incoming Republicans elected to Congress. Those of the Tea Party persuasion have let it be known that stopping government waste and protecting individual rights – well, some individual rights anyway -- will be at or near the top of their agenda.

For the defense contractors and high-tech industries that have come to rely on a steady stream of lucrative contracts from the Department of Homeland Security, this is about as welcome as being pulled out of line at the airport for an "enhanced" pat-down.

But fear not. The scanner-makers aren't letting their guard down. They're hiring armies of lobbyists to plead their case on Capitol Hill. The Washington Post reported recently that top scanner manufacturers spent at least $6 million on lobbying during 2010. As public opposition to the scanners grows, it's likely to be an even bigger bonanza for the lobbyists, who are often former government employees or Congressmen.

In fact, citizens who wanly pine for bipartisanship on Capitol Hill need look no farther than K Street, NW, D.C.'s fertile field where "retired" Republicans and Democrats graze among the lush greenery sown by the companies that harvest billions annually from the public coffers.

Odd couples

One such unlikely couple: former U.S. Senator Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) and Linda Daschle, wife of Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), the former Senate majority leader. They labor in the vineyards for L-3 Communications, a New York-based company that has so far won about $900 million of TSA business for its airport body scanners.

Then there's Michael Chertoff. Remember him? Not long ago, Chertoff headed the Department of Homeland Security. After leaving DHS, he worked as a "consultant" for Rapiscan, another scanner-maker.

It's this kind of revolving-door job-jumping that makes would-be reformers, like Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), see red.

Chaffetz made jaws drop in 2009 when he introduced legislation to ban whole-body imaging at airports, saying that, Passengers expect privacy underneath their clothing and should not be required to display highly personal details of their bodies as a pre-requisite to boarding an airplane.”

Whole-body imaging is exactly what it says; it allows TSA employees to conduct the equivalent of a strip search. Nobody needs to see my wife and kids naked to secure an airplane.  At $170,000 apiece, we can hardly afford the machines,” Chaffetz said back in April 2009.

Industry was quick to respond to Chaffetz, sending up attack squadrons of lobbyists to argue that the scanners provided the most reliable safeguard against terror in the sky. Perhaps more persuasive was the Christmas Day 2009 "underwear bomber," a would-be terrorist who attempted to detonate explosives concealed in his underwear on a flight approaching Detroit.

Even Chaffetz was moved to change his position. A few days after the Christmas Day incident, he said he would support the machines being widely deployed.

No clothes

But notwithstanding the boxer-bomb fears, privacy advocates and civil libertarians say the king has no clothes.

They argue that the full-body scanners will go the way of the "puffers," the short-lived devices that tried to sniff passengers for explosive residues. They were abandoned as impractical after the TSA spent $30 million on them.

Among the most persistent critics is the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which has filed suit to stop the use of the scanners on the grounds that the procedure is "unlawful, invasive, and ineffective."

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has scheduled oral arguments in the case for March 10, 2011.

In its opening brief, EPIC argued that the federal agency has violated the Administrative Procedures Act, the Privacy Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Video Voyeurism Prevention Act, and the Fourth Amendment

Whether the new Congress is willing to fight heavy headwinds to throttle back the flow of taxpayer money to the scanner industry remains to be seen.

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Taxpayers To See More Generous Deductions In 2011

Tax breaks expanded because of inflation

The Internal Revenue Service has increased some tax deductions next year to offset inflation....

At the end of the year Congress extended tax cuts for all taxpayers for another two years, but it turns out that's not the only tax benefit you'll enjoy in the new year.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has announced that, in 2011 personal exemptions and standard deductions will rise and tax brackets will widen due to inflation.

These inflation adjustments relate to eight tax provisions that were either modified or extended by the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization and Job Creation Act of 2010 that became law on Dec. 17.

New dollar amounts affecting 2011 returns, filed by most taxpayers in early 2012, include the following:

The value of each personal and dependent exemption, available to most taxpayers, is $3,700, up $50 from 2010.

  • The new standard deduction is $11,600 for married couples filing a joint return, up $200, $5,800 for singles and married individuals filing separately, up $100, and $8,500 for heads of household, also up $100. The additional standard deduction for blind people and senior citizens is $1,150 for married individuals, up $50, and $1,450 for singles and heads of household, also up $50. Nearly two out of three taxpayers take the standard deduction, rather than itemizing deductions, such as mortgage interest, charitable contributions and state and local taxes.
  • Tax-bracket thresholds increase for each filing status. For a married couple filing a joint return, for example, the taxable-income threshold separating the 15-percent bracket from the 25-percent bracket is $69,000, up from $68,000 in 2010.
  • The maximum earned income tax credit (EITC) for low- and moderate- income workers and working families rises to $5,751, up from $5,666 in 2010. The maximum income limit for the EITC rises to $49,078, up from $48,362 in 2010.The credit varies by family size, filing status and other factors, with the maximum credit going to joint filers with three or more qualifying children.
  • The modified adjusted gross income threshold at which the lifetime learning credit begins to phase out is $102,000 for joint filers, up from $100,000, and $51,000 for singles and heads of household, up from $50,000.

Several tax benefits are unchanged in 2011. For example, the monthly limit on the value of qualified transportation benefits (parking, transit passes, etc.) provided by an employer to its employees, remains at $230. Details on these inflation adjustments can be found in Revenue Procedure 2011-12.

By law, the dollar amounts for a variety of tax provisions, affecting virtually every taxpayer, must be revised each year to keep pace with inflation. Most of the new dollar amounts, including retirement-plan-related adjustments, were announced in October. To avoid confusion, the eight new provisions were not included in the October announcements, due to the anticipated impact of extender legislation.

Read more about income tax

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Consumers Urged To Avoid Tiny Greens Brand Alfalfa Sprouts and Spicy Sprouts

Food and Drug Administration says there are indications the veggies contain Salmonella

Consumers Urged To Avoid Tiny Greens Brand Alfalfa Sprouts and Spicy SproutsFood and Drug Administration says there are indications the veggies contain...

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is advising consumers not to eat Alfalfa Sprouts and Spicy Sprouts (which contain alfalfa sprouts mixed with radish and clover sprouts) from Tiny Greens Organic Farm of Urbana, Ill.

Preliminary results of the investigation of a multistate outbreak of Salmonella infections indicate a link to eating Tiny Greens' Alfalfa Sprouts at Jimmy John's restaurant outlets. The sprouts were distributed in 4 oz. and 5 lb. containers to various customers, including farmers' markets, restaurants and groceries, in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri and possibly other Midwestern states.

The problem

Approximately half of the illnesses occurred in Illinois, where nearly all of the ill individuals ate sandwiches containing sprouts at various Jimmy John's outlets. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has posted epidemiological information about this outbreak. 

Jimmy John's has stopped serving sprouts on its sandwiches at all Illinois locations.

Symptoms

Most people infected with Salmonella develop diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection. The illness usually lasts four to seven days, and most people recover without treatment. However, some may require hospitalization from severe diarrhea.

Salmonella infection may spread from the intestines to the blood stream and then to other body sites. It can cause death unless the person is treated promptly with antibiotics. The elderly, infants and those with impaired immune systems are more likely to become severely ill from Salmonella infection.

What to do 

Consumers should not eat Tiny Greens brand Alfalfa Sprouts or Spicy Sprouts. Restaurant and food service operators should not serve them. Consumers, retailers and others who have Tiny Greens Alfalfa Sprouts or Spicy Sprouts should throw them away in a sealed container.

Consumers who think they may have become ill from eating contaminated sprouts should consult their health care providers.

Illness history

Sprouts are a known source of foodborne illness. Since 1996, there have been at least 30 reported outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with different types of raw and lightly cooked sprouts. Most of these outbreaks were caused by Salmonella and E. coli.

The FDA advises children, the elderly, pregnant women, and persons with weakened immune systems to avoid eating raw sprouts of any kind (including alfalfa, clover, radish and mung bean sprouts). To reduce the chance of foodborne illness, FDA advises consumers to cook sprouts thoroughly and to request raw sprouts not be added to your food.

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How Bringing Home the Bacon Has Destroyed the Pork Bellies Market

The pork bellies futures pit at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange is literally in the pits

Trading is almost non-existent these days in the Pork Bellies market and one reason is because bacon has become so popular ...

I remember working on the Broadcast News desk at a well-known wire service and the editor yelling at me, "where are the pork belly futures?" And he refused to run the agriculture report without them for fear of the wrath of angry radio and television stations in the Midwest that were depending on them for their viewers and listeners.

It's doubtful that scenario would occur today primarily because when it comes to pork bellies, the one-time futures kings of the commodity pits are close to going -- if you'll pardon the pun -- belly up.

In fact, when you walk the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange CME) you may not even find any pork belly traders. For the past 50 years, pork bellies were among the most traded commodities at the CME, but in recent years, volume has dropped considerably and the bitter irony of it all is that the reason is due to the growing popularity of bacon.

Pork belly primer

For those of you who have no idea what a pork belly is, it's a slab of frozen meat from which bacon is cut. Futures contracts on pork bellies began as a way for meat packers and food companies to manage their price risk of bacon.

Pork bellies were frozen and stored away in the winter, and then thawed out in the summer to accommodate the annual summer spike in bacon demand. The summer was when the nation devoured millions of bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches.

It was this seasonal pattern that created the need for producers to hedge against price fluctuations.

Over the years bacon grew more popular and became less seasonal as it appeared on breakfast dishes, hamburgers and in salads. Food companies no longer need to store as many frozen pork bellies during the winter months.

Declining fortunes

In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, pork bellies were one of the highest traded commodities available. This past November, just six contracts changed hands in the entire month. The pork-belly pit that had once been the center of attention, has since been moved to a corner of the CME's floor, and is now just an appendage to the lean-hog-trading pit.

George Segal is one of the last pork-belly traders at the CME. Recently, he found himself alone in the market. He used the exchange's electronic-trading system to place two orders -- one to buy and one to sell. By day's end, no one else had entered the market, his offers were still dangling, and pork bellies passed another day with no trades.

What it means

So, how does this affect us? Without a viable hedging tool for pork belly prices, bacon producers, and consumers, can be subject to price fluctuations. Retail bacon prices in November surged 34 percent from a year earlier to close to $4.70 per pound. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that makes bacon more expensive than pork chops.

For independent bacon processors, the decline of the pork-belly futures contract has meant that pork belly prices are becoming a mystery. The amount they pay for spot bellies is now based on a daily price quoted by the Agriculture Department, which collects it from producers on a voluntary basis.

This year, spot prices have soared 45 percent from June to an all-time high of $1.60 a pound in September, before tumbling back to a low of 88 cents by late October. Now they sell for around 96 cents.

New life

According to the Wall Street Journal, the CME and industry executives are trying to rejuvenate the pork-belly future. The exchange is looking at modifying some of the contract's specifications, such as allowing traders to settle in cash instead of actual slabs of meat.

Currently sellers, if holding a contract through expiration, must deliver 40,000 pounds of inspected frozen pork bellies with a producer certificate within 15 days, and a buyer must take possession. Another exchange idea is to trade fresh pork bellies instead of frozen ones.

The Journal says changing the contract from physical settlement to cash settlement could help. Financial traders have largely shunned the contract because it requires buyers to take possession of massive quantities of meat. 

 

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Will the For-Profit Education Bubble Burst in 2011?

Taxpayers foot the bill for expensive degrees that don't deliver high-paying jobs

Will the For-Profit Education Bubble Burst in 2011?Taxpayers foot the bill for expensive degrees that don't deliver high-paying jobs...

First there was the high-tech bubble, then the housing bubble. What bubble will burst in 2011?

Many are betting it will be for-profit education - as critics question the value of the expensive degrees and certificates awarded by the likes of Kaplan University and the University of Phoenix.

"Serious questions have emerged about the share of the military educational benefit pool going to for-profit schools with questionable outcomes," said a report issued earlier this month by the Senate's Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee.

Committee chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said that by extending benefits similar to the GI Bill to current veterans, "Congress may have unintentionally subjected this new generation of veterans to the worst excesses of the for-profit industry: manipulative and misleading marketing campaigns, educational programs far more expensive than comparable public or nonprofit programs, and a lack of needed services."

The for-profit colleges make big profits on federally-guaranteed loans but critics say that even students who graduate - a small percentage - aren't likely to snag the kind of high-paying positions they're led to expect.

For-profit schools exploded over the last decade. They appeal to working adults seeking training that will help them advance their careers, veterans and active-duty military hoping to smooth the transition to civilian life and, in many cases, those who did poorly in high school and are unable to gain admittance to more selective universities.

Kaplan's bubble may already have burst. Owned by the Washington Post Company, Kaplan is facing Congressional investigations and numerous lawsuits, including a whistle-blower suit filed by the school's former director of education, David Goodstein.

The lawsuits claim that Kaplan recruiters aggressively signed up students who were unqualified and enrolled students in vocational-training courses for industries that they knew to be over-staffed.

Alarmed by the reports of graduates who leave school with heavy debt only to wind up working low-paying jobs, the U.S. Department of Education has proposed regulations that would cut off federal financing to programs that have high debt-to-income ratios and low repayment rates.

One such student is Hope of Hahira, Ga. She graduated from Kaplan in 2006 with an associates degree in paralegal studies and despite having a straight-A average in school, she was fired after a year because her Kaplan education was inadequate, she said in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com.

"I now owe all of this student loan debt and am unable to find a job in my field and am in default of my student loans because I can't support myself," Hope said. "I wish that I had known that this school was not a school where credits are transferable and where the "material" isn't appropriate or conducive to learning how to work in the legal environment."
The Washington Post Company has been quick to defend Kaplan, its most profitable unit. It reported spending $350,000 on lobbying during the third quarter of 2010, more than any other higher-education company.

Post Company chairman Donald Graham, a powerful figure in Washington, has also put his personal influence to work, schmoozing lawmakers and regulators. The Post has editorialized against the regulations, saying they would limit students' choices.

"The aim of the regulations was to punish bad actors, but the effect is to punish institutions that serve poor students," Graham said in a recent interview with The New York Times.

But Department of Education figures show that only 28 percent of Kaplan students were repaying their student loans - well below the 45 percent level generally considered the minimum acceptable rate. At the University of Phoenix, by contrast, 44 percent of students were repaying their loans.

The Florida Attorney General has also launched an investigation of Kaplan. In a statement, the office of Attorney General Bill McCollum said the investigation concerned "alleged misrepresentations regarding financial aid; alleged unfair/deceptive practices regarding recruitment, enrollment, accreditation, placement, graduation rates, etc."

Earlier this year, Sen. Harkin's committee held hearings that included undercover videos showing high-pressure recruiting tactics by Kaplan and other for-profit colleges.

The Post Company's Graham called the videos "sickening" and said the company has done its best to clean up the abuses.

The lobbying muscle of the Post Company and other for-profit education companies may be adequate to squash further Congressional action and head off restrictive new regulations.

But the question for consumers to ponder is whether a degree or certificate from a for-profit school will carry the same weight as a similar degree from a community college or public four-year university. Returning veterans and job-seekers hoping to advance their prospects are often better off going directly to potential employers and talking with them about the requirements and aptitudes they look for in prospective employees, employment counselors say.

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Homelessness Continues to Rise in America

Study shows number of homeless families is up 9%

New report from Conference of Mayors shows the number of Americans experiencing homelessness rose this year ...

The poorest of the poor in this country are in for a rough winter. A new study released by the Conference of Mayors says more Americans requested emergency shelter and food assistance this year.

The study, which surveyed 26 cities, found that the number of families experiencing homelessness rose an average 9% while the number of unaccompanied individuals experiencing homelessness rose by 2%. Meanwhile, requests for emergency food assistance jumped an average 24% over last year.

This increase comes at a time when cities are struggling to survive financially and have had to cut some programs because of budget shortfalls. The combination of an increased demand and funding cuts has limited space available at city shelters, putting thousands of homeless people at risk of hypothermia and death.

The annual assessment, found that 58% of the cities analyzed showed an increase in family homelessness. To break down the numbers further, on any given night, more than one thousand family members are living on the streets of these 26 cities, 11,000 are in emergency shelters, and more than 15,000 are staying in transitional homes.

Many of these families are suffering because of unemployment, while 20% cite low wages as the reason for their homelessness. They made too little to afford to pay the rent, heating, and electric. With social services drying up due to budget cuts, more families have been forced out of their homes and into the street.

Nearly 80% of the households with children stated that unemployment was to blame for their situation while 72% reported that lack of affordable housing as being the issue.

The mayors note the irony that that thousands of foreclosed homes sit empty while thousands of families go homeless.

Here's a thought. What if Washington put its muscle behind housing reform similar to what it did with health reform? Just as all Americans will be required to have health coverage, no American shall go without a roof over his or her head.

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January Is A Good Time To Review Your Credit Report

But don't be confused by 'free' reports that come with strings attached

January is a good time to check your credit report, which all three credit agencies must provide at no charge once a year....

On your list of tasks to take on in the new year should be an annual review of your credit report. It's free and you aren't required to sign up for anything.

Several years ago Congress passed a law requiring the three credit reporting agencies - Experian, Equifax, and Trans Union - to provide a free copy of every consumer's credit report once a year.

However, consumers need to understand there is only one source for this free annual review. Consumers should go to www.annualcreditreport.com and follow the directions. (Be sure to either type the URL in yourself or click on the link in the previous sentence.  Just typing "free credit report") into a search engine won't turn out well). 

There are some for-profit companies that say they too will provide a free credit report, but it comes with a very large string attached. Consumers are also required to enroll in a credit monitoring service that carries a monthly fee. If they cancel in time, they can avoid the fee, but it's not always easy to do.

Julie of Marlborough, Mass., said she went to one of the commercial sites, freecreditreport.com, thinking she was getting a free credit report.

"Of course without realizing it, I got charged $25," Julie told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I was able to 'eat that' thinking that perhaps I'd not paid attention and inadvertently checked the wrong box. But then today saw a charge from them for $14.95 on my bank. When I called to inquire, I was told I'd signed up for the monthly service, of which I had no idea."

Julie was clearly unaware that she was on the wrong site to get a truly free, no-strings-attached credit report.

Starting in April, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) began requiring FreeCreditReport.com and its competitors to add disclaimers to its advertising to help consumers avoid confusion. FreeCreditReport.com's ever-present TV ads now say "enrollment in Triple Advantage required" at the end, but the disclaimer goes by very quickly and consumers like Julie could be forgiven if they missed it, or didn't understand what it means.

Disclosure

The new rule requires websites offering "free" credit reports to include a disclosure, across the top of each page that mentions free credit reports, which states:

THIS NOTICE IS REQUIRED BY LAW. Read more at FTC.GOV. You have the right to a free credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com or 877-322-8228, the ONLY authorized source under federal law.

The Web site disclosure must include a clickable button to "Take me to the authorized source" and clickable links to AnnualCreditReport.com and FTC.GOV.

Once you are at the official AnnualCreditReport.com site, select your state from a drop-down menu and click on the "Request Report" button. Download and print out your credit report from all three reporting agencies and carefully review it, making sure the listing of open credit accounts and balances matches your records. If your identity has been stolen, for example, and someone has opened credit accounts in your name, this review could be the first warning that this has occurred.

Aside from identity theft issues, make sure the information in the report is factual. Why is that important?

Information in credit reports may affect whether consumers can get a loan or a job, so it is important that consumers check their credit reports and correct any information that is inaccurate. To learn more about your rights when it comes to annual credit report reviews, check the FTC's website.

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What First -Time Homeowners Need to Know

Here are some tips for first-time home buyers

You’re a first time homeowner and you’ve just found your dream house, what should you do before buying that property?...

When you're looking for a new car, you usually take it out for a test drive before buying or leasing it. What can you do to test out a house? Unless it's a mobile home, you won't be making any test drives. But there a few things you can and should do before signing those closing papers and taking ownership of a dream house that could just turn into a nightmare.

You've done your own quick inspection and you like what you see. It's got everything you need from the right amount of rooms, to the right size and layout. You even like the colors and plan to keep it painted the way it is. It looks ready to move in, so what's the problem?

Well, you may want to do a deeper dive inspection wise and take someone along who's a professional home inspector and knows what to look for to head off any future problems that could arise that your untrained eye would miss.

If this is your first time buying a home, it's easy to get caught unprepared for all the future repairs that seem to appear as soon as the ink dries on those closing papers. Here then are some tips gathered along the road of leaky roofs, damp basements and crowded highways that seemed so easy to handle on the weekends while you were house hunting. Some of the tips are mine and some come from Money magazine.

Tip 1. Money magazine recommends checking the home's foundation. When you inspected the house did you check the foundation? A home's foundation can be one of most expensive things to repair. This is something you probably shouldn't do yourself. Hire an inspector to go down into the basement with you. He or she will find cracks that you won't because you won't know where to look, especially if the basement is finished. Drywall could cover structural problems. So you need to look for any cracks in the drywall, especially around windows and doors. Since you've hired your own personal inspector, have them inspect the rest of the house as well.

Tip 2. Check the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment. This one also comes from Money. So while you're down in the basement, look at the heating and cooling equipment. How old is it? Does it look like it's running properly? Are the vents connected well? These are important questions to answer in order to make your home energy-efficient and ensure that you reduce utility bills. Replacing a home's HVAC system can cost tens of thousands of dollars, but many first-time buyers never give it a second look.

Tip 3. Visit your potential neighbors to the right, left and across the street. This one's mine. You want to know who your neighbors are and the kind of people they are. Do they have children? Are there any issues with the neighborhood you should be aware of? Are your neighbors friendly or private? Most first-time home buyers do this after they've moved in which is way too late if the person next door turns out to be the neighbor from hell.

Tip 4. Look for water damage. Money magazine says that if the house has had problems with water in the past, you're looking at several expensive fixes. First, what happened once, like a leaking basement, can easily happen again. Second, that water damage could have resulted in mold, especially the dangerous black mold. Look for brown or white stains down the side of the basement walls, which would indicate a past leak. If the floor is bare, then look for horizontal stains. Be suspicious if the basement has been freshly painted. Sellers often do this to hide water damage stains. It's also important to check the bathroom, and under the kitchen sink. Look for stains that would indicate mold growth.

Tip 5. Check the electrical. According to Money, if the home you're looking at is pre-1930's, it might still have the old knob and tube wiring. Knob and tube wiring is relatively safe as long as it hasn't been tampered with in any way. For instance, if the house has blown insulation in the attic sitting on top of the knob and tube wiring, this is tampering and it's a serious home fire safety hazard. Most insurance companies consider knob and tube wiring to be unsafe, so you're going to pay more for homeowner's insurance coverage. That's even if they'll insure you. Replacing it means rewiring the entire house, which will cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Tip 6. When you found the house, was it during the week or on the weekend? If you're looking for a place that will be an easy commute you need to see the house during the week and on a day you'll be commuting. Otherwise, you could be in for commuter shock. A friend once bought a townhouse in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, only to find it was nearly impossible to get out of the driveway, let alone the neighborhood, during commuting hours.

Tip 7. If the price is too good to be true, it probably is. These days putting an accurate value on a house is difficult because of the housing mess. So you may have to trust your instinct here. If not, trust your bank's instinct because chances are they're not going to give you a mortgage for more than 80% of what they think the home is worth. However, if the home's price is suspiciously low, there's probably a good reason so beware.

Buying a house is a huge decision and investment, especially if it's your first. So follow these seven tips and spare that buyer's remorse.

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The First Wave of Baby Boomers Is Turning 65 in 2011

Is the country ready or will this be a shock to the system?

The first of what will eventually be 78 million baby boomers begins to move through Medicare, and Medicaid in 2011, can the system handle them?...

The oldest of the Baby Boomers -- that 78 million person "bump" in our population -- turns 65 in 2011, and for the next 18 years that bump will be grinding through some of our most important systems of survival for the elderly. We're talking about Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security -- the three pillars of senior living support.

The key question on most boomer's minds is can the system handle it, or will this be the generation that breaks the foundation on which so many Americans are depending on?

Demand for benefits

 

Boomers started burning through Social Security three years ago when the first ones turned 62 and became eligible for benefits. And now they're going to be eligible for Medicare. Some may have even signed up already because you're supposed to sign up for medicare three months before the month you turn 65.

Coverage typically begins on the first day of your birth month. If your birthday is on the first day of the month, your coverage will start the first day of the prior month. Individuals who wait until their birth month or later to turn in the paperwork may experience coverage delays.

Baby boomers turning 65 next year should sign up right away to avoid a 10 percent Part B premium increase for each 12-month period they could have had Part B, but didn't sign up for it. Those who delay Medicare enrollment because they're still working and covered by a group health insurance plan must sign up within eight months after their coverage ends to avoid the penalty.

Many boomers are looking forward to joining Medicare this year, especially if they're paying a lot for their own health insurance. More than 6,000 Medicare beneficiaries with the birth date January 1, 1946, have already pre-enrolled in Medicare, so that their coverage will go into effect on the first day of 2011.

Some are even postponing serious or expensive medical procedures until they qualify for Medicare so that it's covered.

As for Social Security, even though the oldest baby boomers already qualify for partial benefits, they are still a year away from qualifying for the full amount. For 1946-born boomers, that's age 66. Those who have already signed up for Social Security, or plan to this year, will receive reduced payouts for the rest of their lives.

Many baby boomers plan to delay their Social Security as long as possible to lock in higher payments later on in retirement. Some even plan on waiting until they're 70 because they'll receive even more.

The perks

 

According to insurance actuarial tables, most of us will live another 20 years or so. So that means you have plenty of time to enjoy the perks that come with being a senior citizen. Turning 65 means you receive a number of breaks beyond being able to get Medicare.

Some will receive a break on property taxes, and discounted airline and movie tickets. You may not even be aware of it, but when you turn 65 you can get free hunting and fishing licenses along with reduced fees at state parks. You can even ride the bus and subway for less.

Medicare is still by and far the best deal of all and will mean thousands in savings related to medical and healthcare expenses.  

And the two perks with the most impact for seniors are government programs relating to property taxes and health insurance.

The Sunshine State

 

Since 2002, many Florida property owners 65 and older who earn less than $25,480 have gotten property tax breaks with increased homestead exemptions above the standard $25,000. And you thought it was just the weather that attracted the seniors to Florida.

Florida has long been one of the centers for senior citizen discounts. The state has the largest proportion of senior citizens in the nation. An estimated 2.8 million Floridians are older than 65, representing 17.6 percent of the state's population.

If there were a Mecca for seniors, it would be Charlotte County in southern Florida. By percentage, has more people 65 and older than any other county in the country. Four of the top nine metropolitan areas in the country for seniors stretch from Bradenton to Naples. Senior discounts are everywhere.

What has most state and municipal governments concerned is will this huge influx of people break these systems that were designed to make senior living easier.

Trouble in Texas

 

Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) recently threatened to pull  out of Medicaid because the state couldn't afford it anymore. Across the country, state budgets continue to be strapped. Federal stimulus dollars are running out. And the latest federal tax and stimulus package will not provide much relief at the state and local levels. Meanwhile, looming provisions of health reform will add a projected 16 million to the Medicaid rolls. Where are the facilities to take care of these folks? Where is the money?

Most eyes are on the federal government's massive budget deficits. Safety net programs would be affected by deficit reduction proposals that have been introduced to generally favorable receptions. Politicians on both sides of the aisle agree that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid have to be reined in for meaningful deficit reduction to occur.

The crunch

 

The battle over these programs has already begun and will intensify when the new Republican majority takes office next year in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Even as the lines are drawn for the federal deficit-reduction war, the states have become a battleground for resources to fund Medicaid. States share the funding for Medicaid services with Washington and have been increasingly hard-pressed to come up with their portion of Medicaid funding.

Meanwhile, demand for services continues to rise. That's particularly the case for seniors, who face a second straight year with no cost-of-living increases in Social Security. The poverty level of people aged 65 and older compares favorably with other age groups in the United States. That's almost entirely due to Social Security payments, which are large enough to keep most seniors above the poverty line. However, millions of older Americans live on incomes that are very near the poverty level.

Mandated increases in federal benefits under the health reform law are not the only source of financial pressures on safety nets. Baby boomers begin turning 65 next year at the rate of an estimated 7,500 people a day, taxing a Medicaid program that already is hurtling toward insolvency.

While federal support for Medicare is being reduced in the Medicare Advantage program, health reform will require that many preventive office visits and tests, including an annual physical, must be provided at no charge to Medicare participants. Federal support to pay for prescription drugs is also being increased for seniors with large drug bills.

As the song goes, "Something's Got To Give.”

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The Expense of Caring for Elderly Parents Can Be Overwhelming

And that doesn't take into consideration the hidden costs

Health care expenses rise exponentially as we age and the cost of elder care has grown accordingly, along with the hidden costs of caregiving...

 

As parents and caregivers for our children, we usually expect that at some point in our lives our children will grow into adults and eventually become self-sufficient. It usually happens around the time we realize that our days of being a caregiver are not really over, but merely shifting from our children to our aging parents.

The costs of elder care, such as assisted living facilities and nursing homes, has risen dramatically over the past few years, along with the cost of health care. Fortunately, we have Medicare and Medicaid to carry some of the weight of this expense burden.

But what we almost always fail to realize is the hidden costs to the caregiver in these situations.

Caregiver demand

According to data from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the demand for informal caregivers such as family members, friends or neighbors, is expected to increase by more than 20 percent in the next 15 years, and by 85 percent in the next 40 years.

Nearly 62 million people already care for another adult at least part-time, an expensive and time-consuming undertaking. It usually starts when you notice your mother or father is having trouble getting up the stairs, or begins to fall in the bathroom.

Even if you hire someone to provide care, more than half of the related care-giver -- the son or daughter -- will spend more than $4,500 a year on expenses such as food, transportation and medication for their elder parent.

What about the physical and emotional cost to the caregiver? According to a 2010 study of employees by the National Alliance for Caregiving and the MetLife Mature Market Institute, an estimated 11 percent of caregivers report feeling stressed compared with seven percent of non-caregivers. Marc Agronin, a geriatric psychiatrist and the author of "How We Age," says the stress and physical demands can bring about higher medical expenses and career roadblocks for anyone tending to another person.

Addressing hidden costs

Based on the MetLife and National Alliance for Caregiving Study, here are some hidden costs along with some ways to address them.

Hidden cost number 1.

Caregivers of all ages have a heightened risk for chronic health problems. Among working women 50 and older, the MetLife/NAC study found 20 percent of caregivers report just fair or poor health -- more than double the number of non-caregivers. Nearly 26 percent of adult men under the age of 39 say the same thing, which is more than three times the rate of non-caregivers in that group. Among the most common chronic health conditions reported at higher rates are diabetes, high blood pressure or hypertension and high cholesterol.

Those, and other related illnesses, can be expensive to treat. And because many caregivers are strapped for time, they end up skipping or delaying the medical care they need.

The best way to deal with this is to carve out time for your health needs. Consider using an adult day care center, which run about $75 per day, or hire a temporary home health aide once or twice a week to give you a break. You can usually find a list of such services, as well as other resources, at Caregiver.org and Eldercare.gov.

Hidden cost number 2.

Your career could easily take a hit. Nearly half of caregivers report that they've lost a job, had to change shifts or have missed out on career opportunities as a result of their responsibilities. A 2010 study by Genworth Financial and Age Wave found that those lost wages, promotions and other benefits can add up. The study also showed that 37 percent of caregivers quit their jobs or cut back on hours. Even those who keep their jobs may be overlooked for promotions and raises because of the time they're forced to spend away from the office.

You can deal with this by making your work schedule work for you. If you've established yourself as a strong performer, you can try to negotiate a flex-time or partial work-from-home arrangement. Newer companies in creative and high-tech fields often are most amenable to such arrangements. If ever you can't meet a deadline, talk to your boss and offer alternatives.

Hidden cost number 3.

You may have to delay retirement. The Genworth study found more than half (57 percent) of caregivers used their retirement savings to care for a loved one at some point during the past year. It also discovered that 63 percent of caretakers suffer a reduction in or loss of income because of their responsibilities. That double whammy makes it difficult to save enough to retire at a reasonable age.

You can deal with this by taking advantage of assistance programs. In 15 states, caregivers -- even family -- can get paid for their services through Cash and Counseling programs which dole out payments to Medicaid recipients who can then use the money to pay their caregiver. Some long-term care insurance policies may allow for compensation to a family member for providing in-home care, though pay rates vary widely depending on the policy and some require caregivers to complete a training session to qualify. Make sure to maximize available caregiving tax deductions, including a deduction of up to $3,650 for taking care of a qualifying relative.

Hidden cost number 4.

A family lawsuit. Fights between siblings over money used to care for parents are common and can lead to legal wrangling. Issues like who pays for care, the level of input each sibling has in caregiving preferences and how much time each sibling spends on care can top the list of hot button issues. Then there are those "medical end-of-life issues" that throw some families into an emotional hurricane that can cause lasting damage. A legal fight with your siblings over the estate, end-of-life care or a small stipend you may get for caring for mom can end up costing tens of thousands of dollars. Even mediation is pricey with sessions cost anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 depending on the weightiness of the issues.

You can deal with these issues by talking it over among the entire family and then put into writing all health and end-of-life care preferences, as well as estate issues. All siblings and immediate relatives should sign a caregiving agreement.

You can get an outline for such a document at ElderLawAnswers.com. It lays out the financial and time responsibilities that each person will assume. If the family fighting becomes problematic, consider hiring a care manager to oversee and organize what needs to be done for a parent and who does it.

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Can You Love A Car Like A Person?

Study finds many consumers exhibit love-like emotions around their cars, laptops, or guns

Can You Love a Car Like a Person? Study finds many consumers exhibit love-like emotions around their cars, laptops, or guns...

We all know people who seem so attached to their car, they spend all their free time working on it, all their extra money buying accessories for it, and even call it by a pet name. If it seems like those people are in love with their car, they might actually be.

According to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research, when it comes to possessions like cars, computers, bicycles, and even firearms, many owners exhibit love-like emotions.

Researchers and study authors John L. Lastovicka of Arizona State University and Nancy J. Sirianni of Texas Christian University visited five car shows in Arizona and conducted in-depth interviews with car enthusiasts (males and females, aged 19-68).

Emotional attachment

They found that love-smitten consumers were more likely to use pet names than brand names when describing their cars and that some people even seemed to use their attachment to cars to remedy pain and disappointment in their romantic lives.

"Material possession relationships may reduce the negative consequences of social isolation and loneliness, and can contribute to consumer well-being, especially when considered relative to less-desirable alternative responses like substance abuse, delinquency, and the side-effects of anti-depressant medications," the authors write.

The researchers found various combinations of passion, intimacy, and commitment in consumers' relationships.

"Consumers felt a passion, or a relentless drive to be with their beloved possession, and this often manifested in gazing at and caressing their cars, and even some love-at-first-sight purchase decisions," they write.

Nurturing relationships

People nurture relationships with their beloved possessions, investing time and money into improving them and becoming fluent in understanding their details.

"We found love-smitten consumers spent six times more on accessories and enhancements for their prized guns than firearm owners who did not demonstrate passion, intimacy, or commitment toward their guns," the authors write.

These findings could come in handy to for companies that sell accessories and after-purchase services such as cleaning, enhancements, and repairs.

"For those in the throes of material possession love, it should be no wonder that they so freely spend their time and money on their beloved," the authors conclude.

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You Can Pay Down Your Debt, But Don't Expect To Be Popular

Credit card companies prefer you carry a balance and not pay it all off

Here are some relatively easy steps to get out of credit card debt but don’t expect the credit card company to reward you for doing it...

To play off that cliche' about how guns don't kill people, people kill people, credit cards don't drive people deep into debt, but they sure do make it easy for people to get there.

Credit card debt has become the bane of the American consumer's existence. As hard as we try, it seems that getting completely out from under credit card debt is extremely difficult.

It doesn't help that credit card companies will do everything they can to keep you from paying off that balance. After all, the interest rate they get to charge when you don't is a large portion of their revenue, along with what they charge business to use their cards.

Catch 22

Not many people know this and the credit card companies have done a great job keeping it secret, but they regard people who pay off their credit card bills each month and never carry a balance as "deadbeats."

At the same time, if you carry too much debt or make a late payment, your credit score goes down and credit card companies will use that as a way to penalize you by raising your interest rates. How's that for a mixed message?

Sooner or later, you'll say you've had enough and decide that it's finally time to do something about your credit card debt to get away from all those late fees and finance charges, and say no more to all those hefty transfer fees to cards with introductory low interest rates that eventually climb back up.

Cutting the cord

If that's where you are, here are some relatively easy ways of finally paying off that credit card debut.

  • First, you have to change the way you think about credit cards. No, they're not an easy access to free money. Thinking like that is what got you in trouble to begin with. Credit cards are merely tools -- tools of convenience and should be considered as such.
  • Second, you have to put those cards away and be real. And by "being real," we mean you have to not buy something you really can't afford. You'll never be able to pay off your debt if you keep adding to it. If this is too difficult and you fall into that category of consumer-holic unable to stop spending, then you have to take a more severe approach. Cut up your credit cards. If you don't have them you can't use them.

Now if you do have a serious problem, you can expect a form of withdrawal to take place, for which you may need to seek out a Debtor's Anonymous meeting or even a therapist. If "not spending" makes you ill, then it's time to admit you have a problem and you have to deal with it.

  • Step three, now that you've curbed your excessive spending, you need to create a budget or a spending review. This will give you an idea where the money goes every month. When you stop the compulsive spending you should have some extra money that you can use to make larger payments to your credit card bills. If you continue to pay the minimums you'll never pay the balance off.
  • Step four: start paying off your credit card debt by paying off the highest interest rate card first. Some people will say they'd rather pay off the lowest balance because it gives them a sense of accomplishment. That's fine, but paying down the higher interest rate card first is still the best solution financially.

This step of paying down debt could take a while, but that's okay because it will also be teaching you a new way of living. Once you pay off those last balances, you will enter a special group of Americans, that rare breed of sensible consumers who live within their means and carry no credit card debt.

Yes, the card companies will call you a deadbeat behind your back, and they'll inundate you with offers of easy access to "free money." But you beat them and you can rest assured that you will feel a lot better about yourself, not to mention your glowing credit score if you continue to resist their temptation and not slide back into that deep well of debt.

 

 

 

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Top 10 Scams of 2010

Our annual list of deceptive schemes designed to part you from your money

With high unemployment and a stagnant housing market, it's no surprise "foreclosure rescue" tops our list of the Top 10 Scams of 2010....

photoThe year 2010 was marked by continued slow recovery from a devastating recession, a still-sinking housing market, skyrocketing gold prices and a proliferation of charities that were, in reality, less than charitable. It all plays into our annual list of the Top 10 Scams of 2010.

1. Foreclosure rescue scams

For millions of struggling homeowners, 2010 was a year of desperation, as they tried to hang onto their homes against the threat of foreclosure. Many who turned to so-called foreclosure rescue firms, who promised to save their home for an upfront fee, ended up in worse trouble.

Throughout the year, various states stepped up the pressure on individuals and companies in the foreclosure rescue business. In August, California Attorney General Jerry Brown won a $1.1 million judgment against Los Angeles Attorney Mitchell Roth, who he said promised foreclosure relief through aggressive litigation, "but the frivolous and phony lawsuits he filed instead left 2,000 desperate homeowners in even greater debt."

In most cases of foreclosure rescue, the company promises to assist the homeowner in avoiding foreclosure by negotiating directly with the lender. Most make little or no effort on the clients' behalf, but charge a hefty upfront fee.

As of early December, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller had filed 34 lawsuits this year against foreclosure rescuers. In the most recent case, Zoeller said Evansville, Ind., residents Harold and Sharon Matthews paid Hope4Homes, a California firm, $1,800 to negotiate a home loan modification.

According to the state's complaint, the Matthews were instructed by Hope4Homes to stop making payments on their mortgage while Hope4Homes negotiated a new loan. The Matthews fell three months behind on their payments, which had been current, and new loan terms were not reached.

Hope4Homes advertised a "100 percent Money Back Guarantee if we cannot achieve a loan modification for our clients," however no refund was provided, according to the complaint.

"So-called 'foreclosure consultants' are taking advantage of those who are facing desperate financial hardship and scamming them out of thousands of dollars when they are most vulnerable. They are operating illegally and this will not be tolerated in Indiana," Zoeller said.

Those promising to help modify loans didn't confine themselves to home mortgages, either. In Florida, Attorney General Bill McCollum filed a lawsuit against a Broward County company accusing it of deceptive and unfair trade practices related to automobile loan modifications.

According to the complaint, Auto Relief Group, its subsidiaries and owners John J. Boyle and John J. Boyle III falsely represented in national television and radio commercials that they could reduce consumers' car payments by up to 50 percent. The Florida Attorney General's Office was granted an injunction to freeze the company's assets and appoint a receiver to take possession and control of the company.

2. Uncharitable charities

With a stubborn recession, more people are in need of the assistance provided by legitimate charities. But with the worsening economy, there seems to have been an increase in scams masquerading as worthy causes, seeking to exploit those willing and able to help others.

By mid-year, a number of states were cracking down on these sophisticated telemarketing fundraisers, some of whom gave a small portion of the collected funds to charity but others who pocketed the entire amount.

The State of Iowa won a settlement with a Minnesota fundraiser it says was calling consumers in the state seeking donations for several law enforcement associations. Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said the firm used deceptive tactics to solicit the money, and has agreed to make changes in how it deals with consumers. Before the settlement, Miller was keeping as much as 85 percent of what it collected from Iowa citizens.

Oregon Attorney General John Kroger assembled a list of the "20 Worst Charities," and placed Shiloh International Ministries at the top of the list. Kroger said the organization claims to solicit money to provide medical necessities and moral support to needy children and to provide assistance to the homeless. According to the most recent financial filings, Kroger said the California-based non-profit spent an average of $937,315 per year, 96.37 percent of which went to management and fundraising.

Over the summer a number of states investigated the U.S. Navy Veterans Association, which said it was collecting money on behalf of veterans. Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray reported the group seemed awfully fishy.

"Our investigators have not been able to locate any of the Ohio officers of the USNVA, although, oddly enough, the organization's national counsel is based here," Cordray said. "Through the counsel, USNVA has advised us that it does not consider the order to be valid and that it does not have to comply with our order to cease and desist fundraising in Ohio."

3. Phony debt collector

At mid-year, ConsumerAffairs.com began to receive a growing number of complaints from people who had been contacted by a man claiming to be a debt collector on behalf of a payday loan company. In nearly every case, the consumers said they had never had a payday loan.

The caller was abusive and threatened to have the consumers arrested and, most disturbing, had personal information about them, such as Social Security numbers and bank account information. In some cases, the consumers had said they had begun an online loan application process and entered sensitive information, before deciding not to complete the application.

Investigations are continuing but it isn't clear how the scammers are getting the information or choosing their victims. However, the scam is spreading and has been reported in many areas of the country.

4. Work-at-home scams

The work at home scam is simply the latest "get rich quick" scheme. It was more prevalent in 2010 because so many people are out of work, or working part-time and need extra income. The lure of easy work from home making big bucks resonates right now. It shouldn't.

In February the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a warning to consumers not to fall for these scams that are often advertised among legitimate job listings.

"The ads don't tell you that you may have to work a lot of hours without pay, or they don't disclose all the costs you might incur, for placing newspaper ads, making photocopies, or buying the envelopes, paper, stamps and other supplies you need to do the job," the agency warned. "People tricked by these ads have lost thousands of dollars, not to mention time and energy."

In September Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray sued three Northeast Ohioans for their roles in NSA Technologies, a work from home business scheme that left consumers without promised jobs and out of money.

According to the lawsuit, NSA Technologies advertised work from home jobs, self-employment guides and job placement services through online ads. In the suit, Cordray accused the operation of taking money from Ohioans in payment - some victims paid hundreds of dollars apiece - and then not providing the services that were purchased.

Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning says any work at home "opportunity" that requires you to pay an upfront fee is not reasonable and is not legitimate.

"Whenever you're asked to pay for the chance at a job, or information about work from home jobs, it's a scam," Bruning says.

5. Facebook scams

It seems everyone was on Facebook in 2010, including scammers, capitalizing on the social networking site's popularity to spread computer malware and steal identities.

In August spammers sent out millions of emails touting a Facebook "dislike button." Of course, there is no such thing, but many people clicked on the link to download the button, and instead downloaded malware that gave hackers control of their Facebook accounts.

That same month many Facebook users began seeing messages telling them to go to a website where they could sign up to "test" Apple iPads. Needless to say there was no such offer, but people who went to their site were asked to submit personal information.

In November, some Facebook users received an email that appeared to be from Facebook security, telling them their password had been changed and the only way to get a new one was to open an attached .zip file. Those who opened the file downloaded a Trojan horse.

6. Gold scams

The price of gold hit record highs in 2010, prompting many consumers to try and cash in by selling Aunt Martha's old broach. Many jewelry stores advertised they would "buy your gold jewelry." In many cases, this was a case of "seller beware."

In July, the New Jersey Office of Weights and Measures cited 49 gold and jewelry buying businesses with more than 1,600 summonses for alleged violations of state statutes. Following a statewide inspection sweep, officials said they found inaccurate scales that misweighed items and resulted in consumers receiving less money.

"Some of the buyers defrauded consumers, short-weighing their items and likely paying them less than the true value of the items," New Jersey Attorney General Paula T. Dow said.

Even without a rigged scale, consumers often risked receiving less than the market price of gold when they sold their jewelry. A survey conducted over the summer by the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office found a wide range of prices offered for the same piece of gold jewelry.

"Our survey shows significant differences in the prices various jewelers will pay average consumers for their gold," said Barbara Anthony, Massachusetts' Undersecretary of the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation. "It takes a little legwork and a little time for consumers to make sure they are getting best price for their gold. A few hours of work can mean hundreds of extra dollars."

Companies selling gold to consumers also came under scrutiny. Two California district attorneys launched a probe of Goldline International, claiming the company steered vulnerable consumers into purchasing overpriced gold coins instead of pure gold.

7. Debt settlement scams

Companies promising to help consumers settle their credit card and other debt for less than the amount owed have done very well during the recession, but increasingly consumers complained these firms did nothing to help, just took more of their money.

"I signed with Legal Helpers which is the Customer Service Arm of Square One Debt Settlement out of Sunrise Florida in May 2010," Sandra, of Dayton, Ohio, told ConsumerAffairs.com in September. "It has been five months and they have almost $1200 of my money. One of my creditors told me yesterday that Lebal Helpers are not Lawyers and they will not negotiate with them, period."

In the second half of the year the FTC adopted new rules prohibiting these companies from collecting money from consumers until they had delivered on their promises. The rules were aimed at weeding out the scammers who collected a hefty fee from the distressed consumer, then disappeared.

"Most debt settlement companies charge big fees up front even though most consumers don't get the help they expect," said Lauren Bowne, staff attorney for Consumers Union's Defend Your Dollars campaign. "These new rules will help protect consumers who are already drowning in debt from being ripped off by debt settlement companies that fail to provide any relief. But more needs to be done to ensure that the amount of fees charged for debt settlement services are fair."

At the end of the year, however, many debt settlement firms were still advertising on radio and television.

8. Ponzi schemes

After Bernie Madoff was arrested two years ago, you would think people would be wiser about Ponzi schemes, in which an investment is guaranteed to pay off in unbelievably high dividends. Either people are desperate to find a lucrative investment in this environment or authorities are more diligent in rooting out these schemes, but 2010 saw more arrests, prosecutions and convictions.

In Minnesota, investors lost nearly $80 million in an alleged Ponzi scheme in which the operator oversold participation in large commercial and personal loans arranged through his company.

Investors lured by the glitter of Hollywood got taken for a ride, according to California Attorney General Jerry Brown, who has charged a Laguna Niguel movie producer with 89 felony counts for orchestrating a "cold and calculated" $9 million Ponzi scheme.

Brown says the producer promised investors up to 35 percent returns for making loans to his B-movie production company. Another California man was sentenced to 135 months in federal prison for running an investment fraud scheme that took in almost $4 million from more than 100 victims who were lured to the scheme with promises of "guaranteed" annual interest rates up to 120 percent.

In September, an Illinois man was sentenced to 10 years in prison for bilking 75 investors, some of them close friends, out of $28 million.

In October the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charged a radio talk show host of misappropriating $2.5 million in investors' money that was supposedly being used to fund real estate loans. Instead, say authorities, it was used for personal expenses.

In the case of all Ponzi schemes, the investors usually lose their nest eggs they were counting on for retirement or other vital expenses.

9. Unauthorized charge scams

The unauthorized charge scam is a perennial on our annual list and occurs when consumers discover that a company has placed a charge on their credit card or phone bill without their informed consent. Over the years many companies have used fine print and outright trickery to make sales in which the consumer is unaware that a sale is taking place.

In September, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo reached a settlement with discount club marketer Webloyalty.com, which agreed to refund millions to consumers who say they were defrauded into paying unauthorized charges.

Cuomo's investigation into the discount club industry found that when consumers completed online purchases from familiar retailers, they were often presented with a cash-back or discount offer from a marketer like Webloyalty. Information about accepting the offer and its ramifications -- including the fact that the consumer was agreeing to transfer his or her credit or debit card account information -- was buried in fine print and cluttered text.

Since consumers were not required to provide their financial information as part of the enrollment process, they often accepted the offer without knowing they were joining a fee-based program.

