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    New School Lunch Standards Aim to Help Kids Slim Down, Shape Up

    Better diet should also help students perform better academically

    Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and First Lady Michelle Obama have lunch with students at Parklawn Elementary School

    America’s school-aged children will have twice the amounts of fruits and vegetables on their school lunch trays, as well as more whole grains, and less sodium and trans fat, under the new nutrition standards for school meals unveiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Despite heavy lobbying by the food industry and Congressional interference, the new standards are the best ever, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest.

    “The new school meal standards are one of the most important advances in nutrition in decades,” said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. “They’re much needed, given high childhood obesity rates and the poor state of our children’s diets.”

    Approximately 32 million children eat school lunches and breakfasts, providing half of many children’s daily calories, according to USDA. The standards released yesterday were mandated by Congress in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, signed into law by President Obama in late 2010.

    "This isn’t just about our kids’ health. Studies have shown that our kids’ eating habits can actually affect their academic performance as well," First Lady Michelle Obama said at a ceremony at Parklawn Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., where the new standards were released.  "Anyone who works with kids knows that they need something other than chips and soda in their stomachs if they're going to focus on math and science, right?  Kids can’t be expected to sit still and concentrate when they’re on a sugar high, or when they’re stuffed with salty, greasy food -- or when they’re hungry."

    In the next month or two, USDA will propose regulations setting nutrition standards for the rest of the foods sold in schools, including through vending machines, school stores, and the a la carte foods sold in the cafeteria alongside the USDA-reimbursed meal.

    Pizza protected

    Although health groups praise the new standards, food industry lobbyists got Congress to prevent USDA from limiting French fries and ensure that pizza counts as a serving of vegetables due to its tomato paste.

    “USDA, states, school officials, food manufacturers, food service workers, and parents need to work together to help all schools meet the new standards,” Wootan said.

    The rules set calorie maximums for the first time and lower calorie minimums to better ensure that school meals address obesity, as well as hunger. All milk sold in schools will have to be low-fat or fat-free. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will provide schools with additional funding, training, model menus and recipes, healthy product specifications for commodities, and more frequent reviews to ensure that school systems comply with the new standards.

    Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and First Lady Michelle Obama have lunch with students at Parklawn Elementary SchoolAmerica&r...
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    Google's New Privacy Policy Raises Concerns

    Anything you do on nearly any Google service is collected and analyzed

    Google used to say its mission was to organize all the world's information. Now its mission, judging from its new privacy policy, is to organize all the information it has about you.

    The new policy means that anything you do on almost any of Google's 60 or so services will affect what you see on other Google services. This raises any number of questions, including:

    • How does it do that? By following you and keeping track of what you do.
    • How do you opt out? You don't.
    • Is it anonymous? Not exactly. 

    Basically, Google will now be combining all the personal data you share with any of its products or sites, except for Google Chrome, Google Books and Google Wallet, hoping to create a more comprehensive picture of you.

    This means that anytime you’re signed into your Google account, whether on a computer, tablet, or Android phone, Google collects information about your activities and adds it to its growing profile of who you are, what you do and so forth.

    Who benefits?

    What's the benefit?  Well, the benefit to Google is that it will be able to provide more closely targeted ads, increasing the likelihood of your clicking on one of them and ringing its cash register. 

    The benefit to you -- well, that's a little harder to define. Alma Whitten, Google's Director of Privacy, Product and Engineering, says on Google's Blog that by integrating all of its information about you, Google will be better able to  “figure[e] out what you really mean when you type in Apple, Jaguar or Pink.”

    Not only that, says Whitten, Google will be able to “provide reminders that you’re going to be late for a meeting based on your location, your calendar and an understanding of what the traffic is like that day” and “ensure that our spelling suggestions, even for your friends’ names, are accurate.”  

    Kind of creepy?

    While this perhaps creates some benefits for consumers, it also presents some  possibilities the ACLU of Massachusetts refers to as "creepy."  

    For example, if you conduct a search or have an email conversation or watch a YouTube video about a topic you don't want your friends, parents, spouse or significant others to know about, Google's new policy means that your interest in that topic will be a part of your profile and may influence the search results, ads and content suggestions for an indefinite period of time.

    Then there's the issue of keeping one's personal and professional lives separate.  There are many among us who use one email address and profile  for professional or job-related activities while keeping a separate identity for private lives.

    Doctors routinely shield their personal from their professional information, trying to keep at least a few hours to themselves. Police officers and prosecutors prefer not to make their home address and family information available to murderers and other dangerous criminals. Same for ministers, teachers, journalists and others whose public persona subjects them -- and their families -- to abuse from anonymous strangers.

    While there may be ways around this going forward, it appears there's not much to be done about information that's already out there.  Google says it will “replace past names associated with your Google Account so that you are represented consistently across all our services.” 

    Government surveillance

    What’s more, this data aggregation is not just about what ads you see but creates an even larger treasure chest of personal information for government investigators to rummage through.

    Don't think this is something to worry about?  It's worthwhile taking a look at Google's "Transparency Report," which details the thousands of government requests it receives for information about individual consumers.

    In the first six months of 2011, Google received 5,950 requests from government agencies in the U.S. seeking data on 11,057 individuals. It complied with 93% of them.

    The ACLU is so concerned about this and other online privacy issues that it has launched a campaign called Demand Your dotRights, hoping to organize consumer protests and, presumably, legal action against what it perceives as unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

    Google used to say its mission was to organize all the world's information.  Now its mission, judging from its new privacy policy, is to organize all ...
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    BMW Recalls 2012 X5 Models

    "Park" may not engage properly

    BMW is recalling a small number of 2012 X5 models because the automatic transmission's "Park" function may not engage properly.

    This could allow the car to roll away, causing a crash.

    Dealers will repair the problem at no charge.  Owners may contact BMW at 1-800-525-7417.

