Current Events in December 2011

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    What's On Your Mind? Netflix, Midas, Best Buy

    Our daily look at consumer reviews

    It hasn't been such a great year for Netflix, at least the second half of it. The video rental company that seemingly could do no wrong alienated a lot of customers with its new pricing policies. And, it turns out, at least one customer is unhappy with her treatment by customer service.

    "I have been a loyal customer for about a year now," Michelle, of Louisville, Ky., told "This December I found where Netflix was charging two of my credit cards. Both accounts had the same name. I called Netflix when I found this and the operator stated that he could clearly see that I had not signed up twice and I would be credited all my money back to my credit card on the account created in July. However this did not happen I was only credited for three months of the six months I was billed. I called and asked Netflix why I couldn't have the rest and was told their system would not let them refund that to me. Then I asked if they could give me a free month because they could clearly see it was a fraud account and the guy on the phone today was rude, disrespectful, and refused to allow me to speak to a supervisor or someone in a higher position than him."

    Michelle says she still doesn't know how Netflix started charging her second credit card.

    Gender bias?

    It's an old story. Many female consumers say they feel they are singled out for unfair treatment when they go to purchase or repair a car. Tina, of Port St. Lucie, Fla., says it happened to her when she took her vehicle to a Midas repair shop.

    "I took my car in for a little squeal and was quoted a price of $489.00 for new rotors and pads on the front," Tina said. "I told the guy that I couldn't afford that and to just cut the rotors and put the pads on. When he said he couldn't do that I told him to put the wheels back on and I would pick the car up. I took the car to my old mechanic who told me that I didn't need brakes, they just needed cleaning!"

    Tina's bill at her old mechanic? $48! The moral of the story is don't hesitate to get a second opinion when the price sounds out of line.


    Leah, of Flowery Branch, Ga., said she didn't want an extended warranty on her new iPhone but said the clerk at Best Buy talked her into it.

    "He said buy it for a month and cancel it, since most people damage it the first month," Leah said. "I did and now when I've tried to cancel it I was transferred five times and then the message said the call could not be transferred. Obviously making it very difficult to cancel coverage."

    Not only that, the situation as Leah describes it makes absolutely no sense. An extended warranty kicks in after the manufacturer's warranty expires. That's usually 12 months. It sounds like the clerk was just trying to make a sale and, unfortunately, Leah fell for it.

    Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Netflix, Midas, Best Buy, Gender bias and confusion....

    Consumers Shrug Off Global Economic Concerns

    Consumer confidence jumps in December

    In case you haven't noticed lately, the economic headlines have been full of doom. Europe's credit crisis is threatening to spread, the International Monetary Fund has warned the global economy is in danger of collapse, oil prices are rising because of a feared showdown with Iran.

    But U.S. consumers are looking on the bright side these days. The Conference Board's monthly Consumer Confidence Index rose to 64.5 in December from November's 55.2. The Present Situation Index increased to 46.7 from 38.3. The Expectations Index rose to 76.4 from 66.4.

    In other words, consumers are feeling much better now than they were just a month ago, for whatever reason.

    "After two months of considerable gains, the Consumer Confidence Index is now back to levels seen last spring,” said Lynn Franco, Director of The Conference Board Consumer Research Center. “Consumers’ assessment of current business and labor market conditions improved again. Looking ahead, consumers are more optimistic that business conditions, employment prospects, and their financial situations will continue to get better. While consumers are ending the year in a somewhat more upbeat mood, it is too soon to tell if this is a rebound from earlier declines or a sustainable shift in attitudes."

    Gas prices

    What's behind the burst of optimism? It should be noted that the rising level of confidence coincides with the steady decline in gasoline prices. Even though prices at the pump are still higher than they were a year ago, the drop from high levels of the summer make filling up almost seem like a bargain.

    The Conference Board assessment backs up early indications that U.S. retailers enjoyed stronger-than-expected holiday sales, despite a still-recovering economy. In the Conference Board report, the proportion of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months increased to 16.7 percent from 13.7 percent, while those expecting business conditions will worsen declined to 13.4 percent from 16.1 percent.

    Consumers' outlook for the job market was also more favorable. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead increased to 13.3 percent from 12.4 percent, while those anticipating fewer jobs declined to 20.2 percent from 23.8 percent. The proportion of consumers expecting an increase in their incomes improved to 17.1 percent from 14.1 percent.

    Consumer confidence rose again in December...

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      What To Do With Unwanted Gift Cards

      A gift card exchange will pay you a portion of the face value

      The day after Christmas Kathy, of Pleasant Prairie, Wis., contacted with a problem: she had recently charged an expensive smartphone at Best Buy. Then her son gave her a Best Buy gift card for Christmas.

      “I need to pay the bill with the gift card,” Kathy said. “They would not apply it to a bill - he gave me a lot of money - they said you can only purchase merchandise.”

      While it is true that most store-issued gift cards cannot be used to pay existing debts, Kathy is not without options. There are a number of online gift card exchanges where she can sell her Best Buy gift card for cash. While she should not expect to receive the full face value, she could receive enough to go a long way toward paying for her smartphone.

      Using an exchange

      At Plastic Jungle you can sell your unused gift cards and Plastic Jungle sells those gift cards at a discount to other consumers.

      “You can sell the gift card to Plastic Jungle, and get cash for it,” the company says on its site. “Then we turn around and sell that very same gift card to someone who loves that brand and is thrilled to buy the gift card for less than face value.”