Once enrolled in a discount club, recurring charges begin to appear on consumers' credit or debit card from unfamiliar companies. Due to their low dollar amount or the non-specific club names on consumers' account statements, the charges often go unnoticed.

"In this all too common Internet scheme, consumers were tricked into paying for monthly services for a discount club while shopping online at trusted retailers," Cuomo said.

Other states began actions of their own. The State of Iowa 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.

In Minnesota, Attorney General Lori Swanson filed suit against Discover Bank, accusing it of deceptively charging some credit card customers for pricey optional financial products that the company markets.

10. Timeshare sales scams

True, not everyone owns a timeshare, but many who do would love to unload them. Unfortunately, in this market that's easier said than done. That's why so many timeshare owners were taken in when they received an unsolicited call from a "broker" who claimed to have a client interested in buying their timeshare. To proceed further, however, they had to pay an upfront fee.

In Illinois, Attorney General Lisa Madigan warned timeshare owners in her state that scammers have moved into the timeshare sales space, collecting money but making no attempt to sell anything.

Madigan said the scam typically works like this: a timeshare owner gets a call out of the blue from someone claiming to be a timeshare reseller. They have a client who wants to buy their timeshare, are they interested?

If the owners rise to the bait, the scammer tells them they must pay a refundable security deposit or fee to ensure that the sale goes through, and instructs them to wire money to an out-of-state bank account. As soon as the owners wire the money as directed, they've fallen victim to the scam. In most cases, by the time the owners realizes they've been defrauded, the con artists have closed out their bank account, disconnected their phones and disappeared.

Victims filing complaints with the Attorney General's Office have reported wiring as much as $5,000 to the scammers, Madigan said.

In March, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum unveiled continuing investigations into at least 17 timeshare companies and their affiliates throughout the state for deceptive trade practices.

"Florida's consumers are trying to make prudent financial decisions," the attorney general said at the time, "but many timeshare resale companies are blatantly scamming people by promising sales or refunds and failing to provide services even after taking hefty up-front fees."

Dishonorable mention

There were plenty of other scams during the year that cost consumers money and heartache. Making our dishonorable mention list this year are the many scams related to the BP oil spill, this year's one-time $250 payment to Medicare Part D participants  and the growing number of cyber scams. In that last category, "tabnabbing" could be one to keep an eye on in the new year.

It goes without saying, as we do each year, that consumers must remain vigilant against those who use deception and trickery to part them from their money. Important financial decisions should never be rushed and consulting a trusted friend of adviser is always a good idea.

As always, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

 

 

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Alabama Town Stops Paying Pensions; Are Others Close Behind?

Some retirees who were counting on that pension are destitute

A small Alabama city has stopped paying its retired workers pensions signaling that retirees in other financially strapped cities face similar fates...

 Prichard, Alabama may have been one of the first but it certainly won't be the last municipality in this country to see its pension fund run out of money. For Prichard, it happened last year and the small city was forced to stop paying its retired workers.

Living without those checks became extremely difficult and according to the New York Times, 11 retirees died, while others have declared bankruptcy. Today, the rest of the 150 retired workers are struggling to get by and although they've sued the city of Prichard, the suit was unsuccessful. There just isn't any more money.

As public pension funds across the nation suffer from years of underfunding, and from assets that lost value in the financial crisis, experts say similar scenarios are fast approaching for a number of other towns and cities across America.

After years of putting off the inevitable, financially strapped municipalities across the nation are facing a huge problem. State laws require that retirees be paid. Cities and towns like Prichard that can no longer pay their retired works the pension they promised them are in effect, breaking the law. But there seem to be few legal requirements that governments actually put the money behind their promises.

In the years leading up to the financial crisis, many cities delayed funding their pensions, as assets were seeing high returns and governments expected good times to last. But as the crisis hit, from the end of 2007 to the beginning of 2009, pension funds lost nearly one third (29%) of their value.

Experts estimate city pension funds are short more than half a trillion dollars ($574 billion). Fund analysts expect a number of pension funds to run dry in the next ten years.

Under-funded pension funds are plaguing some of the nation's largest cities. The Pittsburgh firefighters union has filed suit to prevent a state takeover of the city pension fund, urging city officials to raise taxes, if necessary, to shore up the under-funded pension fund. Union attorney Joshua Bloom says a state takeover would deprive firefighters of the local pension control guaranteed by their contract and put the city on a course to insolvency. Bloom adds that Pittsburgh will "go from the most livable city to the most bankrupt city."

The financial troubles in South Burlington, Vermont have gotten so bad the city might have to borrow money to pay its employees. City Manager Sandy Miller has discovered a $9 million shortfall in the pension fund and an undetermined deficit in the general fund that he says resulted from unconventional accounting practices. Now, the city is strapped for cash.

In a previous article Municipal Default Crisis On the Horizon, we told you about a warning issued by a leading finance guru that over 100 US cities could face bankruptcy in 2011.

Meredith Whitney, who's known for predicting the financial crisis, says the coming municipal crisis is now the biggest threat to the U.S. economy.  

Detroit has reportedly reduced police, lighting, road repairs and cleaning services affecting as much as 20% of the population. The state of Illinois is about six months behind on creditor payments, while potential defaults threaten the state of Florida.

Moreover, many cities and states are fighting an uphill battle to keep their pension plans adequately funded. New York City is planning to put $8.3 billion into its pension fund next year, which is twice what it paid five years ago. Along with New York, Detroit, San Francisco and Los Angeles are among the cities that risk bankruptcy in 2011.

 

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The Social Media Sector is Booming, Especially for New Jobs

Job postings related to social media have jumped 600%

If you’re looking for a job, the new area of social networking is one of fastest growing sectors for new positions ...

Social media seems to have taken over just about every other aspect of our lives, why not jobs? The demand for social media jobs has virtually exploded, up some 600% according to one job site. Some industry observers say it all could be happening too much too fast to last.

Even with unemployment nearing 10%, one of the sectors that is sprouting jobs is social media. A recent study published by SocialMediaInfluence.com shows that 59 of the Fortune 100 companies have at least one employee who works full time in social media.

It adds that job postings directly related to social media have soared 600% in the last five years.

Working with the job site Indeed.com. the Social Media Influence report researched online job listings. It found more than 21,000 postings related to social media. In 2005, that number was in the low thousands.

Curtis Hougland, founder of the New York-based marketing and social media firm Attention, warns that just as social media hiring has picked up, the pool of qualified talent has failed to keep pace and the resulting imbalance of supply and demand is a sign of hiring inflation.

Hougland says that demand for social media skills in the corporate world has outstripped the supply of candidates with training in communications and the analytical skills to track the effectiveness of a media campaign. He says this void has been filled by a burgeoning workforce of self-proclaimed social media experts, some of whom are qualified, but many are not.

Hiring for social media jobs started picking up steam in about 2005, though it still constitutes only a small percentage of overall post-college job placements. New York University's Trudy Steinfeld, director of the university's office of career services, says only a few students, 1 to 2%,  take jobs in social media specifically, but that those numbers have been increasing.

She says more often, companies looking to fill social media jobs, actually look even younger, asking student interns to chart their new media course. That can be a dangerous strategy, says Bernhard Warner, director of Custom Communication, the London-based consultancy that publishes Social Media Influence.

That hasn't stopped recent graduates from adding Facebook and Foursquare to the skills section of their resumes. Nor has it stopped colleges from promoting social media classes or even adding a Master's degree in social media.

There are several levels of expertise within the social media profession. Some of the more common positions include the community manager - who oversee a company's online communities; the analyst or strategist -- who builds and monitors social media campaigns; the product developer -- who is responsible for keeping the company's software up to date; the editor or publisher -- who oversees content and the brand; and the executive -- a rare position, usually filled by a public relations professional.

Typically, companies hire some combination of these positions. The field also stays along the edges of customer service, IT, public relations, marketing and sales, according to the Social Media Influence report.

It can be hard to separate those with legitimate qualifications for a social media manager from those who pretend to have the appropriate skills. It presents a serious challenge for hiring managers, especially those unfamiliar with social media. In a field less than five years old, can anyone claim to be an expert?

And then there's the question, how long will this last. Social media careers may not even exist 10 years from now. After all, isn't social media evolving into a skill set, not a profession?

Remember the dot-com boom-and-bust? After the bubble burst, Internet companies were left with an oversupply of programmers, which had been the hot job of the day. But you rarely hear about programmers going hungry.

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New Tax Deal Could Put Social Security at Risk

Former House Aging Committee chief of staff says it will reduce the solvency of the program by 14 years

A former high level House Committee staffer warns that the new tax bill means Social Security could become insolvent by 2023, instead of 2037...

Maybe we shouldn't be cheering so much over the recent tax deal that -- among other things -- extends the Bush tax cuts.

Robert Weiner, the former chief of staff of the House Select Committee on Aging, and policy analyst Jonathan Battaglia claim the tax deal is a major threat to the solvency of Social Security.

Hastening insolvency

 

They charge the primary threat would come if the new Social Security payroll tax holiday, which reduces the match employees pay from six percent to four percent of salary, is made permanent. If that happens, they say, 14 years would be removed from the life of the social security program. They claim the program will become insolvent by 2023 instead of 2037.

In a recent editorial, they wrote: "The new philosophy in Congress seems to be 'once a cut, always a cut.' When the payroll tax holiday expires in a year, Republicans will insist on keeping it, just as they did with the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy."

The two say there had been an opportunity to avoid this if Congress had adopted an amendment to the tax bill that would have replaced changes in payroll taxes with a one-year credit to provide tax relief to businesses.

But instead, say Weiner and Battaglia, Congress "broke down the firewall of separate Social Security funding and gave it to general revenue to help business."

 

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Study Ties Blood Protein To Alzheimer's Brain Abnormalities

Blood test in symptom-free volunteers links levels of specific protein with beta amyloid deposits

Study Ties Blood Protein To Alzheimer's Brain Abnormalities Blood test in symptom-free volunteers links levels of specific protein with beta amyloid dep...

Scientists are seeking ways to detect the earliest stages of Alzheimer's disease, since harmful changes may be taking place in the brain years before symptoms appear.

Now, researchers report that a blood test detecting a specific protein in blood samples from cognitively normal older people may reflect the levels of beta-amyloid protein in the brain  -- a hallmark of the disease.

Findings of the study, supported in part by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), may eventually lead to a blood test that helps predict risk for Alzheimer's disease and who may be a good candidate for participating in clinical trials.

"Recent advances in imaging and biomarkers that help track the onset and progression of Alzheimer's disease show promise for early detection of the disease process, and for tracking the effectiveness of early interventions," said National Institute on Aging (NIA) Director Richard J. Hodes, M.D. "This is critically important in streamlining and conducting trials more efficiently so that we can find out about possible therapies that much sooner."

Protein study

Using proteomics technology, a method of studying hundreds of proteins from a small blood sample, the researchers analyzed blood samples of 57 older and symptom-free volunteers to determine whether specific proteins were associated with amyloid burden in the brain.

They measured brain amyloid using PET (positron emission tomography) scans with Pittsburgh Compound B, a tracer that binds to amyloid plaques. The volunteers are participating in the NIA's Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA), America's longest-running scientific study of human aging.

The researchers found the amount of a specific protein called apolipoprotein E, or ApoE, in the blood samples was strongly associated with the level of beta amyloid in the brain. Those with high blood levels of the protein had significantly greater deposits of amyloid in the medial temporal lobe, the region of the brain important to memory function.

'Intriguing' results

"These results are especially intriguing as this protein is made by the APOE gene, the most robust genetic risk factor for late-onset Alzheimer's," said Madhav Thambisetty, M.D., Ph.D., of the Intramural Research Program at  NIA, the lead author on the study. Late-onset Alzheimer's is the most common form of the disease and occurs around age 65 or later.

He now plans to test these findings in serial blood samples collected every year in BLSA volunteers to determine how changing blood levels of ApoE protein may relate to pathological changes in the brain over time.

"If the results are equally positive, we may be able to develop a blood test that provides a less invasive, inexpensive method that helps to detect the early pathological changes of Alzheimer's disease," he said.

The study appears in the Dec. 20, 2010, issue of the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.

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Debt Settlement Companies Are Still Skirting New FTC Rules

Seems the new rules haven’t stopped them from charging huge upfront fees

Debt consolidation firms have figured out a way around new FTC rules to prevent them from charging upfront fees and still not helping reduce their debt...

Back in September, we told you about new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rules aimed at debt consolidation companies. The rules were designed to clamp down on scam artists who dominate the debt consolidation industry. Well, it seems some of those so-called debt relief scoundrels have figured out a way around the rules.

The FTC imposed new rules on September 27, 2010 that banned debt-fixers from engaging in telemarketing that misrepresented their services, such as promising to cut your debt in half or charging fees before services are delivered.

Apparently, some of the debt consolidation companies are still charging those upfront fees. According to the FTC, which is responsible for regulating telemarketers, the debt settlement companies are supposed to first negotiate with a customer's creditors to whittle down the amounts owed, and then get paid for their services. Instead, many of those firms continue to collect fees amounting to thousands of dollars without making even a dent in the customer's credit card balance.

Chris Viale, CEO of Cambridge Credit Counseling, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, says that intead of complying with the new rules, the majority of debt settlement companies are evading them and doing everything they can to continue charging advance fees and misleading consumers.

Cambridge Credit Counseling is one of a dozen nonprofit debt counselors that sent a letter to the FTC warning them about this situation.

The advocate groups say debt settlement firms are targeting prospective customers via text message, Skype, Internet chats, or setting up in-person meetings claiming that these marketing techniques don't fall under U.S. telemarketing regulations. The advocates also warn that debt-fixers may pose as law firms or may hire attorneys, since lawyers are exempted from the rules.

Evan Zullow, an attorney in the FTC's division of financial practices, says he's aware that companies are looking for loopholes and that the FTC is monitoring the industry to make sure that what they're doing actually meets the exception. He added that this alleged practice of baiting prospects with text messages and getting the consumer to make the initial call, will not exempt them from the FTC rules.

Zullow explains that whether a debt settler's ad is on TV, radio or text, if the ad prompts a consumer to call, the companies are not allowed to charge advance fees.

Chris Viale of Cambridge Credit Counseling told CNN that one of his organization's staffers received recently a text that asked the staffer to call to speak with a credit analyst. When the staffer called back, the rep asked if his debt totaled more than $10,000 and then transferred him to a company it claimed was a law firm that would charge a "retainer" for legal services. That retainer is basically an upfront fee.

Just weeks after the FTC rules banning deceptive practices went into effect, the North Carolina Attorney General sued the Consumer Law Group of Boca Raton, Florida accusing it of being a debt relief company posing as a law firm. It reportedly collected $2.6 million in fees from more than 3,000 consumers in North Carolina.

Another way to evade regulation is for debt settlement companies to move their operations offshore, similar to online gambling sites in that operate out of the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica or Panama. There are reports many debt fixing companies are now based in Bermuda.

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Seven States To Raise Minimum Wage In 2011

But what about the other 43?

Minimum wage earners in seven states will be getting a pay hike next year...

Some 647,000 minimum wage earners in seven states will get a raise next year, according to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), an employment advocacy group .

Those states are Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. Granted, the increases aren't going to be much: they range between nine and 12 cents an hour. But in these times, every penny counts.

The state of Washington will raise minimum wages the most -- by 12 cents -- bringing the hourly rate to $8.67 and adding an extra $20 a month to paychecks. Colorado will hike its minimum wage by 11 cents, while Arizona, Montana, Ohio and Oregon will raise it by 10 cents and Vermont will boost its minimum wage by nine cents.

Left out?

But what about the other 43 states?  

It seems only 10 states automatically adjust their minimum wage levels each year for inflation. Florida, Missouri and Nevada which also require annual cost-of-living adjustments are leaving the state minimum wage rates unchanged at $7.25 per hour.

And the remaining 40 states and the District of Columbia that have no automatic adjustment must pass legislation to increase the minimum wage. According to NELP, none of those states have plans for increases at this time.

The advocacy group is trying to get more states to implement the automatic adjustments, saying that even the smallest increases in pay help workers keep up with the cost of living and benefits state economies.  NELP points out that right now, one in seven people in the U.S. relies on food stamps.  The number could decrease significantly if more people were able to survive on their income.

Struggling

Christine Owens, executive director of NELP, says the small increases mean hundreds of thousands of minimum wage earners such as health aides, child care workers, fast-food restaurant workers and retail clerks will be in better shape to put food on their tables, provide for their families and keep a roof over their heads.

Three-quarters of minimum wage earners are 20 years old or older and more than 60 percent are women.

She adds that in addition to helping working families, raising wages helps sustain consumer spending and that will help spur economic recovery.

Automatic increases

NELP says 17 states and the District of Columbia have minimum wages above the federal level of $7.25 and points out that Congress has  increased the federal minimum wage just three times in the last 30 years.

But the group says, if automatic adjustments based on inflation had been made beginning in 1968, the federal minimum wage would currently be above $10.

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Cutting (Some) Carbs May Be Key To Weight Loss

Nutritionists blame government-mandated 'war on fat' for influx of unhealthy carbs in American diets

Cutting (Some) Carbs May Be Key To Weight Loss Nutritionists blame government-mandated "war on fat" for influx of unhealthy carbs in American diets...

A growing number of top nutritional scientists are pointing to excessive carbohydrates, rather than fat, as the source of America's dietary woes.

As reported in the Los Angeles Times on December 20, some researchers are suggesting cutting carbohydrates is the key to reversing obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and hypertension.

Dietary fat has traditionally played the role of "public enemy No. 1" and consumption of carbohydrates has increased over the years with the help of a 30-year-old government-mandated message to cut fat.

Today individuals -- on average -- eat 250 to 300 grams of carbs a day, accounting for about 55 percent of their caloric intake; the most conservative recommendations say they should eat half that amount.

Differentiating carbs

But the answer may not be to cut all carbs completely. Some health experts are urging the public not to paint all carbohydrates with the same negative brush.

"You just cannot lump all carbs into a single category," said Tom Griesel, coauthor (along with his sister Dian) of the forthcoming book "TurboCharged," which outlines a new approach to reducing body fat as the key to weight loss.

According to Tom Griesel, carbs like fruits and vegetables are in a class by themselves."This is because they are truly unrefined and contain fiber along with a high moisture content in their raw or lightly cooked state, and contain many readily available and usable nutrients. Because of this, they do not have the same insulin effect of any other refined or 'complex' carb."

He says eliminating or reducing fruits and vegetables from the diet is always a mistake because then people tend to gravitate towards "inferior types of carbs."

Concentrated carbs

"Other types of carbs are the problem," said Dian Griesel, "and they are what should be eliminated or severely restricted in one's diet. Other than calories, they contain almost no nutritional value. This is why they are almost always fortified."

This group includes all sugar, particularly high fructose corn syrup; refined foods and drinks. Anything packaged, all grain products -- refined or unrefined -- can also be lumped in.

"All these are concentrated carbohydrates -- the most densely caloric of any 'foods' -- and even small quantities will cause blood sugar levels to rise to problematic levels and subsequently result in unhealthy insulin spikes," she said. "People do not realize that consuming even a small amount will have this effect."

Both authors note that our bodies cannot store much glycogen, and so this excess sugar is almost all stored as body fat. This happens even if we have way too much body fat already.

Unburnable

The presence of insulin makes fat burning -- using fat for energy -- impossible. So even small amounts of these "other carbs" at the very least keep people fat, and most likely fatter. Reducing the amount consumed is not the answer; eliminating them is.

"So we do not have a carbohydrate problem; we have a wrong kind of carbohydrate problem," Tom Griesel says. "This is a critical point to understand."

A separate problem, observes his sister, concerns the substitution of proteins and fats for the restricted or eliminated carbohydrates.

Although not as obvious, she says, too much protein is just as bad as not enough.

"You only need enough to take care of repair and maintenance of existing lean body mass (LBM) and possibly building new LBM," she said.

Protein problem

According to Dian Griesel, too much protein will either get used as fuel (although not efficiently) or get stored as fat. Plus, processing excess protein puts unnecessary stress on the body.

"There is an optimal amount of protein that is based on an individual's current LBM and activity levels which is generally about 10 percent of daily calories," she said.

The right fat

The Griesels say fat is the body's preferred energy source, drawn either from diet or available existing body fat. However, choosing the correct dietary fat is of utmost importance.

Most refined fats, vegetable oils, are problematic in anything other than small quantities.

Trans-fats, they say, are very bad and should be avoided entirely, because they cause major metabolic problems and may remain in the body for more than two years. Trans-fats are in almost all processed foods, including vegetable oils.

"The only healthy fats are the ones that come naturally in animal products like organic, wild or grass-fed meats; fish and eggs; and even dairy, along with nuts, olives, avocados," says Tom Griesel.

And as for oils, since there are no natural ones, they should be used sparingly as they are all refined.

When assessing the relative effects of fats vs. carbohydrates, it pays to carefully study what dietitians know about their effects on the body -- and choose our foods accordingly.

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Parents Warned To Stop Using Crib Bumpers

Illinois Attorney General says products are dangerous to infants

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has warned all parents to remove crib bumpers, saying the products pose a deadly threat to infants....

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who last week praised a new federal ban on drop side cribs, is now warning parents and caregivers about bumper pads -- the soft pillow-like objects used along side of cribs.

Madigan said immediate action is necessary in light of the number of infant deaths and injuries attributed to the pads.

The attorney general said she issued the warning to alert caregivers of this danger to prevent infant deaths. Babies might suffocate or be strangled if they roll against a crib bumper, press their faces against the bumper, wedge their heads between the pad and the mattress or crib side, or if their necks get wrapped by the tie that secures the bumper to the crib.

Known problem

Her warning follows an investigative report published in the Chicago Tribune that found federal regulators have known for years that bumper pads pose a suffocation hazard for babies but failed to warn parents. Bedding manufacturers and their trade group have been alerted to the issue but have yet to take action, the Tribune reported.

"We know that children have tragically died in their cribs because of these bumper pads," Madigan said. "Parents and caregivers should remove these bumpers to prevent tragedy."

Since 2008, the National Center for Child Death Review has received reports of 14 infants who have died from suffocation caused by crib bumpers. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American SIDS Institute and the Canadian Health Department have all urged parents not to use crib bumpers.

Call for action

Attorney General Madigan said she has partnered with the American Academy of Pediatrics, Kids in Danger, the American SIDS Institute, SIDS of Illinois and the Canadian Health Department to alert caregivers of the danger crib bumpers pose.

She also sent a letter to the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (JPMA) demanding the group release results from its study into the dangers of crib bumper pads. A study commissioned by JPMA to investigate these dangers has yet to be published while the group internally reviews the report. Madigan urged the association to release the study immediately, so the proper authorities can take any necessary steps to prevent further harm.

"The JPMA needs to release results of its study and implement effective measures to remove these bumpers from the marketplace," Madigan said. "Manufacturers and distributors of these pads must take responsibility for the dangers posed by these products. We must work together to educate parents and caregivers and ensure cribs across Illinois and nationwide are safe for babies."

The Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association is a national trade organization that represents companies across the country that manufacture, import and distribute infant products like cribs, car seats and strollers.

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Don't Let Package Snatchers Spoil the Season

Consumer Reports offers some tips to help make sure your package arrives safely

Don't Let Package Snatchers Spoil the Season Consumer Reports offers some tips to help make sure your package arrives safely ...

Scrooge lives. Every year at this time, thieves increasingly target homes not just for the valuables inside but for the packages left on the doorstep.

That's right. Brazen package snatchers have been known to shadow FedEx, UPS, and U.S. Post Office trucks, swooping in to steal items if homeowners are away or too slow to retrieve them.

In general, if a box is left on your stoop and it gets swiped the odds of getting it back are slim. Sally Davenport, a spokeswoman for FedEx, says that once a package has been scanned, offloaded from the truck, and placed at your door, "it's out of our control."

Davenport says drivers will attempt to put the package in an inconspicuous spot, especially if they make frequently deliveries to a familiar address and the recipient has a preferential drop spot. But you can't count on that during this hectic time of the year. 

Helpful hints

To help avoid being victimized, here are some tips, courtesy of Consumer Reports' Tod Marks:

  • Choose a shipping option that requires a signature for delivery. If you waive that requirement, it might diminish your leverage if you file a claim.
  • Obviously, your best bet is to be at home when the package is scheduled to arrive. You can check on the delivery status easily enough via online tracking.
  • If you going to be out, leave a note at the door or contact the delivery service to see if the package can be left with a neighbor. Barring that, ask if the package can be deposited is a less-visible area than the front door, for example, along the side of the house or near the garage.
  • Consider an alternative to home delivery. Have the package shipped to a location where someone is more likely to be present -- your office, for instance, or a friend or relative's home.
  • Have the delivery service hold your package. The Postal Service, for example, won't leave a package at the door unless the customer requests it, says spokeswoman Sue Brennan. If the package won't fit in the mailbox and the mail carrier hasn't been given prior instructions, the customer will be left with an "attempted delivery" slip advising him or her that delivery will be attempted the next day or they can come to the post office to pick it up. Similarly, FedEx and UPS will hold your package for pickup, too.
  • If the item is valuable, purchase insurance.
  • Track your order online, and report the missing package as soon as possible to the shipper and police. UPS spokeswoman Rebecca Treacy-Lenda says the merchant may provide you with a replacement item and subsequently file a claim with UPS. If you believe your mail was stolen, report it immediately to your local postmaster or nearest postal inspector. You'll be asked to file a formal complaint using PS Form 2016. By analyzing information collected from the form, inspectors might determine whether your problem is isolated or part of a larger theft problem in your neighborhood.
  • Contact your credit card company. Here's a perk you might not be aware of. Some cards like those from American Express offer purchase protection - at no extra charge - to guard against theft (and accidental damage, too) for 90 days from the date of purchase. Coverage is limited to $1,000 per occurrence.
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Nature's Variety Expands Pet Food Recall

New tests fuel fear of Salmonella contamination

Nebraska-based company this week pulled from the market all of its Chicken Formula and Organic Chicken Formula products with a Best If Used By date on or b...

By Lisa Wade McCormick
ConsumerAffairs.com

March 10, 2010
Fear of salmonella contamination has prompted Natures Variety to expand its February recall of the companys Chicken Formula and Organic Chicken Formula Raw Frozen Diets pet food products.

The Nebraska-based company this week pulled from the market all of its Chicken Formula and Organic Chicken Formula products with a Best If Used By date on or before February 5, 2011.

The company took this action after new test results revealed the companys Chicken Formula Raw Frozen Diet products -- with the "Best If Used By" date of 10/29/10 and 11/9/10 -- may be tainted with salmonella.

We believe taking this action is an important and responsible step in order to reinforce your confidence and trust, Nature Varietys CEO Reed Howlett said in a statement on the companys Web site.

The products included in this expanded recall are any Chicken Formula or Organic Chicken Formula Raw Frozen Diet with a "Best If Used By" date on or before 2/5/11, including:

• UPC#7 69949 60130 2 Chicken Formula 3 lb medallions;

• UPC#7 69949 60120 3 Chicken Formula 6 lb patties;

• UPC#7 69949 60121 0 Chicken Formula 2 lb single chubs;

• UPC#7 69949 50121 3 Chicken Formula 12 lb retail display case of chubs;

• UPC#7 69949 60137 1 Organic Chicken Formula 3 lb medallions;

• UPC#7 69949 60127 2 Organic Chicken Formula 6 lb patties

The "Best If Used By" date is located on the back of the package above the safe handling instructions. No other Raw Frozen Diets are involved in this expanded recall, other than chicken, and no other Natures Variety products are included in this voluntary action, the company said.

Natures Variety distributed the recalled products through retail stores and Internet sales in the United States and Canada.

To address this salmonella concern, the company said it now uses High Pressure Pasteurization on its Raw Frozen Diets to kill pathogenic bacteria. It also uses a test and hold protocol to ensure all High Pressure Pasteurized Raw Frozen Diets test negative for harmful bacteria before they are released into the marketplace.

"Nature's Variety believes replacing all raw frozen chicken products on the market with new raw frozen chicken products that use High Pressure Pasteurization is an important and responsible step in order to reinforce consumer confidence and trust, CEO Howlett said. "By recalling all raw frozen chicken products with Best If Used By' dates on or before 2/5/11, we can provide our pet parents with new raw frozen chicken products that have been processed through High Pressure Pasteurization.

Adopting High Pressure Pasteurization is an important step to ensure that our products meet the strictest quality and food safety standards, he added.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said salmonella can cause health problems in humans and pets. People who handle salmonella-tainted pet food can also become infected, especially if they dont thoroughly washed their hands or any surfaces exposed to the products

Salmonella in humans can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramping, and fever. In rare cases, it can also cause arthritis, muscle pain, and other serious illnesses.

Pets with salmonella infections can become lethargic and have diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, fever, or vomiting, the FDA said. Some pets, though, may only experience decreased appetite, fever, or abdominal pain. The FDA said consumers who have pets that have eaten the recalled products -- and are experiencing any of these symptoms -- should contact their veterinarians.

Pet owners with any of the recalled products can return the unopened packages to their local retailer for a full refund, the company said. Consumers with opened packages can bring their receipts or the empty containers in a sealed bag to their local retailer for a full refund, too.

For more information about the recall, pet owners can call the company at 800-374-3142.



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Feds Probe Reports of Dog Deaths, Illnesses From Pork Bone Treats

Missouri company says it is "proud" of its products, refuses to compensate pet owners

Feds Probe Reports of Dog Deaths, Illnesses From Pork Bone Treats...


Dog treats displayed on company's Web site A Missouri pet products company is under investigation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) amid reports that scores of dogs have became seriously ill or died after eating the manufacturers treats. The company at the heart of the probe is Dynamic Pet Products of Washington, Mo., an FDA spokesman told ConsumerAffairs.com today.

FDA is aware of the issue and is looking into it, according to a statement the spokesman sent us. We take very seriously any potential harm to pets from products regulated under the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act and encourage consumers to report their concerns to the FDA. If warranted we will take appropriate action and notify the public.

ConsumerAffairs.com has received several complaints about one of the company's treats -- Real Ham Bones. Pet owners say the 8 hickory smoked pork femur bones -- sold as treats -- have splintered and caused their dogs to become violently ill or even die.

My dog ate the bone and died, said pet owner Christina N. of Collierville, Tennessee. The company denied my claim for vet bills. They said I chose to give my dog the bone. This was a very, very painful death for Buddy. Many dogs have died from this product. I had a necropsy done and still they claim it wasn't their product.

A Texas pet owner also blamed the death of her dog on the companys chew bones: I purchased the pet treat for my dog and it killed him, said Kriss L. of Richardson, Texas. Words cannot express my grief.

Not a dime

An Indiana pet owner told us her dog had to undergo surgery after chewing one of Dynamics Real Ham Bones. The dogs health problems, she said, surfaced ten minutes after it started chomping on the treat.

I noticed it had broken apart, so I took it away from her (and) a short time later she was gravely ill, trying to vomit but couldnt, said Patti S. She couldnt even drink water.

Patti rushed her dog to the vet. They took X-rays and said she had splinters of the bone in her intestines and she had to go through surgery. Thank God I have a great vet because she is the reason my dog is still alive.

Patti called Dynamic Pet Products about her dogs experience. The company referred her case to its insurance carrier, which denied Pattis claim.

They would not pay a dime, she said. They (said) they were not at fault. They said I was for not monitoring my dog closely enough.

A New Jersey pet owner also told us her dogs became sick after eating one of Dynamics chew bones: On March 2, I bought two Real Ham Bones for my two Bulldogs, said Nadine of Woodstown, New Jersey. That night, one Bulldog threw up 5 times.

Nadines vet ordered X-rays on the dog, but they did not reveal any blockage. The vet, however, blamed the chew bone for the dogs gastric problems, she said.

This is day three (and) she has not moved her bowels yet and (we) will have to have another trip to the vet.

What about Nadines other Bulldog? She is moving her bowels, but they are full of bone, she said.

Similar problems

Another pet owner told us her dog experienced similar problems after gnawing on one Dynamics chew bones.

I bought a Real Ham Bone made by Dynamic and a few hours later my dog was throwing up and yelping when he had a bowel movement, said Maureen G. of Gladstone, Missouri. I decided to Google the product and found out this has happened to a lot of pets.

This product needs to be taken off the shelf, she added. How many dogs have to die first? Luckily, my dog will be okay. I bought it for him thinking that it would be safe and unfortunately the product isn't.

ConsumerAffairs.com contacted Dynamic Pet Products today about the FDAs investigation and the complaints weve received about its chew bones. The company did not return our call.

Dynamics Web site states the Real Ham Bones are not recommended for aggressive chewers. As with all natural bones, we recommend supervision during eating, the Web site points out. The companys Web site also states that its proud of its track record and reputation.

Dynamic has not pulled any of its chew bones or treats off the market and pet owners are likely to still find them on store shelves.

The FDA said pet owners can report any health problems their dogs experience with Dynamic Pet Products chew bones or treats to the agencys Consumer Complaint Coordinator in their region.

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EPA Orders Clearer Labels, Instructions on Pet Topical Flea, Tick Products

11-month investigation finds many labels inadequate but products will remain on the market for now

EPA Orders Clearer Labels, Instructions on Pet Topical Flea, Tick Products...

 

Companies that make topical flea and tick products must immediately improve the labeling on their packages to ensure pet safety and prevent misuse of the treatments, according to changes announced Wednesday by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agency, however, said it is not banning or pulling any topical or spot on flea and tick products off the market at least not yet.

The action comes in response to the EPAs nearly year-long intensive evaluation of spot on flea and tick products. The EPA launched its probe last April amid reports of a significant increase in adverse reactions linked to the treatments, including burns, neurological problems, and even deaths.

The agency confirmed that in 2008 it received more than 44,000 reports of adverse reactions associated with these products, which are applied by squeezing the contents of a vial or tube to the skin between the animals shoulder blades or along the back. That figure represents an increase of about 53% from 2007, the EPA said.

During its 11-month evaluation, the EPA said it discovered the warning labels on many topical flea and tick products are inadequate and do not give pet owners clear information about dosages or even if the treatments should be used on dogs or cats.

We concluded that the existing warning labels are not working and do not provide adequate protection, said Steve Owens, assistant administrator for the EPAs Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances. We found a number of current labels have insufficient warning labels on themthe warnings were buried in the text of the label and not noticeable. They were easily overlooked.

Clearer labeling

To address these labeling flaws, the EPA said it will immediately require companies that make topical flea and tick products to take the following action:

• Make the instructions on the labels clearer to prevent possible misuse. For example, if a product is intended for a dog, the labels will now be required to say something like do not use on a cat, Owens said;

• Have more precise instructions on the labels to ensure the proper amount is applied according to the pets weight. A dogs weight clearly makes a big difference and the doses for small dogs is different than the doses for large dogs, Owens said. We found that smaller pets, cats and dogs, are more susceptible to adverse reactions (to these products). Its not an exclusive thing; we are seeing larger dogs affected, too. But there is a correlation between pets weights and the dose, and all pet owners need to be careful;

• Require clearer markings on packages to ensure consumers can tell the difference between products for dogs and cats. We found that (flea and tick) products for dogs and cats are labeled similarly, Owens said. People have applied the wrong spot on products to the wrong animal. We have to make sure the label warnings make it clear that a dog product should not be used on a cat.

• Prohibit similar brand names for dog and cat flea and tick products. Those similar names have led to product misuse, the EPA said;

• Require labels to clearly state that pet owners should not permit interaction between dogs and cats after the products are applied. Cats are sensitive to these products, Owens said. It is critical for pet owners to keep their cats and dogs apart after these products are used.

Owens said he also wants the new labels to include symptoms of possible adverse reactions to these topical flea and tick products. Asked when pet owners will see new labels on these products, Owens said, "by the end of the years."

Requiring these label changes, however, isnt the only action the EPA said its taking to ensure the safety of dogs and cats the use topical flea and tick products.

Other actions

The agency also announced it will:

• Only grant conditional, time-limited registrations when new products are registered with the EPA. The agency said this will allow for post-marketing product surveillance. If we see a problem, we can take appropriate action, Owens said, adding that action can include pulling a worrisome product off the market;

• Restrict the use of certain inert ingredients that may contribute to adverse reactions. Owens did not specify which inert ingredients if any are on the EPAs radar. If we believe an inert ingredient is causing adverse reactions, we will take action to limit or prevent its use, he said;

• Launch a consumer information campaign to raise public awareness about the new labels. We want to help consumers not make error in cases in which the labels are unclear or hard to read, Owens said.

• Require more standardized post-market surveillance reporting on adverse effects linked to these products;

• Require companies to submit more sales information to the EPA to ensure the agency does a better job of evaluating incident rates;

• Update the scientific data requirements on pre- and post-market testing to make sure they are more in line with the Food and Drug Administrations (FDA) requirements.

First steps

The EPA emphasized these are only the first steps the agency is taking to address growing concerns about topical flea and tick products.

Were going to continue to monitor this situation closely, Owens said. We want to make it clear that were going to continue to gather data and if the label requirements are not working, we will take more significant action.

We will remove products from the market if we have to, he added. Were not banning any products or removing any today, but that is certainly something that we will be more than willing to do as we move forward and gather more data.

Earlier today, the EPA met with companies that make topical flea and tick products to discuss these required changes.

They realize this is serious problem they need to address, Owens said. And they understand we are serious about this. Their reaction was very positive. No one in the room said no way.

Companies that make flea and tick products, however, have routinely downplayed reports of adverse reactions and often blamed the problems on pet owners misuse of the treatments.

The EPAs new labeling requirements refute that argument, Owens said.

I dont know how you blame a victim when the label is not clear. There is not specific language on the labels about the dosage and consumers in many cases are left to guess for themselves on the appropriate amount.

The reforms were announcing today address those problems, Owens added. While there are cases of misapplications, we think the far great problem is the labels are not adequate.

Are they safe?

But are these products safe?

I think in most cases, yes, Owens said. But I want to underscore that these are poisons. These are products designed to kill fleas and ticks and they do their job. We urge pet owners and other to exercise caution and be careful when using them. And read the labels carefully.

Given those risks, pet owners whove contacted ConsumerAffairs.com wonder why the EPA still allows these products on the market.

Theyre pet owners who say theyve witnessed horrific reactions from these products in their dogs and cats, including burns and welts on their skin, drooling excessively, shaking uncontrollably, whimpering in agony, losing control of their legs, or even dying.

Theyre pet owners like Sharee F. of Tennessee, who is convinced Sergeant's Gold Flea and Tick treatment attributed to the recent death of her dog.

We applied it as directed and later that Friday night, my dog started foaming at the mouth and whining as though he was in pain, she said. Around 4 a.m. on what was now Saturday morning, my dog began seizing. His legs were flopping, his head twitching uncontrollably, he was whining and crying, and he was breathing unbelievably heavy.

Everyone in the house was asleep, but (we) were awakened by the banging of my dogs body jerking against the wall, she added.

Sharees family gave the dog some cool water and tried to comfort him until the vets office opened a few hours later.

It was not until 8 a.m. that my dog was driven to the nearest Pet Meds, she said. Unfortunately, by the time my mother and brother walked into the vet, my dog went into cardiac arrest and they couldn't revive him. I am completely heart broken. I can't go a day without tearing up, and every time I replay this traumatic moment over in my head I get nauseous.

I want these products pulled off the market.

Another pet owner in Texas told us his dog experienced a horrible reaction to Sergeants Gold Flea and Tick Squeeze On treatment.

Within an hour she was going crazy, whining, barking, jumping up and laying down, rolling over and running and laying down and back up and running, said R.A. of Whitney, Texas.

The dog also started breathing heavily, drooling at the mouth, and throwing up, R.A. said, adding he used the product according to the labels directions. R.A. bathed the dog four times to try and relieve these problems. She is still going off her rocker, he said. This stuff is dangerous.

Dangerous to humans?

The dangers may not be restricted to dogs and cats.

I even got a little on my finger while putting it on her and I washed my hands, he said. Within a few minutes, my lips started tingling and I started having a hard time breathing myself. This stuff is a danger to (humans) health, not to mention your pet.

ConsumerAffairs.com also heard from a Florida pet owner, who said her 14-year-old dog suffered serious neurological problems from Sergeants Gold Flea & Tick treatment.

Twelve hours later she was drooling, shaking, and could hardly walk, Debra O. told us earlier this month. There were no dangerous side effects listed on the box. I called the emergency number on the box and was told (my dog) was having an adverse reaction to the meds.

I had to give her three baths with dish soap, pour water down her throat, and also give her vitamin E oil, Debra added. I am still watching her behavior closelyshe is still suffering right now.

Debra is outraged that a product linked to so many horrible reactions in pets is still on the market.

I had no idea or I would have never bought (it) and risked the life of my 14-year-old buddy, she said. This product hurts and kills animals. Someone needs to do something.

The EPA said its aware of concerns like Debras and will continue to evaluate the safety of these products.

The agency, however, pointed out that most of the reports it received about adverse reactions were minor and included skin issues and gastrointestinal problems. The EPA also confirmed it received some reports of deaths linked to these product, but said they were rare less than 2 percent of the adverse reactions reported during 2007 and 2008.

The agency said pet owners should continue to carefully follow the labels directions when using topical flea and tick products and watch for any adverse reactions in their dogs on cats after applying these treatments.

Pet owners should also talk to their veterinarians about the best methods to protect their dogs and cats from fleas and ticks, the EPA said.

A copy of the EPAs findings on topical flea and ticks products is now available on the agencys Web site.



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Finding Hidden Cash in Your Attic, Closets, and Even Your Garage

It’s the old adage: one person’s garbage is another person’s treasure

With consumers becoming thriftier, what better time to go through your closets and attic and turn your forgotten items into found money...

My wife keeps telling me we have to clean up the clutter which translated means, when are you going to get rid of all those old vinyl records collecting dust next to the Blu-ray machine or all those old clothes crowding what once was a walk-in closet?

I've often thought about all the stuff I've accumulated over the years and wondered if was worth anything. I know I could donate it and take a tax credit, but what if one of those old out-of-print albums is really worth something, or that old suit which now has a vintage clothing motif could sell for what I paid for it? Besides, who couldn't use a few extra bucks right now?

Apparently, this is a great time to sell your stuff because thrift-conscious consumers are on the lookout for quality used goods. According to Caring Transitions, a company that sets up estate sales, there's an army of bargain-hungry shoppers trolling estate sales and spending from 15% to 25% more money than they did a year ago.

What's driving this train? According to the National Association of Realtors, there are more than two million baby boomers with homes on the market and most of them are trying to downsize. That's about 40% of all home sellers with years of furniture, baby clothes, books, records, board and video games and knick-knacks to get rid of.

You don't have to be selling your house to take advantage of the trend. Just put a notice in your local newspaper and a sign on your lawn that says "Estate Sale.” If you want, you can call a company that will even price and sell your items for you. But what fun is that?

Plus they take a good chunk of your earnings.

I prefer to do what the good folks at Smart Money magazine did. They asked the experts how you can make the most money selling the stuff you were going to throw away.

They broke each group of items up and then asked when you should bargain hard, take the best offer or don't even bother and just donate the suckers.

Furniture

Let's look at furniture, which could fetch the most money in this kind of sale. They say you should bargain hard if it's mid-century modern furniture from the '50s and '60s. A mid-century modern buffet that sold for $75 or $100 earlier this decade, for example could now sell for $300 to $400.

On the other hand, you should probably take the best offer for everyday furniture like couches, chairs and coffee tables, especially if the pieces are light wood, aren't chunky and less than five years old. A couch in good condition might fetch a few hundred dollars through a site like craigslist  and even more if its leather.

As for what to donate, those old clunky television sets and entertainment centers that used to take up a whole wall and now just take up half your spare bedroom. Same goes for mattresses, bedding, and dark-wood pieces like traditional dining and bedroom sets. They're just not in style right now.

With clothing, bargain hard on couture brands like Chanel and Gucci, especially vintage pieces like my old suits from the late 60s. Buyers have also been snapping up finely made vintage fur capes this season, which can go for up to $500.

Take the best offer if your clothes are just out of fashion and fail to meet the quality standards of a fashionista on a budget. Clothing in good condition from retro-hip eras like the '40s, '60s, or '80s will still sell, but just be prepared to take what you can get. Interestingly, native-American style pieces are popular right now. Go figure.

Donate any mass-produced items from large chain stores like GAP or L.L. Bean along with anything that's heavily stained as well as sweatshirts, or sweatpants.

Books & records

As for books and records, this is where it could get tricky and you sort of need to know what you've got. For example, if you have any first- or limited-edition books, or copies signed by the author, have them appraised before you put them out for sale. A limited edition, leather-bound book of Tennessee Williams plays could bring in hundreds of dollars. So could leather-bound series, such as those from Franklin Library books, a company that produced collector-edition books of the classics.

For vinyl LPs, look for things like more obscure Rolling Stones and Beatles records in their original sleeve and unscratched. Some of those have been selling for about $500. A rare bootleg of an original Bob Dylan Great White Wonder album recently sold for $300.

Take the best offer for any individual leather-bound books, especially of the classics. Same for any LPs by jazz greats or by bands from the 60s, as long as they're in good condition and in their original sleeve. Feel free to donate any paperbacks and mass-produced hardbacks, along with any LPs that are heavily scratched or aren't in their original sleeve. Toss in your old cassettes, eight-tracks and CDs as well. They've all be replaced by digital music downloads and aren't worth anything.

Collectibles

Collectibles on the other hand could be worth something. Bargain hard when it comes to porcelain dolls, tin toys made between the '20s and '40s, and many toys popular with the baby boomers. A complete Lionel train set or Mattel's Herman Munster doll could be worth something.

Vintage movie posters, coin collections, especially those that feature gold coins, and vintage cameras in good condition are all hot right now. Especially, cameras made by companies like Carl Zeiss and Leica from the turn of the century until about the 1970s.

Take the best offer for your old toys that are not in perfect condition, along with complete coin collections that aren't especially rare. They still sell because of their nostalgia factor. Contemporary art is popular right now, as is local art, so a painting that features an iconic building or landmark in your community may sell well in your area.

Feel free to donate those collector plates with dates, the kind where you'd get a plate each month in the mail with a date on it -- especially if the collection is incomplete. You can also toss any velvet paintings along with 1980s pastel, floral and landscape paintings and prints.

There's also a market in family snapshots and video. Stock photography and film companies sometimes buy home movies -- 8mm, super-8mm and 16mm versions -- and photos that include an iconic event or a famous person. Believe it or not, you can sometimes make hundreds of dollars from them.

With such things as silverware and china, sterling silver flatware is extra valuable right now. However, silver-plate and stainless flatware will sell because it is an item that everyone can use.

Don't forget those items from your garage. Tools are selling well now because they're easy for buyers to carry home and tend to be pricey when purchased new.

Old bicycles are also in high demand, including those old three-speed cruisers. A good bike in decent condition could sell it for $100 or more, which may be more than you paid for it.

Not a bad way to spend a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Ring 'em up. You haven't been on those roller skates in 40 years.

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Food Safety Bill Finally Clears Congress

Landmark measure almost didn't make it

The House of Representatives has given final approval to the Food Safety Modernization Act and sent it to President Obama's desk....

The Food Safety Modernization Act, a sweeping overhaul of federal food regulations, will become law after all, though there were plenty of times during the year that appeared doubtful.

The House of Representative gave final approval to the measure Tuesday evening and sent it to President Obama's desk for his signature. Once there, it will have completed a long a tortuous path.

Long journey

The House first passed the bill, which gives the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expanded authority and resources, in July 2009. The Senate didn't get around to taking up the measure until the next year, but by then the legislation had gathered food industry support.

In May, Sen. Diane Feinstein proposed an amendment that would have banned the use of the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) in plastic food containers. At that point food industry support evaporated and the measure stalled until late November, when Feinstein withdrew the amendment.

The Senate passed the bill November 30, but it was different from the House version, so differences had to be worked out in conference. With the lame duck session calendar extremely crowded, it was by no means certain it would meet the deadline.

Final vote

However, the Senate passed the new version on Sunday and the House approved it 215 to 144 late Tuesday.

"This legislation will work to prevent food contamination before it occurs, steering away from our current focus on responding after an outbreak. It improves our ability to detect and respond to food-borne illness, increases the number of inspections the FDA must conduct, and, for the first time, requires importers of foreign food to verify that products grown and processed overseas meet U.S. safety standards," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). "With recent outbreaks of food-borne illness from common foods such as spinach, tomatoes, peanut butter, and cookie dough, the urgency of addressing this challenge could not be greater. And with the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, we will fundamentally change the way we protect public health and the safety of our food supply."

Shelley A. Hearne, managing director of the Pew Health Group, also applauded the vote, saying the new law will improve the safety of the nation's food supply and prevent foodborne illness. She noted the reform is the first major update to the law in over 70 years.

"Americans sitting at their dinner tables should have greater confidence that their food will be safe when this long-overdue law is put into place," Hearne said. "Preventable foodborne illness sickens millions and kills thousands of Americans every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Disease outbreaks from pathogens in FDA-regulated products such as eggs, produce, peanut products and many processed foods illustrate the need to update government safety oversight of both domestically-produced and imported foods."

The measure places more requirements on food companies to ensure food safety and gives the FDA more inspection power. And for the first time, the FDA will have the power to order food recalls, not simply request voluntary recalls.

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Tips To Keep Young Sledding Enthusiasts Out of the ER

Thousands of kids suffer injuries related to favorite winter pastime, but don't have to

Tips To Keep Young Sledding Enthusiasts Out Of The ER Thousands of kids suffer injuries related to favorite winter pastime, but don't have to...

