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Would Fructose By Any Other Name Taste As Sweet?

The FDA refuses to change the name of high-fructose corn syrup

There's been a series of controversial TV commercials circulating over the past couple of years. It speaks about how safe high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) i...

PhotoWhat's in a name? Plenty, if the name has anything to do with sugar. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has rejected a request by corn-refining giants to change the name of the widely used and widely despised food ingredient "high-fructose corn syrup" to "corn sugar." 

The sweetener is cheap and sweet, which is why it's widely used in snack foods, condiments and soft drinks. Critics, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, say those sugary snacks and drinks are contributing to the nation's obesity problem. Bloomberg's answer is to ban large sugary drinks.

Of course, changing the name won't make the sugar any less sweet.  Or any less fattening, for that matter. But it's a tried-and-try public relations gimmick: change the name of an offending product or substance and hope no one remembers. The Corn Refiners Association -- which includes such industry giants as Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Cargill Inc. -- has been trying to do just that for years. It formally sought the name change in a petition to the FDA in 2010.

Not enough

The FDA said the corny p.r. group didn't provide sufficient grounds for a name change. And besides, said the FDA, it defines sugar as "a solid, dried and crystallized food," while syrup is a "liquid food." High-fructose corn syrup is a liquid, it should be noted.

But not wanting to put all their corn in one bin, the Corn Refiners have been fighting on another front as well, just in case the name-change ploy went sour. the trade group has been running a series of controversial TV commercials, basically saying "sugar is sugar" and claiming "your body can't tell the difference" between high-fructose corn syrup and sugar.

This doesn't go over well with the sugar farmers, as you might suppose, and several of them filed a federal lawsuit against the fructose claims. A federal judge found the farmers showed "a reasonable probability of success on their argument that the statements are false" but the case is likely to remain solidly in the courts for a bit longer before it dissolves fully.

Enough already

The farmers argue that the fructose refiners are putting out false product claims, and hurting the natural sugar industry.

"Enough is enough," said sugar farmer attorney Mark Lanier. "Neither HFCS nor fructose is the same as sucrose, what consumers know as sugar, and has been a part of diets for more than 2,000 years."

"Consumers need the facts about how sweeteners differ chemically and how the body can tell the difference between them. The Sugar Association seeks to educate consumers and encourages the media and researchers to embrace a scientific dialogue based on facts and not scare tactics," Lanier said.

Too much already

But while the arguments about what's sugar and what's not rage on, the fact remains that -- whatever it is -- we're probably eating too much of it. 

"So many things have happened in our environment in the past fifty years, from a total increase in calories to a decrease in activity — it’s absurd to pin the entire obesity problem on a single food such as fructose or even sugar consumption as a whole," said David Klerfeld, a national program leader in Human Nutrition for the USDA." Why aren’t we focusing on ginormous portions rather than wasting time looking at single ingredients?"

So the debate over HFCS and all-natural sugur looms on, and more TV commercials and lawsuits are probably soon to follow.  But consumers can also remember that using a food sweetener isn't a law, and many foods and drinks consumed actually don't need sugar. Natural or man-made.

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New York City to Ban Large Sugary Drinks

Mayor's latest prescription draws outcry from the beverage industry

In an increasing crackdown on obesity, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has announced his intention to ban the sale of large-sized beverages at restau...

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A few decades ago, New York City Mayor Ed Koch tackled head-on the problem of New Yorkers parking wherever they felt like with large signs reading, "Don't even think of parking here!"

Fast forward to 2012.  There's still no place to park but the current mayor, one Michael Bloomberg, could care less. He takes the subway or his private jet, after all. No, it's oversized New Yorkers who get his goat.  And don't even think about smoking there!

In Bloomberg's latest attempt to rebuild New Yorkers in his image, His Honor has announced his intention to ban the sale of large-sized sugary beverages at restaurants, theaters and concession stands in the city.

The proposed ban would include soda, iced tea and energy drinks that are sweetened with sugar and sold in cups or containers that exceed 16 ounces. Diet drinks, of course, would be exempt from the ban. So would fruit juice beverages, drinks made from dairy products, like milk shakes, and oddly, alcoholic beverages. (The mayor likes a glass or two of wine with dinner, we're told).

The ban would also not extend to giant-sized sugary beverages sold in grocery or convenience stores. Go figure.

In a New York minute

The proposed ban would go into effect early next year, barring litigation -- which is as certain as a morning back-up on the FDR Drive. For one, the New York City Beverage Association immediately criticized the idea.

“The New York City health department’s unhealthy obsession with attacking soft drinks is again pushing them over the top,” said association spokesman Stefan Friedman.

The ban on giant-sized sugary drinks is just the latest effort on Bloomberg's part to force changes in health habits in his jurisdiction. In the past he pushed for, and obtained, bans on smoking in restaurants and parks, removed trans fat from restaurant food and forced restaurants to post their health department inspection grades in their windows.

New York City also was among the first jurisdictions in the nation to require fast food outlets to post calorie information on their menu boards.

If all this frustrates you so much you want to go outside for a smoke, forget about it. Bloomberg has outlawed that as well. The New York City Health Department said that one year after a ban on smoking in parks and beaches took effect, smoking in select city parks declined by two-thirds between the fall of 2010 and the fall of 2011.

The city also says smoking-related litter on beaches declined by about two-thirds between the summer of 2010 and 2011, and there was a significant decrease in smoking litter on playgrounds, where smoking has been banned since 2002. The department said the results are based on an internal observational study. Just from lookin' around, in other words.

You'd think that, now and then, somebody would look around and notice that, as a group, New Yorkers are a pretty thin bunch, compared to the rest of the country. And why is that? Well, one theory is that they walk so much getting to and from the subways, trains and buses. 

After all, you can't even think of parking there.

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How Low Will Oil Prices Go?

Crude prices are headed lower because the economy may be weakening again

What a difference a couple of months makes. In March oil prices were still rising and gasoline prices were marching toward $4 a gallon.Today, the price o...

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Consumers Getting Greener

Survey finds consumers increasingly seek out environmentally friendly products

Many outside factors come into play when one selects a product to purchase. Whether it's good customer reviews, or any eye catching advertisement, there ar...

PhotoMany outside factors come into play when one selects a product to purchase. Whether it's good customer reviews, or any eye catching advertisement, there are numerous ways a consumer can come to trust a particular brand or product.

According to consultants Harris Interactive, a brand's connection to environmental issues has a big effect on what customers choose to spend their money on.

Harris Interactive conducted what it calls "The Harris Poll", surveying 2,451 U.S. adults, ages 18 and over. The results showed that 26 percent of respondents said environmental issues are either "extremely" or "very" important when it came to choosing a product or service to buy. And that percentage was virtually unchanged across, geography, education, income or gender lines.

These percentages have remained nearly unchanged in the last two years, as 27 percent of U.S. adults in 2010, said environmental issues were extremely or very important to them when selecting a product.

18-24

However, percentages were even higher among 18-24 year olds. The report showed 31 percent of this consumer group factored in a brands connection to an environmental issue when selecting a product, a percentage which has increased in the last three years from 22 percent in 2009 and 24 percent in 2010.

American consumers also chose products that are better for the environment over those products that weren't. Results showed that 79 percent looked for green products, which rose from 78 percent in 2010 and 76 percent in 2009.

The report also showed that consumers are willing to shell out more money for environmentally safe products, as 31 percent of U.S. adults said they would pay extra for such products, which is up from 2010 when 28 percent said they would spend more.

In 2009, 28 percent said they would dig deeper into their pockets for greener products, which shows a growing awareness and concern for the environment across all age groups.

For 18 -24 year olds surveyed, 35 percent said they are willing to spend extra for a green product, which is up from 27 percent in 2010 and 25 percent in 2009. 

The survey also showed only 4 percent of all U.S. consumers looked for green products and services no matter the cost, while 11 percent of 18-24 year olds said price didn't matter, as long as a product or service was helpful to the environment.

Next generation

This indicates the next generation of consumers may be more savvy on not only environmental issues, but which products will hurt or help the environment.

But still half (51 percent) of the 18-24 year old demographic said they weren't willing to spend more on green products.

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How Does 203 Miles Per Gallon Sound?

Virginia man tallies up a year's driving in his Chevy Volt

Dennis Dineen (left) displays the features of his Chevy Volt to environmental activist John CrossWant to get 203 miles per gallon of ga...

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Dennis Dineen (left) displays the features of his Chevy Volt to environmental activist John Cross

Want to get 203 miles per gallon of gas? Dennis Dineen, a semi-retired general contractor in Northern Virginia does it with his Chevy Volt. Dineen and his car were the centerpieces today as Environment Virginia released a report claiming that Virginia motorists could save 455 million gallons of gasoline this summer if everyone drove a Volt or a similar hybrid or all-electric car.

That sounds about right to Dineen, who was happy to let reporters slide behind the wheel of his year-old Volt today and examine the odometer and onboard computer. It showed he has driven 12,190 miles and has used 59.9 gallons of gas — about three tankfuls in a regular gas-powered car — in the last 12 months. Sure enough, that works out to an average of 203.4 miles per gallon.

And Dineen is quick to assure us that not all that driving was local. While it’s true that the Volt has a range of only about 40 miles on a fully-charged battery, the four-cylinder gas engine kicks in seamlessly when the battery runs out of juice, he said. Dineen said he has made trips from the Washington, D.C., area to South Carolina and Annapolis, Md., in the last year. Most of the gas was consumed on the South Carolina trip, he said.

The occasion for all this car talk was the release of an Environment Virginia report that found the average Virginia family could save $560 at the gas pump this summer by switching to a hybrid or all-electric car. This sounds great, of course, but the new-fangled cars are pretty expensive to buy.

Dineen insists that’s not the way to look at it. He paid about $42,000 for his Volt and got an immediate $7,500 tax credit. He calculates he is saving about $1,500 a year on gas. So if he keeps the car for ten years, he will have saved $22,500, including the tax credit, which would put the long-term cost of owning the car over those ten years at roughly $19,500, not counting the cost of electricity.

Much cheaper

Looked at that way, the hybrid is actually much cheaper than a comparable gas-powered car, says Dineen. And speaking of which, Dineen is quick to demonstrate that the Volt is no slacker or stripper. It’s a sports sedan comparable in appearance, styling and interior geegaws to an Audi or BMW and, judging from a brief test ride on Arlington streets, handles about as well and accelerates quickly and smoothly. And quietly, something to keep in mind in pedestrian-infested areas.

So enthusiastic is Dineen about the car that the paid staff of Environment Virginia had little to do at a press event near the Pentagon this morning other than stand back and let Dineen talk.

The event was held at an apartment complex that demonstrates its trendiness by having parking spaces for Zipcars and a 220-volt electric charging station that would charge Dineen’s car in four hours. He eschews such luxuries though and says he charges his car out of any plain old 110-volt outlet that’s handy — “just like a toaster,” as he put it. It takes about eight hours to charge it up overnight, which suits him fine, as that’s about how long it takes him to get a night’s sleep.

Come morning, Dennis and his car are charged up and ready for 40 miles of gas-free driving.

Global warming

Congressman Jim Moran (D-Va.) is on board with the notion. “From an economic, environmental and national security perspective, we must reduce our dependency on oil. This news report from Environment America highlights the importance of moving forward with cleaner, more fuel efficient cars,” Moran said in a statement.

The press event was held across the Potomac from Washington as the Obama administration is on the verge of finalizing fuel efficiency and global warming pollution standards for cars and light trucks that achieve a 54.5 mpg standard by 2025.

Obama proposed the new 54.5 mpg standard this past fall. The proposal has the support of 13 major automakers, as well as the United Auto Workers and numerous environmental and consumer groups. These national standards grew out of the leadership of 14 states, led by California, which previously adopted state-level standards.

 

 

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Peer-to-Peer Car Rental Can Be Risky

It sounds great but renting your car to strangers carries serious legal risks

Peer-to-peer car rental services, like RelayRides, are gaining quite a bit of attention but an attorney specializing in asset protection planning says they...

PhotoPeer-to-peer car rental services, like RelayRides, are gaining quite a bit of attention but an attorney specializing in asset protection planning says they can also present a serious risk to your financial well-being. 

RelayRides went nationwide in March this year after launching in Boston in 2010. Many participants loan their cars as a good deed to open up parking along busy urban streets, promote environmentally sound habits or simply to help those in need of a ride. Most, however, opt to rent their vehicles for a variable rate – usually about $10 per hour.

“Every car loaned or rented through the program gets $1 million in liability insurance coverage from RelayRides, but even that may not be enough,” says attorney Hillel L. Presser.

“When there’s an accident involving serious injuries, the victims simply have no choice but to sue for at least $1 million, and often more. If you rented the car and you have assets, you could become a target.”

Earlier this year, a man who rented a car through the program was killed in an accident while driving the wrong way on a highway, Presser says, citing a New York Times report. Four people in the car he hit were seriously injured.

“Medical expenses are expected to exceed RelayRides’ insurance coverage,” Presser says. “The owner of the car is a part-time Google systems administrator – which means she probably makes good money. Who will pay the overage, and who might be sued, is still yet to be determined.”

In today’s world, lawyers have gotten very creative in what they’ll go after, which is why comprehensive protection of assets is absolutely crucial, he says.

While it's fine to complain about lawyers, the harsh truth is that $1 million is not very much money if one or more victims of an accident are severely injured and face years of costly care and reduced earning capacity.  Lawsuits in such cases often produce awards of many millions of dollars.

Presser doesn't just talk about such disasters, he's written a book about them, called Financial Self-Defense. He offers these tips:

• Account for ALL of your assets: Not sure of what you have? Don’t wait for a plaintiff’s lawyer to tell you exactly what that is before he or she takes it from you. Take stock of valuable domain names, telephone numbers, intellectual property, potential inheritances, and other non-liquid assets.

• Liability insurance is no guarantee: Buy as much insurance as you can; it’s cheap and it helps you sleep at night. But realize that 70 percent of claims will not be covered. Your coverage may be inadequate for a particular suit, and your insurance company may go bankrupt. Having insurance and an asset protection plan is the belt-and-suspenders approach for hanging onto your pants.

• Convert non-exempt assets into exempt assets: State laws protect some personal assets from lawsuits and creditors. Those assets typically include your primary residence; personal items such as furniture and clothing; pensions and retirement funds; and life insurance. Find out the exemptions for your state and convert non-exempt assets, such as cash, into exempt assets, such as life insurance.

• Transfer your assets to a protective entity: The key to asset protection is to own nothing while controlling everything. Transfer any non-exempt assets out of your name to protective entities such as trusts, limited liability companies, limited partnerships and others.

• Don’t loan out your car – even to your kid: If your children are going to drive, they should drive cars titled in their name alone. And if they pay for the cars themselves, you add another layer of protection. Courts may find that parents who are obviously paying for their children’s cars liable to some degree, even if the car title is in the child’s name.


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Cricket Wireless to Offer iPhone in June

First pre-paid wireless provider to offer the device

Cricket Communications, Inc., will become the first U.S. pre-paid wireless provider to offer customers an iPhone. Starting Friday, June 22, Cricket will of...

PhotoCricket Communications, Inc., will become the first U.S. prepaid wireless provider to offer customers an iPhone. Starting Friday, June 22, Cricket will offer iPhone 4S and iPhone 4 with a $55 per-month, unlimited talk, text and data plan.

Previously, the iPhone has only been sold through traditional contract carriers AT&T,Verizon Wireless and Sprint.

"Our customers want the best products available and we are excited to bring iPhone to our prepaid consumers with an industry leading $55 per-month service plan," said Doug Hutcheson, president and chief executive officer, Leap Wireless International, Inc. "Launching iPhone is a major milestone for us and we are proud to offer iPhone customers attractive nationwide coverage, a robust 3G data network and a value-packed, no-contract plan."

iPhone 4S and iPhone 4 will be available in Cricket company-owned stores and select dealers in nearly 60 markets.

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Consumers chirp about Cricket

Cricket's service plans feature all-inclusive pricing packages with no service fees or overage charges. The advantage, says Cricket, is that the bill that doesn't fluctuate based upon monthly usage. 

Because there is no contract, consumers pay the full, retail price for the handsets. In the case of the iPhone, Cricket will sell the 16 GB iPhone 4S for $499.99 and the 16 GB iPhone 4 for $399.

The 16GB iPhone 4S sells for $199 at other carriers that subsidize the cost to the consumer through a two year service agreement.

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More Favorable Car Financing Rates Ahead

Lower interest rates, relaxed lending standards helping spur car sales

For those who have wanted to finance a new vehicle, but couldn't because of poor credit scores, things could be looking upward for you in the near future....

PhotoIf you've been wanting to replace yoru car but couldn't because of poor credit scores, things could be looking upward for you in the near future.

According to a report from Experian Automotive, lower interest rates, coupled with increased loan terms now allows more purchasing opportunities for the consumer.

According to the quarterly report, the average credit score for financing a new car decreased six points to 760, and decreeased four points to 659 for used cars. This is down from 2008 when first quarter credit averages were 753 for new vehicles and 653 for used ones.

"During the first quarter of 2012, car shoppers definitely found more favorable conditions for their vehicle loans," said Melinda Zabritski, director of automotive credit for Experian. "A reduction in average credit scores, lower interest rates and a lengthening of loan terms are all very good signs for the market and offer great opportunities for consumers looking to make a deal on a new or used vehicle."

Interest dropping

With new vehicle loan interest rates dropping to 4.56 percent and used vehicle rates dropping to 9.02 percent, consumers could be seeing lower monthly payments. Also, the terms of a vehicle loan are being extended, as new vechicles now come with a 64-month loan, and used vehicles 59.

The report also showed a rise in the average amount financed, as new vehicles increased by $589 in the first quarter of 2012, totaling $25,995, and for used vehicles a $411 increase brought its average total to $17,050.

"Our report shows automotive lending is as healthy as it's been since the market bottomed out in 2008," continued said Zabritski.

"With consumers doing a good job of paying back loans on time and the percentage of dollars at risk reaching its lowest point in six years, lenders are able to extend terms and provide lower rates. This thawing of the credit pipeline has been good for everyone, from consumers to lenders to automotive retailers."

Additional findings of the report include:

  • Auto repossession rates are down by 37.1 percent.
  • Thirty-day delinquencies dropped by 7.6 percent; 60-day delinquencies dropped by 12.1 percent
  • Vehicle loans to nonprime, subprime and deep-subprime customers increased by 11.4 percent
  • Banks and credit unions gained market share. Banks grew by 7.5 percent to 40.21 percent market share, while credit unions grew by 10.5 percent to 16.89 percent market share.
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Homeowner Bill of Rights Moves Ahead in California

Measure would put some teeth in consumer protection laws

Kamala HarrisHomeowners and renters are frequently targeted by scams that often go unprosecuted but a package of legislation that's mov...

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Kamala Harris

Homeowners and renters are frequently targeted by scams that often go unprosecuted but a package of legislation that's moving through the California Assembly and Senate would put some teeth in existing laws and give prosecutors more enforcement power.

By far the nation's largest state, California is often a trend-setter in consumer protection and the progress of the measure is being carefully watched by consumer advocates and lawmakers around the country.

"California was the epicenter of the mortgage and foreclosure crisis and scammers have been preying on vulnerable citizens who simply want to keep their homes," said Attorney General Kamala D. Harris. "These bills will aid our efforts to prosecute and convict these criminals." 

The bills enhance the Attorney General's enforcement powers and allow the Attorney General to use special grand juries to prosecute multi-jurisdictional financial crimes. The Mortgage Fraud Strike Force established by the Attorney General has been investigating and prosecuting a wide range of crimes related to mortgages, foreclosures and real estate. 

These are two of the six bills in the California Homeowner Bill of Rights. Other portions of the package are being considered in a Joint Legislative Conference Committee, including elements to restrict unnecessary foreclosures and protect the due process rights of borrowers and homeowners. 

Special grand jury

One set of bills would allow the Attorney General to convene a special grand jury to investigate and indict the perpetrators of financial crimes involving victims in multiple jurisdictions. Both bills passed out of their respective houses unanimously with bipartisan support. 

The special grand jury would convene in cases involving fraud or theft that occurs in more than one county and where all potential charges are against a single defendant or multiple defendants working together. 

Crimes of a financial nature often occur in multiple jurisdictions. Under current law, crimes where the fraud victims are all over the state require separate grand juries and charges filed in each county where the defendant committed the crime. This legislation would provide for the option of a special grand jury that can investigate financial crimes beyond the scope of single-county grand juries. 

"The Attorney General is currently engaged in the investigation of significant crimes," Senator Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) said. "Unfortunately, county-by-county grand juries do not work well in dealing with large-scale wrongdoing in multiple jurisdictions. With this bill, the Attorney General can investigate multijurisdictional crimes - it will provide protection when Californians need it the most." 

In addition, AB 1950, by Assemblymember Mike Davis (D-Los Angeles), will extend to three years the statute of limitations on mortgage related crimes. The current statute of limitations of one year can make it difficult to prosecute crimes such as the prohibition on charging up front fees for loan modification services. Because the foreclosure process is so protracted, some homeowners may not even realize that they have been the victim of a scam before it is too late for prosecution. 

"AB 1950 equips the Attorney General to do her job; to go after the bad actors that have taken advantage of homeowners. It accomplishes this by providing the Attorney General with appropriate time to investigate and prosecute those who prey on California homeowners," said Davis. The bill passed out of the Assembly on a 46 to 18 vote. 

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Feds Close Down 26 Bus Lines for Safety Violations

Year-long probe finds curbside operators pose "imminent hazard"

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) announced today it has shut down 26 bus operation...

PhotoThe U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) announced today it has shut down 26 bus operations, declaring them imminent hazards to public safety.  It's the largest single safety crackdown in the agency’s history. 

Additionally, FMCSA ordered 10 individual bus company owners, managers and employees to cease all passenger transportation operations, which includes selling bus tickets to passengers.  The bus companies transported over 1,800 passengers a day along Interstate 95, from New York to Florida.

Following a year-long investigation, FMCSA shut down three primary companies -- Apex Bus, Inc.I-95 Coach, Inc. and New Century Travel, Inc. – that oversaw a broad network of other bus companies. The 26 shutdown orders apply to one ticket seller, nine active bus companies, 13 companies already ordered out of service that were continuing to operate and three companies attempting to apply for operating authority.

The various companies are based out of Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, New York, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Federal safety investigators found all of the carriers had multiple safety violations, including a continuous pattern of using drivers without valid commercial driver's licenses (CDLs) and failure to have alcohol and drug testing programs.  In addition, the companies operated vehicles that had not been regularly inspected and repaired. The companies’ drivers also had serious hours-of-service and driver qualification violations. 

Serious threat

These many safety deficiencies, individually and in combination, posed a serious safety threat to passengers and motorists on the nation's roadways, the agency said.

“These aggressive enforcement actions against unsafe bus companies send a clear signal:  If you put passengers’ safety at risk, we will shut you down,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.  “Safety is and will always be our highest priority.”

“The egregious acts of these carriers put the unsuspecting public at risk, and they must be removed from our highways immediately,” said FMCSA Administrator Anne S. Ferro. “With the help of multiple state law enforcement partners, we are putting every unsafe bus and truck company on notice to follow the safety laws or be shut down.”

In addition to the Imminent Hazard Orders, FMCSA is taking further steps to ensure the bus companies they shut down today cannot continue to operate under other names.  Under a new FMCSA rule, FMCSA has revoked the carriers’ operating authority and linked the active companies to other companies previously placed out of service. 

This new rule, published in April, expands FMCSA’s authority to take action against unsafe motor carriers that attempt to evade enforcement by “reincarnating” into other forms or by illegally continuing their operations through affiliate companies.  FMCSA will continue to work closely with local, state and federal law enforcement officials to ensure these companies remain out of service.

FMCSA began investigating the network of carriers operating along I-95 following a series of deadly bus crashes last spring.  FMCSA ordered several bus companies to shut down last summer after a comprehensive compliance review of their operations.  The investigation of those operators uncovered additional problems and serious safety violations with other I-95 carriers, and FMCSA investigators have been working diligently ever since to establish the links between the bus networks.

Congress is also currently considering surface transportation legislation which, if passed, would adopt several new safety policy proposals to further protect bus customers, including:  

  • Granting FMCSA greater authority to pursue enforcement action against unsafe “reincarnated” companies by establishing a single national standard for successor liability that eliminates the loophole allowing bus and truck companies that have been shut down for unsafe operations to recreate themselves;
  • Eliminating the jurisdictional gap that prevents FMCSA from  directly regulating passenger carrier brokers, including ticket sellers that are not also motor carriers;
  • Enhancing FMCSA and its state partners’ authority to inspect buses at locations with adequate food, shelter and sanitation facilities for passengers;
  • Requiring new passenger carriers to undergo a full safety audit before receiving operating authority; and
  • Raising the penalty from $2,200 to $25,000 a day against passenger carriers that attempt to operate without valid USDOT operating authority.

Consumers are encouraged to report any unsafe bus company, vehicle or driver to the FMCSA through a toll-free hotline 1-888-DOT-SAFT (1-888-368-7238) or FMCSA's online National Consumer Complaint Database.

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Foreclosures, Short Sales Increased in First Quarter

Distressed sales contributed to dip in average sale price

Recent data shows the price of the average home dipped in the first three months of 2012. The latest foreclosure data explains why.Sales of homes that we...

Recent data shows the price of the average home dipped in the first three months of 2012. The latest foreclosure data explains why.

Sales of homes that were in some stage of foreclosure or bank-owned accounted for 26 percent of all U.S. residential sales during the first quarter — up from 22 percent of all sales in the fourth quarter and up from 25 percent of all sales in the first quarter of 2011, according to Realtytrac, an online foreclosure marketplace.

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Distressed properties - foreclosures and short-sales - usually sell at a substantial discount to similar properties. As distressed sales increase, it brings down the average sale price. While lenders have, until now, been reluctant to approve short-sales at bargain basement prices, there's no evidence they've changed their view. Short-sales were up and prices were down.

Rising sales

Third parties purchased a total of 233,299 residential properties in some stage of pre-foreclosure (defaults and scheduled foreclosure auctions) or bank-owned (REO) during the first quarter, an increase of eight percent from the previous quarter and virtually unchanged from the first quarter of 2011.

The average sales price of homes in foreclosure or bank owned was $161,214 in the first quarter, down one percent from the previous quarter and down two percent from the first quarter of 2011. That average sales price was 27 percent below the average sales price of homes not in foreclosure or bank-owned during the quarter — matching a 27 percent foreclosure discount in the previous quarter but down from a 29 percent foreclosure discount in the first quarter of 2011.

“Foreclosure-related sales picked up in the first quarter, particularly pre-foreclosure sales where a distressed homeowner is selling to avoid foreclosure — typically via short-sale,” said Brandon Moore, chief executive officer of RealtyTrac. “Those pre-foreclosure sales hit a three-year high in the first quarter even as the average pre-foreclosure sales price dropped to a record low for our report. Lenders are approving more aggressively priced short sales, which in turn is resulting in more successful short sale transactions.

Some prices are rising

But that doesn't mean the value of all real estate is falling. Actually, the Realtytrac data shows the average price of a bank-owned home is stabilizing and even increasing in some areas where a slowdown in REO activity over the past year has resulted in a restricted supply of REO homes available.

“Still, REO sales did increase on a quarterly basis in 21 states, indicating that lenders are still working through a bottleneck of unsold REO inventory in many areas,” Moore said.

Third parties purchased a total of 109,521 pre-foreclosure homes, up 16 percent from the previous quarter. Pre-foreclosure sales accounted for 12 percent of all sales during the first quarter, up from 10 percent of all sales in the previous quarter and nine percent of all sales in the first quarter of 2011.

The average pre-foreclosure sales price in the first quarter was the lowest quarterly average pre-foreclosure sales price in the history of the RealtyTrac foreclosure sales report, which tracks foreclosure sales back to the first quarter of 2005.

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Real Estate Indicators Turn Negative

But market may still be on an upward path

Progress is often defined by taking two steps forward and one step back. While the real estate market has made important strides in recent weeks, this week...

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Nutrition Degrees May Offer Above-Average Job Security

Looking for a growth field? Look no further than nutrition and food science

For those college students who still haven't declared a field of study and are eyeing useless majors like basket weaving or archery, may want to consider n...

For those college students who still haven't declared a field of study and are eyeing basket weaving or archery, it may be time to consider nutrition as a major.

A recent report by the The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the nutrition and dietitian field will expand 20 percent faster than other specialty within the next eight years.

With consumers growing more health-conscious by the day, and companies trying to tap into the health food and organic markets, experts believe now is the ideal time for undecided college students to become nutrition or dietician majors to ensure job security upon graduation.

According to Payscale.com., entry level nutritionists made about $55,000 annually as of June 2011, with salaries swelling  over $65,000 a year in bigger U.S. cities. Not bad for a college student whose sole income was that $100 monthly check sent by mom and dad along with a care package.

Benedictine University in Lisle, Illinois for example, has a program offering a degree in nutrition and wellness, combined with a Master of Science degree. And similar programs around the U.S. are not only preparing college students for the growing nutrition industry, but also helping to train them through hands-on internship programs.

Food safety

Benedictine University notes that consumers heavily rely on professionals such as agricultural scientists, food inspectors, and nutritionists to dictate what is safe for the public to consume and what consumers should stay away from, thus making the role of the nutritionists a very important and highly needed specialty.

According to a survey by the Council for Responsible Nutrition, 69 percent of adults in the U.S. use dietary supplement products, which are also regulated by nutrionists, thus driving the demand for such experts even higher.

Benedictine also says that more health programs being implemented by public officials, due to First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign, further increase the demand for nutrionists and dieticians even more, showing even further the many career paths students with nutrition degrees can eventually take.

In fact, experts say the sheer amount of career options for those who obtain a nutritionist's degree is quite unique compared to other fields, which is one of the main draws for choosing such a career path.

Here are some of the various ways a nutritionists degree can be used:

  • Hospital Nutritionists and Dieticians
  • Registered Dietician
  • Certified Nutritional Consultant
  • School Nutritionists and Dieticians
  • Clinical Dietitians
  • Community Dietitians
  • Management Dietitians
  • Consultant Dietitians
  • Food Scientists
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Researchers Say Tart Cherries Can Reduce Pain in Your Joints

Daily use of tart cherries found to lower arthritis and muscle pains

Tired of those perpetual aches and pains? Does it hurt to do simple things like.... exist? Well, if you suffer from aching joints and chronic inflammation,...

PhotoTired of those perpetual aches and pains? Does it hurt to do simple things like.... exist? Well, if you suffer from aching joints and chronic inflammation, pop a couple of cherries in your mouth.

And not some nasty cherry flavored pain concoction, but actual cherries. According to Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) tart cherries instead of sweet ones can help eliminate all types of joint pains and discomfort.

Reported at the American College of Sports Medicine Conference, in San Francisco, researchers said that tart cherries may assist in the reduction of joint pain as well as arthritis. Reason being, is tart cherries have the "highest anti-inflammatory content of any food", which can be an asset when it comes to managing pain, specifically those with osteoarthritis (OA). 

Wear and tear

OA is wear and tear on the joints, and usually happens to people as they grow older.

"With millions of Americans looking for ways to naturally manage pain, it's promising that tart cherries can help, without the possible side effects often associated with arthritis medications," said Kerry Kuehl, M.D at Oregon Health & Science University, and the studies lead researcher. "I'm intrigued by the potential for a real food to offer such a powerful anti-inflammatory benefit – especially for active adults."

According to the National Library of Medicine, OA occurs in both men and women when they hit their mid 50s, and pain symptoms can be infrequent, acute or chronic.

OA can also be hereditary and those who are overweight may suffer from the disease regardless of age.  Also, those who do heavy squatting, kneeling or lifting through work or exercise, also have a high risk of getting the annoyingly painful joint condition.

OHSU conducted a study of twenty women between the ages of 40 and 70, who all suffered from inflammatory Osteoarthritis. The study revealed that drinking tart cherry juice twice each day for a three week period led to substantial decreases in "important inflammation markers," especially for women sufferers.

Good for athletes

Scientists have also suggested that athletes use tart cherries. A previous study showed that drinking the tart cherry juice while athletes were training for a marathon or long distance run, said they had less pain after working out than those who didn't drink the cherry juice.

A past study conducted by Baylor Research Institute confirmed that daily use of tart cherries helped lower osteoarthritis pain by more than 20 percent for most men and women, and also for athletes while they're recovering from joint soreness or muscle pain.

Some sport nutritionists and trainers have incorporated tart cherries into training regiments for athletes, namely Leslie Bonci who is a sports nutritionist at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center for Sports Medicine.  She says cherries are a wonderful way to manage pain and are far better than awful tasting oral medications, that sometimes have side effects. And tart cherries are also better than messy ointments or joint creams.

"Why not eat red when there's so much science to support the anti-inflammatory benefits of this Super Fruit?" she said. "And for athletes whose palates prefer the tart-sweet flavor profile of tart cherries, it's the optimal ingredient."

So the next time you're in the grocery store, pick up some tart cherries for your joint pains. Even if you haven't been diagnosed with osteoarthritis, they'll still make a pretty decent snack.

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Having It Both Ways on Climate Change

Half of reviewed companies misrepresent climate science despite public expressions of concern

It's not just politicians who talk out of both sides of their mouths. A new analysis finds many of the nation's leading corporations say one thing about cl...

PhotoIt's not just politicians who talk out of both sides of their mouths. A new analysis finds many of the nation's leading corporations say one thing about climate science in public while taking contradictory action behind the scenes.

The analysis published by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) examined 28 companies in the S&P 500 that participated in climate policy debates over the past several years. All of them publicly expressed concern about climate change or a commitment to reducing emissions through websites and public statements, but half (14) also misrepresented climate science in their public communications.

Many more contributed to the spread of misinformation about climate science in less direct ways, such as through political contributions, trade group memberships, and think tank funding.

Photo
Francesca Grifo

“Corporations' increased ability to influence policy should come with an increased responsibility to let the public know how they are doing so,” said Francesca Grifo, director of UCS's Scientific Integrity Program and a contributor to the report. “Companies may play a role in policy discussions, but right now, it’s simply far too easy for them to get away with misrepresenting science to achieve their goals.”

Utilizing an array of publicly available data, the report systematically examines how corporate influence fosters confusion on climate change. The analysis found that some American companies, including NRG Energy, Inc., NIKE, Inc. and AES Corporation, accept the findings of climate science and have taken actions in support of science-based policy.

Other corporations, including Peabody Energy Corporation, Valero Energy Corporation, and FMC Corporation, have worked aggressively to undermine climate policies and have misrepresented climate science to do so.

Despite efforts to deny or downplay the existence of climate change, however, consumers display a high level of concern and anxiety, according to a ConsumerAffairs analysis of about 2.2 million comments posted on social media over the last year. 

 

The computerized sentiment analysis finds consumers consistently negative about the effects of climate change with many blaming lack of action by the governments of the industrialized nations.  

 

"Climate change is an evil caused by the greedy industrial nations," tweeted Hassan A.halim Daour. In Britain, which was experiencing the coldest May in 100 years, one poster said, "I blame the evil climate change." Many noted that CNN meteoroligst Michelle Malkin blamed recent Texas tornadoes on climate change.

 

Creepy crawly

Several companies stand out for taking contradictory actions on climate change, the UCS study found.

Caterpillar Inc., for instance, highlights its commitment to sustainability and climate change mitigation on its website. But the company also serves on the boards of two trade groups that regularly attempt to undermine public understanding of climate science: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. Caterpillar also funds the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, two think tanks that have misrepresented climate science.

Similarly, ConocoPhillips says on its website that it recognizes human activity is “contributing to increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that can lead to adverse changes in global climate.” But in comments to the Environmental Protection Agency, the company criticized scientific evidence on the ways climate change can harm public health.

“The difference between what many of these companies say and what they actually do is quite stark,” said Gretchen Goldman, an analyst in the UCS Scientific Integrity Program and a report contributor. “And because we know only limited amounts about their activities, it’s relatively simple for companies to show one face to the public and another to policymakers.”

Lobbying expenditures

The report found that companies also utilized their considerable financial resources to oppose climate policy. Lobbying expenditures for energy sector companies increased by 92 percent from 2007 to 2009, when climate change bills were actively debated in Congress. Meanwhile, Valero Energy Corporation donated more than $4 million to the Yes on Prop 23 campaign, which sought to undermine California’s climate change law, but was ultimately rejected by voters.

“The actions of many of these companies come right from the tobacco industry playbook, where the end goal is delaying sensible regulations that protect our health and safety,” said Grifo. “Companies generally find that complying with new rules is not as burdensome as they first imagined. But that doesn’t prevent them from obfuscating the science to create confusion and delay.” 

This report, while as comprehensive as possible, is limited because companies are not required to reveal sufficient information about their activities—such as the purpose of lobbying expenditures and contributions to political action committees, industry advocacy groups and think tanks.

“This lack of disclosure of how corporations spend their money means they can get away with taking different positions on climate change with different audiences,” said Goldman. “Greater transparency would allow citizens, investors, and policymakers to make better-informed decisions and hold corporations accountable.”

Simple steps

Photo
Rep. Van Hollen

There are several relatively simple steps that would allow the public and policymakers to better hold companies accountable, including expanded reporting requirements to the Securities and Exchange Commission and passage of the DISCLOSE Act, which would require corporations to share more information about their political spending.

“This report quantifies and reinforces the urgent need to shine a light on the special interest money that is designed to distort science and influence our public policies,” said Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who joined UCS in its launch of the report. “As this report documents, the amount of money dedicated to influence our debates is dramatically increasing and, unfortunately, is frequently channeled through third parties.”

Van Hollen said that the problem has increased due to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision allowing secret money from outside groups to flow into elections. He said legislation like the DISCLOSE Act will inject much needed transparency into elections and should be brought for a vote in Congress without delay.

“Voters have a right to know who is bankrolling the campaign ads that are designed to influence their votes,” said Van Hollen. “An informed electorate is essential to our democracy.”

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Report: Groundwater Depletion Threatens Food Supply

Irrigated agriculture may not be sustainable for much longer, scientists say

A growing population increases demands on the water supply. Add to that the demands of irrigated agriculture and what you have is a threat to the food supp...

PhotoA growing population increases demands on the water supply. Add to that the demands of irrigated agriculture and what you have is a threat to the food supply, according to a study appearing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study, prepared by researchers at the University of Texas, paints a grim picture of how groundwater depletion varies across space and time in California's Central Valley and the High Plains of the central U.S. Researchers say they hope this information will enable more sustainable use of water in these areas, although they think irrigated agriculture may be unsustainable in some parts.

"We're already seeing changes in both areas," said Bridget Scanlon, senior research scientist at The University of Texas at Austin's Bureau of Economic Geology and lead author of the study. "We're seeing decreases in rural populations in the High Plains. Increasing urbanization is replacing farms in the Central Valley. And during droughts some farmers are forced to fallow their land. These trends will only accelerate as water scarcity issues become more severe."

Worrisome

Three results of the new study are particularly worrisome. First, during the most recent drought in California's Central Valley, from 2006 to 2009, farmers in the south depleted enough groundwater to fill the nation's largest man-made reservoir, Lake Mead near Las Vegas—a level of groundwater depletion that is unsustainable at current recharge rates.

Second, a third of the groundwater depletion in the High Plains occurs in just four percent of the land area. And third, the researchers project that if current trends continue some parts of the southern High Plains that currently support irrigated agriculture, mostly in the Texas Panhandle and western Kansas, will be unable to do so within a few decades.

California's Central Valley is sometimes called the nation's "fruit and vegetable basket." The High Plains, which run from northwest Texas to southern Wyoming and South Dakota, are sometimes called the country's "grain basket."

Combined, these two regions produced agricultural products worth $56 billion in 2007, accounting for much of the nation's food production. They also account for half of all groundwater depletion in the U.S., mainly as a result of irrigating crops, according to the study.

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Consumers Send Mixed Signals About Their Mood

Weeks of optimism seem to disappear overnight

For a while, it seemed like consumers had gotten their mojo back. Since the Great Recession they've paid down debt and started spending more. Last weeks Un...

PhotoFor a while, it seemed like consumers had gotten their mojo back. Since the Great Recession they've paid down debt and started spending more. Last week's University of Michigan Index of Consumer Confidence showed a healthy gain over April.

But The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index shows just the opposite. The Max index fell to a four-month low of 64.9, down from a revised 68.7 April reading. Even falling gas prices failed to lift consumers out of their funk.

“Confidence plays a major role in the willingness to spend, especially when changes in outlook are linked to economic factors,” said economist Joel Naroff, of Naroff Economic Advisors, in Holland, Pa. “It looks like households may be a little more uncertain about the shape of the economy right now and that does not bode well for consumption.”

Households are not only less certain about the future but their reading of the current situation dropped markedly as well. In particular the view on the labor market turned more sour as a growing proportion of people think jobs will be harder to get in the near future while fewer think there will be more jobs available.

More respondents also noted that it is harder to get a job and in an economy where job availability equates to job security, that is not good news.

Facebook's a drag

The news from Wall Street hasn't been particularly good lately, either. The Facebook IPO debacle seems to have dampened enthusiasm, once again exposing market excesses and miscalculations.

The Facebook fallout continued this week as the price of the stock, initially priced at $38, fell below $30 in Tuesday's trading, continuing to wipe out millions of dollars in wealth. Now that options trading has begun, investors can “short” Facebook, in essence betting that its price will fall even lower.

Meanwhile, there is more finger-pointing and “I-told-you-sos” in the investment community. A look back at the events leading up to the IPO show that the offering was initially valued at $5 billion but suddenly surged to over $100 billion.

On May 9 Facebook amended its IPO, cautioning that it had doubts about how it was going to monetize its mobile platform. Despite those doubts, the company increased the number of shares in the IPO by 25 percent a week later.

And the carnage may be far from over. Marketwatch columnist Mark Hulbert devised a valuation formula, based on the average revenue growth rate for all recent IPOs, and came up with a price of $13.80 a share for Facebook.

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Samsung Competes With iTunes For Download Dominance

Music Hub houses 19 million songs in a cloud catalog

Companies duling it out to win the dollars of consumers are similar to little kids on a playground vying for a vacant swing, or a place on the monkey bars....

PhotoCompanies dueling it out to win the dollars of consumers are similar to little kids on a playground vying for a vacant swing, or a place on the monkey bars.  Usually there is one playground king, or sometimes bully, that gets first dibs on all of the cool playground attractions.

But after watching from the sidelines, there's always one kid who is brave enough to face down the playground king and compete for dominance. Well, Apple is the playground king when it comes to offering downloadable music, and Samsung is the once uncertain kid that is now completely certain that it's ready to go to battle.

Samsung has just began a service that lets users purchase songs onto their Galaxy S III smartphone. The new service has been rolled out to 28 countries in Europe and will be released to other parts of the globe in the near future. The service called "Music Hub" houses 19 million songs from a cloud-based catalog, and users can also stream music on to their devices for a monthly fee, if they choose not to purchase individual songs.

Following in the digital footsteps of Apple's iPod device and iTunes music store, users do not need an internet connection to listen to songs, unlike Sony Corp., which also released a music service in order to win over some of iTune's loyalists.

mSpot

Samsung recently partnered with mSpot, a mobile content provider to provide a wide musical catalogue for today's music listener, who typically isn't loyal to only one genre or brand of music.

"When you ask yourself, 'what do I want to listen to?' there is now one simple answer, for every mood, every place and everyone," explained TJ Kang, Senior Vice President of Samsung Electronics' Media Solution Center. "With the new Music Hub, we're bringing the joy back to music -- listening, collecting and sharing."

Customers can either download a free version of the Music Hub, or purchase a premium  version in Europe for £9.99 (about $15), where users have access to an unlimited amount of streams for a fixed amount.

In June 2011, it was reported there were 1 billion iTunes customers, which seems like a huge consumer hill to climb for Samsung.  But as previously reported by ConsumerAffairs, Samsung has been making its way up the mobile device ladder, by beating out the Amazon Kindle for the number two spot in first quarter device sales.

With Apple still holding the number one spot, Samsung's Music Hub could be all the leverage it needs to really make a run for the top tier position and finally get its turn on the swing-set.

Here are the included features of Samsung's Music Hub:

  • Scan & Match Cloud Locker: Upload your music to the cloud so you can play it anywhere. Music Hub utilizes scan & match technology to decrease upload time and ensure high-quality playback. Any unmatched songs are directly uploaded from your library so you can access rare or personal recordings (100 GB of storage for all unmatched songs). When you edit playlists or purchase music, your collection stays automatically updated across all authorized devices
  • Radio: Listen to the music you like with personal radio and programmed stations. Create personal stations based on songs and artists you love, or browse genre stations recommended and tailor-crafted by the Music Hub team. Hear a song you like? Tag it so you can find it later and play it again whenever you want.
  • Optimized for Mobile: Music Hub is optimized specifically for the Samsung device. Advanced streaming and downloading options let you save storage space, play music when offline, and cut down on cellular data usage. Audio settings are designed to prolong battery life and ensure smooth streaming even under spotty network coverage.

 

 

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Sale of Pep Boys Falls Through

Private equity firm cites deteriorating business

Struggling automotive services provider Pep Boys appears to be stalled once again. Hopes had risen for a turn-around after the private equity firm Gores Gr...

PhotoStruggling automotive services provider Pep Boys appears to be stalled once again. Hopes had risen for a turn-around after the private equity firm Gores Group agreed to buy the company for $4 billion. But now, the deal is off.

The deal was put together back in January but earlier this month the closing was delayed. Gores cited “serious deterioration” in Pep Boys' business, which was apparently the reason it finally scuttled the deal.

Pep Boys reported a slight profit in its most recent quarter but reported a loss the previous three months.

Consumers posting complaints at ConsumerAffairs have voiced frustrations in dealing with various Pep Boys stores on a wide range of car issues. Maria, of Sherman Oaks, Calif., says she had brake pads replaced earlier this month at her local Pep Boys shop.

Complaints

“As I was driving my car away from the shop and I stepped on the brake paddle, it almost went to the floor,” Maria wrote. “I drove back to tell the mechanic what just happened and he in turn inspected the car, 'bleeding the brakes,' I was told. After that, the paddle seemed a little more responsive but it was still feeling like a "marshmallow" making it very difficult to stop.”

Maria said she continued to drive the car a few more days but said she felt very uneasy. That's when she said she took it to another Pep Boys location for a brake inspection.

“The mechanics there were shocked when they took off the wheels from my car and saw how the brakes had been installed, backwards metal to metal.,” Maria wrote. “They were in disbelief that I was driving under those conditions.”

Gregg, of Hesperia, Calif., reported a similar experience when he bought tires.

“The guys in Pep Boys Automotive Service put new tires on my truck,” Gregg wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “They put the wrong size twice and did not check the air pressure when they were asked to do so. They did not do anything to help resolve my complaint. When we went to their manager, they would not work with us to satisfy us.”

Strong headwinds

Every business draws some complaints, of course, but when added to other factors, it can create strong headwinds for trying to move a business out of a rough patch.

And with the recession, more consumers are working on their cars themselves. Forbes notes that Pep Boys has faced strong competition from Auto Zone, Advance Auto Parts and O'Reilly Automotive.

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Auto Warranty Firm Settles Charges With Missouri

Company agrees to clean up its sales practices

As soon as you buy a used car, your mailbox quickly fills with urgent messages from companies that want to sell you an extended service contract, often cal...

PhotoAs soon as you buy a used car, your mailbox quickly fills with urgent messages from companies that want to sell you an extended service contract, often called extended warranties.

Missiouri Attorney General Chris Koster says his office has reached a settlement with one of the companies that sends out these notices, Dealership Warranties, Inc., a company that is now doing business as National Vehicle Protection Services.

Under the settlement, the company will restructure the way it sells vehicle service contracts. Dealership Warranties will also pay $18,500 to the state in restitution and costs.

No deceptive sales tactics

The consent judgment against Dealership Warranties prohibits deceptive sales techniques in the sale of vehicle repair coverage. The judgment also requires the company’s sales people to describe during sales phone calls the details of the written contract. In the past, the company has drawn complaints from consumers.

“I signed up with a warranty with this company because I received a notice that my warranty was going to expire,” Lisa, of Allentown, Pa., wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “When I signed up with them, I realized with my bank that I already have an extended warranty that I'm already paying for on a monthly basis. I tried call Dealership Warranties to cancel this transaction, but after 30 minutes I received the run around. They already charged $395 to my bank and expect to receive $208 monthly for 12 months, which I've already closed my banking account to avoid any further transaction.”

Alan, of Eugene, Ore., said he got a postcard in the mail from the company that made this suspicious.

“We received a card in the mail from this company requesting 'Immediate Response,”'' Alan wrote to ConsumerAffairs. "'This notification is to inform you that your factory warranty has expired or may expire soon based on mileage or age. To avoid the high cost of automobile repairs, call us immediately with you Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) & exact miles to extend coverage on your vehicle.'"

Will provide more information

In many cases, recipients of these communications are confused and act without fully understanding the transaction. Under the settlement the company will provide more information, including:

  • The identity of the service contract provider (the party responsible for paying claims under the contract, which is not Dealership Warranties);
  • Information about what is not covered and the limits of coverage provided;
  • Any deductibles under the contract;
  • Requirements for prior approval of vehicle repair;
  • Obligations of the consumer to perform and document past or future maintenance;
  • The procedures for canceling and the consumer’s right to cancel the contract within a certain period of time and receive all of his or her money back; and
  • The consumer’s right to a pro rata refund if the contract is canceled before the full term of the contract.

Rights

“Missouri law says consumers have a right to see a written service contract and agree to its terms,” Koster said. “Customers who purchase vehicle repair coverage by telephone often later realize the significant limits to coverage in the written contract. It is important for Missouri consumers to protect themselves by carefully reviewing vehicle service contracts to make sure they contain the provisions promised.”

If Dealership Warranties completes the contract in a telephone transaction, it is required under the consent judgment to record the transaction electronically and to mail the written contract within three business days.

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Not All Distractions Are in the Front Seat

British insurance company finds back-seat drivers contribute to accidents

Public safety officials have, in recent months, stepped up their campaign against “distracted” driving, which usually focuses on using a cell p...

Public safety officials have, in recent months, stepped up their campaign against “distracted” driving, which usually focuses on using a cell phone behind the wheel, fiddling with a car's music system, eating or putting on makeup.

But Confused.com, a British website offering comparisons of insurance policies, has found some of the biggest distractions for drivers are sitting in the back seat.

In a recent survey, the site found two thirds of British motorists have been victims of unwanted attention from self-appointed backseat drivers, and almost one in four have been in an accident while dealing with the distractions of other passengers.

The company has placed a price tag on these distractions, estimating the accidents they cause cost the average motorist about £500, or $783 in repair bills.

The research also reveals that the worst backseat pests are bus drivers, train drivers and delivery men who obviously forget that they're off duty. On the other hand, teachers are the most patient of passengers and usually put up with the driver's bad habits.

Family members are the worst

Most respondents also confessed that they would rather travel with colleagues than loved ones. This is because partners are apparently the worst backseat drivers, with husbands and boyfriends disrupting the driver most often and 45 percent of them voicing their traffic-tips several times during the shortest of trips.

Women and the elderly are the most likely to be the victim of backseat distractions. Over two thirds of women, and a shocking 70 percent of drivers over the age of 55 find themselves on the receiving end of this bad etiquette, the researchers note.

"As motoring costs continue to rise at a meteoric rate, it's never been more important for drivers to keep their costs as low as possible,” said Gareth Kloet, Head of Car Insurance at Confused.com. "Our research shows that having other people in the car can distract us from the road, and lead to accidents which in turn increase the cost of our car insurance policies."

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Big Drop in Used Car Prices Expected

Falling gas prices reduce demand for compacts

If you have been thinking about buying a used car but have put it off, the delay may work to your advantage. It turns out the recent relief at the gas pump...

PhotoIf you have been thinking about buying a used car but have put it off, the delay may work to your advantage. It turns out the recent relief at the gas pump is yielding dividends on the car lot as well.

After double-digit percentage gains from January through May, prices on many popular used compact and midsize cars are expected to drop up to up to five percent in June compared to May, according to Jonathan Banks, senior analyst with the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) Used Car Guide.

"The trend of rising prices for used cars will reverse course in June because of declining gasoline prices combined with a normal seasonal slowdown in consumer demand for used cars," Banks said.

Car prices will fall faster than truck prices

Used car values are expected to fall by about two percent, while truck values will decline by about one percent or half of the amount of cars, according to the June edition of the NADA Official Used Car Guide. Prices for used compact and midsize cars will fall by an average of 2.4 percent and many used cars will see larger declines.

For example, after appreciating by $1,200 or 11 percent from January through May, the value of a 2009 Honda Civic Sedan 4D LX will fall by $600 in June.

"Prices on the Toyota Prius will drop even more dramatically in June," Banks said. "Rapid depreciation for hybrid vehicles is not uncommon after surging gasoline prices reach a peak and then begin to quickly fall."

After increasing in value by $2,350 from January through May, prices on the 2011 Toyota Prius Liftback 5D will fall $900 in June, according to the NADA Used Car Guide.

Volatile hybrid prices

"During periods of rapidly changing gasoline prices, values of hybrid vehicles become more volatile because consumer demand for hybrids rises and falls along with the price of gasoline," Banks said.

For example, when gasoline prices increased during the first four months of 2011, the 2009 Toyota Prius increased in value by about $4,500 from January through April 2011. In the fall of 2011, the Prius dropped in value by $4,800.

The value of a 2010 Hyundai Elantra rose 13 percent from January through May, but is expected to fall by $500, or four percent, in June. A 2011 Nissan Versa increased in value by 11 percent in the first five months of the year, but should also go down by four percent in June. A 2009 Toyota Camry rose in price by 15 percent from January through May, but is expected to sell for five percent less in June.

Still, you don't have to be in a rush. Looking ahead to July, the NADA Used Car Guide is forecasting that depreciation for small and midsize cars, which experienced the greatest appreciation over the first part of 2012, will see values continue to drop sharply.

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Survey: Apple Brand Suffers Without Steve Jobs

But the survey may not reflect the views of hard-core Apple users

Steve Jobs was a man who adorned a multitude of hats. Designer, businessman, animator, inventor. But most associate him as being Apple's co-founder, as he ...

PhotoSteve Jobs wore a lot of hats. Designer, businessman, animator, inventor. But most associate him as being Apple's co-founder, as he was the face, the pitch person and the catalyst to giving people a bevy of fun, practical and cool looking gadets.

The question is how do consumers perceive the Apple brand now that Jobs is gone? Do they have the same amount of confidence in Apple products? A new survey finds that 11 percent say their perception of Apple have worsened -- results that are at odds with a ConsumerAffairs analysis of 36 million consumer comments on social media over the last year. 

Earlier this month, iGR conducted a survey among U.S. consumers that focused on today's gadetry craze, like how good are WiFi signals outside of the home? Or how mobile handsets, smartphones and tablets are really used by today's consumer. But one of the more intresting survey questions was how participants viewed the Apple brand since Steve Jobs is no longer at the company's healm.

The survey showed that only one percent of respondents said their image of Apple had "much improved" since Jobs passed away, about 3.5 percent said their perception of the company improved a small amount, and 84 percent said their image of the company had not changed at all.