      To sell a gift card, you click the link that says “Sell a Gift Card.” Enter the details about the card you want to sell. Plastic Jungle will then make an offer for your card. The company says it will pay up to 92 percent of the gift card's value. Since that's the most it will pay, you should probably expect to receive less.

      If Plastic Jungle's inventory of cards happens to have an abundance of Best Buy gift cards, Kathy might be offered less. At the same time, if there aren't many other Best Buy cards available at the time she sells hers, she might receive a bit more.

      Payment options

      Kathy would receive her money by cashier's check, an gift card, or a deposit into her PayPal account.

      Gift Card Rescue, Card Pool, Monster Gift Card, and other exchange sites work much the same way. Not only can you sell unwanted gift cards but you can buy gift cards at a discount.

      Since these exchange sites are relatively new – and new ones are popping up all the time – consumers would be wise to do some research before selecting one. Be sure to search the name of the site and read posts and reviews from people who have used it.

      How to trade in an unwanted gift card...

      As Many As 120 Sears, Kmart Stores To Close

      Retailer reports disappointing holiday sales

      Consumers may have spent more this holiday season, but they didn't spend quite enough at Sears and Kmart. Sears Holdings announced today it is closing as many as 120 Sears and Kmart stores in the coming year.

      "Given our performance and the difficult economic environment, especially for big-ticket items, we intend to implement a series of actions to reduce ongoing expenses, adjust our asset base, and accelerate the transformation of our business model,” said Sears Holdings CEO Lou D'Ambrosio.

      “These actions will better enable us to focus our investments on serving our customers and members through integrated retail -- at the store, online and in the home.”

      Sears says that, as a result, it will close 100 to 120 Kmart and Sears full-line stores. The company expects these store closures to generate $140 to $170 million of cash as the net inventory in these stores is sold and it generates additional cash proceeds from the sale or sublease of the related real estate.

      Final determination of the stores to be closed has not yet been made. 

      Other profit-boosting measures include better inventory management, promotion and targeted pricing, with a goal of reducing fixed costs by $100 to $200 million.

      Sears Holdings made the announcement as it disclosed comparable store sales for the eight-week holiday sales period. Sears Domestic sales were off 3.3 percent while Kmart sales were down 1.8 percent.

      Sears is closing more than 100 Sears and Kmart stores...

      What's On Your Mind? Toys R Us, Bally Total Fitness, Travel Zoo

      Our daily look at consumer reviews

      Monday was a big day for returns and not a good day for Sandra, of Baltimore, Md, who discovered that Toys R Us does not do returns on opened video games.

      “I brought my son, who is five, a DSI 3D game console for Christmas but when he opened it up the screen was too bright for his eyes and he didn't like it,” Sandra told “So I never knew that Toys R Us didn't do returns on open games, so I went to the store. That was when I found out that I can't get a refund for a game my son will never play, and I asked if I can just exchange for a plain DSI and she said no. I'm just out the money and the game.”

      It's unfortunate Sandra was unaware of the return policy on opened video games, but stores have them for obvious reasons. However, Sandra should be able to trade it through an independent video game exchange for a game her son would like better.

      Locked out

      The new year will prompt many people to head to the gym to try to shed those holiday pounds. That's going to be tough for Luis, of Miami, Fla.

      “I was sold a nationwide membership to Bally Total Fitness, but now they telling me they sold all the clubs in Florida,” Luis said. “I lived in Florida, for the last six years.”

      If Luis pre-paid his membership, he certainly has money coming to him in the form of a refund, or else membership under the new owner. He should talk with someone in Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi's office about his options.

      Going up

      Travel Zoo is one of the latest travel booking sites that promises discounts on hotels and airfare. JR, of East Brunswick, N.J, is not a fan.

      “They advertised a promotion rate, for the Helmsley Hotel in Manhattan that was a fixed rate, $159, during a stay from Dec 27th to Dec 29th, not a starting at price,” JR told “When you call the hotel to book the room using the code they mention it is no longer available but is available at $189. When you call Travel Zoo they do not want to honor the advertised rate from their website.

      Different sites work differently. You have to carefully read the terms and conditions. Frankly, travelers might do better dealing with the hotels directly.

      Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Toys R Us, Bally Total Fitness, Travel Zoo, Locked out and Going up....

      Many Happy Returns: Post-Holiday Tips

      Avoid stress by knowing a store's return policies

      Now that Christmas is over and the presents have all been unwrapped, the stores will be crowded once again with people using their gift cards and standing in line to exchange gifts for a different size or color, or for something else entirely.

      While holiday shopping can be stressful, so can holiday returns. It's best to begin the process with all your ducks in a row.

      Mixed bag

      Return policies can vary from store to store, so get familiar with them before getting in the return line. If it's a chain store, you'll likely find the policies on the corporate website.

      Some businesses allow gift exchanges, returns or refunds at any time; others impose a deadline by which a return must be made, whether a receipt must be shown, and if only store credit is issued. Some stores won't accept returns if the product has been opened or limit how many returns a single consumer can make. Still other merchants do not accept any returns, even with a receipt.

      "No one wants to spend the holidays haggling with retailers over a gift refund, a defective product or a confusing warranty plan," said Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler. "Being an informed consumer will lessen the chances of a frustrating shopping experience and, more importantly, allow you to spend more time with loved ones."

      State laws vary widely.  In Gansler's Maryland, if the retailer doesn't have a posted policy and it is not printed on the receipt, the consumer may assume there are no refund limitations and must receive a merchandise exchange or a refund, as long as the item is in good condition. Also, if a purchased item is defective, the store is required to repair it, exchange it or give a refund, regardless of its return policy.