    Vehicle Make / Model:Model Year(s):
         BMW / X52012
    Manufacturer: BMW OF NORTH AMERICA, LLCMfr's Report Date: JAN 20, 2012
    BMW is recalling a small number of 2012 X5 models because the automatic transmission's "Park" function may not engage properly. ...
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      Bank of America Should be Broken Up, Feds Told

      Public Citizen says giant bank is a "grave threat" to financial stability

      Bank of America, the second-largest bank holding company in the U.S., should be broken up and reformed, Public Citizen said in a petition to the Federal Reserve and the Financial Stability Oversight Council.

      Public Citizen also sent a separate letter to financial regulators co-signed by 19 individuals, including economists and legal scholars, and by Americans for Financial Reform, Center for Media and Democracy, Demos, National People’s Action, Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project, New Bottom Line, SAFER and U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

      The letter calls on regulators to investigate any threats posed by Bank of America or other large and complex financial institutions commonly known as “too big to fail” and to take all actions necessary to safeguard financial stability.

      Public Citizen’s petition calls on regulators to use authority granted by section 121 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act to reform Bank of America into a set of smaller, simpler and safer institutions.

      Too complex

      Bank of America, which holds assets equal to roughly one-seventh of the country’s gross domestic product, is too large and complex to manage or regulate properly, the petition said. Moreover, its financial condition is poor and could deteriorate rapidly.

      Near- and long-term financial indicators demonstrate the market’s unease with Bank of America and show that the bank is becoming increasingly unstable, the organization said In addition, it said Bank of America likely is undercapitalized, as it faces potential liabilities and market risks that could severely destabilize it.These liabilities could arise from the bank’s ongoing litigation and from exposure to financial instability in Europe.

      An ongoing study by the Volatility Institute at New York University’s Stern School of Business confirms the danger posed by the bank: When looking at financial institutions’ contributions to systemic risk, Bank of America ranks first among U.S. financial institutions. The analysis shows not only that Bank of America is highly susceptible to financial crises, but also that it could “create or extend” a crisis.

      “The bank poses a ‘grave threat’ to U.S. financial stability by any reasonable definition of the phrase,” said David Arkush, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “If Bank of America in its current form were to fail, it would devastate the financial system. We’re asking the regulators to make sure that never happens. The only way to be sure is to reform the institution into something safer before any crisis materializes.”

      Bank of America, the second-largest bank holding company in the U.S., should be broken up and reformed, Public Citizen said in a petition to the ...
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      Poll Suggests School Obesity Efforts Might Have Downside

      Some parents worry their children are developing eating disorders

      A new report from the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health identifies what it says is an unintended consequence of the new anti-obesity emphasis in the nation's schools.

      The findings suggest we're trading one health problem for another, with some children now showing signs of developing eating disorders.

      Worrisome behavior

      The poll asked parents about obesity prevention programs in their children’s schools and about food-related behaviors and activity that may be worrisome.

      Overall, 82 percent of parents of children age 6-14 report at least one school-based childhood obesity intervention program taking place in their child’s school.

      Among these programs are nutrition education, limits on sweets or “junk food” in the classroom, height and weight measurements, and incentives for physical activity.

      Additionally, seven percent of parents report that their children have been made to feel bad at school about what or how much they were eating.

      Signs of eating disorder

      This same group of parents was also asked about their children’s eating behaviors.

      Thirty percent of parents of 6-14 year-olds report least one behavior in their children that could be associated with the development of an eating disorder. These behaviors include inappropriate dieting, excessive worry about fat in foods, being preoccupied with food content or labels, refusing family meals, and having too much physical activity.

      “The issue of childhood obesity is a serious problem,” said Dr. David Rosen, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School. “In order to intervene in what seems like an epidemic of childhood obesity, everyone needs to be involved.”

      But Rosen worries that when obesity interventions are put in place without understanding how they work and what the risks are, there can be unintended consequences. Well-intentioned efforts can go awry when children misinterpret the information they’re given.

      Just a phase

      “Many of these behaviors are often dismissed as a phase,” said Rosen. “But given what we know about the association of these behaviors with the development of eating disorders and knowing that eating disorders are increasing in prevalence, they should be taken very seriously.”

      Is it possible for children to be “too physically active?” Some parents seem to think so. Of the parents that report incentive programs at their children’s school to increase physical activity, 11 percent say their kids get too much exercise.

      Whether the parent's concern is misplaced or not, Rosen says it's inportant that parents are in touch with their children's behavior.

      “It’s much better and safer for parents to respond to worrisome eating behaviors early – even if there turns out to be no problem – than to wait until there is obviously a big problem,’ Rosen said. “It is much easier to prevent an eating disorder than it is to treat an eating disorder.”

      Survey finds concern anti obesity efforts may trigger eating disorders...
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      What's On Your Mind? State Farm, Fake Debt Collector, Hollywood Video

      Our daily look at consumer reviews

      Tamera, of West Point, Ga., presents us with an object lesson about car insurance. The lesson is about the bad things that can happen if your car is stolen and you assume your insurance company will cover it.

      “My car was stolen on November 13, 2011 from a local mall,” Tamera told ConsumerAffairs.com. “It was recovered on December 14, 2011 with major damages. I brought the car two months before it was stolen in excellent condition. My State Farm claims adjuster told me it was up to me to prove the condition of my car before it was stolen and crashed. He stated that in his research that he did not feel that the thief would have caused such damages. Unfortunately I did not take any pictures when I brought the car, the car dealership did not have any pictures, nor did the finance company have any pictures.”

      Fortunately, Tamera said she provided enough affidavits from witnesses who could verify the condition of her car that State Farm agreed to cover the repairs. It's a good reminder, though, that we should all photograph our vehicles, just like we should the contents of our homes, for insurance purposes.

      Dangerous scam

      We get reports every day from consumers who receive phone calls from someone who claims to be collecting a payday loan debt and who threatens them with arrest. Even though the target is well aware that it's a scam, this is still very dangerous, as Karen, of Tornado, W. Va., learned.

      “I hung up on guy and he called me back approximately 20 or 30 times and I finally answered and told him I was at work and not to harass me,” Karen said. “He called back again and told me my social security number and bank acct number. That was scary. I told him that no one would call him back and this was fraud and he said I would be in trouble tomorrow and hung up.”