The survey also reported that 9.4 percent of respondents said their view of Apple has gotten worse, and 1.7 percent said their perception of Apple had "greatly worsened."

The ConsumerAffairs analysis, however, found no significant change in the net consumer sentiment, which has hovered around the 50% positive mark for the last year, with a slight dip in October when consumers expressed sadness over Jobs' passing.

 

Casual users?

The question is though, whether the 11 percent of participants that considered the Apple brand worse off after Jobs died, are hard-core Apple users. It is typical for casual users of a brand to merely associate the success of that brand with one person, one product, or one era or period of time. This is the reasoning Apple executives are using to justify the percentages of respondents who have a lower view of the mega-company.

"iGR believes this is important for Apple's future. While a significant number of people said that their perception of the company had worsened, the core Apple user base seems to be unmoved in their views of the company," said Iain Gillott, president and founder of iGR, a market research consultancy focused on the wireless and mobile industry. "While they may mourn the passing of Jobs, it seems that the Apple faithful are staying put."

The survey also went on to show that  those with a worsening image of Apple were 12 to 18 percent more likely to be men over the age of 45. Also, the 11 percent that had a worsened perception of Apple are more likely to have higher household incomes, higher education, and married.

In closing, the survey went on to show that 12 percent of the unhappy Apple consumers are more likely to prefer Android smartphones, made by Samsung or Motorola.

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Sick Patients See Increasing Costs for Specialty Drugs

Employers cut back on insurance, leaving consumers stuck with the bill

If you are one of the millions of Americans who take specialty medications, you may have noticed your hand digging deeper into your pocket.Specialty drug...

PhotoIf you are one of the millions of Americans who take specialty medications, you may have noticed your hand digging deeper into your pocket.

Specialty drugs are those medicines that are higher in cost, and used to treat complex and chronic ailments like multiple sclerosis, hemophilia or cancer for example. In recent years, specialty drug users only had to shell out a $20 or $50 copay, but now patients have to pay a percentage of the drug's cost, along with copays, which can amount to yearly costs in the thousands.

The Los Angeles Times reported of an HIV patient who paid a copay of $80 per month for his specialty medication, but now has to secure $450 per month to maintain his health. Many employers are no longer using the copay model for medicines, and they're able to do so by reclassifying certain medications, forcing patients to take on more of the financial responsibility or copayments.

Specialty drugs have no cheaper generic version; so many times patients have no alternative than to spend the high costs to remain well.

No alternative

"All of a sudden you're starting to count pills and asking friends to borrow some," said Robert Gomer in an LA Times interview. "It was a very stressful situation to be faced with."

Many drugs are made from chemicals; therefore they can be used to produce both generic and brand-name varieties. However, specialty drugs are often extracted from living organisms, so no alternatives can be used.

Employer health plans are also finding it more and more expensive to offer these drugs under coverage, as the cost can exceed $1,200 a month per employee, according to Ha Tu, researcher at the Center for Studying Health System Change.

Tu recently created a report on specialty drugs that breaks down the financial challenges for Employers, health plans and its enrollees.

Tu also says that although specialty drugs are prescribed for merely one in every 100 health plan enrollees, they account for nearly 12 to 16 percent of "commercial prescription drug spending", and costs are expected to keep rising.

VBID

In an effort to combat exorbitant treatment costs, many employers have adopted the "Value-based insurance design" (VBID), that provides employees with monetary incentive to select high-value health treatments, while turning down treatments that have a history of being ineffective or over prescribed.

According to a Mercer survey, 17 percent of employers with 500 employees or more, used VBID in 2011, in effort to cut out expensive and unnecessary treatments, and many believe this same policing can be applied to expensive specialty drugs.

But critics of VBID feel employers shouldn’t regulate what type of medicines its workers should use, and many of VBID’s selected treatments still come with high copays and coinsurance.

Julie Stone, a senior consultant with the benefits consultant company Towers Watson, says shopping around for cheaper medications isn’t the best method for patients with serious and chronic illnesses.

"With people as sick as the patients we’re talking about, I don’t think they’re going to say, ‘Is there a less expensive injectable drug I can take?’ " she says. "It’s a whole different dynamic," she told the Washington Post.

And the tug of war continues between insurance companies, employers, and the sick consumer who is in need of specialty medications. Hopefully there will be a time in the United States, when health and people come before dollars and profit. We'll see though.

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Research: Abusive Credit Card Lenders Lose Money

It may help a bank's bottom line to be nice to their credit card customers

Credit card lenders that use unfair or deceptive practices aren't just hurting consumers. They're also hurting themselves.That's the underlying message o...

PhotoCredit card lenders that use unfair or deceptive practices aren't just hurting consumers. They're also hurting themselves.

That's the underlying message of a recent report by the Center for Responsible Lending that finds onerous policies have unintended consequences. The study found that high-cost penalty fees and interest rates were not used to mitigate risk - as credit card issuers claimed - but instead were the risk that led to higher default rates.

Banks with more consumer-friendly policies in place had lower default rates. The researchers attribute that to the fact that customers aren't getting hit with as many expensive fees.

In fact, the study found that bad practices are a better predictor of consumer complaints and an issuer’s losses during a downturn than an institution’s type, size or location.

Safeguards

Consumer safeguards on credit cards enhance banks’ financial health, contrary to issuers’ past claim that safeguards undermine it, the research found. Credit card issuers with higher loss rates before the recession did not on average have a bigger jump in losses during the recession, indicating that having more high-risk customers did not predict which company’s problems would grow fastest.

New credit card rules have curbed or ended many of the unfair practices the study examined, such as doubling interest rates on existing balances for being a day late in making a payment. But some persist, and none of the new rules apply to business credit cards. The authors suggest regulators need to better police those areas.

“CRL thinks the report’s findings apply equally to high-cost fees and interest rates banks charge for overdraft and payday loans,” the consumer group said in its report. “These charges — like their predatory cousins in credit card lending — don’t reflect a borrower’s risk of default, but are the risk that too often pushes a customer into financial hardship or default.”

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New College Grads Need Parents' Help to Find Employment

Expert: Recent grads lack real-world experience, need help making connections

College graduation brings about many things. Feelings of accomplishment, feelings of closure, but for many what it doesn't bring is gainful employment.Ac...

PhotoCollege graduation brings about many things. Feelings of accomplishment, feelings of closure, but for many what it doesn't bring is gainful employment.

According to career expert Don Philabaum, the economy is creating less than 150,000 jobs per month for a graduating class of 2 million in 2012. As grads walk across the stage to receive their degrees, their real challenge begins once they get off that stage and face the unforgiving and sometimes cut-throat world.

Philabaum who authored the new book The Unemployed Grad, And What Parents Can Do About It, says parents should be completely involved with their children's transition from the dorm room to the board room. 

Along with the book, Philabaum offers free Webinars so parents can be better equipped in helping their college graduates find good jobs. He also states that 80 percent of the 2012 graduating class will be unemployed upon graduation, and students' first course of action should be to sit down with their parents, and come up with an effective course of action to maximize their new degrees.

Could be worse

Although the 2012 graduating class will have their fair share of challenges locking down a job, graduates of 2011 had it even worse.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers recently reported that employers will be hiring 10.2 percent more new college grads in 2012 than they did in 2011. Also, 44.2 percent of of new grads who looked for employment actually received offers.

However, Philabaum believes a different course of action is needed for the grad who is stuck at home still looking for work. Many parents may attribute unemployment to a lack of ambition on their children's part, but the book and the Webinar suggest that it's a lack of true-world experience that makes it hard for young adults to compete with a competitive job market. Or, recent graduates simply don't know where to begin after leaving school.

Research shows that  27.2 percent of graduates will never visit the career center, 16.1 percent will visit only one time, and 18.2 percent will visit twice. Again, this may not always be attributed to laziness, as much as it should be attributed to students simply not knowing the proper course of action.

According to a survey from Talent Marks, 95 percent of grads didn't have a written or thought-out job search plan, and 60 percent spend only one and five hours weekly looking for a job. And once students leave the college campus once and for all, they no longer have career centers and counselors at their immediate disposal.

"Graduates don't have a clue about how to look for a job", says Philabaum. " Surveys show grads don't spend enough time looking for a job, have not learned how to professionally use social media, or network with alumni on LinkedIn. Why? The college career center is no different than a club on most campuses. Students are not required to visit, or for that matter take ownership of their career."

To assist both the grad and the parent Philabaum is offering three free Webinars that users can access here. The Webinars will be on June 12, June 21 and June 30, 2012, at 8:30 PM Eastern standard time.

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FDA Warns Teva's Adderall May Be Counterfeit

Some tablets may contain the wrong ingredients

The FDA is warning consumers and health care professionals about a counterfeit version of Teva Pharmaceutical Industries’ Adderall 30 milligram table...

The FDA is warning consumers and health care professionals about a counterfeit version of Teva Pharmaceutical Industries’ Adderall 30 milligram tablets that is being purchased on the Internet.

FDA’s preliminary laboratory tests revealed that the counterfeit version of Teva’s Adderall 30 mg tablets contained the wrong active ingredients. Adderall contains four active ingredients – dextroamphetamine saccharate, amphetamine aspartate, dextroamphetamine sulfate, and amphetamine sulfate. Instead of these active ingredients, the counterfeit product contained tramadol and acetaminophen, which are ingredients in medicines used to treat acute pain.

Adderall, which is approved to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD) and narcolepsy, is a prescription drug classified as a controlled substance – a class of drugs for which special controls are required for dispensing by pharmacists.

The counterfeit Adderall tablets are round, white and do not have any type of markings, such as letters or numbers. Authentic Adderall 30 mg tablets produced by Teva are round, orange/peach, and scored tablets with "dp" embossed on one side and "30" on the other side of the tablet.

Anyone who believes they have the counterfeit version of Teva’s Adderall 30 mg tablets should not take or should stop taking the product. Consumers should talk to their health care professional about their condition and options for treatment.

 

 
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Senator Calls Out Airlines Over Seating Priority Fees

Families often not able to sit together, Schumer complains

Remember when you got to choose where you were going to sit on an airliner? Now, airlines place a fee on the most desirable seats.As a result, families t...

PhotoRemember when you got to choose where you were going to sit on an airliner? Now, airlines place a fee on the most desirable seats.

As a result, families traveling together don't get to sit together unless they're willing to pay extra. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) says airlines that charge these fees should reconsider.

"Children need access to their parents and parents need access to their children," Schumer said. "Unnecessary airline fees shouldn't serve as a literal barrier between mother and child."

Robert, of Kingsport, Tenn., couldn't agree more. He says he and his family flew to Orlando, Fla., on Delta recently and said he was told when he bought his four tickets that his family could sit together.

“My wife and I have a 7-year old and a 5-year old,” Robert wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “When I got my seat assignments, we were not together. I was told to call within 24 hours of flight and it would be taken care of. I called today and now am told it will be an additional $10 per ticket! My children have never flown before and may not get to now. They will be terrified if we cannot sit together and we will not go if this cannot be taken care of.”

Premium seats

Some airlines, including Delta, set aside a certain number of seats on each flight for frequent fliers and passengers willing to spend more for an aisle or window seat, or a seat with more legroom.

Airlines began adding fees in 2008 when the cost of jet fuel skyrocketed. Rather than increase fares to cover the additional costs, airlines began charging a fee for a second checked bag. Then they began charging for all checked bags, as well as other things that were once provided as part of the ticket price.

Why not just raise fares? Most likely for competitive reasons. Consumers generally choose a flight based on the published fare. The Transportation Department is currently considering new rules that would provide more transparency in the actual cost of flying.

Schumer says the airlines should adopt a voluntary policy to allow families with children to sit together. Otherwise, he says the Transportation Department should adopt a rule to keep families together on a plane.

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Survey: Many Teens Believe Distracted Driving Isn't a Big Deal

Only 30 percent feel it's very dangerous, Consumer Reports finds

When it comes to teenage driving, most parents would probably prefer their teens driving by themselves, as opposed to having a car full of other teenagers ...

PhotoWhen it comes to teenage driving, most parents would probably prefer their teens drive by themselves, as opposed to having a car full of other teenagers to distract them. But a Consumer Reports survey shows that having peers in the car can actually keep teenage drivers from being distracted by cell phone use or texting.

Though the report shows that younger drivers are less likely to text or use cell phones when driving, many teens surveyed believed that distracted driving isn't really a big danger.

Only 36 percent of survey participants between the ages of 18 to 29 admitted to being concerned with the issue of distracted driving. A mere 30 percent felt it was very dangerous to use a handheld phone while driving, while 53 percent of respondents aged 30 or older said distracted driving is extremely problematic.

But more people believed that texting was a harmful act, as 76 percent felt that texting while driving is very dangerous, and 83 percent said to be in favor of distracted driving laws when it came to texting. This may be a response to national efforts by several organizations to build awareness of texting while driving and highlight its dangers.

Teens surveyed

The report also included a series of interviews conducted by Consumer Reports, that asked teen drivers what they thought needed to be done to eliminate texting and cell phone use while driving. Their suggestions included:

  • "Make it safe and acceptable to pull over to do such tasks."
  • "Stiffer penalties, parents applying consequences for minors, and more education/awareness programs."
  • "Adults don't discipline like it's a problem; parents are blind to it. They tell us do not drink and drive, but don't say do not use the phone."
  • "I think that apps … that prohibit a user from receiving or sending text messages while traveling over 10 mph are very helpful and should be more widely used."
  • "Parents should let us kids have a Bluetooth headset so we wouldn't be tempted to use our phones and take a hand off the steering wheel."
  • "I know that my friend texts a lot while she's driving, but whenever I'm in her car, I make her give me the phone and tell me what she wants me to write. …Peer pressure is such a powerful force when you have it in your corner."

In a written statement, Rik Paul, Consumer Reports auto editor said "Our survey showed that while far too many young people are driving while distracted, they are less likely to do so when their parents, friends or siblings set a good example."

Additional findings in the report showed that, 84 percent of younger drivers saw other younger drivers talking on their cell phones while behind the wheel, and 71 percent said they've witnessed teenagers texting while driving.

Also, 48 percent of respondents witnessed their parents talking on handheld phones while driving, 15 percent saw their parents texting, and 8 percent of the respondents even admitted to using a smartphone app while behind the wheel.

The distracted driver survey was conducted online, between Nov. 23, 2011 to Dec. 13, 2011. A total of 1,049 questionnaires were filled out by adults ranging from 16 to 21.

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Accident Caused by Driver, Not Texter, Judge Rules

Driver was answering a text when he slammed into a motorcycle

Just about everyone knows texting while driving is dangerous but what responsibility does the person on the other end of the text have?None, a New Jersey...

PhotoJust about everyone knows texting while driving is dangerous but what responsibility does the person on the other end of the text have?

None, a New Jersey judge has ruled. 

Morris County Superior Court Judge David Rand dismissed claims against Shannon Colonna of Rockaway, N.J., saying she bore no legal responsibility for an accident that happened after she texted Kyle Best, who was then 19, the New Jersey Law Journal reported.

Best was returning from teaching a swimming class on Sept. 21, 2009, when he got Colonna's text. While answering it, he lost control of his pickup truck, crossed the double yellow line and hit David and Linda Kubert on their motorcycle. Each lost a leg as a result of the accident.

The Kuberts argued that Colonna should share responsibility because she knew or should have known that Best was driving when she sent the text. 

But Judge Rand said he could find no precedent for such a claim and dismissed the Kuberts' civil suit against Colonna. Their case against Best remains intact. 

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You're Watching Hulu. Who's Watching You?

Lawsuit says video site tells third parties what subscribers are watching

Many years ago, motel guests used to react with horror, feigned or otherwise, when it was suggested that the desk clerk might know which pay-per-view movie...

PhotoMany years ago, motel guests used to react with horror, feigned or otherwise, when it was suggested that the desk clerk might know which pay-per-view movies they had watched in the supposed privacy of their room.

Now, thanks to technology, you can be spied on in the comfort of your own home, according to a federal class action lawsuit that claims Hulu tells third parties what its subscribers are watching.

In their suit, six Hulu subscribers said the video site "repurposed" its browser cache so a marketing analyst service called KISSmetrics could store their private data, Courthouse News Service reported. The suit also claims Hulu shared their private viewing choices with Facebook, Google Analytics, and other online market research and advertising companies without their permission.

The suit claims Hulu viewers are entitled to coverage under the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA), which was passed in 1988 after a Washington, D.C., newspaper published a list of videos rented by Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork.

A digression

PhotoThe list, by the way, showed that Bork's taste in movies was unremarkable. So why did the Washington City Paper publish it? Reporter Michael Dolan justified the action by noting that Bork himself opposed reading anything into the Constitution that the framers had not consciously put there and therefore should not claim any right to privacy not guaranteed him by explicit legislation, since there is no mention of privacy in the Constitution.

Bork's nomination was rejected by the Senate after a rousing speech by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) Bork famously responded: "There was not a line in that speech that was accurate."

Hulu claims that it is not covered by the VPPA, which applies to "video tape service providers." The streaming video service also notes that the litigants are not "customers" in the ordinary sense of the term, since they did not pay anything for using Hulu.

"Concluding, as plaintiffs suggest, that 'consumers' under the VPPA include those who merely visited hulu.com without the payment of any money would dramatically enlarge the category of 'consumers' regulated by the statute," an attorney for Hulu argued. "This would be akin to saying that anybody who walked into a video rental store and watched a few minutes of video on an overhead television set, even if they didn't rent any videos or become a member, would be a 'consumer' of that video store." 

Hulu has also argued that the plaintiffs cannot prove injury and thus can't establish standing to sue.

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States Warn Veterans Targeted by For-Profit Colleges

22 state attorneys general want Congress to close loophole

Attorney General George Jepsen joined with 21 other states today in urging Congress to close a loophole in the federal Higher Education Act that can be use...

The attorneys general of 22 states are urging Congress to close a loophole in the federal Higher Education Act that can be used to target veterans with high-pressure recruiting tactics by schools seeking to maximize federal funding.
 
The so-called 90/10 rule prohibits for-profit colleges from deriving more than 90 percent of their revenue from U.S. Department of Education (Title IV) funding sources. Currently, for-profit schools can obtain 90 percent funding from Title IV funds and the remaining 10 percent from government veterans’ programs – instead of from non-federal sources, as the law intended.
 
“The point of the 90/10 rule was to instill greater accountability in the industry,” Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen said. “Instead of limiting the amount of taxpayer dollars that for-profit colleges can obtain, this loophole has made it possible for proprietary colleges to achieve 100 percent funding from the federal government. Equally troublesome are the alleged recruiting tactics that exploit our veterans and service men and women.”
 
Federal lawmakers enacted the original 90/10 rule in 1998 following congressional investigations of for-profit colleges. At the time, veterans’ benefits were not a substantial source of potential income for proprietary colleges. However, in 2008, Congress enacted the Post 9/11 GI Bill, making billions in educational benefits available for veterans and their families. 

“In essence, this creates a system where for-profit colleges can derive 100 percent of their funding from the federal government and taxpayers,” Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway said. “The loophole is creating high-pressured enrollment tactics that are directly targeting our veterans who are returning from battle and their families.  This is unacceptable and unconscionable.”

“Allowing Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) and Department of Defense (DoD) benefits to not count toward the 90 percent government-funding limit violates the intent of the law and harms taxpayers,” said Conway. “The loophole has created a feeding frenzy for proprietary colleges looking to get their hands on veterans’ benefits.  Many of our bases are being overrun with for-profit recruiters who are more interested in getting their hands on these benefits than they are in educating our service members.”

More leverage

Under current law, for-profit colleges are able to use the military benefits to leverage even more Title IV funds because each dollar obtained from Department of Defense or Veterans’ Affairs can be used by for-profit colleges to obtain an additional nine dollars in Title IV funds.
 
“The purpose of the 2008 bill was to help returning veterans get the educational benefits they need to return to the workforce, not to enrich for-profit institutions,” Jepsen said.
 
 
 
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One Million More Turbocharged Vehicles On the Road This Year

Consumers find cheaper, proven technology more attractive

With gasoline prices at elevated levels in recent years, consumers are looking for more fuel efficient cars. In some bases that means looking at smaller ca...

Photo
An aftermarket Cartech turbo mounted on a Ford engine

With gasoline prices at elevated levels in recent years, consumers are looking for more fuel efficient cars. In some cases that means looking at smaller cars with smaller engines.

But going small doesn't mean giving up power. Automakers increasingly are offering models with turbocharged, or “turbo” engines that offer fuel economy and power.

A turbocharger works by compressing a greater amount of air through the combustion chamber, resulting in more power and efficiency. A turbocharger uses exhaust gases that otherwise would be wasted to increase air flow into the combustion chambers providing big engine power performance with small engine efficiency and reduced emissions.

Better efficiency and power

It allows automakers to use a smaller, more gas-stingy engine without giving up zip. Turbo engines are popular in both gasoline and diesel powered engines.

As automakers introduce new turbo models, consumers appear to be gravitating toward them. Honeywell Turbo Technologies estimates the number of turbocharged commercial and passenger vehicles sold in North America is projected to reach 3.2 million in 2012, up from 2.2 million in 2011.

Passenger vehicles alone account for nearly 850,000 additional turbo engines – a 61 percent increase from 2011.

"With fuel prices being a significant concern for consumers and businesses, turbochargers are a smart choice for getting more miles to the gallon," said Tony Schultz, vice president for the Americas, Honeywell Turbo Technologies. "It's a proven technology that can be used across market segments and does not put the consumer in an extended payback period like other technologies to realize its benefits.”

Proven technology

And while hybrids and the emerging electric vehicles (EV) are relatively new automotive technologies, Schultz points out that turbocharging technology has been a fuel economy driver for decades in the United States for the on- and off-highway commercial vehicle market, as well as in global passenger vehicle markets like Europe.

While there are more turbos on the road, there are decidedly fewer eight-cylinder engines. According to J.D Power and partner firm LMC Automotive, turbochargers were fitted in only two percent of gasoline or flex-fuel vehicles produced in the United States in 2008, but that figure jumped to 9.5 percent in 2011 and is expected to more than double to 23.5 percent in 2017.

A smaller turbocharged engine can provide a 20 percent to 40 percent fuel economy improvement and deliver the same performance as a larger engine. Industry data illustrates the ongoing downsizing trend as the average engine size in North America is decreasing from 3.6L in 2007 to a projected average of 2.9L by 2016, according to Honeywell.

Turbocharged automobiles, such as Ford's EcoBoost lineup and the Chevrolet Sonic and Chevrolet Cruze have been among the best-selling vehicles in the U.S. this year. The Cruze Eco and Sonic, which both offer turbocharged engines among its models, can deliver 40 miles per gallon or higher on the highway and have starting prices below $20,000.

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How to Convince Your Boss to Let You Work From Home

Conference Board report may offer ammunition for your argument

Working from home, not to be confused with home-based “business opportunities,” is a growing trend.According to a new report from The Confere...

PhotoWorking from home, not to be confused with home-based “business opportunities,” is a growing trend.

According to a new report from The Conference Board, the proportion of employees who work predominately from home or another remote location has, over the last decade, more than tripled in many industries, while nearly doubling nationwide among all full-time, non–self-employed U.S. workers.

"A confluence of factors, led by the rapid expanse of sophisticated, secure, and relatively inexpensive communication technologies, has sparked a quiet revolution in where and how many Americans do their jobs,” said Amy Lui Abel, director of human capital research at The Conference Board and a co-author of the report. “To take full advantage of the opportunities teleworking provides—while avoiding the many potential pitfalls—employers and employees must engage in an open dialog that establishes the mutual expectations and responsibilities that come with this new workplace culture. Our report should serve as a catalyst for beginning that conversation."

For the employee, the benefits are obvious. With no commute, employees enjoy time with loved ones during precious morning and evening hours. Based from home, they gain the flexibility to adjust their schedules as job and personal demands arise.

How do you convince your boss to let you telecommute? The Conference Board report offers some bullet points that you can use to shape your argument.

It saves money

Steady technical refinement has made teleworking an increasingly attractive business proposition. As a case study,the report cites IBM's long-term holistic strategy, which grew out of the 1970s and the idea of installing access "terminals" in employees' homes.

By 1995, 10,000 IBM employees were mobile, allowing the company to move from a traditional 1:1 workspace-to-worker ratio to 1:4. In just that first year, a $41.5 million investment in worker training returned $74 million in savings.

Teleworkers are often more productive

The Conference Board report notes that companies and organizations that have telecommuting employees have found those working from home are often more productive. They have the ability to focus on work priorities free of the stress of distractions and office politics. In addition, they arrive at their desks each day without having had to endure the stresses of a commute.

Accessibility

Employees who commute to the office often have a “time clock” mentality. Once the workday is over they punch out and head home, often not thinking about work until the next day. In some respects, telecommuters are “always on,” often returning to work in the evening or odd parts of the day.

Working for home can be used as incentive

Whether opportunities for telework are reserved for the best-performing employees, promoted across an organization, or used to attract standout applicants from a wider talent pool - such as disabled veterans, semi-retired experts, and parents with young children – offering a virtual office can help shape a happier, more motivated workforce. But leaders must establish formal, transparent guidelines if the concept is to be a real success.

"Research concurs that the dual lynchpins of effective teleworking are strong management and robust IT," said co-author Gad Levanon, director of macroeconomic research at The Conference Board. "With support from HR, managers at all levels must make the 'mental shift' to trusting that employees are getting the job done without seeing them every day—and to have the strength to act decisively when they're not. On the technology side, the right hardware and software choices backed up by abundant support staff can make the difference between a seamless transition and hundreds or thousands of man-hours lost to bugs and faulty connections."

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New App Lets Users Check a Charity's Legitimacy

New Jersey compiles info on 26,000 charities that solicit in NJ

U.S. consumers have been known to show levels of altruism towards the troubled and the unfortunate. Whether it's due to a natural disaster, a hunger proble...

PhotoU.S. consumers have been known to show levels of altruism towards the troubled and the unfortunate. Whether it's due to a natural disaster, a hunger problem, or a medical condition, consumers can be quite charitable at times.

But how does one know their money is ending up in the right place? New Jersey's Division of Consumer Affairs has answered this question by creating an app that lets you investigate before you donate. Consumers can also track  how their charities are applying the donated funds.

The app is called "Charity Lookup" and it's for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch users. In theory, the app provides the needed background information to a charity or cause, so users can become more educated and feel more confident when donating to a charity.

The New Jersey Division updates the app each week with info from its own database. It gathers the financial records of 26,000 charities and nonprofits that solicit New Jersey residents.

New Jersey state officials say not all charities use donated funds in the same way, and this app will allow users to not only feel better about donating, but also see exactly how much of their donations are being given to the actual cause.

Smart donors

"Savvy consumers do their research before they make a purchase or an investment-- and they should do the same before giving to a charity," cautioned Attorney general Jeffrey S. Chiesa.

"When you look at the numbers you'll learn some so-called charities dedicate only 10 or 20 cents of each donated dollar to actual charitable programs, and give the rest to fundraisers. Other organization spend virtually every penny on worthwhile charitable projects. With this app we've made it easier than ever to know where you money will go, before you donate, he said."

Like most apps, it's built to be very user-friendly. The user would simply type in the name of a nonprofit, then by clicking on the organization's name, users can view background information of the charities expenses and revenues. The breakdown of each organization is pulled from its most recent fiscal year report.

Eric T. Kanefsky, acting director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs said consumers have a right to know the full intentions of a charity, as with any other organizations they deal with.

"While the Supreme Court has ruled that states can't force charities to spend more money on charitable causes than on fundraising or management costs, we owe it to consumers to bring transparency to the ways charities use the donations they receive," he said.

"This app, like our Charities Registration Hotline, provides an important service. It will help shine a spotlight on the state's most un-charitable charities, and bring well-deserved recognition to the organizations that put donated dollars to valuable use."

65 percent

Kanefsky also added that charities should be donating at least 65 percent of its donations toward its charitable programs, and no more than 35 percent toward fundraising efforts.

For now, only those with Apple mobile devices can use the app, but Android users and those who use other devices will soon be able to use it too. Those interested can either download it here, or by going to an Apple App store on their mobile device and doing a search for "New Jersey Charity Search." 

But even those without the app can check the legitimacy of a charity or non-profit. Consumers can simply phone a charity and ask them how its money is spent. If a charity is unwilling to give this info to you, it may be an indication that it's not reputable.

Although rolled on in the State of New Jersey, other states should be seeing similar applications. But in the meantime, getting all of the background information on a charity, coupled with asking a bunch of questions, should allow the donator to make a more educated donation, since donating blindly to a cause can do more harm than good.

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Remote Coaching Can Help With Weight Loss

Study finds that technology and financial incentives can improve diet, activity level

Looking for a way to take weight off and keep it off? Forget the fad diets and hyped exercises -- the answer may lie with remote coaching by email, financi...

PhotoLooking for a way to take weight off and keep it off? Forget the fad diets and hyped exercises -- the answer may lie with remote coaching by email, financial incentives and other modification behavior techniques, according to a report of a randomized controlled trial published in the May 28 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, a JAMA Network publication. 

It's no secret that not following a physician’s lifestyle change advice is a common problem. Many physicians are skeptical that patients will change their unhealthy behaviors, and physicians also report a lack of time and training to effectively counsel their patients, researchers write in the study background.

“This study’s interventions leveraged handheld technology to create efficient interventions that make self-monitoring more convenient, extend decision support into life contexts where lifestyle choices are made, and convey time-stamped behavioral data to paraprofessionals who provide coaching remotely,” the researchers note.

Bonnie Spring, Ph.D., of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, and colleagues randomly assigned 204 adult patients (48 men) with elevated intake of saturated fat and low intake of fruits and vegetables, and high sedentary leisure time and low physical activity into 1 of 4 treatments.

The treatments were: increase fruit/vegetable intake and physical activity, decrease fat and sedentary leisure, decrease fat and increase physical activity, and increase fruit/vegetable intake and decrease sedentary leisure. Patients used personal digital assistant devices to record and self-regulate their behaviors.

Daily uploads

During three weeks of treatment, patients uploaded their data daily and communicated as needed with their coaches by telephone or by email. The participants could earn $175 for meeting goals during the treatment phase. In addition, there was a 20-week follow-up during which patients could earn from $30 to $80 for continuing to record and transmit their data.

“The increase fruits/vegetables and decrease sedentary leisure treatment maximized healthy lifestyle change compared with the other interventions,” the authors comment. They note that lifestyle gains diminished once treatment ended, as expected, but improvements persisted throughout the follow-up period.

From baseline to the end of treatment to the end of the follow-up, respectively, mean (average) servings per day of fruits/vegetables changed from 1.2 to 5.5 to 2.9, mean minutes per day of sedentary leisure from 219.2 to 89.3 to 125.7, and daily calories from saturated fat from 12 percent to 9.4 percent to 9.9 percent, according to the study results.

“This study demonstrates the feasibility of changing multiple unhealthy diet and activity behaviors simultaneously, efficiently and with minimal face-to-face contact by using mobile technology, remote coaching, and incentives,” the authors comment.

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Feds Urged To Probe 'Forced-Placed Insurance' By Mortgage Companies

Mortgage lenders increasingly purchase expensive insurance policies for homeowners

If you have a home mortgage, you are required to also carry homeowners insurance. In nearly every case, the premiums are paid from an escrow account by the...

If you have a home mortgage, you are required to carry homeowners insurance. In nearly every case, the premiums are paid from an escrow account by the mortgage servicer.

Increasingly, homeowners like Tamara, of Houston, Tex., have complained that the mortgage company unilaterally insures the property and charges the homeowner. In Tamara's case, she said her premiums had always been paid out of escrow.

“One year we received a notice that Bank of America was attaching their own insurance because ours had been cancelled the year before,” Tamara wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “We never received any notice of this from our carrier or the bank until they attached their own insurance. They claimed they paid our home insurance from escrow, the money was definitely gone, but the carrier said they never received it.”

Calling on feds to investigate

The National Consumer Law Center is calling on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to investigate what it calls “forced-placed insurance” (FPI), calling it a growing problem for both borrowers and investors.

FPI, also known as lender-placed insurance, is insurance placed on the borrower’s home when the borrower fails to maintain their own insurance policy or provide evidence of insurance as required by the loan agreement.

FPI is a group credit insurance policy sold to the lender or loan servicer and names the lender or loan servicer as the insured. The lender or servicer pays the premium for the insurance when the coverage is placed and then bills the borrower for the FPI premium.

Profitable tactic

The National Consumer Law Center says the practice is increasing because it is lucrative for the lenders.

“FPI is much more expensive than regular, voluntary homeowners insurance—up to ten times more expensive,” the consumer group said in a report. “Because the additional cost of FPI is normally added to a homeowner’s mortgage payments, the high cost of this type of insurance can drive a borrower into default or prevent a borrower who is already in arrears from catching-up on missed payments. The difference in cost, however, is unjustified.”

The group notes that the recent mortgage abuse settlement federal and state governments reached with five major lenders specifically called for reducing instances of FPI. It says Fannie Mae has also revised its servicing guidelines in an attempt to address the problem.

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New Hope For Vision Restoration

Medical science makes strides in regrowing optic nerve, restoring some sight

Damage to the optic nerve robs people of their eyesight and it's long been considered an irreversible loss. But maybe it isn't.A team of researchers at B...

PhotoDamage to the optic nerve robs people of their eyesight and it's long been considered an irreversible loss. But maybe it isn't.

A team of researchers at Boston Children's Hospital has not only grown new optic nerve fibers in mice, but also restored some basic elements of vision.

The researchers, led by Larry Benowitz, showed that mice with severe optic nerve damage can regain some depth perception, the ability to detect overall movement of the visual field, and perceive light, allowing them to synchronize their sleep/wake cycles.

Findings were published online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

What does that mean for humans? The researchers are hopeful that patients blinded by optic nerve damage from trauma or from glaucoma, estimated to affect more than 4 million Americans, might be able to regain at least some visual function.

In other forms of vision loss, such as macular degeneration, people can sometimes regain visual acuity, but there is currently no way to recover from damage to the optic nerve.

Big step forward

Previous studies, including many by the Benowitz lab, have demonstrated that optic nerve fibers can regenerate some distance through the optic nerve. This development, however, takes it another big step.

"Dr. Benowitz and his group have, for the first time, established proof-of-concept that a damaged optic nerve can regenerate and attain lost function," said Nareej Agarwal, PhD, of the National Eye Institute, which supported the study. "This is an important advance in an effort to reverse vision loss in glaucoma and other neurodegenerative diseases."

Benowitz cautions, however, that the vision the mice regained was limited, and probably didn't restore the ability to discriminate objects.

"What lies behind what we call seeing is very complicated – so many subsystems contribute to seeing," he said. "We're in a sense just scratching the surface about functional recovery."

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Virgin America Fined Over Disability Complaint Record-Keeping

Carrier fined $100,000 and ordered to respond promptly to complaints

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has assessed a $100,000 civil penalty against Virgin America for filing incomplete reports with the Department ...

PhotoThe U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has assessed a $100,000 civil penalty against Virgin America for filing incomplete reports with the Department about complaints registered by passengers with disabilities and for not responding adequately to these complaints.  

“We expect airlines to respond individually to disability-related complaints and to report those complaints to us,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.  “These are important parts of our rules protecting the rights of passengers, and we will continue to take enforcement action when they are violated.”

DOT rules require airlines to record disability-related complaints, categorize them by the type of disability and nature of the complaint, and submit an annual report on these complaints to the Department.  If a single consumer correspondence covers more than one issue, each issue must be counted as a separate complaint. 

In addition, if an airline receives a written complaint alleging a violation of the Department’s disability rules, the carrier must provide a written response within 30 days that specifically discusses the complaint, gives the carrier’s view of whether a violation occurred, and states that the complaint may be referred to DOT for an investigation.

In July 2011, the Department’s Aviation Enforcement Office conducted a routine on-site inspection at Virgin America’s corporate headquarters, where it reviewed all disability-related complaints received by the carrier. The Enforcement Office found that in many instances, Virgin America failed to provide a written response that addressed the consumer’s complaint. 

In addition, Virgin America failed to properly categorize and account for all the disability-related issues that were raised in the complaints the carrier received during 2008 and 2009.  As a result, a number of complaints were missing from Virgin America’s annual reports submitted to the Department in 2009 and 2010. 

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Feds Name Committee to Protect Air Travelers' Rights

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan named to chair the committee

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has been named to chair a new committee that will look out for the rights of air travelers. U.S. Transportation...

PhotoIllinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has been named to chair a new committee that will look out for the rights of air travelers. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced the appointment of four members to the committee last week.

Besides Madigan, the committee members are David A. Berg, senior vice president at Airlines for America (A4A); Deborah Ale-Flint, director of aviation at Oakland International Airport; and Charles Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance (CTA).

“We are committed to protecting and strengthening the rights of consumers when they fly,” Secretary LaHood said. “The members of this committee will help us build on the Administration’s already strong record of protecting air travelers.”

All of the committee members have demonstrated experience in both advocating for consumers and working for additional consumer protections, LaHood said.

Madigan was elected the first woman attorney general of Illinois in 2002 and won a third term in 2010.  Under her leadership, Attorney General Madigan’s Consumer Protection Division has established a national reputation for aggressively advocating for consumer safeguards.  Her office handles on average 25,000-30,000 consumer complaints a year on issues ranging from financial fraud to product safety.

Berg was named senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary for A4A, an airline trade association, in February 2011.  He is responsible for the association’s legal affairs and has been involved in a variety of aviation issues, including passengers with disabilities and airport landing fees.

Ale-Flint was appointed Oakland International Airport’s director of aviation in April 2010 and is the primary executive responsible for the operation, management and development of the airport.  Her previous experience includes serving as the assistant director of aviation, responsible for the operations of the airport, and managing the airport's $500 million capital program.

Leocha formed the CTA in 2009, following a career in journalism where he specialized in reporting on travelers’ rights.  His advocacy for travelers has included meeting government officials, testifying before Congress and developing travel information and resources.

The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, signed by President Obama on Feb. 14, mandates the establishment of this committee.  The law requires the Secretary of Transportation to appoint to the committee four members with one representative each of air carriers, airport operators, state or local governments, and nonprofit public interest groups with expertise in consumer protection.  According to the law, the committee will terminate on Sept. 30, 2015. 

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Feds Warn of Mortgage Rescue Scams Aimed at Service Members

Many bogus programs display official logos and are targeted specifically at service members

The Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP), the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), and the U.S. ...

PhotoMembers of the armed forces are not only in harm's way when serving in combat situations. They are also being targeted by a number scams claiming to provide mortgage assistance, federal agencies warn. 

“Members of the armed services community often face unique financial challenges and are at particular risk for this type of scam,” said Christy Romero, Special Inspector General at SIGTARP, the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. “We want to empower service members and their families with information so that they can easily recognize and avoid these scams and also provide them with resources on where to turn for additional information and assistance."

Many of the scams claim to be part of the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP). 

“I applaud the new HAMP guidelines that have special provisions for military personnel. But at the same time it's important to remind military personnel and their families that there are scammers out there who may guarantee to get them a mortgage modification - for a fee up front. Don't lose your money on one of those offers - there are plenty of legitimate, free resources for you if you are looking to modify your loan,” explained Holly Petraeus, Assistant Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) Office for Servicemember Affairs.

Hallmarks of HAMP mortgage modification scams include: the unofficial use of official program names or logos of government agencies, non-profit organizations, and/or lenders; the advertising of a very high success rate in achieving modifications; and the guarantee of a successful modification in exchange for an upfront fee. Free help is always available.

For servicemembers having trouble paying their mortgage, free help is available. Advice from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)-approved housing counselors is always free, as are mortgage modifications under HAMP. In most cases, charging fees in advance for a mortgage modification is illegal. HUD-approved housing counselors can help you avoid scams and better understand your options.

Resources

The agencies listed a number of resources available to service members, including:

Consumer Fraud Alert – For tips on how to identify and avoid mortgage modification scams and to view the Consumer Fraud Alert issued by the HAMP Mortgage Modification Fraud Taskforce, visit f.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs – If you are an active-duty service member or veteran and have a VA loan, call the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs at 1-877-827-3702 or visit the Loan Guaranty Service Home Loan Program Web site at www.HomeLoans.VA.gov.

Making Home Affordable Program – For free mortgage-related advice and assistance from HUD-approved housing counselors or to apply for HAMP, call the Homeowner’s HOPE Hotline at 1-888-995-HOPE (1-888-995-4673) or visit www.MakingHomeAffordable.gov. You can apply to HAMP on your own or with free help from a HUD-approved housing counselor. Applying to HAMP is always free.

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – For additional help and more information about mortgages, dial 1-855-411-2372 or visit www.ConsumerFinance.gov/mortgagehelp.

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Court: Car Dealers Must Follow Credit Rules in Three-Way Transactions

Fair Credit Reporting Act applies even when the dealer provides initial financing

A federal judge has ruled that car dealers must abide by the terms of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, even when they provide the initial financing for a t...

PhotoA federal judge has ruled that car dealers must abide by the terms of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, even when they provide the initial financing for a transaction.
 
What that means is that if the dealer jacks up the interest rate on a loan or lease because of information on a customer's credit report, it must tell the consumer where it got the information and provide information on how the consumer can get a copy of their credit history and dispute any inaccuracies.
 
That provision, intended to protect consumers, applies to all transactions financed by banks or other financial institutions but there had been legal challenges questioning whether it applied when dealers provided the financing themselves.

Judge Ellen Huvelle of the Washington, D.C., U.S. District Court upheld the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) determination that auto dealers must comply with this provision even when they engage in “three-party” financing transactions, in which the dealer agrees to extend financing to a consumer and then immediately assigns the loan to a third party, such as a bank or finance company.

NADA vs. FTC

In the FTC rulemaking proceeding, the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) argued that auto dealers engaging in these transactions should be exempt from providing the notice. NADA argued that, when only this third party, and not the car dealer, actually obtains the credit report, then the car dealer should be exempt from providing any disclosures to the consumers.  

The FTC rejected this argument and concluded that the auto dealers actually use the credit report even if they do not physically obtain it, and so must provide the notice to consumers.   NADA sued the FTC, challenging this interpretation.   The court agreed with the FTC’s position in its ruling.  

“This ruling will make it easier for consumers to learn about unfavorable information in their credit reports.  Not only will this give them an opportunity to correct any inaccuracies, but it also provides a key tool needed to combat identity theft or fraud,” said Stuart Delery, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division. “The auto dealer is in the best position to provide this information because the dealer interacts directly with the consumer and establishes the credit terms in the agreement that it enters with the consumer.”

Under NADA’s interpretation, the consumer would never receive this disclosure – not from the dealer nor from the third-party finance company.   In addition, all entities that extend credit to consumers could enter similar arrangements and thereby exempt themselves from giving consumers any disclosures relating to adverse information in consumer reports.

 

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Are Tablets Getting Cheaper?

Entry-level prices appear to be falling

When Apple introduced the iPad tablet computer in April 2010, it was an immediate hit, offering consumers a portable device with which to access a wide var...

PhotoWhen Apple introduced the iPad tablet computer in April 2010, it was an immediate hit, offering consumers a portable device with which to access a wide variety of multi-media content.

It also carried a $500 price tag – a bit high for some consumers to pay for a device to play movies and music and to download books and periodicals. A number of other manufacturers introduced similar tablets that run on the competing Android operating system.

And with competition it appears prices are beginning to soften. When Apple introduced its latest version of the iPad earlier this year, it kept the entry level price at $499. But it also offered the iPad 2, last year's version, at an entry level price of $399.

Amazon, which had been producing inexpensive e-readers for a while, last year introduce the Kindle Fire, a color e-reader that operates very much like a tablet computer. It's price was just $199.

The Kindle Fire got stellar reviews but sales began to taper off in the early part of 2012, despite it's relatively low price.

Now, Google is reportedly preparing to launch its tablet this summer and, according to a report in DigiTimes, will feature a $199 price tag as well. The report says the tablet will be sold through the Google Play Store.

Meanwhile, the Blackberry Playbook sells for $198, Sony's S Tablet sells for under $300 and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 begins at $250.

While tablets are not likely to take the place of laptops, their lower prices may cause a new group of consumers to give them another look.

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NJ Bill Aims to Prevent Drug Overdose Deaths

Good Samaritan bill protects witnesses who summon help against prosecution

The New Jersey Assembly has passed a bill that provides legal protection for people who summon medical help when they witness a drug overdose.  &l...

Photo
Roseanne Scotti

The New Jersey Assembly has passed a bill that provides legal protection for people who summon medical help when they witness a drug overdose.  

“Calling 911 should never be a crime.  Our current policies focus on punishment and drive people into the shadows and away from help,” says Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance.  “Saving lives should always take priority over punishing behavior.  A Good Samaritan law will encourage people to get help.”

The New Jersey vote came after an emotional hearing where advocates and families who have lost loved ones packed the room and provided moving testimony.  Advocates will now focus on moving the bill forward in the Senate.

Overdose is a major public health problem and the leading cause of accidental death in New Jersey, Scotti's group said, contending that most of the deaths are entirely preventable. 

The majority of overdose victims do not actually die until several hours after they have taken a drug and most of these deaths occur in the presence of others, meaning that there is both time and opportunity to summon medical assistance, said Scotti and other advocates of the legislation.  Unfortunately, fear of arrest and prosecution often prevents people who are in a position to help from calling 911.  As a result, help is called in only half of all overdose emergencies, advocates said. 

Limited protection

The Good Samaritan Overdose Response Act would provide limited protection from arrest and prosecution for drug possession charges for a witness who calls 911 in these situations.

New York, Illinois, Washington State, New Mexico, and Connecticut have already enacted Good Samaritan laws for drug overdoses and similar measures are currently pending in several other states.

“When a life is on the line we can ill afford to waste time weighing the consequences of calling 911 or deciding whether or not to be truthful about what substance was used to overdose," said Senator Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), the sponsor of the bill in the Senate.  "By narrowly eliminating the criminal consequences one might face after calling 911 to report an overdose, I hope to diminish any hesitation one might have about doing the right thing.”  

Among those testifying in support of the bill was Patty DiRenzo of Blackwood, NJ, who lost her son, Salvatore, to an overdose when he was 27 years old. 

“Sal was an amazing son, brother and father–a beautiful soul who unfortunately struggled with addiction.  His death, like so many others in New Jersey, could have been prevented if the people he was with had called 911 for help; but they didn’t, most likely for fear of arrest.  Instead, Sal was left alone to die."

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Poll: Treat Marijuana Like Alcohol

Most Americans think private use of marijuana shouldn't be a crime

Nearly six out of ten American voters believe that the personal use of marijuana should no longer be a criminal offense, and 56 percent of Americ...

PhotoNearly six out of ten American voters believe that the personal use of marijuana should no longer be a criminal offense, and 56 percent of Americans say that the substance ought to be legalized like alcohol, according to a nationwide Rasmussen telephone poll of 1,000 likely voters.

According to the poll, 58 percent of respondents believe that it should not be a crime "for someone to smoke marijuana" in private. Only 32 percent of respondents believed that such activity should remain illegal. Among self-identified Democrats, 63 percent agreed that the personal use of marijuana should not be a crime versus 49 percent of Republicans.

A solid majority of respondents, 56 percent, also said that they favored "legalizing marijuana and regulating it like alcohol or cigarettes." (Thirty-four percent were opposed.) Among males polled, 61 percent favored legalization versus 52 percent of females. A majority of respondents of every age group polled favored legalizing cannabis, including 50 percent of those age 65 and older. However, among those respondents with children, only 49 percent said that they favored legalization.

Support for legalizing cannabis rose to 57 percent when pollsters' asked: Do you favor legalizing marijuana if "no one under 18 could buy it, it was banned in public, and there were strict penalties for driving under the influence." The slight gain in overall support was largely because of a spike in support among respondents with children (49 percent to 58 percent) and self-identified Republicans (48 percent to 52 percent).

Growing frustration

The findings came as no surprise to NORML, an advocacy organization that favors legalization of marijuana.

"This poll illustrates, once again, that the public's growing frustration with marijuana prohibition and their desire for market based alternatives crosses conventional ideological and political boundaries," said NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano. "This poll illustrates, once again, that the public's growing frustration with marijuana prohibition and their desire for market based alternatives crosses conventional ideological and political boundaries."

He added: "By and large, voters of all ages and all ideological persuasions support regulating cannabis like alcohol, and they reject the failed policy of arresting, prosecuting, and incarcerating responsible adult marijuana consumers. Lawmakers at the state and federal level ought to recognize this sea change in public opinion and realize that marijuana law reform is no longer viewed by voters as a political liability, but rather as a political opportunity."

In 2011, a nationwide Gallup poll reported that 50 percent of Americans support legalizing the use of cannabis for adults. Forty-six percent of respondents said they opposed the idea. Most recently, an April 2012 Rasmussen Reports telephone survey reported that 47 percent of adults "believe the country should legalize and tax marijuana in order to help solve the nation's fiscal problems." Forty-two percent of respondents disagreed, while ten percent were undecided.

 

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Renters Also Feeling the Financial Squeeze

Percentage of young 'cost burdened' renters is rising

Since the start of the Great Recession, homeowners have been hit hard by rising foreclosures, but they aren't the only ones feeling a financial squeeze.N...

PhotoSince the start of the Great Recession, homeowners have been hit hard by rising foreclosures, but they aren't the only ones feeling a financial squeeze.

New research from the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire shows an increasing number of renters are feeling the pain, with younger renters and people in the West feeling the most “cost burdened.”

“Increased need among American renters indicates that strong public housing programs are necessary to protect individuals from becoming overburdened,” said Jessica Bean, research associate at the Carsey Institute. “However, this research also demonstrates that the lowest-earning households experienced the smallest increases in cost burden over time, indicating that without the housing programs already in existence, America’s most vulnerable households likely would have fared even worse.”

A homeowner or renter is considered “cost burdened” if they spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utility costs. Because home sales have plunged over the last four years, more people are moving into the rental market to find housing. That has had the effect of driving up rents.

The report found that nationwide, 49 percent of all renters were “cost burdened” in 2010, with the highest rates occurring in the West and in central cities. In all regions and across all place types, the percentage of renters who were cost burdened increased between 2007 and 2010.

The largest increase in cost-burdened renters occurred in rural areas, up 4.3 percentage points by 2010, compared with increases of 3.4 and 2.9 percentage points in suburban places and central cities, respectively.

Young renters hit hardest

Sixty percent of young renters, those under age 25, were cost burdened in 2010. In all regions, the largest increase in the proportion of renters who were cost burdened occurred among those with a household income between $20,000 and $50,000.

Ironically, home affordability has never been higher. Mortgage rates are at all time lows and housing prices have fallen significantly from their pre-bubble highs. Mortgage payments, including taxes and insurance, are generally much lower than rents on comparable square footage.

However, in the wake of the housing meltdown, fewer prospective buyers can qualify for loans. Lenders now require higher down payments – often 20 percent of the purchase price or more – and have raised minimum acceptable credit scores.

As a result, rents are rising just about everywhere. The Manhattan Rental Market report found April 2012 rents rose 0.4 percent from March.

Richmond, Va., has 15 new apartment buildings under construction in its urban core, adding about 1,200 units, according to a report in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The report says the apartments are “leasing up quickly.”

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Good News For Needle-Phobics

MIT researchers develop injection system without needles

Some people can roll up their sleeves at the doctor's office and get a shot without even flinching. Others fall to pieces at the sight of a needle.For th...

PhotoSome people can roll up their sleeves at the doctor's office and get a shot without even flinching. Others fall to pieces at the sight of a needle.

For the latter group, there is new hope. Researchers at MIT have engineered a device that delivers a tiny, high-pressure jet of medicine through the skin without the use of a hypodermic needle. The device can be programmed to deliver a range of doses to various depths — an improvement over similar jet-injection systems that are now commercially available.

And this new invention may do more than spare the needle-phobics. It may also prevent accidents in the healthcare industry. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that hospital-based health care workers accidentally prick themselves with needles 385,000 times each year.

Then, there are patients who must self-inject themselves with a drug every days, such as diabetics who must take daily insulin. A pain-free injection device might make them more likely to follow doctors' orders.

“If you are afraid of needles and have to frequently self-inject, compliance can be an issue,” said Catherine Hogan, a research scientist in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and a member of the research team. “We think this kind of technology … gets around some of the phobias that people may have about needles.”

Search for alternatives

This isn't the first attempt to make the needle obsolete, as scientists have been searching for years for alternatives to the hypodermic needle. For example, nicotine patches slowly release drugs through the skin. But these patches can only release drug molecules small enough to pass through the skin’s pores, limiting the type of medicine that can be delivered.

Researchers have been developing new technologies capable of delivering them, including jet injectors which produce a high-velocity jet of drugs that penetrate the skin. While there are several jet-based devices on the market today, Hogan notes that there are drawbacks to these commercially available devices. The mechanisms they use, particularly in spring-loaded designs, are essentially “bang or nothing,” releasing a coil that ejects the same amount of drug to the same depth every time.

The MIT prototype is a jet-injection system that delivers a range of doses to variable depths in a highly controlled manner. It ejects the drug at very high pressure and velocity, almost the speed of sound in air, out through the ampoule’s nozzle — an opening as wide as a mosquito’s proboscis. The person giving the injection can control the force.

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Many Families In the Dark When It Comes to The 529 Tax Plan

Lower-income families less likely to know about college-savings plan

With college tuition costs growing higher and higher, saving up the needed funds is a challenge for many families. The 529 is a popular plan that helps fam...

PhotoWith college tuition costs growing higher and higher, saving up the needed funds is a challenge for many families. The 529 is a popular plan that helps families save for the future costs of tuition, but according to Edward Jones, 60 percent of Americans are clueless about what these plans are, and how they work.

The survey, which included 1,006 participants, was designed to gauge the level of awareness of the 529 plan through a series of pre-planned questions. When respondents were asked to select the best description of the plan among a list of choices, 62 percent of respondents  selected the wrong answer, and 14 percent admitted to having no idea what the answer was.

College costs have been on the rise for quite some time, and by the year 2034 tuition cost will be nearly $288,000 for a four-year private school, and $123,000 at a public school, according to recent analysis, but only a relatively small amount of households kneo the benefits of the 529 plan.

Higher-income families more knowledgeable

But the 529 survey did show that families with higher incomes knew more about the tax plan.

More than 27 percent of respondents making less than $35,000 a year didn't know what a 529 was, while 57 percent of families making between $75,000 and $100,000 a year knew exactly what it was. And 62 percent of those families making over $100,000 were familiar with the 529 plan.

The survey also showed those with college degrees seemed to be more knowledgeable of the plan, as 53 percent of of this participant group said they were familiar with 529. Out of those respondents who went to school and didn't graduate, 33 percent chose the correct answers on the survey, compared to 29 percent of those respondents who only attended high school or dropped out.

The report also went on to show that 48 percent of families with children knew the benefits of a 529 plan, regardless of what their children's ages were, and those with children between the ages of 13 and 17 were 43 percent less likely than others to know what a 529  was.

The survey also showed those families with children under the age of 13 were most aware of the tax plan, as over half identified the 529, at 52 percent.

Geography also contributed to the gaps in understanding of the 529, as the Northeast was most knowledgably (45 percent), followed by Midwest families (40 percent), West Coast (33 percent), and South (35 percent).

The survey was conducted by Opinion Research Corporation for Edward Jones.