      You can find out about laws covering returns in your state by checking your state attorney general's website.

      Gift cards

      If you're using a gift card, it's also good to know the store's policy. For example, it's good to know whether remaining value after a purchase can be received in cash and whether gift cards can be used online, as well as in-store.

      Excessive fees and short expiration periods aren't the problems they once were. Federal legislation adopted in 2009 extends expiration protection to five years, although consumers may be subject to fees during the fifth year.

      Gift cards issued by banks and processed through a national credit or debit card service, such as American Express, MasterCard or Visa, offer more flexibility - most stores accept them - but may have different protections. If the card is not reloadable, federal legislation prevents expiration in less than five years, but fees may still apply once a month if there has been at least one year of inactivity.

      Any terms or conditions regarding an expiration date or fee (service charge, inactivity fees or reload fees are among the most common) must be visibly printed on the card itself, on a sticker permanently affixed to the card or on an envelope containing the gift card.


      Fees cannot be charged more than once a month and require that there is at least one year of inactivity on the card prior to being initially assessed. These terms may not be changed after the date of purchase unless it benefits the consumer.

      Finally, in Maryland and many other states, defective merchandise is covered by an implied warranty - a guarantee that the item works when it is purchased -- even if a store has a "No Refunds, No Exchanges" policy. Implied warranties require that new and used goods are fit for sale and continue to function for a reasonable period of time. If you buy a defective product, you have the right to have it repaired or replaced, or to get a refund.

      A product may not be sold "as is" under Maryland's implied warranty law, except used cars that have more than 60,000 miles and are more than six years old. Dealers selling a car "as is" must include a written disclosure stating that the implied warranty does not cover automobiles.

      Policies can vary from store to store, so get familiar with them before getting in the return line. If it's a chain store, you'll likely find the policies ...

      Sony Fights Red Ink In TV Business

      Spinning off investment in LCD manufacturer

      Sony has announced it is selling its share of an LCD manufacturing business it operates jointly with Samsung. Sony will receive $934 million and continue to purchase TV screens from the venture, which Samsung will operate as a subsidiary.

      Sony is making the divestiture as it faces steep losses in its TV set business, a sector it once dominated. Sales and profits have fallen while complaints about quality has risen in recent years.

      Darla, of Arley, Ala., said she was watching her Sony flat screen TV last week when a huge black line appeared in the display.

      "I called Sony Tech Support and spoke with someone who barely spoke, and I do mean barely, and who tried to talk us through trying different things," Darla told "However, there was no success and he said something about sending us a new USB port. It sounded like he's heard of the problem before. From everything I've read, this won't fix it since the LCD board broke and it would take a fortune to fix. The TV is barely 3 years old! The bad news is that there is a 52-inch TV also in the media room downstairs. Could the same fate be awaiting?"

      Reputation for quality

      Owners of flat screen TVs are well aware of the problems that seem to plague expensive LCD and Plasma TVs, and not just those made by Sony. Many brands appear to be affected. But many consumers, like Sujal, of Morganville, N.J., say they expected more from their Sony because of its reputation.

      "I use to just believe in Sony products for quality," Sujal said. "They are not even on my top 10 list anymore. Their quality has gone down!"

      Sony, meanwhile, is fighting a losing battle to remain profitable in the consumer electronics business. The company said - before the sale of the LCD manufacturer - it expected to lose over $1 billion in the current fiscal year.

      Consumers shouldn't expect any product change because of the sale. Sony said it will continue to buy its screens from the soon-to-be Samsung subsidiary.

      Sony's TV sales have fallen but not complaints...

      NTSB: Hand-Held Cell Phone Ban Doesn't Go Far Enough

      Truck and bus drivers should be banned from all cell phone use, board chair argues

      The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chair is saying a new rule that prohibits interstate truck and bus drivers from using hand-held cell phones doesn't go far enough.

      The Department of Transportation (DOT) announced the new rule Dec. 23, and NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman says that while it's a "positive step forward," it doesn't go far enough.

      "Given what we've seen in our accident investigations ... we think that the DOT should have gone further," Hersman said in a prepared statement. "Research shows there is no safety benefit to the use of hands-free cell phone devices. When at the wheel of a 40-ton vehicle, driving safely should be the driver's only focus."

      Just as dangerous

      Recent studies have indeed found that hands-free cell phones are just as distracting -- and just as dangerous -- as hand-held models.

      A September 2010 study by researchers at the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) found no reductions in crashes after laws take effect that ban texting by all drivers.

      "The laws aren't reducing crashes, even though we know that such laws have reduced hand-held phone use, and several studies have established that phoning while driving increases crash risk," said Adrian Lund, president of Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

      For example, an IIHS study that relies on driver phone records found a four-fold increase in the risk of injury crashes. A study in Canada found a four-fold increase in the risk of crashes involving property damage. Separate surveys of driver behavior before and after hand-held phone use bans show reductions in the use of such phones while driving.

      Longtime concern

      As early as 2006, Hersman notes, the NTSB was concerned about the impact of distracted driving on commercial drivers when it investigated a crash involving an experienced bus driver who was distracted by his hands-free cell-phone and failed to move to the center lane, striking  the underside of an arched stone bridge on the George Washington Parkway in Alexandria, Virginia.

      Eleven of the 27 high school students on board his bus were injured.

      "As a result, we made a recommendation to prohibit the use of cell phones, hand-held or hands-free, by commercial drivers with a passenger endorsement," Hersman said.