      Karen was not picked at random. The scammer has enough personal information about her to steal her identity. She should immediately call all three credit reporting agencies and place a freeze on her credit. She should also contact the fraud departments of her bank and credit card companies. Finally, some law enforcement agency should find out where these scammers are obtaining this information.

      Speak up

      Ever since Hollywood Video closed its doors, former customers have received collection notices for missing or past due movies. Most say the charges are invalid and unverified. Pam, of Englewood, Colo., urges her fellow consumers to complain to the right people.

      If you have received a collection letter from Universal Fidelity LP representing "Legal Successor of Hollywood Video" for unsubstantiated and potentially bogus past charges from Hollywood Video, please call your state Attorney General's office and file a complaint,” Pam said. “They are receiving complaints, but the volume must be in the hundreds for them to pursue any action. Colorado's has three as of today and they need more.”

      Pam also suggests complaining to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) by calling 877-FTC-HELP. After all, there is strength in numbers.

      Here is what's on consumer's minds today: State Farm, Fake Debt Collector, Hollywood Video, Dangerous scam and Speak up....
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      Spare Tires Face Extinction in New Cars

      Another casualty of cost-cutting, fuel-efficiency standards

      It's fun oohing and aahing over all the new cars manufacturers are showing off at auto shows around the country.  But pop the trunk and chances are, you won't find a spare tire, or a jack, or even a lug wrench.  They've gone the way of the Model T.

      That’s because some vehicle manufacturers are omitting heavy spare tires in order to meet new government fuel efficiency standards, explains the auto club. Instead of a spare, auto makers, from Acura to Volvo, are equipping new vehicles with an emergency sealant and inflator kit or tires that if damaged can run reasonable distances without air. The vanishing spare tire has car buyers buzzing.

      “The sad truth is, many vehicle owners are unaware that their late model vehicle has no spare tire until they have a flat tire or a blow-out, and that could cause desperation on the side of the road,” said John B. Townsend II, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Manager of Public and Government Affairs. “Yet, the emergency sealer/inflators kits are ineffective, if your tire gets a large puncture or has a blow-out.

      "Auto dealerships in the Washington metro area say they are seeing a surge in the number of customers worried about the eventuality of a flat tire and, as a result, they are purchasing spare tire kits for their recently purchased vehicles. The cost of the spare tire kit can run from $150 to $350, depending upon the make and the model,” Townsend said.

      “There are more than 700 new automobile makes and models on the marketplace today, but only 51 models come equipped with full-size matching spare tires, which are quickly becoming a relic of the past. First, they were replaced by ‘donuts’ or compact temporary spares and now more cars are coming off the assembly line with no spare at all. Many motorists will find that vexing and annoying,” he said.

      13 percent

      In fact, 13 percent of all new vehicles sold in the first half of 2011 did not include a spare tire, and that number is expected to increase in future models and makes, explains AAA Mid-Atlantic. Even so, 51 percent of 2011 models came equipped with temporary spares, and the run-flat tire was standard in 7.2 percent of 2011 model-year vehicles, auto industry research shows.

      A consumer who recently purchased a new 2012 Elantra posted the following diatribe to the Hyundai Motor America Corporate Office  blog. “No spare tire, No jack…Was not told any of the above (about the jack and spare) I called the office and [the dealership] told me they don’t put the jack and spare to get the fuel mileage…not happy with this new Elantra. Would not buy another.”

      Why the sea change?  Well, in 2010, the Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency established new corporate average fuel economy standards for vehicle model years 2012 to 2016. The new standards are set at a combined 29.7 mpg for the 2012 model year, increasing to 34.1 mpg by 2016.  Achieving these standards will require many changes to the vehicles we drive. 

      “As a result, consumers should review their owner’s manual and emergency maintenance supplies they have in the vehicle and be informed about alternatives to a spare to prevent panic or a delay when encountering a flat tire,” the auto club advises.

      One area of focus is to reduce the weight of vehicles without compromising occupant safety.  A spare tire, related tools and a jack can weigh more than 40 pounds. That may seem like a small amount, but every little bit helps. Unlike other weight-saving changes, it doesn’t add cost to the vehicle.  

      It's fun oohing and aahing over all the new cars manufacturers are showing off at auto shows around the country.  But pop the trunk and chances are, y...
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      J.C. Penney Revamping Prices, Promising Monthly Sales Events

      James Cash Penney's company gets a new look, new logo, new sales strategy

      J. C. Penney -- or, as it now wishes to be called, jcpenney -- is implementing a new pricing and sales plan that its CEO says he thinks will make it "America's favorite store." Speaking to financial analysts in New York today, Ron Johnson unveiled "Fair and Square Pricing, making every day a great day to shop."

      "The department store is the number one opportunity in retail today. We are going to rethink every aspect of our business, boldly pursue change, and create long-term shareholder value, as we become America's favorite store," Johnson said. "Every initiative we pursue will be guided by our core value to treat customers as we would like to be treated -- fair and square."

      The new pricing plan consists of three types of prices, Johnson said:

      • "Everyday, regular prices, which are always great;
      • Month-Long Values, even better prices on the things you need now; and
      • Best Prices, jcpenney's lowest prices, which always happen on the 1st and 3rd Fridays of every month as jcpenney makes room for exciting new merchandise."

      The plan is sort of lunar, actually, based as it is on a monthly calendar. There will basically be 12 sales per year, each lasting a month and each tied to the products customers are likely to want at that time of the year.

      "We want customers to shop on their terms, not ours. By setting our store monthly and maintaining our best prices for an entire month, we feel confident that customers will love shopping when it is convenient for them, rather than when it is expedient for us," Johnson said.

      New brands

      Johnson's ebullient comments no doubt added salt to the wounds over at Macy's, which is seething at Martha Stewart for signing up to provide products to the revamped jcpenney.  Macy's has sued Martha, claiming it had an exclusive right to sell Matha Stewart products.