In my day (the late 80s), sledding was a manic, screeching parade of unsupervised kids hurling themselves down the steepest, most snow-covered hills on anything flat -- store bought sleds, sheet metal, whatever. And while I sometimes put my Old Fart hat on and lament how children are too overprotected these days, I can't argue with the fact that maybe we kids were a little... reckless... when it came to sledding safety.

And kids are apparently still sledding dangerously. According to the most recent Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)statistics, there were 74,000 sledding, snow tubing, and tobogganing-related injuries treated at hospital emergency rooms, doctors' offices and clinics in 2004.

Maybe slamming into a tree at 20 miles per hour isn't "just part of growing up" after all. But fear not -- sledding can still be a joyous childhood activity (as well as great exercise) if some simple precautions are taken.

Here are some tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics and emergency room doctors at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center:

Make sure your child wears a helmet

Recent reports show that sleds can easily reach speeds of 20-25 mph. About 15 percent of sledding injuries treated in emergency rooms are head injuries, and 43 percent of these are brain injuries.

Helmets are 85 percent effective in preventing brain injuries in children who ride bicycles; experts predict similar success rates in sleds. Hoods and hats are not as effective as a helmet would be in reducing the impact of hitting a fixed object or if thrown from the sled.

Make sure there is constant adult supervision

According to an American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons study, 71 percent of unsupervised sledding outings ended in injuries. When adults were present to monitor the types of risks taken, however, the injury rate dropped to 29 percent.

Find a safe spot

Look for holes, roots, tree stumps and fences that may be covered in snow. Avoid areas with trees.

Avoid slopes that end in a street, parking lot or pond

Sleds and cars have a hard time stopping on slippery surfaces. Frozen ponds might appear solid, but might not be strong enough to hold a child's weight. Sledding hills should have a flat run off at the end.

Make sure your children wear sensible clothing

Bright colors are easier to spot. Dress them in layers for extra warmth, and don't allow them to stay outside if their clothing becomes wet. Make sure that they are dressed with proper attire including gloves or mittens and a thick jacket or coat.

Make sure your children sit face-forward

It's easier to steer the sled.

Be especially careful with inflatable snow tubes

They move quickly, cannot be steered and, if they hit a bump, can propel children into the air.

Allow only one child down the hill at a time

When children are finished, tell them to move out of the way quickly. Do not allow the next sledder to begin until the previous one is safely off the hill.

Don't allow a child to walk up the same hill that another child is sledding down

Make sure children move out of the way of other children who are coming down the designated sledding path.

Don't use sled substitutes

Cafeteria trays, cardboard boxes and detached automobile hoods may seem like great makeshift sleds, but they are difficult to steer and stop, increasing the risk of injury.

In fact, for the safest ride, use a sled with a steering mechanism.

Use common sense

If a sled won't stop or you think you will hit something, roll off. And never ride on a sled that is being pulled by a moving vehicle.

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Sixty-Six Win Insurance Institute's 2011 Top Safety Pick award

Automakers quickly improve roofs to boost rollover protection

Sixty-Six Win Insurance Institute's 2011 Top Safety Pick award Automakers quickly improve roofs to boost rollover protection ...

Sixty-six vehicles have earned the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) Top Safety Pick award for 2011, including 40 cars, 25 SUVs, and a minivan.

Top Safety Pick recognizes vehicles that do the best job of protecting people in front, side, rollover, and rear crashes based on good ratings in Institute tests. Winners also must have available electronic stability control, a crash avoidance feature that significantly reduces crash risk.

The ratings help consumers pick vehicles that offer a higher level of protection than federal safety standards require.

Higher standards

Last year the Institute toughened criteria for Top Safety Pick by adding a requirement that all qualifiers must earn a good rating for performance in a roof strength test to assess protection in a rollover crash. The move sharply narrowed the initial field of 2010 winners.

At the beginning of the 2010 model year, only 27 vehicles qualified for the award, but the number grew to 58 as auto manufacturers reworked existing designs and introduced new models. Now another 10 vehicles join the winners' list for 2011. Two discontinued models drop off.

"In just a year, automakers have more than doubled the number of vehicles that meet the criteria for Top Safety Pick," says Adrian Lund, the Institute's president. "That gives consumers shopping for a safer new car or SUV -- from economy to luxury models -- plenty of choices to consider in most dealer showrooms. In fact, every major automaker has at least one winning model this year."

Front-runners

Hyundai/Kia and Volkswagen/Audi each have nine winners for 2011. Next in line with eight awards apiece are General Motors, Ford/Lincoln, and Toyota/Lexus/Scion. Subaru is the only manufacturer with a winner in all the vehicle classes in which it competes. Subaru earned five awards for 2011.

"Safety is a priority among this crop of winners," Lund says. "From the start these manufacturers set out to design vehicles that would earn Top Safety Pick, even though we've made it harder to win."

One of them is Ford. For 2011, the automaker is rolling out a new design for its popular Explorer midsize SUV, which until now had never earned Top Safety Pick. Ford also upgraded the roofs of 2 other midsize SUVs, the Ford Flex and Lincoln MKT, along with the Ford Fusion and Lincoln MKZ, 2 midsize cars that missed the initial round of 2010 winners because they lacked the required roof strength. The all-new Ford Fiesta rounds out Ford's winners and is the only minicar to earn Top Safety Pick this year.

General Motors' new Chevrolet Cruze broadens the number of award-winning options for consumers looking to buy a fuel-efficient small car. GM built the Cruze, which has 10 standard airbags, including ones for the knees, to outperform the government's minimum roof strength requirements and touts the achievement as a selling point.

The redesigned Volkswagen Touareg is the only large SUV to earn Top Safety Pick for 2011. The Institute doesn't normally evaluate SUVs this large, but Volkswagen requested crash tests to demonstrate the Touareg's crashworthiness.

None of the small pickups the Institute has evaluated qualified for this year's award, and large pickups haven't yet been tested.

Broader range

The Institute awarded the first Top Safety Pick to 2006 models and then raised the bar the next year by requiring good rear test results and electronic stability control as either standard or optional equipment. With last year's addition of new criteria for roof crush the Institute's crash test ratings now cover all four of most common kinds of crashes.

More than 12,000 people died in frontal crashes of passenger vehicles in 2009 in the United States, more than 6,000 died in side impacts and more than 8,000 died in rollovers -- many of which also involved a front or side impact. Rear-end crashes usually aren't fatal but result in a large proportion of injuries. Neck sprain or strain is the most commonly reported injury in two-thirds of insurance claims for injuries in all kinds of crashes.

Vehicles rated good for rollover crash protection have roofs more than twice as strong as the current federal standard requires. The Institute estimates that such roofs reduce the risk of serious and fatal injury in single-vehicle rollovers by about 50 percent compared with roofs meeting the minimum requirement.

Quick strides in occupant protection

When the first roof crush results were released in March 2009, only a third of the SUVs tested had good roofs. Since then about 113 vehicles have been tested, and the majority are rated good for roof strength.

Hyundai is a case in point. The Tucson and the small SUV's twin, the Kia Sportage, earned a poor rating for roof strength in 2009, with the weakest roof among all of the small SUVs evaluated that year. A redesign helped the 2011 models secure a good rating and Top Safety Pick. Hyundai also improved the roof on another SUV, the midsize Santa Fe, and redesigned the Sonata, a midsize car that had earned a marginal roof rating the first time around.

Side impact

The outlook for side-impact protection has brightened, too, Lund notes. Many cars failed the side test the Institute began conducting in 2003, but now most vehicles ace the test thanks to stronger side structures and standard side airbags that protect the head and torso.

It's an important improvement because new Institute research shows that the risk of dying in a crash is sharply lower for people in vehicles that earn good ratings in the Institute's side test.

Chrysler added torso airbags to the redesigned Jeep Grand Cherokee to improve side crash protection and earn a good side rating. The previous design relied on head curtain airbags to cushion occupants in side crashes and only rated marginal for side protection.

Not optional

Safety equipment is increasingly standard. Ninety-two percent of 2011 model cars, 94 percent of SUVs, and 56 percent of pickups have standard head and torso side airbags. Electronic stability control is standard on 92 percent of cars, 100 percent of SUVs, and 72 percent of pickups.

"Automakers deserve credit for quickly rising to meet the more-challenging criteria for Top Safety Pick," Lund says. "Several already have requested tests for new models due to ship early next year, so we expect to add even more winners to the 2011 list."

The Institute groups Top Safety Pick winners according to vehicle type and size. Lund advises consumers to keep in mind that size and weight influence crashworthiness.

Larger, heavier vehicles generally afford better occupant protection in serious crashes than smaller, lighter ones. Even with a Top Safety Pick, a small car isn't as crashworthy as a bigger one.

Evaluation process

The Institute's frontal crashworthiness evaluations are based on results of 40 mph frontal offset crash tests. Each vehicle's overall evaluation is based on measurements of intrusion into the occupant compartment, injury measures recorded on a 50th percentile male Hybrid III dummy in the driver seat, and analysis of slow-motion film to assess how well the restraint system controlled dummy movement during the test.

Side evaluations are based on performance in a crash test in which the side of a vehicle is struck by a barrier moving at 31 mph. The barrier represents the front end of a pickup or SUV. Ratings reflect injury measures recorded on two instrumented SID-IIs dummies representing a fifth percentile woman, assessment of head protection countermeasures, and the vehicle's structural performance during the impact.

In the roof strength test, a metal plate is pushed against one side of a roof at a displacement rate of 0.2 inch per second. To earn a good rating for rollover protection, the roof must withstand a force of four-times the vehicle's weight before reaching five inches of crush. This is called a strength-to-weight ratio.

Rear crash protection is rated according to a two-step procedure. Starting points for the ratings are measurements of head restraint geometry -- the height of a restraint and its horizontal distance behind the back of the head of an average-size man.

Seat/head restraints with good or acceptable geometry are tested dynamically using a dummy that measures forces on the neck. This test simulates a collision in which a stationary vehicle is struck in the rear at 20 mph. Seats without good or acceptable geometry are rated poor overall because they can't be positioned to protect many people.

All 66 winners

Large cars

  • Buick LaCrosse
  • Buick Regal
  • BMW 5 series (except 4-wheel drive and V8)
  • Cadillac CTS sedan
  • Ford Taurus
  • Hyundai Genesis
  • Infinite M37/M56 (except M56x 4-wheel drive)
  • Lincoln MKS
  • Mercedes E class coupe
  • Mercedes E class sedan
  • Toyota Avalon
  • Volvo S80

Midsize cars

  • Audi A3
  • Audi A4 sedan
  • Chevrolet Malibu
  • Chrysler 200 4-door
  • Dodge Avenger
  • Ford Fusion
  • Hyundai Sonata
  • Kia Optima
  • Lincoln MKZ
  • Mercedes C class
  • Subaru Legacy
  • Subaru Outback
  • Volkswagen Jetta sedan
  • Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen
  • Volvo C30

Small cars

  • Chevrolet Cruze
  • Honda Civic 4-door models (except Si) with optional electronic stability control
  • Kia Forte sedan
  • Kia Soul
  • Mitsubishi Lancer (except 4-wheel drive)
  • Nissan Cube
  • Scion tC
  • Scion xB
  • Subaru Impreza sedan and hatchback (except WRX)
  • Volkswagen Golf 4-door
  • Volkswagen GTI 4-door

Minicar

  • Ford Fiesta sedan and hatchback built after July 2010

Minivan

  • Toyota Sienna

Large SUV

  • Volkswagen Touareg

Midsize SUVs

  • Audi Q5
  • Cadillac SRX
  • Chevrolet Equinox
  • Dodge Journey
  • Ford Explorer
  • Ford Flex
  • GMC Terrain
  • Hyundai Santa Fe
  • Jeep Grand Cherokee
  • Kia Sorento built after March 2010
  • Lexus RX
  • Lincoln MKT
  • Mercedes GLK
  • Subaru Tribeca
  • Toyota Highlander
  • Toyota Venza
  • Volvo XC60
  • Volvo XC90

Small SUVs

  • Honda Element
  • Hyundai Tucson
  • Jeep Patriot with optional side torso airbags
  • Kia Sportage
  • Subaru Forester
  • Volkswagen Tiguan
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Balance Problems in Seniors Need to be Checked Out

The Healthy Geezer

Balance Problems in Seniors Need to be Checked Out...


Q. I'm not sure what's going on, but, once in a while, I find myself losing my balance. Is this just an aging thing or what?

A. About one in ten people over 65 experience difficulty with balance. More than 40 percent of Americans will go to a doctor complaining of dizziness.

Getting older is only part of the problem. Inner-ear disturbances are the primary cause.

Losing balance when you're older is serious stuff. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that, each year, more than one-third of people over 65 years suffer a fall.

Falls are the leading cause of injury deaths among older adults. And, even if the fall doesn't kill you, you could fracture a hip and then a whole bunch of problems will can cascade over you -- limitations on activities, isolation, loss of independence, depression.

Not all balance problems have the same cause. Here are several major ones:

• Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV). With BPPV, one of the most common causes of balance problems, you get vertigo when you change the position of your head. You may also experience BPPV when you roll over, get out of bed, or when look on a high shelf. BPPV is more likely in people over 60.

Labyrinthitis, an infection or inflammation of the inner ear. The labyrinth is the organ in your inner ear that enables you to maintain balance.

Meniere's disease, which also can give you intermittent hearing loss, a ringing or roaring in the ears, and a feeling of fullness in the ear.

Other causes may involve another part of the body, such as the brain or the heart. Aging, infections, head injury, certain medicines, or problems with blood circulation may also cause problems with balance.

Blood-pressure medications and some antibiotics can cause balance problems. If you are taking any drugs in these categories and feel off-balance, it's worth discussing with your doctor.

Some people may have a balance problem and not know it. Balance disorders can be difficult to diagnose because patients sometimes can't describe their symptoms well.

Balance disorders can be signs of other health problems, so it's important to have them checked out.

If you can answer any of the following positively, discuss the symptom with your doctor.

Do I feel:

• Unsteady?
• Disoriented?
• As if the room is spinning?
• As if I'm moving when I'm still?
• As if I'm falling?
• As if I might faint?

Also, do you ever lose your balance and fall? Or, do you experience blurred vision?

Persistent balance problems are not something you should pass off as a harmless part of the aging process. They should always be examined carefully.

All Rights Reserved © 2007 by Fred Cicetti



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Friedman's Files for Bankruptcy

The Friedman's Inc. jewelry chain has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, citing "short-term liquidity issues." The company is being sued by Florid...

 


The Friedman's Inc. jewelry chain has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, citing "short-term liquidity issues." The company is being sued by Florida, Texas and Tennessee for allegedly using deceptive tactics in the way it charged customers for insurance.

The voluntary petitions for reorganization under Chapter 11 were filed in Savannah, Ga., where the company is based.

The Chapter 11 filing "should provide the company with the breathing room necessary to complete financial restructuring initiatives the company embarked upon more than five months ago," a statement by Friedman's.

"The filing was prompted by limitations imposed on funding this week by the company's lenders following the lenders' decision not to agree to amended financial covenants in the Company's credit facility. As a result of the funding limitations, Friedman 's was unable to satisfy all of its cash requirements in the ordinary course of business," Friedman's said.

Late last year, Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist said some 19 states were expected to join Florida's litigation against Friedman's, which has 650 stores nationwide. Crist estimates that Friedman's allegedly sold $46.7 million of the insurance in 19 states, but failed to adequately disclose the costs to customers.

According to the Florida complaint, between 1998 and 2002 Friedman's added charges to retail contracts for life, credit disability and property insurance. Friedman's allegedly collected approximately $46,709,000 from the 19 states combined. In Florida alone, it is estimated that the company collected more than $2,265,000.

 



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Fast Cash Loans Mean Long-Term Debt

Payday loans are tempting but quickly made a bad problem worse

Fast Cash Loans Mean Long-Term DebtPayday loans are tempting but quickly made a bad problem worse...

If your email in-box is anything like mine, it's crammed with messages with subject lines like "Your Christmas Bonus, deposit this afternoon." Says another: "Can't wait for your next paycheck? You can get up to 1500 in your account with 100 days to pay it back."

If you're a cash-strapped consumer struggling to get to the end of your holiday shopping list, these offers may sound tempting, but beware! They are payday loans, plain and simple - notorious predatory loans that victimize working men and women and members of the military.

What payday lenders don't advertise is the enormous cost of taking out their loans, characterized by annual percentage rates that often exceed 250 percent. Many payday lenders, especially those operating on the Internet, are of dubious legality. They may not be licensed and may be blatantly violating federal and state consumer protection laws.

A few years back, one prominent payday lender advertised that its loans were "better than borrowing from your mother." That brought a spirited response from Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

"The reality is that these loans will take the shirt right off your back with costly fees and outrageous interest rates," Madigan said.

A payday loan, very simply, is a short-term loan obtained when a borrower writes a check dated in the future. To get a loan, a borrower must show the payday lender a pay stub and then write the lender a check for the cash loan. The check is usually made out for a later date -- often one month and one day after the date of the loan. The lender gives the borrower cash in return, but for an amount less than the value of the check.

The difference between the amount for which the consumer writes the check and the amount the consumer is paid in cash is the lender's profit, or finance charge. Payday lenders often charge between $15 and $50 for every $90 borrowed, which only covers the few short weeks of the loan term. After that, the consumer must pay the lender back or pay the lender even more in finance charges.

Most of the time, a consumer doesn't have the funds in his or her checking account to cover the post-dated check when it is written, and may not have the funds when it comes time for the check to be cashed. When payment comes due, if consumers can't cover the check, they are often encouraged to roll the overdue loan into a new loan, incurring new fees and increasing the amount of the loan.

This loan "flipping" easily can lead to the consumer using most or all of the money borrowed to pay the lender's costly fees.

Think we're exaggerating? Consider the experience of Janet of Burnsville, NC, who wrote to ConsumerAffairs.com last August.

"I applied for a loan of 100 online like a dummy. I was desperate I had NO FOOD. I agreed to pay back $125.00 in 2 payments that would be taken out of my checking account. I only rec $75.00 but I at least was able to buy food. Yesterday I learned that $315.00 was trying to be taken out of my checking account over and over and over. It had incurred several NSF charges."

Not only are payday loans likely to result in such unforeseen headaches as overdrawn checking accounts and ruinously high payback schedules, they're also likely to lead to bankruptcy.

"Our research finds that payday loans and their interest payments may be sufficient to tip the balance into bankruptcy for a population that is already severely financially stressed," said Marta Skiba of Vanderbilt Law School who conducted a 2008 study into payday loans.

The researchers found that first-time applicants who received a payday loan were almost twice as likely to file for bankruptcy within two years as those denied the first time. The interest from payday and pawn loans amounted to about 11 percent of the total liquid debt interest burden at the time of the bankruptcy filing.

So what should you do if you're desperately short of money and unable to pay for essentials? The answer varies from one city to another, but a good place to start is the nearest Salvation Army office, homeless shelter or food pantry. While the staff and volunteers may not be able to loan or give you money, they can direct you to local charities who will help you rather than take advantage of your plight.

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Regulators Adopt Net Neutrality Rules

Compromise measure may please very few

The Federal Communications Commission has adopted new Net neutrality guidelines that its backers say will keep the Internet free and open....

As expected, the Federal Communications Commission today adopted new Net neutrality rules, providing guidelines for both wired and wireless networks.

The policy, described by some as a compromise, passed along party-line votes, with Democrats supporting it and Republicans opposed. The rules are likely to be challenged in court in the year ahead.

Net neutrality refers to the principle that Internet content providers should have equal access to the Internet and  should suffer no restrictions on content, sites or platforms that may be attached. Network operators have generally 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.

Under the new policy, crafted by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, there will be one set of rules for traditional wired networks, like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T, and another for wireless providers like Verizon Wireless. The wired networks would be prohibited from blocking access to websites and applications, but the wireless providers would be able to block access to some apps.

Sen. Al Frankin (D-MN) was critical of that aspect of the policy, pointing out that Verizon Wireless would be free to block access to Google Maps, a free feature, making Verizon Wireless subscribers use the provider's maps app, which carries a fee.

The new policy would also not prohibit "paid prioritization," in which a content provider could pay a network a fee to provide faster, or more prioritized access, to its material.

Disappointment

Digital rights groups expressed some disappointment with the new policy, saying it was too weak and watered-down. Gigi Sohn, president and co-founder of the Washington-based group Public Knowledge, said the policy  "fell far short" of what it could have been.

"Instead of a rule that would protect everyone, from consumers to applications developers from predatory practices of telephone and cable companies, the Commission settled for much less," Sohn said.  "Instead of strong, firm rules providing clear protections, the Commission created a vague and shifting landscape open to interpretation.  Consumers deserved better."

But having been rebuffed in court once already over the issue of Net neutrality, Genachowski may have looked for common ground.

"These rules fulfill a promise to the future, to companies that don't yet exist, and the entrepreneurs that haven't yet started work in their dorm rooms or garages," Genachowski said.

Second attempt

He noted that, at the moment, there are no enforceable rules to protect basic Internet values. And having failed in his first attempt to implement a Net neutrality policy, Genachowski may have looked for ways to compromise.

In April, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, DC,  ruled the FCC lacked 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.

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When Did Owning a Dog or a Cat Become so Expensive?

And other questions the pet industry doesn't want to answer

Are your pet's medical bills putting you in the poor house or when did having a dog or a cat around the house suddenly become so expensive?...

Caring for a pet can be costly, especially if they become ill and need special medical treatment. Medical bills are just one of the many things the pet industry doesn't really want you to know about because it could result in a reduction in the number of pets people decide to own.

Consider this. A cat with cancer can run you $20,000 and up just for the treatment.  We all love our pets but it appears that our relationship with domestic animals has become very expensive in recent years.

A friend who adopted a pug from a rescue society recently told me he spends over $1,000 a month on medication and vet visits to deal with eye inflammations, ear problems and other ailments common to the breed.

"It's crazy to spend that much money on a pet, but he is such a jolly little character that I can't imagine not providing him with the best care," said my friend, who asked not to be identified because he feared public ridicule.

A lot of the exorbitant expense is due to medical breakthroughs and innovative treatments that just didn't exist a few years ago. But now they do and decisions once not even considered are suddenly on the table.  According to a report by market-research company Packaged Facts we spent $20 billion on veterinary bills this year. That's an 8.5% increase from 2009 and more than double the amount spent 10 years ago.

The increase in medical bills for pets has helped grow a newly industry of pet health insurance. What used to be considered a joke, medical insurance for dogs and cats, has become popular as a way to ease the financial burden of a sick pet.

One of the many things the pet industry doesn't want you to know is that some breeds of pets are healthier than others. Now that's something you usually take into consideration when you're about to either save some poor animal from certain death or buy that cuddly little creature at your local pet store.

Dr. Jerold Bell is a geriatrics professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. In an interview with Smart Money magazine, Dr. Bell says you if you don't do your research on a potential pet, you're risking a great deal of expenses and emotional strain.

Bell says that common problems such as hip dysplasia or cardiac conditions are breed-specific and are often detectable in the pets that breeders use to breed the pets they sell.

There aren't any regulators watching over the breeders, so it's up to you to know what diseases to which that particular pet is susceptible. You can check the Canine Health Information Center's web site for a list of disorders for which each breed of dog should be tested. Another way to increase your chances of getting a healthy purebred is by choosing breeders who use the services of the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA). That's a nonprofit foundation that tries to lower the incidence of genetic disease.

The OFA performs pre-breeding health screening services for many inherited diseases, including hip and elbow dysplasia, congenital cardiac disease, patellar luxation, autoimmune thyroid disease and others. Parents known to be free of genetic disorders are much more likely to produce healthy offspring.

Emergency care

If your pet does get sick, the temptation is to rush them to an emergency animal hospital when you could have probably waited until your regular vet's office opened. Around the clock animal clinics charge a lot for non-emergency procedures such x-rays and blood tests. So if you can wait, it pays to do so. You may even want to call your vet to get his or her opinion before rushing to the clinic.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or ASPCA, recommends giving your pet an annual physical exam to head off any medical problems that could be treated before they got out of hand.

If your pet is young and healthy, insurance is a bit of a gamble. And, as in humans, some policies don't cover the biggest procedures. As an alternative, you can set up a medical care fund in your pet's name and depositing regular sums comparable to premiums. If you don't use it, it's still yours but if you pay premiums to an insurance companies it belongs to them.

Kennel care

Leaving your pet with a kennel can come with its own set of problems. Most kennel operators are well-meaning animal lovers who have turned their passion for animals into a business. However, because the industry is largely unregulated, kennels can vary widely in their standard of care. So how can you know whether your pet will be housed in cramped, unhealthy conditions or put up in four-star luxury?

Ideally, you should pick one of the few kennels that are members of the American Boarding Kennels Association and have been accredited by the group. They have to comply with standards, including providing an area where dogs can be exercised at least three times a day. Make sure you take a tour of the kennel before booking a spot for your pet. Ask what health concerns pet supervisors are trained to detect.

Training

Then comes the expense of training, although this is something cat owners rarely have to deal with. You can drop $300 an hour for your dog's obedience lessons, only to wind up with a pet who does little more than sit and stay. Unfortunately, anyone can call themselves a dog trainer.

There is a way to avoid inept or inexperienced trainers. Look for someone who has graduated from a program, such as the one conducted by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers or is a member of the International Association of Canine Professionals. Ask how many years of experience a prospective trainer has. Training the family dog as a teenager doesn't count. And ask how many dogs he's worked with professionally and finally ask for references.

You should also consider what your pet will be taught. For example, in six lessons, you should expect your dog to be able to walk properly on a leash, stay and sit for three minutes in any environment and not just in your living room. He or she should be able to lie down for five minutes, come when called and leave the room when told. I know a few people who could use that training.

It's gotten to be a little trendy among some owners to send their dog or pet to an animal psychologist, but you may want to first attempt less expensive treatments. If the dog is suffering from separation anxiety, which is common among young pups, you could send the dog to a day care center two or three times a week. It could give your pet the physical, mental and emotional strength she's lacking.

There are pets who are removed from their mothers too soon and become overly aggressive or suffer from severe separation anxiety. In those cases, they very well could benefit from an animal shrink, provided they're certified professionals and actually know what they're doing.

A big thing the pet industry doesn't want you to know is that pet food doesn't have to be expensive to be good for your pet. Read the labels. Be especially wary of diet foods, which can be packed with added fiber to make pets feel full. Cutting back on regular food is a good way to achieve the same weight loss, as long as owners supplement it with vitamins.

As a general rule when it comes to food, look for pet foods tested and approved by members of the Association of American Feed Control Officials. That's an industry watchdog group that sets standards for animal-feed manufacturing. The most important thing is does your pet like it. If my cat Kimberly doesn't like a particular food, she'll tip over the plate and attempt to bury it. She's pretty picky too. But sliced turkey always seems to get eaten.

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States, Feds Amend Credit Card Company Suit

Settlement reached with Visa and MasterCard

Several states and the federal government are pressing their anti-trust case against credit card companies....

Twenty states and the U.S. Department of Justice have amended their suit against American Express, Visa, and MasterCard to stop them from restricting merchants from offering consumers discounts, rewards, and information about card costs.

 The states are challenging the credit card companies' rules that ultimately result in greater costs to consumers and merchants. Vermont also joined a proposed settlement with two of the companies. Although Visa and MasterCard have agreed to settle the case, American Express continues to fight the allegations.

"Vermont has been a leader in taking on the credit card industry for practices that stifle competition - first through legislation and now through litigation,” said Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell, in announcing his state's participation in the litigation. "In these tough economic times it's more important than ever to protect our businesses and consumers from unfair fees and costs."

 In the case of Vermont, all three credit card companies must comply with a  state law that goes into effect on January 1, 2011, which eliminates restrictions on merchants that have been in place for many years.

Vermont's new credit card law

Under the new law, credit card companies must allow merchants to offer discounts and incentives based on the customer's form of payment. For example, a merchant will be able to offer a three percent discount if the customer pays in cash. The companies also must allow merchants to accept certain cards at some locations and not others, and to impose a credit card minimum of $10 if it is clearly disclosed to consumers.

Credit card acceptance fees, also known as "swipe fees," cost U.S. merchants approximately $35 billion each year, Sorrell said. Merchants pay swipe fees each time a consumer uses a credit card to make a purchase.

American Express has the highest swipe fees of any credit card network, charging merchants 3 percent on some transactions. Merchants pass on these billions of dollars in fees to consumers through higher retail prices.

Vermont's existing law and the amended complaint filed yesterday seek to remedy the credit card companies' practice of suppressing competition by forbidding merchants from rewarding consumers who use less expensive credit cards or cash. Allowing merchants to do this should foster competition among credit card companies by encouraging them to lower fees.

The settlement is subject to the provisions of the federal Tunney Act, which requires that the U.S. DOJ accept public comments during a 60-day period. The court will then review and  determine whether to enter the proposed consent decree.
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Some Holiday Lights Bear Bogus UL Label

New Jersey finds counterfeit decorations on store shelves

In a sweep of urban discount stores, New Jersey consumer officials found several examples of holiday lights with counterfeit Underwriters Lab seals....

Counterfeit Christmas lights may be posing a hazard in some homes this season. New Jersey officials conducting a sweep of urban discount stores found holiday lights, decorations and other electrical items that bear counterfeit labels of the Underwriters Laboratory (UL) testing organization.

Since the lights and cords haven't really been tested, it's possible they pose a fire hazard.

Millions of products and their components are tested to UL's safety standards and those that have been certified as safe may carry the UL seal. Manufacturers are not only misleading consumers when they fraudulently place the seal on their product, but could be putting consumers at risk.

New Jersey Department of Consumer Affairs investigators purchased 179 items from 43 dollar stores in Paterson, Newark, Trenton and Camden and sent the products to UL to determine if any bear counterfeit labels. UL found seven items with the UL logo on their packaging, but counterfeit UL labels attached to the products.

"Consumers depend on the UL label as proof that a product meets UL's standards," New Jersey Attorney General Paula T. Dow said. "When that label, or the labels of other testing organizations, are falsely applied to untested products, the public is defrauded and, of greater concern, placed at unnecessary risk."

Big business

Counterfeit consumer products make up a huge black market industry. Counterfeit goods generate hundreds of billions of dollars in sales each year, making up about  seven percent of all global trade, according to a recent report by the business news cable channel CNBC. At U.S. ports alone, counterfeit products seized in 2009 had an estimated street value of more than $260 million.

Besides knockoffs of designer shoes and handbags, counterfeiters also produce electrical devices, such as extension cords. Instead of using copper, they use cheaper wire that is prone of overheating and could catch fire.

The stores selling the items with counterfeit UL labels cooperated with New Jersey investigators, removing all such items from store shelves and providing their purchasing records to the state. The Department of Consumer Affairs said it will notify the Customs and Border Patrol within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security since these products are imported.

"We're committed to keeping counterfeit, and potentially unsafe, products away from consumers," said Thomas R. Calcagni, Acting Director of the Division of Consumer Affairs. "A counterfeit label attached to an item is a deliberate attempt to deceive consumers and to commit fraud in violation of our state law."

The stores where products with counterfeit UL labels were found and removed from shelves are as follows:

  • D&D 99 Cent store, 181 Market St., Paterson;  Multicolor 140 Count Musical Christmas lights and Rainbow Light 12 Foot Rope.
  • 99 Cents Shop & Up,123 Main St., Paterson; 10 Light Multi Tree Top and Red Blue Green 100 Light String Lights
  • Dollar Classic, 154 Bloomfield Ave, Newark; 10 Light Multi Tree Top and Multicolor 100 Count Christmas string lights
  • Jersey Dollar, 1960 Olden Ave Ext., Ewing; Sunlite Baseball Night Light

 

 

 

According to statistics released by the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI), while 71 percent of people report that they are likely to use at least one extension cord for their holiday decorations, 33 percent of people are unlikely or very unlikely to check for a certification laboratory approval mark on the extension cords, lights and decorations they own or plan to buy.

An estimated 3,300 residential fires originate from extension cords each year, killing and injuring more than 300 people, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

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Toyota To Pony Up Millions Recall Probes

Automaker will pay $32.425 million in civil penalties

Toyota To Pony Up Millions Recall Probes Automaker will pay $32.425 million in civil penalties ...

Toyota Motor Corporation has agreed to pay an additional $32.425 million in civil penalties as the result of two separate government investigations into its handling of auto recalls.

The automaker will pay the maximum fines allowable under the law -- $16.375 million in one case and $16.050 million in the other -- in response to the Transportation Department's (DOT) assertion that it failed to comply with the requirements of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act for reporting safety defects to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

"Safety is our top priority and we take our responsibility to protect consumers seriously," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "I am pleased that Toyota agreed to pay the maximum possible penalty and I expect Toyota to work cooperatively in the future to ensure consumers' safety."

Accelerator probe

The first investigation resulted in a $16.375 million fine and involved Toyota's recall of nearly five million vehicles with accelerator pedals that can become entrapped by floor mats. As its initial remedy, Toyota recalled 55,000 all-weather floor mats on September 26, 2007.

In August 2009, a fatal crash in Santee, California, occurred as the result of pedal entrapment in a loaner Lexus equipped with an all-weather floor mat intended for another Lexus model. After the fatal crash, NHTSA reviewed crash evidence and other data, and found that removing floor mats was insufficient and that there was a need to redesign the accelerator pedal.

At NHTSA's urging, Toyota then conducted a recall for 3.8 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles for floor mat entrapment on October 5, 2009. The October recall was expanded on January 27, 2010, to include another 1.1 million vehicles.

In February 2010, NHTSA launched an investigation to determine when Toyota first learned of the pedal entrapment defect and whether the company notified NHTSA in a timely manner. Federal law requires all auto manufacturers to notify NHTSA within five business days of determining that a safety defect exists and to promptly conduct a recall.

NHTSA's investigation led the agency to believe that Toyota had not fulfilled its obligation to report a known safety defect within five days, as is required under the law.

The defects involving pedal entrapment by floor mats and "sticking" accelerator pedals are currently the only two known causes of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles, although NHTSA continues to explore other possible causes.

The agency has enlisted the expertise of researchers and engineers from the prestigious National Academy of Sciences and NASA for a pair of studies that seek to get to the bottom of unintended acceleration.

Steering control probe

The second investigation resulted in a $16.050 million fine. In that case, NHTSA investigated whether Toyota properly notified the agency of a safety defect in several Toyota models that could result in the loss of steering control. In 2004, Toyota conducted a recall in Japan for Hilux trucks with steering relay rods prone to fatigue cracking and breaking, causing the vehicle to lose steering control.

At that time, Toyota informed NHTSA that the safety defect was isolated to vehicles in Japan and that the company had not received similar field information within the United States. In 2005, however, Toyota informed NHTSA that the steering relay rod defect was present in several models sold in the U.S. and conducted a recall for nearly one million vehicles.

Then, in May 2010, NHTSA was alerted to additional information, including complaints from U.S. consumers, that Toyota had not disclosed when it initially notified NHTSA that a U.S. recall was unnecessary.

"Automakers are required to report any safety defects to NHTSA swiftly, and we expect them to do so," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. "NHTSA acknowledges Toyota's efforts to make improvements to its safety culture, and our agency will continue to hold all automakers accountable for defects to protect consumers' safety."

Payments

Toyota will pay the maximum in civil penalties for each of the two violations stemming from the pedal entrapment and steering relay rod recalls. The maximum civil penalty established under the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act is adjusted for inflation, and was set at $16.050 million at the time of the steering relay rod recall in 2005.

In April, Toyota agreed to pay the maximum penalty of $16.375 million in response to the Department's assertion that it failed to notify NHTSA within five days of learning of the "sticky pedal" defect. That brings the total civil penalties assessed for Toyota in 2010 to $48.8 million. The fines will be paid into the Treasury Department's General Fund.

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Retro Stocking Stuffer is Important Health Protector

Researchers hope to make a better supplement by studying the humble orange

Retro Stocking Stuffer is Important Health Protector Researchers hope to make a better supplement by studying the humble orange...

Maybe our relatives were on to something when they used oranges as Christmas stocking stuffers -- they're full of age-old health benefits.

This is something nutritionists at Brigham Young University (BYU)  are studying in the hopes of finding out exactly what about the tangy fruit makes them so good for us.

We all know the orange is known for its vitamin C and blood-protecting antioxidants, but the researchers wanted to learn why a whole orange is better for you than its components when taken separately.

The ultimate outcome of the research could be a super-supplement that captures the best health benefits of eating oranges and drinking orange juice.

Fruit vs. vitamin pills

"There's something about an orange that's better than taking a vitamin C capsule, and that's really what we're trying to figure out," said Tory Parker, BYU assistant professor of nutrition, dietetics and food science.

Parker says the researchers think it's the particular mix of antioxidants in oranges that makes them so beneficial.

The team published the best health-promoting combination of those natural antioxidants in a recent issue of the Journal of Food Science.

The paper's lead author, Brenner Freeman, was a BYU undergrad when he conducted the research. Now applying to medical schools, Brenner chose to study oranges because he was raised on a citrus orchard in Arizona.

"I spent a lot of time hunched over a lab bench in the dark doing this research," Freeman said. "But what I learned was worth it, and having this publication definitely gives me an advantage on my med school applications."

Protective properties

Parker explained that every time we eat carbs and fat, we increase the amount of free radicals in our blood. Over time, that increases our chance for hardened arteries and heart disease. But eating fruit protects us from that effect for a few hours after every meal.

"Carbs and fat increase free radicals, and fruit and internal antioxidants counteract that," Parker said.

That means fruit, like oranges, should actually be our dessert. (No, seriously.)

"Remember, before cookies, candy and other sugary snacks became so widespread, fruit was our 'sweet,'" said Parker.

Considering there are already countless amounts of health supplements on the market, one may wonder why we would need another one.

Parker noted supplement companies often mix "high concentrations of extracts from blueberry and blackberry and orange and throw them all together and hope it's good."

He wanted to avoid such assumptions by testing dozens of combinations of the antioxidants found in an orange at the same proportions they occur naturally.

Synergies

"We're looking for synergistic effects," Parker said. "Cases where the effect of two or more antioxidants together was stronger than the sum of them separately."

The researchers identified several combinations of antioxidants that were the most synergistic and found the compounds hesperidin and naringenin, in particular, appeared to contribute the most punch.

Those are the mixtures Parker will continue to research in human studies to evaluate whether their health effects mimic those of eating an orange. He and his students are also conducting similar work with blueberries and strawberries.

BYU has applied for patents on the best antioxidant mixtures from all three fruits, and they are available for license by companies for further development.

"I'm really most interested in protecting healthy people and keeping the healthy, healthy," Parker said. "And no matter what our research finds, it's very clear that a great way to do that is to simply eat more fruit."

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Kids Buy Lots of Smurf Cash, Parents Pay Lots of Real Cash

Password loophole enables kids to make pricey purchases in free app games

Kids Buy Lots of Smurf Cash, Parents Pay Lots of Real Cash Password loophole enables kids to make pricey purchases in free app games...

Would you pay $99.99 for a wagon of Smurfberries?

If your answer is "yes," you might be one of the growing numbers of adults addicted to "Smurfs' Village," an interactive game featuring the little blue gnomes popularized in the 1970s and 1980s.

Or you might be a four-year-old playing on Mom's iPad.

The game, free to download and play, involves creating a Smurf village from scratch: building houses and planting and harvesting crops. For a fee, users can speed progress along with the help of "smurfberries."

A few weeks ago, parents of kids -- some as young as four -- were finding large sums of money charges to their iTunes accounts. Turns out, their savvy little land developers were going on a "smurfberries" spree, not realizing the coveted virtual currency costs actual money.

Many kids have fallen in love with the iPad or iPod Touch and parents, wanting to foster that love of technology, are quick to put the devices into their young ones' hands.

But a combination of apps with hidden charges, a loophole in iTunes' password policy, and inattentive parents can make for a pricy game playing experience.

The "Smurf's Village" app, offers "smurfberries" by the bucket, bushel, barrel, wheelbarrow, or wagon-full to users who want the ability to speed up the growth of their village and crops.

A single bucket is just $4.99. But a whole wagon-full is almost $100.

With a couple of quick screen taps, the charges are placed on the iTunes account associated with the iPod or iPad.

Normally, iTunes requires the user's password before any purchases are made. However, once the password is entered, it's not needed again for 15 minutes; not even to complete a pricey transaction.

This loophole is one children found immediately and many parents didn't until it was too late.

Capcom Interactive, Inc., the makers of "Smurfs' Village" are now warning consumers of the real-life charges associated with the game, most notably with a pop-up warning when the game is launched.

But there are plenty other apps for the iPod Touch or iPad that are free to download but have in-game purchase options that charge real money and have no pop-up warnings.

Some parents have balked at the the 15-minute password-free period loophole, but Capcom Interactive, Inc. and other app-makers say they have no control over that.

So what's a concerned parent to do? First, be wary of free apps. Since they're not charging anything to download the software, they're going to try to make money somehow.

Reading reviews on iTunes and online can be helpful, as some of the "upgrades" available are listed with how much they cost.

And while some free apps may offer the ability to disable these pricey "upgrades", it's probably safest to assume they can't be and gamers will have to play at their own risk. Even if they're barely in kindergarten.

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How Would You Like to Invest in Facebook Even Though It's Not a Publicly Traded Company?

The private equity secondary market lets you invest in private companies, but make sure you know what you’re really buying

How Would You Like to Invest in Facebook Even Though It’s Not a Publicly Traded Company?The private equity secondary market lets you invest in private ...

It's every investor's dream to get in on the ground floor of the next Google or Apple. Would you pass up the opportunity to buy stock in Facebook for $25 a share believing that once the hottest private company on the planet goes public those shares could be worth 10 to 20 times as much in a matter of months?

That's the enticing allure of the private equity market and its close cousin the private equity secondary market. It's where the big money investors play. And it's become very popular lately as news spreads that a recent auction of 165,000 private equity shares of Facebook sold for $25 a share.

You need at least $200,000 a year in reported income and a net worth of $1 million to qualify as a potential investor in this market and some firms put the bar even higher, at $5 million in investable assets, so unless you have any of those, stop drooling.

But if you do qualify, then see this article as a cautionary tale because there a few things you should know before dipping your toes, or tossing your hard-earned money, into a pool that just could be stocked with a school of hungry piranha.

Should you be among the fortunate few million Americans who actually qualify, you may have received an email recently from a private equity secondary market company.

For example, a friend of mine recently received an email from SharesPost telling her that its affiliated broker dealer has just completed a sealed bid auction of 165,000 shares of the Common Stock of Facebook for $25 a share. It said that if she was interested in participating in the next auction on January 10, 2011 as either a buyer or a seller to contact them. As expected, that auction is already over-subscribed, but not to worry, because Sharespost promises to have more throughout the year.

What's going on?

What you should worry about, however, is just what is really going on here? What are these so-called "shares" that investors are supposed to be buying? Are they actually shares of Facebook? Answer: Not always. So what are they? Answer: It depends, and it depends on a lot of things, all of which are completely out of your control and not that easy to explain, but we'll try.

First, let's look at what we do know.

Facebook CEO and Founder Mark Zuckerberg went on the CBS program 60 Minutes recently where he proclaimed that he prefers Facebook to remain a private company and has no plans to go public. Now one main reason to invest in private equity is to be able to recoup a substantial return when the company goes public. But if you take that possibility off the table, then what is it that you're investing in?

Greg Brogger, CEO of Sharespost, doesn't seem worried. He says all it means is that Facebook has decided to stay private a while longer simply because it can. Facebook reportedly has so much money already it doesn't really need any more. But there are other companies out there that may need the extra capital a public offering would bring. They just don't happen to be online companies or located in Silicon Valley.

In fact, Facebook and other online hot social networking firms like LinkedIn and Twitter, are fairly representative of the newer breed of online companies that have decided to remain private. This is a different world than what caused the tech bubble at the turn of the century when hundreds of high-tech IPOs flooded the market place. Last year, there were no online-company IPOs and in 2010, less than 10.

Valuation

One of the most difficult aspects of private equity investing is valuation. How do you really know how much a private equity share of a company is really worth when the value of the company is kept private?

Well-known high-tech analystHenry Blodget at Business Insider, who used to be with Merrill Lynch, thinks Facebook is now worth $56 billion. This is much higher than what SharesPost values it at, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of $35 billion. Even with Sharesposts number, only two other online companies are estimated to be worth more, Google and China's search leader Baidu, but both of those are traded publicly. So then, where does Sharespost get its figure?

There is an ocean of difference between publicly traded equities and those traded in the private equity secondary market. The main difference is in regulation. The private equity market is barely regulated and shares are not listed on any exchange. Some of that could change when the Financial Regulatory Authority, or FINRA, issues its new rules in July of 2011.

But for now, it is buyer beware and be prepared to lose everything. There are some regulations and restrictions to private equities. Most are offered to individual investors under the Securities and Exchange Commission's (SEC's) Rule 506, which allows sales to what it considers accredited investors who have a net worth of $1 million or $200,000 in annual income and Rule 144 that restricts how these shares are sold.

Rule 506 assumes that accredited investors have the sophistication to evaluate private equity investments. That's one heck of an assumption. I know quite a few millionaires and people who earn north of $200,000 a year that couldn't tell the difference between commercial paper and toilet paper, let alone be able know if a share of a private equity offering is worth what it claims.

A better way to judge financial sophistication would be to give them all a test to accurately gauge their financial literacy before allowing them entry into a world of deranged derivatives, strangely structured products and pretentious private placements that often value themselves.

How can anyone expect some 19-year-old basketball player who just received a $5 million signing bonus to know how any of this works when so few within the financial services world even know?

The recent financial overhaul bill enacted in last July directs the SEC to exclude primary residences from the net worth calculation and to study the accredited investor standards. But right now neither the SEC nor state regulators review private equity firms to make sure they aren't taking advantage of wealthy investors who have no idea what they're getting in to. FINRA says complaints about private placements have jumped 35% this year, on top of a more than 50% increase in 2009.

Distinct disadvantage

Granted, most private equity offerings are not fraudulent and can be lucrative for some investors; otherwise the market for them wouldn't be so attractive. Even a casino has to have some winners or no one would place any bets. Still, the lack of information in these markets will put you at a distinct disadvantage, especially since there's not enough disclosure to even reveal the risks involved.

For example, private placement investors lost more than $1 billion in a company called Medical Capital, which offered financing to health-care providers. An oil and gas investment firm named Provident Royalties took private investors for close to half a billion, according to SEC estimates. The SEC says both firms, which are in receivership, made misrepresentations and misappropriated money.

Getting back to Facebook. It's easy to see why there's a feeding frenzy in the secondary private equity market. It has 500 million members and growing daily on a global basis. Just remember, Facebook isn't available in China yet, but Mark Zuckerberg traveled there recently hoping to change all that. So any day now, that 500 million member number could triple.

There are estimates that Facebook generates around $2 billion a year in revenue. But how can we even know that? The company is private so it doesn't have to tell anyone how much it makes except perhaps the IRS.

Recently an issue was raised about whether Facebook needs to be concerned about crossing what's known as the 499-shareholder line. That refers to an SEC rule that states once a private company has 500 shareholders, it has to disclose its financials. So if Facebook has less than 500 real shareholders, what are these other shareholders holding?

Shares in what?

To answer that we need to shed some light on the murky world of the private equity secondary market where you can buy and sell so-called shares of private companies. But what are these shares anyway? Even if they're called "common stock," legally, they're known as pre-existing investor commitments to private equity and other alternative investment funds. Sellers of private equity investments sell not only the investments in the fund but also their remaining unfunded commitments to the funds. What does that mean? What's an unfunded commitment?

There are a number of restrictions imposed on the sale of private equities by Rule 144 that say you have to hold these shares for at least two years before you can sell them and there are further restrictions on who you can sell them to.

Companies like Sharespost.com and its chief competitor, Secondmarket.com, seem to be taking advantage of an SEC rule change that relaxed some of the restrictions on selling shares of private companies.

If you look on SharesPost.com/s website and go to its Legal page you'll read that, "Though each participant in a SharesPost facilitated contract is solely responsible for making their own legal determination about the availability of an exemption from the securities laws, we believe we have constructed the SharesPost process such that Buyer and Seller can generally make use of a section exemption them from Rule 144. Supporting such an exemption is the fact that only SharesPost members with a password protected account are able to participate in postings, only accredited investors can be SharesPost Buyers, and only sellers holding their shares for at least a year can be SharesPost Sellers."

If I'm reading it correctly, SharesPost is trying to say that most investors will qualify under a safe harbor provision in Rule 144. The requirements listed seem focused on meeting the holding periods in Rule 144 and ensuring that this is not a public distribution but a re-sale to specific buyers who pass the sniff test when it comes to being a sophisticated investor.

What's at stake?

So what's at stake here for a company like Facebook? First, re-sales of private equity in the company can threaten to bring the number of shareholders to over 500, triggering full-fledged registration requirements under the SEC. Second, issuers seem to be worried about potential insider trading problems, which prompted Facebook to ban its employees from selling shares on SharesPost.com except during certain windows.

Facebook employees reportedly had sold some of their private Facebook stock to Digital Sky Technologies (DST). It was rumored that after the sale Facebook assigned its rights of first refusal over future secondary sales to DST as well to restrict the number of future shareholders.