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Gas Prices Still Falling As Holiday Weekend Begins

Fuel prices nearly 15 cents a gallon less than last year

At the start of the Memorial Day weekend, motorists will find gasoline prices that are steadily moving lower and 15 cents a gallon less than they were at t...

PhotoAt the start of the Memorial Day weekend, motorists will find gasoline prices that are steadily moving lower and 15 cents a gallon less than they were at the start of last year's holiday weekend that marks the start of summer driving season.

The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.666 per gallon, down from $3.713 last Friday, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. Fuel prices are nearly 18 cents a gallon lower than they were a month ago.

For the first time in months, the average price of diesel fuel is below $4 a gallon, clocked today at $3.964 per gallon, down from $4.017 a week ago.

Oil prices continued their decline on world markets during the week as traders worried that debt problems there would lead to slower growth. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported this week that stockpiles of crude continued to rise in the previous week while gasoline supplies declined.

Rising oil supplies

Oil inventories rose by 900,000 barrels to 382.5 million while gasoline supplies fell by 3.3 million barrels to 201 million. Consumer demand for gasoline fell by 1.9 percent from a year ago, despite being cheaper than it was last year.

In the individual states, the biggest decline in gasoline prices this week came in the states that already enjoy the lowest prices at the pump. In particular, the lowest prices are now found in the southern states.

The average price dropped by nine cents a gallon in South Carolina, seven cents in Arkansas, nine cents in Alabama and eight cents in Tennessee. States with the most expensive fuel, meanwhile, tend to be clustered in the west.

The states with the highest gas prices this week are:

  • Hawaii ($4.539)
  • Alaska ($4.518)
  • California ($4.302)
  • Washington State ($4.242)
  • Oregon ($4.221)
  • Nevada ($3.943)
  • Connecticut ($3.937)
  • New York ($3.916)
  • Illinois ($3.882)
  • Idaho ($3.817)

 The states with the lowest gas prices this week are:

  • South Carolina ($3.299)
  • Alabama ($3.357)
  • Tennessee ($3.367)
  • Arkansas ($3.370)
  • Mississippi ($3.384)
  • Oklahoma ($3.391)
  • Missouri ($3.392)
  • Georgia($3.422)
  • Louisiana ($3.434)
  • Kansas ($3.441)
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Consumers Will Be Traveling and Spending This Memorial Day Weekend

Sentiment analysis finds Americans feeling better about the economy

As more proof of the economy's improvement surfaces, consumers are starting to dig into their pockets once again. The latest sign of increased consumer spe...

PhotoAs more proof of the economy's improvement surfaces, consumers are starting to dig into their pockets once again. The latest sign of increased consumer spending comes by way of an IBM report concerning this year's Memorial Day travel.

IBM gathered consumer opinions and writings about Memorial Day from an analytic and language processing technology. Opinions were pulled from blogs, Twitter, Facebook, message boards and additional social media pages.

The study showed that plans and conversations about Memorial Day grew by 46 percent compared to this time last year, and there is a 65 percent increase in consumers planning to fly to their destination this Memorial Day weekend. In addition, more people will spend money on gas this holiday, as the report showed a 13 percent increase in discussions about driving this Memorial Day weekend.

The Social Sentiment Index also showed that retailers could benefit from consumers spending more money this weekend. According to the results, the ratio of positive comments over negative comments concerning Memorial Day shopping was 6.5 to one, which is a rise compared to last years ration of 1.3 to one.

ConsumerAffairs uses a similar sentiment analysis program to see how consumers are feeling about various brands and topics.  The 1.9 million social media postings we analyzed found Americans looking forward to the long weekend, which is not only a time to honor the nation's war dead but also traditionally marks the beginning of summer.

 

The IBM report also showed that people aren't speaking as badly about the economy as in 2011, as negative opinions have decreased by 50 percent. In 2011, 4.9 percent of bloggers and social media users spoke negatively about the U.S. economy, and only 4.9 percent spoke harshly about it in 2012.

Gas prices

And gas prices are lower than last year, causing Memorial Day travelers to hit the roads in higher numbers. In the state of New Jersey for example, the price of gas last Memorial Day was $3.80 per gallon, compared $3.55 this holiday. On the national level regular unleaded gasoline comes in around $3.68 per gallon, compared to $3.94 per gallon last Memorial Day.

"We're seeing a nice downturn in prices, and we're expecting consumers who have been holding back to venture out," said Rose White, spokeswoman for AAA Nebraska. "Here in the Midwest, we're seeing some of the lowest prices."

 

Over 34 million people are anticipated to hit the roads this Memorial Day, which is a 1.2 percent increase from last holiday.

"When analytics are applied to social media conversations, it identifies more than what people are talking about. This is valuable insight into people's preferences and attitudes about a product or a service and helps us understand why people do what they do," said Marty Salfen, IBM general manager, travel & transportation."

"Being able to predict, plan or act on sentiment around Memorial Day travel in real-time can be an opportunity for businesses to capitalize on fast-moving trends. An airline could offer fliers different, more specific services or deals, transportation officials could provide more alternate routes, retailers could staff up for the long weekend."

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Target Partners With Shopkick For All of Its U.S. Locations

Big retailer fights back against "showrooming" trend

Showrooming, where a customers goes to a brick-and-mortar-store to view an item before purchasing it online, has been the new way to shop for many of today...

Showrooming, where a customers goes to a brick-and-mortar-store to view an item before purchasing it online, has been the new way to shop for many of today's consumers. Customers will typically scan an item with their smartphone to buy it later online.

In response, many retailers have gone to painstaking efforts to get consumers to purchase items in stores, as opposed to on Amazon, for example. But now Target is actually encouraging customers to use their smartphones to scan its products before buying them.

Target this week introduced the Shopkick app, where shoppers can scan an item's barcode to build up "kicks", which are points that can later be traded in for gift cards, or free downloads from iTunes. The rewards program is already used by other retailers including CVS, Old Navy and Best Buy, and the app is free to download.

Like any loyalty program, the more points you accumulate the higher the perk. For instance, 500 points or kicks will earn you a $2 Target gift card, $1,250 kicks will score you a $5 Starbucks gift card, and 8,750 kicks will get you a $15 Papa John's gift card or movie tickets from Fandango. Not life-changing perks, but still nice to get by simply doing a two-second phone scan.

But, does the fact that Target wants you to scan an item instead of buying it sound fishy at all? Well it should, because the main purpose of Target and other retailers for joining this program is to keep you in stores longer, and have you visit more frequently. Target figures if you're rewarded for simply coming to a store to scan, you may even purchase something on the spot. Call it retail-reverse-psychology.

Target joined Shopkick back in November of 2010, introducing the program in 242 of its stores, but now it's being rolled out to all of its 1,764 U.S. locations, making Target the largest retailer to partner with Shopkick.

"We’ve learned from our guests that they appreciate being rewarded for doing what they already love to do — shopping at Target," said Bonnie Gross, Target vice president of marketing and guest engagement, in a statement. "In our test launch, Target guests in seven cities had the opportunity to experience Shopkick at Target and we received rave reviews. Now guests nationwide can start earning valuable points just by shopping our stores."

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Obesity and Kidney Stones Linked

Another reason to throw down that donut and take up running

As the population of obese Americans has increased over the last two decades, so have cases of kidney stones.The number of cases between 1994 and 2010 ne...

PhotoAs the population of obese Americans has increased over the last two decades, so have cases of kidney stones.

In fact, the number of cases between 1994 and 2010 nearly doubled.

“While we expected the prevalence of kidney stones to increase, the size of the increase was surprising,” said Dr. Charles D. Scales, Jr., of the UCLA School of Medicine. “Our findings also suggested that the increase is due, in large part, to the increase in obesity and diabetes among Americans.”

Because the survey also asks about other health conditions, and includes measurement of height and weight, the researchers were able to identify associations between kidney stones and other health conditions. The results suggest that obesity, diabetes, and gout all increase the risk of kidney stones.

It's another reason to put down that donut, eat healthier and start getting more exercise. And there may be a lesson here for health care providers.

“People should consider the increased risk of kidney stones as another reason to maintain a healthy lifestyle and body weight,” says, MD, MPH, senior author, principal investigator within RAND Health for the Urologic Diseases in America project and associate professor of urology, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “But physicians need to rethink how to treat, and more importantly, prevent kidney stones,” said Dr. Christopher S. Saigal, an associate professor at UCLA's medical school.

Treating underlying cause

The researchers note that current practice for kidney stone treatment is to focus just on the stones. Yet helping patients maintain a healthy diet and body weight, researchers say, can reduce the number of patients with kidney stones.

“Imagine that we only treated people with heart disease when they had chest pain or heart attacks, and did not help manage risk factors like smoking, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure,” said Scales. “This is how we currently treat people with kidney stones. We know the risk factors for kidney stones, but treatment is directed towards patients with stones that cause pain, infection, or blockage of a kidney rather than helping patients to prevent kidney stones in the first place.”

Kidney stones can form when urine contains too much of certain substances. These substances can create small crystals that become stones. The stones take weeks or months to form. In addition to being overweight and having diabetes, a significant risk factor for kidney stones is not drinking enough fluids, according to the National Institutes of Health. Kidney stones are more likely to occur if you make less than one liter of urine a day. That's slightly more than a quart.  

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You Take a Chance When You Pay In Advance

Ask plenty of questions when a business requires you to pay upfront

A hallmark of many scams is the requirement that you pay in advance. Once the consumer pays, the service they expect is usually lacking.However, advance ...

PhotoA hallmark of many scams is the requirement that you pay in advance. Once the consumer pays, the service they expect is usually lacking.

However, advance payments are also built into the business model of many legitimate enterprises. But safeguards are supposed to be in place to make sure that, when the time comes, the consumer gets the service they pay for. When things go awry, the law steps in ... at least in theory.

For example, many health clubs are set up on the principal of upfront payments for memberships. But it something happens and the gym closes, most states require the clubs to make provisions for refunds.

Health club membership fees

In North Carolina, Attorney General Roy Cooper has obtained a court order banning the owner of more than 20 Peak Fitness locations from operating a health club in the state for the next 12 years. He says owner Jeff Stec repeatedly violated a North Carolina law requiring health clubs to maintain sufficient funds to reimburse members if a club closes.

“Consumers who’ve paid for a gym membership deserve a refund if their health club expires before their membership does,” Cooper said. “That’s exactly why these bonds are required and why we keep pressing to make sure health clubs have them.”

Since 2006, Cooper’s office has received more than 700 complaints regarding Peak-related health clubs.

Pre-paid funerals

The funeral industry is another where there are often advance payments, particularly when a consumer decides to make and pay for their funeral arrangements while they are still living. The reasoning behind the “pre-need” arrangements is to spare family members from having to do it.

It's a well-intentioned policy but the funeral home must always set aside those funds for the expressed purpose. Sometimes they don't.

West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw this week filed suit against a funeral home and its owner alleging that the funeral director had misappropriated funds belonging to at least sixteen consumers who paid in advance for funeral arrangements.

State law requires funeral providers to deposit all payments for preneed funeral contracts in special accounts for safekeeping until the consumer’s time of need and immediately report the purchase to the Attorney General’s office.

Money not set aside

McGraw initiated an investigation in February after a consumer called his office with concerns over her mother’s preneed contract. After confirming that the funeral director had never reported her transaction to the state, McGraw’s office discovered that the owner had simply spent the consumer’s money instead of depositing it in a special trust account as required by law.

The investigation then revealed 15 additional consumers whose funds were never deposited in special accounts. Instead, the funeral director had spent their preneed contract money on other, unknown purposes. As of now, McGraw says at least $61,990.00 is missing, and more consumers are expected to come forward.

"The trust we place in others to safeguard our pre-need funds must not be in vain," said McGraw. "My office will vigorously pursue anyone who violates that trust." 

Whenever consumers are asked to pay for anything in advance, the request should not be taken lightly. It is a good idea to ask questions about how the payment will be accounted for, and what safeguards are in place to make sure the services that are being paid for will actually be delivered.

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Whole Grains Will Make Your Diet Healthier

Whole grains provide more nutrients and promote weight control

Physicians, nutritionists and physical fitness trainers tend to agree – a diet rich in whole grain foods not only promotes fitness but overall good h...

PhotoPhysicians, nutritionists and physical fitness trainers tend to agree – a diet rich in whole grain foods not only promotes fitness but overall good health.

But to bulk up on whole grains requires a little bit of knowledge and attention to detail while shopping.

Whole grain refers to the fact that all of the grain is ground up and used in the food. In the manufacturing process, grains are often “refined,” removing their outer layers and using only the starchy parts.

But many of the grain's nutrients are in the outer shells while the starchy interior contains significantly less of what's good for you. There's a big difference between whole wheat and white bread.

Examples

Examples of whole grain wheat products include 100 percent whole wheat bread, pasta, tortilla, and crackers. But most products on the grocery shelf aren't made with whole wheat, so you have to read labels carefully.

Wheat is just one of the whole grain foods. Other examples include rice, oats, cornmeal, barley. Bread, pasta, oatmeal, breakfast cereals, tortillas, and grits are examples of products made with these grains. 

Whole grains can also be healthy snacks. Popcorn, a whole grain, can be a healthy snack, depending on its preparation. Cooked in oil and coated with butter and salt, it can be as unhealthy as many other treats. But in its purest form, and air popped, it can be extremely healthy, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For your health

PhotoSheldon G. Sheps, M.D. Mayo Clinic hypertension specialist, says a diet rich in whole grain foods might also be good for your blood pressure.

“Some research suggests that eating more whole-grain foods on a regular basis can help reduce your chance of developing high blood pressure,” Sheps writes on the Mayo Clinic website. “Whole-grain foods are a rich source of healthy nutrients, including fiber, potassium, magnesium and folate. Eating more whole-grain foods offers many health benefits that can work together to help reduce your risk of high blood pressure by aiding in weight control, increasing your intake of potassium, and decreasing your risk of insulin resistance.”

Whole grain foods promote weight control because calorie-for-calorie, they make you feel more full than food made with refined grains.

Read labels carefully

When shopping for whole grain products, you have to know what to look for on the label. Read the ingredients list and choose products that name a whole grain ingredient first on the list. Look for “whole wheat,” “brown rice,” “bulgur,” “buckwheat,” “oatmeal,” “whole-grain cornmeal,” “whole oats,” “whole rye,” or “wild rice.”

The color of a food is not an indication that it is a whole-grain food. Foods labeled as “multi-grain,” “stone-ground,” “100% wheat,” “cracked wheat,” “seven-grain,” or “bran” are usually not 100% whole-grain products, and may not contain any whole grain.

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Diamond Pet Food Expands Its Dog Food Recall

Adds Small Breed Adult Dog Lamb & Rice Formula dry dog food to recall

Diamond Pet Foods is expanding a recall to include its Diamond Naturals Small Breed Adult Dog Lamb & Rice Formula dry dog food manufactured on Aug. 26,...

PhotoDiamond Pet Foods is expanding a recall to include its Diamond Naturals Small Breed Adult Dog Lamb & Rice Formula dry dog food manufactured on Aug. 26, 2011 due to potential exposure to Salmonella. No illnesses have been reported.

The product was distributed in the following states:  Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin. Further distribution through other pet food channels may have occurred. 

Pet owners may call toll-free at 1-866-918-8756, Monday through Sunday, 8 am – 6 pm EST. 

The product is Diamond Naturals Small Breed Adult Dog Lamb & Rice Formula. Only samples, 6 pound and 18 pound bag sizes are affected.

Production Code & Best Before Date            
DSL0801, 20-Oct.-2012 (Product manufactured on Aug. 26, 2011 and packaged on Oct. 20, 2011) DSL0801, 26-Aug-2012        
DSL0801, 27-Sept- 2012 (Product manufactured on Aug. 26, 2011 and packaged on Sept. 27, 2011)
DSL0801, 18-Oct- 2012 (Product manufactured on Aug. 26, 2011 and packaged on Oct. 18, 2011)
DSL0801, (Samples)

Pets with Salmonella infections may have decreased appetite, fever and abdominal pain. If left untreated, pets may be lethargic and have diarrhea, fever and vomiting. Infected but otherwise healthy pets can be carriers and infect other animals or humans. If your pet has consumed the recalled product and has these symptoms, please contact your veterinarian.

Individuals handling dry pet food can become infected with Salmonella, especially if they have not thoroughly washed their hands after having contact with surfaces exposed to this product. People who believe they may have been exposed to Salmonella should monitor themselves for some or all of the following symptoms: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramping and fever.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, people who are more likely to be affected by Salmonella include infants, children younger than 5 years old, organ transplant patients, people with HIV/AIDS and people receiving treatment for cancer.

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California's Solar Users Get Financial Credit For Cutting Back on Energy

Not everyone is happy with the decision, most notably the utility companies

For those homeowners and businesses that use rooftop solar paneling in the state of California, good news: You have some financial credit coming to you.T...

PhotoFor those homeowners and businesses who use rooftop solar paneling in California, good news: You have some financial credit coming to you.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) voted unanimously to increase the number of people who are able to take advantage of the state's "net energy metering" program. The program allows solar panel users to receive money off future utility bills, for cutting back on  California's energy demands. Net energy metering first began in the 1990s.

But some disagree with the net metering program, namely the state's three largest utility companies. They complain that while solar panel users will pay  less on their electricity bill, other consumers who don't use solar paneling will have to pay more, to maintain transmission lines and provide the upkeep of the city's electricity system.

"We're proud to be a strong supporter of solar," said Lynsey Paulo, spokeswoman for Pacific Gas and Electric Company. "At the same time, we really strongly believe that everyone needs to be concerned about this cost shift from solar customers to customers who can't afford it or choose not to go solar."

Utility companies also fear receiving less money each month, which they say could make it more of a challenge to hire and keep good utility workers.

Who would pay?

"If everyone was on net metering, who would pay for the grid that we have?" said Mike Florio, a representative of CPUC. "On the other hand, it would be problematic for [net metering] to come to an end and provide a major setback to the solar industry that has flourished in this state."

But many state officials champion the program, and consider it the perfect incentive for homeowners and businesses to continue using solar paneling, especially when costs run high to install the rooftop mechanism.

State commissioners recently changed the calculation of the metering program in order to include more people who are able to take advantage of the financial credit. The law now states it must offer the program to all solar energy users, until the amount of electricity the solar paneling creates, equals 5 percent of the "aggregrate customer peak demand."

"Today's decision ensures that the solar industry will continue to thrive for years to come, and we are fully committed to developing a long-term solution that secures the future of the industry in California," said Michael Peevey, president of the utilities commission.

While the net energy metering program is a certain win for solar users, it's a financial loss for those who can't afford the paneling. But does cutting back on California's energy demands supersede the importance of making sure some of its residents can afford rising bill costs? It's an extremely thin line for state officials to walk.

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Consumer Confidence Back at Pre-Recession Levels

Favorable job and wage prospects leading the recovery

Europe may be a basket case at the moment, but consumers in the U.S. are feeling pretty good right now. The monthly Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan ...

PhotoEurope may be a basket case at the moment, but consumers in the U.S. are feeling pretty good. The monthly Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers shows consumer confidence surged in May and is now at its highest point since October 2007.

More favorable job and wage prospects were the main factors behind the improved outlook, according to University of Michigan economist Richard Curtin.

"Consumer confidence was nearly as high in the past two years before the gains were reversed," Curtin said. "While gas prices and economic policy debates played a role in the pullbacks, changes in job expectations also had a critical impact.”

Many more consumers reported hearing about recent job gains than job losses—the fewest consumers reported hearing of job losses in May than anytime since mid 2007. In each of the past three months, a majority of consumers reported an improved economy and twice as many expected further improvement rather than renewed declines in the year ahead.

Better credit management

The fact that consumers have been paying down their credit card debt might have something to do with growing confidence. According to Equifax's May National Consumer Credit Trends Report, existing bank credit card balances as of April 2012 were 28 percent below their peak. Balances were $531 billion in April 2012 compared to slightly more than $730 billion in January 2009.

Meanwhile, consumers who want to make a credit purchase are finding it easier to do so.

"The combination of increased available credit and more timely payments among card borrowers has led to the recent growth in card lending," said Equifax Chief Economist Amy Crews Cutts. "Consumers are starting to respond to increased credit availability both in cards and other tradelines, a signal of both their financial confidence and improving economic conditions. In turn, this increased consumer credit activity bodes well for U.S. economic growth through the second half of 2012."

After the start of the Great Recession, many consumers started thinning out the credit cards in their wallets. The report shows that from October 2007 to December 2010, card accounts fell by 22 percent.

Now that consumers have begun to feel more confidence, credit card accounts are growing again. Since December 2010 they have grown by 4.7 percent, now reaching 173 million accounts.

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Online Shopping for Health Care: Is It Right For You?

Picking the best procedure and physician may not be the ideal online pursuit

You do it for your travel plans, you also do it for clothes and food shopping, so why not use the web for getting the best health care costs? Or use it to ...

PhotoYou do it for your travel plans, you also do it for clothes and food shopping, so why not use the Web for getting the best health care? Or to get the best prices for a medical procedure?

Many new companies are eager to get in on the act by bringing the convenience of shopping online to health care, according to a Bloombergreport.

With rising health care costs, and a growing number of general physicians and specialists offering services, many consumers are forced to play a guessing game when it comes to choosing the safest and most cost-efficient medical procedure and practitioner.

Castlight Health Inc., says it recognizes this consumer need and wants to provide an alternative way to seek out the best-priced physician and services, and match those prices with the best patient reviews.

Publishing patient reviews can get tricky, though, as many sites have learned. Many doctors and dentists feel strongly that no patient could possibly be competent to critique their services and are quick to slap suits on anyone who posts a negative review. In one extreme case, a Florida plastic surgeon filed suit in a Virginia court against an anonymous critic, using the argument that someone in Virginia might have read the review.   

"This is about changing the way people shop for health care, and as a consequence, changing the way care gets delivered," said Giovanni Colella, one of the co-founders of Castlight Health Inc.

True, but keep in mind that any physician who gets all positive reviews may have found a way to sue or buy his way to his sterling rating.

Healthcare shopping

Castlight is a company which specializes in health care shopping, similar to companies like Healthcare Blue Book. While Castlight typically works with those companies with self-insured health plans, Healthcare Blue Book mostly serves those consumers that pay cash for their medical services, due to not having insurance.

The United States currently has 49.9 million people lacking health insurance at the moment, and 16.3 percent of the population were uninsured in 2011, according to the Census Bureau. Low-income families, U.S. citizens ages 19 to 25, and foreign born U.S. citizens, make up the majority of the uninsured in the U.S., and many of them choose needed health care solely on price, which is a dangerous way to shop for medical care.

While Castlight charges a fee to both individuals and companies for its services, Healthcare Blue Book, owned by CareOperative LLC is free, and consumers can view prices based on their selected procedure or local area.

The way it works is, patients would speak to a doctor about recommended treatments of care, then go to the Blue Book website and compare prices based on that medical advice. The patients would then call the doctor back and negotiate medical prices based on their research.

If the doctor is unwilling to match prices, patients are encouraged by Blue Book to phone at least three other providers for services, while letting them know you're paying in cash. The company says this should only be done for non-urgent medical care.

Challenging process

However, many health care experts believe that unlike travel or clothes shopping, comparing medical prices can be an intricate process, making it more challenging for consumers to make an educated selection of doctor or pricing.

"This stuff is over everybody’s head," said Paul Keckley, executive director of the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions in Washington State. "There's always going to be a certain group, we think it's about two percent, that will really act on this."

David Belk a California physician also agrees that window shopping for needed surgeries, tests, and medications can be a difficult task for most people, and may be outside of their everyday consumer knowledge.

"You know the difference between filet mignon and chuck steak, but you don’t know the difference between generic amlodipine and brand-name Norvasc," which is Pfizer Inc.’s blood pressure medication," he explained.

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Stoneberry Kitchen Table Sets Recalled

The chairs can collapse

About 200 Stoneberry kitchen table sets are being recalled. The chairs can collapse during normal use, causing a fall hazard.This recall involves th...

PhotoAbout 200 Stoneberry kitchen table sets are being recalled. The chairs can collapse during normal use, causing a fall hazard.

This recall involves three-piece oak table and chair sets. The table is square-shaped with four straight, rectangular legs. The chairs have a white padded cushion seat and a slatted backrest. Both the table and the wooden parts of the chairs are a light pine color. The set has the style number 404285 however this number does not appear anywhere on the set.

The kitchen table sets were sold through the Stoneberry catalog and website from January 2012 and March 2012 for about $160. They were made in China.

Consumers should immediately stop using the product and contact Stoneberry for instructions on returning the product for a full refund.

For more information, contact Stoneberry at (800) 704-5480 between 6 a.m. and midnight CT Monday through Friday, or visit Stoneberry's website at http://www.stoneberry.com. Stoneberry is contacting its customers directly.

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Survey: Americans Confused About What's Healthy Food

Consumers say they would like more information about what they should eat

Is is possible that obesity is the problem it is because American just don't know how to eat properly any longer?It doesn't seem likely since children ar...

PhotoIs it possible that obesity is the problem it is because American just don't know how to eat properly any longer?

It doesn't seem likely since children are supposed to learn about nutrition in school and government agencies have been offering guidance for decades. But the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s 2012 Food & Health Survey offers some intriguing results.

First, it found that most people think a great deal about the healthfulness of their diets and want to make improvements. Yet an overwhelming majority confessed to not really knowing what to eat to be healthy and maintain a healthy weight.

Confusing

Seventy-six percent said that ever-changing nutritional guidance makes it hard to know what to believe. And when it comes to making decisions about food, consumers today rely most often on their own research rather than third-party experts.

Six out of 10 Americans have given a lot of thought to the foods and beverages they consume and the amount of physical activity they get. Yet, only 20 percent say their diet is very healthful and 23 percent describe their diet as extremely or very unhealthful; less than 20 percent meet the national Physical Activity Guidelines.

“This year’s Survey was designed to reveal consumer behavior, not just thoughts and desires. Clearly, there is a disconnect for many Americans,” said Marianne Smith Edge, Senior Vice President, Nutrition and Food Safety, IFIC Foundation. “Some questions also reveal clear differences based on gender and age.

Gender differences

For example, men feel it is harder to eat a healthful diet than to find time to exercise, while women feel just the opposite. Older respondents tended to value a healthy diet while younger people did not.

The Survey found that 90 percent of Americans have given at least a little thought to the ingredients in their food and beverages. Consumers say they are trying to eat more whole grains, fiber and protein, while cutting calories, sugar, solid fats and salt.

However, 87 percent said the most important factor in the food they choose is taste, followed by price, which dropped significantly as a factor compared to 2011, and healthfulness. In terms of trying to lead healthier lives, nearly 60 percent of Americans believe that online and mobile tools are helpful.

While 55 percent of Americans said they are trying to lose weight, 23 percent of obese consumers and 44 percent of overweight consumers say they are not trying to lose weight.

Fewer than one in 10 U.S. consumers could correctly estimate the number of calories they need to maintain their weight and only three in 10 believe that all sources of calories play an equal role in weight gain.

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Be Careful With Daily Deal Websites

Marketing expert says too many consumers make impulse buys

A tough economy and an increasingly mobile, interconnected consumer universe has made daily deal websites like Groupon a hot commodity. Consumers like them...

PhotoA tough economy and an increasingly mobile, interconnected consumer universe has made daily deal websites like Groupon a hot commodity. Consumers like them and so do businesses.

But they may not be such a good deal for either consumers or businesses. For consumers,they may lead to more impulse buys.

"I would advise users to use discretion," said Esther Swilley, assistant professor of marketing at Kansas State University. "Make sure it's something you really need or want, and you're not just purchasing it because it's there and time is counting down."

Hard-to-move merchandise

Daily deal websites and flash sale websites often offer prices well below what would be seen in a retail store or through typical online shopping. Often its just a way for a store to dispose of merchandise no one wants. If you slap a discount on it with a quick expiration, it can create a sense of excitement, Swilley says.

Whether daily deals are really such great deals may be open to question, but consumers are still in love with the concept, according to a ConsumerAffairs computerized sentiment analysis of more than 1.9 million postings about Groupon on social media over the last year.

 

Businesses, on the other hand, are sometimes finding that participation on these discount programs doesn't bring them the desired results. Businesses offer a service or product at a discount in order to bring in new customers, with hopes that they will enjoy what they purchased and return for more.

"What's happening, though, is that people aren't coming back after that initial coupon use," she said. "They think, 'this was cheap the first time, I want it to be cheap again.' They're not really gaining a true customer but simply a one-time user who is deal-prone. Now retailers are reconsidering the value of web coupons."

The ConsumerAffairs analysis found little change in net sentiment for Groupon over the last year.

 

Flash sales

Daily deal sites are an updated version of newspaper coupons. Flash sale sites take it a step farther, taking advantage of the fact that people out shopping can access the web through their smartphones for an item that may be only on sale for a few hours.

MyHabit, one of the more upscale flash sale sites, though much smaller than Groupon, commands amazing loyalty from its members, with a net positive sentiment approaching 100% in a ConsumerAffairs analysis of about 12,000 consumer postings.

 

"Flash sale websites are often used as a marketing tool," Swilley said. "If a company has a new product coming out, they may want to see how the public feels about it. They use a flash sale to lower the price a bit so that a few people will buy it and get it out there. Then, when someone asks where you bought your shoes, they can go to the store and purchase them."

Flash sale websites, such as Gilt, often operate through email. Potential customers sign up to receive a list of daily deals, or visit the business's website, with the promise to receive a large discount if they purchase a product within a short period of time.

MyHabit and Google Offers

Well-known companies are now getting into the game. Amazon offers the high-end flash sale site MyHabit and Google created Google Offers, a daily deal site.

Consumers have been eager to take advantage of what may be perceived as a quick bargain -- these websites have created a billion-dollar industry. But Swilley warns would-be buyers to take a second look at what they're considering.

"You may see a pair of shoes that is marked down to $500 from $1,600," she said. "Yes, it's a discount, but would you have seriously considered an expensive pair of shoes if the picture wasn't in front of you?"

Purchasing an item from a time-limited website is only advisable if you search out the deal, not if the deal comes to you, Swilley said. She suggests using these websites to make travel plans or purchase high-end items -- but only if you were looking for them in the first place.

Swilley's advice is no doubt right on target, but MyHabit users seem to have no regrets about their purchases, as shown in this chart:

 

 

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Southwest Taxis Closer to Launching Latin America Flights From Houston

Mayor announces her support of Southwest's plan while United seethes

Southwest Airlines may need to stock up on salsa to supplement its peanuts and pretzels. Houston Mayor Annise Parker has thrown her support behind the disc...

PhotoSouthwest Airlines may need to stock up on salsa to supplement its peanuts and pretzels. Houston Mayor Annise Parker has thrown her support behind the discount carrier's plan to build a five-gate international facility at Houston's William P. Hobby Airport. Southwest is hoping to launch flights to Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean from Houston Hobby, a proposal that is giving newly-merged United-Continental a severe case of heartburn.   

Latin America is United's fastest-growing market and Southwest's entry would introduce the kind of price competition that generates turbulence in legacy carriers' executive suites.  

"Today is a great day for Southwest Airlines, a great day for the city of Houston, and a great day for Houston's international travelers who have suffered for far too long from high fares and limited options," said Gary Kelly, Southwest Airlines Chairman, President, and CEO. "I want to thank Mayor Parker for her support. There is still much work to do, but I believe our proposal shows that we are committed to bringing international service to Hobby, without the city taking on additional debt."

Southwest has agreed to spend $100 million to build the international facility at Hobby.  Although the mayor has now signed on, the plan must till be approved by the city council. Southwest has been lobbying the flying public as well as politicians and regulators, launching a publicity campaign and Web site titled www.freehobbyairport.com, where travelers can learn more and sign a petition supporting the carrier's plan.

United's argument

PhotoUnited, the world's largest airline by traffic, opposes the move, which it says would weaken Houston's larger airport, Bush Intercontinental. United claims a Southwest entry would kill jobs and hurt the local economy.

United currently dominates international traffic from Houston, with 88 daily fights to 54 destinations in Latin America, all from Bush Intercontinental. Southwest says it would operate 20 to 25 international flights daily from Hobby within eight years.

A study commissioned by the city's airport system found that new international flights would reduce the market's average fares by 55% and attract 1.5 million additional fliers a year, delivering a $1.6 billion impact and up to 18,000 jobs for the region. United calls those figures "grossly exaggerated," and concludes that competition from Southwest would force United to pull 50 daily flights to Latin America from Houston, resulting in a regional economic hit of $295 million and 3,700 jobs.

If it is shut out of Houston, Southwest will likely look to Austin or San Antonio as its Latin American gateway. A 33-year-old federal regulation bans it from flying internationally out of Dallas, where it has a large operation at Love Field.

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Higher MPG Standards - Good for Consumers? Or Bad?

Consumer advocates endorse the 54.5 mpg standard; auto dealers aren't so enthused

Will higher mileage vehicles save consumers money or price them out of the new-car market?  That's the debate that's being heard as the Obama Administ...

PhotoWill higher mileage vehicles save consumers money or price them out of the new-car market?  That's the debate that's being heard as the Obama Administration pushes its 54.5-mpg-by-2025 standard.  Auto dealers and some manufacturers have been saying the standard will make cars so expensive consumers won't be able to afford them.

But now, the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) is fighting back, saying more efficient cars must be a top consumer protection priority and releasing what it calls the top ten reasons the new standard will save consumers money.

“What’s not to like?” said Mark Cooper, Director of Research for CFA, of the 54.5 mpg standard, which is expected to be adopted late this summer. “Better gas mileage means more money in Americans’ pockets. Last year household gasoline expenditures set a record, reaching an average of over $2,850. Consumers can’t stomach these prices and the new standards are the only way they’re going to get some relief.”

The National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) says there's plenty not to  like. It released a study in April indicating that higher vehicle prices resulting from proposed fuel economy rules will cut millions of potential new-car buyers out of the market in 2025.

“To work, fuel economy improvements must be affordable,” said Don Chalmers, president of Don Chalmers Ford in Rio Rancho, N.M. “While you can mandate what automakers must build, you can’t dictate what customers will buy, nor can you dictate if a bank will make a loan.”

Who's right?

PhotoHere are CFA’s ten reasons why steadily raising fuel economy standards to 54.5 mpg by 2025 for passenger cars and trucks will benefit consumers and the nation:

(1) The standards lower the total cost of driving from the minute you drive off the lot. For the typical consumer who takes out a five-year auto loan, the monthly gas savings are greater than the increase in the monthly payment needed to buy a more fuel-efficient vehicle. Over the life of a vehicle covered by the new standards, the average buyer will bank a net savings of $3,000.

(2) The standards improve gradually over time, allowing the auto industry to build up their new, more fuel-efficient vehicles at a reasonable, steady pace. Car companies redesign their vehicles on a three-to-five-year schedule, so introducing new technologies can take time. Increasing efficiency over time makes the introduction of new technology achievable.

(3) Consumers will choose the vehicles they want. If they want a truck or an SUV, they’ll be able to buy them, but the vehicles will just be more efficient. Under the standards, different classes of vehicles are required to meet different standards. Standards are higher for compact cars and lower for SUVs and pick-up trucks. Automakers do not have to switch to selling only compact cars and sedans to meet the standards.

(4) Consumers can choose the technologies they want—they won’t be forced to buy into any one technology. Automakers will be able to meet the standards by improving gasoline-powered vehicles, or they can decide to delve into hybrids, electric vehicles, and other more advanced technologies. The standards do not favor any particular technology. Automakers will compete to deliver the best mix of vehicles across types and technologies. Consumers will have the full range of choices, and automakers will be able to offer the vehicles they think will sell best.

(5) Consumers will enjoy better, more fuel-efficient vehicles from ALL automakers. Under the standards, no single company can shirk the rules. If an automaker does not meet the standards, it will pay a fine. The major automakers support the standards because they know they can meet it—and they know that it is in their best interests to compete under a national standard that applies to all automakers.

(6) The standards will make the U.S. auto industry stronger. The rules are set at a level that puts the U.S. on par with the global auto market. In order to compete, automakers must spread the costs of product development across products that rely on a platform that meets global demand. Edging closer to international mileage standards for efficiency also makes American vehicles more competitive.

(7) Consumers value fuel-economy -- it's a worthwhile improvement in quality. It’s expected that the new standards will increase auto prices by about $300 per year over the next 15 years. That is less than the increases the automakers have imposed on the public by voluntary increases in quality over the past 15 years and today.  Better fuel economy is priority #1 for enhancing quality.

(8) Consumers will be able to finance fuel-efficient vehicles. With gasoline now being the highest cost of driving - higher than most Americans’ monthly car payment - some banks have begun to recognize that more fuel-efficient vehicles are more affordable, and are factoring that into their lending decisions.

(9) Lower income households will not be hurt by the new standards. Critics who want to keep consumers tethered to the expensive gasoline pump claim that the small increase in upfront cost could hypothetically render very low income-households ineligible for new car loans. This argument is a red herring. Consumer data shows that lower-income households are very unlikely to be in the new car market. These individuals are much more likely to buy used vehicles.

(10) In fact, lower income Americans are likely to benefit from the standards.  Low-income families buy used cars. The standards will accelerate fleet turnover, increasing the supply of used cars.

“These ten reasons why the new fuel economy standards are good for consumers also show why they are good for the nation and enjoy the support of not only consumers, but automakers, labor unions, national security experts and environmentalists,” Cooper concluded.

NADA thinks not

PhotoThe auto dealers say the proposed rules, combined with the Obama administration’s previous fuel economy mandates, will raise the average price of passenger cars and light trucks for the 2025 model year by nearly $3,000, according to estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. CFA, as noted above, estimates the increase at $300 per year over the next 15 years, for a total of $4,500.  

The NADA study claims that nearly 7 million lower-income consumers, such as college students and working families, will not qualify for auto financing to cover the additional cost.

“Loan qualification is based mainly on the customer’s income, existing debt and the vehicle’s price,” Chalmers said. “The resulting calculation is simple: fewer car shoppers will qualify for auto financing with higher vehicle costs.” 

The study is based on an evaluation of a consumer expenditures report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. NADA analyzed the financial profiles and purchasing behavior of a large sample of U. S. consumers to calculate debt-to-income ratio for households.

“The unintended consequences of the proposed fuel economy increases are clear,” said David Wagner, the primary author of the study and an analyst with the NADA Used Car Guide. “If the price of a vehicle goes up by the government estimate of almost $3,000, millions of people will no longer be able to finance a new vehicle.”   

Doug Greenhaus, NADA’s chief regulatory counsel for environment, health and safety, says the government needs to better understand the impact of the proposed fuel economy rules on consumers and auto lending before doubling down on new mandates.

“Disregarding vehicle affordability will undermine the environmental and national security benefits the administration is seeking,” Greenhaus said. “The proposed MY 2017-2025 fuel economy rules should be delayed until there is a more accurate picture of how prospective buyers likely will react.”

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RealNetworks' Not-So-Free Trials Will Cost It $2.4 Million

"Deceptive pre-checked boxes and fine print" cited by prosecutors

Over the last seven years, more than 500 complaints flowed into the Washington State Attorney General’s Office and the Better Business Bureau regardi...

PhotoOver the last seven years, more than 500 complaints flowed into the Washington State Attorney General’s Office and the Better Business Bureau regarding Seattle-based digital media provider RealNetworks, Inc.

Consumers spoke of “odd charges” appearing on their credit cards, complaining of bills for monthly subscriptions for premium television, sports or game content that they never ordered.

“Deceptive pre-checked boxes and fine print obligated consumers to not-so-free trials for subscription services they didn’t want in the first place,” said Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna. “People were charged for months — sometimes years — paying hundreds of dollars for subscriptions they knew nothing about.”

A lawsuit and settlement filed today in King County Superior Court by McKenna’s Consumer Protection Division aims to end practices that are unfair and deceptive under Washington state’s Consumer Protection Act. Those practices include so-called “free-to-pay conversions” in which free trials rapidly result in monthly charges – unless consumers take quick action.

Other problems

Attorney General’s Office attorneys and staff reviewing consumer complaints also found other concerning trends. “Some said they had difficulty getting RealNetworks to stop the charges and others complained that when they called the company to cancel subscriptions, they were pitched even more ‘free trials,’” said Paula Selis, who heads the Attorney General’s High Tech Unit.

Jennifer Horwitz of Seattle was one of those consumers.

“RealNetworks didn’t dispute that I had cancelled their service before the free trial expired but when I asked them for a refund, they refused,” she said today. “I had to fight my way up the chain of command. They continued to stonewall, only agreeing to a partial refund ‘as a courtesy to me.’  I believe this was calculated to make a profit by misleading consumers and taking money they were not entitled to.”

Today, McKenna announced a settlement with RealNetworks that will end the questionable practices and provide restitution for consumers throughout the country. Among numerous requirements, RealNetworks agrees to comply with the federal Restore Online Shoppers Confidence Act, which requires a customer’s express consent before he or she can be charged for a free trial that converts into a paid subscription.

While McKenna’s office brought a previous case regarding unauthorized charges by online merchant Intelius, this is the first time a defendant in a state action was required to comply with the new federal law.

Under the terms of the settlement, RealNetworks is also required to:

·       Stop using pre-checked boxes to obtain consent from consumers to purchase products or services;

·       Stop offering free-to-pay conversions that do not clearly disclose all the terms of the offer, including subscriptions that are automatically charged on customers’ credit cards;

·       Provide an online method of cancelation so that consumers may easily cancel their subscriptions;

·       Send e-mail or other reminders that consumers are enrolled in a free-to-pay conversion, along with instructions for how to cancel the subscription;

·       Cancel subscriptions within two days of a consumer’s request to do so; and,

·       Inform consumers who have called to cancel a subscription of additional subscriptions on their account.

Refund pool 

The settlement also provides for a $2 million claims-based pool to provide full restitution for consumers who were victimized during the three year period prior to December 2009 when the practices detailed in the Attorney General’s complaint were most common.

“The company has voluntarily made numerous changes since December 2009 to curb the practices that are at issue in the lawsuit and this, thankfully, has resulted in fewer recent complaints to our office,” McKenna said.

Consumers who were unknowingly signed up using pre-checked boxes between January 2007 and December 2009 will receive a postcard indicating that they are eligible for a refund. Additionally, consumers may visit realnetworksrestitution.com to submit a claim. RealNetworks also agrees to pay $400,000 in attorney’s fees.

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PBS Should Stop Pushing Fast Food, Consumer Advocates Argue

Groups want PBS to end its ties to Chick-fil-A

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), Public Citizen and Corporate Accountability International want the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) t...

PhotoThe Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), Public Citizen and Corporate Accountability International want the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) to end a four-year marketing agreement between the popular children’s show Martha Speaks and the fast food chain Chick-fil-A.

The multi-pronged promotion, whose stated goals include "to reach children” and “drive brand preference and restaurant traffic,” includes 15-second ads for Chick-fil-A before and after Martha Speaks TV episodes; advertising on PBS Kids; and in-store giveaways at more than 1,600 Chick-fil-A locations.

In 2011, 56 million Chick-fil-A kids’ meals were distributed in Martha Speaks co-branded bags, and PBS executives refuse to say what they have planned for the 30 months left in the promotion, Public Citizen said in a press release.

An alternative

“Public broadcasting should provide an alternative to the commercial networks that subject children to a barrage of advertisements,” said Elizabeth Ben-Ishai, campaign coordinator for Public Citizen’s Commercial Alert project. “PBS is a civic institution that can provide a refuge for children from the influences of advertising and marketing. Instead, the Martha Speaks partnership with Chick-fil-A, a business that markets unhealthful food to children, lets kids and families down.”

Given nationwide concerns about childhood obesity, one might think that PBS would be circumspect about using a highly regarded children’s show to lure kids to Chick-fil-A, especially since a kids’ meal can contain as much as 670 calories, 29 grams of fat and 25 grams of sugar, Public Citizen said.

Instead, it said PBS is touting the “success” of its fast food campaign to attract other sponsors looking to target children.

The Sponsorship Group for Public Television features a case study on the Chick-fil-A campaign to convince companies that sponsoring kids’ shows on PBS can help meet their marketing goals. And PBS member station WGBH—which produces Martha Speaks—nominated its Chick-fil-A campaign for a kids marketing award. On June 7 in New York City, the Chick-fil-A/Martha Speaks promotions are competing for a Cynopsis Kids Imagination Award for “Best Promotional Campaign.”

“PBS deserves lots of awards, but using a beloved children’s character to entice children into fast food restaurants is nothing to celebrate,” said CCFC’s Dr. Susan Linn. “Families deserve more from public television, and parents depend on PBS to provide a safe, healthful environment for children.”

Junk food

“A growing number of studies find that ending junk food marketing directed at kids could spare the health of millions of children,” said Sara Deon, Value [the] Meal campaign director at Corporate Accountability International. “Simply put, the less kids are exposed to fast food marketing, the less likely they are to be susceptible to diet-related diseases as adults. PBS needs to put our kids’ health first and stop this promotion with Chick-fil-A.”

The Chick-fil-A sponsorship marks the first time that advertising before and after a PBS children’s show has run simultaneously with an in-restaurant promotion. It’s also the first time a PBS station has celebrated its food marketing to children by nominating itself for an award.

“I wholeheartedly support public television and abhor the ongoing political attacks on PBS,” added Linn. “But we have to hold PBS accountable. If they won’t put kids first, who will?”

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Survey Slams Econo Lodge, America's Best Value Inn

Microtel, Suites by Wyndham get top ranking

Ahh, it's that time of year again. Mosquitoes dust off their wings to amp up efforts to annoy and break last years bite record, school children give in to...

PhotoAhh, it's that time of year again. Mosquitoes dust off their wings to amp up efforts to annoy and break last year's bite record, school children give in to their growing indifference towards year-end school work, and dads recruit unwilling sons to push lawnmowers in sweltering heat. It's summertime folks. Which also means travel, family vacations, and finding the best hotels.

Today, Consumer Reports released its ratings on 44 of the biggest hotel chains in the U.S., which was based on survey responses from 22,000 participants.

The survey found that Econo Lodge and America's Best Value Inn were considered the worst among all of the hotel chains, and Microtel Inn & Suites by Wyndham were the highest-rated chain among budget hotels.

Perhaps, but a computerized ConsumerAffairs sentiment analysis of about 5,200 postings to social media over the last year finds Econo Lodge with net positive sentiments as high as 100% over the last 12 months.

 

Not everything about Econo Lodge was good, of course. Consumers expressed some misgivings about several aspects of their stay, while others reacted to negative reviews:

 

Kevin of Hernando, Miss., would certainly be in the negative column.

"At 3 in the morning, water was gushing from the ceiling and when I went in the bathroom, the whole roof caved in and someone could have been seriously hurt," he said in a posting to ConsumerAffairs. "We moved to a different room at 3 am and the owner/manager would not do anything for our trouble, no discount, no nothing."

The Consumer Reports survey had questions pertaining to upkeep, comfort, service and value of the hotel, and both budget and luxury hotels were included.  The Ritz-Carlton came in first among participants in the luxury hotel arena, earning high marks in each of the survey's categories. 

Similar types of lodging facilities like Hyatt and Embassy Suites and Westin scored second best, as the report says that many hotels are stepping up efforts to re-woo the customer, since declining disposable income, travel, and consumer spending have all hurt the lodging industry.

But making a room spiffier certainly doesn't decrease a hotel's price, as a report from PricewaterhouseCoopers showed that an overnight stay will cost an average of $107, which is 5 percent higher than room costs in 2011.

Legwork needed

But Consumer Reports' Senior Editor Tod Marks, says travelers must do a some legwork to find the best deals for this summer.

"Now if you really want to save and get the rock-bottom drop dead low rate, do what I do," he said. "Use Hotwire, Priceline's Name Your Own Price program, or use Travelocity's Top Secret Hotels. They don't reveal the name of the hotel until after you've committed to purchasing that room for a given night."

"Hotels have taken back the night by imposing best-rate guarantees," he added. "That is, find an advertised price lower anywhere else and we'll match it plus give you a bonus."

In totality, hotels have gotten much better according to the survey, as 53 percent of respondents said they had excellent check-in and check-out experiences, which is up from 42 percent back in 2006. Also, 44 percent of participants scored its service as excellent, while upkeep was scored just as high. Scores in both categories were up by seven percentage points from 2006.

Conversely, 27 percent of respondents said their rooms were flawed with outdated decor or unattractive beds.

However, Marks said there are rooms for each type of traveler and  budget, and if one does their homework they're bound to find something to their liking.

"No one would ever confuse Microtel Inn & Suites for the Ritz, but each does a great job of pleasing its particular customers," he said. "Satisfaction depends on what you're seeking. And our survey clearly shows that across all price points, there are superb hotel choices to fit any guest's needs."

Consumer Reports also listed some helpful tips to find the best places to stay this summer:

Give opaque sites a shot.

  • Travelers who are not loyal to a particular hotel chain and are willing to choose from among a number of brands at a certain price level should consider opaque websites such as Priceline (Name Your own Price option) and Hotwire (Hot Rates). Consumer Reports has discovered through years of experimenting that they are the single best way to save money.

Haggle.

  • Only 28 percent of survey respondents tried bargaining, yet 78 percent of those who did won an upgrade or a lower rate. Ask about non-advertised specials, and use free parking or a different bed size as a bargaining chip.

Find Internet-only offers.

  • Terms such as "best available" and "corporate" used to indicate an unbeatable rate. Today the cheapest advertised rates tend to be on the Internet. But they come with strings: full payment when booking, no cancellations, and no changes. Wyndham offers discounts of up to 25 percent off the otherwise best available rate for advance purchases. Other Internet specials come and go, so check often.

Get in touch if a better deal is found.

  •  Almost every chain and online travel site makes the same boast: If a customer is already booked but finds a cheaper advertised price on the same date at the same hotel for the same type of room, they can submit an online claim within 24 hours of booking and they'll receive a refund of the difference plus a bonus. Hilton offers a $50 bonus. But chains won't match prices from opaque sites.

Be loyal.

  • Most programs are free to join, and members can earn free nights, future discounts, room upgrades, airline miles, and rental-car savings.

Show your age or affiliation.

  • A 10 percent discount is the norm for older guests, particularly at lower-prices hotels. Similar discounts often apply to those in the military, government employees, and members of groups such as AAA.

Take a gamble.

  • Hoteliers quietly maintain a "fade" rate, the minimum they'll accept per room for walk-in guests. If you're ready to walk after hearing the lowest rate, the clerk may use the fade rate to earn at least some revenue from a vacant room.
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Facebook Increasingly Used to Solicit Kidney Donors

Requests appear to be more powerful when they go viral

There are nearly a billion people using Facebook now, so maybe it makes sense that if you are in need of a kidney, you would put the word out to your Faceb...

Photo
Graphic: University of Maryland Medical Center

There are nearly a billion people using Facebook now, so maybe it makes sense that if you are in need of a kidney, you would put the word out to your Facebook friends. Apparently, more and more people are doing it.

Researchers at Loyola University Medical Center recently examined 91 Facebook pages that were seeking kidney donations for patients ranging in age from two to 69. Apparently it's effective.

Twelve percent of the pages reported receiving a kidney transplant and 30 percent reported that potential donors had stepped forward to be tested to determine whether they were compatible. One page reported that more than 600 people had been tested as potential donors for a young child.

Dr. Alexander Chang, a kidney specialist at Loyola, led the research. He and his colleagues said they are unable to give Facebook all the credit. It's possible, he says, that recipients and families also used other tactics, such as seeking news coverage.

Chang began his research last fall and as it was concluding this month, Facebook announced an organ donation initiative that allows users to post their organ donation status, letting friends know that they have signed up with their state registry to donate their organs after they die.

Who's doing the asking?

In Chang's study, most of the appeals for a kidney were posted by the patients themselves. The rest were posted by children of the recipient or other family and friends.

Some of the study's findings raise ethical concerns. Three percent of the pages received offers to sell kidneys, mostly from people in Third World countries. Would-be donors typically asked for $30,000 to $40,000. However, selling organs is illegal.

Only five percent of pages mentioned the risks of kidney donation, and only 11 percent mentioned associated costs.

"Use of social media could be an effective way to solicit kidney donation, but more study is needed to determine how to do this safely and with enough knowledge to make informed decisions," Chang said.

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Track Shoes are the New Air Jordans for Younger Consumers

They're more stylish and comfortable, and a lot more affordable

High-top or low top? Leather, suede or a combination of both? Vintage or newly released? These are the typical questions the average sneaker connoisseur as...

PhotoHigh-top or low top? Leather, suede or a combination of both? Vintage or newly released? These are the typical questions the average sneaker connoisseur asks themselves when looking for their next  sneaker purchase. But these days the sneaker-head is asking a different question: Where are the track shoes?

Many who usually buy their sneakers for style typically lean towards the leather basketball shoe, but this same customer base has turned to track shoes to complement their outfit or personal style. Industry experts say today's track shoe is more stylish and comfortable and is attracting a much younger demographic.

The Nike Free Run, which comes in both men and women styles has been a big seller across the U.S., for about $100 a pair.

Sales in the U.S. for track shoes have been up by 14 percent in the last year, and totaled $6.46 billion in revenue, according to NPD Group. And national retailers like Dick's Sporting Goods and Foot Locker are seeing their largest profits in quite some time.

Hip-Hop

Since the 80s, those in the Hip-Hop community have turned the basketball shoe, that was previously worn solely on the court, into everyday shoe wear. Acts like Run-DMC had legions of kids buying shell-toe Adidas in every color imaginable.

In the 90s Air Jordans became the craze. As soon as Michael Jordan landed from his first NBA dunk, younger consumers either begged mom and dad for the expensive sneakers, or pennies from summer jobs were saved, to avoid being teased on the first day of school for wearing last years sneakers. Such pressure for a kid, huh?

But in the thousands, reduced consumer spending and recessionary times have made younger consumers spend less on their usual footwear, and since Nike, Adidas, and Reebok have all released stylish, comfortable and reasonably-priced track shoes, younger shoppers aren't spending the usual $300 to $400 on those obscure, hard to find basketball shoes.

In fact, NPD says that running shoes are at the top of the current athletic shoe industry. In 2011 Nike made $20.9 billion in global sales, and 14 percent of those sales were from its running shoe collection.

NPD also says that Adidas, Foot Locker, Dicks, Skechers USA Inc., Shoe Carnival Inc., and DSW Inc., have all seen at lest a 20 percent sales increase in 2012, and Nike's 2012 sales have been increased by 10 percent.

"We've seen the running-shoe business become a fashion business, as well as a comfort and innovation business," said Cohen, who is based in Port Washington, New York. "When you put that together, that's a positive perfect storm."

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16 Million Homeowners Still 'Under Water' In First Quarter

But behind the numbers, story might not be that bleak

Nearly 16 million U.S. homeowners were "under water" in the first quarter of 2012, owing more on their mortgage than their home is worth. Zillow.com's quar...

PhotoNearly 16 million U.S. homeowners were "under water" in the first quarter of 2012, owing more on their mortgage than their home is worth. Zillow.com's quarterly negative equity report shows collectively, underwater homeowners owed $1.2 trillion more than their homes were worth.

While negative equity is a serious drag on the housing market, a closer look at the numbers suggest it's not quite as bad as it seems. Zillow's analysis suggests foreclosure is not imminent for most underwater homeowners. Nine out of 10 continue to make their mortgage and home loan payments on time, with only 10.1 percent more than 90 days delinquent.