      But while Martha may be tied up in court for awhile, jcpenney will have comedian Ellen DeGeneres as its new "brand partner." Ellen began her career in her teens as a jcpenney sales person, we're told.

      Oh, and by the way, as part of what Johnson fondly called the "reimagining" of the company founded 110 years ago by James Cash Penney, the brand will henceforth be known as jcpenney, as noted above.  This is what marketing people call a new "brand identity."

      There's even a new logo -- pictured above -- which we're told "combines the elements that have made jcpenney an enduring American brand, by evoking the nation's flag and jcpenney's commitment to treating customers Fair and Square."

      "The square frame imagery will be evident throughout all of jcpenney's marketing, to remind customers to frame the things they love," a news release from the newly-reimagined company gushed.

      J. C. Penney -- or, as it now wishes to be called, jcpenney -- is implementing a new pricing and sales plan that its CEO says he thinks will make it "Ameri...
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      WSJ: Google Execs Knew of Illegal Drug Ads

      Federal prisoner carried out a sting operation against the search giant

      When Google agreed to pay $500 million last August to settle charges it carried ads for illegal drugs, the story that went untold was that the charges grew out of a sting operation conducted by a prison inmate operating under the watchful gaze of federal agents.

      The Wall Street Journal tells that tale today, including allegations that Google co-founder Larry Page, now the company's CEO, and other top executives were aware of legal problems with the drug ads. 

      Mr. Page knew about the illicit conduct, said Peter Neronha, the U.S. attorney for Rhode Island who led the multiagency federal task force that conducted the sting.

      "We simply know from the documents we reviewed and witnesses we interviewed that Larry Page knew what was going on," Neronha said, according to the Journal.

      Narcotics, steroids

      As the Journal tells it, convicted con artist David Whitaker spent $200,000 of government money to buy ads on Google, promoting narcotics, steroids, human growth hormone and other illegal substances.  Google initially rejected some of the ads but reportedly relented following conversations between Whitaker and Google ad executives.  

      Google has long contended that it is not responsible for the actions of its one million advertisers but in the half-billion-dollar settlement, which headed off potential criminal charges against the company, agreed to pay not only its profits on the ads but also the proceeds that flowed from the illegal drug sales.

      That, says Neronha, set an important precedent: "Where evidence can be developed that a search engine knowingly and actively assisted advertisers to promote improper conduct, the search engine can be held accountable as an accomplice," the Journal reported.

      So is Google taking a more cautious approach in its advertising policies? Not according to some of its critics.

      "Google is highly motivated to turn a blind eye to all sorts of dubious advertising on its search engine because AdWords is such a cash cow," said John M. Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project, after the August settlement.

      Perhaps presciently, Simpson cited a study by his group that found Google had become "a leading purveyor of ads by scammers who prey on struggling homeowners."

      Bogus mortgage ads

      A few months later, in November, under pressure from federal prosecutors, Google shut down bogus mortgage ads from companies that claimed to offer assistance to homeowners who were behind on their mortgage payments and facing foreclosure.

      Google acted in November after a federal agency opened a criminal investigation of at least 85 companies that used Google AdWords to sell mortgage modification services. 

      "Google should never have published these ads, but its executives turned a blind eye to these fraudsters for far too long because of the substantial revenue such advertising generates," said Simpson. "The company cannot be allowed to benefit from these ill-gotten gains. Google must donate the money to aid homeowners who were victimized because of its callous quest for profits."

      It's not only Google that profits from ads for illicit, illegal or fraudulent products, of course.  Besides displaying advertisements on its own sites, Google has a vast network of Web sites -- so-called "content partners" -- that display the ads on their sites as well.  (ConsumerAffairs.com is a Google content partner). 

      The content partners range from major newspapers like The New York Times to the smallest local news or special interest site.  In fact, thousands of sites have been created -- so-called "Made for AdWords" sites -- that serve no purpose but to show up in search engines and to present site visitors with so little useful information that they are driven to click on the Google ads to escape.

      Thus, if Google mounted a truly extensive effort to root out misleading and fraudulent advertisements, it would have an impact not only on Google's revenue but on those of its hundreds of thousands of content partners. 

      Just wants to be free?

      "Information just wants to be free."  That was the credo of the cyberprophets back when the Internet was just pulling itself together. Like Grateful Dead fans milling around a parking lot, early Internet proponents proclaimed that, at last, information would be freed of corporate influence and society would at last be, well, free.

      A decade or two later, information is stolen and redistributed with reckless abandon and search engines -- which were going to be the roadmap to the cybersphere of free information -- are increasingly driven by advertising.

      Google still provides information for free to the end user but, increasingly, that information is paid for, with advertising providing 96 percent of Google's 2011 revenue.  

      In fact, companies which must constantly find new customers for their products and services now have little choice but to spend, and spend big, with Google.

      The No. 1 source of advertising revenue for Google is the finance and insurance industry, which spent $4.0 billion last year, according to WordStream, a search-advertising firm. State Farm spent an estimated $43.7 million on Google AdWords, followed by Progressive at $43.1 million.

      Retail and general merchandise was the second-biggest category last year, at $2.8 billion, and travel and tourism at $2.4 billion. Amazon.com spent $55.2 million, and eBay spent an estimated $42.8 million. 

      When Google agreed to pay $500 million last August to settle charges it carried ads for illegal drugs, the story that went untold was that the charges grew...
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      Where To Put Your Money In 2012

      Financial experts have a surprising suggestion

      The investment landscape continues to be a scary place. So, if you have some money to invest, where should you put it?

      The stock market rose sharply in late 2011 and could go even higher this year. On the other hand, it could be one big sovereign debt default away from a substantial decline.

      How about gold? You can't argue with its rapid appreciation over the last few years, but how much more upside does it have? Billionaire investor George Soros has called gold “the ultimate bubble.”

      Discouraged yet? Maybe you want to just sock your money away in a bank certificate of deposit (CD). But financial experts at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) say interest rates are so low that buying a $1,000 two-month CD from the bank will only earn you 83 cents more than if you buried the same amount in your yard for two months.