You should know that by their nature, most private equities are illiquid. That means, they're not made to be traded but rather held as a long-term investment. For the vast majority of private equity investments, there is no market. There is however, a growing and robust secondary market for sellers of private equity assets.

Now here's a question. Why would any smart private equity investor sell his or her share of Facebook? Answer: chances are they probably wouldn't.

So where are all these so-called "shares" coming from? Since there is no one regulating these things they can come from a number of sources. They could be employees selling their shares or it could involve the sale of private equity fund interests, or portfolios of direct investments in privately held companies through the purchase of these investments from existing institutional investors seeking to diversify their portfolio.

Investments in the secondary private equity market are often made through a third party fund vehicle. Here's where it gets real tricky. These funds are structured like a fund of funds which means they really are investing in another fund that in turns invests in the private company. They are, in a sense, derivatives.

Besides Sharespost, there are a number of secondary market providers including the previously mentioned SecondMarket, which bills itself as "the largest secondary market for illiquid assets." SecondMarket started selling private startup stock in 2008 when one Facebook private equity shareholder asked if SecondMarket could find him a buyer. To say this is a relatively young market is to state the obvious.

SecondMarket says it began facilitating private company stock sales on a regular basis in April of 2009. It claims to have completed $150 to $200 million in private company transactions since then. SecondMarket currently has over $280 million of private company stock listed for sale. For the right buyers, it has over $1 billion worth of private company stock "available" for sale.

The distinction between "listed" and "available" arises out of the fact that while every shareholder has a price, not every shareholder wants to publicly disclose that price. So SecondMarket tries to find out those prices and keep an eye out for potential buyers.

'Sure bets'

Buying shares in hot companies like Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter would seem like sure bets, until they're not. Let's say you own 1% of a company that gets bought for $100. How much of the purchase price is yours? In the case of today's widely publicized tech startups, the answer might be "none."

You've probably never heard the term "liquidation preferences." That ignorance could be expensive if you're thinking about buying shares in companies like Facebook and Twitter on the secondary market.

A liquidation preference is a right given to a startup's early investors, who are typically venture capitalists. If the company is acquired, investors with those preferred shares get the first slice of the proceeds. Common shareholders are in the back of the line and they collect what's left after all liquidation preferences are paid off. That means they could get nothing if a company sells for less than was invested in it.

That's what happened with software maker AmberPoint in February, when Oracle bought it for a reported $50 million. Common private equity shareholders didn't make a cent. For them it was as bad as if there had been a bankruptcy.

Since private companies have no reporting obligations, it's a challenge for potential investors to figure out the liquidity preferences involved in these stocks. There are an estimated 150 pre-IPO companies listed on SharesPost.

But Larry Albukerk, who advises SharesPost customers about social media stocks, says the reports vary in their reliability about liquidation preferences. For example, in a report on SharesPost for Zynga, the social gaming company, the title of a chapter involving liquidation preferences admits that it's "just a total guess."

All this means that investors on secondary markets looking to get in early on the next YouTube, which was bought by Google for $1.6 billion, may be taking on more risk than they realize.

Scott Sandell, general partner with the venture capital firm of New Enterprise Associates, says he's often shocked at the prices being paid on secondary markets for some of the startups that he's invested in as a venture capitalist. He says some people are paying valuations that are completely absurd.

So where does this leave us? There is a secondary market for private equity in companies like Facebook, but it is extremely risky and nearly unregulated. Sharespost.com is not registered with the SEC or FINRA and therefore answers to no regulator body.

You are then enticed to invest in a private equity fund, that in turn, could invest in another private equity fund or some kind of equity arrangement, but any valuation such as suggested share price is pure speculation. It's a guess, based on, well, nothing.

Betting on hype

Sharespost has auctions of these shares that seem like great bets but what are you really betting on? You're betting on all the hype surrounding companies like Facebook. They talk about future IPOs but no one can even predict if there will even be an IPO. In the case of Facebook, even the CEO says there won't.

Still, you enter an auction and bid on some shares and you think you own a percentage of something. But how much is your percentage actually worth? Even with a company like Facebook with an estimated $35 billion dollar valuation, your percentage could amount to zero when you try to cash it out.

As for SharesPost, this is a free membership service that has created stock purchase agreements for most variations of private company stock transactions. It claims to have designed its forms to be straightforward and balanced between Buyer and Seller.

When a member wants to buy or sell his or her private equity shares they have to answer a series of questions such as whether their shares are subject to a stockholders' agreement, right of first refusal, co-sale right or other transfer restriction. If they are, the seller uploads the documents containing the transfer restrictions so that prospective buyers can understand the restrictions that will be applicable to any transaction.

Once the member has reviewed their post, they click "Confirm" and their post goes live on the website. When a member clicks the "Agree to Buy" or "Agree to Sell" link next to a post, the SharesPost system asks them the same questions about their standing under the securities laws.

When a Seller posts a contract to sell, the following process occurs. Her or she:

  • Inputs their desired terms such as price and number of shares

  • Answers questions relevant to the securities laws

  • Indicates which restrictions, if any, are applicable to their shares

  • Uploads documents containing any restrictions

  • Reviews and confirms post.

Then any prospective buyer reviews the post and transfer restrictions and if the buyer clicks "Agree to Buy" next to seller's post, he or she must:

  • Answer questions relevant to the securities laws and suggest a contract for transaction

  • Review and electronically sign contract

  • Email link to page where they reviewed and counter-signed contract

Now binding agreement is emailed to U.S. Bank for processing of transaction

When a Buyer posts a contract to buy, the following process occurs:

  • Buyer answers questions relevant to the securities laws

  • Buyer reviews and confirms post

  • Prospective sellers review post

  • Seller clicks "Agree to Sell" next to buyer's post

  • Seller answers questions relevant to the securities laws

  • Seller indicates which transfer restrictions, if any, are applicable to their shares

  • Seller uploads documents containing any restrictions

  • SharesPost suggests a contract for transaction

  • Seller reviews and electronically signs contract

  • Buyer emails link to page where they review and counter-sign contract

  • Now binding agreement is emailed to U.S. Bank for processing of transaction

  • Buyer inputs their desired terms such as price and number of shares.

Not so simple is it? Investing in the public markets is tricky enough but to play in the land of private equity you should probably have an advanced MBA. That, or be a really good card counter, although I don't think that skill will help you much in this casino

There are a lot of gullible rich people out there looking to make a killing and when they hear about getting in on the ground floor of a hot company or being able to invest in Facebook, well, what can I say. It's a little like cattle being led blindly down the chute to slaughter.

On the other hand, you could just hit the jackpot. So step and place your bets. The wheel is spinning. And where it stops, nobody knows.


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Frozen Pizzas Fare Well In Taste Tests

DiGiorno, Amy’s and Home Run Inn win Consumer Reports recommendations

Frozen Pizzas Fare Well In Taste TestsDiGiorno, Amy’s and Home Run Inn win Consumer Reports recommendations...

It's hard to beat the combination of pizza and football, particularly with the college bowls cranking up and the NFL playoffs just weeks away.

Now, you can order out -- often for a premium price -- or you can hit the supermarket and pick up a frozen pie. But, can frozen pizza truly satisfy?

Frozen versus pizzeria

After buying and baking more than 100 cheese pies, Consumer Reports found that, yes -- frozen pizza can satisfy. Amy's Cornmeal Crust 3 Cheese, Home Run Inn Classic and DiGiorno Rising Crust Four Cheese all garnered a CR Best Buy -- leading the ratings.

The best frozen pizzas, a trio of very different but very good pies, included the artisanal Amy's Cornmeal Crust 3 Cheese, the priciest pie tested at $7.99. Amy's won points for its combination of fresh-tasting vegetables, herbs, and dollops of goat cheese over a flavorful cornmeal crust.

The Chicago-style Home Run Inn Classic Cheese, $7.42, features a generous blanket of tasty cheese and abundant sauce over a pastry-style crust. The Italian-style DiGiorno Rising Crust Four Cheese, $6.47, has lots of cheese and sauce over a thick, chewy crust.

Could be better

But Consumer Reports found room for improvement, since no pies were excellent. Shoppers shouldn't buy by brand, CR says, noting that its Best Buy DiGiorno pie scored higher than the other DiGiorno pies tested. The same was true of the Red Baron pizzas tested.

"Frozen pizzas are convenient and more cost effective than a pizzeria and according to our tests, they can also offer quality," said a Consumer Reports expert.  "Shoppers should take into account more than just price when purchasing, ingredients and nutritional components factor into the overall experience."

Testing the pies

In Consumer Reports' frozen pizza taste test, cheese pies were the focus.  They are one of the most popular types, according to the National Frozen Pizza Institute, a trade organization. Seven trained CR sensory panelists tasted each brand three times in an order designed to eliminate bias. They didn't know which pizza they tasted and all samples were coded with three-digit numbers. Testers graded crust, cheese, and sauce separately then also gave an overall impression of each pie.

The frozen pizzas were also rated based on nutrition. All brands scored adequately, but Consumer Reports discovered quite a range in calories (260 to 380), fat (9 to 18 grams), saturated fat (3.5 to 9 grams), and sodium (570 to 870 milligrams) per serving.

Top-rated Amy's stood out as the lowest in saturated fat and among the lowest in sodium, while Red Baron Fire Baked scored Fair because it was among the highest in calories, total fat, and saturated fat. Consumer Reports ratings are based on manufacturer's suggested serving size.

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Cold Weather Tips For Your Mobile Phone

How to keep your smartphone working in frigid temperatures

Baby, it's cold outside, which is why you need to keep your mobile phone in a warm place....

Extreme weather can be hard on sophisticated electronics devices, including your smartphone. So with winter placing much of the country in the deep freeze, are there things you should be doing to protect your mobile device?

Verizon Wireless has offered a few tips to help consumers use their wireless phones when it's cold outside. For starters, the carrier says, keep your phone fully charged.

Cold temperatures can run down the phone's battery charge more quickly.  Use a car charger to keep the phone's charge if you get stranded or stuck in traffic on icy or snowy roads.  Think about an extra battery as backup.

Handle your phone with extra care when the temperature falls.  The display screen can become brittle when exposed to cold temperatures for long periods of time. It could be more susceptible to cracking.

When you are outside for extended periods, keep your phone in a warm place. Avoid leaving it in an outside pocket or backpack or in the car overnight.  When outside in the cold weather, carry your phone in an inside jacket pocket, keeping it close to your body for warmth.

Remember you can't dial or access the keyboard on a touch screen with gloves, so consider adding finger flip gloves to your winter holiday wish list.

Droid apps

For users of Android phones, Verizon says it offers a number of free winter apps from Android Market, such as:

  • Winter Weather Outlooks; Allows you access to the National Weather Service Winter Weather Outlooks, so you'll know what kind of winter weather is headed your way.

  • How Cold Is It? A wallpaper that changes color depending on the outside temperature; deep red when it's hot and icy white when it's freezing.

  • ShoppeHUB; This app allows you to make secure purchases on cold weather gear, including winter clothing.  
  •  Coffee Recipes; Choose from more than 90 easy coffee recipes that will be sure to keep you warm.

 

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Unemployment Benefits Extension Won't Help Long-Term Jobless

Extended unemployment benefits end at 99 weeks, leaving 1 million out of luck

With passage of the tax bill unemployment benefits that were due expire have been extended but if you’ve been out of work more than 99 weeks it won’t h...

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Latest Trend Among the Fashion-Conscious: Renting Designer Clothes

It's the latest way of being fashionable without breaking the bank

Renting designer clothes is the latest way of becoming fashionable without breaking the bank ...

Some people are probably going to gag at the thought of this, but have you ever considered renting a piece of clothing instead of buying it? After all, we rent apartments and cars, sometimes furniture and Blue-ray DVDs. So why not clothes.

Men have been renting tuxedos since that first junior prom. But what if you had been invited to a fancy social event and you just didn't have an extra $1,500 lying around to buy a new evening gown? What if I said you could go online and rent a $1,500 gown for $200?

Well you can and there are plenty of women out there who are already going to renttherunway.com to grab the latest fashions created by the hottest designers at a fraction of their retail price so they can wear them while they're, well, still in fashion.

How often would you wear a dress like that anyway? There aren't that many places you could go. So why not save hundreds of dollars and still keep your closets from getting over-stocked.

RentTheRunway.com rents thousands of dresses for a four- or eight-day period. The dresses are geared toward special occasions or limited use wear for those on a budget and the rental prices run about 80% off the retail price.

You'll find dresses from such designers as Nicole Miller and Proenza Schouler. New styles come in all the time and when a dress has been on the racks too long, they're put up for sale at 65% off. You can find these dresses on the clearance section of the website.

The dresses are organized on the site by style, designer, or occasions like a winter wedding, a girls-night-out or this-is-getting-to-be-serious-date. You select the dress and schedule a delivery date.

It helps to live in cities like New York City where you can get the dress that day. Otherwise it will be sent overnight.

If you're worried about the fit, the company sends the dress in two sizes and takes care of the dry cleaning afterward. Renting a dress requires signing up for a free membership, and then paying for the rental, $5 insurance, shipping and any taxes that may apply.

In the short time it's been up, renttherunway.com already has 600,000 members and it went live during the height of the recession when people were cutting back on their clothes budget.

This year, Rent The Runway says it's having its busiest season ever. A similar site is Bag Borrow or Steal which rents designer handbags and accessories. Since launching in 2004, it has over 2 million members in the U.S. alone. They rent luxury bags, jewelry, sunglasses and watches from high-end designers like Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Prada.

Now, you're all set for that fancy New Year's Eve party with some money left over to rent a limousine for the night.

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Arizona Charges Bank of America with Mortgage Fraud

Bank has shown 'callous disregard for devastating effects' of its practices, suit charges

Arizona Charges Bank of America with Mortgage Fraud. Bank has shown 'callous disregard for devastating effects' of its practices, suit charges....

Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard today filed a lawsuit against Bank of America alleging violations of the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act and violations of the consent judgment entered in March 2009 between Arizona and the Countrywide companies owned by BofA.

The lawsuit, filed in Maricopa County Superior Court, was triggered by hundreds of consumer complaints and follows a year-long investigation into Bank of America's residential mortgage servicing practices, particularly its loan modification and foreclosure practices.

Goddard said that Bank of America, the nation's largest residential mortgage loan servicer, should be leading the way out of the country's foreclosure crisis.

Instead, he said, "Bank of America has been the slowest of all the servicers to ramp up loss mitigation efforts in response to the housing crisis. It has shown callous disregard for the devastating effects its servicing practices have had on individual borrowers and on the economy as a whole.”

The complaint asks the court to hold the defendants in contempt for violating the consent judgment and to order them to pay restitution to eligible consumers and civil penalties, attorneys' fees, and costs of investigation to the state. It further asks the court to order the defendants to pay up to $25,000 for each violation of the consent judgment and up to $10,000 for each violation of the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act.

Goddard noted that Arizona has been particularly hard hit by the foreclosure crisis, as evidenced by recent reports ranking the state second behind Nevada in foreclosures. Nevada reportedly plans to file a similar lawsuit against Bank of America today.

The consent judgment was entered into on March 13, 2009 to resolve the Attorney General's allegations that Countrywide had engaged in widespread consumer fraud in originating and marketing mortgage loans.

In the judgment, Countrywide agreed to develop and implement a loan modification program for certain former Countrywide borrowers in Arizona.  Bank of America acquired Countrywide on July 1, 2008 and has assumed responsibility for Countrywide's compliance with the consent judgment.

The complaint filed today alleges that, since the consent judgment was entered, Bank of America has repeatedly violated the judgment's provisions related to loan modifications.  Instead of providing the relief to which eligible homeowners were entitled, Bank of America has failed to make timely decisions on modification requests and proceeded with foreclosures while modification requests were pending in violation of the agreement.

The complaint also alleges that Bank of America has violated the Consumer Fraud Act by misleading Arizona consumers about its loss mitigation process and programs, including matters such as:

-- Whether homeowners must be delinquent on their mortgage payments to be considered for a loan modification.

-- How much time it would take to receive a decision from Bank of America on a modification request or a short sale request.

-- Whether foreclosure would proceed while a modification or short sale request was pending, or while a homeowner was making trial payments.

-- Whether the homeowner had been approved for a loan modification.

-- Failure to provide valid reasons why the homeowner was declined for a modification.

-- Whether the homeowner would be approved for a permanent modification if the consumer successfully made all trial modification payments.

As a result of Bank of America's deceptive practices, many homeowners who were already contending with other financial hardships have been led to unnecessarily deplete their dwindling savings in futile attempts to obtain the promised relief and save their homes, Goddard said.  

Many homeowners who tried to obtain a modification from Bank of America ended up owing more principal on their loans or having less equity (becoming more "underwater”) in their homes.  Others gave up their chances to pursue other financial options, such as short sales, while trying to modify their loans with Bank of America.

These consumers endured months of frustrating delays, not knowing whether or when they would lose their homes, Goddard charged. He said they called Bank of America and resubmitted their paperwork over and over again in futile efforts to get the help they were promised.

"I am filing this lawsuit today because, after years of delay and broken promises, Arizonans should not have to wait any longer to seek redress,” Goddard said.  "Our homeowners and communities need and deserve relief. Bank of America must be held accountable for its deceptive conduct and failed commitments.”

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Watch Out For Employment Scams In New Year

Some ways you can tell a real job opportunity from a scam

With millions looking for work, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning offers some advice for avoiding the growing number of job scams....

With the unemployment rate hovering near 10 percent, many people will likely make getting a job a prime New Year's resolution for 2011. They should be careful, however, not to fall for a scam that promises a job, for a fee.

Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning has posted some guidelines on his website to help consumers avoid some of these scams, that prey on desperation and have multiplied since the start of the recession.

For starters, never, ever agree to pay a fee for the chance to interview for a job. If you applied at a Fortune 500 company,  how would you react if the interviewer asked you to pay $50 or $100 to land the job, for starter materials, or for a "good faith" payment to make sure you were serious about the job?

Chances are, you wouldn't consider it, which is good advice if someone who contacts you using the Internet does the same thing.

"Whenever you're asked to pay for the chance at a job, or information about work-fromhome jobs, it's a scam,” Bruning says.

Also, check out the business before you apply, especially if you've never heard of it before. Make sure they have a physical address and a phone number. Call to make sure it's a real phone number. Do an Internet search to see if you can find any positive or negative comments.

While asking for an upfront fee is a dead giveaway that the job is part of a scam, here are some other red flags, according to Bruning:

  • The company uses free Web hosting services (such as Tripod or Geocities).
  • They use free Web email services (such as Yahoo! Mail or Hotmail).
  • They use Post Office boxes for mailings and don't disclose their real addresses.
  • They won't give you a telephone number where you can contact them.

You should also beware of vague and incredible claims. A company that doesn't state its name, costs, or other important information in their ads usually has a good reason to do so. It's a scam.

Some offers claim that you can "make up to $1,000 a week" doing just a few hours worth of unskilled work. Really? If the pay is that good, why isn't the recruiter doing it, instead of giving you the opportunity?

Don't let scammers use high-pressure tactics to sucker you in. If you're given a timelimited offer, there's usually a reason why. Scammers know that pressure brings in people.

Never reply to spam. Fraudulent offers for home-based businesses or work-at-home opportunities almost always arrive as spam. The better it sounds, the less likely that it's legitimate.

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Study Reveals Parents' Growing Concern Over Kids' Internet Use

Children spend more time online, less time with family and friends, says new research

Study Reveals Parents' Growing Concern Over Kids' Internet Use Children spend more time online, less time with family and friends, says new research...

There's no arguing the Internet has made life easier for many families. But as more people, especially children, embrace social networking, the Web could pose a threat to face-time between family members and kids with their friends.

A new survey by the Center for the Digital Future, at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California reveals parents' growing concern about the amount of time their kids spend online.

Many are starting to view the Internet in the same way they view television: too much is not okay.

Researchers at the Center report parents are now limiting their children's Internet access and television use in nearly identical ways.

Three in five American households restrict television use as a punishment, a figure that's hardly budged over the past decade. Restricting children's Internet use as a form of punishment has steadily increased over the years and is now a practice in 57 percent of the nation's homes with children under 18.

Less facetime

The survey also revealed eleven percent of parents with children under 18 worry the Internet is reducing the amount of face-time their kids have with friends. This concern has grown in the last decade; only seven percent of parents had this fear when the Center's surveys began in 2000.

And it's not just time with friends that's suffering; the 2010 surveys report family face-time is suffering because of Internet use, too.

From an average of 26 hours per week during the first half of the decade, family face-time had fallen to just under 18 hours per week by 2010.

Michael Gilbert, a senior fellow at the Center, whose work is focused on gender and family issues, believes online community involvements are playing a significant role in reducing family time.

He points to Center surveys which, since 2006, indicate roughly half of those involved with an online community value it as highly as their real world ones.

While Gilbert believes Americans' growing attachment to social networks and the increased time they often demand is to blame for dwindling face-time between family members, there's really no way to determine who or what is to blame.

"With all the digital diversions out there, it's hard to pin this on any one thing." said Gilbert.

Dr. Jeffrey Cole, the Center's director, says recent expressions of parental disenchantment with the Internet confirm the Center's earlier predictions.

He notes that, while families have traditionally turned technological advances, such as the telephone and television, to their advantage, the interactive demands of digital technologies and social networking threaten to put inordinate stress on the modern family.

Interestingly, while parents' concerns over their children's Web use grows, many still consider it the lesser of two evils compared to television.

Sixty-nine percent of parents said the time their kids spent online was "just about right" as opposed to the 57 percent who said the same about television.  Only 28 percent of parents thought their children spent too much time on the Internet, against 41 percent who thought television time was excessive.

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Feds Propose Rule To Limit Debit Card 'Swipe' Fees

Retailers say rule would benefit consumers; banks beg to differ

The Federal Reserve has proposed a new rule establishing new standards for debit card interchange fees....

In a win for retailers, and perhaps consumers, the Federal Reserve has proposed a new rule that would establish debit card interchange fee standards and prohibit network exclusivity arrangements and routing restrictions.

As a result, those "swipe" fees could drop as much as 90 percent, according to industry analysts. The interchange fee is what the business pays the credit card network each time a customer uses a debit card. The new Fed proposal would cap them at 12 cents per transaction.

The Fed has requested comment on its proposed rule, which would be implemented as part of the recently passed financial reform legislation.

New standards

The rule would establish standards for determining whether a debit card interchange fee received by a card issuer is reasonable and proportional to the cost incurred by the issuer for the transaction. These standards would apply to issuers that, together with their affiliates, have assets of $10 billion or more. Certain payment programs administered by the government would be exempt from the interchange fee limitations.

The Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), an industry group, was quick to offer its comment through a statement to the media.

"Although Federal Reserve's proposal is not entirely conclusive, it does validate the long-held claims of merchants and consumers that the electronic payments market is broken and needs to be fixed," said Katherine Lugar, executive vice-president for public affairs for the group. "Today's announcement is a step forward for the effort to bring relief to merchants and consumers who for too long have faced excessive fees and unfair rules imposed by big banks and credit card companies."

'Savings for consumers'

Lugar also said the proposal "will undoubtedly result in savings for consumers."

The Electronic Payments Coaltionrepresenting banks and payment networks, said the rule would end up costing consumers, claiming big chain stores would likely pocket the savings.

"With 81 percent of all debit card dollars being spent at the top 1.5 percent of retailers, these big box stores could reap upwards of $13 billion as a result of this proposed rule, money that will directly hit consumers in the form of higher costs to own and use a debit card," the group said in a statement.

The Fed is requesting comment on two alternative interchange fee standards that would apply to all covered issuers: one based on each issuer's costs, with a safe harbor (initially set at 7 cents per transaction) and a cap (initially set at 12 cents per transaction); and the other a stand-alone cap (initially set at 12 cents per transaction).

Under both alternatives, circumvention or evasion of the interchange fee limitations would be prohibited. The Board also is requesting comment on possible frameworks for an adjustment to the interchange fees to reflect certain issuer costs associated with fraud prevention.

While banks stand to lose profits on the proposed new rule, analysts say they would be free to make up that revenue by phasing out rewards programs on debit cards and even charging some customers a fee for using them.

If the Board adopts either of these proposed standards in the final rule, the maximum allowable interchange fee received by covered issuers for debit card transactions would be more than 70 percent lower than the 2009 average, once the new rule takes effect on July 21, 2011.
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Who Is Your Financial Advisor Working For? Really?

Signs your financial advisor is putting themselves ahead of your financial well-being

If you’re looking for a financial advisor here are some signs to showing that advisor will put their own financial well-being before yours...

There's one thing all great financial advisors have in common. They put their clients' interests ahead of their own. They also listen to what you have to say rather than wait until you stop talking just so they can tell you how they're going to manage and invest your money.

For the uninitiated it's often hard to tell whether your advisor is actually giving good advice or just spouting off what he or she thinks you want to hear. After working with financial advisors for 15 years, I can tell you that there is indeed a great deal of difference and there are ways to weed out those who may be putting their interests ahead of yours.

So whether you are questioning the motives of the financial advisor you already have or are looking for a financial advisor you can trust, here are some questions that could extract their hidden agendas that may not be in line with your financial goals.

Question 1. How exactly do you get paid?

This question should immediately trigger a reaction that could separate the honest financial advisors from the shills just out to make a buck and could care less about your portfolio. You need to be careful if they immediately answer this question by saying "I make money when you make money." If that's their answer, your following question should be, "Does that also mean when I lose money, you'll lose money too?"

There are generally five ways a financial advisor is compensated and many make their money through a combination of some or of all five. They can be strictly on salary, which is becoming more rare these days, or they can be paid on commission, on an hourly basis, a flat fee, or on a percentage of your assets under their guidance.

How they are paid is actually not as important as whether the advice they give you is based on what's best for you or driven by how much they can make from it. Therefore, if commissions are involved in any way, you have every right to be suspicious. It means that they could be investing your money in specific devices such as mutual funds, ETFs or structured products that they are compensated for.

Financial advice should be free from any conflicts of interest.

Advisors that charge a flat fee or on an hourly basis like lawyers, might seem expensive at first, but if their advice is sound and your portfolio grows, it should more than compensate for that fee. If the advisor is compensated on the size of your assets, watch out. This is similar to commissions, only in a less direct manner. Here, they can put you into mutual funds or ETFs and sit back and watch your investments grow without lifting a finger and still make money. Basically, all they're doing is something you could have done yourself and saved the money.

Question 2. More important than how a financial advisor is paid is actually how they conduct their business with you. Are they transaction oriented -- do they try to put you into the latest hot stock or fund and do a lot of trading on your behalf just to generate performance, or are they more interested in developing a long-term relationship and learning as much as they can about the way you're wired when it comes to investing, or what keeps you up at night?

Advisors who simply want you to turn over all the thinking and strategizing to them are advisors you want to stay away from or move away from if you're already doing business with them. These are the "get a hunch, buy a bunch" stock-jockeys who are obsessed with stock picking, and who ignore such important issues as risk tolerance.

They'll use words like "this is a sure thing" or "I can get you in at the bottom and we can ride this baby to the top." One to particularly be wary of is, "I've got an exclusive access to this investment." You want someone who understands that you would rather not lose money than make money when it comes to investing, or that daily gyrations in the stock market are fine with you as long as over the long term, the share price inches up.

Question 3. Ask them what all those certificates on their walls mean.

Unfortunately, the agencies tasked with overseeing this industry have a poor track record for weeding out the crooks. Can anyone say Madoff? Also, in most states, anyone can put up a shingle that says "Financial Planner." It's sort of like the word "Therapist."

So you need to do some investigating and to check out their certificates to make sure they are backed by legitimate or official designations. You want to look for titles such as CFP, which stands for certified financial planner, or ChFC, which is a chartered financial consultant, or the most widely known, CPA for certified public accountant, who has a specialty designation as a PFS, which stands for personal financial specialist.

These designations won't guarantee this person is good for your or even any good at what they do, but they do show he or she has had at least extensive training and experience.

Another thing you should do is find out whether there are any public disciplinary actions against them and how they were resolved. You do this by going to the FINRA BrokerCheck database.

Just remember that even good financial advisors can have a few disputes on their record. Start to worry, however, when there's more than five. Your state securities regulator might also provide background information on registered advisors.

Question 4. Do they have the proper registration forms on file?

This may sound like an unusual question to ask any professional, but in the case of a financial advisor, you want to stay away from anyone who's not registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) or the state securities agency. This is easily verified by asking to see their Form ADV, which is filed with the SEC and discloses the advisor's education and business background, compensation, and investment methodology. If they manage less than $25 million in assets, they often must disclose similar information with their own state's security agency.

In the same vein, any advisor who is allowed to sell securities will have what's called a Central Registration Depository (CRD) file. You can get CRD information through your state's securities agency and it provides a 10-year history, including any disciplinary actions taken against that person.

Question 5. You probably don't want someone who's fresh out of business school or financial advisor training. You want someone who has some experience under their belts. So ask them how long they've been doing business as a financial advisor. Don't let the gray hair fool you. For many advisors, this is a second or third career.

Question 6. Ask for references. Then go to these people and ask them what they didn't like about the services they received, or in which areas they think their advisor isn't as strong in as others.

Question 7. If you are looking for an advisor, you'll want to know how they work. So find out how often you expect to meet and will this be in person or over the phone. Obviously, most interactions will be by phone or email, but in the beginning you'll want at least two or maybe more in-person meetings, and then at least one in-person meeting a year, maybe more.

You'll also want to know that after you give them all your financial information along with any other information they might need, how much time will it take before you receive an assessment or a financial plan.

What form will this plan take? How will you execute it? A financial plan is like a doctor's prescription. If you don't follow it, you won't get better. And if you don't follow the financial plan your advisor has come up with, you won't reach your financial goals, which should be agreed to at the outset.

Question 8. This is a question to ask yourself. How do you feel about the advisor? Do you trust them? Does he or she make sure you understand what they're talking about or do they speak in financial jargon that only a CPA or an MBA would be able to grasp?

Does he or she care about how you feel and that you understand everything they are saying. If not, find someone else because no matter how good their advice seem now, one day you're going to look back and wonder "what happened."

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Should You Use a Lender's Club for a Loan?

Do you even know what a lender’s club is?

Lending clubs that match people willing to lend money with those who need to borrow it appear to be growing. Could this mean the end of loan sharking? ...

Loan sharks take note. There's a new lender in town and they don't break your legs when you get behind on your payments. Lending clubs, or what used to be known as peer-to-peer lending, appear to be growing in popularity as banks remain stingy with their credit and only loan money to those with pristine credit and high FICO scores.

Peer-to-peer lending began as a way for cash-strapped entrepreneurs to start a new businesses, expand an old one, or for people trying to consolidate their high-interest credit card debt (the new loan shark) but don't have credit scores high enough to get a home equity loan.

So they find a peer-to-peer lending group that will let them rollover their credit card balances that are charging anywhere from 14% to 29% into loans that charge 11%.

One such place is appropriately called the Lending Club at www.lendingclub.com. Over the past three years, it has matched 23,000 lenders with 18,500 borrowers. It has a total outstanding balance of $179 million, which is small potatoes when compared to banks and credit cards.

Lending Club was founded by Renaud Laplanche in 2007. It was one of Facebook's first applications, which helped attract mostly young borrowers who had poor credit histories or no histories at all.

Today, Lending Club is one of a number of peer-to-peer lenders who fill the gap created between banks loaning to only those with a great credit history and the millions of others who don't but who still need to borrow money. Another peer-to-peer lender is a company called Prosper at www.prosper.com. It holds competitive auctions in which lenders bid to offer borrowers the lowest interest rates. It claims to have over 900,000 borrowers.

35 categories

Lending Club puts potential borrowers into 35 categories or levels based on their credit histories and other data. To qualify, a borrower must have a minimum FICO score of 660, a debt-to-income ratio (excluding mortgage debt) of less than 25% and no current delinquencies, recent bankruptcies or tax liens. They're not completely stupid. In fact, Lending Club rejects roughly 90% of prospective borrowers.

Creditors can choose which individuals to lend to and commit as little as $25 to loans whose total values range between $1,000 and $25,000. They can also become creditors in baskets of loans to debtors of various risk levels.

Lending Club charges borrowers upfront fees and pockets a spread between the interest lenders earn and the higher rates that borrowers pay. It expects to earn $7 million this year and triple that in 2011.

One of the lenders, Craig Jones, is a venture capitalist, who joined the club while waiting for the IPO market to return. In the meantime, he puts up $1.2 million, or one-fifth of his investment portfolio, to be used as loans.

How's he making out? When you compare the return you get to a high-yielding bond, let's say a five year B-rated corporate bond that pays 7.5%, with defaults averaging 3.4%, lenders at the lending club earn on overage 9.6% once you strip away defaults and the lending club's take, according to Laplanche. These days, that's not a bad return.

 

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What the Bill Extending the Bush Tax Cuts Means To You

Other provisions in the 1,900-plus page opus could touch your financial life

The compromise bill extending the Bush Tax cuts has been finally passed, but what it means for you depends on a number of factors...

The television pundits are still arguing over whether it was a tax cut bill or an extension of current taxes bill. Well, it turns out they're both right.

The 1,900 page bill that finally made its way through congress extended the Bush tax cuts but also cut taxes by lowering the payroll tax for all workers by two percentage points.

Is it a win-win? That depends on with whom you speak. While it extends the cuts for everyone including the super-rich, it also leaves has its share of losers.

Winners and losers

The biggest winners appear to be individual taxpayers who would have seen their taxes rise if the measure hadn't passed. On the other hand, some bond investors could take a hit if the bill triggers a sell-off in U.S. Treasuries.

The reason that might happen is that earlier this month, Moody's Investment Service said the tax cut extension bill increases the possibility it would put out a negative outlook on the government's AAA credit rating because the bill increases the nation's debt by more than $800 billion.

There also are some things that got dropped in the compromise legislation. A provision that would have taxed earnings of hedge and private equity fund executives as income rather than capital gains was left out. But so was language that would have helped small business owners by removing a requirement that they issue 1099 forms to any vendor that receives at least $600 a year.

Individual benefits

As for individual income and payroll taxes, the bill extends the Bush-era tax rates that were enacted earlier in the decade. This basically prevents taxes from rising to pre-2001 levels for all taxpayers through 2012. Also, approximately 15 million lower-income workers who would have had their income taxed now get to remain off the tax rolls.

Another big win is the reduction in Social Security (FICA) taxes. The bill trims two percentage points from the employee's portion of the 6.2 percent tax. How much you'll save depends on your income, but it could be as much as $2,136 for those earning more than $106,800, which is the maximum amount subject to Social Security tax.

The bill also contains a two-year patch for what's known as the alternative minimum tax or AMT, retroactive to January 2010. The AMT was set up to ensure that people with high incomes pay taxes. But it isn't indexed for inflation and it has come to include middle-class taxpayers. The patch spares an additional 21 million taxpayers this year.

Investors

For investors, the bill extends for two years the current tax rates on long-term capital gains and dividends. The top rate for both will remain at its historic low of 15 percent. The rate will remain zero for couples with taxable income below $69,000.

According to the Tax Policy Center, more than half of the benefit of this extension will go to people with incomes above $100,000. Absent the extension, the top rate on long-term gains would have risen to 20 percent, while the top dividend rate could have risen to as high as 39.6 percent.

Among the benefits extended through 2011 are deductions for teacher expenses and for state sales taxes in lieu of state income taxes. Lawmakers also extended through 2011 the provision allowing taxpayers over age 70 1/2 to make tax-free donations of IRA assets to qualified charities.

Several education benefits were also extended through 2012. Not renewed, however, was a property-tax deduction for people who didn't itemize their deductions.

Estate taxes

The top estate-tax rate falls to 35 percent and the exemption rises to $5 million an individual. The bill also allows executors of 2010 estates to elect whether to use 2010 rules or 2011 rules. The choice will help heirs who would pay more as a result of the lapse of the estate tax in 2010 and a corresponding rise in capital-gains taxes.

The new provisions will cut by at least a third the number of estates subject to the tax, which was paid by about 5,500 estates in 2009, according to Tax Policy Center estimates.

Also for the first time, estate, gift and generation-skipping taxes will be "unified" so that one $5 million exemption per individual applies to all three. This will make it much easier for wealthy taxpayers to make gifts during life to grandchildren.

Other benefits

Here are some other benefits of the tax bill:

  • You could make tax-free distributions of up to $100,000 of IRA assets to charities per year. The bill allows donations made in January, 2011, to be treated as if made in 2010. By giving their IRA assets to charity, taxpayers don't have to claim the distributions as income, so they avoid being disqualified for other tax breaks and deductions.
  • Through 2011, teachers will still be able to file for up to $250 in deductions for classroom expenses related to books, supplies, computer equipment and other materials. This is an above-the-line deduction, which lowers adjusted gross income. For teachers, the deduction takes a small bite out of the reported average of $356 teachers spend out-of-pocket on average for school supplies and other resources, according to the National School Supply & Equipment Association, a trade association for educational product companies. The extension would apply to elementary and secondary school teachers, and doesn't include non-athletic supplies used in health and physical education courses.
  • Taxpayers who itemize deductions will be able to deduct state and local sales taxes through 2011. This helps residents of states that don't have an income tax because they can use it in place of the itemized deduction currently allowed for state and local income taxes.
  • Several education credits and breaks would be extended. Families of college students would be able to claim a deduction of up to $4,000 for qualified education expenses through 2011. The American Opportunity Tax Credit would be extended through 2012, and allows taxpayers to claim a credit of up to $2,500. Taxpayers can only use one and both have specific income requirements.
  • The annual contribution amount for Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, tax-exempt savings accounts, would also stay at $2,000 through 2012 and money from the accounts could still be used for elementary and secondary school expenses; without the extension the contribution limit would fall to $500 and money could only be used for post-secondary expenses.
  • Also extended is the higher phase out levels for the up to $2,500 above the line student loan interest deduction. They'll remain $55,000 to $70,000 or $110,000 to $140,000 for joint filers.

As for what didn't make the cut, the bill does not extend a real-estate tax break that increased the standard deduction for homeowners by up to $500 or $1,000 for married couples filing jointly, based on their real estate taxes.

 

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Retiring? Here Are the 10 Worst and 10 Best Places In the Country To Do So

Would it surprise you to learn most of the worst places for retirees are in the north while the ten best are in the South?

Surveys from two separate retirement websites reveal the ten worst states and the ten best cities fore retirement...

Is there any wonder why so many people go to Florida or Arizona to retire? The beautiful weather, the friendly tax laws and easy laid back life styles.

But what about the worst states in the country to retire? Do you know what they are?


Worst of the worst

According to TopRetirements.com Illinois leads the ten worst states for retirement, followed by California, New York, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Ohio, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Nevada.

John Brady, president of TopRetirements.com says states are rated on three factors: fiscal health, taxation, and climate. As for fiscal health, six of the 10 worst states for retirees are also among those identified by a Pew Center for States report as being in "fiscal peril."

They include California, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Wisconsin. Each shows some of the same pressures that have pushed California toward economic disaster.

Interestingly, two of the states on the Pew list are also where ten of the best cities to retire in are located, Arizona and Florida.

TopRetirements.com suggests that retirees may want to avoid states in fiscal peril because they could face decreasing services and increasing taxation.

Topping the website's list, Illinois's fiscal health could be the worst of any state. Brady points out that it even borrowed money to fund its pension obligations. As for California, although it does have a warm climate, it is expensive and its finances are in disarray.

New York wasn't mentioned as being in fiscal trouble by the Pew Center, but it does have very high taxes, including property taxes. In fact, Brady said New York has the second-highest tax burden and fifth-highest per capita property taxes. As if that wasn't enough, it's also very expensive to live in New York.

As for Rhode Island, Brady said it's probably the worst-off state in the Northeast from a financial viewpoint. It also has high taxes, though he noted that the state does boast some great places to live.

New Jersey has the highest property taxes in the U.S., as well as the highest total tax burden of any state. Plus, New Jersey has serious pension-funding issues. Brady says states with the greatest tax burdens after New Jersey were New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Hawaii, California, Ohio, Vermont, Wisconsin and Rhode Island, as well as the District of Columbia.

Ohio has high taxes and high unemployment (9.9 percent in October). Plus, it has cold winters. Of the 40 largest cities in the United States, Milwaukee has the coldest winter weather, based on normal daily temperatures, according to Current Results, a website that tracks weather trends. Cleveland is the fourth-coldest U.S. city.

Wisconsin is doubly cursed in the rankings as a high-tax state with cold weather. Plus, it has high property taxes. The only good news, at least for those to whom it applies, is that the Badger State doesn't tax military pensions.

Best of the best

In a related survey, USAA and Military.com announced this week that Waco, Texas, tops the first-ever "Best Places for Military Retirement" list. In its report, USAA and Military.com focused on U.S. communities that offer "a high quality of life and help maximize military retiree benefits as service members manage their 'first retirement' from the armed forces and begin planning their 'second retirement' from civilian life."

Other places on that list included, in order, Oklahoma City; Austin, Texas; College Station, Texas; Harrisburg, Pa.; San Angelo, Texas; Madison, Wis.; Pittsburgh; New Orleans; and Syracuse, N.Y.

Stretching your dollars


New England had two other states on the worst places for retirees: Massachusetts, which has high taxes including high property taxes and a very high cost of living, and Connecticut, which has the third-highest tax burden of any state as well as high property taxes.

States with the highest cost of living in the third quarter of 2010 were Hawaii, Alaska, California, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland, Vermont and New Hampshire, according to a Missouri Economic Research and Information Center analysis. The District of Columbia also makes the list.

Ironically, the 10th-worst place to retire is the one state where it's easy to find a cheap place to live, Nevada. But Nevada is presently the home-foreclosure capital of the world. In fact, it continues to lead the nation in terms of foreclosure filings per household. Although it is having financial problems, but the good news for retirees living there or contemplating a move there is that it doesn't have an income tax — at least not yet.

Still, Money-Rates.com, which examined such factors as crime rates, climate, longevity and economic conditions, including taxes, job opportunities and cost of living, found Nevada leading the list of worst states for retirees.

Picking your spot

Now, this doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't retire to these poorly ranked states. Brady says everyone has to consider his or her own criteria for selecting the best or worst places to retire. To start your individual list, think about your most important criteria.

Brady focused mostly on fiscal health, taxation and climate but some other factors to consider are taxes, climate and topography; crime; fiscal health of the state; recreation; transportation; health care; cost of living, including housing; education, including college; cultural resources; susceptibility to natural disasters; proximity to friends and family; and fitting in socially, politically and religiously.

And of those, taxes might be the most important. Retirees are affected in different ways by taxes, he said. For instance, the taxation of pensions and Social Security might be better or worse in different states. Same for sales taxes.

Property taxes can vary widely, as well. For instance, Brady said, property tax can be one of the biggest bills for retirees and it's a category of taxation that's not progressive. You might not have any income, but you will still get taxed on the full value of your house, he said.

Some states do have programs to help seniors control their property taxes. Inheritance and estate taxes are also to be considered, though he said such taxes might be viewed as the tax tail wagging the state-of-residence dog.

Choosing the best state in which to retire depends on many individual factors, and for any two people, the 10-worst-states-for-retirees list might be a good list for one person, but not for the other.

Top cities

As for the best cities for retirement, Portfolio.com study lists Bradenton-Sarasota, Florida, Prescott and Lake Havasu City, Arizona, Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Naples, Palm Bay-Melbourne, Homosassa Springs, Ocala, Punta Gorda, and Port St. Lucie all in Florida.

The study used a six-part formula to rank 157 areas with at least 40,000 seniors. It named Bradenton-Sarasota, Florida as the number one choice for seniors' post-retirement plans.

Beginning next year, an unprecedented three million Americans will turn 65. While most of these seniors are expected to stay in their current homes, a significant number will decide to seek new places to live in other parts of the country.

J. Jennings Moss, editor of Portfolio.com says in addition to warm cities, we've also seen that seniors are attracted to communities that already have a significant population of retirees. This demonstrates that seniors will go to places that already have a comfortable infrastructure in place.

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Survey Finds Too Many Employees Working While Sick

Now you know why so many of your co-workers are coughing -- they're sick!

New survey shows nearly half of all American workers show up at the office sick even though they should have taken a sick day ...

Picture this. You're sitting at your desk and a co-worker drops by but before you can say hi, they start coughing all over you.

If you think this scenario seems to be happening more frequently lately, you'd be right. A new survey finds that nearly one out of every two (46%) employees come to work even though they have a cold or fever and should be home in bed.  It would be better for them as well as you. Who needs to get sick unnecessarily?

Apparently, it's going to take more than a cold or flu to get between them and their jobs this cold and flu season, according to a new survey conducted by the cough drop company, Halls.

The national telephone survey found that 46% of working Americans refuse to sacrifice a sick day this year for most cold and flu symptoms, including a cough, sore throat, body aches and sinus headache.

In fact, nearly half of Americans (44%) would consider going to work with a fever, and about a third of Americans (32%) said they would show up to work no matter how sick they get. Isn't that great? Someone with a highly contagious disease decides to show up at the office because he or she is afraid of their boss.

That's right. According to the latest U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, one in five Americans (19 percent) feel pressure by their boss or supervisor to go to work even when they're sick. One in three (31%) Americans said they wouldn't get paid for taking off on a sick day, and one in 10 (11%) said they would likely fall behind on their bills by taking a sick day. Additionally, more than 10% thought they would not likely receive their next pay raise or promotion, or worse, would even lose their job for calling out sick.

So what should you do to protect yourself from a medically unsafe workplace?

Get your flu shot. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends a yearly seasonal flu vaccine as the first and most important step in protecting against seasonal influenza.

Wash your hands and wash them often. You should do what doctors do. Wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is a good alternative.

If you have to cough or sneeze, do it into your elbow. That's if you don't have a tissue. This will help prevent the spread of germs.

Disinfect common surfaces. Germs can live for hours, and in some cases weeks, on common surfaces. Use a disinfectant regularly to wipe and clean doorknobs, phones, remote controls, toys, computer keyboards, and any other items that are shared at home or at the office.

Practice general good health habits. Eat right and exercise. Diets rich in fruits and vegetables provide a loaded source of immune boosting nutrients. Exercising, whether you're walking or playing outdoor games, builds up immune cells in the body and can help you feel more energetic and healthier while increasing your immunity to certain illnesses.

Drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids. Hydrate your body by drinking 8-10 glasses of water a day to help flush out the system, and to keep your throat moist.

Get as much rest as possible. Try to sleep at least 8 to 9 hours per night to rejuvenate your body. In addition, try using relaxation techniques that are at your disposal, such as massage, yoga, and meditation. Stress and fatigue can lower your immune system.

Get plenty of fresh air. A regular dose of fresh air is important, especially in cold weather when central heating dries you out and makes your body more vulnerable to cold and flu viruses. Also, during cold weather more people stay indoors, which means more germs are circulating in crowded, dry rooms. 

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Obama Administration Seeks Web Use 'Bill Of Rights'

Report recommends creating a Privacy Policy Office to protect consumers

Obama Administration Seeks Web Use 'Bill Of Rights'Report recommends creating a Privacy Policy Office to protect consumers...

The Obama administration is calling for creation of a Privacy Policy Office that would help develop an Internet "privacy bill of rights" for U.S citizens and coordinate privacy issues globally.

A report compiled by the U.S. Commerce Department stopped short of calling directly for specific privacy legislation. Instead, it recommends a "framework" to protect people from a burgeoning personal data-gathering industry and fragmented U.S. privacy laws that cover certain types of data but not others.

"America needs a robust privacy framework that preserves consumer trust in the evolving Internet economy while ensuring the Web remains a platform for innovation, jobs, and economic growth. Self-regulation without stronger enforcement is not enough," said Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. "Consumers must trust the Internet in order for businesses to succeed online."

The 88-page report, which observers say marks a turning point for federal Internet policy, states that the use of personal information has increased so much that privacy laws may now needed to restore consumer trust in the medium.

The Federal Trade Commission reached a similar conclusion earlier this month and issued a report of its own, calling for the Internet industry to develop a "do-not-track" mechanism in browsers that would stop Web sites from following their visitors around the Web.

Neither report makes specific recommendations for legislation, although the Obama Administration is expected to do so next year. Both Commerce and the FTC are calling on industry to voluntarily develop guidelines and, perhaps, technology that would enable consumers to opt-out of data collection activities.

Key recommendations include:

  • Consider establishing fair information practice principles comparable to a "Privacy Bill of Rights" for Online Consumers;
  • Consider developing enforceable privacy codes of conduct in specific sectors with stakeholders;
  • Create a Privacy Policy Office in the Department of Commerce;
  • Encourage global interoperability to spur innovation and trade;
  • Consider how to harmonize disparate security breach notification rules; and
  • Review the Electronic Communications Privacy Act for the cloud computing environment.

Consumers object

The report didn't go over well with at least consumer groups, who said it was too vague and too friendly to industry.

"Instead of real laws protecting consumers, we are offered a vague 'multi-stakeholder' process to help develop 'enforceable codes of conduct,'" Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy told the Los Angeles Times.

Chris Calbrese, the ACLU's legislative counsel, said the Commerce department had finally recognized what consumer groups have been saying for years.

"It's the wild wild west out there and consumers have no privacy online," Calebrese said. "FIPPS is a good place to start and Congress needs to act and give us an enforceable regime."