      Earlier this fall, following the investigation of a 2010 crash in Munfordville, Kentucky, a truck-tractor crossed the median of I-44 and struck a 15-passenger van killing 11 people, the NTSB called for a complete ban on the use of cell phones by all drivers holding a commercial driver's license, except in emergencies. According to interviews conducted after the crash, the truck driver normally used a hands-free device.

      And just last week, said Hersman, after concluding an investigation of a highway accident that killed two and injured 38, the NTSB called on the 50 states and the District of Columbia to ban the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices for all drivers.

      "We are witnessing a disturbing trend in accident and incident investigations -- the ever-present cell phone poses an insidious danger when it comes to cognitive distractions behind the wheel," she said.

      The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chair is saying a new rule that prohibits interstate truck and bus drivers from using hand-held cell phones...

      Think We're Big Holiday Spenders? Think Again

      U.S. ranks 20th in holiday spending

      To hear all the holiday ads and blaring headlines about Black Friday, Cyber Monday and so forth, you'd think American consumers went on an absolute shopping binge for the holidays.

      Not so, says a noted economist. 

      Joel Waldfogel, the Carlson School's Frederick R. Kappel Professor of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota, says that Americans typically spend $70 billion more in December than in the average November and January (the months around December). That puts the U.S. at about 20th in terms of holiday spending.

      Waldfogel is the author of Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays. He notes that even though the U.S. economy has grown since the turn of the last century, the amount of U.S. spending in December (relative to November and January) has not kept pace with that growth.

      In fact, says Waldfogel, the extra spending in December is less as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product than it has been at any time over the last 75 years.

      Worth it?

      Is it worth it? Waldfogel says the impact of this spending is even smaller if measured by the satisfaction it produces. The reason, he said, is simple: "The problem with gift giving is that somebody is going out and spending $100 on someone else and if the giver does not know exactly what the recipient wants, it is possible for the giver to spend $100 and buy something the recipient would only be willing to pay $50 or perhaps nothing for."

      This type of gift giving, said Waldfogel, undermines economically efficient choices.

      "Whatever amount of spending occurs, it results in less satisfaction than could have occurred if people bought stuff for themselves," which, he claims, results in the loss of billions of dollars in economic value to the overall economy.

      Waldfogel made the comments in a National Science Foundation interview.  The complete text is available on the NFS website.

      To hear all the holiday ads and blaring headlines about Black Friday, Cyber Monday and so forth, you'd think American consumers went on an absolute shoppin...

      Mortgage Modifications Not For Every Struggling Homeowner

      Instead of lower payments some find foreclosure

      Karen, of Winder, Ga., sounds like an ideal homeowner. She had owned her home for 12 years and never missed a payment.

      All would have been fine, she insists, if she had not applied for a mortgage modification.

      "I got on board the modification ride because our president told the American people to take advantage of the modification process, even if you are not in trouble, but got a bad loan from Countrywide," Karen told

      The modification process was actually designed for people who were unable to make their mortgage payments after low "teaser" rates adjusted to much higher rates. Though she had a subprime loan and her payments took a big bite from her monthly budget, Karen was able to handle the expense. Still, she contacted Bank of America - the new owner of Countrywide - about a modification in July 2009.


      "They Fed-Exed a letter that I have in my possession to this day, that arrived at my home in March of 2010, saying that I was approved for the modification and to keep my eyes out for my new loan documents," Karen said. "Day after day, week after week, then month after month I got the run around again."

      In that respect, Karen's story is not that different from others, who say misscommunication and neglect by loan servicers required them to fax documents multiple times, often with no result. Karen was told to make a lower trial loan payment, with the difference, plus interest, tacked onto the end of her loan.

      By the end of October 2010, Karen said she was receiving letters from the lender threatening foreclosure.

      All alone

      "Being single, with no family and no one to get advice from, I left the home because I refused to pay Bank of America another penny," she said. "The house had sat for one year before they actually did the foreclosure and repairing all the damage that had been done the past year it sitting empty. Again, I never missed a payment. I would still be in that home, modified loan or not, if I wouldn't have been lied to and cheated.

      Karen's story seem particularly tragic since it appears to be a foreclosure that never should have happened. Without anyone to give her advice, she embarked on a course that ultimately led to foreclosure and bankruptcy.

      Where to turn

      Homeowners who find themselves in similar circumstances can turn to the Making Home Affordable program for advice. There is information on the website and homeowners can get advice by calling 888-995-4673.

      But homeowners like Karen who are struggling but are able to pay their mortgage each month should think long and hard before applying for a mortgage modification. First, the track record for this program actually helping people is not that good.

      In fact, there are many example of homeowners, like Karen, who ended up in worse shape after beginning the modification process.

      Part of the problem is that a modification is not a clearly defined product. It can vary, depending on the homeowner's circumstances. It might be designed to lower the interest rate or it might try to reduce the monthly payment. But in the end, the lender will require that the loan be repaid.

      "If they can afford to pay, they should pay," Thomas Kelly, a spokesman for J.P. Morgan Chase, told recently. "If they can't afford to pay, we need to make sure they have a fighting chance to make the new payments and pay back the loan over the long term."

      For homeowners, the question is whether they can continue to make their house payments, even if it requires struggle and sacrifice. If so, they will likely be better off with the status quo, rather than rolling the dice on a modification that could result in losing their home faster than they might have otherwise.

      Mortgage modifications aren't for everyone...