      Real estate?

      So, what does Andreas Rauterkus, assistant professor of finance with the UAB School of Business, think you should do with your money. Believe it or not, he says buy a house. That's right, invest in real estate.

      “First-time home-buyer rates are around 3.8 percent for a 30-year mortgage, so if you can afford a $1,000 mortgage payment monthly for 30 years then you can buy a $250,000 home right now,” said Rauterkus. “It won’t get you much in New York City, but you can get quite a house for that in Birmingham and other affordable areas across the country.”

      That's true, home values have fallen each of the last three years – some markets by more than 50 percent. Prices in some areas are now back to their levels before the housing bubble began to inflate.

      You have to do your homework

      The biggest mistake people make is not doing their homework, says Lary Cowart, Ph.D., assistant professor of real estate and finance at the UAB School of Business. A certified real estate appraiser, he says the primary change in real estate during recent years is price, which has gone down.

      Cowart says people will research the obvious factors — school systems, convenience and neighborhood — but ignore details about the property and the transaction that lead to big problems.

      “Not enough people take time to study things that will affect the transaction and rely on others to do the homework for them,” said Cowart. “Even smart people can buy a house and not realize it needs work. So suddenly they need $12,000 for a new roof, but they’ve spent all their money buying the house.”

      Ask the right questions

      Buyers, especially inexperienced ones, should be prepared to ask the right questions of the owner and every service provider, and to exercise their right to inspect the property thoroughly, he says.

      If you qualify for a home loan, Cowart advises against waiting for the house of your dreams to drop in price; once the housing prices hit bottom, interest rates rise. And each time the interest rates rise, you lose money.

      “Holding out to try and find the lowest price is not a good strategy because if the house were to go down 10 percent but the interest rate goes up 1 percent you are not gaining anything,” said Cowart. “If rates go up 1 percent, say from 4 to 5 percent, that is a 25 percent increase in the interest rate; so the mortgage payment goes up by more than 10 percent and the amount of house that can be purchased goes down by more than 10 percent. People fail to realize that and it is another little thing that will cost them big over the 30-year life of the loan.”

      All of this, of course, relies on you being able to come up with a 20 percent down payment and otherwise qualify for a mortgage. But for those who can qualify, Rauterkus and Cowart says a house may be the best place to put your money in 2012.

      financial experts suggest buying a house is a good investment...
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      Are You Required To File An Income Tax Return This Year?

      It may pay to file, even if you don't have to

      Each year, some people file a federal tax return even though they aren't legally required to. Are you one of them?

      According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), you are required to file a federal income tax return if your income is above a certain level, which varies depending on your filing status, age and the type of income you receive. If you don't meet that threshold, you don't have to file.

      However, there may be a good reason to file, even if you aren't required to. By filing a return, you could get a refund of any withheld taxes or qualify for a tax credit.

      Here's another good reason to file a return. It's a federal crime to not file a return if you are legally required to, so erring on the side of caution is never a bad idea, if you are in doubt.

      To find out if you need to file, check the Individuals section of the IRS website or consult the instructions for Form 1040, 1040A or 1040EZ for specific details that may help you determine if you need to file a tax return with the IRS this year.

      You can also use the Interactive Tax Assistant available on the IRS website. The ITA tool is a tax law resource that takes you through a series of questions and provides you with responses to tax law questions.

      Six reasons to file

      Even if you don’t have to file for 2011, here are six reasons why you may want to:

      1. Federal Income Tax Withheld

      You should file to get money back if your employer withheld federal income tax from your pay, you made estimated tax payments, or had a prior year overpayment applied to this year’s tax.

      2. Earned Income Tax Credit

      You may qualify for EITC if you worked, but did not earn a lot of money. EITC is a refundable tax credit; which means you could qualify for a tax refund. To get the credit you must file a return and claim it.

      3. Additional Child Tax Credit

      This refundable credit may be available if you have at least one qualifying child and you did not get the full amount of the Child Tax Credit.

      4. American Opportunity Credit

      Students in their first four years of postsecondary education may qualify for as much as $2,500 through this credit. Forty percent of the credit is refundable so even those who owe no tax can get up to $1,000 of the credit as cash back for each eligible student.

      5. Adoption Credit

      You may be able to claim a refundable tax credit for qualified expenses you paid to adopt an eligible child.

      6. Health Coverage Tax Credit

      Certain individuals who are receiving Trade Adjustment Assistance, Reemployment Trade Adjustment Assistance, Alternative Trade Adjustment Assistance or pension benefit payments from the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, may be eligible for a 2011 Health Coverage Tax Credit.

      Eligible individuals can claim a significant portion of their payments made for qualified health insurance premiums.

      How to find out if you are required to file a tax return...
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      Feds May Relax Media Cross-Ownership Rules

      As the Internet steadily erodes other media, FCC may relax "duopoly" rules

      Here's an issue that used to be a real hot button but which no longer seems to excite much public interest: media ownership.  For decades, consumer activists complained that there was too little diversity in the ownership of television, newspapers and radio.

      You don't hear much of that anymore, what with the Internet and cable providing all the shouting matches anyone can tolerate.   

      Perhaps mirroring that thinking, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is planning to eliminate the decades-old rules limiting cross-ownership of TV and radio stations in local media markets. The FCC also says it will "revisit" its rules regulating common ownership of same-market broadcast and newspaper properties. But the question remains whether regulatory changes will lead to marketplace changes.

      Whether any of this will make much difference is an open question. There's not much public outcry about "the media" anymore, except when John King asks Newt Gingrich the question that's on everyone's lips. We tried to conduct a computerized sentiment analysis of what consumers think about the issue  but our search of Twitter, Facebook and so forth turned up exactly zero comments about the phrase "media crossownership" over the last 12 months.

      Compare that to 29 million comments about Google over the last year and we get an idea of where the public's head is at, so to speak.

      Business interests aren't exactly falling all over each other to snatch up local properties either. The market value of local media properties has been badly eroded by the rise of Internet media.  It's not that Web content is necessarily all that great, but sites likes Craigslist have decimated the local advertising that was once the mainstay of local papers and broadcasters.