But it's hardly likely that the advertising industry is eagerly awaiting new rules. The Internet Advertising Bureau, a trade group, defends the use of anonymous consumer data to support ad-targeting, a process it says produces ads that are more useful for both consumers and advertisers.

"Publishers utilize third-party analytics services, marketers and agencies collect metrics on campaign performance, and small businesses are especially dependent upon ad networks, all of which function based upon the free flow of information among trusted partners," said Mike Zaneis, IAB's general counsel in a recent blog posting.

"The IAB tries to convey the ubiquity of such practices and the value our industry delivers to consumers, all while respecting their privacy and protecting the security of such data," Zaneis said.

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Wal-Mart Recalls Flow Pro, Airtech, Aloha Breeze, Comfort Essentials Electric Heaters

The heaters can overheat, smoke, burn, melt and start a fire

Wal-Mart Recalls Flow Pro, Airtech, Aloha Breeze, Comfort Essentials Electric Heaters. The heaters can overheat, smoke, burn, melt and start a fire...

Wal-Mart is recalling about 2.2 million electric heaters sold under the Flow Pro, Airtech, Aloha Breeze & Comfort Essentials brand names. The heaters can malfunction resulting in overheating, smoking, burning, melting and fire.

Wal-Mart has received 21 reports of incidents, which included 11 reports of property damage beyond the heater. Injuries were reported in four incidents, three of which required medical attention for minor burns and smoke inhalation. The remaining incidents included smoke irritation, sparking or property damage beyond the heater.

This recall involves Flow Pro, Airtech, Aloha Breeze and Comfort Essentials 1500 watt heaters. The heaters are grey with a metal handle on the top with vents and grey control knobs on the front. The model number is 1013 and can be found on a label on the lower left corner of the back panel of the heater.

Walmart stores sold the heaters nationwide from December 2001 through October 2009 for about $18. They were made in China.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled heater and return the product to any Walmart store for a full refund.

For additional information, contact Wal-Mart toll-free at (800) 925-6278 between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. CT Monday through Friday, or visit the firm's website atwww.walmart.com

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Is Obesity Hardwired in Our Genes?

New study finds removal of feast-or-famine gene helps aid fat-burning capabilities

Is Obesity Hardwired in Our Genes? New study finds removal of feat-or-famine gene helps aid fat burning capabilities...

In addition to fast food, desk jobs and inertia, there is one more thing to blame for unwanted pounds -- our genes, which have apparently not caught on to the fact that we're no longer living in the Stone Age.

That is one conclusion drawn by researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, who recently showed that mice lacking a gene regulating energy balance are protected from weight gain, even on a high fat diet.

These findings have implications for the worldwide obesity epidemic and its consequences, such as type two diabetes.

In the December 16, 2010 issue of Nature, a team led by Marc Montminy, M.D., Ph.D, professor in the Clayton Foundation Laboratories for Peptide Biology, reports that a gene known as CRTC3 decreases energy expenditure by fat cells.

"Ideas about obesity are based on concepts of feast or famine," said Montminy. "As humans, we developed ways of coping with famine by expressing genes like CRTC3 to slow the rate of fat burning. Individuals with these active 'thrifty genes' had an advantage -- they could survive long periods without food."

Back in the 1960's, scientists theorized humans had specialized genes that slowed our fat-burning capabilities. During prehistoric times, these genes were crucial to our survival, as we never knew when, or how much, we were going to eat on any given day.

Fast forward to 2010, when finding food has never been easier. We don't need those ancient genes anymore, but our bodies haven't gotten the memo.

Mouse diets

To analyze its role in fat metabolism, the researchers bred mice lacking the CRTC3 gene and put them on varying diets -- some moderate, some high fat.

Normal mice and the mice lacking the CRTC3 gene appeared similar when fed a moderate fat diet. But when fed the mouse version of the Philly cheese steak diet, only the normal mice became obese.

The mice lacking CFTC3 stayed slim and didn't gain weight.

"They also had about twice as many brown fat cells than did normal mice," said Montminy.

Our bodies also have two different types of fat cells -- white and brown; bad and good.

The white fat cells (also called WAT for "white adipose tissue”) serves as fat storage about bellies and hips -- that's the bad stuff.

However, the brown fat (BAT; "brown adipose tissue") is downright desirable.

"Brown fat is very different from white fat," says Youngsup Song, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the Montminy lab and the study's first author.

According to Song, brown fat tissue burns fat that has accumulated in white fat tissue to generate heat as a way to maintain body temperature.

In fact, some evidence suggests that humans with a genetic propensity to leanness have more brown fat cells than do "ample" individuals.

As desirable as that trait may seem now, those folks likely struggled mightily to stay alive during the Paleolithic era.

Although the researchers found that CRTC3 loss also perturbs how all fat cells respond to brain signals controlling energy expenditure, they remain particularly intrigued by the brown fat connection.

"CRTC3 could be a switch controlling the number of brown fat cells, " says Montminy. "That is key, because if you could make more brown adipocytes, you could potentially control obesity."

What about humans?

This is all well and good for mice, but what about people?

To explore how relevant these studies are to humans, Montminy asked clinicians at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles to search databases of patient genetic information for a particularly interesting human CRTC3 gene mutation, which appeared to represent a more potent form of the normal gene.

Since mice lacking CRTC3 resist obesity, the researchers figured humans carrying a revved-up version of the gene might show the opposite tendency.

Indeed. genetic testing of two groups of Mexican-American patients revealed that individuals harboring the active CRTC3 mutation showed increased incidence of obesity.

"This is an example in which findings from rodent research led to a novel discovery in humans," says Mark Goodarzi, M.D., Ph.D., an endocrinologist at Cedars-Sinai and collaborator in the study. "Not all Mexican-American individuals with the variant will develop obesity, but those carrying it are at higher risk."

Interestingly, non-Hispanic Caucasians carrying the variant do not show increased obesity, a difference likely related to environmental or lifestyle factors.

Overall this study illustrates an important principle: that what is genetically advantageous in one cultural or historic context may not be in another.

In fact, Montminy does not view obesity as an aberration or a "disease."

"Storing fat in adipose tissue is a normal response. A lot people are obese but do not develop type 2 diabetes," he says, suggesting that genes like CRTC3 could serve as diagnostic tools as well as drug targets.

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Foodborne Illnesses Are Down In Last Decade

Government report shows some progress in reducing illness

The Centers for Disease Control reports the number of foodborne illnesses each year is still high, but falling....

Even though widespread foodborne illness outbreaks seem to make the news more than they used to, individual cases of food poisoning are even more common.

About 48 million people -- one in six Americans -- get sick from tainted food. Most of these cases go unreported.

On the other hand, about 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die each year from foodborne diseases, according to new estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC says the figures are the most accurate to date due to better data and methods used. The data are published Wednesday in two articles in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

The papers provide the most accurate picture yet of what foodborne pathogens are causing the most illness, as well as estimating the proportion of foodborne illness without a known cause. The reports are the first comprehensive estimates since 1999 and are CDC's first to estimate illnesses caused solely by foods eaten in the United States.

"We've made progress in better understanding the burden of foodborne illness and unfortunately, far too many people continue to get sick from the food they eat," said CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden. "These estimates provide valuable information to help CDC and its partners set priorities and further reduce illnesses from food."

Better data

CDC's new estimates are lower than in the 1999 report. The difference is largely the result of improvements in the quality and quantity of the data used and new methods used to estimate foodborne-disease.

For example, it is now known that most norovirus is not spread by the foodborne route, which has reduced the estimate of foodborne norovirus from 9.2 to approximately 5.5 million cases per year. Because of data and method improvements, the 1999 and current estimates cannot be compared to measure trends.

CDC's FoodNet surveillance system data, which tracks trends among common foodborne pathogens, has documented a decrease of 20 percent in illnesses from key pathogens during the past 10 years. However, these FoodNet pathogens make up only a small proportion of the illnesses included in the new estimates.

Of the total estimate of 48 million illnesses annually, CDC estimates that 9.4 million illnesses are due to 31 known foodborne pathogens. The remaining 38 million illnesses result from unspecified agents, which include known agents without enough data to make specific estimates, agents not yet recognized as causing foodborne illness, and agents not yet discovered. In both the 1999 and current estimates, unspecified agents were responsible for roughly 80 percent of estimated illnesses.

"Foodborne illnesses and deaths are preventable, and as such, are unacceptable," said Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. "We must, and can, do better by intensifying our efforts to implement measures that are prevention-oriented and science-based. We are moving down this path as quickly as possible under current authorities but eagerly await passage of new food safety legislation that would provide us with new and long overdue tools to further modernize our food safety program."

Slow-moving legislation

That legislation, the Food Safety Modernization Act, has been moving slowly through Congress for a year and a half. While the House passed the measure in July 2009, the Senate only gave its approval November 30, in the current lame duck session of Congress.

Efforts are underway to reconcile the two versions before the end of the year. If efforts fail, the process will have to start all over in the 112th Congress in January.

 

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World's Toughest Crib Standards Adopted

New standards to become mandatory in six months

World's Toughest Crib Standards Adopted New standards to become mandatory in six months ...

Following recalls of millions of cribs due to entrapment deaths and injuries, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has adopted new rules designed to insure that new cribs have been tested for safety to rigorous standards.

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), signed into law in August of 2008, requires the agency to issue mandatory standards for infant durable products. This provision of the CPSIA was named in honor and in memory of Danny Keysar, who was 16 months old when he died in his Chicago childcare home because a portable crib collapsed around his neck.

The CPSIA requires mandatory standards and testing for durable infant and toddler products, product registration cards and a ban on the sale or lease of unsafe cribs. Cribs are among the first products for which mandatory standards have been promulgated under this provision.

"This new mandatory standard, the strongest in the world, will ensure that new cribs coming onto the market will provide safe haven for babies and their families," said Nancy Cowles, Executive Director of Kids In Danger. "We applaud CPSC for their hard work and tenacity in developing and adopting this landmark rule."

Requirements

The new rule puts many new tests and requirements in place:

  • Cribs with full side drop-sides will not be allowed -- the bottom 20 inches of the crib rail must be fixed to eliminate the entrapment hazards seen when the hardware fails.
  • All cribs must undergo rigorous testing for slat strength, durability and mattress support strength. The series of testing is conducted on one crib to simulate a lifetime use of a crib. This is the key to the new standard. Most of the 10 million cribs recalled since 2007 were able to meet the weak industry standards that were in place.
  • Warnings and labeling have been improved, both to make parents more aware of when a crib is mis-assembled and to alert them to developmental signs to stop using a crib (when the child attempts to climb out). While most attention has been rightly focused on entrapment deaths in cribs, most injuries are as a result of children falling out of cribs
"Parents and caregivers should have peace of mind that when they leave their baby in a crib that their baby will be safe. For too long that has not been the case," said Rachel Weintraub, Director of Product Safety and Senior Counsel for Consumer Federation of America. "We congratulate CPSC for shepherding this strong and much needed consumer protection." 

Higher standards

The new requirements are mostly part of the ASTM International voluntary standard that has been adapted to serve as the CPSC mandatory rule. Over the past two years industry, consumer advocates and safety experts have worked to update the voluntary standard to provide real assurances of a safe product. Prior to the recent rewrite, the most recent significant changes to the voluntary standard were made in 1999.

The CPSC mandatory standard was last changed in 1982. The new standards include two sets of similar rules: one for full-size cribs and one for non-full-size cribs. Non-full-size cribs can be smaller, larger or a different shape than a full-size crib, which is a standardized shape and size.

"The lack of durability of recently produced cribs is appalling and has put many babies at risk," said Don Mays, senior director of product safety and technical policy for Consumers Union/Consumer Reports. "These new regulations will ensure safe sleep environments by raising the bar for the safety and quality of cribs."

New and used covered

For the first time, this mandatory rule promulgated by CPSC applies to products already in use by some entities as well as to new products. Efforts will begin immediately to remove older unsafe products off store shelves, out of childcare homes, and out of hotels.

The CPSIA includes a section requiring that cribs that don't meet the new standard can't be sold -- new or used, used in child care, used by hotel guests, or used in other public accommodations. This measure alone will go far in removing unsafe cribs from use. This does not apply to already purchased cribs being used in private homes, except for barring their resale.

Six months after the publication of the standard, all cribs on the market must be in compliance. The Commission voted to give childcare facilities and hotels an additional 18 months after that date to replace any non-compliant cribs. CPSC has indicated that cribs currently being manufactured and tested that meet the new standard can continue to be used, even though their sale took place prior to the new rule being official.

"After years of foot dragging by the industry," said Elizabeth Hitchcock of US Public Interest Research Group. "CPSC has now approved a standard and testing regimen that will keep children safe -- avoiding the crib recalls, entrapment deaths and injuries that have plagued the industry."

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Feds Launch Holiday Drunk Driving Crackdown

Transportation Department urges use of tough new enforcement strategy

Feds Launch Holiday Drunk Driving Crackdown Transportation Department urges use of tough new enforcement strategy ...

The Transportation Department (DOT) has kicked off its annual "Drunk Driving. Over The Limit. Under Arrest" winter holiday crackdown involving thousands of law enforcement agencies across the nation. 

At the same time Transportation Secretary LaHood is highlighting the new "No Refusal" strategy that a number of states are employing to put a stop to drunk driving.

New approach

Through the "No Refusal" strategy, law enforcement officers are able to obtain warrants quickly from "on call" judges in order to take blood samples from suspected drunk drivers who refuse a breathalyzer test. 

"Drunk driving remains a leading cause of death and injury on our roadways," said LaHood.  "I applaud the efforts of the law enforcement officials who have pioneered the 'No Refusal' approach to get drunk drivers off our roads. And I urge other states to adopt this approach to make sure that drunk drivers can't skirt the law and are held accountable."

According to DOT's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA),  a large proportion of people in many states pulled over for DUIs refuse to take an alcohol breathalyzer test.  The latest data show that the states with the highest refusal rates included New Hampshire at 81 percent; Massachusetts at 41 percent; Florida at 40 percent; Louisiana at 39 percent and Ohio at 38 percent. 

Good results

More guilty pleas, fewer trials and more convictions are reported in states that have adopted "No Refusal" programs.  States already employing this strategy to get drunk drivers off of their roads include Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Utah, Idaho, and Arizona.

"MADD is proud to support NHTSA, as well as our heroes in law enforcement, in their focus on 'No Refusals,'" said MADD National President Laura Dean-Mooney."Working together, we can make our roadways safer and eliminate drunk driving in the U.S."

"When it comes to drunk driving, we cannot afford to have repeat offenders," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland.  "The 'No Refusal' strategy helps support prosecutions and improves deterrence, which means fewer drunk drivers on the road. I want to remind everyone this holiday season: if you're over the limit, you're under arrest. So please, for safety's sake, find a designated driver or take a taxi if you are under the influence."

It is against the law in all states and the District of Columbia to drive with a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) level of .08 or higher.  Yet, NHTSA data show that last year, 10,839 people were killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes, including 753 in December alone.  Agency trend data have consistently shown an increase in fatalities during the holiday season.

The holiday enforcement crackdown is supported by $7 million in national TV and radio advertising and runs through January 3.
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Drug Misuse Common In Nursing Homes

Consumer Reports Health offers tips on protecting family members from antipsychotic misuse

Drug Misuse Common In Nursing Homes Consumer Reports Health offers tips on protecting family members from antipsy...

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Discover Bank Sued For 'Deceptive' Policies

Minnesota says cardholders were sold products they didn't agree to buy

The State of Minnesota has sued Discover Bank, accusing it of tricking cardholders into buying financial products....

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson has filed suit against Discover Bank, accusing it of deceptively charging some credit card customers for pricey optional financial products that the company markets.

According to the compliant, the products were presented as a way for people to protect themselves from fraudulent or unauthorized charges and to enhance their financial security in the bad economy. Discover, one of the nation's largest credit card companies, claims to be in one out of four households with 54 million credit cards in circulation.

"The company charged some consumers for expensive add-on financial products without their understanding that their credit cards would be charged," said Swanson. "The irony is that the credit card company markets these products as a way for consumers to protect themselves from fraudulent or unauthorized credit card charges and financial instability in the bad economy."

Swanson says that in 2009 Discover earned nearly $300 million in annual revenue from the sale of these optional financial products, an increase of over $80 million, or over 37 percent, from 2007. This is in addition to the revenue the bank charges customers for interest and penalty fees (e.g. late fees, over-limit fees, etc.) In 2009, Discover reported net income of $1.3 billion.

The lawsuit alleges that Discover Bank and its affiliated processing company made aggressive, misleading, and deceptive telemarketing calls to sign people up for these products. Swanson said the company first lures the consumer into believing the call is a courtesy call from their credit card company and not a sales call -- that is, that the caller is simply touching base to make sure the customer is aware of all the benefits of the card.

Unaware a transaction was taking place

In some cases, Swanson says the company has charged people's credit cards for enrollment in these add-on products even though the consumer did not agree to purchase anything. In other cases, she says the company tricks people into unknowingly signing up for these products, usually by inducing consumers to say "ok" or "yes" to a benign statement without understanding they are signing up and then treating that response as authorization to bill their credit cards.

In many cases, Discover refuses to make refunds to aggrieved consumers, the investigation found.

A typical telemarketer generally cannot sign up a customer for a product or service unless the customer gives out their credit card number or other form of payment. Unlike a typical telemarketer, Discover is the consumer's credit card company and already has their credit card number.

Swanson says this wrinkle enables the company to charge consumers for extra financial products by making deceptive telemarketing calls in which some consumers did not give knowing consent to purchase the paid products.

Trickery

Swanson said her investigation found that Discover telemarketers used trickery as a matter of course.

For example, in some cases telemarketers read the consumer a purported "disclosure" in which they butcher or alter the text, leave out key words, run sentences together, pause when there is no period, or speed read the text, all to make it incomprehensible to the consumer.

In other cases, telemarketers leave out key terms like the fact the consumer is purchasing something or the price, and instead emphasize portions of the script that do not suggest a sale is taking place, like the company's customer service number. In other cases, the company leads customers to believe they are simply authorizing the company to send them materials in the mail to look over, with no agreement to purchase a product or have their credit card billed.

"People expect their credit card company to help them avoid fraudulent charges, not make them," said Swanson.

Defendants in the lawsuit include Discover Bank, a Delaware state bank; DFS Services, LLC, its affiliated processing company; and Discover Financial Services, the parent corporation of both entities. The lawsuit was filed in Hennepin County District Court and seeks injunctive relief, civil penalties, and restitution.

 

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Wondering Where You Should Put Your Money in 2011?

Here are 10 investment tips for next year for those brave enough to jump back into market

Some of the highest paid financial analysts in the world weigh in on where they think you should put your money in 2011...

If you're an individual investor, chances are you've been sitting out the last few rounds of what has generally become known as a market slugfest.

Just because the financial crisis is over, that doesn't mean the markets have calmed down or that investing has become any easier, which is one reason most individuals have stayed on the sidelines for the past year, preferring to play the market via their 401(k)s, mutual funds and Exchange Traded Funds, or ETFs.

Meanwhile, volatility appears to be here to stay. There's even a volatility index that some hardy souls use to influence their investment decisions. That's a little like betting on where the hurricane is going to hit land. Even if you're right, destruction is sure to follow.

Still, this is the time of year when the giant financial services firms issue their investment predictions for the coming year. Obviously no one knows for sure what's going to happen next year because so many unpredictable variables are at play.

That said, here are some educated guestimates based on research provided by the highest-paid financial analysts in the world. You have to figure that if somebody is willing to pay them six and seven figures a year, they should know what they're talking about.

These investment strategists come from Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, First Eagle Investment Management, and FBR Fund Advisors. Here are their predictions for 2011.

Tip 1. It's safe to get back into the stock market as long as you stay diversified and play the S&P 500, which Merrill Lynch Chief U.S. Equity Strategist David Bianco predicts will reach 1,400. His vision is shared by Merrill Lynch Technical Analyst Mary Ann Bartels who points out that the third year of the presidential cycle is generally the best year, with average returns of 14%. Bianco and Bartels like what are known as the Big International Growth sectors like technology and energy as the most likely outperformers.

Tip 2. Merrill Lynch's Fixed Income Strategist Marty Mauro recommends taking credit risk over duration risk in the taxable bond market. Both municipal and corporate bonds are forecast to post positive returns in the intermediate-term maturity range, but returns from Treasuries could be negative. That means if you're going to buy bonds, buy municipal and corporate bonds and not treasuries. In fact, Merrill Lynch is predicting that municipal bonds could provide some of the strongest fixed income returns in 2011.

Tip 3. As well as U.S. equities are expected to perform, global equity prices should do even better. Merrill Lynch research thinks global equities will be up 15% in 2011. However, Abhay Deshpande, of First Eagle Investment Management says he prefers domestic equities over emerging markets. 

Tip 4. When considering individual stocks, Merrill Lynch recommends going large capitalized companies over small with the exception of technology and growth over value. Goldman Sachs says equities remain its preferred asset class for 2011. Goldman analyst Chris Pidcock said investors should be exposed to stocks linked to increasing mining volumes, the recovery in the U.S., domestic consumption and M&A/IPO activity. He adds that markets are moving through the 'growth' phase and the majority of price to earnings contraction has occurred.

Pidcock says he believes returns in 2011 will be mainly dependent on earnings per share growth with some potential for price to earnings expansion emerging late in 2011 and 2012. Goldman's top 10 stock picks for 2011 are Amcor, BHP Billiton, James Hardie, News Corporation, Qantas, Asciano, Computershare, Lend Lease, Onesteel and Woodside. Merrill's preferred big cap stocks for 2011 are Macquarie, Stockland, Asciano, Downer Edi, News Corp and Woodside.

Tip 5. For you brave currency and foreign exchange players, Merrill Lynch strategists believe the dollar will strengthen against the euro and yen. As Europe struggles with persistent sovereign debt issues, Merrill Lynch G-10 Currency Strategist David Woo believes the euro will be the weakest currency in 2011, falling to 1.20 versus the dollar by year end. Woo sees the Japanese yen depreciating very gradually to 88 by year-end. He adds that investors looking for a big appreciation of the Chinese RMB will be disappointed as we expect only a small move over the next 12 months.

Tip 6. Commodity prices are expected to rise, led by oil, copper, and coal. Merrill Lynch Commodity Strategist Francisco Blanch says oil may rise to $100 barrel and he forecasts copper to average $11,250 a metric ton in 2011. He adds that coal faces supply constraints and is heavily geared towards emerging markets growth. Blanch says precious metals will continue to benefit from inflation and sovereign debt fears and gold could reach $1,500 per ounce. In contrast, agricultural commodity prices are more likely to fall in 2011.

Tip 7. Credit cards companies. Dave Ellison of FBR Fund Advisors thinks credit cards are one of the more attractive areas now because the yields on the assets are still very high, meaning you're making credit card loans at 10%, 12%, 15%, 20%. He says that's a lot better than making a mortgage loan at 4%, especially when you have people strategically defaulting on their debts. He says he'd rather get 12% and take his chances on defaults, because he can have a lot more defaults and still make money. He prefers transaction-oriented companies like Capital One, Visa, MasterCard and Discover. Ellison said he's also a fan of credit collectors like Portfolio Recovery Associates. These companies buy loans at very low prices and then work them out. If the economy improves and jobs come back even a little bit, people will be able to make those payments. Another attractive area would be small, well- capitalized banks that can take advantage of consolidation in the financial sector.

Tip 8. Financial companies. Deshpande thinks financial companies that have taken a beating in the past two years are victims of misunderstanding. And Ellison recommends those companies that bought those toxic assets like KKR who can sell those assets for twice what they paid for them. Deshpande says his portfolio is full of wrongly accused and underappreciated financials that suffered what he calls collateral damage. For example, he cites Bank of New York Mellon which he claims is not a bank at all and that 80% of its business is actually non-interest-bearing, fee-based revenue, custodial business, and that kind of asset management. He says only 20% is net interest income, and that's really corporate trust business. It's not even at-risk business. These business lines are packed with underappreciated earnings power. He's talking about potential normalized earnings of $2.80, $2.90 a share, so the stock is trading for less than 10 times earnings.

Tip 9. Just do it. Get back in the game as Jim Kramer of CNBC's Mad Money is so fond of saying. Let's face it, if you want to grow your portfolio or to give yourself a modicum of chance to recover losses to your retirement savings you need to get back into the market and put your money back work. You can start small and then add to it as the year goes on. Slow and steady wins the race. Steadily increase the capital you invest and don't leave money on the table. If your employer offers retirement saving matching such as through a 401(k), take it! That's free money that can greatly increase your post-retirement "income.”

Tip 10. Become as knowledgeable about your options as possible. Developing a clear strategy are keys to smart investing. It is also often a good idea to speak with a qualified financial planner. Read -- and understand -- the "fine print.”

It's your money. Make sure you know what you're doing with it and what the risks are. Protecting your hard-earned money is worth a few minutes of reading statements or disclosures, and asking enough questions to know what you're getting into.

That means identifying your risk tolerance and understanding where you are in your lifecycle. A single 20-something with 50 working years ahead of her can tolerate more risk than a 50-something with only 20 more years of work ahead. Where in the spectrum are you? And finally, know what you need. A survey by EBRI found that only 46% of Americans had estimated how much money they would need to retire.

So start with a goal in mind. Think about why you are investing -- to buy a house, to send the kids to college, or for your own retirement. Not only will this help to motivate you, but it should also give you a better sense of how much you need and when you need it. Good luck.

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Study Questions Soda Tax Effectiveness

Might not reduce consumption as much as expected

Economic researchers have tested the concept of an obesity tax on sugary sodas and found it doesn't make much ...

Every government, it seems, is looking for a painless way to raise revenue. At the same time, government officials want to reduce obesity levels in America.

Is there some way to accomplish both objectives? Yes, say advocates of a tax on sugary soft drinks. Making calorie-laden soft drinks more expensive, they say, will discourage consumption, producing tax revenue from those who continue to drink them.

The problem, say researchers, is it might not work out that way. Eric Finkelstein, an economist at Duke-National University of Singapore, decided to construct an economic model to show the effect a soda tax might have on America's waistline.

Some states are currently considering a sugar tax on soda that would amount to anywhere from 20 percent to 40 percent. The prevailing assumption has been a 20 percent tax would reduce consumptions by as much as 16 percent.

Finkelstein says that might be overly optimistic. His model, he says, shows the tax wouldn't reduce consumption nearly that much.

Furthermore, in Finkelstein's model lower income consumers continued to buy sweetened beverages at about their present rate, regardless of the fact that the beverages cost more. They lost little weight in his model.

Beverage makers react

As one might expect, the American Beverage Association was quick to promote Finkelstein's findings.

"Making smart, educated decisions about diet and exercise does that," the association said in a statement. "This study is the latest in the compendium of science to reaffirm that new taxes will not have an impact on a complex issue like obesity and they will not teach children about healthy lifestyles or change their behavior."

However, Finkelstein's study does show that the tax has some effect on consumption, just not as large as its backers believed. He believes that a hefty tax on sodas would prompt many consumers - particularly lower income consumers, to switch to a sweetened beverage like fruit juice or energy drinks.

The take-away, he says, is that a soda tax might not have the result of helping consumers shed pounds. But expanding the tax to all sugary beverages might have a better chance.

 That's a position held by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has been an early champion of a beverage tax.

"Americans consume huge quantities of soft drinks, which promote obesity and other health problems,” the group says on its website. "Obesity alone costs $147 billion a year in medical expenditures, half of which are paid through Medicare and Medicaid. Taxing soft drinks is an effective approach for cash-strapped federal and state governments looking for ways to fund health care and disease-prevention programs.”

 

 

 

 

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There’s a Threat on America's Highways You May Not Be Aware of

Survey shows 20% of eyeglass wearers drive without prescription glasses

One out of every five drivers who should wear prescription glasses aren’t, putting all of our lives in jeopardy...

Would you believe that more than 90% of the decisions and reactions we make behind the wheel depend on good vision?

If so, you'll be shocked to learn that a recent survey reveals a disturbing fact -- one in five eyeglass wearers sometimes drive without their prescription glasses. Instead, they wear non-prescription sunglasses, quickly making daytime driving unnecessarily treacherous.

Most of us think that driving in a bright, sunny day is better than driving at night or in the rain. The reality is that blinding glare from sun, snow and other vehicles is a significant contributing factor to fatal auto accidents.

Kim Schuy is Senior Global Director of Marketing for Essilor, the leadingmanufacturer of optical lenses in the United States. She says thatonly one-third of eyeglass wearers have prescription sunglasses with polarized lenses.

"As our roadways heat up this winter and glare from the sun and snow increases, it's critical that consumers discuss with their eye-care professional the life-saving benefits of prescription, polarized lenses," Schuy said.

Trouble seeing while driving on sunny and snowy days is very common among glasses wearers. However, 60% of those with prescription sunglasses, particularly those with polarized lenses, experience less trouble.

A clinical study conducted by Essilor as a precursor to the survey found that driver reaction times improve by one-third of a second for drivers who wear polarized lenses.

For a car traveling 50 miles per hour, one-third of a second allows a driver to stop 23 feet sooner, or the length of an intersection. In glare-intense situations, polarized lenses improve vision clarity by 75%, as opposed to ordinary sun lenses.

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Couples Who Don't Marry May Face Unintended Consequences

Financial planners call it the "unmarried" penalty and it can raise havoc around tax time, or during breakups and deaths

You may have heard of the marriage penalty when it comes to taxes, but there are even more penalties for unmarried couples that go beyond tax consequences...

photoFor whatever reason, it seems that more couples today are foregoing the formality of marriage, even when children are involved.

What many of them fail to realize are the often serious financial consequences surrounding their decision, not that money should be your primary motive for marriage. It simply makes things a lot less complicated, especially around tax time.

Financial planners say unmarried couples are simply not eligible for many of the same legal protections or advantages as married couples and this can become extremely complicated when they start to think about retirement planning, buying property, taxes and estate planning. According to the Wall Street Journal, they even have a name for it, the "unmarried penalty."

Wendy Hartmann, a Los Angeles-based tax and estate-planning attorney, in an interview with the Journal, says she's seen several situations where the surviving partner was left homeless and destitute because the couple didn't do the proper planning.

Financial planners should probably start to study up on how to deal with these situations because the Census Bureau says the number of opposite-sex unmarried couples living together rose 13% this year over last to about 7.5 million. Census Bureau also estimates the number of same-sex couples living together rose roughly 30% to about 620,000 this year from about 476,000 in 2009. And both those totals are expected to continue growing, as some younger couples delay marriage, older couples choose not to remarry and most states continue not to allow gay couples to wed.

For many unmarried couples, the most immediate concern is how to share expenses, especially if their incomes differ significantly. Financial planners often help couples determine a fair way to share monthly housing costs and other regular expenses.

Devin Pope, a certified financial planner based in Salt Lake City, says that when an unmarried couple splits, there typically is no third party involved, such as a lawyer, as there would be in a divorce to make sure assets are fairly split and debts are retitled.

Estate planning

 

Tax and estate planning also become more complex for unmarried couples. Planners say it is important to make sure the couples are working with a certified public accountant and estate-planning attorney who understand each couple's unique situation.

Barrett Porter, a certified financial planner based in Los Angeles, says working with a good accountant can help unmarried couples avoid any tax surprises such as inadvertently triggering a gift tax because of the way they title their assets. He adds that a smart CPA can also help an unmarried couple make sure they are claiming their deductions in the most tax-efficient way.

For example, if a couple that shares the title to a house has a large disparity in incomes, the higher-income earner, who would benefit more from tax deductions, may be able to deduct a larger share of the mortgage interest.

Debra Neiman, an Arlington, Massachusetts certified financial planner says she also explains the importance of proper asset titling when working with unmarried couples.

She points out the story of one couple, where only one of them was listed as the sole owner of the house they lived in. And when the person who owned the home died the surviving partner was left homeless. She says that could have been avoided if the couple had held the home in joint tenancy with rights of survivorship. She adds that it's important to make sure investment accounts and other assets are properly titled as well.

Health-care directive

 

Another area that can be complicated for unmarried couples is a health-care directive. These are documents that give a designated person the right to make medical decisions for someone. They can be even more important for unmarried couples than they are for married people.

Without proper documentation, individuals have no legal right to make health-care decisions for their unmarried. There have been a number of situations where one partner wasn't allowed to carry out a sick partner's medical wishes because the ailing partner didn't have a health-care directive.

In some cases, the unmarried partner may find that they're not even allowed to visit their ailing lover in the hospital, especially if the significant other is in the intensive care unit.

It's also especially important for unmarried couples to make sure they document their wishes for their estates. Financial planners say that if those wishes aren't documented, the laws of the state in which the couple lives will determine who their beneficiaries will be, and that is unlikely to be the surviving partner. Another problem for some unmarried couples is that some family members may not approve of the couple's relationship and will do what they can to prevent a surviving partner from inheriting anything.

At the very least, unmarried couples should draft wills. Although some financial planners also recommend unmarried couples set up trusts as well. In general, trusts help individuals or couples dispose of their assets in the manner they choose, without the need for probate court proceedings that can tie up assets for long periods.

Also, couples who have children need to consider drawing up proper adoption papers to make sure there's no confusion about each partner's parenting rights.

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Feds Seize Food Stored at New Mexico Warehouse

Government action prevents distribution of rodent-infested food

Feds Seize Government-Regulated Food Stored at New Mexico Warehouse Government action prevents distribution of rodent-infested food ...

Acting under a court order sought by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Marshals have seized chili pods, ground chili, crushed chili, and other chili products located in the rodent-infested food warehouse owned by Duran and Sons L.L.C. in Derry, New Mexico. 

The New Mexico Environment Department had previously placed an embargo on all products in the company's food warehouse on Nov. 17, 2010.

Serious violations

The U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico issued a warrant for the seizure of all FDA-regulated food in the warehouse.  The federal government's complaint alleges that the products are adulterated under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act because they have been held under insanitary conditions and may have become contaminated with filth.

An FDA inspection of the company's facility between Nov. 15 and 22, 2010, revealed "an active and widespread insect and rodent infestation in the food warehouse," according to the complaint.

"The alleged violations at this facility are serious and widespread," said Dara A. Corrigan, the FDA's associate commissioner for regulatory affairs. "This prompted the FDA to take aggressive enforcement action to protect the health of consumers."

FDA investigators found rodent nesting material and dropping on and around food, several rodent gnawed containers of food, and stains indicative of rodent urine. 

In addition, they saw a live cat, live birds, apparent bird nesting, bird droppings, feces and urine from other animals, live and dead insects, and insect larvae throughout the entire product warehouse.

FDA laboratory analysis of samples collected during the inspection confirmed the investigators' observations. 

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Pomegranate Juice Found To Inhibit Spread of Prostate Cancer Cells

Scientists say finding could lead to more effective drug therapies

Pomegranate Juice Found To Inhibit Spread of Prostate Cancer CellsScientists say finding could lead to more effective drug therapies...

Prostate cancer may have met its match in the unlikeliest of places: pomegranate juice.

Researchers at the University of California, Riverside have identified components in the sweet stuff that both inhibit the movement of cancer cells and weaken their attraction to a chemical signal that promotes the spread, or metastasis, of prostate cancer to the bone.

This finding could lead to new therapies for preventing cancer metastasis.

Performed in the lab of Manuela Martins-Green, a professor of cell biology, the research was presented Monday at the 50th annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology taking place in Philadelphia.

Prostate cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men in the United States. To date, there is no cure for it.

If prostate cancer recurs after treatments of surgery and/or radiation, usually the next treatment is the suppression of the male hormone testosterone, which inhibits the growth of the cancer cells because they need this hormone to grow.

But over time, the cancer develops ways to resist hormone suppression therapies, becomes very aggressive, and metastasizes to the bone marrow, lungs, and lymph nodes, usually resulting in the patient's death.

The Martins-Green lab applied pomegranate juice on laboratory-cultured prostate cancer cells that were resistant to testosterone (the more resistant a cancer cell is to testosterone, the more prone it is to metastasizing).

The researchers -- Martins-Green, graduate student Lei Wang and undergraduate students Andre Alcon and Jeffrey Ho -- found the pomegranate juice-treated tumor cells that had not died with the treatment showed increased cell adhesion, meaning fewer cells breaking away, and decreased cell migration.

Next, the researchers identified the following active groups of ingredients in pomegranate juice that had a molecular impact on cell adhesion and migration in metastatic prostate cancer cells: phenylpropanoids, hydrobenzoic acids, flavones and conjugated fatty acids.

"Having identified them, we can now modify cancer-inhibiting components in pomegranate juice to improve their functions and make them more effective in preventing prostate cancer metastasis, leading to more effective drug therapies," Martins-Green said.

"Because the genes and proteins involved in the movement of prostate cancer cells are essentially the same as those involved in the movement of other types of cancer cells, the same modified components of the juice could have a much broader impact in cancer treatment."

Martins-Green explained that an important protein produced in the bone marrow causes the cancer cells to move to the bone where they can then form new tumors.

"We show that pomegranate juice markedly inhibits the function of this protein, and thus this juice has the potential of preventing metastasis of the prostate cancer cells to the bone," said Martins-Green.

Her lab plans to do additional tests in an in vivo model for prostate cancer metastasis to determine whether the same cancer-inhibiting components that work in cultured cells can prevent metastasis without side effects.

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Seniors, Students Cautioned About Paying For Free Help

If the best things in life are free, don't pay for them

Some companies would like to charge you for doing things you can do yourself for free....

These days, it seems there are all sorts of "helpful" companies out there offering to assist with forms, paperwork and applications - for a fee. If it's true that the best things in life are free, then you shouldn't have to pay for them, consumer advocates warn.

While it's not illegal, consumer authorities are quick to point out that the services these firms offer to provide can be done by consumers for free. If a consumer thinks they genuinely need help filling out a form, there's usually free assistance available. They shouldn't fall for a pitch from someone who wants to charge for that help.

In Pennsylvania, Governor Edward G. Rendell says the state provides free assistance to eligible older adults and people with disabilities to apply for rebates of up to $975 from Pennsylvania's Property Tax/Rent Rebate program. There is no reason, he says, for anyone to pay for the help.

"It's unfortunate that some companies charge fees to provide a service that the government and other agencies provide for free," Rendell said. "Application forms and assistance are available at no cost from Department of Revenue district offices, local Area Agencies on Aging, senior centers and state legislators' offices."

Pennsylvania is providing a total of $772.5 million in property tax relief this year, including expanded rebates from the state's Property Tax/Rent Rebate program for seniors and residents with disabilities and general property tax relief for all homeowners that was distributed through school districts this past summer.

College aid information is free

Young people bound for college are also often approached by firms offering to sell information that is actually free. A case in point is financial aid information.

College Foundation of North Carolina (CFNC) reminds you that this information is always available for free,” the group says. "You do not need to pay for information on financial aid.”

Be careful about invitations, calls or emails about "free" seminars or "limited time only interviews" on ways to pay for college.  Many of these "free" seminars are actually part of a sales pitch for services you're led to believe will help you find financial aid.  

CFNC says you should be especially cautious of requests that require a fee for assistance, ask for your credit card number or bank account information to draft a fee, or ask for your social security number.

"Also, don't be fooled by companies that operate under names suggesting an association with the federal government but require you to pay for help to get a government grant," the group advises.

No payment is required for federal or state grants.  You simply need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Aid (FAFSA) at fafsa.gov to see if you are eligible.
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We're Living Longer, But Not Healthier

New research finds today's young adults will spend more of their lives with illness

We're Living Longer, But Not Healthier New research finds today's young adults will spend more of their lives with illness...

photoWe may be living longer these days, but we're spending more of that time sick.

In fact, today's 20-year-old can expect to live one less healthy year over his or her lifespan than a 20-year-old from just ten years ago.

From 1970 to 2005, the probability of a 65-year-old surviving to age 85 doubled, from about a 20 percent chance to a 40 percent chance.

Many researchers presumed that the same forces allowing people to live longer, including better health behaviors and medical advances, would also delay the onset of disease and allow people to spend fewer years of their lives with debilitating illness.

But new research from Eileen Crimmins, AARP Chair in Gerontology at the University of Southern California, and Hiram Beltran-Sanchez, a postdoctoral fellow at the Andrus Gerontology Center at USC, shows that average "morbidity," or, the period of life spend with serious disease or loss of functional mobility, has actually increased in the last few decades.

"We have always assumed that each generation will be healthier and longer lived than the prior one," said Crimmins. "However, the compression of morbidity may be as illusory as immortality."

While people might be expected to live more years with disease simply as a function of living longer in general, the researchers show that the average number of healthy years has decreased since 1998.

We spend fewer years of our lives without disease, even though we live longer.

A male 20-year-old in 1998 could expect to live another 45 years without at least one of the leading causes of death: cardiovascular disease, cancer or diabetes.

That number fell to 43.8 years in 2006, the loss of more than a year. For young women, expected years of life without serious disease fell from 49.2 years to 48 years over the last decade.

At the same time, the number of people who report lack of mobility has grown, starting with young adults.

Functional mobility was defined as the ability to walk up ten steps, walk a quarter mile, stand or sit for 2 hours, and stand, bend or kneel without using special equipment.

A male 20-year-old today can expect to spend 5.8 years over the rest of his life without basic mobility, compared to 3.8 years a decade ago -- an additional two years unable to walk up ten steps or sit for two hours. A female 20-year-old can expect 9.8 years without mobility, compared to 7.3 years a decade ago.

"There is substantial evidence that we have done little to date to eliminate or delay disease while we have prevented death from diseases," said Crimmins.

At the same time, Crimmins said, there have been substantial increases in the incidences of certain chronic diseases -- specifically, diabetes.

From 1998 to 2006, the prevalence of cardiovascular disease increased among older men, the researchers found.

Both older men and women showed an increased prevalence of cancer.

And diabetes increased significantly among all adult age groups over age 30.

The proportion of the population with multiple diseases also increased.

Crimmins said the increasing prevalence of disease could simple reflect the medical community's increased ability to diagnose illness, "but what it most clearly reflects is increasing survival of people with disease."

"The cost of maintaining and providing care for people with chronic conditions is an important part of determining the economic well-being of countries with established social security and government-provided health services."

Crimmins and Beltran-Sanchez note that only delaying the onset of disease through preventive care will clearly lead to longer disease-free lives.

"The growing problem of lifelong obesity and increases in hypertension and high cholesterol are a sign that health may not be improving with each generation," said Crimmins.

"We do not appear to be moving to a world where we die without experiencing significant periods of disease, functioning loss, and disability."

The research is published in the December issue of the Journal of Gerontology.

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States Crack Down On ‘Deceptive’ Charities

Officials warn consumers to be more wary

More and more states are taking action against charity fundraisers they say are deceiving consumers about how their donations are ultimately used....

Increasingly, consumers have to worry about being ripped off by so-called charities, not just shady businesses. States have begun stepping up their actions to warn and protect their citizens.

The State of Iowa has taken action against a Minnesota fundraiser it says was calling consumers in the state seeking donations for several law enforcement associations.

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller says the firm used deceptive tactics to solicit the money, and has now agreed to make changes in how it deals with consumers.

Public Safety Council, LLP, and Community Safety, LLC, both headquartered in Minneapolis, their subcontractor, Safety Services, LLC, of St. Paul, and their principals, J. Michael Callan and Robert T. Callan, have entered into an agreement with the Attorney General, called an Assurance of Voluntary Compliance.

Miller says telephone solicitors, working from a call center in St. Paul, called Iowa consumers on behalf of at least three Iowa law enforcement associations.  Several calls, which were recorded by the Consumer Protection Division, reveal unfair and deceptive conduct, Miller alleges. 

The respondents deny wrongdoing or liability of any kind.  The respondents solicited Iowans on behalf of the following organizations:

Iowa State Police Association (ISPA)

It sound like a worthy cause, right? But Miller says of the total amount solicited from Iowans in donations to the Iowa State Police Association (ISPA), fundraisers retain 84 perent, and only 16 percent actually goes to ISPA. 

Based on recorded calls, the Attorney General alleges that telephone fundraisers failed to identify themselves as paid professional fundraisers; insinuated that they were directly associated with ISPA or a law enforcement agency; falsely inflated the amount of donations benefiting ISPA, by implying that as much as 100 percent of a donation goes to ISPA; and misrepresented how often they call potential donors.

Iowa State Reserve Law Officers Association (ISRLOA)

Of the total amount solicited from Iowans in donations to the Iowa State Reserve Law Officers Association (ISRLOA), fundraisers retain 85 percent, and only 15 percent actually goes to ISRLOA, Miller says.  Based on recorded calls, the Attorney General alleges that telephone fundraisers failed to identify themselves as paid professional fundraisers; insinuated that they were directly associated with ISRLOA or a law enforcement agency; falsely inflated the amount of donations benefiting ISRLOA, by claiming that as much as 100 percent of a donation goes to ISRLOA; and misrepresented the solicitors' location.

Iowa Peace Officers Association (IAPO)

Again, Miller says this group - formerly known as the Iowa Association of Chiefs of Police and Peace Officers - got only 16 percent of the collected funds. Based on recorded calls, the Attorney General alleges that telephone fundraisers failed to identify themselves as paid professional fundraisers; insinuated that they were directly associated with IAPO or a law enforcement agency; falsely inflated the amount of donations benefiting IAPO, by claiming that as much as 60 percent of a donation goes to IAPO; misrepresented when the donor would receive another call; and misrepresented the solicitor's location.

'Oregon names 20 worst charities'

In Oregon, Attorney General John Kroger has assembled a list of what he calls the state's "20 worst charities" and is urging consumers to avoid them. 

"It is important that generous Oregonians make charitable contributions to legitimate organizations," Kroger said. "Many charities do great work, but some are little more than scams that do little to help the people they claim to support."

In addition to increasing consumer awareness, Kroger will ask the 2011 Legislature to pass a law making Oregon the first state in the country to use the tax code to fight charities that spend most of the money they raise on telemarketers and administration.

The proposal will eliminate the Oregon tax deduction for donations to charities that spend less than 30 percent of the money they raise on the people they claim to support.

"This proposal will help kick sham charities out of Oregon," Kroger said. "If the rest of the country follows Oregon's lead, we could end the rampant abuse of non-profit laws."

State law requires charities to file periodic financial reports with the Oregon Department of Justice disclosing how much money the organization raised and how the funds were spent. The Department's Charitable Activities Section has identified 20 organizations that spent more than 75 percent of the donations they collected on administrative costs and professional fundraising.

While guidelines issued by the Better Business Bureau (BBB) suggest that charitable organizations should spend at least 65 percent of their funds on charitable programs, every charity on the Department of Justice's list devoted less than 25 percent of their expenditures on charitable program activities.

At the top of the list is Shiloh International Ministries, which claims to solicit money to provide medical necessities and moral support to needy children and to provide assistance to the homeless. According to the most recent financial filings, the California-based non-profit spent an average of $937,315 per year, 96.37 percent of which went to management and fundraising.

No. 2 on the list is Law Enforcement Education Program, which supposedly raises money to educate teenagers on the effects of alcohol. The Michigan-based non-profit spent just 6.26 percent of the annual average $1,893,929 it raised on charitable purposes.

The Korean War Veterans National Museum and Library was one of many groups on the list that says it raises money to help veterans. The Illinois-based group spent 96.97 percent of the annual average $2,265,809 it raised on telemarketing and administration.

Just hang up

How do you avoid being deceived by a charity fundraiser? One way is to simply hang up when you get these calls. It's much better to choose your own charity projects to support from within your local community, supporting organizations you know something about.

However, if you are someone who wants to consider all appeals, Miller offers these tips:

  • Ask questions.  Be wary of claims that the caller is a charity worker or volunteer, that most of your donation goes to the cause, or that your donation will be used locally. 
  • Don't let a sympathetic charity name fool you - some fundraisers exaggerate or fabricate their support for veterans or military families, law enforcement, fire fighters, victims of disease, and children's causes.
  • Ask phone solicitors to send written information.  Be suspicious if they insist on a pledge before they'll send you information. 
  • Don't give your credit card or checking account numbers over the phone to someone you don't know.
  • Give directly to a known charity of your choice.

Bottom line: Keep giving generously, but give wisely!  Giving to a known charity you're confident about is often the best option.

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Consumers Warned to Avoid 'Man Up Now' Capsules

Product marketed for sexual enhancement contains potentially dangerous ingredient

Consumers Warned to Avoid ‘Man Up Now’ Capsules Product marketed for sexual enhancement contains potentially dangerous ingredient ...

photoGuys trying to put a little extra "oomph" into their sex life are being warned to stay away from a product called "Man Up Now."

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says the capsules, marketed as a dietary supplement for sexual enhancement, contain a variation of an active drug ingredient found in Viagra that can dangerously lower blood pressure.

Man Up Now claims to be "herbal" and "all natural" and consumers may mistakenly assume the product is harmless and poses no health risk. Consumers who have Man Up Now capsules should stop using them immediately.

Dangerous interaction possible

The FDA analyzed Man Up Now and determined that it contains sulfoaildenafil, a chemical similar to sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra. Like sildenafil, this chemical may interact with prescription drugs such as nitrates, including nitroglycerin, and cause dangerously low blood pressure.

When blood pressure drops suddenly, the brain is deprived of an adequate blood supply that can lead to dizziness or lightheadedness.

Man Up Now, distributed by Synergy Distribution LLC, is sold on Internet sites, online marketplaces, and possibly in retail outlets in single, double, and triple blister packs, and in six-, 12-, and 30-count capsule bottles.