      Texas Freezes Assets Of Texas Highway Patrol Association

      State found group misrepresented itself to donors

      The attorney general of Texas has secured an asset freeze and temporary restraining order against the Texas Highway Patrol Association (THPA) and two of its affiliate organizations. Attorney General Greg Abbott charged all three defendants with illegally soliciting charitable donations and falsely claiming, in part, that donors’ contributions to THPA and its affiliates would benefit the families of fallen state police officers.

      Many consumers in other states may be familiar with the pitch. A telemarketer claiming to be with a law enforcement association of some sort asks for a donation, saying it will support police officers and their families. In Texas, Abbot said his investigation turned up evidence to the contrary.

      According to state investigators, the defendants purported to provide death benefits to slain law enforcement officers’ families. However, state investigators found that few survivors actually receive any financial assistance. Instead, investigators discovered that the defendants unlawfully utilized donors’ charitable contributions for their personal use, including meals, in-house pet care, entertainment and unauthorized travel by board members, their friends and families.

      Temporary receiver to be named

      The Travis County, Texas Probate Court also appointed a temporary receiver and will set a temporary injunction hearing on a date to be determined. The State’s enforcement action names THPA, the Texas Highway Patrol Museum, THPA Services, Inc. and several senior THPA officials as defendants.

      Abbott also charged the defendants with falsely claiming that THPA is a tax exempt, charitable organization registered with the IRS. However, THPA is a nonprofit business league organized under Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(6) and is therefore not actually a charitable organization.

      The defendants also face civil penalties under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act for promoting all three entities by falsely claiming that the organizations are linked to the Texas Department of Public Safety and its Highway Patrol Division. The state agency is not affiliated with the defendants.  

      Texas Freezes Assets Of Texas Highway Patrol Association...

      What's On Your Mind? Kohl's, Payday Nation, Best Buy

      Our daily look at consumer reviews

      How do you spend your time when the cashier is ringing up your purchases? Gazing at the cover of People Magazine? Thinking about throwing your diet to the wind and buying that giant Hershey bar? Sy, of Hilliard, Ohio, reminds us that consumers should be paying attention during the checkout process to make sure they get the right price.

      "It has been more than often when I shop at Kohl's that I always find discrepancy between the discount price posted above the merchandise versus what's actually being discounted at the register," Sy told "If a customer doesn't watch the cash register during check out and remember what discount they're expecting, they would never know."

      Good advice. When items are marked down the information doesn't always get into the system. Being a savvy consumer is more than hunting for bargains. It also means making sure you get the advertised price.

      Bad loans

      Joanne, of Franklin Park, N.J. is angry about her payday loan. But from her description of the encounter, it's clear she is missing something.

      "I took out a $300.00 loan from from Payday Nation with the contract reading that I would pay an extra $75.00 in interest, making the total amount of the loan $375.00," Joanne said. "I have added up all of the monies that have been taken out since Sept 30, 2011 and the grand total is adding up to $562.50 - way more than what I was told Pay Day Nation was supposed to take."

      What Joanne is missing is this: payday loans are generally for a two-week period. The full amount is due at that time, along with the fee. If Joanne had been able to repay the loan in mid-October, as scheduled, her cost would have been limited to $75. But as she is still making payments, it's clear Joanne was not able to repay the loan in two weeks and therefore had to renew it, costing more in fees. That, in a nutshell, is the problem with payday loans and that's how you can end up owing hundreds or thousands of dollars more than you borrowed.

      Should have waited until Christmas

      Kathy, of Pleasant Prarie, Wisc., had her heart set on an expensive smartphone a few weeks ago and bought it on her Best Buy account. When the bill arrived she didn't have the money to pay it.

      "My son gave me a gift card for Christmas but Best Buy would not apply it to the bill," Kathy said. "He gave me a lot of money on the card, but they said you can only purchase merchandise."

      That's true, store gift cards generally may not be used to pay existing debts. However, Kathy may have an option. Various gift card exchange websites will allow you to swap a store gift card for cash, or another gift card. If Kathy had a Visa or Mastercard gift card, she would probably use it to pay her bill.

      Of course, if Kathy had just waited a few more weeks, she could have taken the gift card to Best Buy and purchased the phone with it. Sometimes, patience pays.

      Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Kohl's, Payday Nation, Best Buy, Bad loans and Should have waited until Christmas....

      Green Valley Recalls Alfalfa Sprouts

      May be contaminated with Salmonella

      Green Valley Food Corp. of Dallas, Texas is recalling a grand total of 6,723 cases because of a “Let’s Grow Healthy Together!” Alfalfa Sprouts 5 oz. container test result showed to be contaminated with Salmonella, an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems.

      Healthy persons infected with Salmonella often experience fever, diarrhea (which may be bloody), nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. In rare circumstances, infection with Salmonella can result in the organism getting into the bloodstream and producing more severe illnesses such as arterial infections (i.e., infected aneurysms), endocarditis and arthritis.

      The items affected in the recall are as follows:

      • “Let’s Grow Healthy Together!” Alfalfa Sprouts 5 oz. containers with the UPC number 714722228818
      • “Let’s Grow Healthy Together!” Spicy Sprouts 5 oz. containers with the UPC number 71472222991
      • Alfalfa Sprouts 4oz. clamshell UPC number 815098001088
      • “100% Natural Onion Sprouts” 4oz. clamshell UPC number 815098002054

      The sprouts affected in this recall were distributed in Texas via truck deliveries to all customers in Texas. All customers were retail grocery store and food distribution centers. If you are a customer affected by this recall you will be receiving a letter asking for the quantities you were shipped and their whereabouts. Please, respond as soon as possible.