      Giant sucking sound

      With Google and its competitors sucking billions of dollars out of local and national advertising budgets, it makes it a little harder to think that anyone other than Rupert Murdoch will be eagerly snapping up multiple properties in a market.  But stranger things have happened, and at least a few groups are taking up the no-crossownership cudgel.

      Most prominent is the American Civil Liberties Union, which opined in a blog this week that the FCC's proposal "would weaken important existing protections that ensure our free access to media of all varieties."

      "Recognizing the importance of a diversity of opinions in media coverage, the FCC established media ownership rules in the 1970s to promote competition and diversity in our media by protecting local markets from being controlled by a small handful of media companies," said Sandra Fulton of the ACLU's Washington office.

      "The ACLU believes that in order to best serve the people and our democracy, the FCC should hold on to rules that encourage diversity and media ownership by women and minority communities," Fulton said.

      "Diversity of perspectives"

      Sharing that view is the Writer's Guild of America, East, which said consolidation "undermines the quality of broadcast news and reduces the diversity of perspectives on TV."

      "The Writers Guild of America, East takes issue with the assertion made by various media companies that consolidation of ownership frees up resources to improve news coverage, the union said in a statement. "Simply permitting television, radio, internet, or newspaper outlets to combine will inevitably result in less substance, in the absence of clearly defined requirements that specific levels of resources be devoted to journalism."

      What do broadcasters and publishers think about this?  There hasn't been much reaction so far, partly because the advantages of cross-ownership -- owning both a TV station and newspaper in the same community, for example -- aren't what they used to be, with cable and Internet properties flooding the pipeline.

      Also, as The Daily Deal, an industry publication, noted recently, "the TV, radio and newspaper industries have become increasingly distinct, making the FCC's proposal far less deregulatory in practice than it may appear in print."

      Of greater concern the broadcasters is a little-noticed suggestion that the FCC insert itself more deeply into the relationship between stations and networks.  

      "The potential for the FCC to further regulate who can become an affiliate of a top-rated network would interpose the FCC in what has been historically a free-standing commercial and content-based decision between networks and station operators," the paper said. 

      Here's an issue that used to be a real hot button but which no longer seems to excite much public interest: media ownership.  For decades, consumer ac...
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      Scammers Exploiting Foreclosure Review Process

      The real foreclosure review is free

      Foreclosure relief is very much in this week's headlines, and that can end up being a bad thing if scammers latch onto it and try to exploit consumer confusion.

      It's an especially worrisome possibility because federal bank regulators, late last year, ordered certain mortgage servicers to identify consumers whose homes faced foreclosure between January 1, 2009 and December 31, 2010.

      These consumers should have received a letter by the end of 2011 indicating that they may request an independent review of their foreclosure. If the review finds that the homeowner suffered financial injury caused by deficiencies in the foreclosure process, they may be eligible for compensation. There is no cost associated with the federal government's Independent Foreclosure Review program.

      But here's where the scammers come in

      Sounds good, and it is. But what if scammers start contacting homeowners offering to conduct an "Independent Foreclosure Home Loan Review" or a "securitization review" for a fee? That's exactly what's happening in Oregon, according to state Attorney General John Kroger. He's warning residents of his state to steer clear of any offer of a foreclosure review that involves a fee.

      “Beware of anyone who wants payment to assist you with an independent foreclosure review or any other homeowner assistance or foreclosure prevention program,” Kroger said. “If you receive a letter suggesting that you qualify for compensation or received a grant without having requested an independent review from the federal government, it is a scam.”

      Remember, a government agency will never request your contact information, Social Security Number, banking information, or credit card numbers in an email. By all means, steer clear of anyone who claims they can guarantee a permanent mortgage modification or halt the foreclosure process.

      The real review process

      How does the real foreclosure review process work? In April 2011 the Federal Reserve (Fed) issued enforcement actions against four large mortgage servicers – GMAC Mortgage, HSBC Finance Corporation, SunTrust Mortgage, and EMC Mortgage Corporation. Under those actions, the four servicers were required to retain independent consultants to review foreclosures that were initiated, pending, or completed during 2009 or 2010.

      The review is intended to determine if borrowers suffered financial harm directly resulting from errors, misrepresentations, or other deficiencies that may have occurred during the foreclosure process. The servicers are required to compensate borrowers for financial injury resulting from deficiencies in their foreclosure processes.

      If you had a mortgage loan on your primary residence and believe you were financially harmed during the mortgage foreclosure process by any of the four servicers in 2009 or 2010, you can request an independent review and potentially receive compensation. The four servicers are required to make the independent reviews available to borrowers as part of their compliance with the April 2011 enforcement actions.

      If you think you are eligible, you can talk to someone at 888-952-9105, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. (ET), and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (ET). Individuals can also get more information about the review through a website set up by the servicers.

      Foreclosure relief is very much in this week's headlines, and that can end up being a bad thing if scammers latch onto it and try to exploit consumer confu...
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      'Immigration Center' Tricked Consumers, FTC Charges

      Charged $2,500 for immigration forms that are available at no charge

      The immigration services business will be permanently off limits to an operation that allegedly posed as the federal government and tricked people into paying up to $2,500 for immigration forms, under settlements with the Federal Trade Commission.

      The two settlements resolve charges the FTC filed in January 2011 against Immigration Center and its principals alleging that they claimed they were authorized to provide immigration and naturalization services, that they were affiliated with the U.S. government, and that fees paid by consumers would cover all the costs associated with submitting immigration documents to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

      The court subsequently shut down the operation, froze the defendants' assets, and appointed a receiver to control the business until the case was resolved.

      In addition to banning Immigration Center, Charles Doucette, Deborah Stilson, and Alfred Boyce from providing immigration services, the settlement orders prohibit them from making misrepresentations about any goods or services, including federal government affiliation, the terms of any refund or cancellation policy, and their qualification to provide legal advice or services.