No problems -- yet

FDA says it is not aware of any adverse events associated with the use of the product so far. However, sexual enhancement products that claim to work as well as prescription products, but contain prescription strength drugs, are likely to expose unknowing consumers to unpredictable risks and the potential for injury or death.

The FDA has found many products marketed as dietary supplements for sexual enhancement during the past several years that can be harmful because they contain active ingredients in FDA-approved drugs or variations of these ingredients.

Sexual enhancement products promising rapid effects such as working in minutes to hours, or long-lasting effects such as 24 hours to 72 hours, are likely to contain ingredients in FDA-approved drugs or variations of those ingredients.

File a report

The FDA advises consumers who have experienced any negative side effects from sexual enhancement products to consult a health care professional and to discard the product. Consumers and health care professionals should report adverse events to the FDA's MedWatch Adverse Event Reporting program either online, by regular mail or by fax.

To request a form, call 800-332-1088, then complete and return it to the address on the form or submit by fax to 800-FDA-0178.

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Holiday Chefs Beware: Hot Glassware Can Shatter Unexpectedly

Consumer Product Safety Commission asked to investigate glass bakeware

Consumer Reports: Hot Glassware Can Shatter Unexpectedly Consumer Product Safety Commission asked to investigate glass bakeware...

While hundreds of millions of glass baking dishes are used safely each year, hot glassware can shatter unexpectedly -- sometimes causing serious injuries, according to a year-long investigation by Consumer Reports (CR). 

The report, which comes more than four years after ConsumerAffairs.com revealed the problem and jousted with bakeware company lawyers,  details several stories of glass bakeware breaking and shattering, including the case of a grandmother who said she opened her oven to baste a ham on Thanksgiving Day, only to have the glass dish shatter, sending pieces of glass and hot juices flying.  

Investigation requested

After reviewing scores of consumer reports filed with federal regulators about bakeware unexpectedly shattering, Consumers Union (CU), the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, has asked the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to conduct a thorough study of glass bakeware on the market. 

CU has also called on manufacturers to imprint warnings that are clearer and more prominent on their bakeware.  "Part of the problem is that the fine print warnings are so tiny and they're part of the packaging that consumers often throw out," said Andrea Rock, senior editor, Consumer Reports.    

The report, available in the magazine's January issue, says that in a typical year, the two main manufacturers of glass bakeware -- World Kitchen, the maker of Pyrex in the U.S., and its competitor, Anchor Hocking -- collectively make on average more than 70 million units of what is undoubtedly a staple of most kitchens and a popular cooking tool when preparing holiday meals.  

Caution for cooks

The report contains ten precautions that may surprise cooks who have used glass bakeware.  To minimize the chances of the glassware shattering, consumers should read and save the safety instructions from their glass bakeware and follow these safety rules: 

  1. Always place hot glassware on a dry, cloth potholder or towel.
  2. Never use glassware for stovetop cooking or under a broiler.
  3. Always allow the oven to preheat fully before placing the glassware in the oven.
  4. Always cover the bottom of the dish with liquid before cooking meat or vegetables.
  5. Don't add liquid to hot glassware.
  6. If you're using the dish in a microwave, do not use browning elements, and avoid overheating oil and butter.
  7. Do not take dishes directly from the freezer to the oven or vice versa.
  8. Never place hot glassware directly on a countertop (or smoothtop), metal surface, on a damp towel, in the sink, or on a cold or wet surface.
  9. Inspect your dishes for chips, cracks, and scratches. Discard dishes with such damage.
  10. To avoid risks associated with glass dishes, consider using metal bakeware for conventional and convection ovens.

CR's investigation

To find out about glass bakeware, CR conducted an investigation that included testing in its own labs and outside labs, and gathering information from manufacturers, government agencies, experts, and consumers.   When Pyrex was first marketed in 1915, it was made of a heat-resistant glass called borosilicate that previously was used to prevent glass railroad lanterns from shattering. 

While U.S. manufacturers of both Pyrex and Anchor Hocking have switched from borosilicate to soda lime glass for their glass bakeware, the magazine notes, samples of European-made glass bakeware obtained continue to consist of borosilicate. 

The manufacturers say their soda lime glass has advantages and is less likely to break when dropped or bumped.  While the results from Consumer Reports' limited impact tests were highly variable, some samples of soda lime glass showed the highest impact resistance.

The methods

Consumer Reports tested both types of glass in its lab to see how they compared in extreme conditions likely to cause breakage. To test the dishes, CR filled each pan with dry sand (which gets much hotter than food) and then placed the dishes in ovens set at varying temperatures.  The testers then compared what happened when each hot dish was removed from the oven and placed on a wet granite countertop, a situation likely to induce thermal shock and contrary to each manufacturer's instructions for use. 

The magazine notes that the bar was set high in the extreme tests because dishes that are scratched or damaged may not offer the same safety margin as new dishes, and users may ignore or be unaware of the usage instructions. 

Ten out of ten times the soda lime glass broke after baking at 450 degrees. But in the same conditions, the European borosilicate glassware did not break, though most did after baking at 500 degrees.

Highlights

Some key highlights from the investigation include the following:

  • Consumers in scores of cases reported glass bakeware unexpectedly shattering, according to federal documents, court papers, and interviews.   When Consumer Reports examined 163 incidents (152 of which were from CPSC files) in detail, the analysis revealed 42 reports of injuries, ranging from minor burns or cuts to those requiring surgery. More than half of the incidents reportedly occurred while the bakeware was in the oven while almost a quarter occurred with the bakeware cooling on a counter or stovetop.
  • When glass bakeware does shatter, consumers say, it can break into sharp shards that go flying, raising the risks of injuries. This contrasts with claims from one of the manufacturers that its glass bakeware breaks into "relatively small pieces generally lacking sharp edges.”

Michelle of New York, NY, says she was  cooking BBQ turkey legs in a 375 degree oven using Anchor Hocking glass lasagna pans. "When I went to take it out," she writes ConsumerAffairs.com. "It exploded and shards of glass when flying everywhere. They even flew into my face and luckily I didn't get anything in my eye how ever in the process of cleaning up the mess, I cut my foot. Thank God my kids were not in the room when it happened."

"I placed a pork loin into my Pyrex dish and put it in a 425 degree oven," writes Megan of Newport News, VA. "Eight minutes into cooking I hear an explosion. I open my oven to find tiny pieces of glass EVERYWHERE and my pork loin lying on the oven rack. So glad nobody was around and the oven door was closed tightly when it happened. Beware!"

Recommendations

Consumers Union says manufacturers should imprint clearer and more prominent warnings on their bakeware, not just on the packaging that gets tossed upon first use. 

While hundreds of millions of dishes are used safely each year, CU believes the situation is serious enough that it has asked the CPSC to conduct a thorough study of glass bakeware on the market, with particular attention to the difference between bakeware made of soda lime glass and borosilicate.

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Study: Where You Live Is Linked to Your Readiness to Retire

Minneapolis-St. Paul ranks first in Retirement Readiness while Los Angeles ranks last

Retirement readiness varies widely in America’s 30 largest metropolitan areas with Minneapolis-St. Paul claiming the top spot ...

A new survey suggests that where you live might influence your readiness to retire and that the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area scored the highest among the country's 30 largest metropolitan areas.

The study, titled The New Retirement Mindscape 2010 City Pulse index, and sponsored by Ameriprise Financial, examined each city to determine where people were the most prepared for and confident about retirement.

Following Minneapolis-St. Paul, Raleigh-Durham came in second and Nashville third, while Los Angeles ranked last (30) just behind Indianapolis (ranked 29) and Orlando (ranked 28).

Each metropolitan area was scored based on responses to a national survey which measured consumers' likelihood to have determined the amount of money they need to save for retirement and their actual saving habits. The index also takes into account if people have planned for a variety of activities during retirement and expressed confidence about achieving their retirement goals.

More confidence

The biggest similarity between the top-ranked metro areas was that their residents made retirement planning a priority - and not just from a financial perspective. It was a tight race for the top spot, but Minneapolis-St. Paul managed to edge out Raleigh-Durham in part because its residents approached retirement with more confidence, suggesting higher levels of preparation.   

Minneapolis-St. Paul scored significantly higher than the national average on nearly every factor related to retirement readiness. It had an impressive 83% of survey respondents who said they have set aside money for retirement, compared to a national average of 69%. This may help explain why nearly half (48%) of Twin Cities residents report feeling "on track” for retirement and a third (30%) say they are "very confident” in their financial future.

Raleigh-Durham does have a slight edge from one standpoint. In addition to being financially prepared, 80% of people surveyed say they've given a lot of thought to the activities they'd like to pursue during retirement.                    

A similar trend was seen among Nashville residents, who were among the most likely to have given serious thought to the activities they'd like to pursue during retirement. And while the area shows only average levels of financial preparation, half of those surveyed report that they feel "on track" for retirement.

Economy appears to be significant factor in lowest ranked cities. And if retirement is a priority in the top three metropolitan areas, the opposite could be said for those at the bottom.  

Findings suggest that, at least in Los Angeles, more immediate financial concerns may be taking precedence over retirement planning. In L.A., more than a third (36%) of those surveyed say they've experienced a career setback or a layoff in the past 18 months and 22% report that they are currently unemployed but planning to return to work. This may help explain why an astonishing 37% of its residents admit that they haven't given much thought to preparing for retirement - and only 57% have set aside money.

The sentiment is similar in Indianapolis, where a third (31%) of retirees say the economy has impacted their retirement plans, compared to a quarter (25%) of retirees nationwide. Here, just 42% of those surveyed have set aside money into their own savings or investments, and only 60% of people associate emotions like "happiness" and "optimism" with retirement.

Meanwhile, a mere 20% of those surveyed in Orlando say they've determined the income needed in retirement and a full 30% claim they haven't thought much about it. Some residents are deciding to return to work, as is the case for 5% of respondents - a rate more than two times the national average (2%). However, with a local unemployment rate above the national average, finding post-retirement jobs may be challenging.

Preparation and confidence appear misaligned in some major metro areas. For example, in Washington D.C. (which ranked 23rd), 80% of its residents are setting aside money for retirement - second only to top-ranked Minneapolis-St. Paul. However, confidence is lagging dramatically in the nation's capital. Some 40% of those surveyed expressed negative feelings when they thought about retirement, and the metro area ranked second to last on confidence factors.

The story may be clearer in number 12 San Francisco, which ranks fourth for preparation but 18th on confidence. The metro area has not been immune to the recession, which hit California especially hard. While employment figures for those surveyed are on par with the national average, other sources indicate a higher unemployment rate overall. Likewise, 36% of pre-retirees from this area say that they're planning to postpone retirement due to economic factors, which is significantly higher than the national average (26%).

Similar discrepancies are noted in Detroit (ranked 21), Tampa (ranked 19) and St. Louis (ranked 17), however in these metropolitan areas preparation lags significantly behind confidence. Whether people from these areas are overly confident or simply more resilient, it appears their emotions have made a faster recovery than the economy.

As for how all 30 metropolitan areas are ranked, here they are:                     

1.  Minneapolis-St. Paul       

2.  Raleigh-Durham

3.  Nashville                                      

4.  Sacramento-Stockton-Modesto

5.  Seattle-Tacoma

6.  San Diego

7.  Hartford-New Haven

8.  Denver

9.  Baltimore

10.  Boston

11.  Dallas-Ft. Worth

12.  San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose

13.  Chicago

14.  Houston

15.  Atlanta

16.  Phoenix

17.  St. Louis

18.  Pittsburgh

19.  Tampa-St. Petersburg

20.  Miami-Ft. Lauderdale

21.  Detroit

22.  Philadelphia

23.  Washington D.C.

24.  Portland

25.  Cleveland-Akron

26.  New York

27.  Charlotte

28.  Orlando-Daytona Beach-Melbourne

29.  Indianapolis

30.  Los Angeles

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Teens More Likely To Drive Drunk or On Drugs

Survey finds drivers ages 16-25 at highest risk for driving under the influence

Teens More Likely To Drive Drunk or On Drugs Survey finds drivers ages 16-25 at highest risk for driving under the influence...

A new survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) indicates that on average 13.2 percent of all persons 16 or older drove under the influence of alcohol and 4.3 percent of this age group drove under the influence of illicit drugs in the past year.

The survey's state-by-state breakdown of drunk and drugged driving levels shows significant differences among the states.

Some of the states with the highest levels of past year drunk driving were Wisconsin (23.7 percent) and North Dakota (22.4 percent).

The highest rates of past year drugged driving were found in Rhode Island (7.8 percent) and Vermont (6.6 percent).

States with the lowest rates of past year drunk driving included Utah (7.4 percent) and Mississippi (8.7 percent).

Iowa and New Jersey had the lowest levels of past year drugged driving (2.9 percent and 3.2 percent respectively).

Levels of self-reported drunk and drugged driving differed dramatically among age groups, with younger drivers having a much higher likelihood of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Drivers aged 16 to 25 had a 19.5 percent rate of drunk driving while drivers 26 or older had an 11.8 percent rate.

Similarly, people aged 16 to 25 had a much higher rate of driving while under the influence of illicit drugs than those aged 26 or older (11.4 percent versus 2.8 percent).

The one bright spot in the survey is that there has been a reduction in the rate of drunk and drugged driving in the past few years.

Survey data from 2002 through 2005 combined when compared to data gathered from 2006 to 2009 combined indicate that the average yearly rate of drunk driving has dropped from 14.6 percent to 13.2 percent, while the average yearly rate of drugged driving has dropped from 4.8 percent to 4.3 percent.

Twelve states have seen reductions in the levels of drunk driving and seven states have experienced lower levels of drugged driving.

However according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatal Accident Reporting System (FARS) census, in 2009, one in three motor vehicle fatalities (33 percent) with known drug test results tested positive for drugs.

"Thousands of people die each year as a result of drunk and drugged driving, and the lives of thousands of family members and friends left behind are forever scarred,” said SAMHSA Administrator Pamela S. Hyde, J.D.

Hyde said some progress has been made in reducing the levels of drunk and drugged driving through education, enhanced law enforcement and public outreach efforts, however, "the nation must continue to work to prevent this menace and confront these dangerous drivers in an aggressive way.”

"While we have understood for some time the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol, much less is known or discussed about drivers under the influence of other drugs,” said Gil Kerlikowske, Director of National Drug Control Policy.

"This new data adds to other emerging research revealing that there is an alarmingly high percentage of Americans on our roadways with drugs in their system. At a time when drug use is on the rise, it is crucial that communities act today to address the threat of drugged driving as we work to employ more targeted enforcement and develop better tools to detect the presence of drugs among drivers.”

State Estimates of Drunk and Drugged Driving is based on the combined data from the 2002 to 2005 and 2006 to 2009 National Surveys on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) and involves responses from more than 423,000 respondents aged 16 or over.

NSDUH is a primary source of information on national and state-level use of tobacco, alcohol, illicit drugs (including non-medical use of prescription drugs) and mental health in the United States.

The survey is part of the agency's strategic initiative on behavioral health data, quality and outcomes.

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Housing Coalition Wants Probe of Lending Policies Affecting Working Class Families

Group charges lenders with ‘unfair and discriminatory’ policies against working class families

Housing Coalition Calls for Probe of Lending Policies Working Class Families Group charges lenders with ‘unfair and discriminatory’ policies against...

The National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC) is calling for a federal probe of the nation's largest Federal Housing Administration (FHA) approved lenders.

According to NCRC, an association of more than 600 community-based organizations, the lenders may be violating federal housing rules by refusing to offer loans to consumers who meet the FHA standard of a minimum credit score of 580 and above with a 3.5 percent down payment.

A recent NCRC investigation found that the majority of top FHA lenders failed to offer applications for federal-guaranteed loans to potentially qualified borrowers with credit scores below 620 or 640, even though FHA guarantees loans with credit scores to 580.

Discriminatory policies

These lenders have policies that establish "credit overlays" above the FHA policy, NCRC says, with minimum credit score requirements as high as 640. One-third of all consumers have credit scores under 620.

"Critical to our nation's economic progress is the ability of homeowners to get quality refinancing, and for homebuyers to reclaim vacant houses by accessing quality mortgage credit, " said John Taylor, NCRC President and CEO.

Taylor says the decision by some banks to not follow the FHA's policy is cutting qualified borrowers off from accessing credit, and in doing so, "causing harm to their ability to prosper, build wealth and for our economy to grow." He calls the decision "arbitrary," because the loans are fully guaranteed, whether the borrower's credit score is 580 or 780.

NCRC is filing complaints against 22 lenders who have policies that are not in compliance with the FHA's policy, claiming they violate the Federal Fair Housing Act, because the policy has a disparate impact on black and Latino communities.

NCRC probe

NCRC conducted "mystery shopping" tests on the nation's top FHA approved lenders. Of all lenders tested, 32, or 65 percent, refused to consider consumers with credit scores below 620. An additional 11, or 22 percent, refused to extend credit to consumers with credit scores below 640. Only five, or 10 percent, had policies in place that served consumers with credit scores at 580 and up, in accordance with the FHA underwriting policy. The FHA provides lenders guarantees on its loans, which historically have financed the mortgages of working class families.

"By denying access to FHA loans to qualified, creditworthy individuals, without regard for the actual risk posed to the institution, lenders are discouraging the flow of credit and capital into working class communities, including minority neighborhoods," said David Berenbaum, Chief Program Officer of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. "These policies amount to discrimination in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act."

NCRC also charges that the lenders' policies violate the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and the Community Reinvestment Act and is calling on the following agencies to investigate: the U.S. Departments of Justice and Housing and Urban Development, the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Office of Thrift Supervision, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

NCRC has filed complaints against the following 22 lenders so far:

  1. American Equity Mortgage, Inc.
  2. American Financial Resources
  3. Bank Of The West
  4. Banco Bilbao Vizcaya
  5. Citizens Financial
  6. Envoy Mortgage
  7. First Residential Mortgage
  8. Franklin American Mortgage Co
  9. Freedom Mortgage Corp.
  10. Metlife Bank, N.A.
  11. Nationstar Mortgage LLC
  12. New Day Financial, LLC
  13. New Penn Financial, LLC
  14. Paramount Residential Mortgage
  15. Phh Mortgage Corporation
  16. Prospect Mortgage, LLC
  17. Securitynational Mortgage
  18. Shore Mortgage
  19. Sierra Pacific Mortgage Co.
  20. Stearns Lending, Inc.
  21. Synovus/ Bank Of North Georgia
  22. Wr Starkey Mortgage, LLP
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The Prolonged Economic Meltdown Has Turned Many of Us from Hoarders to Just in Time Consumers

This shift in consumption habits is prompting retailers to change how they peddle their goods

Tapped out consumers who once bought in bulk are now buying only what they need and the retail industry is noticing...

 Last week, my wife and I vowed to eat everything in our freezer before making another trek to the store. Well, almost everything. There were some two-year-old frozen tilapias that had somehow grown fur. But the idea was simple.

We decided to break what had become a habit of hoarding food. Not only was it inefficient, but it was also expensive. It seemed that every week we'd buy more food than we'd need and end up freezing what didn't get eaten, thinking we'd have it another day.  But that other day rarely came or when it did, we would always choose what was fresh over what was frozen.

So this week we did something different. We only bought enough food to last us for the week. In fact, we even bought a little less than we thought we'd need because we always over-estimate.  

It turns out what we were doing has actually become a trend and retail executives even have a name for it. We're called "just-in-time consumers.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, this trend has already prompted retailers to change the way they produce, package, price and deliver their goods. Like the Great Depression before it, the great recession has created its own generation of frugal savers along with a deeply changed consumer, one who only buys that he or she needs.

Buying big

The Journal notes that for over two decades, American consumers bought big, bought more and bought bulk often on credit. The recent recession with its high unemployment, plunging stock market and falling home prices have changed the way we consume. Manufacturers and retailers report that people are buying less but buying more frequently.

This change has been noticed by food and household-product manufacturers, including Del Monte and Kimberly-Clark. They're bringing out smaller package sizes for consumers who would rather buy a week's worth of toilet paper or dog food than stock up for a month. The Journal says that some grocers are trying to accommodate smaller but more frequent shopping trips. Even BJ's Wholesale Club is selling eggs and margarine in smaller lots.

Procter & Gamble has been tracking consumers' pantries since mid-2008 as gauge of how the recession has changed shoppers' behavior. They found that about one-third of consumers are changing their pantry levels with about 75% of those cutting back on inventory.

Finally, I can see the back of our freezer. So that's where the frozen blueberries went.

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Computer Program Helps Kids With ADHD

Study finds Swedish computer game improves working memory, which suffers due to ADHD

Computer Program Helps Kids With ADHD Study finds Swedish computer game improves working memory, which suffers due to ADHD...

An intensive, five-week working memory training program shows promise in relieving some of the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children, a new study suggests.

Researchers found significant changes for students who completed the program in areas such as attention, ADHD symptoms, planning and organization, initiating tasks, and working memory.

"This program really seemed to make a difference for many of the children with ADHD," said Steven Beck, co-author of the study an associate professor of psychology at Ohio State University. "It is not going to replace medication, but it could be a useful complementary therapy."

Beck said one of the encouraging findings was many parents found their children's ADHD symptoms improving after using the program. This is encouraging because the focus of the program is improving working memory, not symptom relief.   

Working memory is the ability to hold onto information long enough to achieve a goal.  Remembering a phone number long enough to dial it or a passage in a book that was just read are examples of working memory. It's also one of the major deficiencies found in people with ADHD.

"Working memory is critical in everyday life, and certainly for academic success, but it is one of the things that is very difficult for children with ADHD," Hanson said.

For the study, Beck and the other study researchers -- Christine Hanson and Synthia Puffenberger, graduate students in psychology at Ohio State -- tested software developed by a Swedish company called Cogmed, in conjunction with the Karolinska Institute, a medical university in Stockholm.

The study participants were 52 students, aged 7 to 17, who attended a private school in Columbus, Ohio that serves children with learning disabilities, many of whom also have an ADHD diagnoses.   

All the children used the software in their homes, under the supervision of their parents and the researchers.

The software includes a set of 25 exercises that students had to complete within 5 to 6 weeks.  Each session is 30 to 40 minutes long.  The exercises are in a computer-game format and are designed to help students improve their working memory.  For example, in one exercise a robot will speak numbers in a certain order, and the student has to click on the numbers the robot spoke, on the computer screen, in the opposite order.

"At first the kids love it, because it is like a game," Puffenberger said.  "But the software has an algorithm built in that makes the exercises harder as the students get better.  So the children are always challenged."

Half the students participated at the beginning of the study.  The other half were wait-listed, and completed the software program after the others were finished.

Parents and teachers of the participating students completed measures of the children's ADHD symptoms and working memory before the intervention, one month after treatment, and four months after treatment.

Results showed that parents generally rated their children as improving on inattention, overall number of ADHD symptoms, working memory, planning and organization and in initiating tasks.  These changes were evident both immediately after treatment and four months later.

On individual measures, between one-fourth and one-third of the children showed clinically significant progress -- in other words, enough progress to be easily visible to their parents.

The teacher ratings, while pointed in the direction of improvement, were not strong enough to be statistically significant in this study.  

That's not surprising, Beck said, because very few treatment studies ever find significance among teacher measures.

"Teachers only see the kids for a few hours a day and they are dealing with a lot of other children at the same time.  It would be difficult for them to see changes," said Beck.

According to Beck, this is the first published study they know of testing this software in the United States.  One of the strengths of the study is that it used a very typical sample of children with ADHD -- other studies in Sweden had excluded children who were on medication.

"Most kids with ADHD are on some kind of medication, so it helps to know how this intervention works in these cases," he said.

In this sample, 60 percent of the students were on medication.  The results showed the program was equally effective regardless of whether they were on medication or not.

"Medication for ADHD does not help directly with working memory, and the training program does, so it can be useful," Beck said.

Beck said they can't say for sure how the program works to help kids with ADHD.  But it seems that children are learning how to focus and how to use their working memory on everyday tasks, and they are able to use that knowledge at school and home.

One possible criticism of the study could be that it relies on parental reports, and the parents may be biased.

"That's true, but it is also the parents who are observing the kids day in and day out, and they are the ones who would be most likely to observe any changes that occur," Beck said.

The researchers plan on extending the work by using more objective measures of children's progress after using the program.

Two other co-authors of the study were William Benninger, an adjunct assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State, and Kristen Benninger, a medical student at the University of Toledo

Beck, Hanson and Puffenberger have no financial interest in the company that makes the software.  William Benninger does have an interest, but was not involved in the collection of the data.

The study findings are published in the November/December 2010 issue of the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology.

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Seasonal Flavors Spice Up Restaurant Menus

Eateries know what their patrons want -- and they provide it

Seasonal Flavors Spice Up Restaurant MenusEateries know what their patrons want -- and they provide it...

With Thanksgiving behind us and Christmas and other holidays just around the corner, consumers are in the mood to celebrate.

As a result, latest research from market intelligence provider Mintel finds that restaurant chains are responding to consumer demand by spicing up their menus with fall and winter offerings. Last year, food and beverage menu items featuring familiar fall ingredients and flavors -- such as pumpkin, squash, apple, cinnamon, caramel and hazelnut -- increased by 13 percent from the summer to fall season.

Catering to consumer wishes

"It's not uncommon for restaurant operators to update their menus to reflect fresh ingredients of each season," notes Kathy Hayden, foodservice analyst at Mintel. "The falling temperatures signal to restaurant-goers that it's time for a change to their palettes. Words like 'harvest' and 'spiced' are other menu cues that convey fall and winter flavors."

Pumpkin is an especially popular fall ingredient -- its incidence on menus increasing by a staggering 161 percent from summer to fall in 2009. During the same time frame, squash dishes shot up by 150 percent and menu items flavored with cinnamon and hazelnut rose by nearly five percent, respectively.  

Cider also shows seasonal increases. Warm cider drinks have appeared in many of the major coffee chains: Tim Hortons has cider donuts, and cider vinaigrettes bring autumnal touches to salads.

Some of the latest seasonal limited-time-offers showing up on menus this year are: Culver's eggnog shake, Denny's gingerbread french toast, Panera Bread's mint crinkle cookie and Sonic's holiday spiced sugar cookie blast. 

"Last week, Mintel Menu Insights released its 2011 food and menu trends, but the seasonality trend remains constant," adds Hayden. "For restaurants, seasonal dishes are a natural way to draw interest, but the challenge is not to simply add items to the menu, but to add items that resonate with your current customers and have enough seasonal interest to draw potential guests."

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Nine Suggested Money Moves For 2011

Consumers urged to maximize their cash in the new year

With the beginning of a new year, consumers can build and protect their wealth by sharpening their budget skills and eight other financial steps....

The Federal Reserve reports American businesses continue to sit on huge cash deposits and the amount appears to be growing.

In its latest report, the Fed said nonfinancial companies in the U.S. were holding $1.93 trillion in cash and other liquid assets at the end of September. That's up from $1.8 trillion at the end of June.

What about consumers? Since the economic meltdown of October 2008 Americans' saving rate has been on the rise. What should consumers be doing with their finances to maximize their financial stability in the year ahead?

"Building up a cash cushion and paying down debt are smart money moves no matter what your financial position," said Ethan Ewing, president of the financial website  Bills.com. "As more Americans have successfully adopted this strategy, it's time for them to demonstrate an even higher degree of financial savvy with some well-timed money maneuvers in 2011."

Ewing says there are nine steps consumers should take in 2011 to protect and build their money.

Revisit your monthly budget

A new year means a new budget. Calculate your monthly income, required monthly expenses, and then whittle down your discretionary spending. Allow for some flexibility and a few small luxuries to make it realistic, but be aggressive in cutting out extras. Be disciplined in your spending and saving - do not let extra savings one month increase your entertainment spending in the next.

Commit to reducing your debt or building your nest egg

If you still have credit card debt or a high interest secured loan, use the savings from your new, aggressive budget to begin paying it down. If you are debt free or are only paying down a low interest mortgage or auto loan, then be sure to build a nest egg equal to at least six months spending.

Ratchet up long-terms savings for retirement and college expenses

If you are fortunate enough to have paid off your debt and stashed away a sizable nest egg, then it's time to increase your retirement or college contributions. Be sure to max out retirement savings first because you can find loans for college if necessary. If your employer offers a 401(k) match, it's free money - take it.

Open a Health Savings Account (HSA)

If you are considering a high-deductible insurance plan, be sure to open an HSA to cover out of pocket medical expenses, including co-pays, health-related purchases, and more. Contributing to an HSA can lower your taxable income and allows your money to grow tax-deferred through retirement.

Re-bid your insurance provider

Insurance companies have also been hit hard by the recession. This means many will be even more aggressive to win your business. Comparison shop for cheaper home or auto insurance alternatives, but be sure to pay attention to differences in coverage so you remain adequately insured. You may find that your current provider is not the most affordable, or that they are willing to drop their rates to retain your business.

Research mortgage refinance rates on your home

Even if you refinanced your home in 2010, it makes sense to research rates again. For many homeowners, record low rates means you can save money and interest over the life of your loan with another home refinance. The Bills.com mortgage calculator provides an easy way to decide if a refinance makes sense for you.

Re-evaluate your monthly utilities

You can save hundreds of dollars a year by comparison shopping or reducing monthly utility bills such as television, Internet, and cell phone. More and more Americans are cutting the cord of traditional cable or satellite and finding basic or premium television content online in order to save money. Similarly, streaming movies offer a cheaper alternative to the Cineplex. Shop high speed Internet and cell phone providers for better rates, or consider reducing your Internet speed or cell phone minutes to save on monthly usage. Basic utilities such as garbage, home security, and recycling can also be bid out.

Assess healthcare and health insurance changes

Many health insurance providers are changing their plan limits and fees in response to national healthcare legislation. Pay attention to mailings from your provider and ask questions of your employer if you subscribe to a workplace plan. Carefully weigh changes in premium versus co-pays and preventative healthcare coverage when evaluating plan options. Review past medical and prescription needs and usage as a guide to how you will likely use the plan during 2011.

Update your monthly budget with savings included. Check against actual spend.

With your new utility, insurance, and healthcare savings offsetting increases in retirement and college tuition contributions, rebalance your monthly budget. Tuck away additional extra income into your HSA or rainy day fund. As you approach the end of January, check your actual spending amounts against your expected budget to ensure accuracy.

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Tired of Paying ATM Fees Just to Get Access to Your Own Money?

Here are some places that let you use rival ATMs for free

If you’re tired of having to pay an ATM fee for using a bank that’s not your own, here are some places that led you use most ATMs for free...

I know it's a convenience but I still hate to pay a machine just to get access to my own money. Paying fees to use an automated teller machine, or ATM as they're better known, is one of my pet peeves. In fact, I'll go out of my way to either use one of the banks' ATMs where I have an account to avoid paying any fee, or go to Costco, where the ATM machine only charges 75 cents.

It's those times when I'm stranded and surrounded by every type of major branch imaginable except mine that I really sent forking over $3 to take a couple a hundred bucks out of my account. It's not like the bank has to pay someone to do this. It's all automatic.

Now, I grant you three dollars isn't going to clean me out. But let's say I go to the ATM once a week. Those little charges start to add up to $156 a year just to access my own money.

Fortunately, CNNMoney.com has put together a list of banks and other institutions that will let you access your money from just about any ATM for free.

In fact, Ally bank, Charles Schwab, and USAA not only let all of their customers use out of network ATMs free of charge, but they also refund the fees that their customers are charged by other banks. State Farm Bank also doesn't charge you for going out of network and reimburses fees of up to $10 charged by other banks.

BBVA Compass gives most customers rebates of ATM fees charged by other banks if customers mail ATM receipts or account statements  showing the fees to the bank within 90 days of the transaction.

Clear Sky Accounts waives ATM fees of up to $20 each month, while Bank of Internet USA refunds fees up to $8 for its checking accounts. Century Bank allows up to six non-Century ATM transactions per month.

EverBank allows customers unlimited use of out-of-network ATMs, but only if they maintain an average daily balance of $5,000. PNC has a similar deal but only makes customers carry a minimum balance of $2,000.

In addition, many credit unions have nationwide ATM networks, so they can also be good alternatives to the big banks. Alliant Credit Union gives members free access to a network of more than 80,000 ATMs. Customers can make eight free transactions a month and are charged $1 for every transaction beyond that.

Nicole Sturgill, research director at TowerGroup, says there are thousands of banks that don't charge for going out of network. She adds that "essentially any bank that doesn't have a lot of ATMs will not charge their customers when they use another bank's ATM because it's rather hard to justify charging out of network if you only have 10 ATMs."

Comparatively, Bank of America, Citibank and JPMorgan Chase all charge non-customers $3 to use their ATMs and charge their own customers $2 for using other ATMs. Wells Fargo charges non-customers $3 and charges its own customers $2.50 for going out of network.

At Capital One, it costs customers $2 to use other ATMs and $2.75 for non-customers to use Capital One ATMs, but the bank refunds up to $10 of ATM fees for customers using its online checking accounts.

Non-customers are charged as little as $1.75 and as much as $3 to use HSBC ATMs. But HSBC customers are charged the least for using other ATMs, $1.50. And this is waived for customers with Premier and Plus accounts.

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Think You Could Retire on $190 a Month?

A survey shows that will be the average monthly income from what Americans in their 50s are saving for retirement

A new survey from Wells Fargo shows the average savings of Americans in their 50 are about one tenth of what they’ll need in retirement...

It seems as if every financial services company in the world conducts its own retirement survey and each one is more depressing than the last.

The most recent one I've seen comes from Wells Fargo, which says that most Americans in their 50s should be prepared to live on $190 a month, because that's all the personal saving they'll have to look forward to.

Now, granted, the survey didn't take into consideration social security or possible pensions, which are becoming extremely rare these days.

But the point is clear. Wake up America or be prepared to spend your retirement years living in a van down by the river, as the late great comedian Chris Farley used to say.

The Wells Fargo survey polled some 2,000 middle-class Americans ranging from 20 to 60 years old, and guess what? Like all the other surveys, it too found they not only aren't saving enough for retirement, but they're also underestimating the amount of money they'll need in retirement, which means they're more likely to end up working in retirement instead of playing golf all day or traveling around the world on some cruise ship.

According to the survey, most Americans predict they'll need a nest egg of $300,000 to live on for 19 years in retirement. Even that's a little low, considering we'll probably live closer to 25 or 30 years more after we stop working. Still, the average savings of 50-somethings is only $29,000, and that comes out to an income of $190 a month over 20 years, assuming you're able to get a 5% rate of return.

Laurie Nordquist, co-head of Wells Fargo Institutional Retirement and Trust, said the survey reinforces the huge gap in terms of what people are going to need and what people have and the shortfall is huge. She added that even with Social Security or other sources of income, most people are not going to be able to cover basic needs with such a small amount of money.

Now, you'd probably think that the recession is to blame for this lack of retirement savings. But you'd be wrong. The Wells Fargo study found that this problem has been going on for many years and that people didn't save any more before the recession than they do now.

Who's to blame?

So where should we place the blame? How about on our ability to live in complete denial? According to the survey, only one in three (33%) of Americans have a detailed written retirement plan. Meanwhile, another 37% don't even know how much they'll need in retirement or how long they will be able to live on what they have saved.

You would think that the last two years of would have shaken most of us out of our financial daze, but for some reason, we still avoid what those AXA Equitable TV commercials tell us is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. Is it because we just feel so helpless to do anything about it?

I know that's how I used to feel seeing those ING commercials with people walking around carrying signs with their six and seven figure numbers on them. How could I ever save that much for retirement? I just assumed years ago that I'd probably work till I died, which is fine for me because I love what I do.

Still, I'm sure there are some of you out there who thought you might be able to retire. But when are you going to realize you need to take the time you have left to start making up that shortfall and create a retirement plan? Otherwise, you could very easily find yourself working through your retirement too, which more and more Americans say they're doing anyway.

The survey found that seven out of every ten (72%) Americans now expect to work through retirement. But to be fair, only 39% say they'll work because they have to, and the other 33% claim they're going to work because they want to. Isn't that nice?

I don't know about you, but I've already picked out my spot down by the river. Now I just have to find myself a nice van.

 

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Credit Card Usage On the Rise Again

Usage is up, despite what government figures want you to believe

CardHub.com study indicates consumers have gone back to using credit cards even though Federal Reserve makes it look like credit card debt is down ...

photoFor a while it was looking as if the American consumer had actually learned to live within their means. Conspicuous consumption was down, more of us were using cash instead of credit and a large portion of the country was paying down its credit card debt. Or at least most studies and figures seemed to indicate that trend, including numbers put out by the Federal Reserve showing credit card debt was decreasing year over year.

Well, it seems we may not have looked deep enough to see the true direction. On the surface just looking at the numbers, it does appear that overall credit card debt is going down. But according to a new study released this week, that figure has nothing to do with reality and that things may have started to change as far back as the spring of 2009.

CardHub.com, which tracks credit card use, has just released its 2010 Credit Card Debt Study for Q3. That is the quarter covering the summer months of July, August and September. The CardHub.com study shows that not only didn't consumers pay down their credit card debt this summer, but they actually increased it by $6.5 billion compared to the spring.

What's worrisome is that consumers, who had begun 2009 and 2010 with a significant net decrease in credit card debt as they paid down their balances, appear to have slipped back into old habits and have begun to use their cards again. The result is that their credit card debt has either gone back up or at least stayed the same.

More specifically, although credit card debt in the first quarter of 2010 had a net decrease of $43 billion, it was 9% less than the net decrease in the same quarter last year. In addition, during the spring and summer of this year, consumers accumulated $16.1 billion in credit card debt, 11% more than the same period last year. As a result, according to the latest Card Hub forecast, consumers are actually on track to end 2010 with no net change in their debt.

Why the discrepancy?

 

So why is there such a discrepancy between overall Credit Card Debt numbers and personal credit card use?

In an interview with ConsumerAffairs.com, Odysseas Papadimitriou, CEO and Founder of CardHub.com says one might look at the $93 billion decline in credit card debt, and come to the conclusion that Americans have paid down their balances in a big way. But the reality he says is that $81.6 billion of the $93 billion decrease is the direct result of Americans defaulting on their debt, not paying it off.

According to the CardHub.com study, we paid down our credit card debt in the first quarter of 2009 and the first quarter of 2010. Papadimitriou says that's usually when we get our tax refunds or bonuses. But our collective debt repayment this year was 9% less than in 2009 and continues to get worse to the point where in the spring of 2010, outstanding credit card debt was actually 246% above the same quarter of 2009 even though the figures given for overall debt implied we were reducing our debt and not adding to it.

"People look at the overall credit card debt number going down and think things are getting better," says Papadimitriou. "But if you look closer you see there are two numbers you need to consider, the number related to the debt consumers are paying down and the number associated with credit card defaults."

Beyond their means

 

The CardHub.com chief says his study shows that some consumers are once again beginning to use their credit cards to live beyond what their salaries or regular income would cover. "This could be due to an over-optimistic view or that they believe we are on the road to economic recovery to they've returned to their old habits," says Papadimitriou, "but the reality is people are going to find themselves deeper in debt again if this trend continues."

"It's a little like the game musical chairs," adds Papadimitriou. "As long as the music is playing, like it was during the housing bubble, everything is great. But once music stops like it did during the financial crisis, some people were left without a chair, in the form of being without a job or a home."

Papadimitriou puts a great deal of the responsibility for the financial crisis clearly on the shoulders of the Federal Reserve, which he says had the authority to step in and tell the major banks that the type of lending they were doing during the housing bubble was neither safe nor sound. "But they didn't do that"" he adds, "and neither did any of the other regulators who could have done something about it."

"Even former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan admitted that he didn't think it was a problem," says Papadimitriou, "because he figured investors simply would not buy such bad loans and that would be the end of it."

As we all know now, Greenspan was wrong, and that even though some banks like Goldman Sachs knew the loans were crap, there were enough other banks who apparently wanted to keep playing and they, to draw on Papadimitriou's analogy, along with the rest of us, were left without a chair.

For a copy of the CardHub.com study go to http://education.cardhub.com/q3-2010-credit-card-debt-study.  

 

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Medical Marijuana Business Attracts Hedge Funds, Venture Capitalists

15 States from Maine to California have legalized marijuana for medical purposes

Legal medical marijuana is becoming a growth industry as more entrepreneurs attract hedge fund and venture capital to start new businesses ...

Marijuana has been a cash crop for many years in this country. The only problem is that most of that crop had been grown illegally. Now, that medical marijuana is legal in 15 states and the District of Columbia, legalized marijuana has quickly become so popular it is attracting attention from hedge fund managers and venture capitalists, not to mention a whole new batch of entrepreneurs.

Doctors still can't prescribe marijuana because it is categorized as a schedule one drug like LSD. But they can recommend it and that's all anyone needs to get a medical marijuana license that allows them to buy marijuana legally in those 15 states, with three more states about join them.

Each license sells for around $130 and some clinics selling the licenses have brought in more than a million dollars in just their first year. The once illegal joint is selling like hot cakes throughout middle America to consumers who no longer have to worry about getting arrested for possession, at least by local or state authorities.

The federal government still outlaws marijuana possession but it's unlikely someone with a medical marijuana license will be busted by an FBI or DEA agent if caught smoking in his or her own home. In fact, just last year U.S. enforcers promised to leave medical marijuana operations alone if they complied with state law.

That prompted a significant increase in interest among entrepreneurs. Today, there are an estimated 2,400 medical marijuana dispensaries from California to Maine. In Colorado, they outnumber Starbucks two to one.

Making a profit, however, can still be problematic. In every state except Colorado, medical marijuana dispensaries must be structured as a not-for-profit, which is not a problem for some. Steve DeAngelo, founder of Harborside Health Center in Oakland, California, told Smart Money magazine that he likes that model because it preserves the business for local owners and keeps big-money players out.

He adds that at Harborside, he uses profits to support in-house charities that offer free pot to people who can't afford to buy it along with free addiction counseling. But he's in the minority.

Others see a lot of money in medical marijuana. Even DeAngelo's not for profit clinic brings in $50,000 a day so he also founded the for-profit CannBe, a management-consulting firm for medical marijuana start-ups.

Plus, there are a growing number of hedge fund managers and venture capitalists who are taking a close look at what is an estimated $36 billion market. They're also predicting that many states who need cash will continue to relax rules and legalize marijuana for medical use.

According to Smart Money, two hedge funds announced at a recent National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws seminar that they would consider buying any medical marijuana dispensaries available for sale.

A recent Gallup poll found that 44% of Americans are in favor of legalizing marijuana, which is almost twice as many as 15 years ago. It's still not enough however to change the laws surrounding recreational use. In November, California voted against ending cannabis prohibition all together.

Meanwhile, medicinal use of pot continues to be the acceptable method of allowing marijuana into the mainstream, even as critics clamor that it's just a legal loophole to get high.

That may be, but the debate over lost tax revenue and expensive jailing for offenders continues to grow louder and that just might be enough of a tipping point to justify a closer look into the financial viability of legal sales.

 

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Bisphenol A (BPA) Found On Dollar Bills

Chemical migrates from thermal receipts to bills, study says

Two advocacy groups say their tests show the chemical bisphenol A showed up on 93 percent of dollar bills they tested....

Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used mostly in food and beverage containers, seems to be everywhere, even in your wallet.

A study by two advocacy groups - the Washington Toxics Coalition and Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, says 95 percent of dollar bills tested positive for the substance, which studies have linked to reproductive issues.

The finding was made in a more wide-ranging test that looked for traces of the chemical on thermal paper receipts. Scientists wanted to know whether the chemical was moving from receipts to currency when consumers tucked the receipts in their wallets or held them with change from a transaction.

Unlike BPA in baby bottles and other products, BPA on thermal paper isn't chemically bound in any way: it's a powdery film on the surface of receipts. Data from this report suggests the chemical does not stay on the paper, but rather easily transfers to our skin and likely to other items that it rubs against.

"Our findings demonstrate that BPA cannot be avoided, even by the most conscious consumer," said Erika Schreder, Staff Scientist at the Washington Toxics Coalition and lead author of the report. "This unregulated use of large amounts of BPA is having unintended consequences, including exposure to people when we touch receipts."

Present in most Americans

Present in 93 percent of all Americans, scientists studying BPA have hypothesized the major route of human exposure is through food, as BPA is used as a liner in nearly all canned food and beverages. The authors say this study also suggests that skin absorption from thermal paper receipts with unbound BPA may lead to exposure at levels equivalent to exposure from food sources.

Produced in quantities of about six billion pounds each year worldwide, BPA is one of the most widely used chemicals of all time. During the past decade, researchers in a number of countries have explored the connections between BPA exposure--particularly before birth and in early childhood--and the health problems.

In particular exposure to BPA before birth has been found in laboratory studies to predispose animals to cancer; alter brain development; and lead to early puberty in female animals. Male animals exposed in the womb produce less testosterone, have larger prostate glands, and make fewer sperm than unexposed animals. Studies have also shown a correlation between BPA and obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular problems.

As part of the study, receipts made with thermal paper were collected from 22 retailers in 10 states and Washington, D.C. Laboratory tests found BPA in very large quantities--up to 2.2 percent of the total weight--in 11 of the 22 receipts.

Retailers with BPA-containing receipts included: Safeway, Shaw's, Meijer, Cub Foods, Sunoco, Kroger, Giant Eagle, H-E-B, Randalls, Fred Meyer, and the Rayburn Café in the U.S. House of Representatives. BPA-free receipts were found at Trader Joe's, Hannaford, Home Depot, Albertson's, Ace Hardware, Wal-Mart, Sears, Costco, and the Hart American Grill serving the U.S. Senate.

Moves from receipts to fingers

In tests mimicking typical handling of receipts, BPA transferred from receipts to fingers. Just ten seconds of holding a receipt transferred up to 2.5 micrograms, the researchers say. Researchers transferred much higher amounts, about 15 times as much, by rubbing receipts.

"Since BPA in thermal paper receipts is present in a powdery film, we suspected it could easily travel from those receipts to other objects," the authors wrote. Objects like money.BPA was found on 21 of the 22 dollar bills tested, they report.

Although the levels of BPA detected on money are much lower than those on receipt paper, the researchers said the near-ubiquitous presence of BPA on dollar bills indicates that BPA is escaping from products to contaminate other materials in unexpected ways.

"BPA on receipts, dollar bills, and in many other products, is a direct result of the absurdly lax controls on chemicals in the United States," said Andy Igrejas, Director of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition. "The 112th Congress should make reform of the failed 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act a top legislative priority to protect American families for generations to come."

FDA position

The Food and Drug Administration's official position on BPA is that levels found in the food supply are not harmful. The food industry remains firmly committed to the chemical. 

Last spring, when Sen. Diane Feinstein introduced an amendment to the Senate version of the Food Safety and Modernization Act to ban BPA from food and beverage containers, widespread industry support for the legislation collapsed.

"We will not support food safety legislation that bans or phases out BPA from any food and beverage container," Scott Faber, vice president for federal affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents food companies and retailers, told the Washington Post last April.

Indeed, the legislation remained stalled for the remainder of the year, until it passed the Senate November 30, after Feinstein agreed to withdraw the BPA-banning amendment.

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Seattle Bike Supply Recalls Redline D640 Bikes

The head tube can separate from the frame.

Seattle Bike Supply Recalls Redline D640 Bikes. The head tube can separate from the frame....

Seattle Bike Supply is recalling about 200 Redline D640 bicycles. The head tube can separate from the frame, causing the rider to lose control and fall. This poses a risk of serious injury.

Seattle Bikes is aware of eight reports of head tubes separating from the frame, including four reports of minor scrapes and cuts.

This recall involves all 2008 Redline D640 bicycles. The bicycles were sold in black and have aluminum frames. "REDLINE" is written down the frame's tube. The model number is written on the frame's top tube.

Bicycle specialty stores sold the bikes nationwide from December 2007 to May 2010 for about $900. They were made in China.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled bicycles and contact a local Redline bicycle dealer to receive a free frame replacement.

For additional information, contact Redline Bicycles at (800) 283-2453 between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. PT Monday through Friday or visit the firm's website at www.Redlinebicycles.com


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December Is the Deadliest Month For Home Electrical Fires.

Overloaded circuits and poor maintenance lead to damages and even death

How to prevent home electrical fires during December, the deadliest month for electrical fires...

For many of us, December is a month of joy and holiday celebrating. But it's also the deadliest month when it comes to home electrical fires.

Deaths from fire typically increase during the winter months as a result of increased indoor activity and they reach their peak this month from our use of holiday lighting, extra heating and poorly maintained appliances.

Each year, home electrical problems account for an estimated 67,800 electrical fires resulting in the death of 485 Americans. Another 2,305 people are injured and $868 million worth of property is lost.

These fires may be caused by electrical system failures, or defects in appliances, but the majority are the result of misuse and poor maintenance, incorrect wiring installation, and overloaded circuits and extension cords. 

Here are some simple steps you can take to reduce your risk and prevent the loss of life and property:   

       Never overload extension cords or wall sockets. 

         Avoid connecting an excessive amount of holiday lighting and decorations to a single circuit whenever possible.

         Routinely check electrical appliances and wiring to look for signs of fraying and have any worn, old or damaged appliance cords replaced by a professional or throw them away.

         Keep electrical appliances away from wet floors and counters and pay special care to electrical appliances in the bathroom and kitchen.

         When buying electrical appliances look for products evaluated by a nationally recognized laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL).

         Don't allow children to play with or around electrical appliances like space heaters, irons and hair dryers.