Under water but not drowning

In addition, many homeowners in negative equity are not deeply underwater. Nearly 40 percent of underwater homeowners owe between one and 20 percent more than their home is worth. At the other end of the scale,15 percent of underwater homeowners - approximately 2.4 million - owe more than double what their home is worth.

And of course, some markets have a much more serious equity problem than others. In the Las Vegas metro area, more than one-quarter of all homeowners with mortgages owes more than double what their home is worth. In other markets, prices are just about back to pre-recession levels.

"While it was disappointing to see negative equity numbers remain so high, it is important to note that negative equity remains only a paper loss for the vast majority of underwater homeowners," said Zillow Chief Economist Stan Humphries. "As home values slowly increase and these homeowners continue to pay down their principal, they will surface again.

A drag on recovery

That said, Humphrey believes negative equity will remain an issue for the housing market as a whole, and poses a risk to any recovery. Not only does negative equity tie many to their homes, by making homeowners unable to move when they may want to, but if economic growth slows and unemployment rises, more homeowners will be unable to make timely mortgage payments, increasing delinquency rates and eventually foreclosures.

On a state level, Nevada has the highest percentage of negative equity, with 66.9 percent of all homeowners with mortgages underwater. Arizona is right behind (52.3 percent), followed by Georgia (46.8 percent), Florida (46.3 percent) and Michigan (41.7 percent).

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Study: Rock Concerts Taking Toll On Teen Hearing

Study shows just one concert can result in hearing loss

Baby boomers are increasingly in need of hearing aids and their children and grand-children may not be far behind, especially if they attend a lot of conce...

PhotoBaby boomers are increasingly in need of hearing aids and their children and grandchildren may not be far behind, especially if they attend a lot of concerts, just as boomers did in their youth.

A study that tested teens' hearing before and after attending a rock concert found that 72 percent of them experienced some hearing loss.

The concert used for the test featured a popular female vocalist, not a heavy metal rock band normally associated with deafening decibels. The hearing loss was expected to be temporary but physicians such as Dr. M. Jennifer Derebery, lead author and a doctor at the House Clinic, are worried about the cumulative effect.

Single exposure

“Teenagers need to understand a single exposure to loud noise either from a concert or personal listening device can lead to hearing loss,” she said. “With multiple exposures to noise over 85 decibels, the tiny hair cells may stop functioning and the hearing loss may be permanent.”

Before the concerts the teenagers got a lecture on the importance of wearing ear protection but only three of the teens opted to use the offered ear plugs.

Three adult researchers sat with the teenagers. Using a calibrated sound pressure meter, 1,645 measurements of sound decibel (dBA) levels were recorded during the 26 songs played during the three hour concert. The sound levels ranged from 82-110 dBA, with an average of 98.5 dBA. The mean level was greater than 100 dBA for 10 of the 26 songs.

Violated OSHA standards

The decibel levels experienced at the concert exceeded what is allowable in the workplace, according to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA safe listening guidelines set time limits for exposures to sound levels of 85 dB and greater in the workplace.

The volumes recorded during the concert would have violated OSHA standards in less than 30 minutes. In fact, one third of the teen listeners showed a temporary threshold shift that would not be acceptable in adult workplace environments, Derebery said.

Following the concert, 53.6 percent of the teens said they did not think they were hearing as well after the concert. Twenty-five percent reported they were experiencing tinnitus or ringing in their ears, which they did not have before the concert.

More teens with hearing loss

Derebery and other researchers are especially concerned because in the most recent government survey on health in the United States National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2005-2006, 20 percent of adolescents were found to have at least slight hearing loss, a 31 percent increase from a similar survey done from 1988-1994.

Other research has raised concerns about personal music players with earbud speakers, which are often used by very young children.

To Derebery, the findings serve as a wake-up call and should lead to more research.

 “It also means we definitely need to be doing more to ensure the sound levels at concerts are not so loud as to cause hearing loss and neurological damage in teenagers, as well as adults,” said Derebery. “Only three of our 29 teens chose to use ear protection, even when it was given to them and they were encouraged to do so. We have to assume this is typical behavior for most teen listeners, so we have the responsibility to get the sound levels down to safer levels.”

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Report Shows Consumers Getting a Better Handle On Debt

Bad-debt write-offs down 52% over three years

Homeowners still struggle to make mortgage payments, but when it comes to other types of debt, consumers appear to have their financial lives under control...

PhotoHomeowners may still struggle to make mortgage payments, but when it comes to other types of debt, consumers appear to have their financial lives under better control.

A report by Equifax, a credit reporting bureau, shows finance write-offs -- excluding home mortgages -- plunged by 52 percent over the last three years. The write-offs have decreased to $26.2 billion as of April 2012 from $54.1 billion in April 2009.

Equifax attributes the decline in defaults to both improvements in general repayment patterns and lower numbers of bankruptcies. Bankruptcy dollars have declined at a slower rate, comprising 15.7 percent of write-off dollars in 2009 but 18.5 percent of write-off dollars today.

This is due to faster declines in the average dollar size of general delinquencies, relative to the peak of the recession, the company reports.

Paying down debt

Consumers are also paying down their debt. Non-Home Finance balances declined by seven percent or $193 billion since October 2008, but the deleveraging trend ended about a year ago, with balances now 1.5 percent higher than in May 2011.

Balances on auto loans are increasing following the trend in rising auto sales, while credit card balances are declining at a slower rate due to sustained origination increases and payment improvements that mirror pre-recession levels.

There are signs, however, that consumers are once again running up credit card balances. Based on current trends, card balances will stop declining and begin increasing during 2012, Equifax said.

As has been noted previously, student debt totals are trending higher, in part because more people are returning to school in hopes of improving their job prospects. Student lending balances rose 66 percent to $766 billion in November 2011 from the pre-recession average of $460 billion, before falling back to $753 billion as of April 2012.

Looser purse strings

Part of the reason that debt is rising again, Equifax notes, is that lenders are, for the first time since the recession, beginning to increase loans.

"Consumers are now starting to see greater accessibility to credit opportunities and they are taking advantage of those opportunities, though in moderation," said Equifax Chief Economist Amy Crews Cutts. "The American household's balance sheet is looking much better now, with debt burdens down significantly due to both write-offs and consumer-led deleveraging, and slow but significant improvements in the economy."

Even the home mortgage picture is improving. Equifax reports home mortgage balances have decreased $1.2 trillion since October 2008, posting a fourth consecutive year of decline.

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Study: Calcium Pills Double Heart Attack Risk

Researchers suggest consumers meet their calcium needs through diet alone

Some people, especially women, take daily calcium supplement tablets to guard against bone loss. But new research suggests doing so doubles the chances of ...

PhotoSome people, especially women, take daily calcium supplement tablets to guard against bone loss. But new research suggests doing so doubles the chances of suffering a heart attack.

The study, which included 24,000 people age 35 to 64, is reported in the medical journal Heart. The authors, while noting that calcium is important, suggested they believe consumers should ingest it naturally.

"We should return to seeing calcium as an important component of a balanced diet," they wrote.

Although the study did not find a direct cause and effect between the use of supplements and heart attacks, the researchers speculate that taking supplements in tablet form provides too much of the mineral to the body at one time.

Industry responds

Taylor C. Wallace, Ph.D., Senior Director, Scientific & Regulatory Affairs at the Council for Responsible Nutrition, the supplement industry trade group, said previous research has shown positive effects on risk factors associated with heart health.

"This study itself is not reason enough to discount the important benefits of calcium, but consumers with questions—as well as their doctors—should consider these following points: The original study wasn't designed to measure cardiovascular events; consequently confounding factors for cardiovascular disease were not equally distributed across the study groups," Wallace said.

Wallace says the calcium supplement group in the new study had a population with a greater incidence of high cholesterol at baseline, and also included more smokers who were more likely to smoke for a longer duration. In terms of considering the relative risk, of the 851 individuals taking supplements containing calcium, only seven events occurred in users of supplements containing only calcium.

Does benefit outweigh risk for elderly?

"The bottom line is consumers need calcium, and particularly for the elderly, who are at such great risk of falls and fractures due to weak bones, removing calcium supplements from their diets could put them at even greater risk for those kinds of problems," Wallace said. "Our advice is for consumers to be aware of how much calcium they get from their diet, supplement with calcium if needed, and check with their doctor or other healthcare practitioner to determine their own personal needs."

Public health officials, meanwhile, have always counseled consumers to try to get most of their calcium needs from their diet.

"If your typical calcium intake is too low, first try to increase the calcium in your diet," the New York Department of Health says on it's website. "There are many calcium-rich foods to help you meet your calcium needs through diet alone."

According to the department, people over age 50 need 1,200 mg of calcium in their diet each day.

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Feds Propose Prepaid Card Rules

Prepaid card users now lack many protections afforded credit- and debit-cardholders

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is previewing proposed rules to protect consumers in the fast-growing prepaid card market.  The agency...

PhotoThe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is previewing proposed rules to protect consumers in the fast-growing prepaid card market.  The agency is seeking input on how to ensure that consumers’ funds on prepaid cards are safe and that card terms and fees are transparent.

“The people who use prepaid cards are, in many instances, the most vulnerable among us,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “All consumers need, and deserve, products which are safe and whose costs and risks are clear upfront.  Yet right now prepaid cards have far fewer regulatory protections than bank accounts or debit or credit cards.  That’s why we are launching a rulemaking to promote safety and transparency in this emerging market.”

The Bureau also launched Ask CFPB: Prepaid Cards – a searchable online tool with easy-to-understand answers to more than 80 questions about prepaid cards.   The questions cover a range of topics from a general overview of prepaid cards and their fees to how to obtain, reload, and use a prepaid card. 

The Bureau’s rulemaking will focus on “General Purpose Reloadable” prepaid cards which allow consumers to load the cards with money upfront and use them as if they were checking account debit cards.  According to a 2009 FDIC study, 9.7 percent of all households used these prepaid cards.  Mercator Advisory Group reports that the prepaid market totals $57 billion and is expected to grow at a rate of 42 percent per year from 2010-2014.  The two largest prepaid card program managers have reported a jump from 3.4 million active cards in 2009 to over 7 million this year.  It is projected that the total dollar amount loaded onto prepaid cards will hit $167 billion in 2014.

None too soon

CFPB's action comes none too soon, according to Consumers Union and other consumer advocates. An April Consumer Reports analysis of prepaid cards found that industry competition is beginning to help bring down fees, but fees aren't always disclosed up front and can still add up quickly. Moreover, prepaid cards offer weaker consumer protections than those provided by traditional debit cards.

"The prepaid card market has exploded in the U.S. but consumers still don't enjoy the protections they need to ensure they are getting a fair deal," said Michelle Jun, senior attorney for Consumers Union. "It's time for the CFPB to require clear disclosure of all fees in a simple format so consumers know the costs before they purchase a card. Prepaid cards should get the same strong protections as traditional debit cards so consumers have the peace of mind that their money is safe if their card is lost or stolen."

Many prepaid cards are now offering new features to enable consumers to establish credit files or help those with bad credit to rebuild their credit record. But Consumer Reports found that information from prepaid card transactions is not useful to help a consumer build a credit record. Consumers Union said that the CFPB or the Federal Trade Commission should monitor credit building claims made by prepaid card issuers to ensure consumers aren't being misled.

Much of the growth in the prepaid market is coming from consumers who are using the prepaid card as an alternative to a checking account. The largest prepaid card program manager in the United States reported that funds directly deposited onto its prepaid cards increased by nearly 70 percent from 2010 to 2011. And the second largest prepaid card program manager reported that 42 percent of their customers had direct deposit linked to their accounts at the end of 2011.   

Despite its growth, the prepaid market is still largely unregulated at the federal level. With today’s Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the Bureau plans to evaluate several topics:

  • Fees and Terms Disclosure: The lack of an industry-wide standard on prepaid card fee disclosure may make it difficult for consumers to understand the cost of the product or compare fees.  Often, consumers do not know what protections or fees come along with their prepaid cards prior to purchase because such disclosures are contained inside the packaging.  Consumers need to be able to comparison shop in order to make well-informed decisions. The Bureau will evaluate the best way to balance the need for disclosure with the fact that many cards are purchased at retail locations and space for disclosures is limited. Consumers should also know whether or not their funds are protected by FDIC insurance.  The Bureau plans to evaluate how prepaid card issuers should disclose the insurance status of cardholders’ funds. 
  • Unauthorized Transactions: Federal regulations require that credit and debit card issuers limit consumers’ liability when their cards are used without their authorization. These regulations do not extend to prepaid cards.  Many prepaid card issuers voluntarily offer this protection, but it is not standard across the industry. The Bureau will evaluate the costs and benefits of card issuers providing limited liability protection from unauthorized transactions.
  • Product Features: Most prepaid cards do not offer any credit features.  In general, cardholders may not be able to withdraw or spend more than the funds loaded on their cards. However, some prepaid cards allow their cardholders to overdraw their accounts, and some offer small-dollar loans or a line of credit. Similarly, very few prepaid cards have a savings account.  Even though such savings accounts typically have high interest rates, consumers do not seem to take advantage of the opportunity to save. Another feature is that of credit repair, which claims to offer consumers the opportunity to improve or build credit. The Bureau is looking for public input on the costs, benefits, and consumer protection issues related to those product features.

The CFPB is holding a field hearing today in Durham, N.C. to hear from consumer experts, industry stakeholders, and the public about the Bureau’s prepaid card rulemaking. 

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Groupon Settles for $8.5 Million For Not Listing Its Deal Restrictions

Class action suits charged the company deceived users by creating "sense of urgency"

Are you a Groupon user? If so, you may be getting some money coming your way, as a class-action lawsuit was filed against the company for not disclosing th...

PhotoAre you a Groupon user? If so, you may have some money coming your way, as a class-action lawsuit was filed against the company for not disclosing the certificate's deal restrictions.

Groupon will be paying a sum of $8.5 million to consumers who were not able to cash in on Groupon deals, due to deal expiration dates not being listed on the certificate.

The lawsuit is made up of 17 different cases that have been merged into one, and brought to the California courts. Groupon decided to settle, but was excused from having to admit any wrongdoing.

Initially, the company said it didn't understand what all of the fuss was about, as it said its policy allows for customers to redeem unused certificates for the same amount they've purchased it for, regardless of the date.

Sense of urgency

Obviously the plaintiffs saw it another way, and said that Groupon not clearly listing its guidelines was deceptive and allowed customers to believe certificates were more time-sensitive than they really were.

The plaintiffs also said not plainly alerting the consumer to Groupon's restrictions "effectively creates a sense of urgency. Consumers therefore feel pressured and are rushed into buying the gift certificates and unwittingly become subject to the onerous sales conditions imposed," said the suit.

Each of the 17 named defendants will receive an amount of $500 each, while the rest of the settlement will be split between anyone who purchased a Groupon certificate between Nov. 1, 2008 and Dec. 1, 2001. Consumers have until July 6 to file their reimbursement claims. You can download a claim form at https://grouponvouchersettlement.com/SettlementVoucherClaimForm.aspx

In addition to the financial settlement, the Chicago-based company will also provide vouchers that can be used towards the customer's initial Groupon purchase. If the voucher isn't accepted by business owners, consumers can file a second claim for a personal check to be mailed.

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Satellite Communicator Now Accessible Through iPhone

App connects iPhone data to two-way satellite

It's very easy to wander out of range of a cell tower and discover you have no bars. It's even easier if you happen to be hiking a mountain trail or sailin...

PhotoIt's very easy to wander out of range of a cell tower and discover you have no bars. It's even easier if you happen to be hiking a mountain trail or sailing on the ocean.

Last fall DeLorme, a satellite communications company, introduced a two-way messaging device – the inReach – providing those in the remote wilds a means to send out an SOS message and summon help.

Now the company has introduced an app, allowing consumers with an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch to transform their devices into a global two-way satellite communicator for use outside traditional wireless coverage areas.

While you can't make phone calls, users can send and receive messages to and from cell phones, email contacts and other inReach users, anywhere in the world. And, if the mood strikes you as you reach the summit of a mountan, you can also post messages to Facebook and Twitter.

Chat anywhere

"DeLorme is now extending the unique inReach two-way SOS, personal communication, and tracking capabilities to a far broader universe of users worldwide," said Mike Heffron, DeLorme CEO. "This underscores our commitment to making affordable two-way satellite communication solutions available to as many people as possible."

The inReach devices start at $249 and can send out an SOS message to a monitoring station. GPS allows others to track your movements in real time.

The iPhone app provides expanded data capability, allowing you to send and receive email and text messages. Service plans start at $9.95 a month.

Though the company is not promoting this particular use, the app can probably be used when traveling outside the country, when sky high roaming charges normally kick in. Consumers may be able to bypass roaming charges by using inReach to send and receive data.

DeLorme calls inReach the “first consumer-affordable satellite communicator with two-way SOS and personal text messaging, message delivery confirmation, Follow-Me/Find-Me Tracking and Location, and global coverage.” In addition to the Apple app, there is an existing app for Android devices.

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Are You Getting Interest On Your Checking Account?

Some banks and credit unions offer very attractive rates if you can meet certain requirements

Certificates of deposit (CDs) pay very little interest. A passbook savings account pays even less. But if you shop around carefully, you can find a bank th...

PhotoCertificates of deposit (CDs) pay very little interest. A passbook savings account pays even less. But if you shop around carefully, you can find a bank that offers a fairly decent interest rate on your checking account balance.

In its 2012 High-Yield Checking Survey, Bankrate.com found the rate for high-yield checking accounts is 2.05 percent, more than 34 times the current national average for an interest-bearing checking account.

The average high-yield checking average percent yield (APY) has dropped from 2.56% last year and 3.30% in 2010, however, it still handily beats the next best alternative for liquid cash - an online savings account - provided the high-yield checking accountholder meets the requirements every month.

Must meet certain monthly requirements

Banks reward these checking account customers, as long as the customers meet a certain number of requirements each month. The requirements usually include performing a certain number of debit card transactions, using direct deposit, and taking advantage of automated bill payments.

When a number of banks introduced these high-yield checking accounts, they found that customers moved huge amounts of cash into their checking accounts, to take advantage of the high rates. So in recent years banks have made adjustments.

Most now cap the amount of your checking balance that is eligible for the high rates. The remaining balance earns interest at a much lower, market rate.

The Bankrate survey found the most common balance cap is $25,000 but the 10 highest-yielding accounts all have balance caps of $15,000 or less. Failing to meet the monthly requirements drops the average APY to a miniscule 0.08 percent.

No-brainer

"For accountholders that can routinely meet the monthly requirements, high-yield checking accounts are a no-brainer cash investment," said Greg McBride, CFA, senior financial analyst for Bankrate.com. "Investors should calibrate the balance they plan to hold in the account with an APY offering that maximizes their return."

Another reason to take advantage of high-yield checking is, instead of you paying the bank money each month in overdraft and other fees, the bank pays you. Keeping your “savings” in your checking account all but guarantees you won't overdraw your account. Careful spending discipline must be exercised, however, to make sure you don't start spending your “savings.”

To come up with its list, Bankrate.com surveyed 57 high-yield checking accounts offered by banks, thrifts and credit unions in the U.S. Twenty-three of those accounts can be opened online or by phone from anywhere in the country, the company said.

Credit Unions tended to have the best rates. For example, Consumers Credit Union pays 4.09 percent on the first $10,000 deposited in its interest-bearing account. Bankrate's full list can be found here.

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Company Releases New Talking Service For Your Car

Dragon Drive says it can reduce, not increase, distracted driving hazards

In the past few years companies like Volkswagen, Ford, GM and Nissan Motors, have been promising  to offer Wi-Fi in its cars, much to the chagrin of t...

PhotoIn the past few years companies like Volkswagen, Ford, GM and Nissan Motors, have been promising  to offer Wi-Fi in their cars, much to the chagrin of the National Transportation Safety Board, which believes it lessens the driver's ability to drive safely.

As an alternative to using the web for needed info while driving, Nuance Communications Inc., released what it calls Dragon Drive, a computer-voiced assistant that provides Web-like help while driving.

"As connectivity continues to push into the car, bringing with it a host of new services and features, the risk of driver distraction is becoming a key issue for every vehicle manufacturer," said Jack Bergquist, Automotive Analyst."

"Vehicle manufacturers are increasingly turning to natural voice-based interfaces to simplify more complex command tasks and to provide information and data back to the driver in a way that avoids them needing to take their eyes off the road."

Dragon Drive

Available to consumers this summer, Dragon Drive has the ability to listen and answer emails, respond to text messages, and create messages by merely speaking and telling the assistant what you would like it to say.

The new technology also acts as a GPS system providing directions, finding local businesses, searching songs, and accessing basic web information. All of these features are commanded by voice.

"Millions of cars around the world already use Nuance voice recognition for voice dialing and controlling the climate system, but all those activities are relegated to controlling technology in the car," said Mike Thompson, senior vice president of the mobile division at Nuance. "What's new here is we've extended that control to the cloud. Now you can interact with the Internet as you are driving along."

The new driving technology could also bring down the number of accidents caused by texting and talking on cell phones, its promoters suggest.

In a 2010 report, the National Safety Council estimated there are 1.6 million car accidents each year caused by texting and cell phone use.

"The entire automotive ecosystem faces a critical challenge – keep consumers connected to the content they love, without imposing dangerous distractions behind the wheel," said Arnd Weil, vice president and general manager of Nuance Mobile.

"Dragon Drive has been designed from the ground up with a focus on voice and natural language bridging that gap to give consumers the ability to take full advantage of the broad range of services today’s connected car has to offer."

Nuance sells Dragon Drive directly to car makers, so it's not a technology one can purchase separately or download, which is the product's downside. If you want to use the service, you would have to buy a car that already has it installed. 

Currently, Dragon Drive is available in six languages, including English, Spanish, French, German, and Italian. Other languages will be added in the future, the company says.

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Family Dollar Draws Fire For Planned Tobacco Sales

Chain says it's simply responding to consumer demand

Family Dollar's announcement that it will begin carrying tobacco products has brought a howl of protest from anti-smoking groups.In a letter to the compa...

Photo
Consumers rate Family Dollar

Family Dollar's announcement that it will begin carrying tobacco products has brought a howl of protest from anti-smoking groups.

In a letter to the company's CEO, about a dozen national public health and advocacy organizations called the decision a “dire disappointment” and urged that it be reconsidered.

"Family Dollar's decision to sell tobacco goes up against the company's commitment 'to improve the quality of life of [its] customers and Team Members', given that tobacco is the No. 1 cause of preventable death in the United States," said Cheryl G. Healton, President and CEO of Legacy, a smoking cessation organization. "Selling tobacco at Family Dollar could heavily impact the lives of those Americans who already suffer disproportionately from tobacco's economic and health consequences."

The groups charge the tobacco industry has deliberately marketed tobacco brands to low socio-economic and minority youth and adults, pointing out that smoking is greatest among adults with working class jobs, low educational levels, low income, and those who are unemployed – groups that comprise the very communities Family Dollar serves.

Low-income neighborhoods

Since Family Dollar stores are often found in neighborhoods with low-income and middle income families, the groups say the company has the potential to increase access to what they call “the nation's deadliest consumer product.”

"Family Dollar Stores have traditionally served many Latino and minority communities around the country," said Dr. Jeannette Noltenius, the National Director of the National Latino Tobacco Control Network (NLTCN). "Selling tobacco products that have been proven to be addictive, that prematurely kill one of every three customers and are sold cheaply to youth creating new tobacco customers, would change the way Latinos perceive these stores, from a family friend to a family threat. We urge the owners and leadership of Family Dollar Stores to stop and think that this move will affect the health and lives of our communities and that they will be held accountable for expanding the access to these dangerous products just to make more money."

Legacy spearheaded the letter, which supports the efforts of Break Free Alliance and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The American Academy of Pediatrics and a group comprising all living former U.S. Surgeons General, directors of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and secretaries of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare and Health and Human Services (Citizens' Commission to Protect the Truth) also signed the letter urging Family Dollar to reconsider its decision.

The company has defended its policy as a business decision based on customer demand.

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EPA OKs Two New Bed Bug Killers

New preparations contain oil from the Neem tree

We hope you're not having bed bug problems but if you are, the Environmental Protection Agency has issued registrations for two new products that contain N...

PhotoWe hope you're not having bed bug problems but if you are, the Environmental Protection Agency has issued registrations for two new products that contain Neem oil, made from Neem trees found in Southeast Asia and Africa.
 
The EPA says the preparations are non-toxic and have a long history of safe use in other applications.
 
The two new products are 
  • TER-TRU1, containing 5.5% Cold Pressed Neem Oil, a ready-to-use formulation for spot treatment by residential and commercial users.
  • TER-CX1, containing 22.0% Cold Pressed Neem Oil, is a concentrate formulation for commercial use in the treatment of whole rooms.
Cold Pressed Neem Oil has a non-toxic mode of action, is naturally occurring in the environment, and has a long history of safe use for other applications.
 
Cold Pressed Neem Oil is pressed directly from seeds of the Neem tree, a tropical evergreen tree found in Southeast Asia and Africa. The oil contains various compounds that have insecticidal and medicinal properties. It is also used in making products including shampoos, toothpaste, soaps, and cosmetics.
 
Based on the data submitted to the EPA, these new products meet the required standards for safety and effectiveness. Performance trials conducted at the approved label rates show both products control bed bug adults, nymphs, and eggs.
 
One of the EPA’s goals is to actively work with industry and researchers to identify new compounds (or new uses of existing compounds) to control bed bugs, and help pest management professionals and the public obtain the latest information and tools for effective bed bug control.  EPA said it expedited the processing of this registration to meet public health pest needs.
 
These two products have been added to the EPA’s Bed Bug Product Search Tool, an online resource for searching EPA-registered bed bug products. Along with the EPA’s Bed Bug Information Clearinghouse, the online resources aim to provide information useful in the prevention and control of bed bug infestations.
 
To access the database of EPA-registered Bed Bug products, visit: http://cfpub.epa.gov/oppref/bedbug/
 
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Encouraging Housing Trends Continue

April home sales were higher and so were prices

Slowly but surely, the U.S. housing market appears to be clawing its way back to health.The latest evidence is a report by the National Association of Re...

PhotoSlowly but surely, the U.S. housing market appears to be clawing its way back to health.

The latest evidence is a report by the National Association of Realtors (NAR), showing sales of existing homes rose by 3.4 percent from March to April, on a seasonally adjusted basis. Sales are up 10 percent from April 2011.

Drilling deeper into the numbers, NAR says the base of buyers appears to be undergoing a healthy expansion.

“It is no longer just the investors who are taking advantage of high affordability conditions,” said NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun. “A return of normal home buying for occupancy is helping home sales across all price points, and now the recovery appears to be extending to home prices.”

Fewer investors

Indeed, investors were less active last month. All-cash sales fell to 29 percent of transactions in April from 32 percent in March; they were 31 percent in April 2011. Investors, who account for the bulk of cash sales, purchased 20 percent of homes in April, compared with 21 percent in March and 20 percent in April 2011.

More importantly, Yun says he believes the housing market has shifted from one that overwhelmingly favors buyers to one that is much more balanced.

“But in some areas it has become a seller’s market,” Yun said.

"It's encouraging to see several improving economic and housing indicators, which are pointing to a continuing real estate recovery," said Margaret Kelly, CEO of RE/MAX, a national real estate sales franchise. "While home prices are still low and interest rates remain at historically low levels, it's likely that many more potential homebuyers will leave the sidelines and jump into this market."

The RE/MAX National Housing Report shows median home prices were 3.2 higher in April than March and a solid 5.9 percent higher than April 2011.

NAR's April numbers reflect that as well. The national median existing-home price for all housing types jumped 10.1 percent to $177,400 in April from a year ago; the March price showed an upwardly revised 3.1 percent annual improvement.

“This is the first time we’ve had back-to-back price increases from a year earlier since June and July of 2010 when the gains were less than one percent,” Yun said. “For the year we’re looking for a modest overall price gain of 1.0 to 2.0 percent, with stronger improvement in 2013.”

One reason prices are creeping higher is there were fewer foreclosures among the sales last month. Distressed homes – foreclosures and short sales sold at deep discounts – accounted for 28 percent of April sales, down from 29 percent in March and 37 percent in April 2011. Foreclosures sold for an average discount of 21 percent below market value in April, while short sales were discounted 14 percent.

The strongest sales increase was in the northeast last month, rising 5.1 percent. Sales rose 4.4 percent in the west, 3.5 percent in the south and 1.1 percent in the Midwest.

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Verizon Offers New Video Service and Global Roaming to Its Users

Now you can watch dumb movies on your smartphone

Verizon has now tossed its hat into the video and mobile device ring, releasing a service it calls Viewdini. The service will allow users to watch any type...

PhotoVerizon has now tossed its hat into the video and mobile device ring, releasing a service it calls Viewdini. The service will allow users to watch any type of video movie or television show on their mobile device.

The service uses Verizon's Wireless' 4GLTE network, providing access to viewable content from a host of vendors such as Netflix, Hulu Plus, mSpot and cable operators. More video sources are soon to be added, as well as Verizon Fios the company says.

"Verizon Wireless has the network to deliver the video choices our customers want with the quality and speed customers demand," said Dan Mean, CEO of Verizon Wireless. "Working with a wide range of providers, we're giving our customers a simple and intuitive way to find shows, movies and other videos from the sources they have relationships with and discover new sources of video as well."

Verizon's new video component was first announced at the National Cable and Telecommunication Association annual conference, and creators say they've made it easy for users to navigate a wide array of movie titles and other content.

Search by title

Users can search for a video by title, actors name or they can search by topic. Once a video is selected, the Viewdini service will tell the customer if the video can be streamed at no charge, if it costs, or if it can be viewed through rental or purchase.

Those with the the 4GLTE Android will be the first ones able to use the service, and Verizon said it will be adding other operating systems in the near future.

Meanwhile, Verizon has also announced that it added global roaming capabilities to four of its phones. Motorola's DROID Razr, DROID Razr Maxx and DROID 4 and HTC'sRezound, will all have a global roaming function added. The company plans to notify its users through digital notification concerning when the global feature will be accessible. 

Customers will now be able to use their smartphones in 220 countries, instead of purchasing annoying calling cards or buying cheap disposable cell phones.

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Tattoo Removal Procedures Surge 32 Percent in One Year

In a down economy, tattoo removal practices growing by leaps and bounds

Looking for a job with plenty of growth potential in an increasingly tough economy? Maybe you should consider a career in the exciting world of tattoo remo...

PhotoLooking for a job with plenty of growth potential in an increasingly tough economy? Maybe you should consider a career in the exciting world of tattoo removal.

Yes, tattoo removal.

The Patient's Guide, a medical industry publication, reports that laser tattoo removal procedures climbed 32 percent from 2011 to 2012. The most-cited factor for getting rid of what seemed like a good idea at the time is “employment reasons.”

"We've seen a marked increase in tattoo removal laser appointments," said Jasson W. Gilmore, CEO & Co-Founder of The Patient's Guide. "The increased awareness of laser tattoo removal, economic pressure and the explosion in tattoo popularity have all converged to drive up demand for this procedure."

Dr. Eric Bernstein, renowned laser expert and Associate Clinical Professor at University of Pennsylvania, also notes a significant increase in the number of patients who desire tattoo removal for career advancement or for employment reasons.

"I think this is as wrong as any other kind of discrimination, but patients tell me that their tattoos are affecting their professional lives,” Bernstein said. “Many feel that their body could be holding them back and this has resulted in more folks seeking tattoo removal."

With increasing demand for tattoo removal services, skin care clinics that provide these services are in a growth mode.

Today tattoo removal is performed using a laser procedure, which has been improved over time. Typically, black and darker colored inks can be removed completely.

Laser Tattoo removal is performed by dermatologists who treat other types of skin issues as well. If years of study and medical school isn't for you, there may be other jobs available in medical practices that specialize in tattoo removal.

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Doctors Say Wearing Skinny Jeans Is a Health Risk

In fact, all tight clothing can cause problems, not to mention those stiletto heels

Are you a skinny jeans kind of person? When looking for your next pair of denims, does the sleek skin tight look appeal more to your fashion sense over the...

PhotoAre you a skinny jeans kind of person? When looking for your next pair of denims, does the sleek skintight look appeal more to your fashion sense over the wide baggy look? If the answer is yes, listen up: a doctor says wearing skinny jeans can actually be a health risk. 

Baltimore surgeon Dr. Karen Boyle says skinny jean lovers could be in danger of getting a nerve disorder called meralgiaparesthtica.

"It's a disorder that occurs when one of the nerves that runs in the outer part of a thigh gets compressed. And pressure on it causes symptoms of tingling, numbness and pain in the outer part of the thigh," she said.

Boyle also says that women are especially prone to the disorder and noticeable symptoms are typically nonexistent. She also spoke of a recent diagnosis she gave to one of her female patients who wears the slim-fitting jeans.

Floating sensation

"One woman described it as floating sensation when she was walking. Her thighs kind of felt weak and tingly and she got pain in the thighs. So if you're having that kind of pain and tingling sensation, you should probably loosen up your jeans a little bit," she warned.

Medical experts have also said wearing clothing that is too tight can lead to a host of ailments, such as back pain, yeast infection, acid reflux, stomach pain, and blurred vision. Who would have thought being a trendster would be such a health detriment?

And Boyle isn't the only physician who has warned consumers of this particular health risk. Dr. John Michael Li, a neurologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, has coined the term "tight pants syndrome".

"The pain and discomfort for some patients, it’s very uncomfortable, and so they require medication," he said.

Female consumers aren't the only ones who tend to buy clothing that's too tight. According to a study conducted by Cornell University, around seven out of ten men purchase shirts that are too small.

"You have your carotid vessels going up to the brain, and so sometimes people can have some restriction in blood flow," Li told a Chicago news outlet. "There’s no need to cause yourself injury to just be fashionable."

Buying shoes that are too tight is also a medical concern, said Dr. Boyle. And they can cause more damage than just blisters or bunions on your feet. Especially for women.

"So when you wear high heels the axis of your pelvis changes and what happens is your pelvis tilts and your buttocks kind of kick out a little bit and your legs are longer looking which is why women like to wear stilettos. But because the pelvis tilts some, it further accentuates the pressure that's caused on those nerves. So it can make the symptoms worse," she said.

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Survey: Companies Want To Hire 2012 College Graduates

Web design, graphic arts among the most-sought skills

Recent college graduates can start to exhale in relief about whether they'll be able to find a job after graduation or not. A newly released national surve...

PhotoRecent college graduates may be able to exhale in relief about whether they'll be able to find a job after graduation. A newly-released national survey by the Academy of Art University and CALinnovates, finds that 70 percent of businesses plan to hire 2012 graduates within the next year, and only 11 percent said they would hire less graduates in the next year.

This comes as great news for recent college grads, as they've been on the front lines of the the employment shortage that's persisted over the past few years. The survey also showed that most companies see improvment in the economy, as merely 15 percent addmitted to being worse off than six months ago, and 9 percent believe the economy will continue to decline within the next six months.

The survey also shows that 55 percent of its participants said they're optimistic about the furture success of their company, and 37 percent believed the economic climate and success of their industry would remain the same.

Results of the survey also detailed what companies considered to be the best assets for a potential employee to have. About 32 percent of employers said they consider creative ability extremely valuable, while 48 percent thought creative ability was only somewhat valuable.

Which ones?

But which graduates stand the best chance of securing employment?

About 70 percent of the companies said they would be hiring those graduates with a background in Web Design, and 55 percent said they'll be hiring graphic design majors. In addition, 67 percent of companies that are based in the arts said they would hire consultants or full-time employees with arts or education degrees.

"Businesses are ready to hire, and that is promising news for the class of 2012," said Dr. Elisa Stephens, President of Academy of Art University.

Mike Montgomery who is executive director of CALinnovates, which is based in the Bay Area, believes that companies will have to be proactive to secure the proffesional talent within the area.

"To tap into the potential of all this region has to offer, our workforce needs a 21st century education to compete in the 21st digital economy," he said.

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2013 Lexus GS350 Recalled

Steering control issues

Toyota is recalling about 660 Lexus GS350 vehicles from the 2013 model year. The company said the electronic steering control unit may malfunction, ...

PhotoToyota is recalling about 660 Lexus GS350 vehicles from the 2013 model year. 

The company said the electronic steering control unit may malfunction, causing the steering wheel to becoe off-center when the car is started with the steering wheel turned.

This could cause the car to go in an unexpected direction.

Toyota will notify owners and Lexus dealers will update the softeare free of charge. Customers may contact Toyota at 1-800-331-4331.

Vehicle Make / Model:   Model Year(s):
     LEXUS / GS350   2013
Manufacturer: TOYOTA MOTOR CORPORATIONMfr's Report Date: MAY 16, 2012
NHTSA CAMPAIGN ID Number: 12V221000NHTSA Action Number: N/A
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Study: 85 Percent of Grads Will Move Back Home

Today, it's becoming the norm, researcher says

Graduation ceremonies have just about concluded for 2012, meaning hundreds of thousands of newly-minted graduates are about to head out into the cold, crue...

PhotoGraduation ceremonies have just about concluded for 2012, meaning hundreds of thousands of newly-minted graduates are about to head out into the cold, cruel world.

In this tough job market, that means many will soon be headed back to their childhood bedrooms, according to a researcher at Johns Hopkins University.

Katherine Newman, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins, estimates that about 85 percent of today’s college students will return home to live at some point after they graduate, based on her research for her latest book, The Accordion Family: Boomerang Kids, Anxious Parents, and the Private Toll of Global Competition.

“Today, it’s really close to something of a majority experience,” said Newman, dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins. “It’s part of an elongating life course that is affecting both young people and their parents.”

Not just a product of the recession

Despite what you might think, however, Newman says the current economic climate didn’t cause this moving-home trend, which she says began to emerge in the 1980s when the entry level job market for young people began to develop rough patches. The recession is exacerbating the need for college grads to shelter the cost of living at the Inn of Mom and Dad.

“Many young people are finding that they need an internship after college or they need to take a job that doesn’t pay so well to get the experience so they will qualify for something better later,” Newman said. “And it can be very difficult to manage all of that on top of the debt they may have as undergraduates without some help from their families which often takes the form of a roof over their heads.”

While neither parent nor offspring particularly likes the arrangement, Newman says consolidating households can be a very smart move, benefitting not just budget-conscious young adults but their parents, too.

Some parents like it

After interviewing many families, she found that the while baby boomer parents would have avoided the same move in their youth, they are welcoming their so-called “boomerang kids” with open arms. Having worked through their children’s childhood years, they were not tired of them at age 18 and refilling the empty nest has a way of making people feel young.

“I find that the temperature is quite good inside those households, maybe even better than it was before,” Newman said. “For most young people, the ‘accordion family’ represents a haven in a heartless world. They know their families are there to support them, that this is partly what families are for. Parents, in turn, come to understand that they play a vital role in supporting the ambitions and dreams of the next generation.”

But what’s good for families isn’t necessarily good for the economy as a whole. At the national level, the mass homeward migration could bring about negative economic consequences, Newman says.

As a generation of young adults delays starting new families, she predicts that population growth will fizzle and economic gains will stall, based on her case studies of how the trend is playing out in Italy, Spain and Japan.  

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The Self-Driving Car Comes Closer to Being On California Roads

The feds, meanwhile, are studying "connected car" technology

First Nevada, now California. This week a bill passed in the California State Senate that would permit self-driving cars to be tested within the Golden Sta...

PhotoFirst Nevada, now California. This week a bill passed in the California Senate that would permit self-driving cars to be tested within the Golden State. The bill is now on its way to the State Assembly to potentially become law. Self-driving cars recently became legal in Nevada and are being considered in Florida, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Hawaii.

While totally autonomous vehicles may not become widespread quickly, there's growing support for using technology to improve traffic safety, according to data released today by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). The study said that an overwhelming majority of drivers who have experienced technology that allows vehicles to communicate with each other have a highly favorable opinion of its safety benefits.

Safety considerations played a big factor in the California decision. 

"Human error is the cause of almost every accident on the road today," said Alex Padilla, a state senator. "If autonomous technology can reduce the number of accidents, then we also reduce the number of injuries and fatalities on California's roads. For me this is a matter of safety."

In 2011 alone, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA), said California saw a total of 32,310 fatalities due to car crashes, and those in favor of the self-driving car strongly believe the new technology can help to lower that number.

"Thousands of Californians tragically die in auto accidents each year," Padilla said. "The vast majority of these collisions are due to human error. Through the use of computers, sensors and other systems, an autonomous vehicle can analyze the driving environment more quickly and accurately and can operate the vehicle more safely."

With that in mind, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Research and Innovation Technology Administration (RITA) have been working with the auto industry to research the effectiveness and feasibility of connected vehicle technology that enables vehicles to “talk” to one another with Wi-Fi-like technology that could help prevent crashes altogether, the DOT said.

In a press release, the DOT announced the results of six “driver acceptance clinics” that were held across the country at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America’s 2012 Annual Meeting in Washington today.  The pilot programs were held between August 2011 and January 2012 to gather feedback from 688 drivers who participated in tests of “vehicle-to-vehicle” communications.  The information gathered from the program showed that an overwhelming majority of drivers would like to have the features included in their own vehicles, and most believe the technology would be useful in improving driver safety.  

“Safety is our top priority, and we are always looking for ways that innovative technology can be harnessed to improve driver safety,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Connected vehicle technology offers tremendous promise – for improving safety, reducing traffic jams and increasing fuel efficiency.  It’s encouraging to see that most drivers agree and want this technology in their cars.

Off-road

PhotoUnlike Nevada, California isn't allowed to actually test the cars on roads just yet, but if the bill passes, it will specifically outline the state's safety requirements for test drives in the very near future.

Before voting, State Senator Alan Lowenthal had a chance to briefly drive inside the highly-anticipated car. "I had the pleasure of going out for a drive on the autonomous vehicle. I have to say that there are still some issues with it, but it's a better driver than I am," he quipped.

Padilla also got a chance to test drive the vehicle. "When it's you in that drivers seat, and you engage the autonomous technology, take your hands off the wheel and foot off the pedal, it's not until then that you appreciate how sophisticated the technology is," he said.

The bill, SB 1298, passed with a unanimous vote of 37-0, and will make its way to the State Assembly in a month's time.

Connected cars

The DOT's  driver clinics, the first phase of the Connected Vehicle Safety Pilot Program, were completed this past year to gather information on how drivers would interact with the technology. More than four out of five participants, or 82 percent, strongly agreed that they would like to have vehicle-to-vehicle safety features on their personal vehicle. In addition, more than 90 percent of the participants believed that a number of specific features of the connected vehicle technology would improve driving in the real world, including features alerting drivers about cars approaching an intersection, warning of possible forward collisions, and notifying drivers of cars changing lanes or moving into the driver’s blind spot. 

“Vehicle-to-vehicle technologies have the potential to significantly reduce fatalities and injuries in crashes and could one day help motorists avoid crashes altogether,” said David Strickland, NHTSA Administrator. “These technologies may prove to be the next game-changer as we look at the future of auto safety.”

NHTSA and RITA will launch the year-long second phase of the Connected Vehicle program this summer, during which approximately 3,000 equipped vehicles will test crash-avoidance technologies that include in-vehicle forward-collision warnings, “do not pass” alerts, and warnings that a vehicle ahead has stopped suddenly. The program will take place on roads in Ann Arbor, Mich., and will also involve a limited number of applications allowing vehicles to communicate with the roadway.

Eight major automotive manufacturers are working on the project: Ford Motor Company, General Motors LLC., Honda R&D Americas, Inc., Hyundai-Kia America Technical Center, Inc., Mercedes-Benz Research and Development North America, Inc., Nissan Technical Center North America, Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America, Inc. and Volkswagen Group of America, Inc.

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Facebook's Wall Street Disaster Just Gets Worse

Be glad you missed the IPO. Be very glad.

Investors who passed on Facebook's initial public offering (IPO) Friday can thank their lucky stars. The stock has tanked since it's much-hyped, glitch-rid...

PhotoInvestors who passed on Facebook's initial public offering (IPO) Friday can thank their lucky stars. The stock has tanked since its much-hyped, glitch-ridden debut. At mid-morning Tuesday, it was down 4.94% at $32.35, nearly $6 below its opening price.

The NASDAQ market where the stock trades took responsibility for a number of glitches when the stock began trading Friday morning, priced at $38. Investors reported the market was sometimes unable to confirm their buy orders.

But analysts say the stock has bigger problems which have continued to manifest themselves. As the IPO date approached, Morgan Stanley, the lead banker for the launch, added more shares and raised the initial trading price. That had the effect of raising the stock's multiple – it's price to earnings, or PE ratio – to the stratosphere.

Where are the buyers?

When the stock began trading at $38 a share, it found fewer than expected buyers and the underwriters were forced to step in repeatedly the first day to buy shares in an effort to keep the stock from closing below $38.

When the stock opened Monday, the selling resumed and Facebook ended the day down about 11 percent. When it opened today, the sell-off continued with the price dropping another 20 percent in early trading.

"It's a huge disappointment," David J. Abella, a portfolio manager at Rochdale Investment Management, told The New York Times. "Investors were expecting easy money on this one."

“This is one messed-up pump & dump scam,” wrote a poster named FB_Fantasy2002, on a Yahoo message board.

With all the hype and excitement surrounding the IPO, the underwriters may have believed the stock would pop at the opening, allowing the people who bought early to sell quickly for a huge profit. Back during the tech bubble, that was commonplace.

Skeptical traders

With fewer small “retail” investors now in the market, most of the buying is being done these days by professional fund managers who tend to look a little more closely at the underlying fundamentals. And professional traders do not like what they see.

Yes, Facebook is a profitable company with lots of growth potential. The fact that it has nearly one billion users worldwide makes it very attractive. But the price has to be right and in this market, valuation is everything.

Because of the number of shares outstanding and the current price, Facebook's PE ratio is more than 70. That means when you buy a share of Facebook stock, you're spending $70 for every $1 of earnings. That's very hard for any company to justify.

For example, Apple's PE ratio is 13. Google's PE ratio is 18. Facebook's underwriters were obviously betting that investors would pay the inflated price in order to get in on the ground floor of “the next Apple” or “the next Google.”

Turns out that was a losing bet.

Read user comments about Facebook.

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The Makers of Pom Wonderful Used Deceptive Advertising, Says Judge

Consumers may be starting to question the juice-makers claims as well

There appears to be another victory for the consumer over product makers making false advertising claims.A federal judge determined that Pom Wonderful, m...

PhotoA federal judge has determined that Pom Wonderful, makers of several fruit-based beverages, used deceptive advertising to sell the idea that its pomegranate juice treated or prevented serious diseases.

Administrative Law Judge D. Michael Chappell said in his verdict that Pom Wonderful presented "insufficient" evidence to prove that its products worked as they were promoted.

The judge also found that the beverage makers failed to show solid proof that its products "treat, prevent or reduce the risk of heart disease, prostate cancer or erectile dysfunction."

The message may be getting through to consumers, according to a ConsumerAffairs sentiment analysis of about 8,200 postings on social media over the last year. Pom Wonderful's net sentiment has tumbled from a high of 100% in February to about 40% in May.

 

Why have consumers downgraded their opinion about the once-popular drink? It could be that they've been listening to critics who question the health claims of the drink's promoters.

 

Round 2

The judge's decision closes a second round of litigating between regulators and the drink-makers. Back in 2010, the Federal Trade Commission expressed concerns about Pom Wonderful making unrealistic health promises and, in an unusual step the company sued the FTC claiming it was over-reaching.

Although the judge didn't condemn all of the ads used by the California-based company, he did find the company's claim of its juice being an "antioxidant superpower" to be misleading. That same ad also said that its pomegranate drink protected the body against agents that "can cause heart disease, premature aging, Alzheimer's disease, and cancer."

Judge Chappell warned the Pom Wonderful company to stop making "any representation" that its beverage "is effective in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of any disease."

Overreaching

However, the judge went against FTC's original complaint, that wanted the juice makers to obtain pre-approval from the Food and Drug Administration before making health claims. Chappell said the company having to get pre-approval "would constitute unnecessary overreaching."

However, a spokesperson from Pom Wonderful said the company will fight portions of the judge's decision. "We do plan to appeal certain aspects of the ruling," said Corey Martin.

Pom Wonderful has 30 days to appeal or the judge's ruling will go into effect.

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Auto Affordablity Declined in First Quarter

But car sales continue to climb

Despite a slow recovery in the economy, consumers have continued to buy new cars and trucks over the last four year. Most carmakers, especially those offer...

Despite a slow recovery in the economy, consumers have continued to buy new cars and trucks over the last four year. Most carmakers, especially those offering fuel efficient vehicles have done well.

PhotoConsumers have been able to purchase cars, in large part, because unlike the housing market, the auto market provides for accessible financing. Sales have risen even as prices have.

The purchase and financing of an average-priced new vehicle took 23.2 weeks of median family income in the first quarter of 2012, according to Comerica Bank in Dallas. Consumers on average spent $300 more - an increase of 1.2 percent - on new cars in the first quarter of 2012 compared with the fourth quarter of 2011.

"Auto affordability was down slightly in the first quarter of 2012, but remains very high by historical standards, contributing to the upward trend in auto sales visible from mid-2011 through early 2012," said Robert Dye, Chief Economist of Comerica Bank. "Job creation has supported slow-to-moderate income growth while car prices have increased moderately and interest rates have remained low.

Dye says sales have remained strong because households have paid down debt, and that has created space in household budgets, allowing many families to take advantage of the current high affordability of new cars. Easing gasoline prices through the current second quarter, he says, will also help auto sales.

“These favorable trends are helping consumers to feel more confident about unleashing their pent-up demand for automobiles," Dye said.

The bank compiled the report using the latest data on consumer spending on light vehicles and on the terms available on auto loans.

Despite the comeback of the auto industry, Morningstar reports U.S. vehicle sales are still lower than they should be. But the analyst said it's optimistic about growing sales over the next several years.

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High Gas Prices, Weak Economy Mean Fewer Traffic Jams

A silver lining for motorists preparing to hit the road for the Memorial Day Weekend

If you've noticed traffic doesn't seem to be quite so heavy these days, it's not your imagination. A report by INRIX, a traffic information service, found ...

PhotoIf you've noticed traffic doesn't seem to be quite so heavy these days, it's not your imagination. A report by INRIX, a traffic information service, found a startling 30 percent drop in traffic congestion in 2011.

In the report, 70 of America’s Top 100 cities showed decreases in traffic congestion last year. The company says it's the result of falling employment and rising gasoline prices. It says the trend also showed up in Europe.

“The declines in traffic congestion across the U.S. and Europe are indicative of stalled economies worldwide,” said Bryan Mistele, INRIX president and chief executive officer. “In America, the economic recovery on Wall Street has not arrived on Main Street. Americans are driving less and spending less, fueled by gas prices and a largely jobless recovery.”

First decrease in traffic since 2008

PhotoIt's the first decrease in traffic in two years. There were modest increases in both 2009 and 2010, as the economy absorbed massive amounts of stimulus spending.

The last time America experienced a similar decline was 2008, when traffic congestion plummeted 34 percent.

It may come as no surprise that the cities showing the biggest drops in traffic congestion also were cities where gas prices exceeded the national average at its April 2011 peak, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Honolulu.

By the same token, cities that saw increases in traffic congestion – like Tampa, Houston and Austin, had growths in employment that outpaced the national average.

Last year, only 890,000 of the 2.6 million new jobs were in America's largest urban centers. These regions are down six million of the nine million jobs lost during the Great Recession. Lack of employment combined with high fuel prices is clearly driving the decline in traffic, the report said.

Worst cities for traffic

By analyzing traffic in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas in 2011, the Top 10 Worst U.S. Traffic Cities are:

  1. Honolulu: Drivers waste 58 hours in traffic
  2. Los Angeles: Drivers waste 56 hours in traffic
  3. San Francisco: Drivers waste 48 hours in traffic
  4. New York: Drivers waste 57 hours in traffic
  5. Bridgeport, Conn: Drivers waste 42 hours in traffic
  6. Washington, D.C.: Drivers waste 45 hours in traffic
  7. Seattle: Drivers waste 33 hours in traffic
  8. Austin: Drivers waste 30 hours in traffic
  9. Boston: Drivers waste 35 hours in traffic
  10. Chicago: Drivers waste 36 hours in traffic

The INRIX report identifies the worst traffic bottleneck in the country is in Los Angeles.  It's the 13-mile stretch of the San Diego Fwy/I-405 northbound from I-105/Imperial Hwy interchange through the Getty Center Dr. exit. The report finds that it takes 33 minutes on average, with 20 minutes of delay.

It also found the worst traffic day is Friday and the worst morning commute is Tuesday.

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BMW 'Most Valuable Brand,' Displacing Toyota, Study Finds

Other German automakers also see their brand value increasing

BMW has overtaken Toyota as the world's most valuable automotive brand, an annual ranking of the world's top brands shows. Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Au...

Photo
Consumers rate BMW

What's the most valuable car brand?  It's BMW, according to the BrandZ Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brands study released by market research company Millward Brown today. The German marque displaced Toyota from the top spot this year.

Other German automakers -- Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Audi -- also improved their brand value.

What goes into brand value? According to Peter Walshe, Millward Brown global brand director, in BMW's case the automaker has been able to effectively communicate what sets it apart from other carmakers, while backing up its message with a "very decent product."

"As one of the great brands in the world, BMW has been absolutely consistent in the long-term regarding what is meaningfully different about their brand, in highly competitive market places," Walshe said.

Maybe so, but a ConsumerAffairs sentiment analysis of about 4.3 million postings to social media finds BMW coasting along with a net positive sentiment that seldom exceeded 70% in the last 12 months -- good, but not exactly rousing.

 

BMW was also the most valuable auto brand in 2010, while Toyota held the top spot from 2006 until 2009 as well as last year.

What do consumers like and dislike about the brand?  In a word, they like the car. Dislikes are relatively few, as this chart shows.

 

Toyota's troubles

Toyota retained its position as one of the world's best brands, but lost its top place in the ranking in the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters that affected all Japanese carmakers last year, Walshe said.

"Toyota is certainly seen as a good value, very reliable and very trustworthy, which are all tremendous qualities, especially for mid-range buyers," Walshe said. "The problem with Toyota has to do with its financials, not brand, due to the disasters, which were clearly out of its control."

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New Yorkers Need to Make Over $100K Yearly to Live Comfortably

The nation's most expensive city is really expensive

Still have plans of living in the big city? You may want to reconsider, as a report suggests that New York City has been the most expensive place to live i...

PhotoStill have plans of living in the big city? You may want to reconsider, as a report suggests that New York City has been the most expensive place to live in the U.S. since 2009. Not a shocker? Maybe details of the report will be.

The Center for an Urban Future conducted the cost of living survey and showed that someone living in New York making $123,322 annually, would equal a person making $50,000 in Houston, or $26,092 in Atlanta, when it comes to standard of living.

Results of the report went on to say that, "Income levels that would enable a very comfortable lifestyle in other locales barely suffice to provide the basics in New York City."

The big expensive apple had an average monthly rent of $2,801 in 2009, being 53 percent higher than San Francisco, which used to be New York's runner-up for most expensive city at that time. In 2012, the average rent amount in Manhattan is $3,418, far outpricing the Golden Gate City.