      They also are prohibited from selling or otherwise benefitting from customers' personal information, and from failing to properly dispose of customers' personal information within 30 days. The order against Immigration Center, Doucette, and Stilson also imposes a judgment of more than $3.1 million against Immigration Center, and a judgment exceeding $3.7 million against Doucette and Stilson. The judgments will be suspended upon the surrender of certain assets, including a car and a mobile home.

      The order against Boyce also imposes a judgment of more than $2.7 million, which will be suspended if the terms of the settlement order are met. The full judgments will become due immediately if the defendants are found to have misrepresented their financial condition.

      The immigration services business will be permanently off limits to an operation that allegedly posed as the federal government and tricked people into pay...
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      Macy's Sues Martha Over J.C. Penney Deal

      Claims it has the exclusive right to sell Martha's stuff

      Macy's is miffed at Martha. No, it doesn't have anything to do with those infamous exploding tables. No one seems to care about those, except their unlucky owners.  

      This fight is over something more basic -- marketing rights.  Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia recently signed an agreement with J.C. Penney to sell home and kitchen items under the Martha Stewart name, something Macy's thinks is its exclusive territory.

      After all, Macy's has been selling Martha's stuff since way back in 2005 or so, when a similarly snotty dust-up occurred between Sears/Kmart and Macy's.

      Is this starting to sound like Newt Gingrich's marital history?

      You may remember that Kmart had been selling a line of Martha Stewart merchandise for years and stuck with her during, oh, you know, that little unpleasantness with the courts and prison and everything.

      When she got out, Martha repaid Sears/Kmart by doing a deal with Macy's.  Now Macy's is on the receiving end, and has filed suit in a New York court charging breach of contract and claiming that the right to sell Martha Stewart home and kitchen items belongs exclusively to Macy's.

      A Stewart spokesman said the merchandise sold at Penney's would be different from that sold at Macy's.

      Macy's is miffed at Martha. No, it doesn't have anything to do with those infamous exploding tables. No one seems to care about those, except their unlucky...
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      Study Finds Behavioral Tracking Widespread on Children's Sites

      FTC asked to upgrade online privacy safeguards

      In comments filed with the Federal Trade Commission, the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), along with 16 consumer, health, privacy, and child advocacy groups, endorsed the Commission’s proposals to update the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) rules.  

      The groups supported the agency’s recommendations for critical changes in its regulations aimed at addressing contemporary data collection and marketing practices. 

      CDD also released an analysis of tracking and targeting techniques employed by the leading child-targeted websites, which found that the great majority of the sites (81%) engage in some form of tracking through the use of such “persistent identifiers” as flash cookies, web bugs, and other online data collection tools. 

      “The online data collection practices we originally identified in the 1990s have been eclipsed by a new generation of tracking and targeting techniques, as online data collection in this era of Big Data,” commented Kathryn Montgomery, Professor of Communication at American University, who, along with CDD Executive Director, Jeff Chester, spearheaded the campaign to pass COPPA in 1998. “It is imperative that the rules be changed if they are going to continue protecting children’s privacy in the growing digital marketplace.” 

      Nearly half of the sites (48%) appear to be using behavioral targeting technologies. 

      Behavioral targeting is becoming a pervasive practice across the web. The practice is based on building profiles of individual users by tracking behaviors on one or more websites and combining that data with information from a variety of other sources (e.g., IP addresses, search history, registration, etc.) in order to deliver marketing or advertising to an individual online.

      “Given children’s limited cognitive abilities and the sophisticated nature of contemporary digital marketing and data collection, strong arguments can be made that behavioral targeting is an inappropriate, unfair, and deceptive practice when used to influence children under 13,” the groups explained in their comments.  “At the very least, marketers should be constrained from engaging in such practices without obtaining meaningful, prior consent from parents.”

      A separate analysis of the privacy policies on the top children’s websites, commissioned by CDD, found that many of the websites fail to provide accurate, clear, and complete information that parents need to make informed decisions.  The study found that most of the policies do not adhere to COPPA requirements for user-friendly explanations, but instead couch their practices in obscure, difficult to understand legalese. 

      Parents, therefore, have no way of knowing or understanding the nature and extent of data collection and use on these sites.

      “These findings demonstrate that children’s privacy is not being taken seriously by many of the leading U.S. online content providers targeted at young people,” Chester said.

      In comments filed with the Federal Trade Commission, the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), along with 16 consumer, health, privacy, and child advocacy gr...
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      When Can You Expect Your Tax Refund?

      The IRS is sending out refunds sometimes within 10 days

      When completing their tax returns, taxpayers usually have just two questions; how much am I getting back and when am I getting it?

      While many variable come into play in determining how much of a refund you are getting, the same is true for the speed of your tax refund. The good news for taxpayers is, the refunds are going out faster all the time. The keys are filing electronically and selecting direct deposit instead of a paper check.

      Technology speeds things up

      Following technology improvements, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will issue refunds to more taxpayers in as few as 10 days this year for those who e-file and select direct deposit. Overall, the IRS issues the vast majority - more than 9 out of 10 - of all refunds, whether filed electronically or on paper, in 21 days or less.

      Although refund speed will generally increase overall, the IRS emphasizes these are “best-case scenarios,” where tax returns are filed accurately and no corrections or review are required.

      In addition, the IRS also cautions taxpayers it is increasing scrutiny of tax returns for signs of fraud. This means some tax refunds will face additional screening and review before being released, which will add time before the refund is delivered.

      There are some simple ways for people to help ensure they receive their refund quickly. E-file remains the best way to ensure an error-free return.

      No errors

      Not making mistakes, it turns out, is another way to speed up a refund. Use the correct Social Security number or taxpayer identification number, the correct address, and the correct bank and routing number if electing direct deposit.

      The IRS even has a section on its website called “Where's My Refund?,” a tool to check on the status of your refund. Information about refund status is available about three days after the IRS acknowledges receipt of your e-filed return, or four weeks after mailing a paper return.