         Keep clothes, curtains and other potentially combustible items at least three feet from all heaters.

         If an appliance has a three-prong plug, use it only in a three-slot outlet. Never force it to fit into a two-slot outlet or extension cord.

         Immediately shut off and professionally replace switches that are hot to the touch and lights that flicker.

      Child-proof electrical outlets with safety closures.

        Check your electrical tools regularly for signs of wear and if the cords are frayed or cracked, replace them as well as any tool if it causes even small electrical shocks, overheats, shorts out or gives off smoke.

       Having a working smoke alarm dramatically increases your chances of surviving a fire.

         And finally, it doesn't hurt to practice a home escape plan fire drill with your own family every now and then. You do it at work and school, so why not at home.

 

 

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Avoid Bogus Charities This Holiday Season

The scammers are out there; here’s how to avoid them

Avoid Bogus Charities This Holiday Season The scammers are out there; here’s how to avoid them ...

'Tis the season for many consumers to open their hearts and wallets to a variety of charities. But National Consumers League (NCL), the nation's oldest consumer advocacy organization, has issued an alert to consumers that con artists may take advantage of their generosity this time of year with bogus charities posing as legitimate ones.

"It's that time of year again, when we begin to hear from consumers about crooks' attempts to take advantage of the holiday giving season for their personal gain," said NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg. "If you're thinking of giving to a charity this season, good for you! But be careful -- some scammers out there may be looking to take advantage of your generosity."

Scam complaints rising

Complaints to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) about charity scams have become more frequent recently. The volume of complaints to the FTC's Consumer Sentinel system increased by 8.6 percent from 1.23 million in 2008 to 1.33 million in 2009. 

While the volume of complaints regarding bogus charitable solicitations remained a small fraction of overall complaints, they were reported much more frequently in 2009, increased by 82.1 percent over the same period (1,908 in 2008 versus 3,474 in 2009).

NCL warns consumers to avoid becoming a statistic this holiday season by doing their homework before giving to an unfamiliar charity. Non-profit tracking Web sites like GuideStar.org and CharityNavigator.org have a free databases with detailed information on many charities.

Dodging rip-off artists

NCL offers the following tips for the charitable-minded:

  • Research. Local newspapers or television or radio stations often compile lists of reputable charities responding to emergencies. Consider consulting these sources for information on how to give.
  • Be in control of what you give and to whom you give it! Consider setting up a personal charity/giving budget and deciding ahead of time to whom you want to give, rather that being pressured into giving on the spur of the moment by a phone or e-mail solicitation. Consider contacting a charity directly on the phone or via the Internet to ensure that your donation is going directly to the charity of your choice.
  • Pay the smartest way. Don't pay in cash, if possible. It is safer to pay by check or credit card. Be sure to get a receipt for any donation for tax purposes.
  • If a charity contacts, you, be cautious. If you're approached by an unfamiliar charity, check it out. Most states require charities to register with them and file annual reports showing how they use donations. Ask your state or local consumer protection agency how to get this information.
  • Get it in writing. Legitimate charities will be happy to provide details about what they do and will never insist that you act immediately.
  • Beware of sound-alikes. Some crooks try to fool people by using names that are very similar to those of legitimate, well-known charities
  • Know to whom you are talking. Ask about the caller's relation to the charity. The caller may be a professional fundraiser, not an employee or a volunteer. Ask what percentage of donations goes to the charity and how much the fundraiser gets.
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Video Chatting is Becoming More Popular as it Gets Easier to Do

Once the purview of computers, more cell phones allow video chatting

With video calling moving from the computer and the conference room and into the palm of your hand are you ready to see who's calling? ...

For the past year and a half, my wife and I got into the habit of video chatting with our son and grandson in Florida, thoroughly enjoying watching the toddler try to crawl through the screen of our laptop.

Video calling has been around awhile. Companies have been employing video conferencing and online video chatting for years. Then skype made it all financially possible for the rest of us to talk to a face through our computers.

And now with the new version of the iPhone and other mobile devices, more of us are able to look at to whom we're talking on a regular basis. It's still probably not a wise thing to do while you're driving, even if you have the speaker on. In fact, there are times when I prefer to just talk and listen without having to react visibly to the other person.  

Still, video calling has started to become a way of life for millions of Americans either on their computers or over a mobile phone or through their big screen TVs.

According to a recent survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, one in five Internet users has tried video chat. And this technology barely existed just five years ago. Plus, most computer-based video calling is free.

Analysts are predicting a steep growth in video chatting, noting new developments such as video voice-mail messages, the ability to snap still-life photos during a video conversation and calls that can be received on your web-enabled 60-inch flat-screen TV.

Skype is still the dominant force in the video chat industry with Google, Apple, Yahoo and a host of smaller competitors biting off chunks. The mobile piece of the business alone totals nearly $100 million.

Right now, your choices are through your computer, your cell phone or your television.

If you use a computer, you'll need a service like Skype, which also requires software or an AOL account. The Skype video chat is free and voice calls run from a few cents to more than $2 a minute. Skype is the only service that lets up to five people chat together via video—and view each other in high-definition. You would need a special hi-def webcam however. A less well-known service is ooVoo.

Then there's iChat, which requires an account with either AOL Instant Messenger, which is free, or Apple's MobileMe, which costs $99 a year, plus software. iChat makes free video calls to computers. Text messages may incur charges. Apple's entry into the field doesn't let users make calls in high-def yet, but four people can chat together on a single call and share photos on the computer screen at the same time.

A recent entry to computer video chatting is Google voice and video chat. It requires a Gmail account and software, but the video chatting is free. Voice calls cost between 2 cents and $1 a minute. Google's video-chat function lets you e-mail and instant-message during your chat session. But a spokesperson says video calls work with only one person at a time and that the service isn't yet available in high-def.

The cost of webcams ranges from as little as $15 to $140 for high end high-def cameras. They also come built into many laptops.

You won't need a webcam for conducting video chats over cell phones, which have their cameras already built in. Just keep in mind that video calls tend to cost more than just voice calls unless you use an Internet hot spot. You can buy an app such as Fring, which provides free video chatting over Wi-Fi but also 3G. Unless your data plan is unlimited, stick to Wi-Fi hot spots to avoid carrier overage fees.

The most recent method of video chatting is over your big flat screen television but you need a web-enabled set. Skype has rolled out a service on a handful of Web-enabled TVs allowing callers to dial other Skype customers through their TV's remote, then talk through a supersized webcam that lets people sit as far as 12 feet away.

While chatting is free, and connections to callers on the other line is via not only the TV but also the computer but the technology is being built into newer sets from Samsung and Panasonic sets that run $1,200 to $7,000. You can find cheaper models from Vizio. You also need a special webcam will cost at least $150, since regular models can't plug into a television.

To save money, you could modify your existing TV by hooking it to a computer as if it was an external monitor and then use Skype to make the video call.

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Researchers Find Rare But Serious Statin Side Effect

Statins dramatically reduce risk of heart attack and stroke, researchers note

Researchers at Johns Hopkins report statins, drugs that lower cholesterol, can also have a rare but painful side effect....

Millions of Americans take statins, which are a common class of medication that lowers cholesterol.

While statins might be effective at that, new research says they can also trigger a rare but serious autoimmune muscle disease in a small number of the 30 million Americans who take them.

Statins, researchers say, can sometimes cause the body to produce antibodies against its own proteins, creating a condition that gets progressively worse -- not better -- even after the medication is discontinued.

The painful and debilitating disorder is uncommon and can be treated with steroids and other immune-suppressing drugs, so the researchers caution that people who must be on statins to reduce serious risk of heart disease and stroke should not avoid the drugs.

"We have long known that there must be environmental triggers to the development of autoimmune disorders," said Andrew L. Mammen, assistant professor of neurology and medicine at Johns Hopkins University. "Now we have evidence that this medication is just such a trigger and, under certain circumstances, provokes a sustained autoimmune disease."

Statins are a class of drug that lowers cholesterol levels by inhibiting the enzyme HMG-CoA reductase, which plays a key role in producing cholesterol in the liver. Some of the best-selling statins are Lipitor, which racked up sales of $12.4 billion in 2008, and Crestor, Zocor, and Vytorin.

Details of the study, published online in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatism, could lead to lab tests that identify early autoimmune muscle disease, guide treatment before symptoms escalate and, possibly, predict who is at risk before statins are prescribed.

Mammen cautions that the research describes a rare side effect, noting that statins are a "fantastic medication" with proven value.

"No one who needs statins should be afraid to take them because of the slim risk of developing this autoimmune disease," he said. "Statins save a huge number of lives. They dramatically reduce the risk of strokes and heart attacks."

The researchers said their ultimate goal is to determine before patients start taking statins who might be sensitive to the medication and who might be susceptible to its potentially toxic effects on the muscle.

"We want to prevent this autoimmune disease," Mammen said.
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Would You Pay $20,000 to See First Run Movies in Your Home?

A company in California is betting that enough people will

Could this be the beginning of the end for movie theaters as a California-based company offers first run movies into your home for a mere $20,000?...

If anyone ever asked you if you'd pay $20,000 to install a service in your home or apartment so you could watch movies as soon as they're released for another $500 a movie, you'd probably laugh and say no way. Movie tickets may be high but not that high, right?

Well, like most start-up operations and innovative ideas, the first generation of new gadgetry usually costs more than most people would spend. So the $20,000 initial installation price-tag Prima Cinema Inc. of Los Angeles is proposing may not be that far out of line.

Plus, for Prima Cinema, this service would be made available to only a few thousand customers as a way of testing out the overall appetite for what's to come regarding the so-called shared movie-going experience. The question being asked is why can't you share this experience without leaving the comfort of your home?

Prima Cinema has already received venture capital investments from Universal Pictures and Best Buy. Its plan is to charge initial customers an estimated one-time fee of $20,000 for a digital-delivery system and then an additional $500. Prima has met with all six major studios as well as several of the smaller, independent ones about licensing their films and it anticipates several of them will sign on when the company launches its service late next year.

Are theater owners worried about this? You bet they are even though Prima Cinema doesn't expect this to cut into their revenue on any significant basis.

Given the steep price, Prima Cinema only plans on selling it to a few thousand users at first and possibly to as many as 250,000 within five years.  In the beginning, the high price will create an exclusive, super-premium niche market that would be seen as new revenue stream for studios by tapping into a segment of the wealthy who have stopped going to theaters.  

On the other hand, The Wall Street Journal says the proposed system represents a twist in an ongoing debate over the future practice of staggering the distribution of movies through different channels to maximize profits in each. Traditionally, that has meant a movie hits theaters first, followed several months later by in-flight and hotels, followed by DVDs, video-on-demand, and subscription-cable channels.  

The Journal says the release window system has already come under pressure with DVD sales falling 20% from last year while digital piracy is increasing. During this same time, consumer spending on video-on-demand services rose 17%. Another controversial issue has been an early, "premium" video-on-demand window, in which cable subscribers could pay around $30 to watch a movie a month or two after its debut in theaters. 

Theater owners have been objecting to the idea of premium video-on-demand, saying it disrupts their business. The president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, John Fithian, says theater owners aren't in favor of any system that impinges on movie-going and that includes Prima Cinema. He adds that the Prima model also exposes movies to the possibility of piracy early on because there is no such thing as a secure distribution to the home. Fithian believes it will give pirates a pristine digital copy early, resulting in millions of lost revenue, while at the same time selling to a very limited audience of billionaires.  

Well, guess what? Prima isn't the only company trying to bring movies to homes faster. Time Warner says it expects to test an early-release offering with a new film as soon as next year. Under the program, consumers would pay $20 to $30 to watch digital copies of movies within a month or two of their release in theaters.

This has already been tested to limited success. In 2008, Sony Pictures its Will Smith film Hancock early to users of its Bravia Televisions before the films were out on DVD.

But not every studio is in favor of early offerings. For example, Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman says his company isn't considering a new premium video-on-demand service and that they prefer to satisfy their theater distributors. Viacom owns Paramount Pictures, but it is also controlled by Sumner Redstone's closely held National Amusements, which also owns a movie-theater business which could explain its reticence to offer new releases to homes.

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The 12 Online Scams of Christmas

Cybercriminals are taking advantage of the holiday shopping madness

Here are 12 scams to watch out for if you’re shopping on line and some tips on how to protect yourself from techno-thieves ...

More Americans are shopping online this holiday season than ever before and it's only going to get more crowded and dangerous out there on the super highway so here are a few driving lessons and some pot-holes in the form of scams to watch out for.

The software security company McAfee has what it calls its "Twelve Scams of Christmas” which they say are the 12 most dangerous online scams that computer users should be cautious of this holiday season.

Scam 1.Phony iPad Offers. Consumers are asked to purchase other products and provide their credit card number to get a free iPad. Of course, victims never receive the iPad or the other items, just the headache of reporting a stolen credit card number. There's even a social media version of the scam where users take a quiz to win a free iPad and must supply their cell phone number to receive the results. Instead they are signed up for a cell phone scam that costs $10 a week.

Scam 2.The "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. There's been an increase in this scam McAfee predicts it will get even worse during the holiday travel period.

Scam 3.Fake Gift Cards. Cyber-thieves 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 identity 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.

Scam 4. Holiday Job Offers. People seeking extra cash for gifts are vulnerable to this Twitter scam that offers 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.

Scam 5.Smishing is the latest method of extracting info by cybercrooks. They send phishing SMS texts that appear to come from your bank or an online retailer saying that there is something wrong with your 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.

Scam 6.Suspicious Holiday Rentals. During peak travel times when consumers often look online for affordable holiday rentals, cyberc-thieves post fake holiday rental sites that ask for down payments on properties by credit card or wire transfer.

Scam 7.Recession Scams. Scammers target vulnerable consumers with recession related scams such as pay-in-advance credit schemes. There have been a significant number of spam emails advertising prequalified, low-interest loans and credit cards if the recipient pays a processing fee, which goes directly into the scammer's pocket.

Scam 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. Computers may start displaying obscene images, pop-up ads, or even start sending cards to contacts that appear to come from you.

Scam 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.

Scam 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 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.

Scam 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 an instant message that appears to be from a friend.

Scam 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 these unsecured and unprotected networks hoping to find opportunities for theft.
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Payday Loan Collection Scam Is Widespread

Callers threaten consumers, claim they are delinquent on a non-existent payday loan

Payday Loan Collection Scam Is Widespread. Callers threaten consumers, claim they are delinquent on a non-existent payday loan. ...

The Internet Crime Complaint Center has received many complaints from victims of payday loan telephone collection scams.

Callers claim the victim is delinquent in a payday loan and must repay the loan to avoid legal consequences. The callers purport to be representatives of the FBI, Federal Legislative Department, various law firms, or other legitimate-sounding agencies.

They claim to be collecting debts for companies such as United Cash Advance, U.S. Cash Advance, U.S. Cash Net, and other Internet check-cashing services.

According to complaints received from the public, the callers have accurate data about victims, including Social Security numbers, dates of birth, addresses, employer information, bank account numbers, and the names and telephone numbers of relatives and friends.

How the fraudsters obtained the personal information varies, but in some cases victims have reported they completed online applications for other loans or credit cards before the calls started. 

The fraudsters relentlessly call the victim's home, cell phone, and place of employment. They refuse to provide any details about the alleged payday loans and become abusive when questioned. The callers have threatened victims with legal actions, arrests, and, in some cases, physical violence if they do not pay. In many cases, the callers harass victims' relatives, friends, and employers. 

Some fraudsters have instructed victims to fax a statement agreeing to pay a certain amount, on a specific date, via a pre-paid Visa card. The statement further declares the victim will never dispute the debt. 

If you receive these calls, do not follow the caller's instructions. Rather, you should:

  • Notify your banking institutions.

  • Contact the three major credit bureaus and request an alert be put on your file.

  • Contact your local law enforcement agencies if you feel you are in immediate danger.

  • File a complaint at www.IC3.gov.

Tips to avoid becoming a victim of this scam:

  • Never give your Social Security number—or personal information of any kind—over the telephone or online unless you initiate the contact.

  • Be suspicious of any e-mail with urgent requests for personal financial information. The e-mail may include upsetting or exciting but false statements to get you to react immediately.

  • Avoid filling out forms in e-mail messages that request personal information.

  • Ensure that your browser is up-to-date and security patches have been applied.

  • Check your bank, credit, and debit card statements regularly to make sure that there are no unauthorized transactions. If anything looks suspicious, contact your bank and all card issuers.

  • When you contact companies, use numbers provided on the back of cards or statements

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California Ponzi Scheme Defrauded More Than 100 Victims

'Guaranteed' interest rates of 120% didn't materialize, leaving some victims impoverished

California Ponzi Scheme Defrauded More Than 100 Victims. 'Guaranteed' interest rates of 120% didn't materialize, leaving some victims impoverished....

A West Covina, Calif., man was sentenced to 135 months in federal prison for running an investment fraud scheme that took in almost $4 million from more than 100 victims who were lured to the scheme with promises of "guaranteed” annual interest rates up to 120 percent.

Ruben Gonzalez, 34, a Mexican national, was sentenced Tuesday by United States District Judge Percy Anderson. In addition to the 11-year prison sentence, Judge Anderson ordered $2,220,771 in restitution to his 107 victims.

Gonzalez was arrested on October 23, 2009, on immigration charges after special agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation executed a search warrant at his business, New Golden Investments Group, or NGI Group, in West Covina.

Gonzalez was indicted in May, and on September 17 he pled guilty to one count of mail fraud, one count of money laundering, and one count of misuse of a Social Security number.

Gonzalez admitted that he advertised his investment program in Spanish language newspapers and on radio stations, guaranteeing returns up to 120 percent per year. Gonzalez told victims that their money would be used to invest in commodities like gold and silver, real estate developments, and a gold mine in Mexico.

Gonzalez further admitted that most of the investors' money was used to make Ponzi payments to lure additional investors, and that Gonzalez took well over $400,000 for his own personal benefit.

At Gonzalez's sentencing, Judge Anderson heard from several victims of the Ponzi scheme, including the mother of a disabled child who was defrauded out of nearly $300,000 that came from a medical malpractice award and was supposed to be used for the future care of her child.

The victim said that Gonzalez claimed she would make enough money from the investment to pay for "the best medical care in the world” for her child and that she would one day see her child walk as a result of the profits she would make from her investment.

The court also heard from an 81-year-old widow who lost more than $40,000 and who told Judge Anderson that she is forced to continue to work as a result of the losses caused by Gonzalez.

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Holiday Shopping For Special Needs Kids Can Be Easy

Experts weigh in on the best toys for developmentally delayed children

Holiday Shopping For Special Needs Kids Can Be Easy Experts weigh in on the best toys for developmentally delayed children...

Holiday shopping is overwhelming -- especially for parents and caregivers of children with special needs. Yet, with a few smart shopping tips, fulfilling holiday gift lists can be a breeze.

Purchasing toys and games for a child with special needs does not have to be more complicated than buying a toy for a typically developing child.

Cost, safety, educational value, age-appropriateness, and of course, the child's interests, are all factors that don't change.

Look for toys that help build skills that meet therapeutic goals and those that balance a child's developmental age with her/his chronological age.

Avoid toys that needlessly put a child in a win or lose situation.

"It is possible to find many good toy options for children with special needs in any toy store," says Elisa Mintz Delia of the Kennedy Krieger Institute, an institution devoted to improving the lives of children and adolescents with disorders of the brain, spinal cord and musculoskeletal system.

Delia said many reasonably priced toys found at a variety of stores will engage and entertain children with special needs, as well as serve as learning and skill-building tools.

The Kennedy Krieger Institute and Parents' Choice Foundation, one of the nation's oldest and most respected authorities on children's media and toys, have been working together since 2007 to test and review toys and games for children with special needs.

A multi-disciplinary team of licensed occupational, physical, speech and recreational therapists offers the following gift suggestions for children of all abilities.

Curious George Discovery Beach Game
(Promotes visual and visual motor skills, thinking skills and socialization)
In this seek-and-find board game, players draw a card with an animal or object listed on it and search the board (actually a box), which has five hidden treasure locations, to find that object. A game spinner keeps things interesting - if it lands on a wave, players have to shake the box, which moves the treasures.

Hedbanz
(Encourages thinking skills, socialization and communication)
This simple family game can be played by up to 10 people. Players wear a plastic headband with a card depicting an object or animal on it and take turns asking other players yes or no questions that will help them to guess what is on their card.

Bubble Talk
(Fosters thinking skills, socialization and communication)
This game involves 75 double-sided picture cards and 300 caption cards. Each player draws seven caption cards, and a judge draws a photo card. Players then choose and lay down the caption card that they feel best matches the photo. The judge chooses the funniest caption and that player earns points.

Bop It Bounce
(Helps build gross motor skills and sensory motor skills)
This electronic game with audio instructions guides players through six activities. Players bounce a ball on a hand-held cone, and the activities test their ability to control how the ball bounces, their speed or their endurance.

U- Build Connect Four
(Develops thinking skills, fine motor skills, visual skills and visual motor skills)
A game that takes the original Connect Four concept and adds a bit of Plinko. It is a board game constructed from interlocking pieces that allows children to assemble the playing area. Players drop checkers down chutes and position a bumper to deflect their checker pieces into the correct column, trying to arrange four checkers of the same color in a row.

B. Spinaroos
(Supports visual, fine motor and visual motor skills)
This set of interlocking bits and blocks is a new and fun take on the classic version, and includes patterned pieces, pieces with faces and others with three legs and rotating connections. Children can build elaborate play scenarios and complex new worlds -- all of their own vision.

"Whether you're shopping for a holiday, birthday or other occasion, remember that play is how children learn," says Claire Green, president of Parents' Choice Foundation. "Toys that have long term play value, have long term learning value."

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S&S Food Warns of Botulism Risk in Dried Fish

Fish may not have been properly eviscerated

S&S Food Warns of Botulism Risk in Dried Fish. Fish may not have been properly eviscerated....

 S&S Food Inc. Brooklyn, NY, is recalling DRIED FISH VOBLA GUTTED discovered by New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets Food Inspectors during a routine inspection and subsequent analysis of product by Food Laboratory personnel confirming that the fish was not properly eviscerated prior to processing.

This product may be contaminated with Clostridium botulinum spores, which can cause Botulism, a serious and potentially fatal food borne illness. Symptoms of botulism include blurred vision, general weakness and poor reflexes, difficulty in swallowing and respiratory paralysis.

The sale of un-eviscerated fish is prohibited under New York State Agriculture and Markets regulations because Clostridium botulinum spores are more likely to be concentrated in the viscera than any other portion of the fish. Un-eviscerated fish has been linked to outbreaks of botulism poisoning.

The recalled dried fish Vobla gutted comes in a coded, plastic vacuum packed bag with the following code: Production date: 21.06.2010, lot # 280610140 and is a product of Germany. This product was sold nationwide.

No illnesses have been reported to date in connection with this problem. Consumers who have DRIED FISH VOBLA GUTTED are advised not to eat it and should return it to the place of purchase. Consumer with questions may contact the company at (718) 677-6888.

 

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Meditation: The New Antidepressant?

Study finds regular meditation as effective as medication for many depressed patients

Meditation: The New Antidepressant? Study finds regular meditation as effective as medication for many depressed patients...

For people suffering from depression, meditation might be a viable way to treat it, instead of medication.

A new study from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) found meditation provides the same protection against depression and depressive relapse as traditional antidepressant medication.

"With the growing recognition that major depression is a recurrent disorder, patients need treatment options for preventing depression from returning to their lives," said Dr. Zindel Segal, Head of the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Clinic in the Clinical Research Department at CAMH.

Recent studies have shown about half of depressed people on antidepressants stop taking them, sometimes within two to four months, well before the medication has had a chance to work.

Segal said this could be due to side effects or an unwillingness to take medication for years.

"Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is a non pharmacological approach that teaches skills in emotion regulation so that patients can monitor possible relapse triggers as well as adopt lifestyle changes conducive to sustaining mood balance," said Segal.

For the study, participants who were diagnosed with major depressive disorder were all treated with an antidepressant until their symptoms remitted.

They were then randomly assigned to come off their medication and receive MBCT, come off their medication and receive a placebo, or stay on their medication.

Participants in MBCT attended 8 weekly group sessions and practiced mindfulness as part of daily homework assignments.

Clinical assessments were conducted at regular intervals, and over an 18 month period, relapse rates for patients in the MBCT group did not differ from patients receiving antidepressants (both in the 30% range), whereas patients receiving placebo relapsed at a significantly higher rate (70%).

"The real world implications of these findings bear directly on the front line treatment of depression. For that sizeable group of patients who are unwilling or unable to tolerate maintenance antidepressant treatment, MBCT offers equal protection from relapse," said Segal.

"Sequential intervention -- offering pharmacological and psychological interventions -- may keep more patients in treatment and thereby reduce the high risk of recurrence that is characteristic of this disorder."

The study was published in the current issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

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Obesity Groups Urge Sympathetic Hearing For Weight Loss Drug

Weigh drug risks against obesity risks, feds are told

The Food and Drug Administration is deciding whether to approve Contrave, the latest drug developed to combat obesity....

The Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Endocrime and Metabolic Advisory panel is meeting today to review a new obesity drug application, and obesity prevention advocates say they hope it gets a fair hearing.

The drug Contrave is under review today, after two other newly developed obesity treatments - Qnexa and Lorguess - were rejected in October, when the FDA cited safety issues. Also in October, the FDA asked for the removal of the previously approved weight-loss drug Meridia (sibutramine) from the market due to safety concerns.  

In the case of Qnexa, an FDA advisory panel recommended against its approval , citing potential side effects, such as increased heart rate, birth defects, and psychiatric problems. Those voting in favor of the drug said obesity itself was a greater health risk. The two obesity groups tend to reside in that camp.

"We are deeply concerned about the effect that the FDA's recent decisions will have for on-going and future research into desperately needed new obesity treatments,” said Jennifer Lovejoy, president of The Obesity Society. "As the FDA's advisors consider the application before them, we hope that the agency will assure a balanced process, taking into account the urgent medical need."

Lovejoy says a study published in the most recent New England Journal of Medicine provides a stark reminder that the obesity epidemic is a deadly disease.  In a study of mortality in 1.46 million people sponsored by the NIH, investigators reported that weight classifications "overweight" and "obesity" are associated with significant excess mortality.

"The time for action is now," said Joe Nadglowski, Obesity Action Coalition president and CEO. "The number of those affected by obesity is growing at an incredibly rapid rate and the millions of Americans already affected by the disease are lacking the necessary medically approved treatment and long-term options so desperately needed."

The two groups said the FDA and its advisors can play a proactive and constructive role to improve what they called "this extremely serious situation.”

An appeal to the FDA

"It is imperative that the FDA review any obesity treatment presented to them with the understanding that more than 93 million Americans are depending on them for help with this disease," said Lovejoy.

Drug companies have placed new emphasis on developing medications to promote weight control, as obesity has become a greater public health concern. The track record is not inspiring.

The last major weight control drug disaster was fen-phen, which was withdrawn from the market in 1997 after it was shown to cause heart valve damage. Onexa may have been rejected, in part, because it contains part of the fen-phen cocktail.

Contrave, meanwhile, is a combination of two approved drugs, bupropion and naltrexone. Individually, both drugs have shown some results in weight loss, according to researchers.
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AT&T 'Wins' Worst Cell Phone Derby

Consumer Reports rates U.S. Cellular tops in service, ahead of Verizon Wireless

AT&T 'Wins' Worst Cell Phone DerbyConsumer Reports rates U.S. Cellular tops in service, ahead of Verizon Wireless...

Bedraggled by broadband-hogging iPhones, AT&T is now the worst-rated cell-phone service carrier according to a new survey of Consumer Reports readers . U.S. Cellular, a regional carrier that provides service in 26 states, beat out the long-standing top provider Verizon Wireless with outstanding marks for value, voice service and customer support.

More than half of the AT&T customers surveyed owned an iPhone, the Apple smart-phone that is currently available exclusively from AT&T. Consumer Reports data, reflecting all versions of the phone, found that iPhone owners were much less satisfied with their carrier and rated data service (Web and e-mail) lower than owners of smart phones on other carriers that, like the iPhone, have a host of apps to encourage heavy data use.

"Our survey suggests that an iPhone from Verizon Wireless, which is rumored, could indeed be good news for iPhone fans", said Paul Reynolds, Electronics Editor for Consumer Reports.

The consensus prediction among tech industry bloggers appears to be a January 2011 launch of the Verizon iPhone. Verizon Wireless recently introduced its version of the popular iPad, breaking AT&T's long-held monopoly on Apple products and further fueling speculation that a Verizon iPhone was close behind.

Cynics have predicted that the addition of tens of thousands of iPhones to the Verizon network will quickly drag it down to AT&T's performance level but others note that Verizon already supports a variety of data-hungry smartphones, including those powered by Google's Android operating system, which is seen as comparable to the iPhone in terms of data usage.

58,000 responses

In this year's version of its annual survey on cell-phone carriers, more than 58,000 ConsumerReports.org subscribers weighed in about their service and customer support experiences with contract and no-contract providers.

AT&T was the only carrier whose scores for overall satisfaction dropped significantly since last year.

Verizon Wireless remains among the better performers, but Sprint has pulled even with the carrier in overall satisfaction. The carrier actually even scored better than Verizon in some aspects of customer service, a remarkable turnaround from past years when that was a weak point for the company. T-Mobile was only slightly behind those two carriers in overall satisfaction.

The full article also features carrier Ratings in 23 metropolitan markets and is in the January 2011 issue of Consumer Reports and at www.ConsumerReports.org

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Gay and Lesbian Teens Punished More Often and Severely Than Straight Teens

Study finds LGB teens commit fewer crimes, but face harsher punishment

Gay and Lesbian Teens Punished More Often and Severely Than Straight Teens Study finds LGB teens commit fewer crimes, but face harsher punishment ...

Along with being more likely to be bullied by their classmates, a new study by Yale University researchers finds teens who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) are about 40 percent more likely than their straight peers to be punished by school authorities, police and the courts.

Published in the January 2011 issue of the journal Pediatrics, this is the first study to document excessive punishment of LGB youth nationwide.

"We found that virtually all types of punishment -- including school expulsions, arrests, juvenile convictions, adult convictions and especially police stops -- were more frequently meted out to LGB youth," said lead author Kathryn Himmelstein, who initiated the study while she was a Yale undergraduate. 

The research was supervised by Hannah Brueckner, professor of sociology and co-director of the Center for Research on Inequalities and the Life Course at Yale.

The study was based on the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) and included about 15,000 middle and high school students who were followed for seven years into early adulthood. 

The study collected details on participants' sexuality, including feelings of sexual attraction, sexual relationships and self-labeling as LGB. 

Add Health also surveyed participants about how frequently they engaged in a variety of misbehaviors, ranging in severity from lying to parents, to using a weapon. 

The survey also included detailed questions about school expulsions and contacts with the criminal justice system.

Himmelstein, who now teaches math at a public high school in New York City, said LGB teens were about 50 percent more likely to be stopped by police than other teenagers. 

Teens who reported feelings of attraction to members of the same sex, regardless of their self-identification, were more likely than other teens to be expelled from school or convicted of crimes as adults.

Himmelstein said girls who identified as lesbian or bisexual were especially at risk for unequal treatment. 

"They reported experiencing twice as many police stops, arrests and convictions as other girls who had engaged in similar behavior," said Himmelstein.

The study did not explore the experiences of transgender youth, but Himmelstein said anecdotal reports suggest that they are similarly at risk for excessive punishment.

The study also showed that these disparities in punishments are not explained by differences in the rates of misbehavior.

In fact, according to the study's findings, LGB adolescents actually engaged in less violence than their peers.

"The painful, even lethal bullying that LGB youth suffer at the hands of their peers has been highlighted by recent tragic events," said Himmelstein. 

"Our numbers suggest that school officials, police and judges, who should be protecting LGB youth, are instead singling them out for punishment based on their sexual orientation. LGB teens can't thrive if adults single them out for punishment because of their sexual orientation."

This study is the first and only to provide national estimates for over-representation of LGB youth in the criminal justice system. And according to the authors, additional studies are needed.

"We need more research on the processes that lead to this to help us identify ways to make our institutions more equitable with respect to policing all youth, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation," said Brueckner.



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Young Diabetic Smokers Aren't Urged To Quit By Their Doctors

Study finds despite increased risk for heart disease, doctors fail to counsel young patients

Young Diabetic Smokers Aren't Urged To Quit By Their Doctors Study finds despite increased risk for heart disease, doctors fail to counsel young patients...

Cigarette smoking is widespread among children and young adults with diabetes yet few health care providers are counseling children and young adults with diabetes to not smoke or stop smoking, according to a new report from the SEARCH Study Group, published online in the Journal of Pediatrics.

Children and young adults with diabetes are already at high risk for heart disease before they take up smoking, but few studies have examined the association between cigarette smoking and heart disease risk factors in youth with diabetes.

Funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive Kidney Diseases, the study examined tobacco use and heart disease risk factors in a racially and ethnically diverse group of 3,466 children and young adults with diabetes aged 10 to 22 years old across the United States.

Researchers found that 10 percent of youth with type 1 diabetes and 16 percent of youth with type 2 diabetes were currently using some form of tobacco products: cigarettes, cigars or smokeless tobacco.

Less than half of the youth reported that they had been counseled by their health care provider to not smoke or stop smoking.


"We found a substantial proportion of youth with diabetes are current cigarette smokers, which greatly adds to their already elevated risk for heart disease," said study lead author Kristi Reynolds, PhD, MPH, a research scientist and epidemiologist at the Kaiser Permanente Southern California Department of Research & Evaluation.

"Smoking is preventable, so aggressive smoking prevention and cessation programs are needed to prevent or delay heart disease in youth with diabetes."

These findings were based on analysis of data from the SEARCH for Diabetes in Youth Study, a large multi-center study of youth diagnosed with diabetes before the age of 20 years who were enrolled by six clinical centers in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Ohio, South Carolina and Washington.

The study found the prevalence of current cigarette smoking in youth with type 1 diabetes to be 1.3 percent of 10- to 14-year-olds, 14.9 percent of 15- to 19-year-olds, and 27 percent of those 20 years and older.

Among youth with type 2 diabetes, 4.4 percent of 10- to 14-year-olds were currently cigarette smokers, 12.9 percent of 15- to 19-year-olds were cigarette smokers, and 37.3 percent in youth 20 years and older were cigarette smokers.

The study also found early signs of heart disease among those using cigarette products.

Youth who were past and current smokers had a higher prevalence of high triglyceride levels, high LDL cholesterol levels, low HDL cholesterol levels and more physical inactivity than non-smokers.

"Cigarette smoking is a completely preventable risk factor for cardiovascular and other diseases. While this is true for all children, it is especially true for children with diabetes because of the increased risk of cardiovascular disease in that population," said study co-author Stephen R. Daniels, MD, PhD,

Daniels is a professor and chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Pediatrician-in-Chief at The Children's Hospital in Denver.

In adults with diabetes, the risk of heart disease is greatly increased compared with adults without diabetes, and smoking may increase that risk. 

About 90 percent of adult smokers started smoking before age 18.

Because of the already increased risk of cardiovascular disease in individuals with diabetes mellitus, the American Diabetes Association emphasizes the importance of smoking cessation for those individuals.


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Answer to Distracted Driving Is ‘Common Sense,’ Feds Say

Transportation Secretary says interview remarks advocating technology approach misinterpreted

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says he prefers a 'common sense' approach to stopping distracted driving, not a technology-based one....

While there may be potential technology that could render a cell phone useless behind the wheel of a car, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says the government is not pursuing it.

LaHood says his remarks in a recent interview on the cable news channel MSNBC were misreported as advocating for the department to go down that road. In his blog, LaHood says he had no intention of conveying that meaning.

"What I actually said was 'there's a lot of technology out there now that can disable phones and we're looking at that," LaHood says.

The Secretary said a number of cell technology innovators attended the government's recent Distracted Driving Summit in Washington and presented their technology, and LaHood admits that's one way to address the problem. But in his blog entry, LaHood says it may not be the best way.

"You have to have good laws, you have to have good enforcement, and you have to have people take personal responsibility. That's the bottom line," he wrote. "When you get behind the wheel of a 5,000 pound automobile, you have a personal responsibility to drive that vehicle safely. That means, put away cell phones and other devices that take your focus off of the road."

Federal and state efforts

Federal and state governments have taken a variety of steps to reduce the number of people who drive while talking or texting, increasingly blamed for traffic accidents. In June the Senate Commerce Committee approved a bipartisan bill that would reward states for banning drivers from talking on cell phones or sending and receiving text messages.

In August the Transportation Department kicked off pilot programs in Hartford, Connecticut and Syracuse, New York to test whether increased law enforcement efforts can get distracted drivers to put down their cell phones and focus on the road.

The pilot programs, which are similar to previous efforts to curb drunken driving and increase seat belt use among drivers, were the first federally funded efforts in the country to specifically focus on the effects of increased enforcement and public advertising on reducing distracted driving. Drivers caught texting or talking on a hand-held cell phone will be pulled over and ticketed.

A University of Utah study says distraction from cell phone use while driving, either hand held or hands free, is about t he same as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent. The National Highways Transportation Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says drivers that use cell phones are four times as likely to get into injury-causing accidents.


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Planning Ahead Can Relieve Holiday Shopping Stress

Having a blueprint could turn an annual chore into a thing of enjoyment

Planning Ahead Can Relieve Holiday Shopping StressHaving a blueprint could turn an annual chore into a thing of enjoyment...

While we usually have good intentions about saving money each month for our Christmas shopping, we don't always follow through with the plan. 

Now, more than ever, it is important to be "smart shoppers" when we hit the stores for our holiday shopping.  Of course, the best plan is to shop early, but that is not always possible. 

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem offers some things to consider before hitting the mall or the Internet to do your Christmas shopping.

  • Set a budget before beginning the shopping process.
  • Make a list before leaving home.  Do research on brands, features of the product, and rebates that may be available and general product information.
  • Don't limit your choices.  Have a back-up plan in case you are not able to find the exact item you are seeking.
  • Advertised items are not always the cheapest.  Before making your final selection, check out other brands of similar products.
  • If an item you wish to purchase is sold out, ask for a "rain check" or if the business is substituting another item in its place.  Make sure the product will arrive in time for the holidays if you are given a "rain check."
  • Watch store ads and look for unadvertised specials while in the store.  Most items will go on sale at some point during the holiday season.
  • Save your receipts for at least 90 days after your purchase.  This will allow you or the recipient of the gift to return a product that doesn't fit, is broken or is a duplicate.
  • Be sure to check each store's refund and exchange policy.  If you have to return an item to a store, you have only limited rights. A store may set its own policy, which may include a cash refund, a store credit, an exchange, or no refund at all.  Others may limit the amount of time in which a return may be made, such as 30 days from the date of purchase. It is best to ask about refund policies before buying anything.
  • Don't wait until the last minute.  It will help avoid frustration if you are unable to find that perfect gift.  Allow time for an alternate plan.
  • Shop during off peak hours.  Early morning hours and evening hours during the week are usually the busiest.

Gift card caution

Gift cards have become very popular in the past several years.  These cards allow the recipient to "get what he or she really wants."

Universal or "general use prepaid" gift cards are the most frequently purchased gift cards and allow the recipient to go just about anywhere they want to make their purchase including retailers and restaurants. Examples include mall gift cards contained on a plastic card or other electronic payment device and redeemable at the unaffiliated stores throughout the mall. 

While gift cards can be the easy gift to buy for someone who has everything, they are not without problems.  If a company goes out of business, or files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, what will be the status of the outstanding gift cards? 

In many cases, the holders of the gift cards will not receive anything and the giver will be out the money.  The gift card will hold no value.  If you do give or receive a gift card this year, it should be spent within a reasonable period of time.

If you decide to join the millions who plan to do their shopping online and take advantage of the free shipping offers this year, there are some important things to remember before you do.

  • Make sure you are purchasing from a reputable business.
  • Make sure you order on a secure server or encrypted website (https).
  • Read all the product information and compare prices.
  • Review the return, refund, and shipping and handling policies.
  • Pay with your credit card.
  • Print and save records of your online purchases.

While the holidays can be the start of many consumer headaches, you can avoid the stress with a little preparation.

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How Military Servicemen and Women Can Get Lower Interest Rate Loans

But you must have incurred your debts before your active duty began

If you’re a member of the military you could qualify for special protection that puts a cap on interest rates for credit cards, mortgages and other loans...

Mortgage rates might be at historic lows but the interest rates on credit cards and other so-called unsecured loans seem to be reaching levels once the domain of loan sharks. If your credit score falls below a certain number card companies won't bat an eye as they raise your APR to 29.9%.  

It's hard enough for most of us to get out from under an ever growing mountain of card when lenders raise their interest rates but for members of the military, it's even more devastating because in many cases they've taken a cut in pay to serve their country.

Fortunately, due to the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, active duty military personnel could qualify for special protection. This includes putting a cap on interest rate for credit cards, mortgages and other loans at 6%. But to be eligible, you had to have incurred the debt before you began active duty, and your military service must be impacting your ability to repay them.

Although this helps anyone who took a pay cut to join the military, it especially helps members of the Reserves and National Guard, some of whom had to leave left higher-paying civilian jobs for months, or even years, when they're unit is called up. Credit cards, mortgages and other loans taken out jointly with a non-military spouse also qualify for the rate reduction.

You can request the rate reduction on your own or get help from an Armed Forces Legal Assistance office. You may be asked to submit copies of your military orders, earnings statements and tax returns to prove your income has been reduced.

In an interview with Kiplinger's, Samuel Wright, director of the Service Members Law Center for the Reserve Officers Association, pointed out that it is the creditor who has the burden of proof to show your entry into active duty did not materially affect your ability to meet financial obligations.

Wright says any interest above 6% is forgiven while you're on active duty, but it will return to the higher rate after your active duty is over and that higher rate will only apply to the remaining balance. To make the most of this provision, you should try to pay down as much of your credit-card balances as possible while the rate is low and more of your payment will go toward the principal rather than interest.

The act provides other benefits, as well, such as giving you the right to terminate an apartment lease if you have a permanent order for a change of station or are deployed to a new location for 90 days or more. In addition, you can end a car lease without incurring an early-termination fee if you are deployed for 180 days or longer.

You can find more information at the Pentagon Federal Credit Union's website at  www.penfed.org.

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After Slow Rise, Gasoline Prices Suddenly Escalate

Fears of weaker dollar push pump prices up

The price of gasoline is suddenly rising, mainly over future concerns about a weaker dollar....

The price of gasoline seems to have pressed the accelerator to the floor since the weekend, rising nearly a dime a gallon in the last seven days, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Survey.

The average price of self-serve regular today is $2.951 a gallon, up a nickel a gallon since Friday. The price is 32 cents a gallon more than at this time last year. Sixteen states now have average gas prices that exceed $3 a gallon.

Analysts say prices at the pump are simply responding to the price of crude oil, which nearly broke through the $90 a barrel level early Monday. Crude oil is rising, they say, on the outlook for a weaker U.S. dollar, which is how energy products are priced.

Many attribute the dollar's weakness to the Federal Reserve's Quantitative Easing program, which is designed to keep interest rates low. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke appeared on CBS' 60 Minutes Sunday, where he defended the policy and did not rule out another round of easing if the economy fails to respond.

Ironically, the dollar is showing very little weakness at the moment, gaining ground Monday against the euro. Many traders say oil prices will go even higher if and when the dollar begins to retreat.

For consumers, meanwhile, the increase in energy prices comes at a time when they normally expect to pay less for gasoline because of reduced demand. At the same time, home heating costs are continuing to rise, since demand for heat is up as winter-like weather begins to take hold in many parts of the country.

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Feds Explore Technology To Disable Cell Phones In Cars

Transportation Secretary shows strong interest

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has expressed strong interest in developing a technology to disable cell phone use by drivers....

When drunk driving became an alarming road hazard, technology came up with a breathalyzer that would not allow the car to start if the driver had been drinking.

Now, a similar device might be in the works to address a new driving issue - people who talk or text on cell phones while driving. The idea is being taken seriously in Washington.

Appearing on the cable news channel MSNBC last week, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said his department is investigating to see if current technology can be used to disable cell phones in vehicles.

"There's a lot of technology out there than can disable phones, and we're looking at that," LaHood said.

LaHood said the idea gained a lot of traction earlier this year at the Transportation Department's Distracted Driving Summit. It's not clear what form the anti-cell phone technology would be deployed, but wireless experts say signal scrambling technology may be the most obvious.

"I think it will be done," LaHood said. 

Federal and state governments have taken a variety of steps to reduce the number of people who drive while talking or texting, increasingly blamed for traffic accidents. In June the Senate Commerce Committee approved a bipartisan bill that would reward states for banning drivers from talking on cell phones or sending and receiving text messages.

In August the Transportation Department kicked off pilot programs in Hartford, Connecticut and Syracuse, New York to test whether increased law enforcement efforts can get distracted drivers to put down their cell phones and focus on the road.

The pilot programs, which are similar to previous efforts to curb drunken driving and increase seat belt use among drivers, were the first federally funded efforts in the country to specifically focus on the effects of increased enforcement and public advertising on reducing distracted driving. Drivers caught texting or talking on a hand-held cell phone will be pulled over and ticketed.

A University of Utah study says distraction from cell phone use while driving, either hand held or hands free, is about t he same as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent. The National Highways Transportation Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says drivers that use cell phones are four times as likely to get into injury-causing accidents.


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Toxin-Free Lice Killing Device Blows Other Treatment Methods Away

As lice become resistant to insecticides, the LouseBuster offers a green alternative

Toxin-Free Lice Killing Device Blows Other Treatment Methods Away As lice become resistant to insecticides, the LouseBuster offers a green alternative...

What's one word that strikes both fear and nausea in even the strongest-willed parent or teacher? 

Lice.

And for decades, treating the nasty critters has been an arduous, toxic task. But the days of chemical-laden shampoos and tiny combs may soon be over.

Four years ago, the prototype for the LouseBuster, made headlines when research showed the chemical-free, warm-air device wiped out head lice on children. 

And a new study reveals that a revamped, government-cleared model of the lice-killing device is just as effective.

The LouseBuster works by blasting warm air at the patient's scalp, where the lice take refuge, a little like a hairdryer.

"For a louse, it's like sticking your head out a window at 100 miles an hour; they're going to get dried out," says University of Utah biology Professor Dale Clayton, senior author of the study and a founder of Larada Sciences, a university spinoff company that sells or leases the LouseBuster to schools, camps, medical clinics and delousing businesses.

While the older version of the LouseBuster proved effective in a study published in November 2006 in the journal Pediatrics, it wasn't perfect. 

It was noisy, it wouldn't plug into home electrical outlets and it got tangled in curly hair. It looked like a cumbersome canister vacuum with a hose on it, and blew warm air through a comb-like applicator.

The new LouseBuster is less noisy, can be plugged into a standard electrical outlet and sports an applicator with 28 cone-shaped tips that doesn't get tangled in hair. 

The improved LouseBuster more user-friendly, but still just as effective.

The new study compared the number of live and dead lice and nits (eggs) before and after treatment on the 56 louse-infested children and adults. Lice and nits were collected from half of each patient's head at the start of the experiment. 

Then, the whole head was treated with the LouseBuster. Lice were collected from the other side of the head. The researchers checked how many lice were alive and how many of the nits would hatch.

Most of the lice and nits collected at the start of the experiment were alive. After treatment by experienced LouseBuster operators, 88.2 percent of hatched lice were dead and 99.2 percent of nits failed to hatch, for an overall mortality of 94.8 percent.

Lice not killed immediately apparently were sterilized by the LouseBuster or died later. Any eggs that might have been missed by combing or other methods did not hatch because the LouseBuster treatment killed them. 

That means the LouseBuster can be an important tool for schools that abandon the "no nit" policy, as was recommended recently by the American Academy of Pediatrics. If the eggs have been killed, then removing all of them is not essential and kids may not have to miss school.

After the first study, thousands of people with louse-infested children contacted Clayton and the University of Utah seeking the device, even though it was only a research prototype and was meant for eventual use by school nurses and other delousing professionals, not private individuals. 

The revamped LouseBuster to hit the market after gaining U.S. Food and Drug Administration clearance as a medical device. It was patented in September 2010.

"We've moved from clinical trials to having the machine available so infested people can get treated by this device. It's not a prototype anymore," says the study's first author, Sarah Bush, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Utah.

Larada Sciences sells the LouseBuster for $2,000 to $2,500 to nonprofit organizations such as schools and medical clinics. 

The company also has various sale or lease arrangements with trained and certified LouseBuster operators who provide treatments in salons or clients' homes for $125 to $275 per person. 

So why all the hubbub over this machine?

Lice are evolving resistance to insecticides, and many people find the old treatments, such as shampoos and other chemical treatments, ineffective. As a result, louse infestations are on the rise.

Even when the shampoos work, they kill only hatched lice, not nits. Infested people must shampoo again after the nits have hatched, and if they get the timing wrong -- waiting until the newly-hatched lice have laid eggs of their own -- treatment must begin again. 

Also, many parents are reluctant to use chemical treatments on their children.

Combs to remove lice and nits also are popular, but combing out the critters is tedious and can take hours, particularly in long hair, because every  nit must be removed.

People also use various other products and home remedies to combat lice, but most alternative treatments are untested or ineffective.