      The product descriptions are as follows:

      • “Let’s Grow Healthy Together!” Alfalfa Sprouts 5 oz. container is 4 inches by 4 inches with the UPC number 714722228818. The label has blue lettering that states “Let’s Grow Healthy Together!” Alfalfa Sprouts.
      • “Let’s Grow Healthy Together!” Spicy Sprouts 5 oz. container is 4 inches by 4 inches with the UPC number 71472222991. The label will have red lettering stating “Let’s Grow Healthy Together!” Spicy Sprouts.
      • Alfalfa Sprouts 4oz. is a clamshell measuring 4 inches by 5 inches with the UPC number 815098001088. The label has green lettering stating “100% Natural Alfalfa Sprouts”.

      “100% Natural Onion Sprouts” 4oz. clamshell measures 4 inches by 5 inches with UPC number 815098002054.The label has yellow lettering stating “100% Natural Onion Sprouts”

      Any of these items received or purchased from 12/07/2011 to 1/1/2012 are affected in this recall and/or if the items have a use by date ranging from 12/22/2011 to 1/1/2012.

      Green Valley Food Corp. of Dallas, Texas is recalling a grand total of 6,723 cases because of a “Let’s Grow Healthy Together!” Alfalfa Sp...

      Man Who Subdued Underwear Bomber Sues Airlines

      Christmas Day disaster was averted when passengers tackled would-be bomber

      It was just two years ago that the "underwear bomber" attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines jet as it approached the Detroit airport on Christmas Day 2009.

      Now a passenger who helped subdue the bomber has filed a $10 million lawsuit against Delta Airlines, which now owns Northwest, and Air France-KLM, claiming the airlines were negligent in allowing Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board the flight.

      In his federal suit in New York, Theophilus Maranga says that when Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate his bomb and set himself on fire in the process, Maranga "risked his life running over to Mr. Abdulmutallab and then jumping on top of him to extinguish the fire and subdue the threat."

      Maranga, of Wappanger Falls, N.Y., says he suffered numerous injuries which required medical treatment, including injuries to the ribs, permanent numbness in his hands, pain in the neck that precludes him from turning to the left without rotating his waist, and removal of a tooth. Maranga says he also suffers from psychological injuries stemming from the incident.

      Courthouse News Service reported that Maranga blames defendants Delta Airlines and Air France-KLM, whom he claims were negligent in screening passengers and allowing Abdulmutallab to board the fight with an explosive.

      Maranga sued under U.S. law and under the Warsaw Convention and the Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage by Air, also known as the Montreal Convention.

      Abdulmutallab is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to eight criminal charges, including the attempted murders of 289 people with a weapon of mass destruction.

      It was just two years ago that the "underwear bomber" attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines jet as it approached the Detroit airport on Christmas Day 2...

      Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Priced at $26,610 for 2012

      Additions for the new year mostly in the gadgets category

      Hybrids are becoming more mainstream and less exotic each year, which translates in many cases to less expensive, at least as compared to gas-only models.

      The 2012 Hyundai Sonata fits that bill.  Its base price of $26,610 is just $55 above this year and, while there are no huge improvements in mileage or performance, next year's model has a broader array of creature comforts to choose from. 

      The car is comparable to, but cheaper than, mid-size hybrid competitors such as the Ford Fusion and Toyota Camry. The Sonata, by the way, can run on electric power alone, something that's not always true of hybrids.  So if you run out of gas or have serious engine problems, you should be able to buzz over to a dealer.

      Hyundai's reliability and service record has improved somewhat in recent years and, as with most brands, depends to a great extent on the dealer.  Our advice, as always, is to check out the dealers in your area using sites like ours, the BBB and local references.

      So should you be considering a Hyundai?  The brand's hovering in the mid-60% approval range lately, according to a analysis of about 740,000 consumer comments on Twitter, Facebook and other social media and blogs.

      As for intensity, our survey found more consumers who had intensely positive feelings about Hyundai than those who were intensely unhappy, which isn't always the case with cars.

      Under the hood

      As for the new Sonata, not much is changed under the hood. The power plant remains Hyundai's 2.4-liter, four-cylinder Atkinson-cycle engine coupled to a six-speed automatic transmission. Power from the four-cylinder is rated at 166 hp, while the electric motor adds 40 hp for a total system output of 206 hp.

      Purists would probably say that makes the Sonata a "mild" hybrid but whatever you call it, the Sonata hybrid maintains its mild appetite for fuel, once again turning in a 35-city, 40-highway mpg rating.

      The specs don't specify premium fuel, so with regular in the tank and the 270-volt lithium polymer battery jammed in down below, the Sonata should be an economic daily driver.

      The Blue Link telematics system will be a standard item for 2012.  It will let you download a Blue Link app onto your smartphone and use it to remotely lock and unlock the car as well as perform other functions.  And yes, it includes voice activation, so be careful what you say.

      Options include the usual -- leather seats, dimming mirrors, bigger wheels and so forth, enabling you to get the price above the $30,000 mark without ever trying.

      Hybrids are definitely becoming more mainstream and less exotic, which translates in many cases to less expensive.The 2012 Hyundai Sonata fits that bill,...

      Infant Formula Removed from Stores After Infant Dies

      Walmart, Supervalu remove Enfamil from their shelves pending further testing

      Walmart and Supervalu have removed Enfamil from their shelves after a Missouri infant died from a rare bacterial infection attributed to Cronobacter, a microorganism that occurs in nature and is sometimes implicated in infant deaths.