The report also shows that New Yorkers have a harsher commute than others around the United States. Those who live in the city's outer boroughs average nearly an hour of travel time, due to many of the jobs being based in the city's epicenter of Manhattan.

If you thought by just living on the outskirts of Manhattan would save you from high costs, think again. Both Brooklyn and Queens made the top-ten list when it came to 2012's most expensive cities, at number two and five respectively.

As the Sinatra song might have said, if you make it here......you'll really need a lot of money.

Other key findings in the report include:

  • New Yorkers paid about $34 a month for phone service in 2006. In San Francisco, similar service cost $17 a month.
  • Home heating costs have jumped 125 percent in five years and went up to 243 percent between 1998 and 2009.
  • Wages in the city have remained mostly flat in all boroughs but Manhattan - even during the boom years from 2003 to 2007.

Here's a complete list of 2012's most expensive cities to live in:

  1. Manhattan
  2. Brooklyn, N.Y.
  3. Honolulu, Hawaii
  4. San Francisco, Calif
  5. Queens, N.Y.
  6. San Jose, Calif
  7. Stamford, Conn.
  8. Truckee-Nevada County, Calif.
  9. Washington D.C.
  10. Orange County, Calif.
And yes, we know ... Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens are all part of New York City but the report in question chose to list them as separate cities, so please don't shoot the messenger.
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20-Year Study Finds Sigmoidoscopy Effective in Reducing Colorectal Cancer Deaths

Flexible sigmoidoscopy is less invasive, has fewer side effects than colonoscopy

A study that spanned nearly 20 years has found that flexible sigmoidoscopy, a screening test for colorectal cancer that is less invasive and has fewer side...

PhotoA study that spanned nearly 20 years has found that flexible sigmoidoscopy, a screening test for colorectal cancer that is less invasive and has fewer side effects than colonoscopy, is effective in reducing the rates of new cases and deaths.

In the study, sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, researchers found that overall colorectal cancer mortality  was reduced by 26 percent and the incidence of new cases was reduced by 21 percent as a result of screening with sigmoidoscopy.

These results appeared online, ahead of print, on May 21, 2012, in the New England Journal of Medicine., and were presented at Digestive Disease Week, a scientific conference.

Sigmoidoscopy involves examination of the lower colon using a thin, flexible tube-like instrument, called a sigmoidoscope. The procedure has fewer side effects, requires less bowel preparation, and poses a lower risk of bowel perforation than colonoscopy, in which a similarly flexible, but longer, tube is used to view the entire colon.

Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States. Previous research has shown that colorectal cancer incidence and mortality can be reduced with a number of screening methods, including fecal occult blood testing (FOBT). However, flexible sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy are more sensitive than FOBT for detecting polyps that may lead to colorectal cancer. Removal of pre-cancerous polyps, which can be done during sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy, reduces colorectal cancer risk.

“The most important message is that, regardless of modality chosen, colorectal cancer screening lowers mortality from colorectal cancer, and all individuals 50 and over should be screened,” said study author Christine Berg, M.D., chief of NCI's Early Detection Research Group and project officer of the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian (PLCO) Cancer Screening Trial.

Large study

From 1993 to 2001, a total of 154,900 men and women aged 55 through 74 were randomly assigned to receive flexible sigmoidoscopy screening or usual care as part of the PLCO trial.

“This is the second major trial that has shown that sigmoidoscopy is effective in reducing the risk of dying of colorectal cancer. Sigmoidoscopy is less invasive than colonoscopy and carries a lower risk of the colon being perforated, which may make it more acceptable as a screening test to some patients,” said Barnett Kramer, M.D., director of NCI's Division of Cancer Prevention. “There are several effective screening tests for colorectal cancer, and the most effective screening test is the one that people choose to take.”

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Giant Food Named Favorite Grocery Store in Consumer Poll

ShopRite, Walmart close behind in Market Force survey

Between small corner markets, big all-purpose grocery stores and whatever lies between, it can be hard to select the best supermarket. However, consumers s...

PhotoBetween small corner markets, big all-purpose grocery stores and whatever lies between, it can be hard to select the best supermarket. However, a recent study picks Giant Food as participants' favorite grocery, with ShopRite and Walmart following afterward.

The consultant company Market Force Information, gathered 6,400 participants in March of 2012 to gauge their favorite place to food shop, and why they choose one particular supermarket over the other.

When it came to which grocery store was visited most, consumers chose Giant Food as their top choice. Closing out the top eight when it came to stores most visited were, ShopRite, Walmart, Publix, Costco, Kroger, ALDI and Safeway.

Although Giant came out on top in the heavily frequented category, researchers said survey scores were extremely close.

Low pricing

"The close scores in the pricing category demonstrate that consumers are not seeing differentiation on price as clearly as the price leaders would hope," said Janet Eden-Harris, Market Force's chief marketing officer. "Low pricing is the tablestakes for grocers who must now find new ways to distinguish themselves from their competitors down the block."

Researchers also studied what consumers thought of the overall shopping experience at certain grocery stores, including characteristics like price, cleanliness, produce and meat quality, store atmosphere and the store's business practices. Participant were then told to rank the top eight supermarkets in these categories.

For the second consecutive year, ALDI won the price crown for having the best deals, but Walmart, ShopRite and Costco were right on ALDI's heels for stellar pricing. The customer service and atmosphere award went to Publix, which also took the statue for most courteous staff, cleanest store and speediest check out time.

Deli department

The report also showed the deli, butcher and bakery departments were most important to the participants no matter which store it was. In addition, 88 percent of consumers said they were either "somewhat or very satisfied" with their current supermarket, and only 12 percent  said they were completely unsatisfied.

The portion of consumers who said they were unsatisfied attributed their feelings to long waits at the cash register (52 percent), not being able to find a store item (48 percent), bad cashier service (39 percent) and the quality level of produce  (29 percent).

"We discovered that merely satisfying customers isn’t enough to move them to action, said Eden-Harris."When grocers can create experiences that truly delight customers, they can establish brand advocates who are almost guaranteed to recommend that grocery store to friends and family."

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Jeep Recalls 2010 Wranglers

Potential fire hazard

Chrysler Group is recalling 2010 Jeep Wranglers equipped with an automatic transmission.   The company said that the transmission skid plat...

PhotoChrysler Group is recalling 2010 Jeep Wranglers equipped with an automatic transmission.  
 
The company said that the transmission skid plate can collect leaves and other debris, which can ignite and start a fire.
 
Chrysler will notify owners and dealers will replace the skid plate free of charge. Owners may contact Chrysler at 1-800-853-1403. The recall number is M22.
 
 
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Report: Despite the Bleak Housing Market, Consumers Still Want to Own

84% of younger renters still aspire to owning their own home

In light of the recent years of turmoil in the U.S. housing market, one would guess that consumers are gun shy about purchasing and owning a home. However,...

PhotoIn light of the recent years of turmoil in the U.S. housing market, one would guess that consumers are gun-shy about purchasing and owning a home. However, a Home Buyer Poll released this week, conducted by TD Bank, shows that aspirations to buy a home remain very high among younger consumers.

Results show that out of those consumers who are age 18-34 and currently renting, 84 percent of them say they have strong plans to buy a house in the future. Researchers also said that over half of those surveyed equated a home purchase with living the "American Dream," and 59 percent saw homeownership as exciting, and associated it with a high level of pride.

"There's no denying buying a home is a pivotal point in a person's life. Our survey tells us that people are looking to buy homes, and attitudes towards homeownership have continued to remain positive over the years," said executive vice president of TD Bank's Retail Lending division Michael Coply in a press release.

The survey also showed the most important reasons for wanting homeownership among 18-34 year olds.

To merely live out the American Dream was the reason for wanting a home for 18 percent of the respondents. Around 17 percent felt owning a home was simply "a good opportunity", 11 percent wanted a home because they also have plans of starting a family, and 10 percent of those surveyed said they were already "financially ready" to own a home.

Researchers also broke down the survey's answers by gender, as 66 percent of female respondents plan to own a home, compared to 57 percent of men, showing very little difference among the genders as it pertains to still having faith in the U.S. housing market.

But industry experts say it's all about which lender you go with when it comes to taking that first step in homeownership.

"With more than half of homeowners surveyed stating getting a mortgage and making a down payment is the preferred method of payment, choosing a lender remains a vital step in the home buying process," warned Copley.

The survey consisted of 1,300 consumers across the United States, who were made up of current renters, expected home buyers and current home owners. Other results from the survey include:

  • Three out of 10 homeowners consider their house their dream home.
  • While younger homeowners are more stressed (20%) compared to older homeowners when asked to look back on their first home, older homeowners were more proud (51%), more confident (20%) and far less stressed (9%).
  • Seventy-eight percent of respondents said that they plan to stay in their current home.
  • Staying within budget (43%) is a top consideration when buying a home among those who intend to buy.

The report also included some home buying tips for those who do plan to enter  the market.

  • Determine how much you can afford:
  • By looking at your income and current monthly debts you can determine what you can afford.
  • Buying a home isn't for everyone:
  • Know the benefits of owning vs. renting before making any decisions. Also stop to think about what type of home you can afford and which style suits your lifestyle such as single-family homes, townhouses or fixer-uppers.
  • Narrow the focus of your search:
  • Many factors impact the ideal type of house for each buyer, including desired features and benefits, life stage and how many improvements you are willing to make before moving in.
  • Make the mortgage process as hassle-free as possible:
  • From fixed-rate to adjustable-rate, there are several options to fit your needs.

 

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A New Pill Bottle For the Blind

Container features hinged top and audio label

It is said that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. It remains to be seen what happens if you build a better pill bot...

PhotoIt is said that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. It remains to be seen what happens if you build a better pill bottle.

Two students at the University of Cincinnati (UC) believe they have done just that. They have applied for a provisional patent on their design and prototype of a prescription-medicine pill bottle for the blind and visually impaired – an innovation they say could benefit millions of users.

Students Alex Broerman and Ashley Ma say their design is intended to have universal appeal but to fill the special needs for the more than 1.3 million Americans who are legally blind as well as those who suffer less-severe vision impairment. As the baby boomers age, it’s expected that the number of American suffering from blindness will increase 70 percent by the year 2020.

A cap that won't get lost

Among the innovations, the lid is on hinges that flips open. The reason? Lost caps are a problem for the visually impaired. And twist caps can be a challenge for the elderly. At the same time, the students’ flip lid is child proof, just like standard pill bottles.

Another difference is a small rectangular bottle body, 2-by-2 inches wide and 3-inches tall, that allows a user to easily reach in and pick out a pill or two without the need to pour out a larger supply into the palm for subsequent selection of the required dosage. In addition, this “stout” design prevents the bottle from tipping over and spilling the medication.

The students also added a distinct texture on the bottle’s flip lid. There are eight distinct textures available. Each distinct texture would correspond with a different medication. Importantly, the distinct textures are not Braille, as only 10 percent of the blind and visually impaired can read Braille.

The lid also has a dramatic, deep color – different medication differentiated by a different-colored lid. The reason for this is that many visually impaired individuals do have limited sight, such that they can make out a strong color that is close to the eye.

Audio label

As a “fail-safe,” there is an button on the lid that consumers can press for an audio label describing the medicinal contents. According to Ma, one key advantage of the students’ design is that it is low-tech, simple and inexpensive, especially  compared to currently available options for the visually impaired.

“Options that are currently on the market are more expensive and complex, dependent on technology and requiring a more expensive outlay on the part of the end user to purchase them,” she said.

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Inventor of TV Remote Control Dies at 96

1955 device intended as early commercial zapper

Couch potatoes everywhere should probably pause and salute Eugene J. Polley, who died Sunday at age 96. Without him, our lives would be very different.Po...

PhotoCouch potatoes everywhere should probably pause and salute Eugene J. Polley, who died Sunday at age 96. Without him, our lives would be very different.

Polley is the inventor of the wireless TV remote control. Yes, before Polley you had to get out of your chair, walk over to the TV set and select a channel. But then, there were only three.

Polley began his 47-year career with Zenith Radio Corporation in 1935 and was on hand for the early days of black-and-white and color television. His inventions, primarily in the field of television, earned 18 U.S. patents.

Polley's best known invention, the "Flash-Matic" remote control, was the world's first wireless TV remote, introduced in 1955. The viewer used a highly directional flashlight to activate the four control functions, which turned the picture and sound on and off and changed channels by turning the tuner dial clockwise and counter-clockwise.

Commercial zapper

It was an early attempt to zap commercials. Commander Eugene F. McDonald Jr., Zenith's late founder-president, believed TV viewers would not tolerate commercials. While developing and promoting the concept of commercial-free subscription television, McDonald wanted a way for viewers to take back control from the advertisers.

Polley's Flash-Matic accomplished that goal. McDonald ordered it into production and honored Polley with the President's Award.

Polley also worked on the push-button radio for automobiles and on the development of the video disk, predecessor of today's DVD.

In 1997 he received an Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for "Pioneering Development of Wireless Remote Controls for Consumer Television." His innovations have been featured in numerous articles and television programs but he was largely unknown to the consumers who used his products.

Founding father of the couch potato

Polley, was called everything from the founding father of the couch potato to the czar of zapping to the beach boy of channel surfing.

Few would dispute the enormous impact of this invention, devised in an era of three or four VHF broadcast TV stations in most markets. Today, remote control is not a luxury but a necessity in navigating 500-plus digital cable or digital satellite channels, or controlling an HDTV, Blu-Ray Disc player, digital video recorder or home theater audio system – all at the touch of a button.

Today, no television set – or hardly any other consumer electronic device – comes without a remote.

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Some Oreck Customers to Get Refunds

Federal Trade Commission begins distributing money from settlement

As the result of a suit, thousands of consumers who purchased two home cleaning products from Oreck Corporation will receive refunds from the Federal Trade...

PhotoAs the result of a suit, thousands of consumers who purchased two home cleaning products from Oreck Corporation will receive refunds from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) because company advertisements allegedly made false and unproven claims that the products could reduce the risk of flu and other illnesses, and eliminate virtually all common germs and allergens.

Under a settlement reached with the FTC, Oreck is barred from making any of the allegedly deceptive claims challenged by the agency unless it has competent and reliable scientific evidence to support the claims.

Consumers who bought the Oreck Halo vacuum will receive $25 for each item purchased, and those who bought the Oreck ProShield Plus air cleaner will receive an average of $24.65 for each item. Eligible consumers were identified through sales records provided by the company.

“Purchased a Oreck Pro-Shield purifier, model AIR12B. Device arrived in a timely fashion but was non-working out of the box,” James, of Franklin, Va., wrote in a 2009 ConsumerAffairs post.

ConsumerAffairs has also received a number of complaints about the Oreck XL Air Purifier, which is not subject to the refunds. However, the complaints are similar.

“I purchased two Oreck XL tabletop air purifiers after being told by a tele sales rep that these units would remove the smell of mold from a house we just moved into,” Peter, of Wynnewood, Pa., wrote.

“From the outset, the units did not seem to be making any difference but I gave it some time. They did give off their own bad smell and we eventually shut them off when they seemed to give my wife and son asthma/breathing difficulties.”

An infomercial for the Oreck Halo claimed: “The Oreck Halo has killed up to 99.9 percent of bacteria exposed to its light in one second or less,” and that the vacuum’s light chamber “has been tested and shown to kill up to 99.9 percent of certain common germs, plus dangerous pathogens like E. Coli and MRSA.”

In April 2011, Oreck agreed to stop making the allegedly false and unproven claims that the Halo and its ProShield Plus air cleaner could reduce the risk of flu and other illnesses, and eliminate virtually all common germs and allergens.  The company also agreed to pay $750,000 to the Federal Trade Commission, which is now distributing the money as refunds to consumers. Some 27,339 checks totaling $698,000 are being mailed by an administrator working for the FTC.

Consumers should begin to expect their checks this week, and will have 60 days to cash them. The hotline number for consumers who have questions is 877-772-6154. The website is FTC.gov/refunds. The FTC never requires consumers to pay money or provide information before redress checks can be cashed.

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Will We Soon Go Over the Fiscal Cliff?

We will unless Congress suddenly learns to compromise

A big adjustment in tax rates is headed your way at the end of the year, along with huge cuts in government spending that could impact the overall economy....

PhotoA big adjustment in tax rates is headed your way at the end of the year, along with huge cuts in government spending that could impact the overall economy.

It's going to happen unless Congress acts. Given Congress' recent history, that's like saying it's probably going to happen.

Last year, when Democrats and Republicans in Congress were once again at an impasse on raising the U.S. government debt ceiling, agreement was reached only after the two sides tacked on another provision: unless Congress approves a serious deficit-reducing package before the deadline, steep across-the-board cuts in all government discretionary spending would automatically kick in January 1, 2013.

Higher tax rates

Also on that date, the Bush tax cuts and the payroll tax "holiday" are set to expire, reverting to their previous higher rates. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has called this perfect storm a "fiscal cliff," worried that slashing spending and raising taxes in a still-weak economy will plunge the country into a recession.

Overnight, the U.S. would move from an effort to stimulate the economy to its own "austerity" plan, the type that citizens of Greece and France recently resisted at the ballot box. Just about every consumer in the U.S. would be affected in some way. Here's how:

  • For the last two years the employees' portion of the payroll tax has been reduced from 6.2 percent to 4.2. It goes back to 6.2 percent January 1, amounting to an extra $20 tax withholding from a $1,000 paycheck. Since the payroll tax funds Social Security and Medicare, those entitlement programs have been going even deeper into the red over the last two years.
  • Your income tax bracket may rise. The Bush tax cuts not only reduced the tax rate on the wealthiest taxpayers, it also established new, lower tax brackets for just about all taxpayers. Those go away. For example, before the tax cuts, the lowest bracket was 15 percent. The Bush tax cuts established 10 percent as the lowest rate. That expires on January 1. The top rate under the Bush Tax cuts is 35 percent. That gets bumped up to 39.6 percent in January. Nearly everyone will find themselves taxed at a higher rate.
  • Lower rates on investment income will reset to their higher levels that were in place prior to 2001. Currently, investors pay only 15 percent on dividends and long-term capital gains. After January the maximum rate on long-term capital gains rises to 20 percent and dividends will be taxed as ordinary income. Retirees who depend on dividend income may feel that change the most -- not the 1% everyone talks about. Other temporary fixes to the tax code installed over the last few years are also set to expire.
  • The U.S. government will spend a lot less money. In the absence of a Congressional deficit-cutting package, Pentagon spending will be cut by 10 percent while all discretionary spending will be cut by eight percent. It will be up to various departments to figure out how, so it is possible military veterans and those who receive government benefits could feel the belt-tightening effects. Additionally, economists generally agree that taking that money out of the economy all at once could topple a weak recovery into recession.

Of course, it doesn't have to happen. Republicans and Democrats in Congress could put aside their partisan differences long enough to reach some sort of acceptable compromise that would make gradual changes to taxing spending policy, but that could be a tall order.

There is almost no chance lawmakers would take up the matter before the November elections, meaning the lame duck session would have less than two months -- following what promises to be a bruising and bitter contest -- to come together and reach a compromise.

Chairman Bernanke may have reason to be worried.

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Cable Giants Lash Their Wi-Fi Networks Together

Combined networks will be branded as "CableWiFi"

Five of the nation's largest cable TV networks are combining their Wi-Fi networks into a single network with over 50,000 hotspots, offering their high-spee...

PhotoFive of the nation's largest cable TV networks are combining their Wi-Fi networks into a single network with over 50,000 hotspots, offering their high-speed Internet customers broader access to Wi-Fi outside their home markets.

The effort is a slap at Verizon, AT&T and other telephone companies whose cellular broadband wireless services are expensive and, increasingly, limit the amount of monthly data they allow. 

Bright House Networks, Cablevision, Comcast, Cox Communications and Time Warner Cable say it's the largest and most inclusive WiFi sharing effort among cable operators to date.

"This effort adds great value to our high speed Internet customers by providing free wireless Internet access on all of their WiFi enabled devices in our markets and additional areas across the country," said Nomi Bergman, President of Bright House Networks.

Superior approach

"We believe that WiFi is a superior approach to mobile data, and that cable providers are best positioned to build the highest-capacity national network offering customers fast and reliable Internet connections when away from their home or business broadband service," said Kristin Dolan, Cablevision's senior executive vice president of product management and marketing. "We've built an extensive WiFi network in our own service area, and see real value and potential in other leading providers joining with us to extend that connectivity to major markets across the country."

The first implementation is already complete as Bright House Networks and Cablevision launched "CableWiFi" alongside their branded WiFi networks in the New York City area and central Florida earlier this month. Over the next few months, the "CableWiFi" network name will be added by each of the cable companies to their branded WiFi hotspots.

The participating cable operators currently offer more than 50,000 WiFi hotspots located in New York City and the surrounding Tri-State area, Los Angeles, Tampa, Orlando, and Philadelphia. The operators also plan to continue to grow the number of WiFi hotspots and expand into several additional cities.

In early 2010, Cablevision, Comcast and Time Warner Cable entered into an agreement allowing their customers in New York City, Long Island, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Connecticut to access WiFi hotspots offered by each operator in these areas.

 

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Google+ a Ghost Town? Advertisers Flee to Pinterest

Too many male geeks, not enough real folk on G+, advertisers sniff

Facebook had egg on its face last week when General Motors announced it was pulling its ads just as Facebook launched its IPO.  Now it's Google's turn...

PhotoFacebook had egg on its face last week when General Motors announced it was pulling its ads just as Facebook launched its IPO.  Now it's Google's turn.

Big G has lavished lots of love and attention on Google+, its attempt to steal some mindshare from Facebook and Twitter but many millions of dollars and long months later, Google+ has been relegated to fourth place in social media spending, behind Pinterest, which seemingly came out of nowhere to stymie Google's plans.

Pinterest's "Pin It" buttons now appear next to Facebook, Twitter and email buttons on prime Web properties, with G+ treated as something of an after-thought, according to Advertising Age, the trade magazine of the ad biz.

In today's editions, Ad Age surveys ad executives and announces that the consensus is that Google+ is "an empty city where the masses go to set up a profile but then seldom return."

That might be going a little far but there's no doubting the appeal of Pinterest, according to a ConsumerAffairs sentiment analysis of about two million postings on Facebook, Twitter and other social media, which shows Pinterest going from nowhere a year ago to a pretty secure perch today.

 

What do users like about Pinterest? Just about everything, according to our survey. What don't they like? It's a pretty short list, bordering on non-existent.

 

Grumpy advertisers

PhotoAll this makes advertisers kind of grumpy when they think of Google+. Big advertisers spend millions of dollars buying ads, after all, and they have no interest putting up what many feel amount to billboards in a ghost town. 

Drilling down a bit further, the general feeling seems to be that Google+ users skew younger, male and somewhat geeky.  That's fine if you're selling electronic gear but not so great if it's shampoo or pet products.

The latest official report from Google said more than 100 million people have been active on Google+ in the past 30 days, but that number includes people who've set up Google+ accounts and then visited another "socially enhanced" part of Google, such as search pages or YouTube, Ad Age sniffed.

ComScore data paint a less rosy picture, showing that the average Google+ user spends three minutes on the platform every month, compared to 405 minutes for Facebook users. The average time spent by each Pinterest user per month is 50 minutes, according to ComScore. 

Google says Google+ adoption is in line with its projections.

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No Additional Cases of Mad Cow Disease Found, USDA Reports

Investigation into California incident has found no additional cases or infected feed

The U.S. Agriculture Department says it has found no additional cases of "mad cow" disease since April 24, when a dairy cow in California was found to have...

PhotoThe U.S. Agriculture Department says it has found no additional cases of "mad cow" disease since April 24, when a dairy cow in California was found to have the brain-wasting disease, and the department says the two dairies that had been under quarantine during the investigation have now been released from quarantine.

The April incident was only the fourth confirmed case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in the United States since record-keeping began years ago, the USDA noted. Investigators say that the infected cow produced two offspring in the last two years. One was stillborn, the other was located and tested negative for BSE.

Of several hundred potential birth cohort cattle, the focus of the investigation is now on a small number of cattle, roughly 10 to 12, that may still be alive and have records that might allow them to be located. The remaining potential cohorts are no longer alive or have otherwise been ruled out, the USDA said.

In addition, investigation of the feed records at the index dairy premises has found no anomalies, and audits of all the feed suppliers to the index premises have shown them to be in compliance with the regulations, the agency reported. Thus, although the source of the BSE infection may never be determined, investigators say there is no evidence that other cattle are infected or that the animal feed supply is to blame.

General agreement

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last month assured consumers the food supply was safe, as did consumer activists who are not always so supportive.

“We have a good surveillance system and have been successful in reducing the number” of cases of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, Vilsack said. “We’re very confident in the sampling we currently do.”

Supporting Vilsack's view was Sarah Klein, an attorney specializing in food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington non-profit that is often sharply critical of government agencies' handling of food safety issues.

"A case of a single cow with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy is not a reason for significant concern on the part of consumers, and there is no reason to believe the beef or milk supply is unsafe," Klein said. "If the cow were exposed to the typical strain of BSE via animal feed—and the government says that’s not the case here—that would have represented a significant failure. The government’s ability to track down other cattle that may have been exposed via feed would have been hampered without an effective animal I.D. program," Klein said.

But Klein said that while the U.S. may have dodged the bullet this time, it may not always be so lucky.

"The United States has first-world resources and technology but a third-world animal identification system. In fact, some third-world countries do a better job of tracking livestock than America does. Botswana, for one, uses RFID microchips to track its animals up and down the supply chain. If American cattlemen suffer economic losses at the news of this discovery of BSE, they should blame only themselves and other opponents of a mandatory animal identification system," she said. 

About BSE

BSE is a degenerative brain disease that is thought to be spread through infected meat. Cattle can be infected by eating protein supplements made with the ground-up remains of other animals, a practice now outlawed in most countries. The human variant of BSE is Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), which the National Institutes of Health describes as a rare, degenerative, invariably fatal brain disorder. There are three major categories of CJD: sporadic CJD, hereditary CJD, and acquired CJD.

CJD is characterized by rapidly progressive dementia. Initially, patients experience problems with muscular coordination; personality changes, including impaired memory, judgment, and thinking; and impaired vision. People with the disease also may experience insomnia, depression, or unusual sensations. CJD does not cause a fever or other flu-like symptoms.

As the illness progresses, the patients mental impairment becomes severe. They often develop involuntary muscle jerks called myoclonus, and they may go blind. They eventually lose the ability to move and speak and enter a coma. Pneumonia and other infections often occur in these patients and can lead to death.

In the case of hereditary CJD, onset of symptoms occurs at about age 60. For other forms, there can be an incubation period of many years

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Timeshares Can Be Burdens Even After You Die

What to do if you inherit a timeshare you don't want

Most people buy timeshares while on vacation and after a high-pressure sales pitch. It's not uncommon for a strong case of buyers' remorse to set in afterw...

PhotoMost people buy timeshares while on vacation and after a high-pressure sales pitch. It's not uncommon for a strong case of buyers' remorse to set in afterward.

Kenneth, of Cross Junction, Va., says he and his wife became disillusioned with their purchase soon after signing on the dotted line.

“When we purchased many years ago, we were assured we would be able to sell our timeshare when we wished to do so,” Kenneth wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “Of course we have now learned that this is impossible and we continue to pay the ever increasing annual fees. This has become a greater burden since I have retired and we are on a fixed income. Now we are told that it is with us for as long as we live and will pass to our children. There must be some way to get away from these vultures."

A solution for heirs

There is. While it would be much better for everyone if the timeshare can be disposed of before you die, your heir can avoid being saddled with it by simply refusing to accept it. However, in some states you might not be able to refuse an inherited timeshare without refusing the rest of the inheritance, so it is prudent to consult with an attorney first.

If you are left a timeshare you do not want, have your attorney file a Disclaimer of Interest. That's a written refusal to accept the timeshare and it must be filed within a set time period. The executor of the estate should send copies of the death certificate to both the resort company if there is still a mortgage on the timeshare and to the property management company.

It is also important that you make no personal use of the timeshare after your loved one dies.

Donate it

In Kenneth's case, if he believes there is no way for him to sell the timeshare he can donate it to charity – if there is no mortgage. There are also companies that will take the timeshare off Kenneth's hands, but he will have to pay closing costs, just as though he sold it.

And it goes without saying, these are all considerations to think about before buying a timeshare.

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Survey Shows 3D TV Sales are Growing but They're Still Unpopular

There's just not much consumer interest in the technology yet

Although sales numbers of 3D TV's continue to rise in the U.S., with a 74 percent  growth in units and a 64 percent growth in revenue over the last 12...

PhotoAlthough sales numbers of 3D TV's continue to rise in the U.S., with a 74 percent  growth in units and a 64 percent growth in revenue over the last 12 months, only a small portion of the buying public is interested in purchasing the relatively new product.

All of this is according to The NPD Group's Retail Tracking Service, which conducted a survey that found just 14 percent of consumers expect to buy a 3D television, compared to 68 percent that says it's a "nice feature to have" and would only consider buying it in the future.

"3D has been a success for the television market from a sales perspective," said Ben Arnold, director of industry analysis for The NPD Group. "However, few consumers cite watching content in 3D as a reason for purchasing a TV, indicating that other factors such as screen size, resolution, and Internet connectivity hold more importance."

Sales of 3D TVs made up for 11 percent of all flat-panel TV sales in the first quarter, according to researchers.

No glasses

The survey also mentions that many consumers believe wearing 3D glasses, and having to purchase additional accessories takes away from their interest in buying a 3D TV. As of now, the glasses-free 3D television hasn't been introduced to the consumer market yet, which possibly further delays the customer's interest.

Also, since there's currently no nationwide 3D network, consumers said it would be a challenge to plan when they would use the 3D feature, which in their minds eliminates the entire reason for buying such an expensive piece of technology.

However, when sampling the television in person, 70 percent of consumers said they were "impressed" or "amazed" with the product, according to the survey. But those high percentages did little to increase overall interest.

Arnold also says that sports fans are and will be heavy consumers of 3D televisions, as more than half said they consider it an enhancement to watching their favorite matches.

"In addition to movies and gaming, sports are essential to growing 3D TV ownership. Nearly six-in-ten sports fans are interested in watching games and matches in 3D," said Arnold.

"This summer, manufacturers and content providers can leverage large scale events like the Olympics in London and the Euro 2012 soccer tournament by televising and marketing 3D technology. Our research suggests ownership of 3D TV doesn't necessarily mean consumers have adopted the technology. Getting owners to put on glasses and watch content is the real measure of 3D's success."

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More Consumers Using Smartphones to Download Coupons

New poll shows 40 percent of smartphone users have downloaded coupon

Coupons haven't just gone electronic, they've also gone mobile. A survey by CouponCabin.com shows 40 percent of smartphone users have redeemed a coupon on...

PhotoCoupons haven't just gone electronic, they've also gone mobile. A survey by CouponCabin.com shows 40 percent of smartphone users have redeemed a coupon on their mobile device.

In addition, nearly one-third of smartphone users search for coupons on their device at least once a month. Younger consumers tend to be the most active mobile coupon users.

The findings should not be surprising. Shoppers are already using their mobile devices for comparison shopping, checking prices online when they are standing in a store aisle. Checking for discounts just seems a normal response.

According to the poll, conducted by Harris Interactive, the favorite types of mobile coupons are:

  • Daily deals - 41 percent
  • Grocery coupons - 39 percent
  • Online coupon codes - 34 percent
  • Printable coupons - 29 percent
  • Freebies such as free samples or coupons toward free trial of items - 24 percent
  • Other non-grocery coupons - 23 percent

It's easiest to find and access mobile coupons by using one of the many coupon apps for smartphones. A good app will allow consumers to access coupons in every coupon category, including grocery, printable for in-store use, and online codes for hundreds of online retailers.

CouponCabin says its app will allow users to find gas price comparisons, money-saving deals on must-have products, free samples and coupons for local stores and restaurants.

"As we continue to grow, we've learned that our users are hungry for an app that puts the power of quality couponing in the palm of their hands, said Scott Kluth, CEO and Founder of CouponCabin.com.

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Couldn't Make It to Cannes Film Festival? There's an App for That

Go Social Film Magazine brings short films to your iPad

For those foreign film buffs, here's one for you: The company Go Social LLC has announced the launch of what it calls, the first application to provide sho...

PhotoFor those foreign film buffs, here's one for you: The company Go Social LLC has announced the launch of what it calls the first application to provide short international films directly to your iPad. The new app is called the Go Social Film Magazine iPad application, and it's free to download.

Announced at this year's Cannes Film Festival, the app will provide a monthly stream of short films from filmmakers all over the globe, and it also gives film buffs background movie information, via exclusive interviews, extra scenes and up to date global film news.

"Too often short filmmakers are under-recognized and their films don't get the exposure that they deserve. We've created this great cutting edge distribution platform to benefit these filmmakers as well as film lovers." said NadzeyaHuselnikava, CEO of Go Social in a press release.

Users can also link their Twitter and Facebook pages to the app, allowing them to directly communicate with the filmmakers and those involved in the film's production. This is an ideal application for those movie buffs, who desire to keep abreast of what the international film community is up to. It's nearly like having a pass to the Cannes Film Festival on a monthly basis.

Go Social

"We chose to launch Go Social Film Magazine at the Cannes Film Festival 2012 because of its worldwide reputation and love of film directors, said Jason Rogan, co-creator of the new app. "The Short Film Corner at Cannes does an amazing job of recognizing short filmmakers, and bringing their films to a wider audience."

"Cannes is the perfect place for us to reach out to the short film community and give filmmakers an opportunity to be featured in our magazine,"he added.

Those who are filmmakers themselves can also submit their own movies to be considered for play on the application. Users would go to the Go Social film website and fill out a quick electronic form. The company will then send you an informational packet concerning the details of submitting your movie.

Go Social feels this is a new way of connecting international film makers and the movie going public in an inventive way. The company also sees the app as a new way to market up and coming films, especially those movies that are more on the obscure side.

"This app takes promotion for filmmakers to a whole new level," explains Director Michael Wright, whose film Dark Side is featured in the first issue of Go Social Film Magazine.

"Filmmakers think in visuals and this enables a perfect fusion of moving pictures, stills and the written word. Until now, people have been just reading about movies in publications. This new platform opens up whole new possibilities for the promotion and enjoyment of film," he said.

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Researchers Say It's OK For Pregnant Women to Diet

Maintaining body weight during pregnancy found to benefit both mother and child

In addition to the weight of the baby they are carrying, pregnant women usually put on some extra pounds, often referred to as “baby fat.”Tho...

In addition to the weight of the baby they are carrying, pregnant women usually put on some extra pounds, often referred to as “baby fat.”

PhotoThough gaining excess weight isn't good for the mother, doctors have usually refrained from commenting, for fear that a restricted diet might harm the unborn child. Now, researchers from Queen Mary, University of London, say the fear is unfounded.

Their study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) shows that following a healthy diet, overseen by health professionals, prevents excess weight gain in pregnancy and reduces the risk of pregnancy complications such as pre-eclampsia, diabetes, high blood pressure and early delivery.

Watch your weight

Pregnant women, including those who are obese or overweight, should be encouraged to minimize weight gain through diet, according to major new research from Queen Mary, University of London.

The new research, which brings together the results of 44 separate studies, is the largest of its kind and includes data on more than 7,000 women. It comes at a time when an increasing percentage of women enter pregnancy either overweight or already obese.

The researchers investigated the effect of diet, exercise, or a combination of the two. They looked at how much weight women gained throughout pregnancy and whether mother or child suffered from any complications.

Although all three methods reduced the mother's weight gain, diet had the greatest effect with an average reduction of nearly four kilograms. Exercise only resulted in an average reduction in weight gain of just 0.7kg. Oddly, a combination of diet and exercise only produced and average reduction of one kilogram.

Dieting reduced complications

Women who followed a calorie controlled diet were 33 per cent less likely to develop pre-eclampsia, one of the most dangerous pregnancy complications that presents with raised blood pressure and protein in the urine.

Their risk of gestational diabetes was 60 per cent lower, their risk of gestational high blood pressure was 70 per cent lower and their risk of early delivery was 32 per cent lower. However, the researchers acknowledge that these findings need to be confirmed by further large studies.

Of critical importance, the researchers say, babies' birth weights were not affected by dieting. An expectant mother who piles on the pounds, meanwhile,is a threat to both mother and child.

"Weight control is difficult but this study shows that by carefully advising women on weight management methods, especially diet, we can reduce weight gain during pregnancy. It also shows that following a controlled diet has the potential to reduce the risk of a number of pregnancy complications,” said Dr. Shakila Thangaratinam, a Clinical Senior Lecturer and Consultant Obstetrician at Queen Mary, University of London

The researchers say dietary advice was based on limiting overall calorie intake; balancing protein, carbohydrate and fat; and eating foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables and pulses.

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Boomers Urged to Get Tested For Hepatitis C

30 percent of boomers may be infected

The Centers for Disease Control says all U.S. baby boomers should get a one-time test for hepatitis C because one in 30 of this population group has been i...

PhotoThe Centers for Disease Control says all U.S. baby boomers should get a one-time test for hepatitis C because one in 30 of this population group has been infected and don't know it.

Hepatitis C causes serious liver diseases including liver cancer, which is the fastest-rising cause of cancer-related deaths, and the leading cause of liver transplants in the United States, according to the agency.

CDC said it believes this approach will address the largely preventable consequences of this disease, especially in light of newly available therapies that can cure up to 75 percent of infections.

“With increasingly effective treatments now available, we can prevent tens of thousands of deaths from hepatitis C,” said CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden, M.D.

Survey results

The American Gastroenterological Association (AGA)conducted a survey and said results show 74 percent of boomers, born between 1945 and 1965, have never been tested or are unsure if they have been tested for hepatitis C, and 80 percent do not consider themselves at any risk for having the disease.

In addition to a lack of knowledge, the survey showed a lack of action: 83 percent of the baby boomers surveyed have never discussed hepatitis C with their health-care provider, even though it is diagnosed with a simple blood test and for many people, can be cured.

The CDC says baby boomers are five times more likely to be infected than other adults. Yet most infected baby boomers do not know they have the virus because hepatitis C can damage the liver for many years with few noticeable symptoms.

15,000 deaths each year

More than 15,000 Americans, most of them baby boomers, die each year from hepatitis C-related illness, such as cirrhosis and liver cancer, and deaths have been increasing steadily for over a decade and are projected to grow significantly in coming years.

“Identifying these hidden infections early will allow more baby boomers to receive care and treatment, before they develop life-threatening liver disease,” said Kevin Fenton, M.D., director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and Tuberculosis Prevention.

Hepatitis C is spread through infected blood. Liver damage from hepatitis C gets worse over time, and because many boomers have been infected for decades, the number of people who die from hepatitis C-related liver problems is expected to increase by 207 percent from 2000 to 2030.

Why are boomers particularly at risk? One way that hepatitis C is transmitted is through unprotected sex. The first generation to embrace "free love" did so at a time before AIDS was an issue and may have been exposed decades ago.

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Retailers Want You to Buy Your Sofa Online

It's a little hard to feel the leather when you're online

When you think of shopping online, one usually thinks of purchasing lower cost items like books, music or inexpensive clothing, but online couch retailers ...

PhotoWhen you think of shopping online, one usually thinks of purchasing lower-cost items like books, music or inexpensive clothing, but online couch retailers like Sofas Shopping and Sofas And Sectionals have made buying furniture online somewhat normal.

But what's the best way to sell a major piece of furniture online? While one store chooses to upgrade their website for better use, the other uses product videos to close the sale.

For over five years, San Francisco-based company Sofas Shopping  wwas a major player in the online furniture game, and it has just released a new website that it claims will make buying sofas online even easier than before.

Although the company is vague in the details of the new site, it says the website was intended to allow customers to feel better about buying such a personal and heavily-used product like a sofa online. The site improves the consumer's ability to choose certain details of the sofa like actual color and feel of the material by adding interactive and real-time components.

"It must be very difficult for customers to pull the trigger and spend their money on something that they can't try," said Sofas Shopping's Marketing Manager, Alex Sher.

"To compensate on that problem we analyzed the entire products we sell and took out those from online stores that had problems in the past. Also on top of that, one of the key points why sofa shoppers use us is cheapest price, unique design and fast free delivery all over the United States".

Sofas Shopping actually listened to its customer base by adjusting some of its prices. "Most of the customers prefer leather sofas but do not want to pay the price of the full leather sofa, stated Sher. "We listened and started using different materials to drop the price."

Relying on videos

The owners of Sofas And Sectionals, meanwhile, decided that videos would be the ideal accompaniment for the consumer when they're purchasing furniture over the net. In a recent survey conducted by ContentPing.com, over 14,000 consumers said that product videos raised their confidence and assisted them in deciding whether to purchase an item or not.

"People spending money on sofas or sectional seating need to be certain that what they are ordering online fits their style and taste as well as their budget," cautioned Peter Goldstein, VP of Sales for Sofas And Sectionals. "Providing videos of our products helps our customers make informed decisions, ensuring that they'll be happy with their purchase for years to come."

But the folks at Sofas Shopping believe that simply tweaking their website and using alternative materials for the sofas to keep prices down is the real key to successful online sales. They've found that other materials that mimic leather or suede are of such good quality, people can't tell or feel the difference.

"Today leather match reached such a quality and technologic production that it is hardly possible for most of the people to find difference between the real leather and leather match," said Sher."So that main difference is the price which is twice as cheaper."

Aside from improved websites and product videos, buying a major piece of furniture online is still risky, but it's good to know that online retailers are making decent efforts to make the consumer feels better in this specific area of furniture shopping.

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7-Eleven Implements New System to Reduce Illegal Alcohol, Tobacco Sales

In New York, you'll have to do more than show ID, you'll have to have it scanned

Retailers, under increasing pressure to prevent tobacco and alcohol sales to underage consumers, are constantly looking for ways to increase their complian...

PhotoRetailers, under increasing pressure to prevent tobacco and alcohol sales to underage consumers, are constantly looking for ways to increase their compliance with the law. Convenience store chain 7-Eleven is tapping into technology.

This month the company is launching a new technology in each of its 7-Eleven stores in the New York metropolitan area that will scan the 2-D code on the back of a customer's driver license or identification card when age-restricted products are being purchased. This scan will verify the birth date stored on the card. The company says it will not store any other information about the consumer.

"We believe that this new system takes compliance at 7-Eleven to the next level," said Keith Jones, 7-Eleven's senior director of government affairs.

The New York market has been a troublesome compliance area for retailers, especially convenience stores, which tend to draw a lot of young customers.

"Over the last 15 years, laws have been enacted and enforced to restrict the sale of alcohol, tobacco and potential inhalants to minors. Although making an illegal under-age purchase is harder than ever, there is still work to be done and preventative measures to be taken," Jones said.

"7-Eleven responded to the needs of its franchisees," says franchise owner Iris Yost. "We are passionate about not selling age-restricted items to minors. Because laws often place the burden on the store operator, franchisee or selling cashier, we need every protection available.  The ID Scan technology we now have will go a long way in stemming wrongful age-restricted sales."

7-Eleven touts its past efforts to reduce illegal underage sales over the last 30 years. In 1984, the company says it developed its "Come of Age" training and awareness program that specifically targeted illegal sale of alcohol to minors, after-hours sales, sales made on behalf of a minor and consuming alcohol on store premises. The program expanded in 1994 to include all age-restricted products: tobacco, lottery tickets and potential inhalants.

7-Eleven said it is underwriting the cost to upgrade all franchise registers, at no-cost to any of its franchisees.

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Foster Farms Recalls Turkey Burgers

Allergen not disclosed on label

Foster Farms, a Turlock, Calif. establishment, is recalling approximately 15,040 pounds of a turkey burger product because of misbranding and an undeclared...

PhotoFoster Farms, a Turlock, Calif. establishment, is recalling approximately 15,040 pounds of a turkey burger product because of misbranding and an undeclared allergen. The product contains a seasoning mix with hydrolyzed soy protein, a known allergen, not declared on the label. 

The following product is subject to recall: 

  • 10-lb. cases containing 30 5.33-oz. "Foster Farms, Ready to Cook, Boneless Mediterranean Style White Turkey Burgers" with the case code "96384" and the following Julian dates: "1362," "2027," "2033," "2039," "2040," "2046," "2054," "2125," "2129," "2130" and "2131."

The product bears the establishment number "P-157" inside the USDA mark of inspection. The products were produced on various dates between December 28, 2011, and May 10, 2012, and were sold for institutional use in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington. 

The problem was discovered during a routine label review by FSIS and occurred as a result of the company receiving a spice mix from its supplier after an ingredient reformulation request by the company to have the hydrolyzed soy ingredient removed. The reformulation included soy, which was not declared on the turkey burger label. FSIS and the company have not received any reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of the products. Anyone concerned about a reaction should contact a healthcare provider. 

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact the company's consumer affairs manager, Teresa Lenz, at (209) 394-6914, ext. 4369. Media with questions about the recall should contact the company's director of advertising and public relations, Ira Brill, at (209) 394-6914, ext. 6891. 

Consumers with food safety questions can "Ask Karen," the FSIS virtual representative available 24 hours a day at AskKaren.gov or via smartphone at m.askkaren.gov. "Ask Karen" live chat services are available Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. ET. The toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) is available in English and Spanish and can be reached from l0 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Eastern Time) Monday through Friday. Recorded food safety messages are available 24 hours a day.

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River Ranch Expands Bagged Salad Recall

May be contaminated with Listeria

River Ranch Fresh Foods, LLC of Salinas, CA is expanding its voluntary recall of retail and foodservice bagged salads, because they have the potential of b...

PhotoRiver Ranch Fresh Foods, LLC of Salinas, CA is expanding its voluntary recall of retail and foodservice bagged salads, because they have the potential of being contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Retail salad products under this recall were distributed throughout the United States and Canada under various sizes and packaged under the brand names of River Ranch, Farm Stand, Hy-Vee, Shurfresh, and The Farmer’s Market. 

Foodservice salad products under this recall were distributed throughout the United States and Canada under various sizes and packaged under the brand names of River Ranch and Sysco. 

The recalled retail and foodservice salad bags have either “Best By” code dates between 12MAY2012 – 29MAY2012 or Julian dates of 118 and 125. The code date is typically located in the upper right hand corner of the bags. 

Listeria monocytogenes
 is an organism which can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. Although healthy individuals may suffer only short-term symptoms such as high fever, severe headache, stiffness, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea, Listeria infection can cause miscarriages and stillbirths among pregnant women. 

No other products, brands or code dates aside from those listed below are affected by this recall. 

There have been no reported illnesses associated with this recall. We are working closely with the Food & Drug Administration and California Department of Public Health. 

Consumers who have purchased this product should not consume it and are urged to return it to the place of purchase for a full refund. Consumers with questions can contact River Ranch at their 24-hour customer service center at 1-888-624-2569.

 

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'No Name' Steakburgers Recalled

May contain undeclared allergens

J&B Group, a Pipestone, Minn. establishment, is recalling approximately 456 pounds of steakhouse burgers because of misbranding and undeclared allergen...

PhotoJ&B Group, a Pipestone, Minn. establishment, is recalling approximately 456 pounds of steakhouse burgers because of misbranding and undeclared allergens. The product contains a seasoning mix with hydrolyzed soy and wheat proteins, known allergens, not declared on the label.

The following product is subject to recall: 

  • 27-oz packages containing 6 4.5-oz. "No Name, Roasted Peppers, Onions and Mozzarella Cheese Steakhouse Burgers" with a Julian date of "03312."
  • Shipping cases of "Beef Steakburger with Steakhouse Seasoning" with serial numbers of "1049XXX" a case code of "19051" and the Julian date "03312."


The product bears the establishment number "Est. 8934" inside the USDA mark of inspection. The products were packaged on February 3, 2012 and were distributed to retail outlets in Minnesota and Wisconsin. 

The packages labeled "No Name, Roasted Peppers, Onions and Mozzarella Cheese" were incorrectly packed and instead contain a "Steakhouse Burger." The "Steakhouse Burger" product in the package includes a seasoning mix that contains soy and wheat proteins, known allergens. Soy and wheat are not included in the product's ingredient list on the label. FSIS and the company have not received any reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of the products. Anyone concerned about a reaction should contact a healthcare provider. 

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact the company's Consumer Relations Department at 1-888-387-1152. 

Consumers with food safety questions can "Ask Karen," the FSIS virtual representative available 24 hours a day at AskKaren.gov or via smartphone at m.askkaren.gov. "Ask Karen" live chat services are available Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. ET. The toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) is available in English and Spanish and can be reached from l0 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Eastern Time) Monday through Friday. Recorded food safety messages are available 24 hours a day.

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Benefits and Risks of Lung CT Scans Studied

Long-term effects of screening not yet determined

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death but there's still some uncertainty about whether the benefits of widespread CT scan screening outweigh the...

PhotoLung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death but there's still some uncertainty about whether the benefits of widespread CT scan screening outweigh the risks. 

Hoping to shed light on the question, Peter B. Bach, M.D., of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York, and colleagues conducted a systematic review to examine the evidence regarding the benefits and harms of low-dose computerized tomography (LDCT) screening for lung cancer. 

“Most patients are diagnosed with advanced disease, resulting in a very low 5-year survival rate,” Bach and his colleagues wrote. “Renewed enthusiasm for lung screening arose with the advent of LDCT imaging, which is able to identify smaller nodules than can chest radiographs.”  The researchers looked at a total of 31 studies of LDCT screening.

The most informative was the National Lung Screening Trial, which demonstrated that among 53,454 participants enrolled, screening resulted in significantly fewer (20%) lung cancer deaths but two smaller studies showed no such benefit.

“In terms of potential harms of LDCT screening, across all trials and cohorts, approximately 20 percent of individuals in each round of screening had positive results requiring some degree of follow-up, while approximately 1 percent had lung cancer," the authors wrote. “Low-dose computed tomography screening may benefit individuals at an increased risk for lung cancer, but uncertainty exists about the potential harms of screening and the generalizability of results.”

This report now forms the basis of the American College of Chest Physicians and the American Society of Clinical Oncology clinical practice guideline: 

Recommendation 1: For smokers and former smokers ages 55 to 74 years who have smoked for 30 pack-years (number of packs of cigarettes smoked per day by the number of years the person has smoked) or more and either continue to smoke or have quit within the past 15 years, it is suggested that annual screening with LDCT should be offered over both annual screening with chest radiograph or no screening, but only in settings that can deliver the comprehensive care provided to National Lung Screening Trial participants. (Grade of evidence 2B, indicating a “weak recommendation based on moderate quality research data”) 

Recommendation 2: For individuals who have accumulated fewer than 30 pack-years of smoking or are either younger than 55 years or older than 74 years, or individuals who quit smoking more than 15 years ago, and for individuals with severe comorbidities that would preclude potentially curative treatment, limit life expectancy, or both, it is suggested that CT screening should not be performed.

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Verizon to Phase Out 'Grandfathered' Unlimited Data Plans

You can keep you old plan until you buy a new phone

Verizon Wireless has rewarded it early and long-time customers by "grandfathering" them into their $30 a month unlimited data plans with the carrier switch...

Photo
Consumers rate Verizon Wireless

Verizon Wireless has rewarded its early and longtime customers by "grandfathering" them into their $30 a month unlimited data plans with the carrier switched to tiered pricing. But that perk is going away.

At some point in the future, Verizon's 3G customers on a grandfathered unlimited data plan will lose that treasured status when they buy a new phone that runs on the company's 4G LTE network. Verizon will then steer them toward a "shared" data plan, for either families or small businesses.

For example, Verizon currently offers a family plan for voice services. All the phones on the plan share the allotted minutes and as long as the total used stays within the allotment each month, there are no overage charges. Exceeding the allotment can be very expensive.

Verizon Wireless plans a similar system for data. All users on the plan use the same pool of data. As long as total usage doesn't go over the allotment, there are no extra charges at the end of the month.

The change was announced Thursday at an investors' conference by Verizon Communications CFO Fran Shammo, who disclosed the new strategy.

"Everyone will be on data share," Shammo said.

A clarification

Verizon later issued a clarification of Shammo's remarks, saying if you now have an unlimited data plan with Verizon Wireless, you can keep it as long as you keep your current phone. Only when you buy a new, subsidized phone will you have to move to a shared data plan. The company has not disclosed how that service will be priced.

As expected the announcement has not gone over well with Verizon Wireless customers currently on an unlimited data plan. On message boards and social networking sites, many consumers have said they only remained with Verizon because of the unlimited data plans.

"Once that runs out, there is nothing holding me back to get with another provider that actually has good handsets," a poster named JJ wrote.

Shammo made the disclosures at a JP Morgan conference for investors, and there the news was very well received. Verizon Wireless stock is up 1.2 percent since the announcement.

Lots of goodwill

You might think that consumers would rise up and take their mobile business elsewhere, but don't count on it. A ConsumerAffairs sentiment analysis of about 390,000 postings on social media finds Verizon Wireless with a pretty substantial reservoir of good will.

 

While there are scattered grumblings about rates, pricing and billing, Verizon customers seem convinced that the company's network really is superior to the competition.

 

 It must also be admitted that Verizon's strategy of yanking the unlimited rate plan only when individual consumers upgrade makes it less likely that there will be masses of angry smartphone users taking to the streets.

 

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Car Dealers Increasingly Slip Service Plans Into Sales Contracts

Many car buyers end up financing their oil changes

Consumers who buy new or used cars from a dealer might be getting more than they bargained for. Automotive author Pam Oakes says more dealers are now inclu...

Photo
Pam Oakes

Consumers who buy new or used cars from a dealer might be getting more than they bargained for. Automotive author Pam Oakes says many dealers are now including service contracts into the sale price of the vehicle.

The pitch may be "you don't pay for regular maintenance for four years or 48,000 miles," but Oakes says consumers are paying. These service contracts can cost $2,500 or so - much more than the cost of four years of regular maintenance.

"So not only are they paying more than the service should cost, but since it's rolled into the financed price of the car, they're paying interest on their oil changes," Oakes told ConsumerAffairs.

Oakes, who operates Pam's Motor City Automotive, in Ft. Myers, Fla., is author of the book "Car Care for the Clueless." She said she became aware of the trend when many of her longtime customers told her they had to take their newly purchased vehicles to the dealership for service, otherwise they would be paying for service twice.

Examples

As an example, a Cadillac CTS V can be financed with a dealer service plan warranty that amounts to an additional $2,300 over the first four years of a lease/finance. Average service would cost just $1,200 on the same car during the first four years, acording to Oakes.

She says a dealer service plan on a Kia Optima would cost on average $1,400 in additional payments in the first four years. Average service at a repair shop would cost just $500 during the first four years.

Dealer service warranty plans cover oil changes, tires, brakes, belts, etc. But Oakes says consumers are being charged for unnecessary items and procedures such as inspections on clutch fluid, brake line hose connections, brake fluids, and fuel additives.

"On average, during the first four years, the way cars are built today, a vehicle typically only needs filters and oil changes," she said.

Consumers may or may not be told that they are receiving a service plan during the sales process. If they are, they might not understand that it's an option they paid for. It's buried in the paperwork that consumers must digest and sign before they can drive their vehicle off the lot.

Got to read the documents

Not matter how long consumers have been at the dealer and no matter how tired they are, Oakes says they have to read each document before signing it.