The LouseBuster, however, is easy to use, safe, and effective. 

"This thing is incredibly innocuous," with no ill effects reported, said Clayton.

The LouseBuster's also effective in any type of climate and on any type of hair. 

Tests were conducted in Florida and Tennessee, which have humid climates, and Utah, which has a dry climate. The researchers also categorized each subject's hair as long or short, thick or thin, and curly or straight. Climate and hair type made very little difference in the LouseBuster's ability to kill lice and nits.

The device's patent holds out the possibility that people may not be the only customers for the LouseBuster. 

In the future, a similar device may be developed for use on louse-infested sheep and other livestock.

The new LouseBuster study will be published in the January 2011 issue of the Journal of Medical Entomology.

Bush and Clayton ran the study with Alex Rock, Sherri Jones and Jael Malenke, research technicians from Larada Sciences in Salt Lake City. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation, Utah Centers of Excellence program and Larada Sciences. Clayton and some other authors have a financial interest in the company.
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Unemployed? You Can Get An Extra Free Credit Report

Federal law grants the jobless that right, but few know of it

Unemployed? You Can Get An Extra Free Credit ReportFederal law grants the jobless that right, but few know of the right...

Here's one benefit for the unemployed that Congress isn't about to cut off: If you're out of work, you can get an additional free credit report each year, according to CreditCards.com, which bills itself as an online credit card marketplace.

Federal law requires that all U.S. consumers be granted free access to their credit reports once every 12 months. Unemployed workers, however, are entitled to an extra report during their job searches.

Those reports can have a serious effect on consumers' financial lives. Because employers frequently use credit reports in their hiring decisions, consumers who review those reports -- and take action based on the information they contain -- can improve their chances of getting hired. 

Unfortunately, consumers often fail to exercise that right, according to experts. "Most people who are unemployed are unaware that they are eligible to receive a free credit report," says Olivia Almagro, public information officer with the South Florida Workforce Investment Board in Miami.

Why? Because while ad campaigns have informed people of their right to one free credit report per year from each of the three credit bureaus, little is said or done to let the jobless know of their extra right.

Benefits to the unemployed

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, each of the three major U.S. credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion -- must provide all consumers with a free credit report each year. And they do -- online, through AnnualCreditReport.com, which they jointly sponsor. The act also enables those who are out of work to get an additional credit report at no cost, provided those consumers plan to look for a job within 60 days. Unemployed workers have had that right since 1996.  

It's a right worth exercising.

"Unemployed consumers may want to check their credit reports when applying for jobs because employers may ask to perform a background check, which could include credit report information," says Rebecca Kuehn, assistant director with the FTC's division of privacy and identity protection.

Although some consumer advocates and lawmakers argue that such credit checks are an unfair barrier to employment, they continue to be permitted in most states. "It is important to know what is in your report and, if there are errors, take steps to get them corrected," Kuehn says. Otherwise, those damaging errors, left untreated, could potentially keep an applicant from getting hired. 

Credit reports can also encourage better budgeting. A consumer can use that report to figure out what debts remain outstanding and whether any accounts are in collections, says Natalie Pankow, a credit adviser with the Jewish Vocational Service in Chicago. That can help with prioritizing repayments. "During unemployment, when income is tight and/or uncertain, learning to prioritize payments, reduce spending, stretch unemployment checks and get access to other nonprofit agencies is paramount," Pankow says.  

Getting free credit reports

In spite of the benefits, requesting these reports isn't so straightforward. Compared with the centralized website and phone number, unemployed workers will find the process of getting a free report is "definitely not one that's set to a standard format," the FTC's Kuehn says.

An unemployed consumer who wants a free report must contact the bureaus directly. The request process varies:

  • Experian says the unemployed can visit its Website, call (866) 200-6020 or write a letter to the bureau certifying they are jobless. The letter should include: the consumer's full name (including middle initial and suffix such as Sr., Jr. or III), current mailing address, Social Security number, date of birth, previous addresses for the past five years and two proofs of the consumer's current mailing address, such as driver's license, utility bill, bank or insurance statement. The information should be mailed to: P.O. Box 9530, Allen, TX 75013. The bureau says once it gets that information, the consumer can expect a report within 10 business days.
  • TransUnion offers a link on its Website  for consumers seeking a free TransUnion credit report, including for the unemployed. They can also call (800) 888-4213 or mail a form to TransUnion LLC, P.O. Box 1000, Chester, PA 19022.
  • Equifax says consumers can go online or call (800) 685-1111. Additionally, they can write to Equifax Information Services LLC, P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374.

Better publicity needed

A consumer's right to a free credit report has been well publicized, including a national advertising campaign for AnnualCreditReport.com, but there hasn't been a similar effort targeting the jobless. In fact, a Google search indicates the AnnualCreditReport.com website makes no mention of the reports for the unemployed.

At the local level, certain state agencies acknowledge they aren't doing much to inform their residents. The Illinois Department of Employment Security, for example, doesn't say anything to unemployed workers about requesting their free reports. "I don't think it's anything that's been given a lot of thought to," says IDES spokesman Greg Rivara.

Meanwhile, California's Employment Development Department says although its program doesn't provide that information, the state's Department of Consumer Affairs does mention the free credit reports on its website.

Florida's Agency for Workforce Innovation, which administers the state's unemployment compensation, doesn't have a formal procedure for letting unemployed workers know about the free reports. However, "when unemployment compensation customers or workforce services customers have direct interaction with agency staff, this type of information may be shared," says Robby Cunningham, the agency's communications director.

The FTC says it wants more unemployed consumers to be aware of the free reports. "We like to make sure consumers know what rights they do have," the FTC's Kuehn says.

 

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Perdue "Humanely Raised" Claim Bogus, Suit Says

Humane Society files class action on behalf of NJ woman

Perdue "Humanely Raised" Claim Bogus, Suit Says Humane Society files class action on behalf of NJ woman...

Chicken titan Perdue proudly labels select birds as "humanely raised." But the Humane Society says that claim is false, and it intends to prove it in a class action lawsuit it filed last week.

The suit, filed in a New Jersey state court, is being brought on behalf of Nadine Hemy, who bought a Perdue Harvestland chicken at a local BJ's Wholesale Club. Perdue markets its Harvestland birds as "purely all-natural" and "humanely raised."

According to the suit, Perdue bases its standards on guidelines issued by the National Chicken Council, the trade association that represents the chicken industry. Under those standards, the suit says, chickens can be deprived of food and water during transport; raised in dark conditions; and hung upside down just before they are slaughtered.

"Perdue's 'Humanely Raised' chickens are not treated humanely or differently from Perdue's other chickens and are not treated in any material respects differently from chicks of other major producers," the complaint alleges.

Words don't match actions, HS lawyer says

Jonathan Lovvorn, the Humane Society's vice president and chief counsel, said in a statement that Perdue is "exploiting the dramatic growth of consumer demand for improved animal welfare for their own profit."

"Rather than implementing humane reforms, Perdue has simply slapped 'humanely raised' stickers on its factory farmed products, hoping consumers won't know the difference," Lovvorn said.

The complaint contends that Perdue's "humanely raised" label violates New Jersey's consumer fraud law. Hemy is seeking an injunction barring the company from continuing to use the label, as well as compensatory and punitive damages.

Perdue fires back

In a statement, Perdue defended its "humanely raised" label and explicitly took on the suit's allegations regarding its treatment of its chickens.

"Our chickens are raised cage-free on family farms in temperature-controlled housing with a continuous flow of fresh air, and they remain free to move about, with constant access to food and water,” the company said.

On Perdue's Harvestland website -- which is appropriately named PurelyAllNatural.com -- the company boasts that the birds are "free of any additives or preservatives. And they're raised in strict accordance with best practices for humane treatment."

"At Harvestland, we've raised the bar on what 'all-natural' food means," the site continues. "Lots of labels may 'say' it, but most fall way short of what we believe in deeply."

This isn't the first time that Perdue has been accused of false advertising. In April, the company settled a suit contending that it falsely claimed its chickens are "raised without antibiotics." That suit stemmed from a June 2008 order by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that Tyson remove the claim from its birds. The USDA said in a statement that it "found that [Tyson] routinely used the antibiotic Gentamicin to prevent illness and death in chicks."

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Think Before Booking Bowl Game Packages

Football fans at risk of being scammed as college post-season gears up

Think Before Booking Bowl Game PackagesFootball fans at risk of being scammed as college post-season gears up ...

If your favorite college football team has qualified to play in one of the seemingly dozens of bowl games, be careful before you lay out your hard-earned money for a trip to attend the post-season matchup.

"Fraudulent ticket offers appear on a number of websites, including Craigslist, and in classified ads," said Janet Jenkins, Administrator of the Wisconsin Division of Trade and Consumer Protection. "Fans should only buy tickets from people or businesses they know or have checked out thoroughly." Otherwise,  she says, travelers might end up watching the game on TV from their homes, or arriveat the game to find they have no tickets and no place to stay.

History a guide

That's happened before. In 1994, nearly 10,000 University of Wisconsin Badger fans were taken in by a Rose Bowl ticket scam. The large Wisconsin contingent learned of their bogus tickets after making the long trip to California and never made it to the game.

"Before hopping a plane for the upcoming Rose Bowl, or any bowl game, have the official game tickets in your procession," added Jenkins. "Scam artists can easily replicate tickets, so consumers need to do their homework to confirm their legitimacy."

Caution the key

Jenkins offers these tips to avoid becoming a fraud victim:

  • Ask the seller to e-mail or fax you a copy of the actual tickets before making a payment. Make sure the ticket information includes the correct date, time; location; and seating details.
  • If you purchase a package, contact the airline and hotel directly to make certain that you have legitimate reservations.
  • Do not give out your credit card number -- online or over the phone -- unless you are sure the seller is legitimate.
  • Use a credit card rather than cash, check or debit card to purchase tickets since it may provide some protection if you do not receive the tickets or there is no room at the inn where you thought you had a reservation.
  • Contact your local consumer protection agency to determine if complaints have been filed against the business with which you are thinking of doing business.
  • Try to deal with "official" sources for tickets such as those endorsed by the university or those that are members of the National Association of Ticket Brokers. The businesses carefully screen ticket offers and take care of other measures to protect consumers from ticket fraud.
  • Verify that any travel agent with whom you are dealing is a member of a recognized trade association, such as the American Society of Travel Agents.

Refund terms

Some sellers promise a refund on pre-purchased tickets if the team is invited to another post-season competition. In this case, make sure to keep a copy of the return policy and hang on to the receipt.

However, even when sellers refund the ticket price, some consumers still lose money on hotel and airline reservations. To prevent this from happening to you, consider getting trip insurance.

Jenkins says watching a bowl game could be a once in a lifetime event for those who are going. "Don't ruin it," she advises, "by failing to cross the 'Ts' and dot the 'Is' ahead of time."

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It’s Official, Flu Season Is Here

CDC urges nearly everyone to get a flu shot

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports widespread outbreaks of flu, and urges everyone over age six months to get a flu shot....

The holiday season is upon us. So, it seems, is the flu season. The Centers for Disease Control says reported cases of flu have jumped in the last week.

The good news? If you've gotten a flu shot, you're much more protected since the virus strains identified so far closely match the ones used in this year's batch of vaccine.

The CDC has set aside this week as National Influenza Vaccination Week (NIVW). The week-long emphasis on flu vaccination was established to highlight the importance of continuing influenza vaccination, as well as fostering greater use of flu vaccine after the holiday season into January and beyond.

With three strains of flu expected to circulate in the 2010-2011 season, the CDC says it is important that everyone six months of age and older get vaccinated if they haven't already done so, to protect themselves and their loved ones from flu.

Three strains identified so far

The three flu strains identified by the CDCs' Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices are an A/H3N2 strain, a B strain and the 2009 H1N1 pandemic strain. This year's flu vaccine provides protection against all three strains and approximately 160 million doses of the vaccine have already been distributed nationwide.

Unlike previous years, when production snafus resulted in fewer-than-expected doses, there seems to be plenty of vaccine to go around. So much so that health officials want everyone to get a flu shot this year. The universal flu vaccine recommendation, which encourages everyone six months of age and older to be vaccinated, took effect this flu season.

Last year, the H1N1 "swine" flu didn't appear until April, after the U.S. flu vaccine formula was already in production, so the flu vaccine provided little, if any, protection from that strain. Health officials say this year, there are no such complications.

"The new vaccination recommendation shows the importance of preventing the flu in everyone," said Dr. Anne Schuchat, Assistant Surgeon General of the U.S. Public Health Service and CDC's Director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. "People who do not get vaccinated are taking two risks: first, they are placing themselves at risk for the flu, including a potentially long and serious illness, and second, if they get sick, they are also placing their close contacts at risk for influenza."

"The bottom line is, anyone -- even healthy people -- can get sick from the flu," said Assistant Secretary for Health Dr. Howard K. Koh said anyone - even healthy people - can get sick from the flu bug.

"Lead the way to better health for all by getting your flu shot," he urged.

One of the many goals for NIVW is to engage at-risk audiences who are not yet vaccinated, hesitant about vaccination, or unsure about where to get vaccinated. Each day of National Influenza Vaccination Week is designated to highlight the importance for certain groups such as families, older adults, and people with high risk conditions like diabetes, asthma and heart problems, to get vaccinated.
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Level 3 'Clarifies' Position On Comcast Fees

Dispute between tech firms escalates

The dispute between Comcast and Level 3 Communications over access fees may be a perfect argument for - or against - Net neutrality....

In case there was any confusion about its position on Comcast's new fees, Level 3 Communications has issued another statement on the controversy.

The issue first surfaced last week when Level 3 complained that Comcast has announced its intention to levy ongoing fees for delivering content to Comcast, such as movies, that Comcast's subscribers have requested. Level 3 is a major supplier of streaming technology for NetFlix, which delivers video content via the Internet.

Comcast has countered that Level 3 is trying to gain an unfair advantage over competitors by using Comcast's network to deliver content without paying for it.

"Comcast's characterization could not be more misleading," Level 3 said in a statement."What is truly at stake is whether consumers should have unfettered access to all the content on the Internet without regard to whether that content happens to be owned or packaged by Comcast."

Net neutrality

Supporters of the concept of Net neutrality have seized on the controversy as an illustration of why the policy is needed. They say consumers will end up paying more for some content if network providers are able to discriminate among content providers. Opponents, on the other hand, say it perfectly illustrates why Net neutrality is unfair to network operators.

Level 3 says the disagreement is not a "peering dispute," as Comcast has characterized it.

"At issue is a fundamental interconnection disagreement between Comcast, as a provider of local high speed Internet access to consumers who pay Comcast for access to content, and Level 3, which delivers content to residential broadband access providers like Comcast in response to consumer requests," the company said.

Unlike "peering" in the Internet backbone, where competition abounds and prices have been declining steadily, Level 3 said, Internet carriers that have content requested by Comcast subscribers have no choice but to exchange traffic with Comcast.

"Comcast is using this dominant position to demand payment for traffic delivered at its customers' requests. You simply cannot "route around" Comcast to provide requested content to Comcast's subscribers," Level 3 said.

Commonplace and standard?

Comcast says the fees it charges are commonplace and standard within the industry. Level 3 says that's not the case.

"No other broadband access provider in the U.S. is now charging Level 3 the type of fees that Comcast is charging," the company said. "It is Comcast that seeks to change the common approach, changing the rules of the game in an unreasonable and discriminatory manner."

The controversy began last month with NetFlix retained Level 3 to provide the bulk of the streaming services needed to send movies to subscribers. Level 3 asked Comcast and other Internet Service Providers to give it more access to their networks so they could handled the expected increase in traffic from NetFlix.

When Level 3 asked Comcast for new interconnection ports to its network, it didn't expect to pay anything for that since it said it was providing content requested by Comcast customers. Comcast, while also sells video content to its subscribers, views it as unfair competition, and says paying a fee to deliver content over its network is reasonable.

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Illinois Seeks to Close Chicago Area Charity

Group charged with operating illegally

Tis the season to be very careful about which charities you support....

This time of year, consumers should keep in mind that not all groups they say they are a charity really are. In Illinois, Attorney General Lisa Madigan has taken legal action to underscore that point.

Madigan has filed for an injunction seeking to shut down the Chicago-based We Stop the Killings organization for allegedly operating illegally and soliciting donations from the public. Madigan's injunction also seeks to permanently bar the six defendants from managing any charitable organization in Illinois.

The Attorney General's action alleges that in June 2010 Yolanda King illegally reinstated a long-dissolved charity, Youth Action of the Midwest, naming herself, Warren Jackson, Armatha Kirkwood, Lisa Hendricks, Linda Sabo and Jeanne Taylor as its directors. King renamed the organization, and together the defendants solicited donations from the public, falsely claiming the funds would help prevent youth violence in the Chicago area.

Youth Action of the Midwest operated in the early 1980s but was dissolved by the Secretary of State's office in 1989. Madigan's office discovered the defendants had no involvement whatsoever with the dissolved Youth Action charity and is alleging that by reinstating the organization they violated the state's General Not For Profit Corporation and Solicitation Acts. Madigan's filing also seeks an accounting of all funds raised by the defendants through We Stop the Killings.

"All too often we see defendants like these preying on unsuspecting people who donate hoping they are giving back and helping those in need,” Madigan said. "Before donating your money, ask questions and take time to do research about the charity. Make sure you are satisfied your money is really going to a good cause.”

How can you tell if a charity is legitimate or a scam? Madigan offers these tips:

  • Ask how much of your donation will go to the charity and how much will be used to pay fundraising costs. Solicitors must give you this information if you ask.

  • Pay close attention to the name of the charity. Some fraudulent charities use names that sound or look like those of legitimate organizations in an effort to mislead you.
  • Ask questions about the charity. Donate only when your questions have been answered and you are certain your money will be used according to your wishes. Questions to ask include whether the charity is registered with the Illinois Attorney General's office and what percentage of donations to the charity go to fundraising, administration and charitable programming.
  • Do not pay in cash. For security and tax record purposes, pay by check. Be sure to write the full official name of the charity on your check - do not abbreviate.

  • Request written information. A legitimate charity will provide you with written information outlining its mission, how your donation will be distributed and proof that your contribution is tax deductible.
  • Do not donate if the solicitor uses high-pressure tactics, asks for cash payment or insists on sending someone to pick up your donation. These are all hallmarks of a scam, Madigan says.
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Is High-Speed Rail Travel in America's Future?

The U.S. lags Europe and Asia but critics say there are reasons for caution

Recent survey shows two out of three Americans would use a high-speed rail service if we had one but opponents say it will cost too much ...

The debate over whether America should invest in a high speed rail service continues to be hotly contested and as usual it has become a political battle pitting Republicans against Democrats and Washington against state governments.

On one side are Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, Governor-elect John Kasich of Ohio,   Governor-elect Rick Scott of Florida and Governor-elect Scott Walker of Wisconsin. All are Republicans and all are against spending taxpayer money on high-speed trains.

On the other side are Democrats, including Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer from California, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo of New York. They want Washington to give them the billions of dollars in high-speed funds that Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida and New Jersey don't want.

Meanwhile, a recent poll by the American Public Transportation Association shows nearly two out of three Americans (62%) would "definitely or probably” use high-speed rail for leisure or business travel if a system was built. Another 27% said they weren't sure while only 11% said they "probably or definitely would not” use it.

The rest of the world seems to have already embraced the idea of high speed rail service.

Recently, Switzerland completed drilling a tunnel over a mile below the Swiss Alps for what will be the world's longest underground high-speed train. It's going to cost $20 billion. China has plans to build the world's fastest train from Beijing to Shanghai for $32.5 billion.

Meanwhile, in this country, states are fighting efforts to begin high-speed rail projects. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has stopped an $8.7 billion project to double the train capacity between New Jersey and Manhattan via a Hudson River tunnel.

Cost objections

Opponents claim it's an issue of the massive costs associated with building a high speed rail system, but further investigation shows that's just part of the reason. The question being raised is that in a country with a $14.3 trillion gross domestic product, are these relatively small financial outlays the real reason there is so much resistance to high speed rail service in the U.S?

Andy Kunz, CEO of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association (USHSR) says the problem dates back some 70 years when America decided to spend most of its transportation money on roads and runways while other nations concentrated on building up their rail systems.

From Germany to the Eurotunnel under the Channel from London to Paris to Spain and Southern Italy, all of Europe's trains have formed a huge high-speed intercontinental rail service. Even though China started a few years later, it already has the world's longest high-speed rail network running some 5,000 miles and plans to double that length by 2020.

Before Europe and Asia embraced the rails, the U.S led the world in both freight and passenger rail service. In the 1920s trains that reached every city in America. But it wasn't long after the interstate highway system emerged and air travel become cheaper and easier that we transitioned into a nation of drivers and flyers.

So what caused us to derail the railroads? Some say it's the way we built our infrastructure with our suburban crawl and an ambitious highway expansion. If you're an American and live in the suburbs or the country, having your own car becomes your number one priority as soon as you're old enough to drive.

Meanwhile Europeans primarily remained in their dense cities and the need for a personal transportation vehicle was diminished. It wasn't until the recent economic crash when oil hit a high of $145 a barrel that we started to question our infrastructure and over-dependence on foreign oil.

California first?

High-speed rails that go 220 miles an hour are run on electricity. California could the first state to embrace this new and fuel efficient way to travel with plans to begin an 800-mile high-speed rail service that will carry riders between Los Angeles and San Francisco in two and a half hours. 

The service is expected to save one-third of the energy per passenger of airplanes and one-fifth the energy per passenger of automobiles, reducing the state's demand for oil by 12.7 million barrels annually, according to the California High-Speed Rail Authority which is charge of the project.

California taxpayers passed Proposition 1A in 2008, allowing the state to sell $9.95 billion in bonds to help pay for the $45 billion project. It is expected to create between 500,000 to 700,000 over the five to seven years of development, along with 450,000 permanent jobs.

Those in favor of high-speed rail service point out that high speed rail service is the most economical form of travel for 500 to 600-mile corridors around the country. Proponents say those short routes are uneconomical for planes and too far for commuting by car. High speed rail service would create jobs while helping to unclog congested highways and runways.

The Obama administration announced recently that it is increasing stimulus funds to for the construction of high-speed passenger rail service on 13 planned corridor lines from $8 billion to $10.4 billion. A study conducted for U.S. Conference of Mayors by Siemens projects that by 2035 the plan could create 150,000 new jobs in Albany, Chicago, Orlando and Los Angeles.

Buffett on board

Our first tip off that high-speed rail service might be a good idea should have been when investment genius Warren Buffett bought Burlington Northern last year proclaiming that railroads represent the future. Granted, Buffett was talking about freight trains and their ability to transport goods and raw materials across the country more economically and efficiently than any other means and he noted that unlike trucks, freight trains don't have to compete on congested highways. The same argument is being used by supporters of high-speed passenger service.

Critics on the other hand say changing our rail service to accommodate high-speed trains will cost a lot more than it did in Europe or Asia. They note that rail service in Asia and parts of Europe is relatively new compared to 150 years or so in U.S. For example, as recently as the end of World War II, China and Japan had little or no rail service. They say that in Europe, Japan and China, their rail infrastructure is built from new concrete rail ties rather than wood. And because of the war, their rail lines could be laid as part of a development plan.

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, there's a study underway to determine the feasibility of a high-speed rail service from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma to McAllen, Texas. Critics question whether there is that great a need for passengers to get from Oklahoma City to McAllen, Texas. The proposed route would go through populated parts of Dallas/Fort Worth, Waco, Austin, San Antonio and on to McAllen. But the train could only be "high-speed" if it does not have to slow through population area or at road crossings and critics question whether the costs associated with eminent domain and overpasses would be worth it.

And so the debate continues and whether the U.S. joins the rest of the world in high-speed passenger rail service will depend on what most things depend on in this country. If enough voters demand it and let their representatives know how they feel, the money will probably be found.

So it all comes back to you dear reader. Do you want to create hundreds of thousands of jobs, travel relatively inexpensively between cities 500 to 800 miles away or continue to fight the clogged roadways? You could also choose between passing nakedly through scanners or being groped by strangers instead of getting on a train that could have you at your destination in about the same time you'll wait to board your plane.

 

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10 Ways to Save at the Gas Pump

Including grocery stores and warehouse clubs that offer special discounts on gasoline

With gas prices at the pump rising again, it’s always good to know as many ways as possible to reduce the amount you have to pay to get around...

It's getting more difficult to find cheap gas these days. Even with using those online sites like gasbuddy.com or mapquest.com, the price of fuel at the pump is rising faster than ever.

Within one week, the price at my local cheap gas place jumped from $2.99 to $3.07, and then to $3.11 a gallon. I could drive 50 miles east and get it back down to $3.03 but what's the point if I put a hundred miles on the car to do it?

You may want to check on your local grocery chain. More of them are offering discounts on gasoline.

According to EAI, Inc., a company that tracks the petroleum sector, there are about 5,000 supermarkets and warehouse clubs around the country that offer discounts on gasoline. But to get that discount you either have to spend a certain amount in the store or join the warehouse club where the price of membership starts at $40 a year.

With gasoline prices up close to 10% this year already, the savings could be substantial. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the average American household spends about $2,000 per year on gasoline. A $200 annual savings cuts that budget by 10%, allowing you to use that money to pay down debt, or buy better groceries.

So here are 10 ideas for reducing your gasoline bill that you may not be aware of. The first three come from Smart Money magazine.  

1.Loyalty rewards at supermarkets. Shoppers with the supermarket's loyalty card are eligible for discounted gas which is usually about five to 10 cents cheaper than nearby filling stations. Customers can earn deeper discounts by spending more money in the store. The more they spend, the deeper the discount. For example, Kroger customers who spend $400 in the grocery store can get a discount of up to 40 cents per gallon. That's $10 off when you fill up your SUV's 25-gallon fill-up. The problem is that over the long run you may not save that much money because you're doing all of your shopping in one store and not looking for grocery items of household staples that could be found for less elsewhere.

2.Warehouse club membership. Major warehouse clubs such as BJ's, Costco and Sam's Club sell discounted gas at select locations. It's usually five to 10 cents less per gallon than nearby service stations. The deal is offered only to club members, who pay at least $40 for their annual membership. Costco plans to open at least 12 more fuel stations in the next year. It also offers 3% cash back on gas purchases for consumers who pay with a Costco-AMEX card. The downside here is that you'll need to buy at least 364 gallons of gas to recoup your $40 membership fee.

3. Gas station credit cards. Gas stations have teamed up with credit-card companies to offer branded credit cards that give generous rebates on gas purchases. The Gulf Platinum MasterCard offers up to 3% rebates for gas purchased at Gulf stations and 1% everywhere else. And with Shell, if you buy at least 45 gallons of its gasoline using their Shell card you can save five cents per gallon up to 100 gallons per month. The negative here is that if you carry a balance on your credit card, the interest will wipe out the savings on gas.

4.  Change the way you drive. Everyone knows that driving faster uses more gas, but you can also reduce consumption by slowing down for signals well in advance and not accelerating fast from stop lights or stop signs. Using cruise control on long distances can lower your gas usage by 33%.

5.  Empty out your car every now and then. A lighter car uses less fuel.

6.  Use the correct fuel. If your car doesn't require a higher octane gas, then don't waste your money buying it. It won't help your car or give you better mileage. The Federal Trade Commission recommends using the regular 87 octane gasoline, unless your owner's manual recommends otherwise, or your engine is knocking.

7.  Plan your trips better. If you're heading out the door to run a bunch of errands, plan ahead for the most efficient route so you don't waste time and gasoline by backtracking. And if you need to go a certain route on a frequent basis such as to work, the gym, church or a meeting location, consider carpooling or taking public transportation.

8.  Stop idling. If you are waiting, turn off your car. This may be difficult in the winter, but always remember that as long as your engine is running, it's burning fuel. So weigh your options. It might just be cheaper to shut off the car and go inside a store or coffee shop to wait.

9.  Buy gasoline at night. Fewer people are buying gas at that time so you save gas you might otherwise use while waiting for a pump. Also, gas expands when it's hot so you may squeeze out a little more in the cool of the evening.

10.  Keep your tire pressure steady and at the manufacturers recommended pressure. You can't always tell just by looking if a tire is under pressure. But when it is, it causes you to use more fuel.

Following these tips can help you save money and reduce the number of times you'll be shivering at the gas pumps this winter. I could also say you'll be contributing to a greener environment and reducing your carbon footprint but that's all beside the point.

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Confused By a Debt Collector? Here Are Your Rights

Ohio Attorney General offers some advice

Many consumers report confusion at calls from debt collectors seeking what may be non-existent debts....

A number of consumers have recently reported calls from debt collectors seeking money they don't think they owe. Do they have any recourse?

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act provides a number of consumer protections. Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray has issued a consumer alert, highlighting five specific things debt collectors are not allowed to do:

  • Harass you or use obscene words when talking to you.
  • Contact you before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m.
  • Contact you without identifying themselves.
  • Tell others about your debt.
  • Contact you at work if your employer disapproves.

Watch out for scams

Some recent debt collector calls are outright scams. They involve a male caller who pretends to be an attorney or someone representing a payday loan company. He threatens the consumer with arrest and prosecution unless immediate payment is made on the non-existent loan. 

Former Hollywood Video customers have reported getting calls from a collection agency trying to collect late fees allegedly owed to the now defunct video chain. Many say the charges are for movies and games they never rented.

"I received a notice in the mail from Credit Collection Services stating that I owed $355.05 for past due movies from Hollywood Video," Rhiannon, of Portland, Ore., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I called them and asked for the list of movies I owed. There were nine movies/games I have never rented before."

When you are presented with a debt collectors bill that you don't think is legitimate, Cordray says you need to know your rights. Within five days after contacting you by phone, a debt collector must send you a letter explaining how much you owe, who you owe it to and how long you have to dispute the debt.

You have 30 days from the date you are contacted by the debt collector to send the collector a letter disputing the debt and requesting verification of the debt. Make sure you specifically state that you are requesting verification of the debt, Cordray says.

Whether or not you believe you owe the debt, you can tell debt collectors in writing not to contact you again. Keep in mind that asking for them to stop contacting you does not eliminate any debt you may actually owe, and they still can sue you for such debt.

Another thing to remember is the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act applies only to third-party debt collectors, so these rights do not apply to debt owed to your original creditor, such as your credit card company, or to debt owed to a governmental agency, including unpaid parking tickets, child support or taxes.

If you do owe a debt, Cordray says to watch for companies that promise to "erase" your debt, reduce your interest rate or improve your credit score. These claims are usually bogus, and most debt consolidation companies will charge you for services you could do yourself for little or no cost. Most negative credit information remains on your credit report for seven years.

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Texans Getting Refunds From Debt Relief Firm

Debt Relief USA to pay back $3.7 million

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has obtained a court order requiring a defunct debt relief company to make restitution to customers....

When you're drowning in debt, you can ill afford to spend money needlessly. That's exactly what a group of struggling consumers did, according to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, and now they'll get that money back.

Abbott says his office has obtained a court order disbursing $3.7 million to Texans and customers in other states who were defrauded by a now bankrupt debt relief firm.

Court documents filed by the state indicate that Debt Relief USA Inc. unlawfully collected millions of dollars from Texans who hired the firm to settle their outstanding debts. Debt Relief collected so-called "set-aside” funds that customers believed would be used to resolve their personal debts.

But when the firm filed for bankruptcy in July 2009, it effectively prevented financially strapped Texans and other customers nationwide from accessing their own money.

In addition to the $3.7 million returned to Texans and consumers nationwide under the agreement, an additional $1 million should become available when the bankruptcy case concludes, Abbott said.

Under the disbursement order signed today, eligible customers need not request that their set-aside funds be refunded. Each customer's eligibility, as well as the amount of refund they are owed, has been determined based on Debt Relief's records.

3,000 customers left high and dry

In June 2009, Debt Relief USA filed for bankruptcy protection in the Northern District of Texas. As a result, more than 3,000 of its financially distressed customers did not receive the debt relief they were promised.

Worse, the victims were denied access to the money they had saved and set aside to pay their debts. Thousands of customers' financial problems were exacerbated by Debt Relief's bankruptcy, because the customers received no real financial assistance and were pursued by debt collection agencies while their money was tied up in bankruptcy.

Prior to its bankruptcy, Debt Relief USA marketed a "36-month” debt-free plan. Under their scheme, customers with thousands of dollars in unsecured debt were advised to simply stop paying their bills. Then, they were told to make monthly payments to Debt Relief USA, which promised to hold the money until it negotiated discounted pay-offs with creditors.

Because Debt Relief USA was collecting debt payments that it promised to use to pay off their debts in the future, the firm essentially collected "set-aside” funds from its customers. This practice is prohibited under the Texas Finance Code unless the firm has properly registered and has posted a bond with the Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner.

Unregistered

Abbott said Debt Relief USA failed to comply with the legally mandated registration and bond requirements imposed upon "debt management services providers.” As a result, the Attorney General's Office filed a proof of claim in the bankruptcy case seeking restitution for financially harmed debtors and the return of any fees customers paid to Debt Relief USA.

In addition to its other unlawful practices, Abbott says Debt Relief USA assessed burdensome "administration fees” and monthly "maintenance fees” that worsened its customers' financial situations. If the company successfully settled a debt, it then charged a "negotiation fee” of 13 percent of the amount of debt saved.

Investigators with the Attorney General's Office revealed that Debt Relief USA ultimately damaged its customers' credit ratings and even caused some to face debt collection lawsuits. Debt Relief USA customers were charged late fees, interest, over-limit charges and other fees by their original creditors because they could not afford to make payments on their outstanding accounts. Thus, customers' debts often significantly increased, which reduced their overall debt settlement savings.
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Your Web Browsing Habits Could Make You Vulnerable To Scammers

Study finds many popular sites use "history sniffing" to see which links users click on

Your Web Browsing Habits Could Make You Vulnerable To Scammers Study finds many popular sites use "history sniffing" to see which links users click on...

Think your web-browsing habits are only known to you and no one else? Think again.

According to new research from computer scientists at the University of California, San Diego, the Web surfing history saved in your Web browser can be accessed without your permission.

JavaScript code deployed by real websites and online advertising providers use browser vulnerabilities to determine which sites you have and have not visited.

The researchers documented JavaScript code secretly collecting browsing histories of Web users through "history sniffing" and sending that information across the network.

While history sniffing and its potential implications for privacy violation have been discussed and demonstrated, the new work provides the first empirical analysis of history sniffing on the real Web.

"Nobody knew if anyone on the Internet was using history sniffing to get at users' private browsing history. What we were able to show is that the answer is yes," said UC San Diego computer science professor Hovav Shacham.

The computer scientists from the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering presented this work in October at the 2010 ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security (CCS 2010) in a paper entitled, "An Empirical Study of Privacy-Violating Information Flows in JavaScript Web Applications."

History Sniffing

History sniffing takes place without your knowledge or permission and relies on the fact that browsers display links to sites you've visited differently than ones you haven't: by default, visited links are purple, unvisited links blue.

History sniffing JavaScript code running on a Web page checks to see if your browser displays links to specific URLs as blue or purple.

History sniffing can be used by website owners to learn which competitor sites visitors have or have not been to. History sniffing can also be deployed by advertising companies looking to build user profiles, or by online criminals collecting information for future phishing attacks.

Learning what banking site you visit, for example, suggests which fake banking page to serve up during a phishing attack aimed at collecting your bank account log-in information.

"JavaScript is a great thing, it allows things like Gmail and Google Maps and a whole bunch of Web 2.0 applications; but it also opens up a lot of security vulnerabilities. We want to let the broad public know that history sniffing is possible, it actually happens out there, and that there are a lot of people vulnerable to this attack," said UC San Diego computer science professor Sorin Lerner.

The latest versions of Firefox, Chrome, and Safari now block the history sniffing attacks the computer scientists monitored.

Internet Explorer however, does not currently defend against history sniffing.

In addition, anyone using anything but the latest versions of the patched browsers is also vulnerable.

Sniffing out History Sniffing

"We built a dynamic data flow engine for JavaScript to track history sniffing in the wild. I don't know of any other practical tool that can be used to do this kind of extensive study," said Dongseok Jang, the UC San Diego computer science Ph.D. student who developed the JavaScript monitoring technology.

The computer scientists looked for history sniffing on the front pages of the top 50,000 websites, according to Alexa global website rankings.

Their history-sniffing detection tool analyzed the JavaScript running on the page to identify and tag all instances where the browser history is being checked. The way the system tagged each of these potential history tracking events can be compared to the ink or paint packets that banks add to bags of money being stolen.

"As soon as a JavaScript tries to look at the color of a link, we immediately put 'paint' on that. Some sites collected that information but never sent it over the network, so there was all this 'paint' inside the browser. But in other cases, we observed 'paint' being sent over the network, indicating that history sniffing is going on," said Lerner.

The computer scientists only considered it history sniffing when the browser history information was sent over the network to a server.

They found that 485 of the top 50,000 sites inspect style properties that can be used to infer the browser's history. Out of 485 sites, 63 transferred the browser's history to the network.

"We confirmed that 46 of them are actually doing history sniffing, one of these sites being in the Alexa global top 100," the UC San Diego computer scientists write in the CCS 2010 paper.

In some cases, the websites created their own history sniffing systems. In other cases, advertisements served by outside companies contained JavaScript code performing the history sniffing.

History Sniffing in Perspective

The computer scientists say that history sniffing does not pose as great a risk to your privacy or identity as malicious software programs (malware) that can steal your banking information or your entire Facebook profile.

But, according to Shacham, "history sniffing is unusual in effectively allowing any site you visit to learn about your browsing habits on any other site, regardless if the two sites have any business relationship."

"I think people who have updated or switched browsers should now worry about things other than history sniffing, like keeping their Flash plug-in up to date so they don't get exploited. But that doesn't mean that the companies that have engaged in history sniffing for the currently 60 percent of the user population that is vulnerable to it should get a free pass," said Shacham.

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E-Cigarettes: Possibly No Better Than Real Cigarettes

Research finds e-cigarettes contain harmful ingredients but little is known about their effects

E-Cigarettes: Possibly No Better Than Real CigarettesResearch finds e-cigarettes contain harmful ingredients but little is known about their effects...

Electronic cigarettes (or e-cigarettes), also called "electronic nicotine delivery systems," are increasingly used worldwide even though only sparse information is available on their health effects.

In the United States, e-cigarettes are readily available in shopping malls in most states and on the Internet. But how safe are e-cigarettes?

To address this question, researchers at the University of California, Riverside evaluated five e-cigarette brands and found design flaws, lack of adequate labeling, and several concerns about quality control and health issues.

They conclude that e-cigarettes are potentially harmful and urge regulators to consider removing e-cigarettes from the market until their safety is adequately evaluated.

Unlike conventional cigarettes, which burn tobacco, e-cigarettes vaporize nicotine, along with other compounds present in the cartridge, in the form of aerosol created by heating, but do not produce the thousands of chemicals and toxins created by tobacco combustion.

Nothing is known, however, about the chemicals present in the aerosolized vapors emanating from e-cigarettes.

"As a result, some people believe that e-cigarettes are a safe substitute for conventional cigarettes," said Prue Talbot, the director of UC Riverside's Stem Cell Center, whose lab led the research.

"However, there are virtually no scientific studies on e-cigarettes and their safety. Our study -- one of the first studies to evaluate e-cigarettes -- shows that this product has many flaws, which could cause serious public health problems in the future if the flaws go uncorrected."

Talbot, a professor of cell biology and neuroscience, was joined in the study by Anna Trtchounian, the first author of the research paper.

Together, they examined the design, accuracy and clarity of labeling, nicotine content, leakiness, defective parts, disposal, errors in filling orders, instruction manual quality and advertising for the following brands of e-cigarettes: NJOY, Liberty Stix, Crown Seven (Hydro), Smoking Everywhere (Gold and Platinum) and VapCigs.

The researchers' main observations are:

  • Batteries, atomizers, cartridges, cartridge wrappers, packs and instruction manuals lack important information regarding e-cigarette content, use and essential warnings;
  • E-cigarette cartridges leak, which could expose nicotine, an addictive and dangerous chemical, to children, adults, pets and the environment;
  • Currently, there are no methods for proper disposal of e-cigarettes products and accessories, including cartridges, which could result in nicotine contamination from discarded cartridges entering water sources and soil, and adversely impacting the environment; and
  • The manufacture, quality control, sales, and advertisement of e-cigarettes are unregulated.

More research needed

"More research on e-cigarettes is crucially needed to protect the health of e-cigarette users and even those who do not use e-cigarettes," said Kamlesh Asotra, a research administrator at UC TRDRP.

According to Asotra, virtually nothing is known about the toxicity of the vapors generated by e-cigarettes, contrary to the claims made by manufacturers that they're "safe."

"Until we know any thing about the potential health risks of the toxins generated upon heating the nicotine-containing content of the e-cigarette cartridges, the 'safety' claims of the manufacturers are dubious at best," said Asotra.

"Justifiably, more information about the potential toxic and health effects of e-cigarette vapors is necessary before the public can have a definitive answer about the touted safety of e-cigarettes. Hopefully, in the near future, scientists can provide firm evidence for or against the claimed 'safety' of e-cigarettes as a nicotine-delivery tool."

The study was funded by a grant to Talbot from the University of California Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program (TRDRP) and the results appear in this month's issue of Tobacco Control.

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Do We Think We're More Religious Than We Really Are?

Study finds we say we go to services more than we actually do

Do Americans Think They're More Religious Than They Really Are? Study finds we say we go to services more than we actually do...

When it comes to religion, many Americans can't put their money where their mouth is.

A new University of Michigan study finds that we are much more likely to exaggerate our attendance at religious services than people in other countries.

"Americans have long been viewed as exceptionally religious compared to other nations in the developed world," said Philip Brenner, a research fellow at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR) and the author of the study. "But this study suggests that American religiosity may be exceptional not in terms of actual behavior, but rather in terms of identity.

Brenner said the gap between what we (and to a lesser extent, Canada) say and what we do is substantial, and has been so for the last several decades.

For the study, Brenner analyzed two types of evidence about religiosity for each country: conventional survey questions asking respondents how often they attend religious services, and time diary data recording Sunday activities.

The data, covering a period from 1975 to 2008, came from a variety of time use studies and cross-cultural surveys, including the ISR World Values Surveys and the American National Election Studies.

In addition to the United States and Canada, the countries studied were the Netherlands, Germany, France, Norway, Finland, Slovenia, Spain, Austria, Italy, Great Britain and Ireland.

While conventional survey data show high and stable American church attendance rates of about 35 to 45 percent, the time diary data over the past decade reveal attendance rates of just 24 to 25 percent -- a figure in line with a number of European countries.

America maintains a gap of 10 to 18 percentage points between what people say they do on survey questions, and what time diary data says they actually do, Brenner reports.

Canada fibs too

We aren't the only ones doing it, though. Our neighbors to the North fib about their religious service attendance, too.

The gaps in Canada resemble those in America, and in both countries, gaps are both statistically and substantively significant.

Outside of North America, the largest gaps are found in the Catholic countries of Europe, but even in high-attendance Ireland, the gap only ranges from about 4 to 8 points.

"The consistency and magnitude of the American gap in light of the multiple sources of conventional survey data suggests a substantive difference between North America and Europe in over-reporting," said Brenner.

Given these findings, Brenner notes, any discussion of exceptional American religious practice should be cautious in using terms like outlier and in characterizing American self-reported attendance rates from conventional surveys as accurate reports of behavior.

Rather, while still relatively high, American attendance looks more similar to a number of countries in Europe, after accounting for over-reporting.

"American religion may however, be considered exceptional in a new way in light of these findings: unlike the other countries examined, American behavior continues its consistent failure to match self-reported rates. American religiosity as an outlier is a concept that may be better applied to identity and self-concept rather than behavior," said Brenner.

The study appears in the forthcoming Public Opinion Quarterly.

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Too Much Caffeine Slows Reaction Time; Causes Sugar Cravings

Study finds several reasons why less is more when it comes to caffeine

Too Much Caffeine Slows Reaction Time; Causes Sugar Cravings Study finds several reasons why less is more when it comes to caffeine...

Moderate consumption of so-called energy drinks can improve people's response time on a lab test measuring behavioral control, but those benefits disappear as people drink more of the beverage, according to a study published by the American Psychological Association.

With the growing popularity of energy drinks such as Red Bull, Monster, Burn and RockStar, especially among high school and college students, psychologists have been studying the effects of sugary, highly caffeinated drinks on young people.

College students in particular have been using these drinks to stay awake, help them study and cut the intoxicating effects of alcohol.

The latter use has sent dozens of young people to hospital emergency rooms, leading a handful of state liquor control boards recently to ban the drink Four Loko, which combined caffeine and alcohol.

"Several aspects of cognitive performance that show improvement under the influence of caffeine are attention, reaction time, visual search, psychomotor speed, memory, vigilance and verbal reasoning," said Cecile A. Marczinski, PhD, of Northern Kentucky University and co-author of the study "Acute Effects of a Glucose Energy Drink on Behavioral Control."

"The results of the current study illustrate that energy drinks can increase stimulation and decrease mental fatigue, suggesting that they may be used with alcohol to counteract the sedation associated with drinking."

The study, published in the December issue of the APA journal Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, included 80 college students (34 men and 46 women) between the ages of 18 and 40.

Some were given Red Bull 7, while others were given lower amounts of caffeine added to Squirt, a lemon-flavored decaffeinated soda that looks and tastes like Red Bull. Others were given plain Squirt as a placebo.

A half hour after finishing the drinks, participants took a computerized test in which they had to respond quickly to targets on a screen.

Participants were also asked how stimulated and mentally fatigued they felt after the drinks.

The students who were given Red Bull reported feeling more stimulated and less tired than the other participants, but their response rates were slower.

"This finding is of interest given that energy drinks are frequently mixed with alcohol and the acute effects of alcohol impair response inhibition," Marczinski said.

"Since regulation of energy drinks is lax in the United States in regard to content labeling and possible health warnings, especially mixed with alcohol, having a better understanding of the acute subjective and objective effects of these beverages is warranted."

In a second study reported in the same journal, Jennifer L. Temple, PhD, and colleagues at the University at Buffalo found boys and girls respond differently physiologically to caffeine.

In this experiment, 26 boys and 26 girls between the ages of 12 and 17 drank flattened Sprite containing caffeine at three concentrations: 50 mg, 100 mg or 200 mg. Flat Sprite with no caffeine was included as a placebo.

The youngsters were then tested for changes in their blood pressure and heart rate every 10 minutes for one hour.

At the end of the hour, they were given a questionnaire and an opportunity to eat all they wanted of different types of junk food: Skittles and Smarties (high sugar/low fat); potato chips and Doritos (low sugar/high fat); and M&Ms and Twix (high sugar/high fat).

Among boys, high caffeine consumers showed greater increases in their diastolic blood pressure than boys who ingested less caffeine. There was no relationship between blood pressure and caffeine consumption in girls.

In addition, those participants who ingested the most caffeine ate more high-sugar snack foods in the laboratory compared to low-caffeine consumers.

Boys and girls also had different reasons for consuming caffeine, the researchers found.

Boys were more likely than girls to say they consumed caffeine "to get energy," "to get a rush," and for "athletic performance."

"Adolescents are among the fastest growing consumers of caffeine and yet very few empirical studies have focused on this population," Temple said. "It is imperative that we understand the impact of caffeine use on adolescents."

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How to Lease Cars on the Cheap

Or how to escape paying thousands in early termination fees by using a lease trading service

With more people leasing cars the business of trading or swapping leases has grown as well to accommodate both sides of the leasing battle...

If it's December it must be time for all those "December to Remember" car commercials where you see people finding new cars with big red bows in their driveways or motoring down the suburban street. Dealerships from coast to coast are pushing end of the year lease deals and incentives trying encourage you to leave with more car than you would otherwise be able to afford if you were buying a vehicle.

They do this because car salesmen and women as well as the dealership both make more money on a lease than a sale.A lease counts as a sale for the full list price on the unit, so the salesperson, and the dealership make the maximum amount possible.

At the end of the lease term, you have the option of walking away from the lease, leasing another unit, or purchasing the vehicle you're currently driving, in which case they get to sell you the car all over again. If you decide to end the lease, the car is re-sold as a low mileage used car or sold at auction. In any event, the dealer basically gets to sell the same car twice, minus some depreciation.

So you leave the dealership with a brand new car and a lease agreement filled with a mileage per year limit and other requirements. In fact, you are also responsible for insurance, maintenance, registration, and everything else, just as if you bought the car. The difference is that it's generally going to cost you more to insure as well as to maintain because you're also required to return it in mint condition. That means no dings and no pings and smelling like new.

After the first year and a half of a three year lease, you begin to wonder if you've made the right choice. The car is costing you more than you anticipated and you still have another 18 months to go. Well, a cottage industry has developed just to address situations like this and it involves a service that matches people who want to get out of their lease with people who want to lease a car but for less than they would if they went to a dealer. It's sort of a used car lot for leased cars.

Get in, get out

One of the major companies in this field is LeaseTrader.com and it expects to process more than 75,000 lease escape transactions this year, a 25% increase over last year. According to LeaseTrader.com, people who walk away from their lease escape an average of $10,000 in early termination fees. It adds that December is now the largest month when people give the gift of car lease transfer more so than any other month noting that in last two Decembers roughly 1 out of every 7 transactions were the result of escape packages given as gifts.

With unemployment still at high levels LeaseTrader.com expects more of th