      How to know when your tax refunding is coming...
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      What's On Your Mind? Proactiv, Progressive Business Publications, Just Flowers

      Our daily look at consumer reviews

      We've gotten several complaints from consumers about Proactiv, a mail order acne treatment. The complaint centers on the multiple shipments of the product the company sends, along with monthly charges to their credit card. Evelyn, of Greenwell Springs, La., thinks she's found the solution.

      “I have found a way to stop future charges - cancel the credit card and get a new one,” Evelyn said. “I have just discovered that this works like a charm.”

      Evelyn had better reconsider this. Cancelling a credit card might solve the problem short term, but it could end up with Proactiv turning the debt over to collections, and damage to Evelyn's credit score. If Evelyn believes she was deceived in this transaction, she should take the trouble to dispute it with her credit card company. That way, it's off the books and won't come back to haunt her.

      Stealth 'survey'

      If you run a small business, be careful who you allow to answer the phone. Or at least instruct them not to answer “surveys.”

      “A salesperson from Progressive Business Publications called our facility under the guise of being a survey type agency,” Charla, of Watsonville, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “The employee, who is not authorized to order such items to begin with, figured it was a sales type call, didn't pay attention to the company name and basically just said yes, yes, all the way through to their questions. Unbeknown to him, through the process, this started the sending of a certain publication and at the end of the phone call all they said was 'you have 30 days to cancel.' He didn't even know what he had unknowingly signed up for!”

      Charla said the next thing she knew, she had gotten a bill. If Charla, or any other business owner, thinks they were unfairly signed up for something they didn't want, they should report it to their state attorney general's office.

      No flowers

      Sandra, of Roseville, Calif., wanted to send flowers last weekend to her grand-daughter, who was ill. So, she ordered a bouquet through Just Flowers for Saturday delivery and paid an extra fee for delivery within a four-hour time window.

      “The four hour time frame came and went and no flowers,” Sandra said. When I called to inquire he assured me that the flowers would be delivered on Sunday and that my order would be the first delivery made at 9:00. By noon the flowers were still not delivered. I called and spoke to a manager who told me that they couldn't find anyone to deliver on Sunday. Keep in mind that I was the one who was calling them. Not one time did I get a follow up call or an e-mail letting me know about the problems happening.”

      The lesson here is, why would you use a third party company to order and deliver flowers? Sandra should have Googled “florists” in the community where he grand-daughter lives, picked one and called and talked to them directly. By talking with the florist directly, she might have gotten a better feel for whether they were actually going to “deliver.”

      Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Proactiv, Progressive Business Publications, Just Flowers, Stealth 'survey' and No flowers....
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      New Gmail Users Get Google+ As Well

      New sign-up process requires a Google profile

      One reason people sign up for online email accounts like Gmail and Hotmail is that they're free and easy. Fill in a few blanks and you've got a new email address.

      Google has added a few steps to the process, requiring new users to create a Google profile along with their new Gmail account.  Oh, and it also gets you a Google+ account, whether you want it or not.

      The new sign-up form name, birthday, gender (required for Google+) and mobile phone number (not required).

      Google has been going to great lengths to cajole, persuade and outright require users of its various services to sign up for Google+, its attempt to compete with Facebook.  After all, goes the think at the 'plex, there are 350 million Gmail users and "only" 90 million Google+ members, so obviously there's plenty of room for growth, if only the strays can be rounded up and herded into the corral.

      While some consumers may see this as annoying or a threat to their privacy, it's not likely Google is going to relax the pressure.  It sees Facebook as a serious threat to its search business and is doing everything it can to make Google+ a serious competitor.

      Also, Google's most recent earnings statement came as something of a disappointment to analysts and investors who have become accustomed to huge revenue increases and high profit margins. 

      Antitrust worries

      Still, there may be trouble ahead.  Bloomberg News reported recently that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has expanded its antitrust investigation of Google to include Google+.

      The report comes after Google announced that it would include personal data gathered from Google+ in the results of users' searches, a move that raised the hackles of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

      "Google's business practices raise concerns related to both competition and the implementation of the Commission’s consent order," EPIC said, referring to a settlement that the FTC reached with Google that establishes new privacy safeguards for users of all Google products and services and subjects the company to regular privacy audits. Google first confirmed the FTC’s antitrust investigation in June 2011.

      EPIC has also been urging the FTC to investigate whether Google uses  Youtube search rankings to give preferential treatment to its own video content over non-Google content. 

      One reason people sign up for online email accounts like Gmail and Hotmail is that they're free and easy. Fill in a few blanks and you've got a new email a...
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      Orange Juice Prices Could Be Headed Even Higher

      Speculators increasingly expect Brazilian import ban

      In case you haven't noticed, the price of orange juice has surged this month because of growing speculation the U.S. might ban orange juice from Brazil. It turns out Brazilian growers have been using a fungicide not approved under U.S. regulations.

      Since the issue first arose earlier this month, futures traders have bid up the price of orange juice by 27 percent. Prices on the futures market rose again Monday as more traders began to place bets on an import ban.

      Consumers have yet to see much in the way of higher prices, but should a ban go into effect, it seems higher retail prices will be a certainty. Right now it's a Wall Street story, but the longer it goes on, the more it affects Main Street.

      Awaiting test results

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is testing Brazilian juice for the fungicide, known as carbendazim, but as of yet has had little or nothing to say publicly. The agency did say last week that it is awaiting the results of the tests in conducted on the samples. The small amounts that it has detected so far, it says, is not enough to block the sale of the product.

      While most orange juice is produced in the U.S., Brazil now accounts for as much as 10 percent of U.S. supplies. The loss of Brazilian imports would be a sudden and significant reduction in supply and push retail prices higher.

      However, if the FDA fails to find traces of the fungicide and imports are not affected, analysts say futures prices for orange juice are likely to come down just as fast as they went up. Any retail price increase is likely to be temporary.

      Carbendazim is used to control a broad range of diseases on arable crops, fruits and vegetables. Research on mice showed increase tumors in two out of three studies. Carbendazim is classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as ‘unlikely to present hazard in normal use.’  

      Orange juice prices are going up...
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