"Your signature is the most important asset you have," she said.

Oakes says consumers who do not want a service contract on their newly purchased new or used car should ask the sales person about it and specifically ask to see the document that spells out the cost. Then, when they've identified which document commits them to the service contract, make sure they don't sign it.

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Gas Prices Fall Another Two Cents This Week

But in western states, prices surged higher in the last seven days

For the nation as a whole, the average of price of gasoline showed little movement during the week, dipping by two cents a gallon. But in some individual s...

PhotoFor the nation as a whole, the average of price of gasoline showed little movement during the week, dipping by two cents a gallon. But in some individual states, motorists saw wide swings in prices at the pump.

The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.713 per gallon, down from $3.734 last Friday, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. Fuel prices are 18 cents a gallon lower than they were a month ago.

The average price of diesel fuel today is $4.017 per gallon, down from $4.054 a week ago.

In states where gasoline prices tend to be highest, prices jumped by several cents a gallon in the last seven days. In Alaska, for example, the average price rose more than 13 cents a gallon in one week. The average price rose nearly 11 cents in California, more than 14 cents in Oregon and more than 12 cents in Washington State.

More stability

There was more price stability in the states where prices at the pump tend to be lower. However, drivers in Tennessee enjoyed a significant one week drop of nearly seven cents a gallon.

What's behind the widening gulf between low and high gasoline prices? Mostly geography. Western states are not enjoying the benefit of steadily falling oil prices.

"A decline in the price at the pump has not been seen west of the Rocky Mountains, where tight gasoline inventories have sent prices higher even as crude oil prices and retail gas prices across the rest country have moved lower," said AAA's manager of federal relations, Avery Ash. "While it is not unusual for gasoline stocks to decline at this time of year, as refineries undergo maintenance and the switchover from winter-blend to summer-blend gasoline takes place, current West Coast stocks, as reported last week by the Department of Energy, are at their lowest level since 1992."

The states with the most expensive gas this week are:

  • Hawaii ($4.539)
  • Alaska ($4.497)
  • California ($4.360)
  • Washington State ($4.241)
  • Oregon ($4.219)
  • Connecticut ($3.982)
  • New York ($3.968)
  • Nevada ($3.967)
  • Illinois ($3.882)
  • Vermont ($3.847)

The states with the least expensive gas this week are:

  • South Carolina ($3.388)
  • Oklahoma ($3.437)
  • Missouri ($3.440)
  • Arkansas ($3.441)
  • Tennessee ($3.444)
  • Alabama ($3.445)
  • Mississippi ($3.479)
  • Kansas ($3.483)
  • Georgia($3.491)
  • Iowa ($3.510)
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Report: Consumer Spending is Down But Not on Gas, Meds or Groceries

Consumers not eager to give up the convenience of driving themselves

Many consumers are cutting back on spending in various areas. For some it's entertainment, for others it's cutting back on utility usage or their clothes s...

PhotoMany consumers are cutting back on spending in various areas. For some it's entertainment, for others it's cutting back on utility usage or clothes. But wherever cutbacks are needed, it doesn't seem like they apply to pharmaceutical products, groceries or gasoline.

A new study released by consultant company Empathica Inc., finds that nine out of ten consumers are spending the same amount or more at the gas station.

Seems like a no brainer, right? But consumers could choose other means of transportation to cut down on fuel costs, like carpooling or taking public transportation. But the report shows that for consumers, using their own means of transportation is important enough to keep them spending at the pump.

As for groceries, merely one in five consumers reported spending less, compared to 25 percent who expected to spend the same amount.  This particular survey result evenly matches other studies that confirm consumers are spending less on dining out.

The survey also found that one in four consumers are spending less on pharmaceuticals, showing 60 percent spending the same and 15 percent spending more than they did before at the pharmacy.

"The economy is affecting American consumers just as we expected with specific segments continuing to be challenged," said Dr. Gary Edwards, chief customer officer, at Empathica. "The economy as a whole is still on the mend, and although we are starting to see an uptick in the job market, it doesn't necessarily mean consumers are eager to spend."

Biggest concerns

The survey also reveals exactly what consumers are most concerned about today. The top three areas were the economy (31 percent), debt (25 percent) and job security (19 percent). In addition, the survey also showed that consumers are spending less in other areas of life mainly due to their worries about falling into greater debt, or having to shell out more dollars for housing and utility costs.

Other survey results show that 60 percent of consumers feel they have it harder now than they did six months prior, and a third said their finances weren't any better or worse off in the last six months.

But all storms eventually come to an end, and economic storms aren't excluded from this truth. With signs of the economy improving in recent months, the report also reflects the growing optimism among various aged consumers.

Nearly 50 percent of consumers aged 18 to 24 look at their current financial situation in a positive light, as those over age 65 don't share the same optimism. Only 19 percent of that age group feel good about their personal finances.

"Uncertainty still remains among consumers with continued caution around spending on non-essentials," said Edwards.

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Airlines Made $3.4 Billion in Baggage Fees Last Year

Passengers don't like the fees but they're keeping the airlines in business at the moment

It's a wonder why the airlines are always complaining of loosing money and making less profit, when they now charge you for everything from that semi-...

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Twitter Incorporates 'Do Not Track' While Facebook Gets Sued for Billions

Trend appears to be towards at least a little respect for users' privacy

Don't like being tracked when you're surfing the web, or using social network sites? As companies like Google and Facebook document all of your online acti...

PhotoDon't like being tracked when you're surfing the web, or using social network sites? While companies like Google and Facebook document all of your online action, Twitter has decided to listen to its users who care not to be electronically followed.

On a recent blog post, Twitter said: "As always, we are committed to providing you with simple and meaningful choices about the information we collect to improve your Twitter experience. For those who don't want to tailor Twitter, we offer ways to turn of this collection."

The Federal Trade Commission has been asked by consumer groups to support the "Do Not Track" initiative, which has been championed by several consumer advocacy groups since 2007. ConsumerAffairs first reported on the initiative in 2011. Some sites already on the Do-Not-Track-side-of-things are Apple, Safari, and Internet Explorer, where users can opt out of their searches being tracked and ultimately given to other parties for sales solicitations, and other annoying uses.

The new and still somewhat obscure search engine DuckDuckGo does not track users or put them in a "bubble" -- meaning it displays search results regardless of the user's geographical location. 

Percentage rising

Mozilla, the non-profit creator of the Firefox Web search engine wrote on its blog, that browsers providing the Do Not Track option have risen to 8.6 percent for traditional computer users and 19 percent for those who use mobile devices. 

"We're excited that Twitter now supports Do Not Track and global user adoption rates continue to increase, which signifies a big step forward for Do Not Track and the Web," wrote Mozilla.

Meanwhile, Facebook has been sued for $15 billion by its users for tracking their information. Plantiffs believe that Facebook's "Like" button breaks the U.S. Wiretap Act by tracking people online, even after they get off.

"This is not just a damages action, but a groundbreaking digital-privacy rights case that could have wide and significant legal and business implications," said a representative of the legal firm Stewarts Law to Bloomberg. The suit was filed in San Jose, Calif. and merges over 20 related cases from around the U.S.

All of this comes on the same day that Facebook goes public, and it could force the largest social networking site to reconsider its tracking ways.  Stewarts Law also said that it's attempting to add international plaintiffs to the suit, as many on the other side of the water have similar tracking complaints.

Consumers will have to wait and see if there will eventually be a legal standard for all browsers and social networking sites to follow.

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Feds Warn Airlines Against Advertising "Free" Flights

A flight's not free if consumers are liable for fees, Transportation Department decrees

 Airlines and travel agents may not advertise an airfare as “free” if consumers are liable for the payment of fees to book the flight, t...

PhotoAirlines and travel agents need to take great care in writing their advertising and describing frequent-flier benefits. They may not advertise an airfare as “free” if consumers are liable for the payment of fees to book the flight, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) warns.

The DOT's new airfare advertising rule, which took effect on Jan. 26, 2012, requires every advertised price for air fares to state the entire price to be paid by consumers. This means that all mandatory government-imposed taxes and fees as well as mandatory carrier-imposed charges must be included in the advertised price the first time an airfare is presented to consumers. 

If a seller of air transportation advertises an air fare as “free” but then requires the consumer to make any monetary payment to obtain the free travel, that seller would be violating the Department’s airfare advertising rule.  

"Our rule says the ticket price presented to consumers must be the full price,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said.  “If a flight is billed as ‘free,’ it needs to stay that way from booking to boarding – no one should have to pay hundreds of dollars for a flight that they thought they were getting for free.” 

In the past, flights advertised as “free” may in fact have cost the consumer a substantial amount of money, especially on international flights where taxes could amount to hundreds of dollars.           

In guidance issued today, the Department said that nothing prevents an airline from stating that the air transportation is “free of carrier charges” or “without carrier charges” if this is accurate and taxes and government fees are properly disclosed. 

Frequent fliers

Advertisements relating to mileage awards may not indicate that a given mileage amount may be exchanged for a free ticket unless the award actually does allow the consumer to travel without any financial cost. 

If consumers must pay taxes or airline-imposed fees when booking a flight using frequent-flyer miles, the ad must display at least the minimum amount of government taxes and mandatory carrier-imposed fees that could apply to that itinerary together with the mileage award levels, and the fees must be displayed as prominently as the mileage requirements. 

The Department will give carriers and agents 60 days to modify their ads, and will pursue enforcement action after that date against companies that do not comply.


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Consumers Warned to Avoid Korean Shellfish

Tests reveal some of the seafood comes from polluted water

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has joined a handful of states in warning consumers to avoid shellfish products imported from Korea.The agenc...

PhotoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has joined a handful of states in warning consumers to avoid shellfish products imported from Korea.

The agency said it is considering a recall of fresh and frozen oyster, clams, muscles and scallops. The warning does not include canned shellfish products from Korea.

The warning is tied to a norovirus outbreak that caused three people to get sick. The FDA says stores should stop selling the shellfish products for the time being.

In Pennsylvania this week, the departments of Agriculture and Health advised residents to immediately discard and not consume any fresh or frozen shellfish from Korea.

While the FDA has not yet issued an official recall, states have been advised to treat Korean shellfish products as coming from an unapproved source. The shellfish products came from polluted waters, according to tests.

In addition to cautioning consumers, food sanitarians have advised restaurants and food retailers across the state during routine inspections that all fresh and frozen Korean shellfish products are considered adulterated and must not be consumed.

Consumers who have fresh or frozen shellfish products labeled with Korea as the country of origin should return or discard the product immediately, Pennsylvania officials said.

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The Jawbone Big Jambox Gives Bose a Run For its Money

Big sound from small packages continues to be the trend

With all of the white colored earphones that's attached to the average person's ear now a days, it's easy to forget that we can actually listen to music ou...

With all of the white earphones attached to the average person's ear nowadays, it's easy to forget that we can actually listen to music outwardly. Remember speakers?

Well if you do, you've probably also noticed that music speakers have changed over the years. In days past, getting the biggest speakers was the ultimate goal. I mean sound isn't sound unless every living soul is forced to take in your musical taste, right? But today the consumer's usual goal is to get the smallest, and most portable speaker they can find.

PhotoWhich brings us to the Jawbone Big Jambox, which like a Bose speaker, is tiny and wireless, only weighing 2.7 pounds, but packs a pretty decent musical wallop. The speakers are a second generation version of the original design, and typically used to fill outside or large open spaces craving to be filled with notes and melody.

Although it matches the loudness and portability of a Bose speaker, early reviews suggest it doesn't match the popular speaker's level of sound clarity, although it does match Bose's price of $299. However, few things are as subjective as a person's sound preference.

Jewel box

Resembling the size of small jewelry box, the JawBone speaker also has a 15-hour battery life, which should outlast any party or get-together no matter how many beers one plans to have. The speakers also have the ability to connect two separate devices simultaneously. Meaning you may not be able to hog the musical selection at the party, as one of your buddies can plug in mp3 player too.

With the Bose SoundLink Wireless Mobile Speaker also being $299, the Jawbone comes across as a slightly better buy with the extended battery life. But use over long periods of time will be the ultimate tester, as any product that lasts merely a year or two before it starts acting weird, isn't worth the dollars plunked down on it.

Like its original model, the Jambox speaker has a simple design and comes in many colors including black, red and white. It also plays louder than the original version, and plays music from from your device by way of a wireless Bluetooth signal. The Jawbone also plays at a 35 foot maximum distance.

Whether one should go with a Bose portable speaker or the Jawbone Big Jambox is really a matter of very specific preference, as both speakers are highly reviewed. But it's always nice to have more purchasing options. Moral of this story: Listen before you buy.

 

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Good For You or Bad For You: The Debate on Sunscreens Continues

This year's batch of sunscreens somewhat safer than last year's

We all need sunscreen, but sadly not all of them protect your skin at equal levels. As we reported earlier, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have come...

PhotoWe all need sunscreen, but sadly not all of them protect your skin at equal levels. As we reported earlier, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has come up with a set of regulations and specific things to look for in an effective sunscreen.

Now, a new round of sunscreen policing has been initiated by The Environmental Working Group (EWG). The consumer watch organization has happily reported that there are more safe sunscreens this year than last year, which means sunbathers can exhale in a collective sigh of consumer relief.

The main reason sunscreens are safer this year, according to the watch group's report, is the elimination of oxybenzone, an estrogen-like chemical that absorbs some of the sun's harmful rays. But it's also been shown to penetrate the skin and potentially cause cancer.

A report earlier this year conducted by researchers from Missouri University of Science and Technology, spoke about skin cancer causing sunscreens extensively.

The EWG report also linked this year's safer sunscreens to a lower amount of brands using retinylpalmitate, which is a potentially harmful chemical that's grown tumors in lab rats during the course of scientific experiments.

One-third of sunscreens used the harmful chemical last year, compared to one-fourth using it this year. An improvement, but EWG says the sunscreen industry still has a long way to go.

"FDA's decades of foot-dragging has brought us a marketplace of mostly subpar sunscreen products," said NnekaLeiba, Environmental Working Group's senior analyst in a press release.

"While we're grateful to see the general market improve, we wish we could assure consumers that 100 percent of sunscreens sold in the US are effective and safe. We can't."

An opposing view

But just as one group warns of potential product risk, another group has an opposing take. The industry trade group The Personal Care Products Council, challenges EWG's claims that oxybenzone and palmitate are as harmful as they say.

"Consumers can be confident that sunscreen products, when used as directed and as part of an overall safe sun regiment, are safe and will help protect them from skin cancer, premature skin aging, and other damaging effects of the sun," the Products Council said in a written statement.

EWG also pointed out that many of the sunscreens still will not pass the "broad spectrum" test, which lets the consumer know that the protective lotion will guard against UVB and UVA sun rays. Although safer sunscreens are now available, EWG only recommended 25 percent of the 1,800 products that it tested.

The non-profit consumer organization also reported that this year's sunscreen products are safer for children and for adults with allergies or sensitive skin, due to containing less of the retinylpalmitate chemical.

But again, The Personal Care Products Council still doesn't understand what all of the negative hubbub is about. It is bothered by what it considers a constant use of scare tactics used by not only EWG, but other organizations as well.

"Allegations contained in the Environmental Working Group’s 2012 sunscreen report disregard or distort an extensive body of scientific research on the safety, efficiency and health benefits of sunscreen and could confuse consumers and discourage them from using sunscreen."

"With skin cancer rates on the rise, this does a great disservice to consumers and undermines the efforts of public health advocates to educate people about the importance of using sunscreen as part of their sun protection regimen," it said.

And the sunscreen debate goes on and on.

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Senate Bill Sets Penalty for Trafficking in Stolen Cell Phones

Part of crackdown on growing black market in smartphones

The U.S. Senate will take up legislation that would impose a five year criminal penalty for tampering with the unique identification number of a cell phone...

The U.S. Senate will soon take up legislation that would impose a five-year criminal penalty for tampering with the unique identification number of a cell phone as part of a crackdown on growing cell phone theft.

PhotoIn April the New York Police Department and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced establishment of an integrated database of unique cell phone identifiers, known as International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) numbers, to allow cell phone companies to permanently disable stolen cell phones once they are reported stolen.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) introduced the bill to increase the penalty for trying to alter a cell phone's unique ID number as part of that crackdown.

Black market for smartphones

“As part of the effort to shut down the black market for stolen iPhones, we must make it abundantly clear to would-be thieves, if you try to alter a stolen cell phone to get around the ban, you will face severe consequences,” said Schumer. “This legislation will help dry up the black market for stolen cell phones by making the consequences for peddling in this illegal business so severe, thieves would think twice before doing so.”

Schumer was among those calling for the national database among carriers, but said it would be much more effective if there were tougher penalties for those who traffic in stolen phones. His measure won immediate support from CTIA-The Wireless Association President and CEO Steve Largent.

"CTIA's members are committed to protecting their customers and their wireless devices from theft," Largent said. "We are pleased to support Senator Schumer's legislation and believe it will be an important tool in the effort to combat the theft of wireless devices. We hope Congress moves quickly to pass this important bill."

Deactivating SIM cards

Currently, when cell phones are reported stolen, many American cell phone companies only deactivate the phone’s “SIM” card, which is the account data storage component of the device. While deactivation of a SIM card does not allow for the device to be used with existing data and account information, SIM cards are easily removed and replaced, allowing stolen phones to be easily resold on the black market.

In April the industry agreed to work together with the FCC and establish a nationwide, interconnected database that will allow the carriers to share information on stolen cell phones across networks and ban the use of cell phones reported stolen.

Schumer’s bill, the Mobile Device Theft Deterrence Act of 2012 will add criminal penalties of up to five years for tampering with cell phones in order to circumvent the service ban on a stolen phone.

According to the New York Police Department, 42 percent of all property crimes of individuals in New York City in 2011 involved a cell phone.  

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States Investigating Charity Fund-Raiser

Ohio, New Jersey get restraining orders against PJG Enterprises

Ohio and New Jersey are on the trail of PJG Enterprises, a fund-raising company that has represented the American Breast Cancer Federation and the Ame...

PhotoOhio and New Jersey are on the trail of PJG Enterprises, a fund-raising company that has represented the American Breast Cancer Federation and the American Veterans Federation. Lawyers for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine had a temporary restraining order extended last week in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court against the company and its owner, Paul Grossi.  New Jersey has also won a restraining order against the company for alleged violations of state charitable law.

Grossi has also been charged in Girard, Ohio, Municipal Court with Intimidation of a Crime Victim and Soliciting following a complaint of an employee of PJG Enterprises and a Girard Police Department investigation, DeWine's office said. Most of the bank accounts associated with the business and the charities have been frozen and the court's action requires soliciting activities with the firm and the charities to stop until the next hearing.

DeWine today urged anyone who worked for PJG Enterprises or is familiar with the activities of the charities they represented, including The American Breast Cancer Federation and The American Veterans Federation,  or who may have received a call from the Girard-based PJG Enterprises to call his office's Charitable Law Section at 1-800-282-0515.

"Donors need to have assurances about who is soliciting money from them and where it's going," said Attorney General DeWine. "If you're concerned about this company, or anyone who calls to ask you for money, please call my office for information or to file a complaint."

PJG Enterprises was soliciting donations for the American Breast Cancer Federation and the American Veterans Federation. Among other things, investigators found that the addresses claimed for these charitable organizations was a house on 53 North Brockway Ave. in Youngstown, Ohio, the same as the residential addresses claimed by officers of the two charities and Paul Grossi. All of those individuals are included in the court's actions.

DeWine reminds potential donors that when they receive calls seeking a donation to ask questions about who is calling and what their connection is to the specific charity.

Professional solicitors, who are paid by charities to solicit on their behalf, must provide basic information about the charity and its location, in addition to their own name, their status as a professional solicitor and, if requested, the percentage of gross revenue that will be retained by the charity.

Citizens are urged to ask for written information in advance of making a gift and to refrain from sharing bank or credit card information on unexpected telephone calls. Warning signs include overly aggressive or pushy tactics, callers who are unable or unwilling to answer questions, callers who offer to come pick up contributions, or callers who suggest there are prizes awarded for contributions. At any point during a call, consumers are encouraged to hang up if they feel uncomfortable.

 

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New Report Shows Consumers Really Crave Start-Stop Technology for Their Cars

It's an easy way to save gas without affecting vehicle performance, at least in theory

We American consumers like our bells and whistles, don't we? We have to get that new added feature for our electronic device, and our below kitchen cabinet...

PhotoWe American consumers like our bells and whistles, don't we? We have to get that new added feature for our electronic device, and our kitchen cabinets house every unused gadget we bought on T.V. for $19.99. But nowhere do Americans like their bells and whistles more than in their cars.

But a perhaps surprising report released by the automotive car battery company Johnson Controls shows that 97 percent of Americans are actually looking forward to the new Start-Stop technology in their cars over fancy bells and whistles. This is to ultimately use less gas and thus reduce spending on fuel.

First introduced in Europe and currently being used on Honda Motor scooters in Asian markets, Start-Stop abruptly shuts the engine off when it's idle for a specific length of time, and restarts it once the driver lets go of the brake pedal or employs the clutch. In theory, this reduces the amount of time the engine spends idling, thus loosing less fuel.

"This research further confirms that while U.S. consumers are still generally unfamiliar with the technology, Start-Stop vehicles will provide the improved fuel economy and performance they want, at a price that is acceptable to then," said Kim Metcalf-Kupres, vice president for Global Strategy and Marketing, at Johnson Control Power Solutions. "Most people will pay a little more for better fuel economy, as long as they don't have to sacrifice performance."

"Just makes sense"

The research finds that one-third of respondents simply believe the Start-Stop technology  "just makes sense" as gas prices continue to fluctuate. And nearly 100 percent of the survey's participants are drawn to the concept of their vehicle turning off, as many people aren't always mindful of how long their car has been idling or how much gas they're actually wasting. Industry experts say that Americans waste 1.4 billion gallons of gasoline per year from voluntary idling -- mostly sitting at traffic lights and stalled in heavy traffic.

As gas costs have been a financial thorn in the side of consumers for quite some time, the government's Corporate Average Fuel Economy  (CAFE) will require all cars to have a 35.5 mile per gallon fuel standard by 2016, and 54.5 miles per gallon by the time 2025 rolls around. Although Start-Stop is already prevalent in Europe,  experts believe it could be included in 40 percent of the U.S. vehicles by 2015.

"Our customers are working across the entire technology spectrum from traditional gas engines to hybrid and electric vehicles to determine the correct mix of vehicle options to meet increasing standards," said Metcalf-Kupres. "Start-Stop vehicles, which achieve 5 percent to 10 percent fuel economy for minimal added cost to consumers, will help automakers meet those initial objectives."

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JCPenney's No-Coupon Strategy is Failing to Catch On

JCP suffers a big loss in the first quarter as shoppers look elsewhere

Apparently, JCPenney isn't doing so hot, as lukewarm first-quarter reports showed a significant sales decline. This can be attributed to the department sto...

PhotoApparently, JCPenney isn't doing so hot, as lukewarm first-quarter reports showed a significant sales decline. This can be attributed to the department store's new strategy of doing away with their popular "big sale days" that's offered year around.

Instead JCPenney has decided to use an everyday-low-pricing angle to increase its demographic and compete with the Targets and Wal-Marts of the world, who use similar marketing techniques. But the plan has come back to bite JCPenney in the you know where.

Once upon a time, JCPenney executives had desires to appear sort of high-endish like the ritzier department store Macy's. But economic times and the successes of competitors have driven JCPenney to abruptly remove its 600-plus sales for what it now calls a "fair and square structure."

But, consumers didn't respond, as the company saw a net loss in the first quarter of $163 million. What the company failed to realize, said experts, was how important big sales are to consumers. Many customers only visit stores when they believe they'll miss out on a short-lived sale.

Once the consumer knows discounts will be on-going, it lowers the level of the customer's feelings of urgency. Many consumers have felt it unnecessary to make the JCPenney trek unless there's a special discount going on.

Numbers talk

Earlier in the week, JCPenney CEO Ron Johnson said "customers love the new JCP they discover in our stores," but the numbers spoke a different truth, as the report showed the following:

Comparable store sales for the first quarter declined 18.9 percent. Total sales decreased 20.1 percent, which includes the effects of the Company’s exit from its outlet business. Internet sales through jcp.com were $271 million in the first quarter, decreasing 27.9 percent from last year.

Obviously there is still enough time to fiscally recover, but the early sales number may force JCPenney to return to its old days of the periodically offered sale.

"Consumers want deals, and they're willing to wait for them," said C. Britt Beemer chairman of America's Research group, in an interview with the press. "When you train customers to shop at big discounts, that customer is not going to change."

By offering year-around low prices, JCP wanted to change the customer's belief that 'the coupon is the golden key that unlocks the door to the biggest discounts'. But experts say consumers have a strong relationship with their coupons and aren't likely to give them up anytime soon.

"Our first 90 days are a little tougher than we expected," Johnson finally admitted. "We learned coupons are a drug. They really drove traffic."

And now that traffic has about-faced and decided to drive into other retail chains that choose to amp up its exclusive deal offers. All of this has Johnson, a former Apple executive, trying to regain his business swagger that was most evident when he made the Apple retail stores the success it is today.

But Johnson isn't discouraged as he still believes JCPenney's no coupon plan will eventually catch on. "We have work to do to educate the customer on our pricing strategy and to drive more traffic to our stores," he said in a released statement.

We'll see if the people are going to buy his optimistic reasoning. Or more importantly, decide to buy JCPenney merchandise again.

 

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Study: Millions of Recalled Cars Still Being Sold

Current system doesn't make it easy to keep up to date

From craigslist to the newspaper classifieds, millions of cars are listed for sale even though they have been recalled, according to a warning by automotiv...

PhotoFrom craigslist to the newspaper classifieds, millions of cars are listed for sale even though they have been recalled, according to a warning by automotive website Edmunds.com.

The company cites a study that says that there were "at least" 2.7 million vehicles listed for sale last year that still were subject to unfulfilled recalls.

"The current system does not make it easy for car owners — especially used-car owners — to know if their vehicles are up-to-date on recall services," said Edmunds.com Senior Editor John O'Dell. "And since there's only so much the manufacturers can do to reach out to car owners, the responsibility for ensuring that a car has been checked for recalls ultimately rests with individual owners."

O'Dell thinks at the very least, used-car buyers should register their vehicles with the automakers to make sure they're in the loop on any existing or future recalls.

No laws

O'Dell says the company's investigation found that there are no laws that require a car's owner to notify a potential buyer that the car being sold is the subject of a recall.

While automakers send multiple letters to owners of affected cars to impress on them the seriousness of a car recall, the letters don't always reach new owners when a car is sold. According to Edmunds.com's research, almost eight percent of letters from two General Motors recalls in 2008 and 2009 have not been delivered for various reasons.

An Edmunds analysis of two GM recalls examined showed a "completion rate" of just 52.5 percent as of December 2011. GM says that its recalls generally reach a completion rate of about 70 percent. No other automaker would provide Edmunds with a composite completion rate for their recalls.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is developing a system that would enable consumers to use the government's Safercar.gov web site to track outstanding recalls through a vehicle identification number (VIN). However, an agency spokesman could not say when the system would be available for consumer use.

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Is It True? No. Is It Legal? Yes.

Not much fruit in Fruit Roll-Ups but labeling is legal, judge rules

Though packaging for Fruit Roll-Ups and Fruit by the Foot snacks misleads consumers into believing they are made with real fruit, federal regulations allow...

PhotoThough packaging for Fruit Roll-Ups and Fruit by the Foot snacks misleads consumers into believing they are made with real fruit, federal regulations allow for such labeling, even if it's not true, a federal judge has ruled in connection with a class-action lawsuit filed against General Mills.

"A reasonable consumer might make certain assumptions about the type and quantity of fruit in the Fruit Snacks based on the statement 'made with real fruit,' along with other statements prominently featured on the products' packaging," U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti wrote, Courthouse News Service reported.

"Additionally, the word 'strawberry' appears in large letters on the front, back, top, and bottom panels. Taken together, these statements might lead a reasonable consumer to believe that product is made with real strawberries, not pears from concentrate. The names 'Fruit Roll-Ups' and 'Fruit by the Foot,' along with the fanciful depiction of the products, which resemble fruit leather, may lead to further confusion about the Fruit Snacks' ingredients. After seeing these prominent aspects of the packaging, a reasonable consumer might be surprised to learn that a substantial portion of each serving of the Fruit Snacks consists of partially hydrogenated oil and sugars."

Popular with consumers

Anyone who thinks consumers will soon rise up and demand more truthful packaging may be disappointed.  A ConsumerAffairs computerized sentiment analysis of about 28,000 postings on social media over the last year finds Fruit Roll-Ups riding high with a net positive sentiment of about 80%.

 

Judge Conti was ruling in a class action brought on behalf of a San Francisco-area mother by the Center for Science in the Public Interest in October 2011. It claims that General Mills incorrectly describes the ingredients in its fruit-flavored snacks and deceives people into thinking they are healthful.

“General Mills is basically dressing up a very cheap candy as if it were fruit and charging a premium for it,” said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner. “General Mills is giving consumers the false impression that these products are somehow more wholesome, and charging more. It’s an elaborate hoax on parents who are trying to do right by their kids.”

Citing an example, the suit charges that Strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups are made from pears from concentrate, corn syrup, dried corn syrup, sugar, partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, citric acid, acetylated monoglycerides, fruit pectin, dextrose, malic acid, Vitamin C (ascorbic acid), unspecified “natural flavor,” and Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, and Blue 1.

Even with the pear ingredient, the product provides little of the beneficial fiber or nutrients associated with real strawberries, the suit alleges. While labels tout the naturalness of the added flavorings, CSPI says that many of the ingredients are artificial by anyone’s definition, including the partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil and the acetylated monoglycerides.

Whatever's in the stuff, most of the 28,000 consumers whose comments we analyzed think it's pretty tasty.

 

 

Deceptive but legal

Conti agreed that the words "made with real fruit" was deceptive, but agreed with General Mills that its claims based on the labels "naturally flavored" and "fruit flavored" are preempted by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, since the regulation allows a product to be labeled as "fruit-flavored," even if it does not contain fruit.

"Thus, the regulation allows a producer to label a product as 'natural strawberry flavored,' even if that product contains no strawberries. While the regulation's logic is troubling, the court is bound to apply it," Conti wrote. "So long as that product 'contains natural flavor' which is 'derived from' the 'characterizing food ingredient,' it will not run afoul of the regulation."

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Who's Calling? New Caller ID App May (or May Not) Know

ReverseGenie tries to provide reverse look-up information

It's really annoying when we miss an unfamiliar phone call. It's even more annoying when the person on the other end actually reaches us, but then tries to...

PhotoIt's really annoying when we miss an unfamiliar phone call. It's even more annoying when the person on the other end actually reaches us, but then tries to sell us something or want us to fill out some sort of survey. Who are these people (in my best Jerry Seinfeld voice)? Where are they calling from? And how can I track this information?

The ReverseGenie App claims to be able to answer these questions for you, by allowing users to conduct a reverse phone search from their Android or iPhone. By using the application, annoyed call recipients can quickly try to learn the caller's name, email address, and cell phone number. They can also receive free unlimited reverse email searches with links to the caller's Facebook profile. The app also comes with a free caller ID. 

In the past, smartphone users would have to wait until they're in front of their lap or desktop to conduct reverse searches, but now they can download the app directly onto their mobile device and pull the wanted details of those obscure and unwanted calls.

The new application works by users entering the phone number of the person they're searching for, or by simply selecting a number from their call history to pull up more background information. Those interested can download the app for free and it comes with unlimited use.

Users can also immediately see their recent calls, click an address to get directions from Google Maps, and keep up to date information in their phone records with real-time updates.

After reverse search provides a name of someone calling your phone, ReverseGenie.com can pull additional information on that person such as their IP address, gender, service provider, and physical address. It's like bothered callers now have their own private investigator living inside their phone.

Although only recently released to the public, the app has gotten really positive reviews from both Android and iPhone users, and has been widely preferred over other caller ID applications. So prank callers, telemarketers, and creepy people beware. The people have been armed with a needed and timely bit of technology.

How well does it work?

But really, glowing user reviews aside, how well does this little tool work? The meanies in the ConsumerAffairs backroom mashed on it a bit to find out. Here's their report:

It works about as well as you'd expect, namely not very well, since it's based on records that are incomplete, often incorrect and sometimes misleading by design. 

First we inserted our own cell phone number -- 213-500-xxxx -- and got the astonishing information that it was registered to <name unknown> and that it was a number issued by Verizon in Los Angeles. OK, no surprise there.

Next, we entered a landline phone number from our DC-area office -- 703-359-xxxx.  It came up with three listings. One was spot-on, with the correct name, street address, etc. The other two were completely inaccurate. They were identical and each was a name we'd never heard of at an address in an office park a few blocks away.  Maybe it was someone who'd had the number before us?

Next we entered one of our Google numbers -- 213-915-xxxx. Reverse Genie pinned it down to Los Angeles but that was all the genie could discern.

So much for phone numbers. We next inserted an email address (yes, it will look up emails too): xxx.xxxx@gmail.com and got the startling answer that the address was registered to Google in Mountain View, Calif.

Next we entered a corporate email address that we know to be a DC company. Genie slithered out of his or her lamp and informed us the name was unavailable but confidently asserted the address was registered to InMotion Hosting in Santa Monica, Calif.

Hmmmm ... so, Genie was batting about 20 percent on this outing. If you look carefully, it's obvious Genie is not just providing information, it's also gathering it. Each time you ask for information on a number or email address, it gives you what it has then asks you to contribute what you know, including whether the call or email was spam. This could be a helpful way to build a database if everyone gave honest and correct answers. Otherwise, it's just another bulging mass of digits that don't add up to much.

 

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Soda is No Longer King of the Beverage Hill

Growing concerns about childhood obesity help drain sales

There's something wonderful about soda. Is it just the sweetness? Or do those tiny throat massaging bubbles hold some sort of magical ability? Either way, ...

PhotoThere's something wonderful about soda. Is it just the sweetness? Or do those tiny throat-massaging bubbles hold some sort of magical ability? Either way, many of us enjoy a carbonated beverage now and again.

But in recent years soda has become the poster product for an unhealthy diet, especially in children, and as a result soda sales have seen a slow but steady decline.

According to the trade publication Beverage Digest, the average American drank about two sodas a day in 2011, which is a 16 percent decrease since the soda industry's strongest year in 1998. The slow sales decline became a faster decline within the last ten years and industry experts wonder if the trend will continue.

"The question is, are we seeing a modest, multiyear decline that will bottom out?" asked John Sicher, publisher at Beverage Digest. "I don't think anyone knows yet, but I think there are continuing headwinds against the category that aren't abating," he told a New York based publication.

Many American school systems have been removing the bubbly beverage from their vending machines and cafeterias, as childhood obesity continues to be a growing concern. The first widespread drink shift came in 2002, as the Los Angeles Unified School District Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of their schools.

Empty calories

The New York Times recently reported that the Faulkton Area School District in South Dakota, now forces its students to dispose of all carbonated beverages before entering the school. Sound excessive? Maybe not.

Health experts report that soda contributes nearly 300 empty calories a day to a diet, and also said that by drinking two cans a day, a person consumes the equivalent of one full-sized mason jar of sugar per week. But how closely are consumers listening?

Apparently pretty closely, as Coca-Cola's fastest growing product is not one of its carbonated beverages, but its bottled water Dasani. According to Beverage Digest, Dasani rose 11 percent, followed by Arizona iced tea which saw sales rise to 9.3 percent, and Gatorade made by Pepsi saw an 8 percent increase in sales.

In addition, six of the top 10 brands all saw sales losses in 2011, and the entire carbonated drink industry suffered a 1 percent loss. In 2010 the industry suffered a 0.5 percent decline, which shows a speedier sales loss within the last two years.

As soda sales continue to fall, energy drinks, juices, sports drinks, and teas have all been selling more. Many of the soda alternatives are in fact pricier, but the higher costs do not keep consumers from spending a bit more to cut out the high amounts of sugar and other additives.

Michael Bellas, chairman and CEO of Beverage Marketing said in a statement,"The strong showing by high-end and functional products shows that consumers--at least the more affluent ones--are not concerned exclusively with economic considerations when making heir beverage selections." 

Will the soda industry continue to see its sales drop? Or like the beef industry in the 90s, are the declining sales merely part of a consumer trend that will taper off in the future? Both time and future sales reports will tell.

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Yahoo Creates Virtual Board Game to Entice Movie-Goers

Moviegoers can win prizes, see new trailers, even buy tickets

Here's a rather innovative way for studios to let you know about the up and coming summer movie releases: Yahoo has recently launched "Movieland", an inter...

PhotoHere's a rather innovative way for studios to let you know about the up and coming summer movie releases: Yahoo has recently launched "Movieland", an interactive online game promoting 35 soon-to-be-released big budget films.

All of the major movie studios, along with the California-based Internet company, have created a virtual board game kind of like Monopoly, where each square represents a different summer release. By playing the digital game, moviegoers can win movie prizes, see new trailers and purchase tickets. 

"The company hopes the game will encourage repeat visits as users compete with one another and share their achievements on social networks," said Ken Fuchs, vice president and head of sports, entertainment and games at Yahoo Media Network. "It sucks people into an experience," he said.

All of this is an effort by Yahoo to market the Yahoo Movies site, which already reaches millions of consumers each month. And film studios like Universal are equally excited, as Hollywood studios never desire to leave any stone unturned when it comes to promoting and selling one of its films.

Debuting earlier this week, the game already has trailers for such summer releases as, "Snow White and the Huntsman," the next Batman epic "Dark Shadows", and the Jennifer Lopez release "What to Expect When You're Expecting."

Immersive and engaging

In a statement to a West Coast media outlet, senior vice president of digital marketing at Universal said "We have seen interactive experiences that have a game structure to them to be more immersive and engaging relative to the exposure to our films," he explained. "Movieland is a great way to drive people into a more organic conversation around our film.

Movie consumers can also compete with other online players and win exclusive badges for all types of movie going perks, and also win other items by answering certain trivia questions. But the ultimate prize is winning a movie badge that gives the customer free movie tickets until the year 2020. That's a pretty nice prize considering what a movie ticket will run you these days.

Players of the game can also see critic reviews, subscribe to Yahoo's movie newsletter and see exactly where certain films are playing.

But, will simply playing a board game really drive consumers to the movie theater more often? Both Yahoo and film studios may be disappointed about how successful this new venture is, as consumers have been going to the movies less now than ever.

This could be attributed to movies being released on DVD practically weeks after the theater release, or consumers cutting back on their entertainment spending. Or, it could be due to consumers having new computer games to be entertained by like this one.

 We'll see if the movie studios and Yahoo actually see an impact on summer movie sales as a result of its newly created board-game.

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Feds Want Electronic Stability Control on Large Trucks, Buses

Technology could prevent more than 2,000 accidents per year, NHTSA estimates

The U.S. Department of Transportation&rsquo;s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is proposing a new federal motor vehicle safety standa...

PhotoThe U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is proposing a new federal motor vehicle safety standard to require electronic stability control (ESC) systems on large commercial trucks, motorcoaches, and other large buses for the first time ever.

The agency said its research shows the technology could prevent up to 56 percent of rollover crashes each year—the deadliest among all crash types—and another 14 percent of loss-of-control crashes.

“The Department and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have long recognized the potential impact of stability control technology in reducing deaths and serious injuries that result from rollover crashes,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Today’s proposal is a major step forward to improving the safety of large commercial trucks, motorcoaches, and other large buses.”

Most effective

An extensive NHTSA research program to determine how available stability control technologies affect crashes involving commercial vehicles found ESC systems to be the most effective tool for reducing the propensity for heavy vehicles to rollover or lose control.

With sensors that monitor vehicle movement and steering, ESC can help mitigate rollover incidents by using automatic computer-controlled braking, and also aid the driver in addressing severe understeer or oversteer conditions that can lead to loss of control.

NHTSA estimates that a standard requiring ESC on the nation’s large trucks and large buses would prevent up to 2,329 crashes, eliminate an estimated 649 to 858 injuries, and prevent between 49 and 60 fatalities a year.

“We’ve already seen how effective stability control can be at reducing rollovers in passenger vehicles—the ability for this type of technology to save lives is one reason it is required on cars and light-duty trucks beginning with model year 2012,” said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. “Now, we’re expanding our efforts to require stability enhancing technology on the many large trucks, motorcoaches, and other large buses on our roadways.”

While many truck tractors and large buses can currently be ordered with this technology, the proposed standard would require ESC systems as standard equipment on these types of vehicles. As proposed, the rule would take effect between two and four years after the standard is finalized, depending on the type of vehicle.

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FDA Approves Generic Version of Plavix

Blood thinner is commonly prescribed after heart attack and stroke

As expected, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today approved generic versions of the blood thinning drug Plavix, which helps reduce the risk of...

PhotoAs expected, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today approved generic versions of the blood thinning drug Plavix, which helps reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke by making it less likely that platelets in the blood will clump and form clots in the arteries.

Clopidogrel, the generic name, is FDA-approved to treat patients who have had a recent heart attack or a recent stroke, or have partial or total blockage of an artery (peripheral artery disease).

“For people who must manage chronic health conditions, having effective and affordable treatment options is important,” said Keith Webber, Ph.D., deputy director of the Office of Pharmaceutical Science in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “The generic products approved today will expand those options for patients.”

More than 50 million people in the U.S. have taken Plavix since it was approved in 1997, according to Christina Trank, a Bristol-Myers spokeswoman. 

Bristol-Myers said it will still encourage patients to keep taking the brand, and is offering a “Plavix Choice Program” card that will let them get the medicine for $37 a month.

Boxed warning

Clopidogrel has a boxed warning to alert health care professionals and patients that the drug may not work well for those with certain genetic factors that affect how the body metabolizes the drug. Patients can be tested for these genetic factors to ensure that clopidogrel is the right choice for them. Also, certain medicines, such as proton pump inhibitors Prilosec (omeprazole) and Nexium (esomeprazole), reduce the effect of clopidogrel, leaving a person at greater risk for heart attack and stroke.

Clopidogrel may cause bleeding, which can be serious and sometimes lead to death. While taking the drug, people may bruise and bleed more easily, be more likely to have nose bleeds, and it may take longer for all bleeding to stop. Clopidogrel is dispensed with a patient Medication Guide that provides important instructions on its use and drug safety information.

Dr. Reddy's Laboratories, Gate Pharmaceuticals, Mylan Pharmaceuticals, and Teva Pharmaceuticals have gained FDA approval for 300 milligram (mg) clopidogrel. Apotex Corporation, Aurobindo Pharma, Mylan Pharmaceuticals, Roxane Laboratories, Sun Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals, and Torrent Pharmaceuticals have received approval for 75 mg clopidogrel.

The FDA notes that generic drugs are of the same high quality and strength as brand-name drugs. The generic manufacturing and packaging sites must pass the same quality standards as those for brand-name drugs.

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Report: Consumers May Be Cutting Back, But Not on Their Summer Trips

Fuel prices not dampening families' plans for summer getaways

Who says the current economy has people spending less? It can be pretty confusing when you hear about bleak economic news and people not spending, then you...

PhotoWho says the current economy has people spending less? It can be pretty confusing when you hear about bleak economic news and people not spending, then you're unable to get a seat at your favorite restaurant because it's so crowded. 

Well, according to a report from the American Automobile Association (AAA), Americans still plan to spend their hard earned dollars on travel this summer despite harsh economic times.

The report reveals that 34.8 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles from their homes this summer, which is 1.2 percent higher than last summer. Experts mainly attribute this increase to the impending Memorial Day weekend.

Over 50,000 consumers were polled in the survey and nearly half of them said fuel prices won't dampen travel plans for them or their families. A smaller portion of the participants said that gas prices will either make them travel for less periods of time or cut cut down on other personal expenses.

Memorial Day travel

This years Memorial Day Weekend will see fewer miles traveled by vacationers, but none of the respondents said they were willing to cut out their vacations entirely. According to the AAA, the average distance traveled for consumers this summer will be 642 miles, which is down from last year at 792 miles.

"We have been seeing people sort of managing their trips," said spokesperson for the Auto Club of Southern California to the press. "If they have to spend more on gasoline, they will look for other ways to save, like eating out less."

In a separate survey conducted by the consultant company Deloitte, it showed that 54 percent of respondents plan to take a trip between June 1 and Labor Day this year, which is up from 52 percent last summer season.

The Deloitte Survey also shows that one in four (24 percent) plan to spend more money on this year's summer excursion than last year, and 56 percent said they will be spending the same amount.

"As consumers appear to feel more confident about the economy and the job market, we could see a steadily uptick year-over-year in leisure travel during the summer months," said Adam Wissenberg, vice chairman of Deloitte's travel, hospitality and leisure division.

"This highlights the continued growth and vitality of the travel industry as a whole. However, travelers also understand the value of the dollar in this economy and may expect more from travel and hospitality companies."

Researchers at Deloitte also said that travelers will be changing the way they vacation this year, by using airlines that don't charge a bag fee, and selecting hotels that come with a bevy of free services, like free breakfast or parking.

So maybe the experts are right about people spending less money, but they're incorrect about people cutting out the pleasurable things in life that keep us going. Because what's so good about saving extra money if you're too mentally drained to enjoy it?

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Study: Water With Meals Promotes Better Food Choices

Sweet beverages make us want to eat more salty, high-calorie food

Most weight-loss programs focus on what we eat. Two researchers, T. Bettina Cornwell of the University of Oregon and Anna R. McAlister of Michigan State Un...

PhotoMost weight-loss programs focus on what we eat. Two researchers, T. Bettina Cornwell of the University of Oregon and Anna R. McAlister of Michigan State University, say we should pay more attention to what we drink.

In a paper written up in the journal Appetite, they conclude that beverages consumed with a meal provide a powerful influence. It's not so much the calories in the beverages, it's how they play with your taste buds.

The paper featured separate studies. One involved a survey of 60 young U.S. adults between the ages of 19 and 23. The second involved 75 children, three to five years old.

The older group was served soda and chose salty, high-calorie foods to go with it. Preschoolers ate more raw vegetables, either carrots or red peppers, when accompanied with water rather than when accompanied by a sweetened beverage.

Influencing taste preference

"Our taste preferences are heavily influenced by repeated exposure to particular foods and drinks," said Cornwell. "This begins early through exposure to meals served at home and by meal combinations offered by many restaurants. Our simple recommendation is to serve water with all meals. Restaurants easily could use water as their default drink in kids' meal combos and charge extra for other drink alternatives."

Serving water, McAlister said, could be a simple and effective dietary change to help address the nation's growing obesity problem, which has seen increasing number of diabetes cases in young adults and a rise in health-care costs in general.

Drinking water with meals, Cornwell said, also would reduce dehydration. While estimates of dehydration vary by sources, many estimates suggest that 75 percent of adult Americans are chronically dehydrated.

Switching to water might help children the most. From an early age, Cornwell said, children learn to associate sweet, high-calorie drinks such as colas with salty and fatty high-calorie-containing foods like French fries.

"If the drink on the table sets the odds against both adults and children eating their vegetables, then perhaps it is time to change that drink, and replace it with water," Cornwell said.

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States Using Mortgage Settlement Funds to Plug Budget Holes

Money from lenders not being used to help struggling homeowners as it was intended

When 50 states and the federal government reached a landmark settlement with five major mortgage lenders, struggling homeowners - especially those who suff...

PhotoWhen 50 states and the federal government reached a landmark settlement with five major mortgage lenders, struggling homeowners -- especially those who suffered abusive mortgage practices -- were promised a measure of financial relief.

But now some of those states, struggling against growing budget deficits, have opted to use some or all of their allotted funds under the settlement to meet current state budget requirements.

The $25 billion was supposed to be used to help homeowners and to fund foreclosure prevention programs in the states. Instead, it will pay for services that are already being provided but are under-funded by current tax revenue.

The problem is perhaps most acute in California, where Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed to use virtually all of the $400 million his state is receiving from the settlement to stem the flow of red ink.

Awkward

That puts California Attorney General Kamala Harris in a politically awkward position, since she made securing relief for her state's beleaguered homeowners a major focus. That potentially puts her in conflict with her fellow Democrat.

"The Governor's May (Budget) Revision, however, proposes to redirect this $410 million from the state's homeowners to other budget purposes," Harris said in a statement. "While the state is undeniably facing a difficult budget gap, these funds should be used to help Californians stay in their homes. I plan to work with the Governor and Legislature toward a balanced budget that honors our obligations to California's homeowners."

California is hardly the only state facing this issue. According to the New York Times, Texas diverted $125 million from the settlement straight into the general revenue fund, Virginia is sending $67 million to cash-starved local governments, and Indiana is using half of its settlement funds to pay utility bills for low income residents.

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A Look Back At Famous IPOs

A market analyst tries to put Facebook initial public offering in perspective

On Friday Facebook shares go on sale on Wall Street for the first time in an initial public offering (IPO) and the Street is giddy with excitement. Is it j...

PhotoOn Friday Facebook shares go on sale on Wall Street for the first time in an initial public offering (IPO) and the Street is giddy with excitement. Is it justified?

Analysts are bullish on the stock, as they have been with some other high-profile IPOs of the last decade. Small investors, however, might do well to watch this one from the sidelines.

"Companies around the world go public all the time, but only a few capture the imagination of the street, the media and the general public,” said Colin Cieszynski, Senior Market Analyst at CMC Markets. “There are usually only so many shares available for sale in an IPO and,if demand outstrips supply, traders are ready and waiting to purchase shares when they debut in the open market. This unfilled demand tends to drive the initial trading spikes, but while this may be great for those lucky enough to get IPO shares, the question remains as to whether there will be any room for anyone else to make money."

IPO history

To answer whether the Facebook IPO shares will be a flash in the pan or a real money maker, Colin examined post-IPO trading for eight major companies that debuted in the last decade, four from the technology sector and four from other industries.

In all cases, the stocks closed below their highs for the day, although MasterCard finished the strongest. Half of the stocks finished their first day down from their opening price.

That's not unusual. Following an initial flurry of interest, the stocks tend to fall back for a few days after their first day on the market and some of the initial enthusiasm has worn off.

Google's IPO was priced at $85 a share. It opened at $100, went as high as $104, and closed back at $100.

Groupon's IPO was priced at $20 and actually opened at $28. It hit a high of $31 and closed at $26.

Baidu had a very exciting IPO. It initially priced at $27 but opened at $66. It then surged to as high as $151 before closing at $122.50.

Update

The real question for any long-term investor, however, is how are they doing today? Google trades at around $600 a share but Groupon has fallen to around $12. Baidu, meanwhile, is trading around $123, very close to where it closed on its opening day.

The investors who do really well on an IPO are those who were able to obtain shares before the companies went public, often for pennies a share. They can make millions -- and in the case of Mark Zuckerberg, billions -- on opening day. For the rest of us, IPOs are probably not a place to invest the rent money.

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First Fitness Trampolines with Handlebars Recalled

The handlebar can break away during use

Aqua-Leisure Industries Inc., of Avon, Mass., is recalling about 40,000&nbsp;First Fitness Trampolines with Handlebars.&nbsp;Metal fatigue can cause the ha...

PhotoAqua-Leisure Industries Inc., of Avon, Mass., is recalling about 40,000 First Fitness Trampolines with Handlebars. Metal fatigue can cause the handlebar to break away during use, posing a risk of laceration from exposed metal surfaces or other injury from a fall.

Aqua-Leisure has received four reports of handlebars breaking from the metal connection joint during use. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves First Fitness Kid’s First trampolines with handlebars. The child-size toy trampolines have a red and blue metal handlebar, a blue nylon deck guard and a black jumping deck. “First Fitness” is embossed on the jumping deck in white letters. The trampolines can be identified by model number FF-6902TR and Toys R Us SKN 491463. The model and store numbers can be found on the lower right corner of the back of the packaging. A sewn-in tag on the bottom of the deck lists the factory date code of five numbers followed by “GLTX.”

The trampolines were sold exclusively at Toys “R” Us stores nationwide from September 2010 through April 2012 for between $45 and $70. They were made in China.

Consumers should immediately take the recalled trampolines from children and contact Aqua-Leisure’s recall hotline for a full refund.

For additional information, please contact Aqua-Leisure toll-free at (888) 912-7087 between 8:30 a.m. through 5:30 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or visit the firm’s website at www.aqualeisure.com

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Older Coffee Drinkers Have Lower Risk of Death

Study finds a link between coffee and lower death risk but can't explain it

Everybody knows that coffee can help you stay awake. Maybe it can also help you stay alive? That's the suggestion from a&nbsp;study by researchers from the...

PhotoEverybody knows that coffee can help you stay awake. Maybe it can also help you stay alive? That's the suggestion from a study by researchers from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health, and AARP.

The researchers found that older adults who drank coffee -- caffeinated or decaffeinated -- had a lower risk of death overall than others who did not drink coffee.

Coffee drinkers were less likely to die from heart disease, respiratory disease, stroke, injuries and accidents, diabetes, and infections, although the association was not seen for cancer. These results from a large study of older adults were observed after adjustment for the effects of other risk factors on mortality, such as smoking and alcohol consumption. Researchers caution, however, that they can’t be sure whether these associations mean that drinking coffee actually makes people live longer. The results of the study were published in the May 17, 2012, edition of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Neal Freedman, Ph.D., Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, NCI, and his colleagues examined the association between coffee drinking and risk of death in 400,000 U.S. men and women ages 50 to 71 who participated in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study. Information about coffee intake was collected once by questionnaire at study entry in 1995-1996. The participants were followed until the date they died or Dec. 31, 2008, whichever came first.

The researchers found that the association between coffee and reduction in risk of death increased with the amount of coffee consumed. Relative to men and women who did not drink coffee, those who consumed three or more cups of coffee per day had approximately a 10 percent lower risk of death. Coffee drinking was not associated with cancer mortality among women, but there was a slight and only marginally statistically significant association of heavier coffee intake with increased risk of cancer death among men.

Widely consumed

“Coffee is one of the most widely consumed beverages in America, but the association between coffee consumption and risk of death has been unclear. We found coffee consumption to be associated with lower risk of death overall, and of death from a number of different causes,’’ said Freedman. “Although we cannot infer a causal relationship between coffee drinking and lower risk of death, we believe these results do provide some reassurance that coffee drinking does not adversely affect health.”

The investigators caution that coffee intake was assessed by self-report at a single time point and therefore might not reflect long-term patterns of intake. Also, information was not available on how the coffee was prepared (espresso, boiled, filtered, etc.); the researchers consider it possible that preparation methods may affect the levels of any protective components in coffee.

“The mechanism by which coffee protects against risk of death -- if indeed the finding reflects a causal relationship -- is not clear, because coffee contains more than 1,000 compounds that might potentially affect health,’’ said Freedman. ``The most studied compound is caffeine, although our findings were similar in those who reported the majority of their coffee intake to be caffeinated or decaffeinated.”

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Survey: Americans Are Pro-Pot

Poll finds 74% of voters support state medical marijuana laws

A new poll finds that&nbsp;three quarters of American voters (74%) want the Obama administration to respect individual state medical marijuana laws.The j...

PhotoA new poll finds that three quarters of American voters (74%) want the Obama administration to respect individual state medical marijuana laws.