      The Missouri infant had been fed Mead Johnson Company's Enfamil, a popular and widely-used formula.  No recall has been issued by either the company or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) pending further testing.

      Mead Johnson said it was cooperating in the investigation but did not think its formula was to blame.

      "All of our finished infant powdered products (including this batch) are tested for Cronobacter prior to shipment. If an ingredient or a batch of powdered infant formula product is found to contain Cronobacter, it is rejected and not distributed," the company said in a prepared statement.

      "The batch of the product used by the child's family did not show the presence of the bacteria when it was produced and packaged, and that has recently been reconfirmed from our batch records," the company said. "This product is not being recalled - nor is any other Mead Johnson product - but some retailers are removing it from their shelves as a precautionary measure."

      Premium Newborn

      The product is Enfamil PREMIUM Newborn 12.5 ounce powder with number ZP1K7G on the bottom of the can. The FDA said a sample of the formula supplied by the infant's family was being tested.

      The dead child was identified as Avery Cornett.  Walmart said the family had purchased the formula at its Lebanon, Mo., store. 

      Mead Johnson has established a phone number for parents with questions: 1-800-BABY-123.

      About Cronobacter

      Cronobacter is a naturally-occurring organism that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is implicated in a handful of infant illnesses each year.  It has a fatality rate of about 40 percent.

      Although formula in sometimes implicated in infant illnesses, it is often not known whether the Cronobacter was in the formula when it was packaged or whether it was introduced later, after the package had been opened by parents and caregivers.

      In 2001, a Mead Johnson product, Portagen, was recalled after an infant died in Tennessee.

      CDC officials stressed the importance of parents and caregivers washing their hands thoroughly, sterilizing bottles and other equipment and preparing only small amounts of formula. 

      Breast-feeding is safest

      In 2008, two cases of Cronobacter infection, one in a male infant and the other in a female, were reported in New Mexico, in families living aobut 200 miles from each other. Although the infants had been fed the same brand of formula, the genetic types of Cronobacter were different.  The female suffered severe brain damage and the male infant later died of SIDS.

      The exact path of transmission was not determined but traces of Cronobacter were found in vacuum cleaner samples taken from the male infant's home. No Cronobacter was found in unopened canisters of formula in either home.

      The message, say health officials, is to practice extremely careful sanitation and sterilization practices when preparing and handling formula.

      The safest procedure is to breast feed.  Breast-feeding not only eliminates the problem of contaminated formula but provides better nutritional and emotional support to infants.

      Photo for illustration purposes onlyWalmart and Supervalu have removed Enfamil from their shelves after a Missouri infant died from a r...

      Brain Size May Predict Early Alzheimer's Disease

      Finding could aid early detection of the disease

      When it comes to Alzheimer's disease, researchers say size matters. Brain size, that is.

      The study suggests that, in people who don’t currently have memory problems, those with smaller regions of the brain’s cortex may be more likely to develop symptoms consistent with very early Alzheimer’s disease.

      “The ability to identify people who are not showing memory problems and other symptoms but may be at a higher risk for cognitive decline is a very important step toward developing new ways for doctors to detect Alzheimer’s disease,” said Susan Resnick, PhD, with the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore, who wrote an accompanying editorial.

      For the study, researchers used brain scans to measure the thickness of regions of the brain’s cortex in 159 people free of dementia with an average age of 76. The brain regions were chosen based on prior studies showing that they shrink in patients with Alzheimer’s dementia.

      Of the 159 people, 19 were classified as at high risk for having early Alzheimer’s disease due to smaller size of particular regions known to be vulnerable to Alzheimer’s in the brain’s cortex, 116 were classified as average risk and 24 as low risk. At the beginning of the study and over the next three years, participants were also given tests that measured memory, problem solving and ability to plan and pay attention.

      The study found that 21 percent of those at high risk experienced cognitive decline during three years of follow-up after the MRI scan, compared to seven percent of those at average risk and none of those at low risk.

      More research needed

      “Further research is needed on how using MRI scans to measure the size of different brain regions in combination with other tests may help identify people at the greatest risk of developing early Alzheimer’s as early as possible,” said study author Bradford Dickerson, MD, of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and a member of the American Academy of Neurology.

      The study also found 60 percent of the group considered most at risk for early Alzheimer’s disease had abnormal levels of proteins associated with the disease in cerebrospinal fluid, which is another marker for the disease, compared to 36 percent of those at average risk and 19 percent of those at low risk.

      Researchers say the size of the brain cortex could by predictor for Alzheimer's...

      Read Liquid Acetaminophen Labels Carefully, FDA Warns

      Giving the wrong dose to children can cause serious injury and death

      The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is urging consumers to carefully read the labels of liquid acetaminophen marketed for infants to avoid giving the wrong dose to their children.

      A less concentrated form of the popular medication is arriving on store shelves, and giving the wrong dose of acetaminophen can cause the medication to be ineffective if too little is given or cause serious side effects and, possibly, death if too much is given.

      In an attempt to reduce the confusion over different strengths that have been blamed for past overdoses, some manufacturers are voluntarily offering only the less concentrated version for all children.

      Until now, liquid acetaminophen marketed for infants has only been available in a stronger concentration that doesn’t require giving the infants as much liquid with each dose.

      Both concentrations

      But currently, both concentrations of liquid acetaminophen are in circulation. Before giving the medication, parents and caregivers need to know whether they have the less concentrated version or the older, more concentrated medication. FDA is concerned that infants could be given too much or too little of the medicine if the different concentrations of acetaminophen are confused.