The just-released poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research informed voters that medical marijuana is legal with a doctor’s recommendation in 16 states as well as the District of Columbia, and in some of those states it is legal for licensed and tightly regulated individuals to grow and sell marijuana to qualifying patients.

Respondents were then asked if President Obama should respect the medical marijuana laws in these states, or continue to use federal resources to arrest and prosecute individuals who are acting in compliance with state medical marijuana laws.
 
"These results are consistent with the clear and growing body of evidence that documents substantial voter support for the legalization of medical marijuana," said Larry Harris, a principal with Mason-Dixon Polling & Research.

Support for keeping the federal government out of state medical marijuana issues was universal across all demographics. With respect to political affiliation, 75% of Democrats, 67% of Republicans, and, notably 79% of Independents said that President Obama should respect state medical marijuana laws. Even among the least supportive group (those identified as over 65 years of age), 64% were in favor of respecting state law.
 
“The results of this survey demonstrate that there is virtually no support in the country for the Obama administration's crackdown on state medical marijuana laws,” said Steve Fox, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project. “Across all demographic and ideological groups, the American people strongly believe the president should respect state medical marijuana laws, as he promised he would when he campaigned to be president. It is clearly time for President Obama to stand up to the members of his administration who are carrying out the morally wrong and politically unpopular policy of denying patients safe access to this beneficial medicine.”

The nationwide poll of 1000 registered likely voters was conducted May 7 to 11, 2012, and commissioned by the Marijuana Policy Project.  

 

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Staying Healthy Costs More, So Does Dying

Two reports suggest you're paying more either way

Whether you're living or dying, it's costing you more. A report from consulting and actuarial firm Milliman, Inc., shows health care costs for families are...

PhotoWhether you're living or dying, it's costing you more. A report from consulting and actuarial firm Milliman, Inc., shows health care costs for families are up nearly seven percent in one year.

At the same time, Nursing Economic$, a medical journal, examines the escalating expenses incurred in the process of dying in a special May/June 2012 issue.

Healthcare costs -- mostly insurance premiums paid through employer-sponsored programs -- rose for the typical family to an average of $20,728 this year, according to Milliman. While the 6.9 percent increase over 2011 is the lowest rate of increase in the ten years of this study, the $1,335 increase surpasses last year's record of $1,319.

Illustrates the challenge

"The average rate of increase this year dips below seven percent for the first time since we began analyzing these costs, but the total dollar increase is still the highest we have seen," said Lorraine Mayne, principal and consulting actuary with the Salt Lake City office of Milliman. "This helps illustrate the challenge of controlling healthcare costs. When the total cost is already so high, even a slower rate of growth has a serious impact on family budgets."

Families may be surprised to learn their health care costs have reached $20,000 since most only pay part of it. Their employers pick up the rest.

The study notes the future of healthcare remains uncertain, as the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act is being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. However, the report notes that, to date, the Act has had only a limited effect on healthcare costs for families covered by an employer-sponsored PPO plan. Longer term, the implications may be more pronounced, researchers say, and will depend on a number of changing and interrelated factors.

"We face a number of different potential scenarios depending on the future of reform," said Chris Girod, principal and consulting actuary with the San Diego office of Milliman. "We have tried to map out what those different scenarios may mean for consumers, employers, care providers, and the government."

High cost of dying

The special issue Nursing Economic$ examines the skyrocketing costs, the discomfort people experience in talking about death, and the emotional strain of end-of-life care. Six research reports are also presented. The authors outline alternatives to the care individuals usually receive at the end of life.

For example, in an article entitled "How Can We Afford To Die," the authors maintain that the U.S. cannot sustain society’s proportional cost commitment to end-of-life care as the baby-boomer generation ages.

"These crises beg the question: How does the United States deal with the substantial costs incurred in the last 6 months of life?" the authors ask.

The issues will get a thorough airing at the 5th Nursing Economic$ Summit, "June 6, 2012, in Washington, DC.

"Now is the time to bury past demons and discussions surrounding 'death panels' and replace them with conversations on progressive approaches to expanding hospice and palliative care, and the use of advanced directives, like living wills, in the United States," said Donna Nickitas, Nursing Economic$ editor.

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Oh Wait, The World Isn't Going to End in 2012

Researchers find evidence Mayan calendar ends but another starts

The end of the Mayan calendar on December 21 doesn't mean the end of the world, according to researchers at Boston University.Though few have taken it se...

PhotoThe end of the Mayan calendar on December 21 doesn't mean the end of the world, according to researchers at Boston University.

Though few have taken it seriously, some have theorized that that Mayan astronomers had a glimpse of the distant future when they ended the calendar at what turns out to be December 21, 2012. There was even a disaster movie about it a few years ago.

It turns out it's a false alarm. BU Assistant Professor of Archaeology William Saturno and his team recently excavated a Maya ruin in Guatemala and uncovered a wall of paintings with calculations relating to the Maya calendar.

“For the first time we get to see what may be actual records kept by a scribe, whose job was to be official record keeper of a Maya community,” Saturno said. “It’s like an episode of TV’s ‘Big Bang Theory,’ a geek math problem and they’re painting it on the wall. They seem to be using it like a blackboard.”

Just a cycle

After deciphering the calculations, the project scientists say that despite popular belief, there is no sign that the Maya calendar — or the world — was to end in the year 2012, just one of its calendar cycles.

“It’s like the odometer of a car, with the Maya calendar rolling over from the 120,000s to 130,000,” said Anthony Aveni, professor of astronomy and anthropology at Colgate University, a coauthor of the paper being published in the journal Science. “The car gets a step closer to the junkyard as the numbers turn over; the Maya just start over.”

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Consumers Doing Better Job of Paying Mortgage, Other Loans

Mortgage delinquency hits lowest level in four years

Though unemployment remains high and income growth slow, U.S. consumers appear to be doing a better job of keeping up with their mortgage payments and othe...

PhotoThough unemployment remains high and income growth slow, U.S. consumers appear to be doing a better job of keeping up with their mortgage payments and other bills.

The Mortgage Bankers Association reports the mortgage delinquency rate fell to its lowest level in four years in the first three months of the year. The percentage of payments at least 30 days behind fell from 7.58 percent to 7.4 percent. The rate has been as high as 10 percent, hitting that level in 2010.

“Mortgage delinquencies normally fall during the first quarter of the year, but the declines we saw were even greater than the normal seasonal adjustments would predict, so delinquencies are clearly continuing to improve," said Michael Fratantoni, MBA's Vice President of Research and Economics. "Newer delinquencies, loans one payment past due as of March 31, are down to the lowest level since the middle of 2007, indicating fewer new problems we will need to deal with in the future. The percentage of loans three payments or more past due, the loans that represent the backlog of problems that still need to be handled, is down to the lowest level since the end of 2008. Foreclosure starts are at their lowest level since the end of 2007."

Widespread improvement

The improvement in loan performance was widespread: only four states, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and Washington, experienced increases in their 90+ day delinquency rates. Forty one states had decreases in foreclosure starts and 22 states had decreases in the percentage of loans in foreclosure.

“Nationally, the percentage of loans in the process of foreclosure is up slightly, but that top-line figure covers up several important underlying trends," said Fratantoni. "First, the percentage of loans in foreclosure is up for prime and FHA loans. The percentage of subprime loans in foreclosure continues to fall as the subprime loans age and the problem loans are resolved one way or the other.

However, the percentages of loans in foreclosure for both FHA loans and prime fixed-rate loans are climbing and are just below all-time records.

Meanwhile, Standard & Poors and Experian jointly report all loans, with the exception of bank cards, saw a decrease in default rates for the fourth consecutive month.

The four types of loan that did see a decrease in their default rates posted their lowest rates since at least the end of the recent economic crisis, the report said. The national composite declined to 1.86 percent in April from its 1.96 percent March rate.

Continuing a positive trend

"April data show the continuation of the positive trend we saw in the first quarter of 2012," said David M. Blitzer, Managing Director and Chairman of the Index Committee for S&P Indices. "Not only have we continued the general downward trend in consumer default rates that began in the spring of 2009, but we appear to be reaching new lows across many of the loan types."

Blitzer says the first four months of 2012 show broad based declines in default rates with first and second mortgage, auto and composite default rates all reaching new post-recession lows.

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Skechers Will Pay $40 Million to Settle Deceptive Advertising Charges

Feds claimed the shape-up shoe ads went too far in promising weight loss and other health benefits

Can shoes really help you lost weight? The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) didn't think so and charged Skechers USA with making unfounded claims about its s...

PhotoCan shoes really help you lost weight? The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) didn't think so and charged Skechers USA with making unfounded claims about its shoes. The company has now agreed to pay $40 million in penalties and refunds to consumers who bought Skechers and its Resistance Runner, Toners and Tone-ups shoes. 

Consumers who bought these “toning” shoes will be eligible for refunds either directly from the FTC or through a court-approved class action lawsuit. The settlement with the FTC is part of a broader agreement, also being announced today resolving a multi-state investigation, which was led by the Tennessee and Ohio Attorneys General Offices and included attorneys general from 42 other states and the District of Columbia.

“Skechers’ unfounded claims went beyond stronger and more toned muscles. The company even made claims about weight loss and cardiovascular health,” said David Vladeck, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The FTC’s message, for Skechers and other national advertisers, is to shape up your substantiation or tone down your claims.”

The settlement with the Manhattan Beach, California-based Skechers is part of the FTC’s ongoing effort to stop overhyped advertising claims, and follows a similar settlement with Reebok last year. The Skechers advertisements challenged by the FTC include:

  • A Shape-ups ad telling consumers to “Shape Up While You Walk,” and “Get in Shape without Setting Foot in a Gym,” and claiming that the shoes are designed to promote weight loss and tone muscles. The FTC alleges that Skechers made unsupported claims that Shape-ups would provide more weight loss, and more muscle toning and strengthening than regular fitness shoes. 
  • Shape-ups ads with an endorsement from a chiropractor named Dr. Steven Gautreau, who recommended the product based on the results of an “independent” clinical study he conducted that tested the shoes’ benefits compared to those provided by regular fitness shoes. The FTC alleges that this study did not produce the results claimed in the ad, that Skechers failed to disclose that Dr. Gautreau is married to a Skechers marketing executive, and that Skechers paid Dr. Gautreau to conduct the study.
  • Shape-ups ads featuring celebrities including Kim Kardashian and Brooke Burke. Airing during the 2011 Super Bowl, the Kardashian ad showed her dumping her personal trainer for a pair of Shape-ups. The Burke ad told consumers that the newest way to burn calories and tone and strengthen muscles was to tie their Shape-ups shoe laces. 
  • An ad that claims consumers who wear Resistance Runner shoes will increase “muscle activation” by up to 85 percent for posture-related muscles, 71 percent for one of the muscles in the buttocks, and 68 percent for calf muscles, compared to wearing regular running shoes. The FTC alleges that in citing the study that claimed to back this up, Skechers cherry-picked results and failed to substantiate its ad claims.
PhotoSkechers was the market leader in the toning footwear category. Industry shoe sales peaked in 2010, with sales close to $1 billion. Shape-up fitness shoes, which Skechers introduced in April 2009, cost consumers about $100 a pair. Resistance Runner, Toners, and Tone-ups became available in mid-2010, and retailed for $60 to $100 a pair.

The FTC complaint charges that Skechers violated federal law by making deceptive advertising claims, including falsely representing that clinical studies backed up the claims. Under the FTC’s settlement, Skechers is barred from making any of the following claims for its toning shoes unless they are true and backed by scientific evidence:

  • claims about strengthening;
  • claims about weight loss; and
  • claims about any other health or fitness-related benefits from toning shoes, including claims regarding caloric expenditure, calorie burn, blood circulation, aerobic conditioning, muscle tone, and muscle activation.

The settlement also bars Skechers from misrepresenting any tests, studies, or research results regarding toning shoes.

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J.C. Penney Suffers $163 Million First Quarter Loss

Apparently hasn't won over old customers with changes

Change doesn't appear to be going over very well at J.C. Penney. The nation's fourth-largest retailer reports it lost $163 million in its fiscal first quar...

PhotoChange doesn't appear to be going over very well at J.C. Penney. The nation's fourth-largest retailer reports it lost $163 million in its fiscal first quarter of 2012, compared to a profit of $64 million in last year's first quarter.

The loss, which Penney's blames on falling sales, was so significant the company announced it was discontinuing its quarterly dividend.

There are plenty of consumers who might be saying “I told you so.” Penney's new CEO Ron Johnson initiated sweeping changes at the chain at the beginning of the year, rubbing many long-time customers the wrong way.

Johnson did away with Penney's discounts, coupons and sales and instead, initiated a “three tier pricing system.” Marilyn, of Hot Springs, S.D., says the result seems to be higher prices now at Penney's.

“I bought an Alfred Dunner blouse at Herbergers today for $18.20,” Marilyn wrote in a post at ConsumerAffairs. “I priced the exact same blouse at JCP and it was $40. I use to shop Penney's for Alfred Dunner but will no longer shop there.”

Turn-off

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Consumers rate jcp

Sue, of Wilmington, N.C., says she was a long-time Penney's customer turned off by the changes

“Went through our Penney's a couple weeks ago after staying away awhile to recover from being shell-shocked by the commercials,” Sue wrote. “I've shopped Penney's for years! I was amazed to see a bustling well stocked and appealing local store morph into a dead-end! Didn't like the changes in merchandise, pricing or displays. I quickly walked through to get to another store. I have not been back!”

Even Penney's advertising campaigns have become a source of irritation for some shoppers. Pat, of Mountain City, Tenn., wrote to ConsumerAffairs about Penney's President's Day campaign back in February.

Annoying commercials

“I was annoyed by the screaming women commercial but I did not complain about it,” Pat wrote. “Their current commercial, however, should not be allowed on television. I am very offended to see a child dressed as Abraham Lincoln dancing around and grabbing his crotch. This type of child exploitation should be against the law. If this is the kind of thing that J.C. Penney is promoting, I certainly will not go into their stores.”

While Penney's may hope to eventually attract a new breed of shopper to its stores, it's losing Sue, Pat and Marilyn in the process. They, along with like-minded customers, are likely responsible for the sea of red ink.

Wall Street punished Penney's with a 14 percent one-day sell off in its stock, but most analysts say they still expect Johnson to turn things around, with a newly announced plan to cut costs by $175 million.

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GM Cancels Its Facebook Ads; Says They're Ineffective

Just one more reason small investors should steer clear of Friday's IPO

If you're determined to invest your last dollar in Facebook when it goes public Friday, here's one of several thousand reasons you shouldn't: the social me...

PhotoIf you're determined to invest your last dollar in Facebook when it goes public Friday, here's one of several thousand reasons you shouldn't: the social media site is losing the world's fourth-biggest advertiser, General Motors.

GM said yesterday it will stop advertising on Facebook, saying the ads are ineffective. The automaker has been spending about $10 million annually on Facebook ads but, according to published reports, has determined it's not getting its money's worth because the ads don't perform well.

The company says it will continue to spend about $30 million on its unpaid Facebook marketing efforts, which should be just delightful news to Facebook.

GM spent about $3.9 billion globally on advertising in 2010, according to Advertising Age, a trade publication. That makes it the fourth largest advertiser in the world, trailing Procter & Gamble, Unilever and L'Oréal. 

Russian roulette

Now, as for the other reasons you shouldn't invest your retirement or college savings in Facebook.  And hey, don't think this is just our personal opinion. We were standing around talking to a car salesman in North Hollywood the other day and he said he used to own a chain of furniture stores before he invested all his money with a guy named Bernie Madoff, so we have done our homework.

  • First and most important, it's never wise -- or even sane -- to put all your eggs in one basket. An investment portfolio should include stocks and bonds and several types of each: dividend-paying stocks, long-term growth stocks, emerging-market stocks and so forth. On the bond side, the mix should include taxable and tax-free bonds. By diversifying, you protect yourself against volatility that hits one sector harder than the rest. Maybe in time you stay even with inflation or eke out a percent or two of growth.
     
  • It's almost impossible for small investors to get in on a much-hyped IPO. Institutional investors, investment banks and the like scoop up everything that's available. Buying in a secondary market -- like from the company you never heard of that sends you an email -- is an easy way to lose your money and get your name added to a sucker's list that will attract more con artists to your door. Sorry to be blunt, but it's true.
     
  • It's likely Facebook's shares will almost certainly lose value immediately after the IPO. This is normal. Insiders and big interests scoop up all the available shares on the first day, the price skyrockets. Then they unload them and on the second day, the price plummets.  Eventually, it may come back up.  It may even double, triple and quadruple. Then again, it may not. It's impossible to predict, especially since Facebook essentially has no earnings to speak of and the entire enterprise is built on hope and hot air.
If this disappoints you, don't feel bad.  Anyone who invests in anything is disappointed much of the time.  Even if you're successful, you're soon disappointed to see how much you wind up paying in capital gains tax, despite all the talk about the greedy 1% (which, when you look at proposed taxing policies, often turns out to be more like the dual-income middle-class).
 
The way to invest is slowly, steadily and calmly.  Work out a strategy with a trusted advisor, one whose last name is not Madoff and who is a Certified Financial Planner or Personal Financial Specialist Smart Money has more information on finding the right financial advisor.
 
Don't take this the wrong way.  We're all for investing over your working lifetime. Just don't expect to get rich on a single IPO. You would most likely do just as well at Vegas and maybe get a free drink or two in the process.
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Making Sense Of Your Vehicle's Check Engine Light

Indicator light tells you something's wrong, but not what it is

It can be disconcerting to be driving along and suddenly have your vehicle's check engine light come on. The light is meant to get your attention, but keep...

PhotoIt can be disconcerting to be driving along and suddenly have your vehicle's "check engine" light come on. The light is meant to get your attention, but keep in mind it can be a warning of something simple or something more serious.

For Tim, of Parker, Colo., when the check engine light came on in his 2005 Nissan Pathfinder, it was something serious.

"I drove it in to the dealership and reported that for about a week the transmission was slipping," Tim wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "The service rep, when he heard it was transmission related, asked me right away, 'does it stutter at about 40 mph when shifting?' I said it did and he replied, 'that's not good.'"

Decimbra, of Jackson, Miss., says the check engine light in her 2006 PT Cruiser was an indicator of something less serious. At least, that's what she was told.

Just needs a tune-up

"I was told that my car needed a tune up so Firestone kept my vehicle from 7:04 am until 1:01 pm to complete the tune up," she wrote at ConsumerAffairs. "When I picked my vehicle up I was told that the light would not come on and that everything was done that needed to be done."

Decimbra says a couple of weeks later the light was back on again.

"On my way to work my car began to pull and make a strange noise," Decimbra reports.

Since the 1980s vehicles in the U.S. have had onboard diagnostic systems, tied into the car's computer. When the computer senses a problem, the check engine light comes on. The only problem is, it only tells you should check you engine, it doesn't tell you why.

In many cases, the light signals a problem with your car's emission control system; the "O2" sensor is a frequent culprit.  It's often a simple fix but it's one you shouldn't put off since it affects your fuel economy as well as what's coming out of your tailpipe.  If you live in a state or region where cars must pass an emission test every year or so, you can be certain your car won't pass if the light is on, so it's worth getting it checked out.

Code reader

A relatively inexpensive device can tell you why, and if you have a persistent problem with your check engine light and are getting little help from your auto repair shop, you might consider investing in a check engine code reader. Many of these small devices sell for around $60.

These code readers are designed to work on 1996 and later models, which have the On Board Diagnostic (OBD) II system. The devices come with an attached 16-pin connector cable that connects to the output of the diagnostic system, located under the dashboard. The device will register the "trouble codes" that are triggering the check engine light. It also allows you to turn off the light.

That will tell you right away how serious the problem is. When you take the car in for repair, you can tell the service personnel what the problem is. Whether you trust your mechanic to find and repair the problem or use a code reader to do it yourself, automotive experts say the one thing you should not do is ignore the check engine light.

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Ever Think of Using Corporate Housing when Vacationing?

It's an alternative to hotels and a bit more structured than Craigslist

Who doesn't like to travel? There's something about that feeling you get when you're boarding a plane, knowing that when you exit you'll be away from your...

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An Airbnb listing

Who doesn't like to travel? There's something about that feeling you get when you're boarding a plane, knowing that when you exit you'll be away from your normal routine. New surroundings, new sights, new meal experiences, is all we need sometimes to free us from feelings of monotony.

Now the-not-so-fun part of traveling -- having to scour the Internet for a good place to stay. We all know that it depends on when you purchase your ticket to get the lowest prices and best hotel deals, but it seems the cost of lodging can be quite pricey all year around.

Now of course, you can throw caution to the winds and find somebody offering to rent you a room on Craigslist, but the quality control may be somewhat lacking. Airbnb is a step or two above.

Now there's Hometel Travel, another alternative to more traditional travel sites. The travel and lodging company has developed a social networking site that allows users to access corporate housing for their leisure travel plans. As many companies have their workforce spread around the globe, international employees have empty houses and apartments that non-business travelers can use for a lower cost than a hotel.

Founder and CEO of Hometel Travel Randy Williams says looking for a place to stay within corporate circles offers better deals and wider selection for the vacationer.

"You have these great corporate networks, and no one ever thinks to use them for travel," he says. The site will allow room owners to post available rooms or empty houses for short-term vacation rentals. It will also allow vacationers a chance to select those spaces, and even negotiate pricing with the owner. This is practically unheard of when booking hotels on a regular travel site.

More authentic

Williams said that choosing an actual home or room provides the vacationer with a more authentic and out-of-the-box travel experience, while also allowing property owners to make a little extra money for themselves.

"Hometel's motto is 'live like a local,' and we stick by that motto," he said in a press release. "We really want to show people that hotels are taking away from an authentic travel experience, and that traditional tourism often furthers the disenfranchisement of local businesses and properties."

So the next time you're looking for a place to stay when vacationing, you may want to consider corporate housing over a traditional hotel stay. It may save you money, provide a fuller cultural experience by  living like a local, and you can better control the pricing and type of lodging you desire.

But if you're the type of vacationer who prefers to lounge by the hotel pool, and doesn't want to even think about making our own bed during your stay, you may want to stick with a more traditional travel routine. But it may cost you more and not be as unique.

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Virgin Atlantic to Allow Some In-Flight Cell Phone Use

But service will be limited to flights over the Atlantic

This is either good news or bad news, depending on how you look at it.If you consider airline flights as wasted time, when you could be making business c...

PhotoThis is either good news or bad news, depending on how you look at it.

If you consider airline flights as wasted time, when you could be making business calls, you're in luck. But if you find the thought of sitting next to someone on a plane who makes and receives calls the entire flight, Virgin Atlantic's announcement may be your worst nightmare.

Virgin Atlantic said it will initially offer cell phone service on flights on its Airbus A330 fleet between New York and London. It will later be expanded to the airline's Boeing 747s.

The service, which includes text and data services as well, will not be available during take-off or landing. And since current U.S. regulations forbid the use of cell phones on airliners, the system will be disabled when the plane gets within 250 miles of the U.S. border.

Essentially the service is only available over the Atlantic Ocean, where obviously there are no cell towers. So the system relies on an onboard GPRS communication system. It's like having a cell tower on the plane, connecting with a satellite.

Banned in the USA

U.S. regulations currently forbid the use of cell phones on airplanes because they are thought to pose an interference threats to the craft's navigation system. The on-board communication system provides a shield between cell phone traffic and the plane's navigation instruments.

However, there are some limitations to the system. Only 10 cell phones can be in use at any given time. On a flight with 300 passengers, that might pose a problem.

It will also be rather expensive. Just as when you are in a foreign country, when you are out over the Atlantic, international roaming charges will be in effect.

When the issue last came up in the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said no to the use of cell phones on airline flights. In 2007 the agency opted for the status quo in releasing a Memorandum Opinion and Order that terminates its proceeding on the use of cellular phones on airplanes.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has long had regulations in place to restrict the use of cell phones and other portable electronic devices onboard aircraft to ensure against interference with the aircraft's navigation and communication systems. The FAA has not sent any signals that it is willing to reconsider that safety measure.

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AAA Predicts Increase In Memorial Day Traffic

Consumers to take advantage of declining gasoline prices

For the second year in a row, gasoline prices in most areas are falling, not rising, as the Memorial Day weekend approaches.This year, AAA predicts 34.8 ...

PhotoFor the second year in a row, gasoline prices in most areas are falling, not rising, as the Memorial Day weekend approaches.

This year, AAA predicts 34.8 million Americans will take advantage of that fact and travel 50 miles or more from home over the holiday weekend that ushers in the unofficial start to summer. That would be an increase of 1.2 percent over last year.

While gas prices have trended lower over the last couple of weeks, consumers are still recovering from the dramatic rise over the winter.

"The overall domestic economic picture continues to improve slightly, however, American consumers faced a new challenge this year as steadily increasing gas prices throughout the spring significantly squeezed many household budgets," said AAA President and CEO Robert L. Darbelnet. "Americans will still travel during the Memorial Day holiday weekend but many will compensate for reduced travel budgets by staying closer to home and cutting entertainment dollars."

Road trip

Those who plan to travel will predominately be on the highway. Approximately 30.7 million people plan to drive to their destination, an increase of 1.2 percent from the 30.3 million who drove last year.

Almost nine out of ten holiday travelers - 88 percent - will take to the nation's roadways during the Memorial Day weekend keeping automobile travel in the traditional lead as the dominate mode of holiday travel transportation.

Though gas prices have caused pain this year, apparently not enough to keep people at home. Triple-A said it's survey of intended travelers found that 53 percent said recent increases in gasoline prices would not impact their Memorial Day holiday travel plans.

National gasoline prices peaked in April despite seasonal highs in early spring when motorists experienced average price increases for all but four days in February and March.

April experienced a full reversal as prices fell for 23 of 30 days during the month, helping to break a streak of 911 days since the national average price was lower than the previous year. The current national average price for a gallon of regular gasoline is approximately 25 cents lower than this time last year.

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Report: Consumers Want Free Stuff Before Paying First

There are risks in "free trials," though, so consumers need to be wary

If you were to ask your average consumer what they're looking for in a company that sells them a product or service, they might say they're looking for dec...

PhotoIf you were to ask your average consumer what they're looking for in a company that sells them a product or service, they might say they're looking for decent pricing, or maybe good customer service. But according to a recent report, free products and services are extremely important to many consumers, and nearly half of them will return to a company that gives away something for free.

A new report conducted by technical support firm iYogi Insights shows that 42 percent of consumers will use a company again, if they receive new products and services for free. Which makes total sense, right?  Think about when you're strolling through your mall's food court, and you receive that free toothpick sample of orange chicken from that Chinese eatery, or you accept a first-week-free-deal from that gym you always wanted to try. Let's face it, receiving a product or service for free helps to bring down the consumer's wall of trepidation. 

Of course, it can also be a trap for unwary consumers who may find that their "free trial" has turned into a continuing monthly charge on their credit card statement. More on that later.

Despite the risks to consumers, "Freemiums" have become a growing necessity in the relationship between buyer and seller. A Freemium is a way for companies to introduce new types of products and services for communication, entertainment, music, productivity, and cloud applications.

The report shows that 100 percent of respondents have received Freemium offers in the past for at least one product or service, and 39 percent of consumers have received a free one-on-one consultation with an industry expert, whether that industry was Nutrition and Fitness, Career and Life Coaching, Lasix Surgery or Energy Savings.

ConsumerAffairs briefly spoke with iYogi's co-founder and president of marketing, VishalDhar, about the growing trend of Freemiums, when they started growing in popularity, and whether they are a good fit for all companies.

Can you speak about when Freemiums became the norm for a lot of businesses, and around when that time was?

Most companies turned to the Freemium model as a means of increasing usage over the last 10 years, largely propagated by Internet-based delivery models and products that were creating new categories. In the recent years, we have seen a growing trend of Freemium services being delivered through one-on-one consultations for new services covering a wide range of services including health and nutrition, energy savings, Lasik surgery and tech support, to name only a few.

Can you please speak a bit more on why Freemiums are so important to today's consumer?

In today’s market, consumers often need to test pioneering products and for free to truly understand their relevance and appreciate the value they offer. These are what we call ‘Experience Goods’. Freemium models allow consumers a chance to use and experience these goods and develop the confidence in transitioning to paying for them.

To give you an example from our own business, iYogi has been delivering subscription-based tech support to customers located in four different countries from delivery centers located thousands of miles across the world. While this is an extremely efficient delivery model, it is also a relatively new concept made possible in the high speed Internet age, and is something that people need to experience and believe in before they are willing to commit to long term.

At iYogi, we realized at an early stage that Freemium was the way to go, and we now offer customers a free one-on-one consultation by which our tech experts access users’ computers remotely, after seeking due permission, and help diagnose their problems and the resolutions available before asking them to subscribe to our services.

Are there certain industries that should use Freemiums more than others?

While Freemium has been used primarily by Web-based products and services, various other categories have recently adopted the Freemium concept and customized it to suit their purposes. Energy-savings, Lasik surgery, nutrition and fitness and tech support are examples of industries where a free one-on-one consultation with an expert is a new kind of Freemium that is quickly gaining popularity.

 As new kinds of services emerge to keep in pace with our rapidly digitally-dependent lives, with new kinds of delivery models one would not even have thought about few years back, we see services as a new area of growth whereby people can actually experience a service and feel confident about its usefulness and quality before signing up for more.

Using the iYogi remote tech support services again, users need to be convinced that this is indeed a dependable and cost efficient model which they can access from the comfort of their home without risking damage to their devices and putting their data security at risk, before they agree to sign up for long-term.

Since Freemiums make perfect business sense, especially for newer and more radical products, why do you believe some companies are still unwilling to offer them?

Freemium has worked very well for many products, but it still is, comparatively speaking, unchartered territory. Established products and services are constantly challenged by new types of offerings and delivery models. New companies trying to change an existing ecosystem need to offer a different approach to get people to use their products.

They have to take a longer-term approach and be willing to give away that free experience in order to gain user loyalty and establish themselves in the market. After all, it’s not just about trying a new brand or a service, it’s about trying a whole new method of delivering a services, and people want to be sure that it works before they commit.

Marketers need to have the mindset for innovation and the boldness to use Freemium. The Freemium Hall of Fame is filled with genuinely excellent products – it takes a huge confidence and belief in your product and the value it brings to the consumer, to be able to give it away for free!

A note of caution

The India-based tech firm went on to say that "freemiums will become the new benchmark for products and services," and  if a product or service can't be enjoyed for free, there's a good chance it will not sell at all.

That's all fine, but consumers need to be aware that many "free trials" are, in fact, little more than scams intended to separate you from your money.

In a recent story, ConsumerAffairs' Mark Huffman advised consumers to say "No, thanks" when offered a free trial that requires them to give their credit card or checking account information.

Despite what freemium's promoters have to say, that's still good advice. 

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New Virtual Colonoscopy Doesn't Require Laxative Preparation

More patients may agree to be tested without the onerous preparation

A CT-scan-based form of virtual colonoscopy that does not require laxative preparation appears to be as effective as standard colonoscopy in identifying th...

PhotoA CT-scan-based form of virtual colonoscopy that does not require laxative preparation appears to be as effective as standard colonoscopy in identifying the intestinal polyps most likely to become cancerous.

In the May 15 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, a Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH)-based research team reports finding that the new technique, which uses computer-aided systems both to virtually cleanse and to analyze the images acquired, was able to identify more than 90 percent of the common polyps called adenomas that were 10 mm or larger.

"While we know that colon screening can save lives, not enough people participate, in part because of the discomfort of the required laxative preparation," says Michael Zalis, MD, director of CT Colonography at MGH Imaging, who led the study. "In our study, the laxative-free form of CT colonography performed well enough that it might someday become an option for screening, which we hope would increase patient participation."

Optical colonoscopy, the most common form of screening for colon cancer, allows examination of the internal surface of the colon through a fiberoptic tube with a light and camera at the end. In addition to being sedated for the examination, patients must ingest laxative preparations – sometimes up to a gallon of liquid – the preceding day in order to completed clean out the colon, a process universally regarded as unpleasant. CT colonography, which produces images via CT scanning and not direct visualization, has become available in recent years. But while it is as effective as colonoscopy for detecting polyps, does not require sedation, and can be used in some patients for whom colonoscopy is not appropriate, CT colonography still requires the laxative preparation that many patients choose to avoid.

Preparation for the procedure tested in the current study involves two days of a low-fiber diet and oral ingestion of small doses of a contrast agent to label fecal material in the colon. Software programs developed by the MGH team subtract labeled feces from the CT images and analyze the images for the presence of lesions – primarily adenomas, the type of polyps most likely to develop into cancer. The investigators recruited patients scheduled for screening colonoscopy between June 2005 and October 2010 at the MGH, Brigham and Women's Hospital, North Shore Medical Center and the Veteran's Administration Medical Center at the University of California at San Francisco; and 604 patients completed the full protocol.

The laxative-free CT colonography procedures were done within the 5 weeks before the scheduled optical colonoscopies. Gastroenterologists performing the colonoscopies were not informed of polyps identified in the first procedure until they had completed the initial examination, allowing a second-pass colonoscopy to confirm and if necessary remove any missed polyps. CT colonography results were interpreted by three MGH radiologists trained in the use of both the virtual cleansing and the lesion detection systems but blinded to the results of the colonoscopies and to the diagnosis of any removed tissues. Patients also completed written surveys of their experiences with both procedures and were asked which they preferred.

Study results showed the effectiveness of computer-assisted, laxative-free CT colonography to be comparable to that of optical colonoscopy for detecting adenomas 10 mm or larger. While it did not do as well finding smaller polyps, those lesions are less likely to show cellular changes associated with higher risk for cancer development. Among colonoscopy-confirmed lesions that showed such risk-associated changes, 85 percent were 10 mm or larger. Three cases of colon cancer were diagnosed among the study group, and all of those lesions were 10 mm or larger and were detected by both screening methods. Participants completing the survey indicated that laxative-free CT colonography is more comfortable and easier to prepare for, and it was the preferred screening method for 62 percent of respondents.

"Colon cancer is common, with more than 120,000 new cases and approximately 50,000 deaths in the U.S. each year; and it is largely preventable through screening. So the most important thing is for all adults over 50 to be screened," Zalis stresses. "After the question of access to care, the biggest public health issue is getting people to participate in any type of colon screening. While optical colonoscopy is a very effective test, not enough people are willing or able to undertake it. Our results suggest that this more patient-friendly form of screening is feasible and can perform well enough to really help screen patients.

"If these results hold up in larger trials, we would expect this procedure would first be offered to moderate-risk patients who are otherwise unable or unwilling to be screened," he adds. "If we can validate that this form of CT colonography performs reasonably well for screening and is easier for patients, it could have a significant impact on reducing the incidence of colon cancer and related cancer deaths." An associate professor of Radiology at Harvard Medical School, Zalis notes that the radiation dose associated with CT colonography is much lower than that of diagnostic CT scanning and would be considered safe for widespread screening.

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Couple Dies For Lack of a Cell Phone Signal

Elderly New Yorkers die 60 feet from their home

Many people think their cell phones will work just about anywhere. That misplaced faith can sometimes have tragic consequences, as in the case of Arthur an...

Many people think their cell phones will work just about anywhere. That misplaced faith can sometimes have tragic consequences, as in the case of Arthur and Madeleine Morris, an elderly New York City couple whose vehicle fell down an embankment near the end of vacation home driveway in New York’s Catskills region.

When it became clear their Ford Focus was stuck, the couple made five attempts to call for help. But calls to 911, Mrs. Morris' son and a neighbor all failed to connect, thanks to the spotty cellular service in the mountainous region. Investigators say that, finally giving up on the phone, Arthur Morris, 88, tried to climb out of the vehicle but became wedged between the door and the ground. He soon asphyxiated.

Mrs. Morris, 89, managed to climb out of the car but still could not get her phone to work. She was able to walk to the home of their nearest neighbors, only to find them not at home. She covered herself with a tarp but died of hypothermia when nighttime temperatures dipped into the 40s, local newspapers reported.

CNET News article said the couple's grandson had bought them a phone from AT&T, "in the belief that a network from such a large carrier would offer the best chance of a signal in that remote area. But locals reportedly say no carrier has much of a signal in those mountains.”

AT&T responded to the CNET article with a brief statement:

“Our thoughts and sympathies go out to the Morris family during this extremely difficult time. Wireless coverage in mountainous and remote areas is an industrywide challenge, and AT&T, along with other carriers, are continually striving to improve service levels in those areas.”

AT&T's striving aside, it's a fact of life that cell phones do not work well in any mountainous area, sparsely populated or not.  They are, after all, little high-frequency radios that rely on line-of-sight transmission.  If the phone can't "see" a tower, it's not going to get a signal.  Mountainous areas of Los Angeles, like Pacific Palisades, despite being densely-populated to this day have spotty cell phone service, something residents have learned to live with.

Perhaps the best advice for anyone who routinely travels in sparsely-populated rural areas is to carry survival supplies -- including food, water and blankets -- in the trunk. They might also follow the practice of hikers and mountain climbers: always tell someone when you are leaving, your route and when you expect to reach your destination.  That way, if you don't arrive on time, rescue teams can come looking for you.

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Denny's Plans to Spruce Up Pig Pens

Pregnant porkers won't be locked in gestation cages

Denny&rsquo;s is the latest restaurant chain to vow that it will be nicer to its pigs.The nationwide diner chain says it will work with its suppliers to ...

PhotoDenny’s is the latest restaurant chain to vow that it will be nicer to its pigs.

The nationwide diner chain says it will work with its suppliers to eliminate the practice of confining pigs in gestation crates for its bacon, sausage, and other pork products. Denny’s and The Humane Society of the United States have worked together to address animal welfare issues for more than five years, and the restaurant giant’s pledge on gestation crates is just the latest positive action taken by the company, the Human Society said.

In the pork industry, most mother pigs are confined day and night during their four-month pregnancy in gestation crates, cages roughly the same size as the animals’ bodies, preventing them from moving or turning around. They are then placed into another crate to give birth, re-impregnated, and put back into a gestation crate. This happens pregnancy after pregnancy for their entire lives, adding up to years of virtual immobilization.

“Denny’s takes its role as a responsible corporate citizen seriously, which is why we have adopted a strong position on animal welfare,” said Greg Linford, Denny’s vice president, procurement and distribution. “We will endeavor to purchase products from companies that provide gestation crate-free pork and are committed to influencing our suppliers to share in a gestation crate-free vision for the future. Working to eliminate gestation crates is best for our company, our guests, and our continued work to improve animal welfare.”

“We’ve got a very good relationship with Denny’s, and the company is serious about dealing with farm animal welfare issues in a meaningful way,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO for The HSUS. “We welcome the news that Denny’s will move its supply chain to a gestation crate-free future.”

Porkers' progress

The Humane Society says things are looking up for pigs. It released this compilation of hopeful signs:

  • Denny’s is one of the largest restaurant chains in the country, operating more than 1,650 locations across the U.S. In 2008, the company began switching millions of eggs to cage-free eggs – those that do not come from hens kept in notoriously cramped battery cages.
  • McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s recently announced that they will require suppliers to deliver plans for eliminating gestation crates. Compass Group – the largest food service company in the world, operating 10,000 dining facilities in the U.S. – also recently announced that it will eliminate gestation crates from its supply chain by 2017. And Bon Appétit Management Company, another leading food service provider, has committed to be gestation crate-free within three years.
  • Pork providers Smithfield and Hormel have pledged to end the use of gestation crates at their company-owned facilities by 2017, and Cargill is already 50 percent crate-free. Eight U.S. states have passed laws to ban the practice and Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont have bills pending that would do the same.
  • Renowned animal welfare scientist and advisor to the pork industry, Dr. Temple Grandin, is clear on this issue: “We’ve got to treat animals right, and the gestation stalls have got to go.”

 

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Baby Bottles, Pacifiers Can Injure Young Children

Once children can walk, they shouldn't use them, doctors say

You might not think baby bottles, pacifiers and sippy cups would be dangerous. But a new study at Nationwide children's Hospital found that from 1991 to 20...

PhotoYou might not think baby bottles, pacifiers and sippy cups would be dangerous. But a new study at Nationwide Children's Hospital found that from 1991 to 2010, an estimated 45,398 children younger than three years of age were treated in U.S. emergency departments for injuries related to the use of these products.

That turns out to be something like 2,270 injuries per year, or one child treated in a hospital emergency department every four hours for these injuries.

Baby bottles accounted for 66 percent of injuries, followed by pacifiers at 20 percent and sippy cups at 14 percent. Since babies put these products in their mouths, it's no surprise that the most commonly injured body regions were the mouth, head, face and neck.

Most injuries were the result of falls while using the product, which suggests that children were walking or running with the product in their mouth at the time of the injury.

“Two-thirds of injuries examined in our study were to one-year-old children who are just learning to walk and more prone to falls,” said the study’s co-author Sarah Keim PhD, principal investigator in the Center for Biobehavioral Health at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “Having children sit down while drinking from baby bottles or sippy cups can help reduce the occurrences of these injuries.”

One year-olds should be using regular cups

Both the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) recommend that children be transitioned to regular, lidless cups at 12 months of age. The AAP also suggests that parents try to limit pacifier use after six months of age as use after that age may increase the risk of ear infections.

“These are products that almost everyone uses,” said study co-author, Lara McKenzie, PhD, principal investigator in the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “Educating parents and caregivers about the importance of transitioning their children away from these products at the ages recommended by the AAP and AAPD could prevent up to 80 percent of the injuries related to baby bottles, pacifiers and sippy cups.”

Data for the study were obtained from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS), which is operated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.  

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Optimism About Housing Recovery Grows

Researchers see 2.5 percent growth by 2014

Several times since 2009 analysts have suggested that home prices had bottomed, only to see home values go even lower.But with months of data showing a s...

PhotoSeveral times since 2009 analysts have suggested that home prices had bottomed, only to see home values go even lower.

But with months of data showing a strengthening heartbeat in the housing sector, optimism is building. A study by the Demand Institute predicts home valuations will start to climb again while adjacent consumer industries will capture significant new growth opportunities in 2012 and beyond as the U.S. housing market finally turns the corner.

The Demand Institute is a non-profit, non-advocacy organization that tracks global consumer demand.

The report predicts that average home prices will increase by up to one percent in the second half of 2012. By 2014, home prices will increase by as much as 2.5 percent.

Different kind of recovery

From 2015 to 2017, the study projects annual increases between three and four percent. This recovery will not be uniform across the country, and the strongest markets could capture average gains of 5 percent or more in the coming years. The researchers say this recovery will be weaker than those in the past, and very different in one important way.

"In these initial years, the prime driver of recovery won't be new home construction, but rather demand for rental properties," said Louise Keely, Chief Research Officer at The Demand Institute and a co-author of the report. "This is a remarkable change from previous recoveries. It is a measure of just how severe the Great Recession has been that such a wide swath of Americans had to delay, scale back, or put off entirely their dreams of home ownership."

One reason owner-occupants aren't leading the recovery is the stricter lending standards in the mortgage industry. Borrowers must now have larger down payments and higher credit scores. Currently, about a third of monthly home sales are to investors, most of whom pay in cash.

Stable home ownership rates

"In the long-term, we don't expect home ownership rates to change," said Bart van Ark, Chief Economist at The Conference Board and co-author of the report. "Over 80 percent of Americans in recent surveys still agree that buying a home is the best long-term investment they can make. What will be intriguing to watch is how their aspirations around home ownership are affected by this period of extended austerity."

Between 2006 and 2011, some $7 trillion in American wealth was wiped out when home prices dropped 30 percent after dramatic climb in valuations during the housing bubble. Looking forward, the moderate growth expectations for coming years suggest a return to normalcy, the researchers say.

As home prices continue to drop and interest rates fall further, first-time buyers and others who remained relatively cautious will be drawn back into the housing market. And, as the market recovers, so too will consumer spending.

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New York Arrests Prominent Accountant In Alleged Ponzi Scheme

Scheme allegedly raked in millions of dollars

A well-established Bronx, N.Y. tax preparer has been indicted on 29 counts of grand larceny, accused of operating a &ldquo;massive&rdquo; Ponzi scheme that...

A well-established Bronx, N.Y. tax preparer has been indicted on 29 counts of grand larceny, accused of operating a “massive” Ponzi scheme that defrauded dozens of New Yorkers out of millions of dollars.

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman says Robert H. Van Zandt, owner of the Van Zandt Agency, was also charged with two counts of money laundering.

"Money laundering and securities fraud are serious crimes, and when someone abuses the trust built upon longstanding relationships to steal individuals' life savings, our office will prosecute that person to the fullest extent of the law," Schneiderman said. "It's unconscionable that many hard-working people put their futures in the hands on this defendant only to see their financial security destroyed by greed. Mr. Van Zandt stole his victims’ life savings, and forced some of them to re-enter the workplace or rely on government assistance to survive, while others face foreclosure on their homes or bankruptcy. The perpetrator of this despicable Ponzi scheme will be brought to justice."

Began in 2007

Schneideran says Van Zandt ran is tax preparation business for decades. Starting in 2007, Schneiderman said Van Zandt began accepting investments from tax preparation clients, who trusted him to manage their retirement funds and savings. In many cases, these investors handed over their entire life savings or retirement accounts, only to see their money disappear. From at least February 2008 through January 2011, Van Zandt solicited money from unsuspecting clients, promising guaranteed rates of returns.

According to the indictment and statements made by prosecutors at the arraignment, Van Zandt's alleged investment opportunities turned into a purely Ponzi-style scheme starting in approximately 2008. Van Zandt guaranteed high rates of return to new investors, promising to invest their money in lucrative securities, including real estate projects that were, in fact, impossible to build.

Money not invested

The Attorney General said the money was not invested as promised, but rather was used to pay previous investors or diverted for personal expenditures. The scheme brought in over $4.6 million from February 2008 through January 2011 alone.

Van Zandt also allegedly abused his position as a manager of a tax preparations business to identify and lure new investors, targeting victims who had large amounts of money available, such as retirement funds, savings, inheritances or settlements.

Up to $900,000 in losses

Van Zandt allegedly made materially false representations and failed to disclose material facts to his investors in order to induce them to invest enormous sums of money with him, ranging from $25,000 to nearly $900,000. The invested monies were allegedly deposited into accounts affiliated with the Van Zandt Agency or controlled by Van Zandt and then commingled and transferred between accounts as needed, to pay investors, business expenses, and for personal use.

The indictment claims the money was never legitimately investment. In particularly egregious cases, although Van Zandt promised that investors' money would be used to purchase government bonds or corporate securities, no such bonds or securities were ever purchased for the victims, Schneiderman said.

A Ponzi scheme works by paying early investors with money invested by new victims. As long as a large number of investors don't withdraw money at the same time, the scheme can go on indefinitely.

In 2008, when a financial crisis gripped the world, many investors moved to cash, exposing a number of Ponzi schemes, most notably Bernard Madoff's, whose clients included some of the wealthiest people in New York.

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Wall Street Loves Facebook, But Do Users?

Social networking site draws a lot of complaints, which may spell trouble in the future

Enthusiasm appears to be building among investors for Facebook's impending initial public offering (IPO), when shares of the now privately held company wil...

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Judge Rules in Favor of E-book Consumers in Civil Price-fixing Case

Federal judge rejects Apple and publishers’ attempt to dismiss case

A U.S. District Court judge today denied petitions by several of the nation&rsquo;s largest book publishers and Apple seeking to dismiss a nationwide class...

PhotoA U.S. District Court judge today denied petitions by several of the nation’s largest book publishers and Apple seeking to dismiss a nationwide class-action lawsuit that accuses the companies of conspiring to illegally fix the prices of e-books. 

The 56-page ruling, issued by Judge Denise Cote of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, is the first substantive ruling in the litigation. It denies the companies’ motion to dismiss the case, allowing the case to move forward.

The lawsuit was filed on Aug. 9, 2011, and seeks to represent purchasers of e-books who the complaint says were forced to pay tens of millions of dollars more for their favorite titles because of a price-fixing scheme organized by the e-book publishers and Apple.

“We thought that Judge Cote’s ruling was spot on, especially when she noted that we’ve gone above and beyond in illustrating the legitimacy of our case,” said Steve Berman, lead counsel representing consumers in the nationwide class action and managing partner of Hagens Berman, a consumer-rights law firm. “We are eager to push forward with the case.”

In April, the U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in New York making very similar allegations to the civil case and citing much of the same evidence. It describes Apple and the publishers actively conspiring to wrestle control of the e-book market from Amazon while artificially driving up prices for consumers.

“We look forward to uncovering additional evidence in the discovery phase of this litigation,” said Berman. “We litigated this case because we strongly believe that consumers were harmed by Apple and the publishers’ tactics and we will not settle without an effective plan to repay consumers for their losses.” 

According to the class-action suit, the publishers believed that Amazon’s wildly popular Kindle e-reader device and the company’s discounted pricing for e-books would increase the adoption of e-books and permanently set consumer expectations for lower prices, even for other e-reader devices.

“Fortunately for the publishers, Apple was also terrified of Amazon’s pricing and the popularity of its Kindle device,” said Berman. “Rather than compete on merit, price and convenience, we intend to prove that the cabal simply tried to game the system.”

The case seeks to compensate e-book purchasers for losses incurred as a result of the alleged price-fixing scheme.

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A New App From MoodMusic and iTunes Just Released

Free music sites are popping up everywhere

Free music sites are popping up faster than artists can make the music. Between Spotify, Grooveshark and Mixcloud, customers can choose not to buy new musi...

PhotoFree music sites are popping up faster than artists can make the music. Between Spotify, Grooveshark and Mixcloud, customers can choose not to buy new music ever again. Kind of sad but true.

The newest site to emerge is MoodMusic, which is creating a new Internet radio application for iTunesMoodMusic isn't actually new, as the company introduced a free music application through Facebook back in 2010, but had to shut down in order to re-code the app.

In its new go-around, MoodMusic is trying to pull in users through a pretty creative marketing idea. The first 100,000 people to download the application will receive a share of stock in the company, by completing an email verification. The app will remain free until June 1, 2012, then customers will have to pay a 99-cent charge to access it.

The company said it's eager to enter into its second phase of business after partnering with iTunes, and are attempting to return to its digital glory days, when the company achieved 20,000 downloads in just the first couple of months.

"Facebook threw us a bit of a curveball by returning to Java, which has left our $85,000 Facebook app on the sidelines but ready for a re-launch. This has been a bit painful because this application along with a MoodMusic.fm website allows for the service to be completely cloud-based which of course is what our customers are asking for," the company said in a statement.

The goal of MoodMusic is to allow each member to become a DJ, by allowing users to share their favorite tunes to other MoodMusic customers. The app will allow members to connect with online friends in order to listen to the songs they've posted. Friends can also access the songs that you've posted. It's all pretty similar to what SoundCloud does.

In addition to its social music station, MoodMusic is also trying to tap into the underground music scene. In 2011, the Internet company bought BuildingBands.com, which allows musicians to post their music for potential discovery.

Aside from the free share of stock that people will receive from downloading the music app, there isn't anything that is vastly different about MoodMusic from other social radio stations.  However consumers have about two weeks to give the application a free whirl.  After that it'll cost you.  Those interested can find the app here.

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Remember the Budweiser SuperFest? Thanks to Jay-Z it's Back!

"Made in America" concert comes to Philadelphia this summer

&nbsp;Most are familiar with the Hip-Hop mogul Jay-Z. Whether it's for his 16-year plus music career (the guy outsold the Beatles for Pete sake), or whethe...

PhotoMost of us are familiar with the Hip-Hop mogul Jay-Z. Whether it's for his 16-year plus music career (the guy outsold the Beatles for Pete's sake), or whether it's for his impressive business acumen. Either way, the Brooklyn rapper has gone from corner street hustler to hanging out with Warren Buffett. Not bad.

In his recent dealings, Jay-Z has partnered with Budweiser to organize and headline a summer music concert in Philadelphia. The mega concert being dubbed "Made in America," kills two marketing birds with one stone, as Jay-Z's 2011 song with Kanye West shares the same name, and it's also perfect for Anheuser-Busch's all-American branding image.

If you're of a certain age, then you'll remember the Budweiser Superfest which was a summer staple for music lovers from 1979 to 1999, linking itself with the industry's biggest acts like Aerosmith and Michael Jackson.

In recent years Budweiser has lost some of its youthful coolness, with newer, younger and seemingly hipper beer brands popping up a mile a millisecond, so the self proclaimed King of Beers is trying to reclaim its throne to a new generation of consumers. And Budweiser's efforts could be the music consumer's gain.

As part of the concert deal, Jay-Z will hand-pick each act to create a unique concert experience for the consumer who seeks out the best in summer concerts each season. As rosters for mega-concerts are usually put together solely by corporate entities, who may not have its finger on all that is hot and current, the "Made in America" concert will showcase 30 artists selected by someone who couldn't be more knowledgeable of what listeners want to hear.

And with close personal friends of Jay-Z like Chris Martin from Coldplay or U2's Bono, there is no telling what concert goers will be in for this Philadelphia summer.

Deeper connection

Photo"Budweiser is expanding into a bigger and deeper connection through music," said Rob McCarthy, vice president of Budweiser at Anheuser-Busch. He added that both the partnering and the concert is meant to "engage young adults who have a passion for music," and the company plans to create a roster that is "very diverse, touching all that make up America."

Budweiser said it is not only interested in pulling in younger legally aged consumers, but also would like the brand to reach across, ethnic, race, and class lines.

This is the brewmaker's second recent attempt at bringing back the concert series. In 2011, on a smaller scale, Budweiser attempted to headline soul singer Jill Scott for its new wave of concerts, but the Philly singer's demographic proved to be too 30-something, for the beer company that was aiming for a younger target.

This is also Budweiser's second goaround with Jay-Z, as the company named him a brand director for its Budweiser select product in 2006. However, that first partnering was not successful as Select suffered a loss in sales in 2007.

However, it wasn't just Budweiser that suffered from sales losses, as the entire beer industry has seen better days.  According to the American Consumer Satisfaction Index, Anheuser-Bush, Miller, and Molson Coors have all seen a decline in sales in recent years.

This year has seen the return of huge companies trying to realign themselves with the music loving public. Coca-Cola, Burger King and Pepsi have all recruited some of the musical elite to further strengthen their products with new consumers.

So, whether you are a beer drinker or not, or a Jay-Z fan or not, you'll be able to see one of the biggest and most diverse concerts this year. Now exactly how much those tickets are going to run you is a whole other story entirely.

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Companies Need to Step Up Social Media Efforts

With 96% of Americans using social media, it's not somenthing to ignore

It seems like today, brands don't need customers as much as it needs followers. Facebook or social media followers that is.An incredible 96 percent of Am...

PhotoIt seems like today, brands don't need customers as much as they needs followers. Facebook or social media followers that is.

An incredible 96 percent of Americans regularly use social media, and whatever those other four percent may be doing, a report from both Leo Burnett Worldwide and its marketing service division Arc Worldwide, estimate that 42 percent of consumers incorporate social media into their shopping.

This is slightly different from customers simply going to other various sites to compare products, as the report entitled SocialShop specifically covers those who chiefly use their Twitter or Google Plus accounts to shop, for example.

Researchers pinpointed exactly what customers use social media for when it comes to shopping:

  • To find cheaper alternatives.
  • To learn of the trendiest products.
  • To validate buying choices by reading ratings and reviews.
  • To obtain fun and unexpected content or deals.
  • To locate hard-to-find brands and products
  • For broadcasting the latest trends, brands, and stores.

Leo Burnett also differentiates how each shopper uses social media, as each use changes depending on what the consumer is trying to accomplish. The business consultants also name the different type of shopper among today's consumers. 

Types of shoppers

For example, there is the "dollar defaulter", one who uses social media to locate cheaper items. Or the "efficient sprinter" shopper, who uses their Facebook page to buy whatever is most popular or convenient.

The "quality devotee" shopper is mainly concerned with reviews from their social media friends,  the "strategic saver" shopper is all about paying the absolute least for their desired brands. There's also the "savvy passionista". They're the ones who are pretty much un-paid brand representatives by tweeting, posting and sharing the latest and greatest in product information.

The report also includes some stern advice for brands about knowing which social platform to use, as different sites are used for different shopping goals.

"People assign a different purpose and expectation to each social media channel they use, said Marsha Sajdeh, senior vice president and strategy director for Leo Burnett/Arch Worldwide, in a statement. "Once marketers understand how people use social to shop, they can hone their marketing strategies and cater to different shoppers' needs to drive engagement now and in the future."

In addition, researchers recognized that shoppers have shifting needs depending on what they're shopping for, thus, the report lists four categories that consumers usually buy under:

  • Burden -- The buying category when one purchases items of practical use like, washing machines, car insurance, or household furnishings.
  • Passion -- A consumer is under this category when they're  buying items for fun, enjoyment or on impulse.
  • Routine -- This category is used for shoppers when they're buying items they don't necessarily want but need, like gas, trash bags, light bulbs, etc.
  • Fun -- Self explanatory. This category is heavily associated with entertainment purchases like, eating out, going to a ball game, or buying something unhealthy yet tastey from the grocery store.

Researchers emphasize that social media and the internet on a whole has changed the way companies must first approach the customer. No longer can brands provide a blanket marketing approach to a complexed buying public. Not only has the internet made the consumer more savvy, it has also birthed a desire within the consumer to be communicated to through social media.

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U.S. Cellular Refunds Disputed Third-Party Charges to Wisconsin Consumers

"Text cramming" becoming a nationwide problem for consumers

U.S. Cellular has refunded $65,784.15 to Wisconsin consumers who were billed for unwanted text messaging services by Silicon Investments Group, Inc., a thi...

Photo
Consumers rate US Cellular

U.S. Cellular has refunded $65,784 to Wisconsin consumers who were billed for unwanted text messaging services by Silicon Investments Group, Inc., a third-party vendor. The case, involving more than 6,500 transactions, was mediated by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

U.S. Cellular also suspended all future billing of Wisconsin consumers by Silicon Investments Group, Inc. and suspended the company from running “Premium Text Messaging services” on its network. The refunds from U.S. Cellular were listed on consumers’ March or April 2012 bills.

“We appreciate the company’s cooperation with our mediation efforts,” said Sandy Chalmers, Division Administrator for Trade and Consumer Protection. “U.S. Cellular took steps to assist Wisconsin consumers who were billed for inappropriate and unauthorized phone services by a third-party company.”

Although text spam is becoming an annoyance for consumers nationwide, few states have taken any action against the perpetrators. In 2007, Illinois sued an alleged text spammer in 2007 and Texas filed a similar suit in 2009.

One Wisconsin consumer who filed a complaint with the Bureau of Consumer Protection received a series of unsolicited text messages from Silicon Investments advertising an entertainment message service called “Gossiptexts.” He received three messages from the company within two minutes on January 31st – the first was an opt-in message for the service, the second confirmed his participation in the program and the third was a text about the Super Bowl half-time show.

Despite ignoring the texts and taking no action to approve his inclusion in the program, he was charged $9.99 on his next monthly bill. According to U.S. Cellular, the guidelines from the Mobile Marketing Association would require that he take active steps such as entering a confirmation code on a separate website in order to approve this service on his phone.

Telecommunications companies allow third-party vendors to charge consumers on their monthly bills for services and applications they purchase for their phones. But through a process referred to as “cramming,” illegitimate third-party groups will charge false fees or will bill for services the consumer never knowingly purchased. Because monthly phone bills can be difficult to navigate, these companies expect that a large percentage of consumers will never notice that the fees are tacked to the accounts.

Consumer Protection provides the following tips to help consumers avoid falling victim to cramming:

  • Review your monthly bills closely, looking for questionable or unauthorized charges.  
  • Dispute any unauthorized charges with the third-party vendor through their contact number listed on the bill. 
  • If this gets you nowhere, take your issue directly to the cell service provider.
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Airlines Improve On-Time Performance

The mild winter weather helped reduce airport delays

With milder than normal winter weather, U.S. domestic airlines were able to compile their best on-time arrival rate for the first quarter of any year since...

With milder than normal winter weather, U.S. domestic airlines were able to compile their best on-time arrival rate for the first quarter of any year since the U.S. Department of Transportation began keeping records.

Normally, icy weather in January, February and March results in numerous delays. The on-time arrival rate in the first quarter this year was 84 percent. That beats the previous record of 81.3 set in 2002.

Airlines reported three tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights and no tarmac delays of more than four hours on international flights in March. All of the long domestic tarmac delays took place on March 17 in St. Louis, a day when severe storms took place in the area.

Complaints about airline service

Even though more flights were on time, not everyone was happy in the passenger cabin. In March, the government said it received 1,117 complaints about airline service from consumers, up 39.1 percent from the 803 complaints received in March 2011 and up 61.6 percent from the 691 complaints filed in February 2012.

A total of 213 of the March complaints involved the charter operator Direct Air ceasing operations. For the first quarter of this year, the Transportation Department received 2,743 complaints, up 16.8 percent from the 2,348 filed during the first quarter of 2011.

Unhappy fliers also post complaints online, at sites like ConsumerAffairs.

“On March 18, 2012, I used my United flier miles for a business class upgrade for two seats and was charged an additional $150,” Scott, of Montclair, N.J., posted at ConsumerAffairs. “The requests were put on a wait list and we failed to receive the upgrades. Nearly a month later, the airline had not refunded the miles and did so only after I called, waited 20 minutes on the phone, and complained. They told me the $150 was an administrative fee and to go to another location to request the $150 refund. Calling them directly is impossible and their fax number has been busy for a week. I would not have even requested the upgrade if not for the fact that the website said upgrades were available. I fail to see how they can charge a fee for a service that they did not perform.”

Patsy, of Houston, Tex., complained about the service on Delta. And she says it's not just bad in coach.

“I flew first class to Milan,” Patsy writes. “The flight attendants spent the night talking. I asked if they would mind keeping it down. The flight attendant turned her back on me. The male flight attendant stood and watched me struggle to take my bag down with no offer of assistance. The return flight was cancelled without any communication. I lost my bag for four days. I have called numerous Delta numbers. I got told to call this number. I called and I got sent to another number. This customer service is the worst I have experienced from an airline.”

More bumping, fewer lost bags

Slightly more passengers on the 15 reporting airlines got bumped in the first quarter than in the first quarter of 2011, but the airlines did a better job of keeping up with bags.

The Department of Transportation report shows the airlines posted a mishandled baggage rate of 3.09 reports per 1,000 passengers in March, better than March 2011’s rate of 3.32 but up from February 2012’s rate of 2.64, which was the best mark for a single month since the Department began collecting this data in September 1987. For the first quarter of this year, the carriers posted a mishandled baggage rate of 3.01 reports per 1,000 passengers, an improvement over the 3.73 rate for the first quarter of 2011.

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Debt Collector Agrees to $3 Million to Settle Federal Charges

FTC: Luebke Baker & Associates collected debts it should have known were bogus

Defendants in a debt collection operation that allegedly sought payment for bogus magazine subscription debts have&nbsp;settled with the Federal Trade Comm...

Defendants in a debt collection operation that allegedly sought payment for bogus magazine subscription debts have settled with the Federal Trade Commission.

The FTC alleged in its complaint that Luebke Baker and Associates, Inc. knew, or should have known, that some of the magazine subscription debts they were collecting were not valid. The defendants, who handle collection of hundreds of thousands of accounts each year, violated the FTC Act, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, and the Telemarketing Sales Rule, according to the complaint.

The proposed settlement order, filed by the Department of Justice on the FTC’s behalf, bars Luebke Baker, Kevin Luebke, and other defendants from representing that a consumer owes a debt without having a reasonable basis to do so, and from making any other misrepresentations when collecting debts or selling goods and services. 

It also requires the defendants to conduct a reasonable investigation when a consumer disputes a debt or when the defendants otherwise have reason to question whether the debt is valid.

Under the proposed settlement order, when the defendants attempt to collect debts, they must provide consumers with disclosures about their rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.  The proposed order also requires the defendants to inform their collection employees of their personal obligations under the Act.

The Luebke defendants allegedly collected on debts for magazine subscriptions despite the fact that the FTC had successfully sued the company that originally sold the magazine subscriptions for deceptive marketing.  The defendants were notified of a 2003 federal court order against Cross Media Marketing Corp. that placed special requirements on anyone attempting to collect payment for these magazine subscriptions.

The FTC alleged that the Luebke defendants ignored these requirements and repeatedly told consumers the debts were due and payable.

The complaint also alleges that the Luebke defendants:

  • illegally masked their identity and sent false information over caller ID, falsely posing as Ed McMahon, attorneys from a law firm, and other entities;
  • falsely told consumers that magazine subscription debts are exempt from the statute of limitations; and  
  • illegally threatened to garnish wages and take other unintended legal actions.

The defendants also marketed a credit repair CD titled “Credit Solutions,” allegedly collecting an up-front fee before providing any goods or services, in violation of the Telemarketing Sales Rule, which bans advance fees imposed by companies selling credit repair goods and services, according to the complaint.

The proposed settlement imposes monetary judgments totaling $3.1 million – $2.3 million in civil penalties for violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, $730,000 in disgorgement for collecting Cross Media Marketing Corp. accounts in violation of the FTC Act, and $45,000 in restitution to consumers for charging an advance fee for a credit repair product in violation of the Telemarketing Sales Rule.

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Consumers Have Done a 180 When it Comes to Food Shopping

Shoppers have become much more price-conscious; coupon use increasing

Many consumers are still recovering from being in the throws of some very challenging economic times. A lot of the buying public have chosen to cut down on...

PhotoMany consumers are still recovering from being in the throes of some very challenging economic times. A lot of the buying public have chosen to cut down on that favorite restaurant they frequent, or decided to give that poor delivery guy a break from trekking to their house three times a week.

This is all confirmed by a report from MaxPoint Interactive, which suggests that consumers are heading back to the supermarket in very large numbers. But the report also shows that customers have developed a behavioral shift when it comes to saving money at the grocery store.

The study entitled "Reaching Today's Cost-Conscious Consumer" reports that almost three in four respondents have changed the way they grocery shop within the last year, and they also have become more cognizant of food costs.

Researchers found that over 40 percent of mothers and shoppers aged 25 to 54 save money by shopping at multiple grocery stores to locate the best savings, and 50.4 percent of mothers admitted to clipping coupons, while steadily using their store-membership cards for extra deals.

It also seems that coupons dictate what items will be purchased for most consumers, as many have put savings over brand loyalty. Three in four respondents said they were more apt to experiment with a new grocery product if they had a coupon for it.

And nearly gone are the days of going to the grocery store with only a mental list. The survey indicates that 62 percent of respondents now create a food list before going to the store, and that same percentage is willing to deviate from name brand products in replace of generic store brands.

Behavior shifting

Photo"Due to the economy, consumers are shifting their shopping behaviors to get more for their money," explained Dianne Kremer, Senior Analyst at BIGinsight. "As consumers feel a pinch from rising gas and food prices, they are becoming more creative with how they spend their grocery budgets--shopping closer to home, going to multiple stores to get the best deals and looking online for coupons and offers."

Other findings of the report show that:

Average monthly spend on groceries has steadily increased among the general population from pre-to-post recession from $250.94 in August 2007 to $277.00 in August 2011. Among mom, it has steadily increased from $311.95 to $341.14 during the same timeframe.

Two in five respondents indicate they are purchasing more store brand or generic items now than compared with this time last year. 53.4% are purchasing the same amount.

Three in 10 respondents have cut back on purchasing bakery items, candy, dessert items and magazines/books/DVDs over the past year. One in four have cut back on prime cuts of meat/seafood.

"Digital is reshaping the grocery shopping experience in the post-recession economy, as consumers turn to new channels to help plan their shopping trips," said chief operating officer at MaxPoint Interactive, Gretchen Joyce. ""By understanding what motivates today's consumer, brands can tailor their shopper marketing strategies to ensure they are gaining mindshare and winning at the shelf-level."

 

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Report: Think People Hate Bio-Engineered Food? Think Again

Survey finds 69% relatively confident bio-engineered food is safe

Genetically altered foods have been a hot topic in the media in recent months. Whether it's&nbsp; the California Right to Know campaign, that obtained enou...

PhotoGenetically altered foods have been a hot topic in the media in recent months. Whether it's  the California Right to Know campaign, that obtained enough signatures for a ballotto be voted on, that could force manufactures to label when foods are being altered. Or, whether it's the recent backlash from watch groups that protest the new additive "meat glue" being added to beef products, people have expressed their lack of trust in the the concept of biotechnology.

But according to a recent survey, most consumers are supportive of food biotechnology.

The survey conducted by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) found that 38 percent of those surveyed have a good opinion about plant biotechnology, which is up from 32 percent two years ago. Researchers also report that many consumers believe that genetically altered foods do not require any labeling. Only 24 percent of the respondents said they required additional information on food packaging.

Out of the 750 participants of the survey, 69 percent said they were somewhat or very confident in the level of safety in today's foods, compared to merely 18 percent that said they wanted better labeling.

And the high levels of customer-trust can't be chalked up to consumer ignorance, as 57 percent of Americans have some awareness of biotechnology being used in foods, and 33 percent said they perceive the entire concept of biotechnology to be okay.

And just who, you might ask, is this IFIC? Another food-industry group claiming to be a research organization? Maybe, but the group's chair is a Cornell University professor and its board consists largely of academics so its findings probably shouldn't be viewed too skeptically.

Sustainability

The IFIC report also showed that food sustainability is extremely important to the consumer. It was learned that 56 percent of respondents have heard or read something about sustainability in food production, compared to 2010 when only 50 percent were knowledgeable of it.

But only 33 percent of consumers said they would pay more for food items that fit their definition of food sustainability, which is the term for food that's self-sufficient and has the ability to be continually produced.

Of those respondents that consider sustainability of crucial importance, 35 percent believe conserving the natural habitat should be top priority, 32 percent of those surveyed desire a sufficient food supply for the swelling population, 32 percent would like the amount of pesticides in foods reduced, and 24 percent of respondents wants to ensure that food remains affordable.

"Not surprisingly, awareness of sustainability among consumers is high," said Marianne Smith Edge in a statement, who is Senior Vice President of Nutrition and Food Safety at IFIC. "The catch is that we see from survey responses that consumers have many different definitions of sustainability, which can make meeting that expectation a challenge."

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Retailers Make Pitch to New Grads – As Employees

In a tough job market, retailers say they are eager to hire new college graduates

It's a tough job market out there, as many newly minted college graduates are about to discover. Before they get discouraged about their prospects in their...

PhotoIt's a tough job market out there, as many newly-minted college graduates are about to discover. But before they get discouraged about their prospects in their chosen field, the retail industry would like them to consider working in retail.

Maybe that's a depressing thought for someone who just spent $50,000 on a bachelor's degree, but it shouldn't. At least that's the view of Ramon Winemberg, a sales and operations executive with more than three decades of experience.

Winemberg, a former regional vice president for Brookstone stores in the western United States who also ran field operations for T-Mobile in Southern California and Nevada, says not all retailers and retail jobs are alike. High-end brands, especially, are in need of well-educated, capable employees. The sector, he says, is where the jobs are.

“The retail trade sector is the largest employer in the United States,” Winemberg said. “Even more compelling, the retail industry is expected to add even more sector jobs in the coming years and will continue to grow annually.”

While the current job market may not have openings in the field many graduates have chosen, chances are, Winemberg says, there's a retail outlet that can use their skills. For example, if you speak multiple languages, retailers with worldwide operations might find you attractive.

Help wanted

0Winemberg says retailers struggle to attract and retain the best and the brightest because of a misconception that all jobs in the industry are low-paying, entry level, or lack job potential.

“There are many great paying and challenging opportunities available in a wide variety of business disciplines,” he said.

In fact, national and global retailers are among the most aggressive recruiters in this job market. Most of the better retail companies have well-established college recruitment programs in place in order to bring on high potential candidates for key growth positions.

Not all the jobs are behind a counter, waiting on consumers. But Winemberg says even those jobs are not a bad place to start.

“Many successful executives point to the training and experience they gained in early career retail jobs and the lessons they learned in customer service and real consumer trade as compass points that still guide them today,” he said.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) projects 1,781,000 students at the bachelor’s degree level will graduate as the college Class of 2012 and enter the labor market.

 

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Refinancing Stats Suggest Consumers Are Reducing Debt

Nearly a third of borrowers in the first quarter shortened their loan term

Back during the housing bubble, homeowners were treating their homes like ATMs. When lower rates offered opportunities to refinance, consumers often enlarg...

PhotoBack during the housing bubble, homeowners were treating their homes like ATMs. When lower rates offered opportunities to refinance, consumers often enlarged their mortgage, taking equity out in cash.

No longer. According to a report from Freddie Mac, consumers who are refinancing their mortgage are trying to get out of debt. The report shows 31 percent of those refinancing a mortgage in the first quarter replaced their 30-year mortgage with a 20-year or 15-year note.

In a significant reversal from the bubble days, two-third of the refinanced mortgages were for the same amount as the current mortgage. Not surprisingly, 95 percent opted for a fixed rate loan.

"Fixed mortgage rates averaged 3.92 percent for 30-year loans and 3.19 percent for 15-year product during the first quarter in Freddie Mac's Primary Mortgage Market Survey, well below long-term averages,” said Frank Nothaft, Freddie Mac vice president and chief economist. “The Bureau of Economic Analysis has estimated the average coupon on single-family loans was about 5.1 percent during the first quarter of 2012. It's no wonder we continue to see strong refinance activity into fixed-rate loans.”

Borrowers who replaced a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage with a 15-year note saved about three-quarters of a percentage point in interest in the first quarter. Despite the lower interest rate, however, the monthly payment on a 15-year loan is higher, but the consumer saves money over the term of the loan.

For example, if a consumer refinanced a $150,000 mortgage at 4 percent over 30 years, the monthly payment would be $716.12. At 3.75 percent over 15 years, the monthly payment would be $1,090.83, or $374.71 more per month.

But the loan would be paid off much sooner, with a maximum savings of more than $61,000.

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Have Mobile Providers Fallen Out of Love With the iPhone?

Some may be finding the subsidies just a little too steep

Apple's iPhone may still be popular with consumers, with rising sales, but evidence is growing within the industry that the companies selling it may be los...

PhotoApple's iPhone may still be popular with consumers, as rising sales suggest, but evidence is growing within the industry that the companies selling the popular phone may be losing some of their enthusiasm.

In recent weeks there have been anecdotal indications that one carrier, Verizon Wireless, is actively discouraging consumers from buying the iPhone. There may be something to it because this reporter experienced it in March, when I decided to replace my aging Blackberry.

Since everyone else in my family has an iPhone, I thought I would try one as well. When I entered the Verizon store, the associate asked what I was interested in and I told him.

He asked if I was dead set on an iPhone or if I would consider an Android model. I replied I wasn't convinced either way and was open to an Android phone. That's what I ended up purchasing. I'm sure if I had really wanted an iPhone he would have been happy to sell me one but it was clear he preferred to sell me an Android.

3G vs. 4G

After lobbying long and hard to break AT&T's exclusive agreement to sell the iPhone, why would Verizon now try not to sell it? There could be several reasons, but some industry insiders speculate it has to do with the fact that the iPhone 4S is still a 3G phone.

Verizon has spent a fortune building its 4G LTE network and would like to move subscribers off its overcrowded 3G network. The last thing Verizon wants to do, the reasoning goes, is add new subscribers to 3G – especially iPhone users, who tend to use the most data.

Another reason might be the subsidies Verizon Wireless and other carriers must pay for the iPhone. Most wireless customers don't pay the full retail price for a mobile phone. If they do, they pay $649 for an iPhone. If they buy it with a two-year service agreement with a wireless carrier, the price is $199. The carrier makes up the difference.

Business news channel CNBC recently noted that wireless carriers appear to be actively pushing back, becoming more disciplined about how much they pay in subsidies, not just to Apple but all mobile phone makers.

Some carriers have also made noises about extending the life-cycles on their contracts, meaning consumers would be paying longer for their phones. That could end up making prepaid phones a more attractive option.

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DISH 'Auto Hop' Banishes TV Commercials

TV networks not expected to jump with joy over new feature

Nobody likes commercials, right? &nbsp;So everybody should be ecstatic about DISH Network's new "Auto Hop" DVR. It lets you automatically "zap" commercials...

Nobody likes commercials, right?  So everybody should be ecstatic about DISH Network's new "Auto Hop" DVR. It lets you automatically "zap" commercials from  most recorded primetime HD programs shown on ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC when viewed the day after airing.

And maybe everyone will be. But for now, DISH has a relatively lukewarm standing among its customers, at least according to a ConsumerAffairs computerized sentiment analysis of about 180,000 comments on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

 

Over the last 12 months, net sentiment for DISH peaked at 59% positive in February and now stands at 52%.

Social media analyses can reveal trends but often are not great at pinpointing specific likes and dislikes, as in this analysis of the most common positive and negative emotions:

 

DISH obviously thinks its Auto Hopper will change all that. It should make Cris of Minnesota happy. He wrote to ConsumerAffairs to complain about all the commercials on the TV programs he watches.

"The commercials take up over 50 percent of the programming so you pay to listen to that stuff being forced down your throat with no compensation," Chris said, implying that viewers should be paid for watching commercials.  If there's an idea that would be even less popular with the networks than the Auto Hopper, this is surely it.

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"Easier than ever"

"Viewers love to skip commercials," said Vivek Khemka, vice president of DISH Product Management.

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Consumers dish about DISH

"With the Auto Hop capability of the Hopper, watching your favorite shows commercial-free is easier than ever before," Khemka said. "It's a revolutionary development that no other company offers and it's something that sets Hopper above the competition."

While this may be just what consumers have been waiting for, it's not going over well with the TV networks that make their billions by airing commercials.

NBC Broadcasting chairman Ted Harbertis called it "an insult to our joint investment in programming" as he addressed advertisers Monday morning, the Wall Street Journal reported. 

In effect, this puts the TV networks in the same predicament as newspapers and other publications that have seen much of their prized content lifted by renegade Web sites. But whether there's much networks and other program producers can do about it is another question.

DISH emphasizes that the Hopper does not physically delete the commercials.  It simply skips over them automatically if the consumer enables the auto-skip feature. So it can't easily be accused of altering copyrighted material.

The "Hopper" DVR costs Dish subscribers $10 a month in addition to a $99 upfront fee. Dish also offers a less-expensive traditional DVR with no upfront charge and a $6 monthly fee.

DISH is the nation's third-largest pay-TV provider. "Auto Hop" is an extension of the Hopper's PrimeTime Anytime capability, which allows viewers to record all of the primetime TV programming on ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC in HD. The Hopper automatically stores these shows for eight days after they have aired, creating an on-demand library of approximately 100 hours of primetime TV shows.

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Survey: Consumers Don't Trust Brands

70% of consumers put their trust in online consumer reviews when making a buying decision

Do you have consumer-trust in the brands that you use? If not, you may not be alone, as a new report from Australia shows that the consumer's trust is lowe...

Do you trust the brands that you use? If not, you may not be alone, as a new report from Australia shows that the consumer's trust of major brands is lower than ever.

Whether it's consumers having less money to spread around, or whether there's a real decline in the quality of customer goods and services these days, companies across several industries don't rank very highly with consumers Down Under.

The report from Brand Asset Valuator showed that trust in retail, financial services, insurance and utility companies have dropped to 20 percent in the last two years, with bad customer service, raised prices, and questionable deal-offerings being the main reason.

"Trust can be lost very quickly if a brand doesn't behave the way it promises it will, which can happen to even large brands. You've absolutely got to stick to your promises, warned Andy Pontin chief executive of Australia-based ad agency Clemenger BBDO.

Consistency is vital

In an interview with a Sydney news outlet, Clemenger explained that "consistency is also extremely important when establishing trust. Once people have a strong perception of a brand, they find it very unsettling if the brand changes its approach."

Pontin also said it's all about brands sticking to its promises and always keeping the consumer in mind. Today's customer has a high level of buying-intelligence, and with a plethora of physical and online store options, businesses are being held more accountable for their everyday practices.

The Australian survey may provide insight to the findings in an April 2012 Nielsen report, suggesting that consumers have more trust from word of mouth advertising than traditional company advertising.

The Nielsen Global Trust in Advertising Survey revealed that 92 percent of customers around the world trusted "earned" media, compared to their 2007 study that showed only 18 percent trusted word of mouth advertising over other forms of marketing.

The Nielsen survey also showed that 70 percent of consumers chose online customer reviews to select a brand, company or product. This further supports the Australian report that the consumer's trust is moving further away from the company, and closer to the opinions of their peers.

If companies pay attention, they may be willing to shift some of their strategies. Paris Searson, vice president of PR firm Fleishman-Hillard, said that a brand can create all of the creative and ongoing advertising it wants, but if its actions don't consistently match its words, its promotional attempts are useless.

"Authenticity is vital when building trust", she said to the Australian press. "You've got to create a two-way dialogue both with staff and customers and speak the truth.

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Another TV Maker Faces Big Loss

Could there be a connection between consumer complaints and set makers' red ink?

Panasonic, an electronics manufacturer specializing in flatscreen television sets, is the last TV set maker to report a problem with red ink.It reports a...

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Consumers rate Panasonic TVs

Panasonic, an electronics manufacturer specializing in flatscreen television sets, is the latest TV set maker to report a problem with red ink.

It reports an annual net loss of $10.2 billion, joining Sony and Sharp as companies struggling to find profits in the TV business.

Maybe it's just a coincidence, but the set manufacturers appear to be having difficulty at a time of rising consumer dissatisfaction with the performance of flatscreen TVs.

Specifically, consumers complain that the sets – regardless of the manufacturer – simply don't last as long as the old fashioned tube sets. Those big, boxy appliances typically lasted 20 years or more.

The new generation of flatscreen TVs, on the other hand, appear to have a much shorter life. Many people posting at ConsumerAffairs have complained their sets required expensive repairs almost as soon as the warranty expired.

“I have had the Panasonic LCD TV, model: TC-P50S30, for just over 12 months, when I was greeted one evening with the 7 blinking lights,” D, of San Ramon, posted at ConsumerAffairs. “A quick Google search led to numerous complaints and this page where I can see that I am hardly an exception.”

Picture problem

Janet, of Munhall, Pa., says she has a two-year old Sony Bravia set which also began having problems right after the manufacturer's warranty expired. She said the problem was with the picture.

“I contacted Sony who recommended an authorized repair dealer,” Janet wrote to ConsumerAffairs. “The problem is with the LCD panel. The LCD panel is no longer available through Sony. Sony's resolution was for us to purchase a refurbished TV for $675. This has apparently been an issue with all Sony televisions. Why was there not a recall or at least notification from the company prior to so many customers having their televisions going bad?”

That's another thing that consumers are upset about. These TVs are very expensive, compared to the older tube counterparts. It's very easy to spend between $1,000 and $2,000 on one of them.

The repairs are also very expensive, leading some consumers to conclude they would be better off buying a new TV. The only problem they have – which kind to get? Many are reluctant to spend another $1,000 to $2,000 on a TV that will require another expensive repair in a few years.

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Ally Financial Puts Mortgage Unit Into Bankruptcy

A stronger Ally should be good news for car buyers

Ally Financial has put its troubled mortgage subsidiary, Residential Capital, into bankruptcy, hoping to rid itself of the litigation-plagued lender. Ally ...

PhotoAlly Financial has put its troubled mortgage subsidiary, Residential Capital, into bankruptcy, hoping to rid itself of the litigation-plagued lender. Ally also said it will try to sell its international auto-finance and insurance businesses.

The company faces billions of dollars worth of lawsuits from mortgage insurers and investors over the many mortgage deals that went sour when the real estate bubble burst. It also owes billions to the U.S. Treasury, where officials have been growing impatient and reportedly thinking of breaking up Ally and selling off its parts.

Ally -- the former GMAC unit of General Motors that specializes in dealer floorplan financing and car loans -- is 74 percent-owned by the U.S. Treasury after receiving a $17.2 billion government bailout.

"We think the single most important thing we can do to preserve and enhance shareholder value is to distance Ally from the mortgage business," Ally Financial CEO Michael Carpenter said in an April 26 conference call with financial analysts.

Major distraction

Ridding itself of ResCap, as Residential Capital is known, would free Ally of a major distraction and reduce its cost of funds, which should free up more money to lend to GM and Chrysler Group dealers and car buyers.

In the April conference call, Carpenter said that dumping the mortgage business would create "a world-beating auto franchise, a leading direct-banking franchise."

Ally's direct-banking business already serves as a cheap source of funds for the company and Carpenter says getting rid of Rescap will make the company a "category killer."

The Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing has no direct effect on Ally Bank operations.

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OPEC Member Calls For Lower Oil Prices

When someone who sells oil thinks it costs too much, they're probably right

When Saudi Arabia's oil minister says he thinks oil prices are too high, chances are they're too high.Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naim said he believes Bre...

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Teens Say Texting While Driving Is Common

They say they know it's dangerous but do it anyway

U.S. teenagers say they know texting while they drive is dangerous, but they do it anyway.In a survey commissioned by AT&amp;T, 97 percent of teens said ...

PhotoU.S. teenagers say they know texting while they drive is dangerous, but they do it anyway.

In a survey commissioned by AT&T, 97 percent of teens said they know the practice is dangerous but 43 percent admitted to doing it at least once. Seventy-five percent of those questioned said texting behind the wheel is common among their friends.

The main reason they do it, teens said, was pressure to respond to a text immediately. Almost all teens - 89 percent – said they expect a reply to a text or email within five minutes or less. Sixty-one percent of teens in the survey say they glance at their phone while driving, and 61 percent have seen their friends read or send an email, or text, while driving.

How did teenagers develop such a dangerous habit? Maybe by observing adults. According to 77 percent of teens, adults tell kids not to text while driving – yet adults do it themselves "all the time."

Forty-one percent of teens report seeing their parents read or send an email, or text, while driving. Sixty-two percent of teens feel that getting reminders from their own parents not to text and drive would be effective in getting them or their friends to stop texting and driving.

Texting ranks as the No. 1 mode of communication among teens. On average, teens text five times more a day than a typical adult. When this habit hits the road, drivers who text are 23 times more likely to be in an accident or near-accident.

Texting is just one form of distracted driving that is increasingly blamed for accidents. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2009, more than 5,400 people died in crashes that were reported to involve a distracted driver and about 448,000 people were injured.

Among those killed or injured in these crashes, nearly 1,000 deaths and 24,000 injuries included cell phone use as the major distraction.

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Ready for Another Additive? How About Some Meat Glue

Like pink slime, the meat industry says it's not a problem

You've probably already heard of "pink slime", the beef-based food additive that's added to processed meats and beef products, but get ready to wet your pa...

PhotoYou've probably already heard of "pink slime", the beef-based  additive that's added to processed meats and beef products -- and, experts say, isn't as bad as it sounds -- but get ready to wet your palettes for the scrumptious sounding "meat glue."

The appropriately named additive is used to take smaller cuts of beef and pork and join them to larger cuts for a more uniform and better-looking steak, and it's used in meats from the finest restaurants and deli's to your local fast-food joint.

Industry experts say that 11 to 35 percent of all packaged beef, chicken, fish, ham, pizza toppings and other deli products contain the questionable meat adhesive. Although the U.S. Agriculture Department requires companies to disclose such information through labeling, many companies choose not to do so, and consider meat glue okay to consume.

Making more profit is also motivation for companies that choose not to list the enzymes on labels, as smaller inexpensive cuts of meat can be transformed into bigger and more expensive cuts and sold at a higher price.

To the rescue

But here comes the American Meat Institute to the possible rescue, as it initiated a conference call with the employees of Fibrimex, and Ajinomoto North America, which are the two companies that make the sticky additive.

Although the two meat glue companies said there are no harmful affects to eating the enzymes, it was used to combine two unshapely beef tenderloins together for a more uniform appearance, enhancing the meat's appeal so it can be can be sold at restaurants, cruise ships, banquets or other fancy eateries.

"If you've got a steak that has meat glued together, the only way you can make the product safe is to cook it well done," said William Marler, a Seattle based attorney for food safety cases. "But since consumers don't know that, they won't know they have to order it that way. That's the problem."

In a response given to a California news outlet, Janet Riley of the American Meat Institute did warn that names given to these additives paint a wrongful picture for the consumer, causing them to automatically consider them harmful without doing any background research.

"These terms are really unfortunate," she said. "They give people a false impression, for sure, and I am concerned about their use."

Los Angeles-based doctor Bruce Hensel told the buying public that meat glue is a "natural enzyme," not an artificial additive. "The FDA believes it's safe as long as it's handled properly," he said.

Michele Simon, policy consultant for the Center for Food Safety has more of a problem with the meat industry's decision not to be open with the public about its products.

"For decades, the meat industry has conveniently operated in the dark, not sharing the dirty details of their practices with the public, while the federal government looked the other way," she said. "But now, consumers are demanding to know the truth about what they are.

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College Graduates With Heavy Debt Now the Norm

More students go into debt to acquire a bachelor's degree

Thousands of college students graduated over the weekend and now face an economic double whammy; a very tough job market and crushing debt from loans to pa...

PhotoThousands of college students graduated over the weekend and now face an economic double whammy -- a very tough job market and crushing debt from loans to pay for their education.

As ConsumerAffairs reported in 2007, college costs have skyrocketed over the last two decades, meaning most students now must take out college loans just to get a bachelor's degree. An analysis by the New York Times reveals 94 percent of students who receive a bachelor's degree go into debt to do so.

The average college debt last year was $23,000 but many students, especially those who attend for-profit schools, can rack up much higher debt loads. Carlos, of North Hollywood, Calif., admits he was naive when he, as a graduating high school senior, was shopping for schools. He eventually settled on Westwood College, a for-profit school.

Sticker shock

Photo“I showed up the first week and during that week a finance rep from the school said 'once you're done with this program, this will be your total debt.' It was nearly $75,000 on my student loan,” Carlos wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post.

Students who graduate from college with significant debt – if they are fortunate enough to land a job – see a large part of their paycheck going to service their education debt. It can sometimes interfere with efforts to buy a home.

Robert, of Beverly. Mass., says he and his wife have three student loans between them, but felt they could afford to buy a house because they were making “deferred” payments on their loans. However, they discovered the credit bureaus weren't reporting it that way.

“They said they will continue to report the $1,008 a month figure, which is preventing us from qualifying for our home mortgage by less than $100 a month,” Robert wrote.

Poll

A poll last November by the The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS) found 76 percent of young adults believe that college has become harder to afford in the past five years, and nearly as many – 73 percent - say that graduates have more student debt than they can manage.

When asked about the importance of college and other education and training after high school, about eight in 10 say it is more important than a generation ago. Whether or not they have a college degree or student debt, most young people share these views and concerns.

“This survey clearly shows how young adults view higher education today: it’s more important than ever but also less affordable, and it comes with too much debt,” said Lauren Asher, president of TICAS.

The new U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recently sounded the alarm over rising college loan debt, noting that the total now exceeds $1 trillion. Working with the Department of Education, CFPB launched its “Know Before You Owe” campaign to education prospective students and their families about the dangers of college debt.

The agency recently designed an online “Paying For College” tool to help students with financial decision-making.

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Prom Time is Here -- and So Are the Exorbitant Costs

Lower-income families spend way more than they can afford

It's that time of year again, isn't it? That in-between season of spring and summer where one doesn't know whether to bring or leave that light jacket with...

PhotoIt's that time of year again, isn't it? That in-between season of spring and summer where one doesn't know whether to bring or leave that light jacket with them. It's also the season for high school proms, and as each student is securing their limos, outfits and after parties, mom and dad will be handed the bill. And what a hefty bill it's going to be.

A recently released survey from Visa Inc. shows that the average family will shell out $1,078 per prom, which has increased from $807 last prom season. And despite any recessionary issues, families continue to spend, as previously reported by ConsumerAffairs.

"Prom season spending is spiraling out of control as teens continuously try to one-up each other," Jason Alderman, senior director of global financial education for Visa, said in a statement. "It's important to remember that prom is a high school dance, not a wedding, and parents need to set limits in order to demonstrate financial responsibility."

Easier said than done, as the survey shows that families with household incomes of $20,000 to $29,999 will spend more than households with a higher yearly income. An amazing $2,635 will be spent per prom for families who make less than $30,000 a year, as compared to only $842 from families with a yearly income of $75,000 or higher.

Experts point to teenagers being influenced by celebrities and certain reality TV stars, and try to match their level of opulence. Many teens consider the prom their true moment to finally shine, while choosing to pour all of their high fashion and high lifestyle dreams into one prom night.

"It's a rite of passage," said Linda Korman, advertising director for both Seventeen Prom and Teen Prom magazines. "Girls want to dress to impress"

And the cost to impress are at an all-time high with prom dresses averaging in the $200 range, according to the website Dress-market.com, and that's at the very low end of the fashion scale. Fancier dresses can be priced up to $500, not to mention accessories, hair, make-up, and those pricey prom pictures being offered in $100 and $200 packages. 

Prom experts also say that separating yourself from the rest of the prom-going pack is a colossal part of the prom experience, and showing up with an outfit or limo that no one else has is one of the social rules of the day.

Be different

Alison Jatlow, retail strategist at the consulting firm Kurt Salmon, agrees.

"There's a general sense of people wanting to be differentiated," she explains. "Going to a national chain and getting the same dress that 18 other girls have is not a chance for me to differentiate myself or express my individuality, which is such an important part of my social experience today."

But why does individuality have to come with such a high price? Maybe teens can differentiate themselves even further, by being the only ones at the dance who choose not to make a major fuss over a fleeting night that will quickly be replaced by the excitement of graduation.

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Apple Prepares to Dump Google Maps

Insider: Apple's new 3D maps will "blow your head off"

If there was any remaining doubt that Apple and Google are now full-fledged competitors, it should be removed by the news that Apple is planning to dump Go...

PhotoIf there was any remaining doubt that Apple and Google are now full-fledged competitors, it should be removed by the news that Apple is planning to dump Google Maps in its next operating system and on its iPhones, iPads and related gadgets.

Instead, Apple will be unveiling what insiders say is an "incredible" new in-house maps application that is said to be much cleaner, faster and more reliable than the current version.

AllThingsD, a Wall Street Journal publication, quotes an Apple insider as saying the new maps will “blow your head off.”

9to5Mac reported that the company has been combining services from subsidiary companies, Placebase, C3 Technologies, and Poly9 in order to develop its own maps service. The new version is expected to be launched when iOS 6 is announced, probably at an upcoming June conference.

Google Street View will also be replaced by an in-house version supplied by one of the many companies Apple has been acquiring lately.

There's also a 3D option built into the new maps app.  9to5Mac describes it as "beautiful, realistic graphics based on de-classified missile target algorithms."

 

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Small Batteries an Increasing Threat to Children

Study finds big jump in number of children treated after swallowing battieries

Those little button batteries that power electronic devices are everywhere these days -- including children's ears and digestive tracts. In fact, a new stu...

PhotoThose little button batteries that power electronic devices are everywhere these days -- including children's ears and digestive tracts. In fact, a new study finds the number of battery-related emergency room visits by children has more than doubled over the 20-year period covered by the study.

Researchers at the Center for Injury Research and Policy of The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital found that the annual number of battery-related emergency department visits among children younger than 18 years of age jumped from 2,591 in 1990 to 5,525 in 2009. The number of button batteries swallowed by children also doubled during this period.

The study, appearing in the June 2012 print issue of Pediatrics, found that more than three-fourths of battery-related visits to emergency departments by children were among children 5 years old or younger, with one-year-olds having the greatest number of emergency department visits. Of the cases where the battery’s intended use was mentioned, only 29 percent involved batteries that were used for toys and games. The majority of cases involved batteries from products not intended for use by young children, such as watches (14 percent), calculators (12 percent), flashlights (9 percent) and remote controls (6 percent).

“We live in a world designed by adults for the convenience of adults, and the safety of children is often not considered,” said Gary Smith, MD, DrPH, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “Products with easily-accessible battery compartments are everywhere in our homes today. By making a few simple design changes and strengthening product manufacturing standards, including products not intended for use by young children, we could prevent many of the serious and sometimes fatal injuries that occur when children are able to easily access button batteries in common household products.”

Among cases that described the type of battery, 84 percent involved button batteries. Researchers attribute this finding to the increasing number and variety of electronics powered by button batteries and the resulting increased availability of these products in the home. Recent reports suggest that the number of fatal and severe button battery ingestions is on the rise. This trend is associated with the increasing use of the three volt, 20 millimeter, lithium button batteries. 

“The increased prevalence of the higher voltage 20mm lithium batteries is concerning because it coincides with an alarming 113 percent increase in battery ingestions and insertions by young children,” said Dr. Smith, also a professor of pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. “When a button battery is swallowed and gets caught in a child’s esophagus, serious, even fatal injuries can occur in less than two hours.”

Recommendations to prevent these types of injuries include:

  • Taping the battery compartments of all household devices shut
  • Storing batteries and products with batteries out of the reach of young children 
  • Being aware of this potential danger when your child is visiting other homes

Researchers also recommend that manufacturers ensure that packaging for batteries and products containing button batteries is child resistant and that they design all battery compartments to either require a screwdriver to be opened or that they be secured with a child-resistant locking mechanism, regardless of whether the product is intended for use by children or adults. Parents who think that their child may have swallowed a button battery should seek medical attention immediately so that an x-ray can be taken to be sure that the battery is not stuck in the esophagus. 

Data for this study were obtained from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS), which is operated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The NEISS dataset provides information on consumer product-related and sports and recreation-related injuries treated in hospital emergency departments across the country.


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Feds Shut Down Own-Your-Own-Website Schemes

Consumers were told they could make big bucks with little effort

The Federal Trade Commission has halted an operation that allegedly lured consumers into spending thousands of dollars for Internet websites and advertisin...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission has halted an operation that allegedly lured consumers into spending thousands of dollars for Internet websites and advertising by misrepresenting that they could make lots of money by linking the sites to major retailers.

The court ordered a stop to the defendants' allegedly deceptive practices and froze their assets pending further litigation. 

According to the FTC's complaint against North America Marketing and Associates LLC, for fees ranging from $100 to $400, the defendants promised to build and host websites for consumers, who would earn commissions when Internet users clicked through the consumers' websites to make purchases from "Fortune 500" retailers such as Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Starbucks.

The defendants also claimed consumers would get free, full-time marketing expertise to help them make substantial profits.

Instead of the free marketing help they were promised, consumers got a follow-up sales pitch from the defendants, who tried to get them to pay even more money for an advertising package that typically cost from $5,000 to $20,000, the FTC alleged.

No significant sales

The defendants claimed the package would help generate sales of $3,000 to $20,000 per month, depending upon the size of the package consumers bought. However, according to the agency, the advertising packages did not generate any significant sales commissions, and some consumers who complained to the company were sold thousands of dollars in additional advertising services.

When consumer complaints mounted, the defendants shut down operations and renewed the deceptive business opportunity under new business names.

The corporate defendants are North America Marketing and Associates LLC, NAMAA LLC, TM Multimedia Marketing LLC (Nevada), TM Multimedia Marketing LLC (Arizona), National Opportunities LLC (Nevada), National Opportunities LLC (Arizona), World Wide Marketing and Associates LLC, Precious Metals Resource LLC, Guaranteed Communications LLC, Superior Multimedia Group LLC, and Wide World of Marketing LLC, also doing business as WWM LLC.

The individual defendants are Kimberly Joy Birdsong, Tracy Jerome Morris, Sarah Lynne Stapel, Alyisse Maloi Tramel, and Daniel Vigil, and Joseph Wayne Lowry, also known as Joey Lowry and Joey Lowe.

The defendants are charged with violating the FTC Act and the FTC's Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) by misrepresenting that consumers who bought and used websites and advertising packages would earn substantial income, and that experts would help them operate their business. 

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'Fine Wine' Seller Was a Fraud, Feds Claim

Sold cheap wine in expensive bottles, indictment alleges

A wine seller who hawked "purportedly rare and expensive" vintages operated a counterfeit laboratory out of his California home for nearly a decade to swin...

PhotoA wine seller who hawked "purportedly rare and expensive" vintages operated a counterfeit laboratory out of his California home for nearly a decade to swindle unsuspecting oenophiles, federal prosecutors claim.

Proecutors uncorked their charges against Rudy Kurniawan, also known as "Dr. Conti" and "Mr. 47," in a richly textured, 25-page indictment, alleging frauds in the worlds of wine, art and finance, Courthouse News Service reported.

"Kurniawan gained stature as a wine collector, and otherwise ingratiated himself with wealthy wine collectors by, among other ways, providing collectors with tastings of his purportedly rare and expensive wines, holding himself out as a knowledgeable wine taster and evaluator, and flaunting his alleged expertise at detecting counterfeit bottles of rare and expensive wines," the indictment charges

Turning his home into a "counterfeit wine laboratory," Kurniawan allegedly "blended lower-priced wines so that they would mimic the taste and character of rare and far more expensive wines; Kurniawan poured his creations into empty bottles of rare and expensive wines that he procured from, among other places, a wine seller in New York City; and Kurniawan created a finished product by sealing the bottles with corks and by outfitting the bottles with counterfeit wine labels, including labels he created or helped create using stencils and rubber stamps, among other things."

Kurniawan also allegedly ordered empty bottles that had once held rare wine from New York City restaurants and had them delivered by Federal Express, using them to fill with his counterfeit creations, prosecutors say.  He allegedly sold the phony brands alongside genuine bottles of rare and vintage wines, hoping to elude detection by passing off any complaints as "spoiled bottles or aberrations."

Though Kurniawan allegedly fooled several auction houses, misspellings and other packaging errors belied the products' authenticity. At an April 2008 auction, Kurniawan consigned "at least 97 bottles of wine purportedly from Domaine Ponsot, a highly acclaimed winery in Burgundy, France," but he got the dates wrong on several bottles, according to the government.

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Surgery Patients May Need Longer Hospital Stays

Study finds patients are being sent home before they're ready

Remember when most minor surgeries resulted in a two or three-day stay in the hospital? Today, with the cost of hospital beds, many of these operations are...

PhotoRemember when most minor surgeries resulted in a two- or three-day stay in the hospital? Today, with the cost of hospital beds, many of these operations are now done on an outpatient basis.

Those surgeries that do result in a hospital stay are usually short – shorter than they should be, according to a pair of logistical studies conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

The studies show a correlation between readmission rates and how full the hospital was at the time of discharge, suggesting that patients went home before they were healthy enough. They further suggest that revenue drives the decision about when a patient is discharged.

Better planning

The researchers recommend better planning and other logistical solutions to avoid these problems.

"Discharge decisions are made with bed-capacity constraints in mind," said University of Maryland Professor Bruce Golden, who conducted the research with Ph.D. student David Anderson and other colleagues. "Patient traffic jams present hospitals and medical teams with major, practical concerns, but they can find better answers than sending the patient home at the earliest possible moment."

In the studies, Golden and Anderson tracked patient movement at a large, academic medical center located in the United States. They found that patients discharged when the hospital was busiest were 50 percent more likely to return for treatment within three days.

This indicates recovery was incomplete when patients were first released, the researchers say. The study tracks occupancy rates, day of the week, staffing levels and surgical volume.

Incentive-driven

Golden says surgeons and hospitals are incentive-driven to perform as many surgical procedures as feasible. The more surgeries, the more revenue.

"The hospital has to maintain revenue levels to meet its financial obligations,” Golden said. “Surgeons are working to save lives and earn a livelihood. It's what they do, If the hospital says 'sorry there are no beds available,' there's a lot of tension and pressure from both sides to keep things moving."

Golden says big hospitals tend to have these problems more than smaller ones. Larger hospitals tend to provide more advanced, specialized surgeries not accessible at smaller, community institutions,the researchers say. Patients often have to travel a great distance for the procedures, so hospital delays become expensive for both them and the care providers.

Ask more questions

Part of the problem can be resolved with better planning, the researchers say.

They suggest that surgeons use checklists before discharging the patient, asking more question about the patient's readiness to go home.

Also, the studies suggest that hospitals increase the flexibility of where patients go post-surgery. Allowing them to be moved to units with empty beds, for example, could also lessen premature discharges.

Though this may increase costs in the short run, discharging patients who then quickly return to the hospital offers no long-term savings, and decreases the quality of care, Golden said.  

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Settlement Puts End to Company's Facebook 'Likejacking'

Company that impersonated 'friends' settles with Washington State

Remember when one of your Facebook friends would refer you to some strange website that just seemed out of character? Chances are it was a case of &ldquo;l...

PhotoRemember when one of your Facebook friends would refer you to some strange website that just seemed out of character? Chances are it was a case of “likejacking,” where a spammer was impersonating your friend.

One company accused of engaging in likejacking has agreed to stop in a consent decree with the Washington State Attorney General's Office. Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna announced the agreement with Adscend Media, a California-based online marketing company.

“Today’s settlement puts a stop to Adscend’s ‘likejacking’ and other misleading tactics that led Facebook users to fork over personal information or buy subscription services from sites that appeared to be recommended by friends,” McKenna said.

The case goes back to January, when McKenna and Facebook sued Jeremy Bash and Fehzan Ali, the owners of Adscend Media LLC for initiating posts to Facebook pages that appeared to offer visitors an opportunity to view scandalous or provocative content. However, before being able to view the content, a series of required steps lured Facebook users into eventually visiting commercial websites. Other tactics included likejacking, in which Facebook users were tricked into clicking the “like” button, inadvertently spreading the sales pitches to friends.

Crossing the line

Adscend makes its money from “affiliates” who create attention-getting marketing messages. Too often, McKenna says, those messages cross the line into social media spam.

The settlement stops Adscend and its affiliates from sending out messages that contain misleading or false headers or those that hide the true identity of the sender.

One of the tamer past messages declared, “This man took a picture of his face every day for 8 years!!” in order to trick Facebook users into clicking on links to reveal the content. In many instances, the content was never revealed.

“Under this agreement, Adscend-initiated messages should no longer appear to come from Facebook friends, when they actually originate from an affiliate trying to generate a sales commission from a commercial advertiser,” said Assistant Washington Attorney General Paula Selis, who heads the office’s Consumer Protection High-Tech Unit.

Facebook has already settled its case against Adscend. The Attorney General’s Office settlement requires Adscend to include “clear and conspicuous identification the messages are advertisements or solicitations.”  

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99 Cents Is Not Always a Good Deal

If it's part of a 'free trial,' look out for additional charges

When you hear that something costs 99-cents, it sounds like a bargain. Sometimes it is, but often it isn't.You might pay 99-cents to download a song from...

PhotoWhen you hear that something costs 99 cents, it sounds like a bargain. Sometimes it is, but often it isn't.

You might pay 99 cents to download a song from iTunes or Amazon. That can be a pretty good deal.

But when Terry, of Twin Falls, Id., spent 99 cents for a “free” trial of CleanWhites, it didn't turn out so well.

“After I received the order I found out that I needed to return the free trial in 14 days or be charged $79.95, I called CleanWhites to cancel the order and was told I would not be charged if I returned the free trial,” Terry wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “I mailed it back and assumed all was well until I received a charge of $79.95. I called the company and they claim they never received the free sample back."

Not really free

First, it wasn't really a free sample if it had to be returned. And second, to avoid having the company claim they didn't receive the shipment, Terry would have had to go to the extra expense of sending it registered mail.

David, of Marion, Ohio, says he paid 99 cents to do a reverse telephone lookup to track down a company.

“On May 3 I viewed my bank statement to not only discover the 99-cent charge but also two additional charges of $19.99 each for two other companies 1) US Search and 2) Indentity Protect,” David posted to ConsumerAffairs. “I called my bank and found out these were to be monthly recurring charges.”

The 99 cent purchase obviously signed David up for these services, but he insists he saw nothing to indicate that.

“I called the company and got nothing but arrogance until I indicated I would contact the Ohio Attorney General with an Internet fraud complaint,” David wrote.

Acai Berry Pure

David, of Ballston Spa, N.Y., says he thought he was getting a free sample of Acai Berry Pure and only had to pay 99 cents for shipping. Turns out it was more expensive than that. Learning that accepting the sample obligated him to a full order unless he cancelled within a window of time, David said he called the company and cancelled.

“An amount of $149.95 was taken out of our account,” David writes. “I called again only to be told to email the cancellation to customer service and to allow 7-10 days for the refund.”

But David said the refund never arrived.

All three consumers thought they were getting a very good deal, but ended up having to pay more than they expected, or fighting with the companies to get their money back. For them, 99 cents turned out not to be much of a bargain.

There's a simple way to avoid this aggravation. Never agree to pay a small shipping fee in order to receive a supposedly free sample or trial offer. A “free” product should not require you to supply a credit or debit card.

If you do, you can be billed for all sorts of products and have to argue with the company about whether you ordered it or not.

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JPMorgan Chase Gambles and Loses $2 Billion

Critics say it just underscores the need for tighter regulation

If you own a bank stock in your portfolio or retirement account, you're likely taking a beating in the stock market today. Bank stocks, led by JPMorgan Cha...

If you own a bank stock in your portfolio or retirement account, you're likely taking a beating in the stock market today. Bank stocks, led by JPMorgan Chase, are taking a dive after Chase disclosed a $2 billion loss in a credit swap bet.

As expected, the news has had a swift and visceral reaction in consumer -- and presumably investor -- perceptions. A ConsumerAffairs sentiment analysis of about 120,000 comments on Facebook, Twitter and other social media over the last year finds the bank's net sentiment taking a nose dive as news of the huge loss broke.

 

Chase took the position in the European credit market, essentially betting that the credit situation in Europe would worsen. At the time – the first quarter of this year – it looked like a safe bet.

But as any Vegas gambler will tell you, sometimes the odds fail you. In the case of Chase they did, as the credit outlook in Europe got better.

The immediate result was that Chase shares lost about eight percent of their value in early trading on Wall Street. Other bank shares tumbled in sympathy, as Chase was viewed as one of the strongest U.S. bank stocks.

 

The larger question, of course, is what this will mean for bank regulations. Chase CEO Jamie Dimon has led public efforts to push back against regulations, saying they are too costly and that the industry doesn't need them. In Washington, plenty of lawmakers beg to differ.

'Risky bets'

Photo
Consumers rate their Chase experience

“The enormous loss JPMorgan announced is just the latest evidence that what banks call ‘hedges’ are often risky bets that so-called ‘too big to fail’ banks have no business making,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI).

Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), ranking Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, delivered a particularly blistering reaction.

“This regrettable news from JPMorgan Chase obviously goes counter to the bank’s narrative blaming excessive regulation for the woes of financial institutions,” Frank said in a statement. “Int