      “Be very careful when you’re giving your infant acetaminophen” says Carol Holquist, director of FDA’s Division of Medical Error Prevention and Analysis.

      Here’s what the agency wants parents and caregivers to do:

      • Read the Drug Facts label on the package very carefully to identify the concentration of the liquid acetaminophen, the correct dosage, and the directions for use.
      • Do not depend on a banner proclaiming that the product is “new.” Some medicines with the old concentration also have this headline on their packaging.
      • Use only the dosing device provided with the purchased product in order to correctly measure the right amount of liquid acetaminophen.
      • Consult your pediatrician before giving this medication and make sure you’re both talking about the same concentration.

      Overdosing a serious risk

      An April 2011 report from FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) found that confusion caused by the different concentrations of liquid acetaminophen for infants and children was leading to overdoses that made infants seriously ill, with some dying from liver failure.

      So to avoid dosing errors, some manufacturers voluntarily changed the liquid acetaminophen marketed for infants from 80 mg per 0.8mL or 80 mg per 1 mL to be the same concentration as the liquid acetaminophen marketed for children—160 mg per 5mL. This less concentrated liquid acetaminophen marketed for infants now has new dosing directions and may have a new dosing device in the box, such as an oral syringe.

      But this is a voluntary change and some of the older, stronger concentrations of acetaminophen marketed for infants are still available and may remain available.

      “There is still some on store shelves; there is still some in homes; and there is still some in distribution,” says Holquist.

      The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is urging consumers to carefully read the labels of liquid acetaminophen marketed for infants to avoid giving the wr...

      What If the Bank Paid You To Have an Account?

      Perkstreet does just that -- free checking and debit card rewards

      This is the time of year when most Americans are feeling pretty pinched.  Oh sure, everyone's jolly, merry and bright but they're also keeping a wary eye on the checking account and credit card balance.

      It may create a little joy around your tree if you take a look at PerkStreet, which actually does what many banks and credit unions claim -- pays you to bank there, assuming you follow the rules.

      How is that possible?  Well, this is a "bank" with no branches and just a single product -- a checking account that includes a debit card that pays you a rebate, or "perk," ranging from 1% to 5% of the purchases you make with the card.

      Although hardly a household word, PerkStreet is generating a fair amount of buzz.  We analyzed more than 7,000 comments on Facebook, Twitter and other blogs and social media and found PerkStreet perking along with a net sentiment in the 90% neighborhood towards year's end, which is about as good as it gets.

      PerkStreet is the brainchild of founder and CEO Dan O'Malley, a former Capital One executive.  As O'Malley tells it, it was while he was working on  Capital One's cash-back credit card business that it occurred to him that the rewards were really an incentive to run up a big credit card balance.

      "I realized the product I was selling was designed to get people into debt," O'Malley said.  "A majority of families are not going to be able to pay off their credit card debts.  I found it distasteful."


      O'Malley vowed to set up a reward program using debit cards, something that would reward consumers who spent only as much money as they had in their account.

      The result is PerkStreet Financial, launched during 2009 in the midst of the worst financial crisis in nearly a century.  But O'Malley says the company has shown steady growth and, though it is not widely known, has more customers than 65 percent of the banks and credit unions in the country.

      How it works

      Basically, PerkStreet provides a free checking account and a debit card  that pays a 2% cash rebate if you have a balance of $5,000 on the day you make a purchase with the card.  Less than $5,000 and the card pays 1%.

      From time to time, selected merchants offer daily deals that pay rebates of up to 5%.  

      The 5% rebates are part of O'Malley's drive to build customer engagement and to give a "high five" to consumers for being frugal and making the decision to spend within their means.

      It's no longer unusual for banks to not have branches and most consumers probably know someone who already uses a virtual bank.  There are various ways to make deposits, including direct payroll deposits, the mail and a forthcoming iPhone application that will let consumers scan the checks they want to deposit.  To get cash, customers use affiliated ATMs.

      What is unusual is a debit card that pays rewards.  How does PerkStreet do it?  O'Malley attributes it to the money he saves by not having branches.

      "We've stripped the costs out of the system.  If you take the amount the banking industry spends on branches and divide by the number of households in the country, it comes out to $800 per household per year," O'Malley claims.  

      "It's a waste of everyone's money.  It's almost unethical to keep building these branches when they're not doing anything," he told recently.

      How well does it work?

      We don't want to be unduly enthusiastic, not yet anyway, but unlike most banks, PerkStreet is not an object of widespread ridicule and hatred on the Web.  We found few derogatory comments, and our sentiment analysis found most consumers quite content.

      Putting our money where our mouth is, we went to the PerkStreet site and signed up for an account.  It was a lot simpler than going to a branch bank -- something we had done twice in two days to try (unsuccessfully) to straighten out problems with our online Wells-Fargo account -- and took less than five minutes.

      We simply typed in the account and routing numbers of our current account and authorized PerkStreet to take out $100 to get the new account up and running.  It's too soon to say how well it works but you can be sure we'll put it through its paces the next few weeks.

      If you decide to try it, be sure to read the FAQs and take note of the various charges that can apply if you overdraw the account, let it sit idle or ask for special services.  Otherwise, it looks like it might be a good way to get the new year off on the right foot.


      Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase

      This is the time of year when most Americans are feeling pretty pinched.  Oh sure, everyone's jolly, merry and bright but they're also keeping a wary ...